Robert Sullivan, poet and judge for the 2005 Kiriyama Prize for fiction

Robert Sullivan, Poet

Robert Sullivan
Photo by Thomas King

WaterBridge Review: Why and how did you start writing poetry?

Robert Sullivan: It’s mysterious! Robert Graves said that a poem must satisfy a need in the poet, and I think that’s very true. I began writing seriously in 1986 when I was 18 and starting out in university. I couldn’t play any kind of instrument, but I knew I had a musical impulse—so poetry for me was an experience that flowed out of a desire to create music. I still feel that all my other ideas are bobbing around in this musical river I sought to create. Beyond the ideas, I believe poetry is very spiritual too, and that’s something not easily put into a logical answer. The beginning for me was a craving for music and a craving of the spirit.

WBR: What sources do you draw on for your poetry?

RS: I find the landscape of "home" inspirational. I was brought up in Auckland City in the heart of late-60s hippiedom, an inner-city suburb called Grafton. My mother was brought up in a village in the Bay of Islands, north of Auckland, which I regard as a second home. Our ancestors have lived there for many hundreds of years, and so I regard the landscape there as imbued with our family spirits. I remember sitting beneath our ancestral fortress once. I’d gone up the hill with a pen and notepad, so the experience was a deliberate one. Yet when I sat down there to write, it was as if someone else was moving the pen. That poem became the first of a sequence called “The Tai Tokerau (Northland) Poems.” I draw other inspiration from the various triumphs of the Maori and Polynesian cultures. The idea of deep ocean navigation and discovery is also a strong beacon for me.

WBR: To what extent has your Maori background influenced your work?

RS: It’s a parental influence. My mother’s side of the family is Maori. She told us so many stories about her village, and the many villages our family has connections with. My earlier books are very focused on family and relationships, and relationships with the land, and power or the lack of it. Maori influences are also drawn from my father’s so-called " Pakeha" (Caucasian) side of the family. One of the strongest forces that a culture has is its world view—and my father’s mother and my mothers’ parents, were shaped by the traditional Maori view of the world that sees everything as alive, with its own life energy, and the past as the present before us. I like to think my poetry belongs to our people in that way, that it is concerned with our ancestors, our ties and obligations to each other and to them, and how that aligns us for the future.

WBR: Any Irish influence?

RS: I’m very proud of my Irish heritage. My father’s father was an Irishman who emigrated from Rosscommon County on the west cost to Wellington City around 1920. I continue to live in awe of the Irish giants of literature: Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Heaney. When I visited the west coast about four years ago, I went to Yeats’ tower, Thoor Ballylee, and climbed the winding stair to where he observed the stars. I love the spiraling gyres and the energy that shape gives to a poem. After that visit I got my Irish passport and my citizenship. My wife, the writer Anne Kennedy, is my strongest Irish influence!

WBR: Do you have any rituals that help you write?

RS: It’s subconscious, I think. When I know something big is brewing, I start to clean up my writing area, whether in my office or at home. I have piles of books and papers everywhere, so I’d say it’s a very practical and necessary thing to do.

WBR: Do you have a favorite hero or heroine in fiction?

RS: Apart from me, I’d say Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. They’re just so gorgeously intense!

WBR: You’re coeditor of Trout, an online arts and literary journal that focuses on New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. What was the motivation for launching the journal, and how does it tie in with Trout Press?

RS: At the time we started it there were relatively few literary e-journals, and only a couple in New Zealand. We wanted to share the writing of the Pacific region with the rest of the world. Two of the founding editors, Brian Flaherty and Tony Murrow, have publishing and information technology backgrounds. Trout Press is a new offshoot where we aim to keep books available that are no longer in print.

WBR: You’re now teaching creative writing at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. What differences in focus—if any—have you noticed between students in Hawai’i and students in New Zealand ?

RS: There aren’t many differences! An obvious one is what students regard as the "mainland" here: the contiguous 48 states. For a New Zealander that term refers to the South Island. Another possible difference I’ve spotted during my short stay here is from a course I designed called "Mythology and the Poem," where each student researches their own mythological backgrounds and writes poetry informed by that. It’s a joyful difference because of the tremendous variety of cultural experiences among the students here, and because of the strength of indigenous and "local" Hawaiian experiences and story-telling which are in many ways similar to Maori and minority experiences back home.

WBR: What would be a good starting point for someone coming to your work for the first time?

RS: Start with my third book of poetry, Star Waka. The word waka means vessel. The Polynesians voyaged across the Pacific aboard these multihulled sailing craft, using the stars and other systems of navigation. The waka is a symbol of our voyaging cultures’ greatest achievement, to inhabit a part of the world that is five parts land to a thousand parts water. Then read my next book, Captain Cook in the Underworld. It’s a different take on voyaging that deals with the legacy of Cook in the Pacific and brings his ghost forward to reckon with that legacy. My fifth book, coming out mid-2005, Voice Carried My Family, integrates the ideas of the two long poems. Thanks for asking.