An Interview With Gerry Te Kapa Coates

Gerry Te Kapa Coates (Ngāi Tahu) was born in Oamaru, but has lived in Wellington for most of his working life. He has been a writer since schooldays, initially concentrating on poetry with work published in journals like Landfall. He works as an engineer and company director, but has done many varied and creative things in his career from journalism and stage lighting design to working with Ngāi Tahu and Te Tau Ihu on their Treaty claim settlements. A past published finalist in the Māori Literature (Pikihuia) Awards in 2001, 2003 and 2007, his book of poetry and short stories The View From Up There was published in 2011. He is now working on further collections and longer works including a novel. An engineer/poet is a rare breed. He still finds that working − and looking after mokopuna – takes its creative toll.

How long has The View From Up There been in preparation, and is it a satisfying feeling that the book has now published?
When I started writing, being published was only a vague notion, although I submitted a poem in 1961 to Canta (the University newspaper) that was published under my pseudonym at the time ‘Jerez’. In a burst of enthusiasm in the early 80s I submitted – and was mostly rejected − by the literary periodicals of the time such as Landfall, Islands, Poetry NZ etc. The advice I was given by publishers later was that ‘poetry didn’t pay’ and to look at self-publishing, which always seemed to me to be rather self-seeking. It’s always a salutary feeling to walk into a library – or a book remainder shop – and see the attempts of the thousands of authors seeking fame. So when Roger Steele, who had previously given me advice to self-publish, offered to publish my collection I was very happy, and even happier with the result and the feedback. But getting any acclaim through reviews is still difficult for New Zealand authors, especially for poetry.
How would you describe your fiction and your poetry to readers unfamiliar with your work?
I’m never sure whether ‘accessible’ is a good attribute, but I think my poems are. They are relatively straightforward and rely on the use of words to evoke a feeling, rather than fancy devices. The same reviewer who called them accessible also said ‘I suspect the true test of a “good” poem is when the reader is able to pick up a poem and find something of their own life experience in it.’ Another well-read friend of mine said ‘I find many modern poems hard to understand. The poet is so close to his or her subject that it is impossible for an outsider to gain entry to his thought process. But your poems are not like this. They have depth, but I was able to enter just a little of your world, and share your feelings.’
My stories often tend to have a Māori flavour, but again I want them to be a ‘good tale’ whatever the reader’s background. If I see myself as an indigenous writer – which I do – then I make sure the ‘politics of difference’ as Witi Ihimaera says, is evident. But sometimes I’m just a writer – as in love poems for example.
You have had a long and successful career as an engineer, sustainability consultant, and director of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Do each of these feed into your writing, or is your writing something apart from any of these?
Yes, many of my poems and stories are loosely based on my life-experience, but not necessarily autobiographical – for example I didn’t fight in Vietnam, but I was a protester against the war. Being deeply involved with Ngāi Tahu politics and its Treaty Claim settlement process meant I was in touch with my roots, and also aware of the red-neck anti-Māori sentiment that the settlement generated in the form of Letters to the Editor. Apparently John Huria asked me at a panel discussion at the Christchurch Writers’ Festival ‘Is writing a poem like lighting an airstrip?’ according to Fergus Barrowman. I probably didn’t hear him because the sound system on stage was so bad, but my answer (to Fergus) was ‘Maybe more like lighting a play – which I do as well!’ Everything – life, career, reading – all feed into my work in some way.

The View From Up There includes both stories and poems. Was it an easy decision to include both in the collection, and are you satisfied with how this combined approach has worked out?

It was the publisher’s decision, but I hadn’t thought it through and the difficulties it would provide for libraries and bibliographic listings to adequately categorise it. In future I think that despite the book being more interesting with a variety of genre, I will do poems and fiction separately.
In commenting on The View From Up There, author Phillip Mann says:

“I admire the grace of these poems, and the carefulness which keeps them clear and direct. I also appreciate the ease with which they are able to bring together the Maori language and English, achieving a synthesis that is uniquely true to the country.” – Phillip Mann


Can you tell us about the ways you have bought Te Reo Māori and English together in your work?

When I first assembled the selection, I hadn’t realised how much Te Reo was implicit in many of the poems. In the end I did a glossary that spread to 70 words and two pages. Ideally a poem should be able to include Te Reo and English seamlessly. But even a poem needs a footnote to put it in context. I can’t recall how many readers have said they were so glad to discover the ‘Notes on the Poems’ at the end, but usually after they needed it. Maybe next time they’ll be footnotes.
Phil also said after the book was published, ‘I think it is an excellent collection. Your poems achieve what poetry does best. They explore those moments of  realization and change which occur when life suddenly opens up before us, sometimes terrifyingly so − as a when a loved one dies, or a car crash reminds us of our own mortality or when suddenly we know we are happy and in love or we confront a distasteful political reality. While the poems are personal, they encourage us to see the universal in the moment for, as has often been said, Death is our only certainty as in grief, and a car crash in New Zealand is very like one in Finland or Peru, and love, it seems to me, is a flower which thrives despite barbed wire, pollution, economic downturn or our own tongue-tied silence. Which things said, I also admire the patient craftsman who works on the words until they shine.’ I thank him for those insights.
You were a guest at the Christchurch Writers Festival 2012. Do you enjoy reading at such events, and the ‘public performance’ aspects of being a writer?
That was the first Festival where I’d been an invited ‘official writer’ although I have read publicly before. I enjoy both the reading, and the selection of what to read. At Christchurch, because it was a Ngāi Tahu writers’ panel, I chose to read poems with a Māori context but at the end I read a new love poem I’d just written the previous week. I was blown away by several responses including from an out of town couple who felt deeply connected to the poem. Those interactions make it all worth it.
Who are some of your favourite authors of fiction and poetry, and in particular, are there authors and poets you particularly enjoy whom you feel haven’t received the attention they deserve from critics and the public?
The poets I have been influenced by include (apart from the ones everyone has been influenced by like T S Eliot etc) Robert Graves, e e cummings, Philip Larkin, James K Baxter, Alastair Campbell and latterly Glen Colquhoun. At the Christchurch Writers Festival I was also reacquainted with Riemke Ensing, Bernadette Hall and Cilla McQueen whom I’ve admired. Also an amazing Māori poet Ben Brown (Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāti Māhuta) whose performance readings are fantastic.

Fiction is more difficult to pin down. Short stories by kiwis Owen Marshall or Maurice Duggan, and by Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. And novels by authors from many countries. The Nobel prizewinners are a good start – the Norwegian Knut Hamsun’s epic Growth of the Soil or Sigrid Undset’s even grander Kristin Lavransdatter were a great influence. Also the so-called ‘Angry Brigade’ of British writers in the 60s.
The Steele Roberts website mentions that you are working on a novel – would you care to say more about this?
An extract from its early stages entitled ‘The Exploration of Space’ was published in Huia Short Stories 5 (2003). It’s about a Māori rower who goes to Munich in 1972 with the Olympic team and has a love affair with an Israeli team member who is killed, and how this, and his whakapapa history, affects his later life. After mulling it around and writing more chapters I’m still quite a way from finishing it. I need to deal with the ‘Enemies of Promise’ and start working on it again, rather than my erstwhile career. Roger Steele said after my book launch ‘This will change your life, Gerry.’ Although it’s less than 12 months now, he was right. One of them is that writing has become more of a priority, and hopefully some opportunities to become a writer in residence and have the space to concentrate will arise. 
Book availability details
The book is available at Steele Roberts’ website elsewhere online by Googling the title or my name.
It’s also available in New Zealand at quality bookshops such as Unity Books and the University Book shop in Christchurch.
In addition to his Ulysses 2012, which was my Tuesday Poem this week, Gerry kindly allowed me to use another poem from The View From Up There to conclude this post.
Nothing like a tube in your neck
to make a grown man look fragile.
“Yes I’m a part time plumber,” joked Pania
the vivacious nurse, ideal to buck up
tired spirits, except you looked a bit
too tired to be bothered with flirting
for the fun of it, despite your strength
and your manly chest not the chest of  a
middle-aged man (as they would put in the papers)
You, at this time, in this place
this home away from home
can only be described as looking wan.
There’s nothing like hospital food
to push you back to life and remembering
what it was like to be eating with gusto
be well again, able to race up stairs
pee over a fence and do all those things
that being in bed proscribes a catheter
and a bed pan in the wings do inhibit
freedom of movement, of action.
Sorry about the strawberries I forgot
you’d not be eating right away
but partly they’re there for titillation
if not for you, for Pania and her laughing eyes.
And you, out of the privacy of the
operating theatre back in the light
(although it’s really blinding in there
just seems dark with the loss of consciousness
and the mystery of it all) with your tripes only
partly intact, what now. Can you recapture that
zest for life and use your libido in other ways?
I admire your strength and acceptance,
for in the end we all have to face it alone
whatever ‘it’ is things that stop working,
sensations that dull, appetites that get lost

strawberries that crumble into dust.

2 thoughts on “An Interview With Gerry Te Kapa Coates

  1. Beautiful poem. Peeing over fences [and generally outdoors] is much the litmus test for being alive, I think, evoked magically in this poem. I look forward to reading more of Gerry's work. Thanks both of you for this interview. PS There's just one quote and a question midway through I couldn't read – the text seems to have run off the side. Perhaps it's a flaw with my browser but I thought I'd mention if for following readers.

  2. Thanks, Rachel – I was reading some more of Gerry's book over dinner, and am continuing to enjoy it.Thanks too for letting me know about that problem with the quote – it looked fine in the browser I usually check my blog posts in, but I should have checked in some other browsers! I think I've fixed it now.

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