The Robert Burns Fellowship
The Robert Burns Fellowship is New Zealand's premier literary residency. It was established in 1958 by a group of anonymous Dunedin citizens to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Robert Burns, and to perpetuate the community's appreciation of the part played by the related Dunedin family of Dr Thomas Burns in the early settlement of Otago. The Fellowship aims to encourage and promote imaginative New Zealand literature and to associate writers with the University.
The annual, 12-month Fellowship provides an office in the English Department and not less than the minimum salary of a full-time university lecturer. It is open to writers of poetry, drama, fiction, biography, autobiography, essays or literary criticism who are normally resident in New Zealand, and who, in the opinion of the Selection Committee, have established by their published work, or otherwise, that their writing would benefit from their holding the Fellowship.
Previous Fellowship recipients since 2008
Robert Burns Fellow 2013
David Howard says he was “astonished and honoured” to learn he had secured the fellowship for 2013.
“The Robert Burns Fellowship is my exact and exacting contemporary. I was born in 1959, when the inaugural fellow, Ian Cross, was at his desk,” he says.
“Over my lifetime Burns fellows have produced some of this country’s most compelling and, it must be said, eccentric work.”
David Howard is also a winner of the Gordon & Gotch Poetry Award, the NZ Poetry Society Competition, the NZSA Mid‐Career Writers Award, and the University of South Pacific Press Poetry Prize.
David Howard's major publication is The Incomplete Poems (Cold Hub Press, 2011). He also has a long-standing interest in collaboration. In 2004 his long poem There you go was set by the Czech composer, Marta Jirackova. In 2007 Brina Jez-Brezavscek presented her electro-acoustic setting of The Flax Heckler at a new music festival in Slovenia. And Johanna Selleck's setting of Air, Water, Earth Meld was premiered by soprano Judith Dodsworth at The University of Melbourne in September 2009. David's work with the visual artist Peter Ransom, You're So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me, was launched by Holloway Press at the Going West Festival in September 2012.
University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow David Howard: 'During my teens reading poetry took over from reading anything else and I found I could get into quite a receptive space if I was in front of a powerful poem. It helped me get an enhanced sense of my own possibility.' Photo by Craig Baxter.
A world of imagination and discovery
By Charmian Smith on Thursday, 24 Oct 2013
Arts Section, Otago Daily Times
More exciting than pyrotechnics or performance is the quietness of making or reading poetry, according to David Howard. Charmian Smith talks to the University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow.
Making poetry is the most exciting thing David Howard has found to do with his time.
If we back our hunches through our teens and 20s, we find what excites us and keeps us alive and can then spend the rest of our lives trying to keep that treasured area and grow it, the 2013 Burns Fellow at the University of Otago says.
Howard (54) says he started reading poetry seriously when he was 12, working his way from A to Z through the poetry section of the Christchurch Public Library.
He had been introduced to the poems of Robert Burns by his maternal grandfather, who was a Scot.
''I remember I'd been thrilled by the way the language was patterned. During my teens reading poetry took over from reading anything else and I found I could get into quite a receptive space if I was in front of a powerful poem. It helped me get an enhanced sense of my own possibility,'' he said.
''Instead of being all over the place and angry and trying to do 1000 things at once, and trying to impress my friends and impress girls and all that nonsense - necessary nonsense - I could just sit in front of a poem and all the pretence and striving dropped away and I just got into an almost pure sense of wonder - and how someone could make something like this. So I started to try and make something like this.''
Studying Keats in high school gave him a sense of how to use alliteration and assonance, and reading the Liverpool poets with their pop references and talk about smoking and girls gave him a sense of poetry being part of an ongoing contemporary way of being rather than something in a museum, he said.
When he left school he decided to become a poet, understanding he wouldn't make money out of it and would have to do other work to survive. At first he did labouring and retail work which didn't require a lot of training and didn't consume his imagination or take away from the poetry. While in his early 20s his poems were published in Landfall and the Listener. Since then he has had 10 volumes of poetry published by small publishers, the latest being You're So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me (2012) and his work has been included in several anthologies.
However, he became ''heartily sick of doing menial jobs'' by his late 20s so he trained to become a pyrotechnist, working with fireworks and special effects. It supported him and his son: he was a solo dad, he said.
''It got really interesting and was quite consuming and almost negative for poetry in one sense because it took time away from it, but it gave me financial security which I hadn't had before.''Top of page
In Auckland in the 1990s there was a lot of pyrotechnic work and plenty of money around. It was a productive time in terms of the New Zealand spin machine. He worked with municipal authorities, sports teams, musicians, and advertising agencies producing special effects like a wall of flame around a photocopier. It was a culture of excess that fireworks rode with nicely but poetry didn't, he said.
''I was consistently working in an imaginative way with people who didn't really care about literature. That may sound negative, but it's really good. I think one of the problems may be of working surrounded by people who share the same taste as you is you come into this false view that everybody values what you value,'' he said.
''Working with people who didn't read poetry, didn't read novels, actually didn't read, was really good for me because it meant when I did make space for a poem, when a poem muscled in on my busy life in my 30s, I didn't bring to the making of the poem a lot of literary assumptions. It just let me listen more closely to what was happening on the page than I might otherwise have been able to if I'd been surrounded by an academic environment.''
About 10 years ago he moved back to the South Island, buying a house at Purakaunui where he has lived since. It was about rediscovering that quiet space. In a busy city life, trying to make money and keep your head above water you lose the opportunity and the will to make a quiet, almost religious space, he said.
''It's a contemplative space, a space where you are trying to honour yourself and the world. I don't believe anybody can go through life without doing that on a regular basis and remain well.''
In the country he took his cues from the change of light, the hawk flying past at 7.50 in the mornings and 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
''I realised again, as I realised as a child, that the wider world is quite indifferent to human beings and really doesn't care because caring isn't what creation is about. It gave me a sense of time that is different. When you live in a city you are totally scheduled up and you begin to believe almost without thinking that everything is set by the will of men and women. When you live in the country you realise this is not the case at all. For me making poems has become, as I've got older, an even more spiritual activity than it was for the teenager who wanted wonder.''
Besides writing his own poems, he co-founded the literary journal Takahe to publish young writers, especially South Island writers who tended to be overlooked by other literary publications, he said.
Because writing is a solitary activity, Howard enjoys collaborating with other artists.
''To keep myself on my toes in terms of literature, it's been useful to work with other disciplines that require me to think outside the square about how to make poems. Working with composers has been an ongoing interest because when you bring orchestration or any other type of sound - it may be electronic sound - to language and you have voices of trained singers, then as an author your sense of what's going to work changes. I also have to listen really closely when I work with someone else. I can't just ride on my own prejudices and preferred methods of working. If you are working in a group you have to be more generous; you have to listen more closely than if you are just working on your own,'' he said.
''The leaps of imagination that happen in a poem delight me and, I hope, delight the reader, but it's all solitary. The reader's in his or her own room and I'm in my little office and there isn't much of a public dimension to that. It's a very private activity.''
Howard sometimes reads his poetry to audiences but says an actor would do it better as he's not a skilled performer. Unlike some poets who specialise in performance and write specifically to entertain a live audience, he sees poetry as an act of imagination and discovery.
''What attracted me to poetry was its capacity to cause wonder. It only causes wonder if two things are present. One, there has to be an inquiring mind on the part of both the reader and the writer, and there has to be attention to language on the part of both the reader and the writer. Neither of those things, it seems to me, are served by wilful acts of attention-seeking.''
He is cynical about publishers' marketing hype. It doesn't fit well with literature, which takes its strength from quietness and the one-on-one relationship between writer and reader, he said.
''That means that when the language that's associated with large sports events and marketing promotions is applied to literature there is violence done to the medium. I'm so sick of artificial stars: someone writes a novel and it's the best thing since James Joyce wrote Ulysses, or someone wins a minor award and suddenly they are touring the country on the back of it.''
During his fellowship year, Howard has been working on two long poems that he approaches rather like writing a novel, planning the setting and main characters and their relationships, he said.
''The reason I do this is so I don't just drift all over the place and have this kind of arbitrary mess which you can very easily get into in a long piece. It gives clarity and direction, but having clarity and direction still allows for surprise in a long poem. You find a line turns up from your character and you had no idea that your character thought that or felt that. I again emphasise the novel link but the difference is the precision of the language, the capacity to put ideas together than don't normally come together in everyday life.''
However, shorter lyric poems tend just to turn up if you listen, he says.
''People say it's all perspiration and hard work, but I believe very strongly there's inspiration but that's just a term for listening.
''If you sit in your armchair, lie in your hammock, wait at your office desk for long enough, you will hear something. It sounds mystical, but that's your poem. And then it really is as if you are being dictated to when it's going well. It's almost as if someone else is writing the script for you and you just have to make sure you understood that word properly and you didn't mishear it.''
Robert Burns Fellow's creativity "fecund"
Jovial email conversations with the 2014 Robert Burns Fellow Majella Cullinane have forced this year's incumbent to contemplate the approaching end of his own year of unalloyed, uninterruped creativity.
"It's been the best writing year of my life; there is no qualification on that statement," Purakaunui poet David Howard says.
Otago Boys High School hosts the Burns Fellow, David Howard, for an hour-long discussion about writing poetry (Thursday 22 August 2013)
A Place to Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie
David Howard's first project as Burns Fellow has been accepted for publication in 2015 by Otago University Press.
A Place To Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie is edited from the manuscripts and typescripts in the Hocken Library, supplemented by material from several private collections. While bringing together the texts of Lonie's five published poetry volumes, it also includes over one hundred previously unpublished poems. The volume features extensive notes and a preface by David Howard, a critical essay by Damian Love, a chronology by Bridie Lonie, and a memoir of Lonie by former Burns Fellow Bill Sewell.
Four New Zealand poets, including David Howard, are featured in the Spanish language literary magazine Revista Replicante
Four New Zealand poets, including David Howard, have been translated by the best-selling Mexican novelist Rogelio Guedea, a senior lecturer in the Spanish Programme at the University of Otago.
Current Burns Fellow David Howard reads the poetry of former Burns Fellow Hone Tuwhare in the foyer of the Richardson Building to mark the hanging of facsimiles of the 'Rain' banners by Ralph Hotere. The original banners are now in the Hocken Library.
Photograph: Robin Frame
Here is a brief outline of my current project.
THE MICA PAVILION
I view poetry as a way of knowing; it is primarily an attempt to understand rather than an aesthetic endeavour. The informing question of my recent work is: What can we know if not the past?
In his monumental The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge University Press, 1985) David Lowenthal observes that: ‘The more strenuously we build a desired past, the more we convince ourselves that things really were that way; what ought to have happened becomes what did happen. If we profess only to rectify our predecessors’ prejudices and errors and to restore pre-existing conditions, we fail to see that today’s past is as much a thing of today as it is of the past; to bolster faith that the past originally existed in the form we now devise, we minimize or forget our own alterations.’ So ‘knowing’ is a hazardous process rather than an assured state.
While the institutional and informal racism endured by Chinese migrants in the nineteenth century is a matter of public record here, in the twenty-first century popular suspicion of Asian immigration and investment is growing again due to the economic and therefore political dominance of China over our traditional trading partners.
One month into the Fellowship I have already fleshed out a skeletal synopsis:
Despite the opposition of their respective families and friends, a young Kai Tahu woman is courted by a Chinese migrant who chases gold but more often finds mica in the Otago of the 1850s. She becomes love-sick, dies, and wanders the underworld. All the while her erstwhile but faithful lover sees her in dreams. The intensity of his commitment causes the goddess of the underworld, Hine-nui-te-po, to return the beloved to her partner.
- This rather operatic outline is borrowed from the sixteenth century Chinese classic The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu. I am using the Otago goldfields as a way of exploring the perennial tangle that is desire, placing the body in the body politic, and plotting New Zealand’s complex position within an increasingly Asian-centred business world.