Tonight we launch Dear Neil Roberts at The Guest Room, Southern Cross Bar in Wellington at 6pm, come on down if you are reading this prior to this evening.
Airini Beautrais's third collection of poetry is about Neil Roberts, who died age 22 years old in November 1982 at the Police Computer Centre in Whanganui when the explosives he was carrying exploded. Beautrais's book explores the event, and her own personal history of activism and pacificism.
What was the germ for a collection about Neil Roberts? Have you been thinking about this for a while?
It was during a difficult and uncertain time for my family a few years ago, when we decided to chuck in our Wellingtonian suburban life and move to Whanganui. One of our pie-in-the-sky ideas was to start a business running tours of the town and hinterland. I was thinking about sites of interest in Whanganui and I realised that a lot of the local history is very dark. Wairere House where the police computer was housed is opposite Pakaitore/Moutoa Gardens, which is home to a range of controversial monuments, and also the centre of protests during the 1990s. The hill behind it, Queen's Park, was a redoubt during the New Zealand Wars, and is also studded with cannons and other memorials to wars both local and international. Dark History tours luckily never eventuated (I suspect we would have gone broke) but the idea morphed into writing a long poem about the computer centre bombing. It was initially going to be a ten page pamphlet which could be handed out at a Punk's Picnic, but it got bigger and bigger, as long poems have a tendency to do. I wrote most of the book in 2012 which was 30 years since the bombing, and also the year I turned 30. That tied in with the tradition of re-examining historical events on round-number anniversaries. But it was also very much about thinking, where am I at and where do I stand on things?
The opening poem states ‘Neil, you were six weeks dead/when I was born’ – but NR has cast his shadow or at least made an impression on your life. What was it like to walk back through this history and think about turning it into poems? What is the sense of this piece of history in Whanganui today?
I first found out about Neil Roberts when I was 15 or 16. Later on I met people in the anarchist movement who'd known Neil, or who'd attended the anniversary picnics held every year during the remainder of the 1980s and early 1990s. So the story was always there with me in some form. I ended up feeling that telling this story was an important thing for me to do – because it made me uncomfortable and I wanted to address the reasons why, and because I also felt it was interwoven with my own story. There is a poem in Dear Neil Roberts called 'The thing is, Neil, you are all of us.' It was the first part I wrote, and I was thinking of the anarchist community in regard to that title. Although not all of us would have done what Neil did, I believe we have all experienced a similar state of mind at some stage – a longing for change coupled with the feeling of walking in the shadow of monstrous obstacles.
Walking through this history was, again, a process of exploring the darkness of the past. I wrote a lot of the book while heavily pregnant. My son was 15 days overdue and I'd had a feeling this might happen. So to combat the feelings of late-pregnancy desperation I made a timetable for those last few weeks, of things I could do with my older child to keep busy. A lot of that activity, such as sailing on the steamboat, climbing Durie Hill Tower, visiting Green Bikes, and attending an Anzac day service, made it into the book. I saw a lot of threads connecting various stories of nationalism and anti-nationalism, memory and erasure.
In regard to the sense of this piece of history, it isn't often talked about but when it is mentioned people do remember it. By coincidence Ann Shelton, who held the Tylee Cottage residency in Whanganui in 2012, was working on an art project about Neil at the same time I was writing my book. Her exhibition in 2013 was beautifully put-together and very well-received.
In some ways I read this book as eulogy to those people who listened to the voices that told them to ‘go out the window’ as one of the poems says. It’s also a eulogy for those whose ideas about the world placed them so outside of the predominant ideas of their time – you also mention Bakunin and Emma Goldman. Do you see it like this?
Perhaps it is a lament for the loss of young people – Neil, and the unnamed boy who went "out the window". I was thinking about people for whom the world-as-it-is is a very difficult place to accept, and exist within. The poem 'Out the window' quotes this boy who said "This is hell. We are living in hell." That resonated with me because I have sat on that window-ledge myself, albeit without "voices" – and I am open about that within the book.
There is also a sense of lament in there for the many lives lost during the World Wars. In relation to the ANZAC commemorations, I think it is so important to remember history, but what I find really difficult is the myth-making and the rhetoric. We often hear 'sacrifice', 'glory', 'honour' and 'for our freedom' but not so often 'tremendous waste of life' and 'what for?' The ANZACs who lost their lives did so in defence of the state. Neil lost his in a protest against it. This brings to light two very different versions of the value of the state and nationalism.
Bakunin and Emma Goldman were both writing in turbulent times – Bakunin was a contemporary of Karl Marx, Goldman was actively publishing around the time of WWI and the Russian revolution. Both of them had interesting predictions about the likely future of state socialism which actually did eventuate. Their writings, along with those of other thinkers such as Errico Malatesta, are still widely read. So I think their ideas live on and aren't in need of eulogising as such.
Was it tricky to navigate between research and imagining NR as a person, and indeed a character in a book?
I made a decision not to delve too deeply into Neil's personal history. I was more interested in how the event has been represented. The consensus from those who knew him has been that he was a friendly, intelligent, sane and happy individual. This goes against what people might imagine in relation to 'suicide bomber.'
I found that while writing the book, Neil became a big presence in my life. I had a lot of nightmares about the actual event, but I also found that the research drew me back to my own roots. I was raised as a Quaker and they have a very strong tradition of pacifism. Part of Neil's last graffiti message was 'Anarchy: Peace Thinking'. During the writing I did a lot of thinking about peace, and I see that as being one of the overarching themes of the book.
Certainly, one of the very interesting ideas that the poems interrogate is how a person is represented by the history books. What were your feelings about adding to the historical narrative on NR?
Poetry is an interesting medium for approaching history. It doesn't have the expository qualities that a traditional prose history has. I feel the job of the poet is to come in afterwards, or from a different angle, and find ways of communicating the things that other media might be less able to. There is a lot of opportunity for direct communication in a poem, but also a lot of stuff 'between the lines'. Poets are often trying to evoke responses on different levels.
I also felt that I had been trying to preserve a division between poetry and politics, and the time had come for me to let go of that. The thought kept going through my head, "If we don't tell stories, they may never be told." Neil's story has been told in various ways, but every new version adds something different. I think that if a story asks you to tell it, you should.
Dear Neil Roberts is on sale now – through our online bookstore or in great bookshops.