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Interview: Gregory O’Brien, Always a Song in the Water

Always a Song in the Water: Gregory O’Brien speaks with Vaughan Rapatahana about his book

Vaughan Rapatahana: Can you explain the title Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook?

Gregory O’Brien: The phrase ‘always song in the water’ came from the Auckland University-based whale scientist Rochelle Constantine (who is one of the many benevolent spirits who inhabit my book). Rochelle and I were part of a seminar about oceanic conservation in Wellington a few years back. As Rochelle told the audience on that occasion, if all is well in an oceanic ecosystem, there will be countless layers of song in the undersea. The phrase lingered in my mind. A many-voiced song or music. She was referring specifically to the waters off Raoul Island where, during the whale migration season, the sound can be otherworldly—yet, strangely and profoundly, of this world as well. She played the audience a minute-long recording of this whale-song (with accompanying shrimp-clicking). There wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium.

My book is a reflection on the ocean, its inhabitants (human and other), and the songs it absorbs into its great saline body. The title alludes not only to whale-song but also to the waiata and chants of Pacific peoples, over many centuries. It also registers the songs of mariners and subsequent visitors – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Pablo Neruda’s Pacific-inspired poems, Epeli Hau’ofa, Albert Wendt… and the visual as well as verbal ‘songs’ of the artists who were involved in the 2011 Kermadec art project… and other artistic responses of recent times.

I remember, years back, hearing the Pacific Ocean (and, by inference, all the world’s oceans – which are, after all, a single body of water) described as the Great Marae. The ocean is the great meeting place – a place of encounter, of greeting and saying goodbye. A place of danger and of inexpressible beauty. It is our shared and sacred ‘ground’. My ‘sketchbook’ traces my own personal foray into this territory, led – Dante-style – by such powerful Oceanic spirits as Epeli Hau’ofa, Ralph Hotere and my friends John Pule and Robin White.

VR: Your book is far more than a prose excursion replete with quirky anecdotes, for it also includes artwork, diagrams, photos, poems and sketches all to do with water. Why these many interesting appurtenances?

GO: For much of my life I have kept journals/sketchbooks, which are the ideal vehicle for both verbal and visual exploration. I wanted Always song in the water to have the character of these work-books in which ideas, rather than being resolved and polished, are presented as unfolding, in-progress, caught on the fly. The work of other writers and artists is constantly entering and becoming a part of this conversation/meditation/process. Always song in the water is a journal of an evolving awareness…and in that regard it is true and close to my experiences over the past decade.

The first half of the book is a reawakening of my relationship with Northland; the second part is about my burgeoning awareness of the Pacific. The book gathers the raw materials of these encounters – finding new relationships between things. Memories. A sense of wonder. Bringing disparate elements together, creating new meanings, metaphors and juxtapositions. That is what poets do. It’s also what the tapa and hiapo makers of the Pacific do. I’m learning from them, and from the islands and waters which they understand so deeply.

VR: Can you please expand on your thesis that Aotearoa New Zealand is far more than its ‘usually’ delineated three islands and that it stretches way out to sea, as it were: something that, of course, Māori had always known.

GO: You’re right there. The notion of Aotearoa being a broader expanse than its three main islands is not a new proposition. Maybe I was a little slow catching on here, and Always song is an act of catching up! The book does suggest a reshaping of Aotearoa NZ, beyond its littoral shape. My moment of awakening came while at sea on the HMNZS Otago in May 2011. We were just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, five days from Auckland Harbour, and the ship’s captain announced over the intercom that we were now, this minute, leaving New Zealand Territorial Waters. We were crossing the line. Tongan territorial waters were only a few hours away. Suddenly we found that we were part of a formulation in which Aotearoa/New Zealand almost ‘touched’ Tonga. Undersea geologists have also been aware of this closeness and connectedness for quite some time. Aotearoa is part of the same belt of volcanoes as Raoul Island and Tonga (and beyond). We are part of a long geological seam, uninterrupted and unseen/underwater for most of the time. No one knew this fact better, or in a more profound manner, than artist John Hovell (see The Passing World, The Passage of Life, John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai, 2010). In Māori culture I feel this expansive notion of place / the elements / the spirit and physical worlds very evidently (and profoundly) in Ralph Hotere’s art. But it’s also there in Hone Tuwhare’s poetry and, literally, in Patricia Grace’s The Sky People.

For me, the most emphatic example of a Pan-Pacific identity from the launching-pad of a Māori sensibility is found in the work of architect John Scott (Ngati Kahungunu). For some years I’ve been a member of the Trust looking after Scott’s Futuna Chapel in Wellington. I go to the chapel often. Spending time in in that Oceanic space is always moving, bracing, challenging and uplifting. I feel like a child who has only just learnt to read washing up in the midst of a formidable yet welcoming ‘university’—a motherlode of antipodean wisdom.

On a darker note: The materialist, earth-bound approach to life and living is the great curse of Western society, with its unquenchable appetite for consumption and extraction. The nature of what artists and poets do puts them at odds with such thinking (for the most part). The Kermadec voyage, for me, blew away all the truisms and clichés and complacent ways of thinking about place. It also opened up a very real vista into Epeli Hau’ofa’s notion of an encompassing Oceanic identity. If my book is upbeat and, as Metro magazine said, ‘happy’, that is because I feel immensely fortunate, lucky, to have encountered and been deeply affected by many (ongoing) encounters with Māori and Pacific cultures and some of their great spirits.

VR: Your conclusion is almost mystical in enunciation, especially where you introduce William Blake. What are your hopes pertaining to mankind’s urgent need to treasure Nature and most especially water far more: not only ngā moana (the oceans), but ‘water, water everywhere’?

GO: Always song in the water ends on an optimistic note. Maybe I’ve performed some kind of unintentional miracle here: writing a ‘happy’ book about humanity’s relationship with the natural world at this moment in history. Generally speaking, the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of a pessimistic approach to such matters. What can you do? John Pule and I keep a guitar in our respective studios (hence the instrument on the cover of Always song). The collaborative etchings we make are our collective song, our communion.

Maybe my book, in a small way, will alert people to the need for some kind of soulful relationship with ngā moana. My hope is that the inhabitants of our land will lose the settler/farmer/colonist belief that oceans and fresh water systems are utilities, resources for us to exploit or ‘monetarise’ (who was it coined that butt-ugly word?). Far better to see water as a ‘source’ not only of sustenance but also of spiritual well-being and inspiration. A holistic approach to nature (and to humanity as one part thereof) is the essential thing.

VR: Finally, and getting slightly away from your book, you have also recently been involved in The Water Project. Could you please tell us a little about this project?

GO: The Water Project was dreamt up by Shirin Khosraviani, the director of the Ashburton Art Gallery, in the wake of the Kermadec art project. People found the travelling ‘Kermadec – lines in the water’ exhibition very moving. Water does affect all of us in fundamental, conscious and subconscious ways. When encountering the Kermadec-inspired meditation on the Pacific Ocean, Shirin and many other Cantabrians felt, quite sensibly, it was high time that artists and the public dealt to the issues closer to home. The state of our rivers, and of fresh water in the Canterbury region in particular, has been at crisis point for some years now. In the grand tradition of the 2011 Kermadec expedition, in March 2017 I went, with 12 other artists on a week-long hikoi around the waterways of Canterbury with Ross Hemera as kaumatua. In my mind, the South Island would never be the same place ever again. But that’s another conversation, Vaughan. Let’s discuss that in detail later.

More about this book at Auckland University Press.

Gregory O’Brien is an independent writer, painter and art curator. He has written many books of poetry, fiction, essays and commentary. His books include A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (Auckland University Press, 2011) and the multi-award-winning introductions to art for the young and curious: Welcome to the South Seas (Auckland University Press, 2004) and Back and Beyond (Auckland University Press, 2008), which both won the Non-Fiction Prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young People. His book See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious was published in 2015.

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