Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mark Derby on Hone Tuwhare

The 46th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1996 issue.  No photo credit because I don’t know who took it: happy to credit when/if the photographer makes contact.

The intro read:
Few of us can claim to have shot a poet, but Mark Derby can. He recalls his time as researcher and associate producer for the Gaylene Preston TV documentary Hone Tuwhare, screened last month.
His hospitality elbowing aside his reclusiveness, Hone Tuwhare agreed without hesitation when I asked to bring a film crew to invade the privacy of the tiny Southland coastal community where he now lives. He must have regretted this impulsiveness many times during the demanding weeks of shooting, with our five-person crew crammed into his tiny living room and a radio mike wired to his collar. Yet he never objected to our presence, and went along stoically with requests to drive his car back and forth along the same stretch of road until every member of the crew was satisfied. To Hone, the former Worker’s Union branch chairman, a deal’s a deal.
It wasn’t all hard work and disrupted home life, however. With the camera finally turned off for the night, the whisky bottle could come out, the neighbours could come over, and the muttonbirds go on the stove. Like much of his poetry, Hone’s favourite foods are rich in protein, and most enjoyable when shared.
The finished film, called simply Hone Tuwhare, centres on Hone’s life today at Kaka Point, the tiny coastal settlement an hour’s drive south of Dunedin where he’s been living for several years. His house is a two-room crib with the southern ocean filling its front windows. The shed out the back ignores the view, and on most days Hone spends some hours there in front of his elderly computer, working on poems, letters and new projects like the libretto for an opera.
At 74, his greatest concern is being able to spend as much time writing as possible, in the face of constant demands to appear in public. The film follows him to Wellington where he was a featured writer at this year’s International Arts Festival, sharing a platform with US Poet Laureate Rita Dove, who asked to be photographed with him afterwards.
On the same trip, Hone was guest of honour at a gathering for young Maori writers and artists at Wellington’s Taputeranga marae. Ever generous with his time and encouragement, he still frequently wished himself back home at Kaka Point, where the local storekeepers are under instruction to deter uninvited fans.
During one of our conversations in the early stages of making the film, Hone told me that he wrote his first published poem because he unexpectedly found time on his hands. In 1956 he was working as a boilermaker on a hydro dam on the Waikato River, and living in the Mangakino workers’ village with his wife and young family. As an active Communist Party member, his evenings and weekends were given over to meetings, discussions and organising. Then he heard how Stalin’s tanks were brutally suppressing the Hungarian uprising, burned his Party card, and soon began wondering what to do with all his free time.
The result was a poem, “Thine Own Hands Have Fashioned”, typed up by the local teacher, Party comrade and novelist Noel Hilliard, and later published in a small magazine. Other poems followed at long intervals, eventually attracting the attention of Hamilton bookseller and publisher Blackwood Paul, who published Hone’s first collection, No Ordinary Sun, in 1964.
It was another 10 years before writing became a fulltime occupation, instead of something to be fitted in between welding jobs when the foreman wasn’t looking. Even then, public actions often took precedence over poetry. Hone travelled the length of the North Island with the 1975 Maori Land March, visited Inner Mongolia as a guest of China, met future independence leaders in Bougainville.
The documentary tells very little of his remarkable life story, largely because of Hone’s discomfort when talking about his past on camera director Gaylene Preston found him a very different interview subject from the women veterans who lit up the screen in War Stories.
It’s likely that many of the old photos, anecdotes and press interviews I collected will end up instead in the forthcoming biography, due to be published to coincide with his 75th birthday next year.
Having given us so much of his time, goodwill and reserves of energy during the making of the film, I doubt if Hone watched it when it screened last month. More likely he was in his writing shed surrounding himself with crumpled drafts. But I hope those who did watch gained some further appreciation of Hone’s pungent poetry and huge heart.

The “forthcoming biography” mentioned was Hone Tuwhare: a biography by Janet Hunt, published in 1998. Mark Derby reports that: “I have since heard from Hone's relations that both he and they particularly liked the portrayal of him in this documentary.”

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