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May 15, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Man on the Street: The Poetical World of David Merritt

On the day I contacted David about this interview he was attacked. A woman he knew from his time in Auckland, a semi-regular visitor to the bench on K’ Road where he had plied his trade for five years, had appeared in Nelson. She was unwell, seemed troubled. David gave her cigarettes and money for a hot chocolate, told her to come back any time — but memories are funny things. The next day she was furious, deranged. She scattered David’s books, knocked his stamp set to the ground, grabbed his scissors and lunged at him, screaming about clicks and the internet, how he was responsible for all the clicks on the internet — Dave resisted and was cut, literal blood for his art, her yelling and their struggle pulling people in, the RSA Poppy Day man, a Māori woman, a parking warden lady, the scissors reclaimed and all parties copping a few hits for their help, just another day in the life of a street poet, or so he mused as we talked, life in the literary fast lane.

David Merritt has been a practising poet for some 30 odd years; the last eight lived at the mercy of the road, travelling up and down the country, sitting on benches and in parks, a grey-bearded man and his box of books, there in the thick of the day.

His approach is unique, not only for its visibility, but for the way in which his poems are packaged and distributed, self-published broadsheets built from literary detritus, old Reader’s Digests and banana box cardboard transformed into books and zines, many made right there on the street, cut to shape by the infamous scissors and sold or swapped or gifted, craft and its craftsman, there in a way so many artists aren’t, face to face in the digital age.

Before switching to poetry David worked as “a computer geek”, and while he isn’t responsible for all the clicks on the internet, he does maintain an active online presence. This interview took place over several days on Google Drive.


Dan Kelly: Let’s start at the start — what was the genesis of poetry for you?

David Merritt: When I was young I always wanted to be a writer and a poet in particular. By the time I was in my mid-20s I was living in Auckland, a tour manager for Herbs. I left and went south to Dunedin by train with a tea chest of stuff and an old typewriter, to start life as a poet where the rents were cheaper and the bohemian living was of a more collaborative nature. I wanted to do my own thing, not look after other people’s creativity.

In Dunedin, from ’86 to ’94 I did everything I could — worked as a dishwasher in two cafés, worked in a second hand book shop, did an NZ music radio show, wrote a lot and ran a few small presses, produced a few collections, edited a lot of publications and a lot of other people’s work, played the guitar badly, helped out on big arts collectives, lived on mutton hams in freezing kitchens in flats with parts of the roof missing, fell into love and had the sons, became a father, started using a computer and got an email address, etc. I’ve always kind of known what it was that I didn’t want to become — so that period in Dunedin was like the poetical mould into which I was poured and which knocked off the smooth edges of a more comfortable poetical life…


DK: Could you describe your process? How does a poem become a poem?

DM: I’ve deliberately made it a long process and in fact now, with digi hoohah, it’s an ongoing process that never seems to end. In the modern network age a poem becomes an evolution of file types, once something gets digitised off the bits of paper and the 1B5 exercise books that I write stuff onto.

Poet feels poetic, sees something, feels something, describes an event or memory or gut response or makes a list — writes something down, whatever. You write something and eventually you type it all up and you print it, and improve the poems that way with new printed out versions and then DTP [desktop publishing] software is useful for experiments with how a poem reads with different linebreaks and spaces.

So it’s a digital process now, those poems that started out as a .txt file and then .rtf file are now an InDesign .CS3 file and then exported as PDFs and JPEGS and OGG and MPEGS and .HTML, wordpressed and instagrammed and google ++ed and routed and proxied all over, cached, bit torrented, downloaded, shared, zipped, and tarred up into an archive. Made into WAVs and AIFFS and MP4s. PHP or CSS code or rendered like max headroom in a bunch of interesting 3D ways. Thrown into Word and made into Office files. Shared on Soundcloud or Dropbox or Bandcamp or Patreon or Givealittle. Whacked up on mud book in six different places. Put onto the giant spreadsheet.

And then there is the life of the poem when you read them out loud, how much of the spoken overlay you can and do add back into the text. I’ve started to add and repeat phrases in live shows with the musicians and that filters back into the text as well. So poems evolve by many means and nowadays barely have time to stand still. The titles of the poems are shorter now because I’m lazy (or ergonomic) with the stamping on the front, as a younger poet mine were quite long and went on a bit. I’ve counted at least 14 stages that it takes to make a five buck analog book, from finding the Reader’s Digests in a skip and gutting the pages and processing the covers through to the stamping and stapling and gluing and signature / date stamp stuff.  


DK: In many of your poems there is a strong sense of solidarity, the community on the edges of “normal” society. Do you see poetry as playing a role in the creation of this?

DM: Yes. It’s an extension of politics which governs everything — poetry included. Long ago I realised poetry in NZ was marginalised, by poor PR and outdated, neoliberal thinking. Like a lot of the arts and culture industries. Mainstream media is designed to place us in a state of fear, to create the stupid norms which are killing us as a nation and as a race. I’m better off being well away from that…

To deny the possibilities of poetry being political is a denial of the forces of life itself, which seems rather blinkered. I’ve grown up as a collectivist, despite being in an occupation which is akin to a small business or sole trader. I don’t like the idea of literature being so competitive, that I have to apply against other poets for Creative NZ (CNZ) funding — something I am loathe to do if I feel that I’m trucking along well enough without it.


David Merritt outside Pegasus Books. Hector Hazard.

David Merritt outside Pegasus Books. Hector Hazard.


DK: There’s a current of thought that says a poem isn’t complete until someone reads it. How do you think that fits in with spoken poetry, and in particular with slam poetry, with its greater emphasis on the speaker–audience divide?

DM: I write poems that are mostly read out to audiences and may rely on being read out loud or recorded to grow and improve. Now I also do readings where people are just mostly sitting around, reading the poems off the poetry racks, and I do sets that get smaller and smaller in time size as I become more popular. I’ve always wanted to be able to do shows where the reading component is performed by the audience attending and actually reading the poems and I’m outside smoking or not even there. But that’s more a reflection of modern, busy lives where my poems have to fit in along with everything else that people do inside of a venue.

Slam poetry is a strange thing. It’s been good for the popularity of poetry and slam poetry in particular, but maybe not so good for the other types or forms of poems. It’s also brought in a bogus ranking system that is as groomed and gate-kept as other types/styles/kinds of poetry. But, can’t be too harsh. It’s brought a breath of fresh air in its own way, added ingredients to the pot with its pace and style — that’s good.


DK: In your recent application for the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, you emphasised the public form your poetry takes — it is in a sense available in a way that more “institutional” poetry isn’t. What do you think this says about the “institution”? Is there more room for outreach, presence?

DM: Yes. There’s much more room than the narrow and blinkered and highly contested state of denial the “institutions” are in at the moment. We need the full, broad spectrum, and the smaller institutions and entities need more of that big ol’ cake that the institutions live fulltime on now. We need hundreds of presses and thousands of poets, not a manicured and gate-kept few as now churned out by the mills of academia, indebted and unsure of any long term poetry game plan.

I wanted to be transparently working hard using those recycled materials and simple methodologies. No big magic cardboard boxes from the tiger economies with 400 copies of my new collection. No mass productions at all. Work right where people could watch me do it and read the poems I’d made. I’ve done everything wrong and inside out and upside down and backwards in order to be as successful as I want within my own terms now.  

Small presses are the key to the continuation of our literary development; they are nimble to the changes in publishing, can produce books quickly, and are finding new voices on the margins all the time. There is room for plenty of these kinds of publishers, funded or not. It’s the denial by CNZ that gets me — denial of just about all the technology and means of distribution, denial of the advent of copyleft-ism and the creative commons, denial of the role of the many small presses, the denial of the Zine movement and people’s media.

Everything they do fund is towards the perpetuation of an old school, doomed model, “professional” publishing industry, which of course, will in turn mirror their funding criteria and tick boxes / jump through hoops approach. Both parties are in a cosy symbiotic relationship like addicts to homebake. I hate seeing this happen but it is now the complete norm. There are your poetry books, going through the motions. No boat-rocking. Usual well-funded suspects. No biting the hand that feeds etc.


DK: There’s a lot of noise these days about neoliberalism and its shortcomings, most specifically the way in which it reduces everything to money: if you don’t get paid, you’re not of value. What’s your take on this?

DM: Under neoliberalism the state has become its very cruel enforcer and is per se responsible for a great deal of what is wrong with our way of doing things. It has done and continues to inflict horrendous things onto people — the poor and the marginalised; the young and the old.

It spends a lot of money to perpetuate a neoliberal exploitative state — be it new motorways in Kapiti or delegations to book fairs in Germany. It just consolidates that way of thinking into dogma. For the scientific research and for the culture industry — blue sky industries (music, visual arts, writers, etc.) — this is a terrible state of affairs. Neoliberal is market driven. I see a society that under neoliberalism funds the ambulances at the bottom of the cliffs but never the fences around the top. We’re in a freefall now where what used to be abhorrences are now the everyday — beggars on the street, poverty, people living in cars from lack of housing, a huge divide between the super wealthy and the rest.

I’m a poster boy for neoliberalism in a way — someone who pulls themselves up out of one level of poverty to a place of minimal consumerism, living simply, working simply, reliant less and less on the state. But that is not the mould!

It is important to be able to relate to ordinary, everyday people and not isolate away in the universities. Poets are just like so many people in so many regards, running a very small one person business and some small presses is really an eight hour day of work like everyone else, for a lot less money. It took me five years to be rid of the stigma of WINZ; I wanted to earn a living off poetry, not a great one because stadium poets are rare, but enough to get by on for a day to day, week to week, month to month level of life. So money is important because that gives me a certain incentive to work harder to stay alive at times. But increasingly so are the koha, gifts, and patronage that come my way. Kind offers in the inbox arrive out of the blue, offering me accommodation, opportunities, orders for books etc. At that level people want to pay me money to keep me alive, which is a nice feeling.


You can help keep David alive by supporting him on — or by buying one of his books, either in person, or from Pegasus Books on Left Bank Arcade. David will be representing Landroverfarm Press at the Wellington Zinefest midyear meeting, on June 3, at Thistle Hall. You can’t miss him.traction grayTraction. David Merritt. 2017.

dress-for-war Gray 2 (1)

We Already Half Dress For the War. David Merritt. 2017.



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