Topic: Hone Tuwhare, our English teacher by Jan FitzGerald Napier

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Dame Joy Drayton was an extraordinary principal and Hone Tuwhare was an extraordinary poet. Exactly what sparked Mrs Drayton - I still can’t call her Joy - to invite Hone down to Tauranga Girls College to read to us in 1968, I’ll never know. But I do know I’ll be forever grateful to her.

It started out as an ordinary lesson in 6th Form English. We were at our desks reading Miss Page’s comments on the essays she was handing back - mine was a quote from Disraeli, “Don’t become intoxicated with the exuberance of your own verbosity” - when Mrs Drayton flowed into the prefab in her Masters gown. In her wake was a Maori man, mid-40s, with smile-crinkled face and black morepork eyes staring up from a shock of wavy black hair. The girls kept on working, obviously thinking it was Mr Ririnui or one of the other girl’s fathers, but my heart raced. I knew who it was and I could see my writing on one of the papers held to his chest.

“Girls,” said Mrs Drayton, “I’d like you to meet our poet, Hone Tuwhare.”

Then she demurred to Miss Page’s command of the class and tiptoed out of the room, opening the door again briefly to wink at me at my desk!

All the pens in the class hit the desk. Our poet? I liked that. I had nearly choked on the dry diet of Pope, Dryden and Eliot all term. Secretly, I spent the time writing my own poems in class, or reading No Ordinary Sun behind another book.

Hone pulled a huge handkerchief out of the depths of his faded mustard corduroys, wiped his face, and began by reading my poems, which Mrs Drayton had sent him. (I’d won quite a few of the college literary awards judged by local authors.) After one, he ended with the huge compliment: “I couldn’t have done better myself!”

“Now, I’d like to read you a couple of my own,” he continued, delving into deep pockets again and bringing out crumpled sheets of paper. “Not as many as I’d like, left my book at home. Bit of a rush to the plane.”

I dived into my desk and held up No Ordinary Sun.

Hone grabbed it. “Jeez, we’re a good team!”

When Mrs Drayton stepped back into the rapt atmosphere of our prefab, Hone said, “Can Jan come with us to the airport?”

She nodded.

The other girls gave me ‘the look’ as they headed off to Algebra.

As we travelled over to Mount Maunganui, Hone wrote inside my copy of his book, ‘To Jan, Pity I couldn’t have stayed to bludge bed and breakfast with you. Hone 1968.’ I was thrilled to the bones of my bones!

We chatted about poetry all the way to the airport. Mrs Drayton looked in the mirror and smiled. It seemed strange to have my principal as taxi driver!

 

The next year I moved off to Hamilton Teachers College. I had my first poetry book out, was getting published in the mainstream literary journals, and Hone and I had stayed in touch. He sent my book to James K Baxter, who wrote to me from Jerusalem and turned up looking for me one day on campus for a joint reading that night. But first we went on an anti-Vietnam protest march, such was the climate of the time. Middle of winter, and James K in his trademark bare feet.

When Hone returned from the Burns Fellowship at Otago University  ‘struggling to give them their public money’s worth,’ I travelled up to spend some weekends with him in Auckland.  He would meet me off the Railways Road Services bus at the central railway station.

On one such occasion I taped an interview with him for Alister Taylor’s literary Affairs magazine and apologised to Alister for the noise of beer bottles clinking. Alister said it added to the ambience and was a good bit of archival history.

Hone introduced me to the co-director of Barry Lett Galleries, Rodney Kirk-Smith, who became my boyfriend over the next year. The trips to Auckland increased and, although I was with Rodney, Hone was always part of the scene, often arriving to read his poems at the gallery or talk to artist Ralph Hotere.

Mostly, we lay under apple trees that sloped away from his house, discussing art and poetry, until Hone would go inside and cook up a meal, then lean over the windowsill and call, “Come inside now, children...”

 

I learnt a lot about poetry from Hone. He was convinced if I kept my own voice, I would last the distance. I thank him for that. It has proved to be true.

But there are two things I would have liked to have said to him, before he made the spirit journey from Reinga.

“How about giving my book back?”

(He borrowed it once for a reading.)

And secondly, since finding my own Nga Puhi connections, “Gidday, cuz...”

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/R2FM-BMD9

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