We’ve lost another one. John O’Connor died suddenly last Tuesday (May 12th), aged 66. And there is a terrible irony here – he was Helen Bacand’s first publisher, as well as a longtime friend and mentor.
John was a huge part of the Canterbury poetry scene, especially haiku. He was one of the first people in this country to write haiku seriously, and led the way for the strength of haiku in New Zealand generally and Christchurch in particular. The NZPS Haiku Happenings page has some lovely tributes to him from members of the haiku community. And poet Jack Ross has a really good article on John’s influence in the wider poetry community – go read both, then come back.
John was always a big name in Canterbury poetry. When I started sending my work out, he was one of the first editors I contacted (in regards to a magazine that he had edited, but which had folded a few years before). He was the one who sent me to Airing Cupboard. And it was from them that I began to hear the stories about this seemingly semi-mythical figure – John O’Connor, who was a fiercely passionate advocate for good poetry, and who I needed to make a good impression on. Who had won competitions all over the place in both straight poetry and in haiku (which was a form I had just started writing seriously). Who was an authority on all things poetical. (Or close enough that it made little difference.) Who had been a boxer. A teacher. A taxi driver. Who had zero tolerance for pretension. Who could take strong dislikes to people. Who I really needed to make a good impression on. Who was frequently generous with his time to people he took a fancy to. Who I really really needed to try to make a good impression on.
You can guess where this is going, can’t you?
I can’t remember what the event was where I was finally introduced to him. I do remember that when he turned around in response to “John, I’d like you to meet Joanna Preston,” his face seemed sinkingly familiar. And there was a tiny flash of recognition and amusement before his expression returned to generic polite as he said “We’ve already met. The workshop at Books and Beyond, wasn’t it?”
Oh bugger. Yes, I had already met him, earlier in the year, at a writing workshop. Where we had sat side by side and had a lovely back-and-forth argument about the connotations of a piece of writing, and I’d cheerfully told him he was full of shit and didn’t know what he was talking about. Which sounds rude, but felt absolutely appropriate in the context of the argument – we did genuinely both enjoy getting really stuck in to the piece of writing, arguing for different interpretations. He set the tone for the discussion, and as far as I can remember gave at least as good as he got. (The other people in our group mostly sat back and enjoyed the show.) But the fact remains that I had already made my first impression on him, and it wasn’t that of a nice, receptive, respectful young poet, who deserved to be taken under his wing and mentored. Curses! Chances scuppered!
But as it happens, I think I did myself no real harm there. No, I wasn’t as respectful as he probably deserved (given who he was, and who I was), but on the other hand I was never afraid to disagree with him, and did genuinely enjoy arguing with him. And he with me, I think. And we had lots of arguments over the years. On religion, on politics, on science, and always and repeatedly on, about, around and through poetry.
John taught me a huge amount – he could be astonishingly generous with his knowledge, and often when you least expected it. He was the one who got me in to editing – solicited me to take on the NZPS anthology the first time (A Savage Gathering); and to put together Listening to the Rain. He was also genuinely pleased when I edited Kokako and then takahē, and sent me poems to consider in both cases. He also prodded me into reviewing. And in all of these ventures, he remained a reassuring presence behind me – would phone me to make sure that I was managing everything properly, to offer me advice. To check in. He wasn’t the sort of person to say “phone me if you need to chat”. He was just … there. And that helped. Always.
But I’m going to depart from nil nisi protocol now. Because John had a dark side. He could be incredibly rude. His tantrums were legendary, and there were people who he absolutely loathed. (Me, some of the time.) He took offence quite easily. There were a couple of times when we fell out and I had no idea of what it was that had triggered it. (And on at least one occasion, without me even being aware that we had done so until much later.) He could be quite misogynistic, and had a chip on his shoulder about social class. I grew up with men who were like him, with similar chips on their shoulders, and the same capacity for rage and lashing out. But there was one very important way in which John – with all his faults, with all his demons – was a vastly better person. He apologised. Maybe that sounds a little like the classic battered-wife excuse – oh, but he always says he’s sorry afterwards. The difference is that John did genuinely mean it, and did try to control himself. (And was getting better at doing so.) It takes a lot of courage and humility to acknowledge you’ve been in the wrong, and publicly so. He deserves kudos for that. Ultimately, the wounds he left were ones that healed, or were only wounds to himself. I know I have a lot of the same tendencies, which was one of the reasons why we butted heads so often. But also, I think, why we were friends, despite the rows. His outbursts came from passion, not from malice, or a desire to cause harm. He was a very decent human being, and a compassionate one. Just not an easy one.
John was a very fine poet, and the godfather (along with Cyril Childs) of New Zealand haiku. He championed other poets – as a committee member of the Canterbury Poets’ Collective; as a publisher; as an I-don’t-do-mentoring prod and support to the emerging poets who caught his eye; and as a font of information on a huge range of different poetry subjects. I liked and respected him enormously.
New Zealand poetry is vastly the poorer for his death.