(Click to hear a brief introduction from Rod Edmond, followed by Janet Wilson’s speech, the transcript of which is found below.)
Janet Wilson, University of Northampton
Welcome Everybody, especially to those who have come a long way (there are some here from Ireland). For me it is both a pleasure and a privilege to launch this festschrift we have compiled in honour of Fleur’s 80th Birthday and in admiration for the gift of her poetry over the last 60 years.
I would like to begin by saying a few words about how this festschrift came about. Fleur has been a vital and supportive member of the New Zealand Studies Network (NZSN) since its inception in 2011, and even before that when it was the New Zealand Studies Research Centre. She has read on several occasions, participating in readings by poets and writers held at the launch of the Network; and at other NZSN-organised events with visiting New Zealand poets like Helen Rickerby, Anna Jackson, Peter Bland, Kevin Ireland and C.K. Stead. She has also been a dedicated member of the London New Zealand Reading group over the same period of time. So committee members of both groups worked together to assemble this little book, the idea for which actually originated from Julian Stannard – a fellow poet and author of a study of Fleur’s poetry – who suggested it to me some time ago. So thanks to Julian for prompting us. Before I move on, I would like thank all others who have helped with organizing the Festschrift and this occasion: Rod Edmond (Chair NZSN) and Moira Taylor, Mary Ensor and Pat Neville from the Reading Group and, in particular Larissa Allwork, research coordinator in the English Dept at the University of Northampton, who has worked tirelessly on the proofing and formatting of the festschrift this week. Without Larissa’s input this festschrift might not have been ready tonight.
Of course this has been one of the worst kept secrets. We simply could not go ahead without Fleur’s consent, and then we had to acquire from her the list of names of possible contributors, both here and in New Zealand, and even then there were questions we had to ask her such as what recent photographs she had available and where in the festschrift should they go. But I think most of the contents were kept secret, as far as we know and I hope there will be some exciting surprises for Fleur and everyone else in these pages.
These groups of poems and prose pieces all variously testify to friendships and acquaintances with Fleur, both professional and personal. These consist of poems by other poets which we have gathered and put first in the volume, while prose reflections and tributes constitute the second half. They include family reminiscences, pieces by Fleur’s sister, the writer Marilyn Duckworth, who lives in New Zealand, about their shared childhood, and reflections by people who have known Fleur over the years and, like me, taught her work in schools and universities. All are written with respect and acknowledgement of the special qualities of Fleur’s poetry and of her presence as a poet. Wendy Cope, for example, tells of how Fleur got her started in writing poetry; Anne Stevenson considers what they went through together as fellow poets: becoming more outspoken in the political and feminist 1980s and surviving the shutting down of the Oxford University Press Poetry List in 1999 by going to Bloodaxe. Other contributions single out that moment when the writer first encountered Fleur. Charles Doyle, a distinguished poet now living in Canada, remembers their student days at Victoria University of Wellington in the 1950s. If it was Fleur’s work that constituted the encounter then the volume they first read, or the poem that opened their eyes to her, or the one that remains their favourite – they are all mentioned. Harry Ricketts, at Victoria University of Wellington remembers reading ‘To a Five Year Old’. The poem by Michael Longley recalls the giving of gifts.
Throughout these reflections – and I was struck by this when reading through the contributions – there is often a hint or flavour of Fleur’s own words, her special take on life, stemming from her acute observation and humour. There’s a sense that she is in the festschrift herself – not just in the two photographs – because of the appearance of her own turns of phrase, even titles of poems and books. ‘St James’s Park’ is a favourite from the poem ‘Immigrant’ written just after she came to the UK and was practising a British accent and so is ‘we are kind to snails’, speaking as mother to her son Andrew from ‘To a Five Year Old’. Others are from ‘Things’ – ‘all the worst things that come stalking in’ when you cannot sleep at 5 a.m. In ‘New Work’, she writes of poems that ‘sing in my head, tingle along my nerves./It is all magnificently about to begin’; and from ‘Londoner’, on being back in her adopted ‘home’ she writes: ‘It makes me laugh, it makes me want to sing’.
It is perhaps an indication that a poet has really made her mark on a community or culture, when particular phrases float around in common discourse like this, evoking a constellations of ideas, feelings and positions that are distinctive of her and which are now shared. Fleur’s poetry does that, making you aware of a particular act or condition by encapsulating it in a memorable phrase or line. ‘Smokers for Celibacy’ was a bit of a catchword in the 1980s, for example, just before smoking was banned in public places, while ‘Against Coupling’, written in 1971, anticipated some of the sentiments of the Women’s Movement of the 1980s. It is not surprising that so distinct and catchy are some of her phrases, and so concise her shorter poems that several of them were published on the London Underground where they could be read by people commuting to and from work.
But my understanding of Fleur is somewhat different from this public perception. To me she is that very rare poet, someone who has actually moved away from her place of origin and made her life in another society, far from her original ‘home’. This is not usual. Poets like to remain close to their native soil. They have a strong homing instinct. The only other poet I can think of in living memory who took this route, is the Australian Peter Porter. Fleur, though, has made a virtue of being an expatriate since she first arrived here permanently in 1963, and many poems reflect this trajectory: the return trips back home over the years, the long-distance travel, the separations, the phone and skype calls to family, the sense of perhaps being in exile in London, recorded on her first return visit to New Zealand after 13 years in 1976, and in more recent poems, childhood memories of growing up in New Zealand. In these ways she might be called our greatest expatriate poet. No other writer from New Zealand before has written so extensively and acutely about these issues.
The year 2013 was truly memorable for New Zealand literature with the enormous success of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in winning the Man Booker Prize. But no single writer from New Zealand has actually made the same impact on British society over the last 40 years as Fleur has, none has the same sustained record of achievement with at least 15 volumes of poetry. She has received accolades and awards from many quarters: the OBE in 1996, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006 and the Honorary Doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington in the same year.
Fleur, in saluting you and your magnificent contribution to both the UK and NZ cultures, we recognize that your work is far from over. As some of us know, the last book launch the NZSN hosted in this room last June was for Fleur’s new book of poems, Glass Wings. A festschrift is not the last word – we look forward to more. And finally, in this context, this occasion takes me back to the beginnings for this is not just the anniversary of Fleur’s 80th birthday, but 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of her first book of poems The Eye of the Hurricane in New Zealand in 1964, just after she had arrived in the UK, and when all that has happened was yet to come.
Fleur, on behalf of everyone here, Happy Birthday! I have great pleasure in offering you this published festschrift as a token of our esteem, pride and affection.