Glenn Colquhoun grew up with serious thoughts of being a Seventh Day Adventist minister.
But he opted instead for becoming a doctor. A GP. And a GP with a difference. He writes poetry. Lots. In English and Māori.
And here he talks with Dale about how that's come to be.
Kia ora, Glenn. Shortly we’ll talk about your unusual mixture of medicine and poetry. But first let’s focus on that surname of yours because it presents a challenge in both spelling and pronunciation.
Well, Colquhoun is the way we’ve always spelt it. I’m sure it’s supposed to be pronounced somewhat differently from the way we say it. We just say Ka-hoon. It’s an anglicised Scottish Gaelic name. It was originally Gaelic but, like a number of Māori names (for instance Otago for Ōtākou) it’s been changed or anglicised because the English couldn’t say it right. And the really unpronounceable bits have been left out altogether.
And what about the first Mr Colquhoun to make his way to New Zealand? What can you tell us about him?
He was my great-great-grandfather. Henry Cliff Colquhoun. And he was one of the remittance men from Britain. They were troublesome young men who were given enough money by their families to leave home and, well, not come back. So that’s what he did. On the way out here, he ran off with a young woman from New South Wales and they ultimately settled in the Bay Of Islands. They had five children, but he died at the age of 40.
We were always told that he died from being drunk one night. But one of my relations tracked down an article about the coroner’s report and it said that his wife had given him too much sleeping elixir. I suppose he’s not the first husband in my family whose wife wanted to kill him.
But, anyway, he left five kids and our family is descended from his oldest son.
Actually, he’d been whangai’d into the Colquhoun family. We grew up thinking we were Scottish, and with all the tikanga and stories and bagpipes that came with being Scots. But it turns out that his mother came from Preston in the north of England. And she had him illegitimately.
That, of course, was a cause of great shame then. That was 1851. So, the doctor who delivered the baby gave him to his sister, who had just miscarried a child. Then that sister married James Colquhoun. So, my tupuna was taken into the Colquhoun family and grew up with them, and that’s how we got out here. He’s buried up in Russell. By the old white church that Hone Heke shot up.
I don’t know that there’s ever been the same stigma about “illegitimacy” in te ao Māori, as there has been permeating Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English society. That bit of family history hasn’t worried you though, has it?
No. I like him not being that respectable. Then his oldest son became quite religious, and our family was trapped in a religious life for two or three generations. But I’m pleased there’s an ancestor who was illegitimate and then became a rogue and a crook. It brings us back to the real world.
And where was the real world when you were growing up?
That was South Auckland. My grandfather had a farm out in Ardmore. Then Dad came off the farm and worked as a builder in South Auckland, which is where we settled down. So I grew up there in the late 1960s and ‘70s.
That was a time when that area was sort of exploding from migration from the Pacific, and also from Māori moving into the city. It was a time of cultural change and my friends were Māori and Samoan and Fijian and so on. There was this mix of languages. Different senses of humour. Different foods. Different ways that parents ran their families.
That had a big influence on me. Being Pākehā or Palagi meant you weren’t part of a majority culture. In the early days we probably were, but, later on, 90 percent of our school were Pasifika or Māori.
So it became clear that there were other voices, and other ways of being, and I liked that. I thought: “Wow. This is fun. It’s pretty chill. It’s pretty laidback. And people cuddle you. And laugh with abandon. There’s always a sense of humour.”
Also, there was always this hybrid language. English and Samoan, or Rarotongan, or Māori. So the language was interesting and literature was oral. People would say smart things, clever things, to get out of trouble, or into trouble. South Auckland was full of witty one-liners.
My family were all Seventh Day Adventist, so that was another oral culture of listening to people sing hymns and give sermons and stand and talk. And Adventism was also very tribal. So, I grew up as a sort of white Polynesian and that has remained the theme for the rest of my life.
No problem then with feeling uncomfortable in that setting?
No, Dale. I loved it, mate. It was fun. And the families were so open. I knew there was a generosity in Māori and other Polynesian families. I mean my own family was lovely but there was, in those families, a special generosity of spirit that was infectious. People slept on the floor, mattresses were stacked up, and blankets folded neatly around them — and there was all this laughter.
Lots of Pākehā families bolted out of the suburbs. But my family stayed. And two of my sisters married into Māori or Polynesian families. So our family was, you could say, culturally colonised. It’s been given some lovely flavours. It’s changed the way we talk among ourselves. Changed what we eat. What we laugh at. It’s been a huge gift to grow up there.
Good on you, Glenn. That sounds neat.
It’s been a form of cross-pollination.
Or we could say Polynesian pollination? But let’s turn now to your venture into the world of medicine. As a GP.
Well, as I mentioned, I grew up in the church. I was always going to be a minister, and I trained for a couple of years for that — until the church decided that it was a bad idea. Clearly I’d grown up being too cheeky. But by then, I was starting to enjoy studying. And learning stuff. And I thought that medicine would lead to a career. Or that studying would satisfy my intellectual curiosity.
Also, growing up in the church and in South Auckland meant that I was familiar with a culture of serving, and of people looking after one another. This was a second bite at the apple, but one that wasn’t as dogmatic or doctrinaire. So I went back as an adult student to study medicine. But I did an English degree first, and sort of fell in love with learning.
You’re still practising as a doctor, aren’t you?
Yep. I work three and a half days a week at a youth health service in Horowhenua. I’ve always worked in medicine, although I’ve thought one day I might just write full time. But, to be honest, it’s medicine that gives me a viewpoint from which to write. It gives me stories. It puts me in around people and their moments of change and vulnerability. It provides a great viewpoint on human beings.
Okay. Let’s talk about poetry. Your first book of poetry The Art of Walking came after an experience up north at Te Tii. But real men don’t do poetry, do they?
Yeah. Look man. I don’t know, Dale. Jeez man. Sometimes I ask myself: “What’s with this kid growing up in South Auckland and writing poetry?” No one in my family was into poetry. They’re all as confused as me. But, I think it was the love of words. And mystery. And the love of story. I did grow up with a deep love for that.
I guess being preached at every week for 20 years had an impact, too. And all those stories from the Bible. They’re great stories. Then there were history books and learning about all the kings and queens of England. Then listening to my mates in the playground — and the way they talk.
At the heart of poems, when I was young, was this delicious mix of mystery. They weren’t really about what they seemed to be about. They were like a code — and I love code-breaking. Working out what they’re really saying. It’s like: “What are they really writing about?” They can be like word cartoons.
I like the trick in them. The riddle of the poem. I think that’s what hooked me. And then I read some New Zealand poets. I loved JK Baxter and Hone Tuwhare. Especially Tuwhare. It was as though the language he used was the language that my dad’s builder mates used. Hone sounded like us. And he looked a bit like people I grew up with.
And then I just knew that I had things to say. Opinions. Adventism is a very opinionated religion. And so my poetry became a way of mixing all those urges together.
You mention Te Tii too. I went there as a young man to spend a year learning te reo Māori. It changed my life, I suppose. It was South Auckland with a view. In a sense I’ve never culturally left and I still go back every year.
I often say I did my OE at Te Tii. It sort of gave me the opportunity to jump the fence and actually live a Māori life in New Zealand. What I’d seen in South Auckland was a teaser and set up an itch I always wanted to scratch. You know, these little communities that dot the countryside are pretty special. Life ebbed and flowed around Māori themes and concerns and the throb of the marae.
South Auckland and Te Tii are really in everything I write and in every bit of medicine I practise.
What were the reactions of your Polynesian buddies when you started writing poetry?
Amusement. Just amusement. Like: “Oh, yep. Oh, that’s cool. Nah, yeah, but …”
I’m aware, though, that, like drinking wine, poetry can be an acquired taste. If you give wine to someone who hasn’t acquired the taste, it may taste sour. Same with eating olives and anchovies. And there’s a sharpness in poetry that’s an acquired taste, too.
But there’s also a joy in language that exists out there. And, if you write the right poem, you can tap straight into that joy. I’ve loved the rise of spoken word poetry. And hip-hop and rap. And, as I’ve watched and listened, I’ve thought: “Yep. That’s the power of words.”
I think the audience is still out there. People are delighted by words and stories. It’s up to us to write the words that have the power.
Can we talk about the Māori poetry tradition? Because I’m sure that encompasses much more than just the English language poetry where Hone Tuwhare and others have excelled.
Well, there are two poetries in our country. There’s the one we’re taught about in school. That’s English poetry — and there are many Māori who’ve written that form of poetry. Not just Hone, but others like Jackie Strum and Rory Habib and Roma Potaki and Robert Sullivan.
But there’s this other whole poetic tradition that’s embodied in haka, mōteatea, whakataukī, whaikōrero and karanga. It’s beautiful. These forms are full of metaphor and allusions to myths and history and landscape. They’re oral maps and oral histories — and they’re sung.
They’re committed to memory and they’re still being composed all the time. There’s a huge body of fabulous living poetry there. A lot of stuff I’m working on now is exploring both these traditions. Our visual art traditions have been talking to each other for generations — but I want to see what happens when our poetries talk to each other.
It seems to me that one of the appealing aspects of poetry is that you can broach any subject. There really are no barriers.
That’s true — and you can see that in nursery rhymes where, on one level, they’re about the most innocent things, but they can also have a very dark side. Like Ring a ring o’ Roses or Humpty Dumpty. They’re about disease and war — and they’re examples of how poetry is sometimes the art of saying things with a special bite. They can be Trojan horses of thought as well as simply telling stories or creating a mood.
I’ve been assuming that all your poetry has been in English. But perhaps that’s not so.
When my daughter was born 13 years ago, I started writing some oriori, some lullabies, for her in te reo Māori, and a collection that grew out of that. And I’ve loved writing in Māori poetic forms — and being able to sing them, or perform them as haka. Using both traditions. And that had me wondering, as a Pākehā, what my sung histories are, and where my oral poems are. So I’m now working on a collection of sung oral histories in the Pākehā traditions. Folk songs. Clapping and skipping songs. Lullabies. Sea shanties. Hymns. All of those sung forms of our poetry.
I’ve loved those. I think they’re the things I’ll sing as I get old and die. I feel like some mad Frankenstein bringing bits of people back to life. My daughter rolls her eyes when I’m driving down the road and singing about Von Tempsky, the soldier. Or Barney Whiterats, the old swagman. Or Jacky Price, the sealer. Or about my great-great-great-grandmother who gave away her child to the doctor. Singing the stories that have deep personal meanings.
An extract of Glenn’s book Late Love: Sometimes Doctors Need Saving as Much as Their Patients, is here.