Two Poets: Two Wheels
By Laura Williamson
Someone once said that poetry is to writing what the bicycle is to transportation. Poetry is smaller and more concise, but it takes a little more time and a little more work to get there. And the reward is greater. So it goes with bikes.
Two New Zealanders who know a bit about both are Brian Turner and James Brown. Each is a poet whose passion for verse might just be outstripped by his passion for cycling, and each has put his passion for cycling into verse. Spoke caught up with both to find out what it is that makes them write, and roll.
Road cyclist, poet
Brian Turner is New Zealand’s best proof that success in sport and letters are not mutually exclusive. There is not much, poetry-wise, that he hasn’t accomplished. He won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his 1979 collection Ladders of Rain, was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1984, Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury in 1997 and was the fourth Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate from 2003 to 2005.
Turner is a pretty good athlete as well. He comes from a sporting family – one brother is Glenn Turner, the former New Zealand cricket captain, the other is professional golfer Greg Turner. His cousin, Alan Larkins, represented New Zealand in cycling at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Tuner himself played national-level hockey and was a senior cricketer.
His current sporting passion, however, is cycling. He started racing in 1955, at the age of 11, but stopped once he reached secondary school. The headmaster, he explains, said cycling was not a team sport, and therefore not character building. Turner picked up his bike again at the age of 42, and hasn’t stopped since. He has raced age-group nationals and took out the Kelvin Hastie Memorial handicap race in 1994.
Unlike the headmaster, Turner doesn’t draw a line between team and individual sports. “Most sports are individual in that you are much of the time alone with your own demons and your own abilities, or lack thereof,” he explains. Yet he points out that road cycling not for loners. He loves the tactical nature of racing, working with and against other riders, as well as training with others of varying abilities and ages.
He describes this in On Top of the World, a poem about cycling in Central Otago with Naseby rider Kila Hepi. Here are two friends pedalling through a beautiful landscape, not speaking but communicating still, taking turns at the front.
Riding between Wedderburn
and Hill’s Creek we’re on top
of the world, my young friend Kila
and I, the clouds like white drapery
spilling down the mountains
It is an experiential snapshot that is typical of Turner’s cycling poems. Cycling in the Maniototo, for example, captures exactly the struggle of the uphill grind, that moment when everything leaves the mind but the effort to keep going.
the only one worth
honouring is the will
to keep on resolutely
Another poem, Training on the Peninsula, about a road ride around the Otago Peninsula, evokes a specific joy that only a cyclist would understand, that of finding that the wind is behind you.
in and out of the bays, spinning
steadily, enjoying a tail wind
home for the first time
in I don’t know how many days.
Turner says while he doesn’t compose when on his bike, he does see parallels between poetry and riding, the greatest similarity being the ratio of effort to compensation. He ranks cycling as one of the toughest sports he has tried, arguing that an average rider needs to be fitter than top sportsmen in other disciplines. He jokes that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time and work a sport takes and how much one gets paid to play it — which is a lot like writing poetry.
Mountain biker, poet
It’s not often you read a poem about a gory crash on a mountain X course. James Brown’s Severe Open Dislocation is just that, probably the first poem in literary history to describe what happens when you case a jump badly. Based on a 2004 Spoke article about downhiller Nigel Page hitting the deck in a race, it is a far cry from the Shakespearian love sonnets we all studied in school.
Luckily my trusty helmet saved my neck.
The only problem was
I needed one on my foot too,
as I had somehow completely
ripped my foot off my leg.
James Brown started mountain biking in 2001 when Paul Kennett lent him a Diamondback Sorrento hard-tail and took him up Makara Peak. It wasn’t long before he gave up his preferred sport, football, for cycling.
For one, it was simpler. “There was a lot of arsing around, organising, getting to the game. With mountain biking, I can just clean my bike, hop on it and go.” As well, it is solitary. Football, he says, was too social, while cycling allows him to ride alone, at his own pace, something which suits him both as an athlete and a poet.
Like Turner, Brown doesn’t compose while on his bike (“you wouldn’t want to let your mind drift on a decent downhill”, he points out), but he does find that cycling compliments writing. “I think the space it offers me is important. Poetry is as much about space as it is utterance. And sometimes suffering. Climbing hurts.”
Having said this, Brown has been a poet much longer than a cyclist. He started writing poetry in Form 1, followed by “terrible, overwritten schmaltz” when he was an undergraduate. He got a lot better, and since then has had four collections published by Victoria University Press, the first of which, Go Round Power Please, won Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards. He was shortlisted for the 2002 Prize in Modern Letters and his latest book, The Year of the Bicycle, was a finalist in the 2007 Montana Awards.
Brown wrote much of The Year of the Bicycle during a period when he was commuting by bike to work as Victoria University’s Writer in Residence. Many of the poems are about cycling and, like Turner’s, will provoke an immediate nod of recognition from mountain bikers, especially the Kiwi variety. The Tip Track, for example, is a line-by-line account of riding the legendary Wellington trail, including suggested line and gear choices.
Stay hard left past the s’s, then surge into the climb,
hitting the middle-left bedrock.
Chop down to 1.2, your basic climbing gear.
Somewhere here, the pain begins.
Maintenance is based on a chilly midwinter Karapoti ride. The image of being miles from the road, bike broken, tools strewn about on the ground, describes precisely one of those funny-only-in-hindsight moments we’ve all had on a long ride.
So now here we are halfway to goddam nowhere
with our chain tool and our pump and three spare tubes
and tire levers for Africa spread around us like
Some sort of mad industrial panic.
And is anybody laughing?
The lovely Body and Bike is a happier tale, a simple ode to the interplay between rider and machine.
The drivetrain (an essential element)
can be refined
beyond the visible
by a body’s bellowing heart
Brown’s poems celebrate both the positives and negatives of the sport, the mechanical beauty of the bicycle juxtaposed with trips to the A & E, the agony of a steep climb followed by the elation of reaching the top. His poetry explains what cyclists sometimes struggle to describe to non-cyclists, and writers to those who never pick up a pen.
“Our motivations are complex and convoluted,” he says. “There aren’t always answers as to why you do stuff like writing a poem or biking up a hill.”
This profile appeared in the September 2010 issue of Spoke magazine.