Aspiring ConversatiONs: Greg O’Brien on poetry, painting and the ultimate dinner party

Deep thinker and thalassomaniac Greg O'Brien.

Deep thinker and thalassomaniac Greg O’Brien. PHOTO: Jason O’Hara.

This weekend, Aspiring Conversations brings a bevvy of ideas, music, talk, science and literature to Wanaka for a three day celebration of thinking and creativity. The bi-annual offshoot of Festival of Colour, the event is sure to raise questions – and some eyebrows – through robust debate and discussion. Societal concerns woven into the programme include climate change, identity, innovation, microbial life, suicide, childhood and the importance of poetry. Writer, commentator and illustrator Greg O’Brien is part of the panel session “A still small voice – What does poetry do for us?” ONmag asks him some probing questions then you have a chance to WIN tickets to his talk with Louise Wallace and Kate Camp. 

How would you describe the poetic impulse?

A powerful but also paradoxical desire to engage with the world/experience, to bring disparate things together and, at the same time, to atomise the world around, to break it up, to set everything in motion.

You often work with both illustrations and words. How would you define their relationship in your books?

I’ve always loved ‘imagery’ in both literature and visual arts. The relationship between words and illustrations is an ongoing conversation. Both pictures and words are governed by patterns, rhythms, rhymes, the concerns of ‘composition’… I continue to learn about poetry through visual art, just as poetry teaches me much about painting.

What wakes you up in the middle of the night?

The faith we, as a society, seem to place in wealth, progress and worldly success.

Which living person do you most admire?

Pope Francis, on account of his inspired document about the environment, Laudato Si.

If we tipped out your suitcase, what would we find?

Two notebooks filled with drawings, lines of poems and prose-notes.

A copy of Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science by Rebecca Priestley.

A pair of togs (in case the opportunity arises to jump into either lake or sea).

Drawing materials…

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?

The centrality of a sense of wonder and curiosity to the human condition. And kindness.

Who are your dream dinner party guests?

Jacinda Ardern, the whale scientist Dr Rochelle Constantine, singer Hollie Fulbrook from Tiny Ruins,  American composer Peter Garland, Austrian filmaker Nicolas Humbert, and all the artists involved in the ‘Kermadec’ art project 2011-16.

What would you cook for them?

Bluff oysters followed by a Caribbean pilau; with a Central Otago rosé alongside…

Yum! What do you think we need to have more conversations about?

What we value as a society; how by learning to live with less, our lives, imaginations, potentialites will thrive and prosper. Why is it that we find ourselves living in an era characterised by superficiality, vulgarity and materialism? What are we going to do about this, individually and collectively?

In which ways can poetry be part of this conversation?

Poetry and the arts can be a refinement, a calling to various kinds of attention, a looking beyond the surface of things. They can be both a mirror and a telescope showing us what it means to be human and what it means to be a part of this world we have been granted…

What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?

I’m reading Walking to Pencarrow, Selected Poems by Michael Jackson; Thought Horses by Rachel Bush; Terrain by Geoff Chapple. Listening to The Complete Works of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and recordings by the late Japanese jazz pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. And I’m watching the horizon.

To win a double pass to A still small voice – What does poetry do for us? at Aspiring Conversations, just post what wakes you up in the middle of the night to ONmag’s Facebook page. Winners announced online on Saturday, and tickets can be picked up at the Aspiring Conversations box office.

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