C.K. Stead re­mem­bers the year he mar­ried his wife and met ‘mad Janet’ Frame

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C.K. Stead

It was1955, my MA year. I was 22 and had got mar­ried at the start of the year. I was a stu­dent and my wife, Kay, was work­ing in the li­brary. We got a lit­tle flat, which was essentially a glassed-in ve­randa, on Taka­puna Beach. It was fairly unusual to be mar­ried at that age then but not to­tally. I had lim­ited re­sources. I had some kind of teach­ing fel­low­ship but very lit­tle, and Kay was the pri­mary money-earner for that year.

Allen Curnow was one of my prin­ci­pal lec­tur­ers. He was writ­ing new po­ems and be­gan to show them to me and ask what I thought, which was a slightly over­whelm­ing hon­our. I’d had con­tact with Frank [Sarge­son] be­fore­hand, but when I found my­self liv­ing down the road in Taka­puna, I called up to see how he would re­act to vis­its — and he was very wel­com­ing. We got to know him very well that year, also the year Janet Frame came to live in his army hut. That was pretty much our year: me do­ing my MA, and my lit­er­ary life be­ing be­tween the two peo­ple who be­came my men­tors — Sarge­son and Curnow — with Janet Frame in the pic­ture as well.

Frame was also very shy and re­tir­ing and hid­ing in the shad­ows, but very quickly be­came fa­mil­iar with us and we got to know her well. We made a strange four­some: gay Sarge­son and “mad Janet”, as he would de­scribe her; and two very young, rather in­no­cent, per­sons. But we got on ex­traor­di­nar­ily well and went about to­gether and did what you do when you live in a beach sub­urb. It was a very lit­er­ary re­la­tion­ship. Frame had al­ready es­tab­lished her iden­tity as a short story writer and we talked end­lessly about lit­er­a­ture and played lit­er­ary games. It was a very rich year.

Clearly the con­nec­tion with Curnow was more for­mal than the re­la­tion­ship with Sarge­son, but it was, to me, more sig­nif­i­cant, be­cause he was writ­ing th­ese ex­tra­or­di­nary po­ems and kept show­ing them to me. They were po­ems he wrote as his af­fair with Jenny Tole de­vel­oped and, although they weren’t au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, they clearly emerged out of the ex­cite­ment of that episode.

I had ar­rived at univer­sity at 18, hav­ing al­ready de­cided Curnow was the most im­por­tant New Zealand poet, which wasn’t quite the fash­ion­able view at that time. I remember see­ing him and recog­nis­ing him be­cause I’d seen his photo in the Lis­tener, so it was a very ex­cit­ing mo­ment.

I had in­tended to be a post­man, but I got a lec­ture­ship of­fer in Aus­tralia, then went on to do a PhD at the Univer­sity of New Eng­land in New South Wales.

That year was ab­so­lutely defin­ing, be­cause it left me with an ideal of what it was to be a New Zealand writer. Sarge­son and Curnow were my men­tors, and all the time I was away I was hell-bent on the idea that I had to come back and be­come a New Zealand writer. This was rather naive, but it was a gov­ern­ing idea.

As told to Paul Lit­tle


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