Chris Holdaway: I think a lot of the mainstream Enzed poetry academy (whatever the hell that means) sees you as an anomaly somehow unconnected to the rest of our literary history. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they DON’T see you for precisely this reason, which is obviously horseshit, because nothing happens in a vacuum. One of your texts in this chapbook tells us about your connection to Frank Sargeson. I thought we could straighten things out even more, & talk about who else has been fuel to your writing over the years?
David Merritt: I never met Mr Sargeson. I read as much of his writing as I could after I learnt how he was a gardener with Janet Frame in a shed in his backyard through CK Stead’ds book All Visitors Ashore. I read (slowly over a few years) his collected letters book before that poem was written 3-4 years ago. I’ve tried to be as naive as I could for a long while as a younger poet and read only biographies etc of poets. But did read other poets’ poems a little – esp – Baxter, Bukowski, William Carlos Williams, Mr Tuwhare, Yvesskenko (sp!), Ginsberg, Mr Keroauc, Plaith and whats his face, etc – all dead people you notice. I’ve seen a lot of live poetry by other poets over the years so there must be some influence there. I don’t read a lot of poetry even now, except what I see at zinefests and from other poets out there who give me their work to have a look out. Anyway, that poem just popped out in a rush like it says in a half hour flat over three cigs and two coffees outside Memphis Belle coffee place in Dixon Street, Wellywood.
CH: You self-publish with recycled materials. You often talk about how this means you don’t get fleeced by an exploitative book contract, & has given you the opportunity to distribute your work in a unique way to a lot of people the “normal” poetry presses have almost no hope of reaching. You also produce books that give a very different reading experience to the legions of identical 80-page paperbacks from the university presses. What advantages, or disadvantages, do you think a reader has with your work compared to the usual fare?
DM: Hmmm. “Normal” poetry books, if they’re lucky, come into one of the nine or so bookshops that stock poetry nationwide for retail sales. These collections are heavily subsidised by the academic institutions and/or CNZ funding, but for readers it’s just too much same old same old – the “good” poets with MA’s, Phd’s, post-graduate diplomas etc groomed by a gatekeeper model. Too many poets being churned out by the neoliberal creative writing schools with nowhere to go, one or two “success stories” who win some awards, get some grants/residencies, snatch up a tenured position. The rest can just sink without a trace because next year there’s a fresh crop – and that’s if you’re inside the system, if you’re not even in there… I wanted to make a living out of my writing and that means mostly rejecting the “collection” – the slim 50 to 80 page volume that has maybe 40 or 60 poems in it, selling for about $30, meaning a 5 or 10 cent per poem return to the poet. Which is a joke when you think it represents maybe a year or two of the poets life to write. Add in a very, very small print run (say less than 500) and you can see how fucked up it is. When Eleanor Catton got roundly abused by Hoskins et all for daring to criticise the neoliberal hand that feeds her, that pretty much convinced me that what I was doing had absolute veracity for me.
The A3 fold-out publications are cheap and cheerful to make. They have the advantage that you are never out of print, that you can test a market and see what poems people actually like and respond to. You can talk to people & hand them a poem you think will suit whatever state of mind you can see from a short conversation with them, and then they have it, right there, no need to go digging all through a book just to find there’s nothing there for you after all. What’s more, when someone buys a poem off me, they know that money goes to food or coffee or cigarettes or glue sticks or photocopying – not to a mysterious series of ticket clippers called “publishers” or “retailers”. Its transparent – like the way I make the books – you can see the staples and gluesticks, you can watch me stamp out the covers. No fucking mystery here thanks. The world is a mess. Too much pollution, too much waste, too much carbon miles. Readers need something that connects them to these problems but also pushes through. I’ve been publishing since the very first versions of Aldus Pagemaker in 1988, so I know about design aesthetics. I could make books on paper with a woven grain hand-stitched with tastefully coloured waxed thread & hawk them for $15, but instead I give you something that makes you think about a world where reusing materials can connect to expressing our emotions, all for whatever change is in your pocket.
There are downsides to doing things this way. I have a very hard life trying to scrape together enough funds to live each day all through making & selling little books from street benches in whatever town or city. On top of that is the disdain from cultural elites who will not support outsiders, those they see as popularists, or those who they cannot control or exploit. Somewhere along the lines universities hijacked literature from the masses and it’s really a shithole. I reckon readers, people, they want out.
CH: I think a lot of people are familiar with Creatives Commons by now, but tell us a bit about “copyleft”, because I think that one’s a little more underground, appropriately. Why is this an important message for you to send with your work?
DM: My back ground is a practical hard working geek whose baby teeth were cut on digi-hoohah. Hell I used to teach the cultural and political theory of computing, all about open and creative vs locked down and dogmatic ways of doing things. However much you think social media drives stuff, protocols that nobody owned are what made the interweb, but it’s always fighting against companies like Microsoft who want to have a stranglehold on it all. You hear all about net neutrality at the moment, but I’ve been thinking about that since the net first arrived, and I was drawn like a moth to an open flame.
Copyleft is a staunch computer theory / politics stance. It says you can take my work where the source code of the program is transparent and make something better out of it if you want with some acknowledgement in the direction of the original code. It means the wheel doesn’t have to be re-invented every few years. It means no bugs, no backdoors, few viruses etc because the code has been pored over by every pointy headed geek in the world. It means robust software, it means cheap and not expensive computing for the masses in a lot of cases. Linux, when it arrived in the mid-late 90’s rocked my world. It made me aware that capitalist empires will fall by sheer weight of peoples numbers – like how the people of the Philippines got rid of the corrupt Marcos govt at the time by just encircling the presidential palace in their millions. Unix and the Apple BSD version in OSX and Linux have encircled Microsoft, made it an island trying to sandbag a rising tide of open source, copyleft software and failing dramatically. It’ll happen everywhere eventually, and it applies to language and writing and publishing just as much as it does to code and programs.
Anyway. I’m a poet in a small country. Not a Hollywood film studio or a big record label desperately trying to protect their stranglehold on popular culture and maximise the return to shareholders. I’m a small fish in an ocean of sharks who use the copyright hammer to their best advantage. Look. You don’t have to worship at the church of post-modernism to know two-fifths of 2% of fuck all is original. Everything now is borrowed, sampled, decontextualised. Why stop that? I’m not going to lawyer up like Metallica did to stop bit torrents. I want to be bit-torrented! Copyleft means that musicians all around the world are able to use my words and recordings of my poems and make a new body of work from them. I don’t mind. Fuck. I’m honoured and pleased when this happens.