I was born in a place called Oamaru, New Zealand. For the first few years of my life, my family lived in a house built by my dad, who was a carpenter. During that time, a new brother and two new sisters gate-crashed the party.
Then until I was 19, we lived on a very steep hill at 15 Till Street, Oamaru. We had a large front lawn which was our practise pitch for rugby and cricket. We also had a large lounge window which had its own magnetic field for rugby and cricket balls. Team members kept arriving at regular intervals, finally reaching a total of three boys and five girls.
I went to a Catholic primary school called St Joseph’s, where the principal and many of the teachers were Dominican nuns, cheekily nicknamed ‘penguins’. I remember at this age feeling the thrill of crafting poems and seeing them in print in class collections.
I was brought up by my mum and dad. My dad was a builder, apart from a few years when the economy slumped and he took a job at the local freezing works. My mum trained and worked as a dental nurse before she married, then became a full time, at-home mother. She had a keen ear for the music of language and encouraged my participation in speech contests and productions, where I experienced my first taste of performing for an audience.
My parents were very dedicated with a strong family focus. And many of their friends also raised large, bustling families. Our next door neighbours had nine children, so eventually we took out a section of the fence and allowed the kids to roam freely between the two households. My parents support for Catholic education included fund-raising events, which they organised and attended with enthusiasm. I recall one fancy dress night, drawing a big, twirly, Mexican moustache on dad with mum’s eyebrow pencil!
Dad had a well-developed sense of humour, often teasing us or entertaining us with pure silliness – like slipping out his false teeth at birthday parties and terrorising our friends with a gummy monologue. Mum embraced laughter too, especially in her love of words and wit. Any large family tends to have its natural comedians, and ours was no exception. In the line-up of eight siblings, we had a couple of brilliant impersonators, a couple of stand-up comics and a variety of more understated, amusing commentators.
When I was 11, I attended St Kevin’s College, with thoughts of possibly becoming an architect, a priest, a lawyer, a writer, or a teacher. After leaving school, I worked at the freezing works for a season to save enough money for a car and headed to Wellington for two exciting years of drama involvement and street theatre.
Fast forward to 1987, when I was again in the capital to attend Wellington College of Education, majoring in English and Art. After graduating as a primary teacher in 1989, I taught in Wellington for three years until my dad developed terminal bone cancer. My parents and siblings were all living permanently in Christchurch, so I moved there to be close to dad during his illness.
In 1995 I moved to the beautiful West Coast, teaching first as an art specialist for three years and later as a classroom teacher. During my teaching career, I was always an admirer of the School Journal (New Zealand’s iconic publication for schools). So after many years of reading the work of other writers, I sent away a submission of ten poems. Three months later, I was leaping around to the news that one of my own poems had been accepted for publication.
I sent a second set of poems, and was elated to have a second poem accepted. Two out of two. So I made a pledge to myself that if the School Journal accepted three out of three, I would write an original poetry show and perform it for local schools. I sent my third batch and crossed my fingers, crossed my toes, crossed my eyes. And a few months later received acknowledgment of my third successful School Journal poem.
This had to be more than a fluke. By now I was feeling like the real deal: a true poet. I sent my fourth set of poems. And blow me down, four out of four. Amazing. Remarkable. Thrilling.
I was on a roll. In 2008 I wrote more than one hundred poems for kids and took a Poetry Roadshow on a tour of local schools (with grant support from Creative New Zealand). Under the auspices of WestREAP, I delivered eight one-day Performance Poetry workshops – and to my delight, the students had heaps of fun and demanded more. In 2009 I had ’My Grandad’s Hands’ and ‘How to Swim a Length Underwater’ accepted for publication, led more workshops, performed at schools, performed at an Arts Festival, performed at a Surf Contest, taught poetry to hundreds of children, and wrote a one-hour show about computers, cellphones, email, and txting, called The Interactive Poetry Show.
For me, it would be impossible to overstate the thrill of creating, presenting and promoting poetry. Today I had the opportunity to tutor a workshop of Year 7 and Year 8 students. While they wrote, I wrote. Then we all shared the results. Their poems were by turns funny, clever, insightful, and dramatic. These young writers are a constant inspiration. And I’m grateful to say that writing and performing poems alongside them is both my privilege and my passion.