10 Questions with Jan Kemp


Q1: Your Waikato childhood must have seemed so far away and so long ago when you sat down to write about it in Germany. How hard was it to tap into your memories and begin to describe it?

I actually wrote the Miss Morrinsville Junior 1959 and Hamilton sequences quite a few years ago — the latter requested by and included in Alan Brunton’s Landfall 180 Dec 1991 issue ‘Hamilton Hometown’, as it was where both he and Murray Edmond, Bob Orr, myself and others who became writers were born or grew up. When Covid hit us all early in 2020 I thought, now’s the time to get back to it and finish it at last! So, daily I’d turn myself inside out like an octopus and follow up one tentacle of memory or another. Hard to do, not because I’m in Germany (though that gives a further feeling of distance), as it’s memory you’re entering and that travels with you wherever you are; but because once you’re writing, you’re in it — the past — I see the memories in my head and try to ‘get them down’. The hard thing is turning yourself back out of the tentacle again and re-surfacing into the present. There is a certain nostalgia to this — many of the people I was writing about have since died; they no longer exist as they did. Over and over you realise the past is gone — there is only now. Perhaps your imagined future. And your memories of ‘then’. And this can be quite moving. So, it takes hours to let that go each day, so that you can continue writing on the next.

Q2: It was idyllic and innocent yet throughout your recounting of it there is a background hum of  unease, perhaps anxiety — the anxiety of a bright child who suspects that all might not be as it seems and that the world can be an unjust place. Is that the child you were?

Perhaps, though it was a very stable and booming time — the fifties, so I think any anxiety was more familial than societal. I was always fearful of my father’s sternness, peremptoriness. It took me years to understand him, though at last I did. Also, I thought I was plump and unattractive, so a personal insecurity. And at the same time, I wanted to please, to keep the peace, to be liked and accepted. And to discover for myself. And, of course, then you bump into little injustices and start to see into the gaps between seemingly stable things.

Q3: Is that small-town New Zealand a place you miss?

Not at all. But I’m so grateful I knew it. I now live in Kronberg im Taunus — Kronberg in the Taunus (a hilly wooded area), a town outside the city of Frankfurt am Main — which in turn is a bit smaller than Auckland. And I sometimes think, in a way I’ve come ‘home’ again — everything is within reach. I can walk everywhere, which is a joy. Or I can go on my bicycle — though here it’s rather too hilly.

Q4: Your parents were loving and kind, and in some respects family life was so stable as to be unremarkable. Yet when they moved to Auckland they got involved with the School of Philosophy — fairly esoteric stuff. What were they looking for do you think?

It was rather my mother doing the seeking. Dad was much more practically minded. He only tagged along to the School of Philosophy and had fun charming people. But he was generous in seeing she needed it for her own psyche. She read books like The Cloud of Unknowing and Autobiography of a Yogi — and with her friend Phillida discussed transcendental ideas. Joan’s link to the School came through her brother David and his rather esoterically minded wife, Margaret Hooton. I think Mum always had a longing for books, music, history and was not as bold as I was (!) so supported me in living out some of her own dreams.

Q5: Your family settled in Howick — back then a village on the outer edge of Auckland. How would you describe living there then?

Loved it! A wonderful place to grow up in — Howick-by-the-sea!! Mellons Bay Beach just below us to swim at and walk along or Howick Beach, Cockle Bay or Eastern Beach to go to. And with those hilly ridges like Bleakhouse Road — and some history in Stockade Hill, All Saints Church, not to forget that the open fields of the pony club and further afield Whitford and the polo ground at Clevedon were within easy reach.

Q6: Coming into Auckland to go to university must have been such a shock. Was it a relief?

Yes, a shock but an exciting one — you were discovering ‘life’ beyond the comfort zone of ‘home’. A relief in the sense that you had to take decisions on your own, were no longer beholden to your parents’ wishes. You were free. But my father had encouraged that — giving us the freedom to look at the world through our own eyes. Perhaps because he knew from his own life how important that is. My mother always gave her support and kind advice.

Q7: You threw yourself into 1970s student life — plenty of sex and drugs. But were you too careful to be truly reckless?

Quite right! I had the advice of both my Anglican upbringing and mother’s ‘save it for marriage, darling’ as well as the School of Philosophy — ‘achieve enlightenment through your own efforts, through meditation’ etc. Also, in the back of my mind I still thought perhaps I should have become the ‘twinset and pearls daughter’ I imagined Dad wanted.

Q8: How exciting was it being a student then?

Very. In the sense of having your mind opened to poems, ideas, stories, images you’d never dreamt of — having great teachers who could talk on and on about their subjects and wanted to share their knowledge with you. I couldn’t talk like that, but I could listen and soak it all up. And there were all the other students and the whole atmosphere of that life — though it was also very lonely and saddening at times. The squalor of student flatting, the making ends meet on very little, the wondering if you’d ever escape from that gully (Grafton Gully). The feeling of being exposed if you’d written and published a poem — as if the world could see straight through you to the other side. But I had to do it, for the sake of the poem.

Q9: A memoir is no easy thing to write. After all, it’s not just about you; other people are in it too and there are sensitivities. How difficult was that to handle?

Very difficult. Above all, I hope I haven’t offended or hurt anyone, but perhaps portrayed some truth of the time, that readers might hopefully identify with. I hoped in showing my own vulnerabilities, it would be okay to show others as I knew/experienced them. They can write about me now!

Q10: What would the Jan Kemp of today say to that 20-something Jan Kemp if you could meet her now?

‘Oh, you silly girl! Why were you so brazen, so determined to taste ‘‘experience’’ and to become a poet?!’ Answer: because that was the only thing I thought I could do. I thought that was why I was born. Okay then, good for you. At least some people did now and then say . . . I so loved your poem . . . and they’d name the poem. Made it all worth it!