Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Stepping into Poetry at Auckland Central

The Auckland Central Public Library has brought
down a barrier to the outside world, replacing
a low concrete wall with steps — and words
by poet Robert Sullivan.
A poem this post: a new Robert Sullivan poem has been published in a different way from the many poetry books Robert has written and edited — it’s now engraved on the new set of steps leading to and from the Central Public Library in Lorne Street.

These expansive steps, bringing a new sense of light and openness to the front of the library (and a new challenge for skateboarders), lead down to a “Shared Space”, part of a new Auckland initiative for selected streets. Shared Space involves “removing the traditional distinction between footpath and road so vehicles and pedestrians can share the space”. Sounds dodgy to me!

The idea is that city streets and open spaces will become “vibrant, people-friendly urban destinations”. So far three Central Business District streets have had the “Shared Space” treatment, together with New Lynn’s Totara Avenue West and, from what I’ve seen, part of the new Wynyard Quarter downtown. I’ll bet it’s all been scheduled to help prettify the city for the World Cup Ruby, as a brochure I picked up in town calls the large football tournament that’s now on around New Zealand.

If I’m dubious about just how sharing and caring cars and their drivers might become in central Auckland, I have no such reservations about poetry or about Robert’s carefully chosen words. They celebrate the relationship between the public library, the city and its people, chiming beautifully (if I may say so) with the objectives of A Latitude of Libraries. 

Here’s the poem. Robert has kindly given permission for me to reproduce it, with a Maori translation by Bob Newson. You can right-click on it to see larger text:

I like it that Robert Sullivan (Ngapuhi, Kai Tahu) teaches in another part of Auckland, at Manukau Institute of Technology: his involvement in the library steps initiative seems to me to bring the south into Auckland’s centre. It’s appropriate, too, that he used to work as a librarian in the Auckland Central Library. Here’s what Robert says about the poem, in a Manukau Courier video about the steps project:

“You can tell I’m very positive about libraries. I think they’re fabulous institutions of memory and they really help people carry their stories through all the different aspects of their lives.

“I actually built in a lot of references with the help of librarians. So for instance the original name of the hill where Albert Park sits is called Rangipuke, which means Sky Hill; and yes there’s the Wai Horotiu or the Horotiu Stream which chuckles down Queen Street but underneath now, and lots of references to well-loved buildings in the area such as the St James Theatre, art galleries and some more odd ones which I dug up again with the help of librarians, such as Odd Fellows Hall.”

On an Auckland Libraries news page, Robert says that Kawe Reo / Voices Carry “stands for the many voices within the library.... Reo can mean ‘the Maori language’ and also ‘voice’. Voice is part of the library’s ethos which contains information in a wide variety of formats. I also like the fact that reo or voice contains the idea of breath and life-force.”

It’s wonderful to learn, thanks to Robert’s poem, the original name for the waterway that Queen Street now covers — a name that I’ve since discovered relates to the Maori pa at what we now call Albert Park. (Central Auckland also had Horotiu Bay, now more widely known as Commercial Bay and much changed.) I’d heard of Te Wai Horotiu only as the Ligar Canal, so named after Charles Whybrow Ligar, the surveyor-general who had an unspectacular career in mid-nineteenth-century New Zealand. Under European settlement the canal was said to be filthy: “an infamous open drain”, according to Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. I’m glad Kawe Reo / Voices Carry has restored it to health.

There’s more to come at the approach to the library in Lorne Street: a piece of street furniture is to be installed, featuring a word selected by Robert Sullivan — Reo — in metre-high letters. And wouldn’t it be great to see the sombre, sleeping St James Theatre, described by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as “one of the best-preserved vaudeville theatres in the country”, again became a vital, vibrant place, like the library opposite?

Note: Kawe Reo / Voices Carry is copyright. Permission must be sought before it is reproduced.

More links of interest:
The New Zealand Book Council entry for Robert Sullivan
An old
Auckland City Council timeline giving a history of Queen Street which ends, mysteriously, in 2003 with a horse-drawn carriage transporting the then Mayor John Banks along it.
A New Zealand Herald opinion piece this month about the new draft plan for central Auckland, including mention of the St James and Shared Space.

An earlier New Zealand Herald news story about the St James
Auckland Libraries blog post on launching 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry at the Central library. (Declaration of interest: I edited the book.)
The blog for the School of Creative Writing at MIT. Poet Robert Sullivan heads the school.


  1. Did Robert say why he close to use the "Paterson's Stables" bit, instead of Crowther's Stables, which was actually right there where his poem is for around 30 years in the 19th century?

  2. Good question, Lisa! No, he didn’t, and I’m sorry I missed your interesting post & good photos. Crowther’s Stables would clearly have been very appropriate because of that particular spot, but there are a couple of reasons I can think of. One is that he is considering the wider community and its interactions with that space, ie beyond where the steps are, and another... well, I have to say that the rhythm of “Paterson’s Stables” goes beautifully with “Odd Fellows Hall”, which follows. Soundwise, it’s much more pleasing. The way the syllables fall, I think, all suggests the “chuckling” of the stream. (Of course poems are open to endless interpretation. That’s mine.)

  3. I love the history embedded in this poem. Great to see words beneath our feet.

  4. The new shared space outside the Library makes it possible to look at the Library building and notice what a lovely building it is. In fact that whole area appears quite different from the scrunched up look it used to have. Robert's poem is lovely too,though the steps are slightly hazardous, but it all it leads one on to gasp at the new Art Gallery extension (although I still mourn for the old entrance and waterfall).

  5. i was really pleased to find in the library [having negotiated the steps AND the skateboarders] a free postcard of the poem available: it has robert's poem in the top right, the te reo version bottom left, & 4 photos showing different aspects of the steps/poem, stepped down from top left to bottom right;

    the reverse [message, address] side actually has little room for a message, as there is also a substantial [3 paras] piece of information about the poem & the public art works - which is fine, i think they've done a really great job