Peter Bland is a poet and actor, whose writing commits to an everyday sub-urban sense of reality, often exploiting the framework of the dramatic monologue. He has a distinguished place in New Zealand theatre history as co-founder of Downstage and its artistic director 1964–68. He has worked as a stage and television actor and several of his own plays have been produced. Bland has published a large selection of poetry volumes in New Zealand and the UK and his memoir was released in 2004.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Bland, Peter (1934– ), poet and actor, was in the 1950s–60s associated with James K. Baxter and Louis Johnson as ‘the Wellington Group’, together editing Numbers. Reacting against fashionable nationalistic aspirations, Bland and Johnson insisted that poetry engage with the commonplace suburban reality of most New Zealand lives.
Bland’s early work—Habitual Fevers, in 3 Poets, by Peter Bland, John Boyd and Victor O’Leary (1958), My Side of the Story: Poems 1960–1964 (1964), Domestic Interiors (1964) and The Man With the Carpet-Bag (1972)—established a reductive local social realism of ‘tin butterflies and plaster gnomes, / The home-made garages, the weekend roasts, / The cat’s paws delicate in new-laid concrete’, inverting Utopian- picturesque platitudes of landscape with ‘monotonous’ hills, ‘The lower slopes a useful place for tips’, ‘A man-made beach’, ‘abandoned hoardings’ and ‘vast insurance blocks’. Indignation as well as irony gave vigour to the intonations of these poems, a sympathy perhaps sprung from his working-class northern English origins for the ‘excess / Of spirit burning in too cramped a wilderness’.
Bland’s acute actor’s ear for timing, inflection and the accents of everyday life, brought into his verse the rhythms and diction of the country’s elusive vernacular, in counterpoint with the robust resonance of his native Yorkshire (‘For the rest of your life / there’ll be two sets of voices …’).
He works often in short dramatic monologue, as in the satiric Polynesian persona of ‘Mr. Maui’, which he adopted on his first return to England, or the returned-migrant sequence ‘The Crusoe Factor’: ‘A trip to the dales / gives the soul a glimpse / of lost horizons —but that north-east wind / cuts me to the bone. Friends / once envied for being "back home" / seem suddenly enclosed.’
Collections from this period are Mr. Maui (1976), Primitives (1979), Stone Tents (1981) and The Crusoe Factor (1985). It is a special irony that Bland, at first the poet of the commuter suburb of Lower Hutt, has evolved into the bard of global commuters. His later work focuses on migration and displacement, major twentieth-century themes which he explores with the insight that comes from his own life of frequent remigrations.
Many poems are distant views or conjunctions of disparate images, some of the best being letters to New Zealand friends, such as ‘A Last Note from Menton’, the elegy for Louis Johnson, which won an Arvon Award in England and is the pivot of Paper Boats (1991). It rejects ‘"digging in" / … that old Kiwi regressive thing / disguised as growing roots’, in favour of ‘turn[ing] away from that well-worn path’ to write ‘poems adrift / like paper boats or messages in bottles, / careless of landfall, happy to be themselves’.
The same tensions are evident in Bland’s imagined monologues by early settlers (‘Letters Home— New Zealand 1885’), his poems where migratory movements intersect with time and ageing (‘Let’s Meet’) and his recent vignettes of cross-cultural encounter, set in Europe (‘A Postcard from Barcelona’, ‘At Dawn the Thames is the Ganges in Flood’), or in New Zealand (‘Gauguin in Auckland 1891’).
Bland’s clarity of meaning and realism of reference have always been subverted by his quirky obliqueness of viewpoint, his aphoristic, self-mocking wit and his taste for the surreal, as in several successful poems about children (‘House with Cat or Sun’, ‘Happy Army’). His voice has become increasingly flexible and lyrical, as in Paper Boats or the uncollected ‘A Potential Poem for More than Passing Strangers’.
Bland was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, went to grammar school at Stone, Staffordshire, and after army service moved, in 1954, to New Zealand. There he studied English at Victoria University (1955–59), winning the Macmillan Brown prize for his poetry, and worked in broadcasting, editing the ‘Poetry’ programme, and in theatre. He has a distinguished place in theatre history as co-founder of Downstage and its artistic director 1964–68.
Two of his own plays were produced, ‘Father’s Day’ (Wellington, 1967) and ‘George the Mad Ad Man’ (Wellington, 1967, and Coventry, England, 1969). Returning then to England, he continued to work primarily as a stage and TV actor, achieving notoriety as a Spanish butler in TV commercials, and some fame in New Zealand for his inspired comic performance in the film of Came a Hot Friday.
He wrote frequently for London Magazine, which published three of his collections. His New Zealand publishers have been Mate, Wai-te-ata, Caxton and McIndoe, which published his Selected Poems in 1987. A subsequent Selected Poems was published in the UK in 1998. In 1985 Bland moved back to New Zealand for four years, and now lives at Putney, near London.
Two books of poetry: Let's Meet: poems 1985-2003 and Ports of Call were published in 2003.
The Night Kite: Poems for Children (Mallinson Rendel) was published in 2004. It is a quirky and imaginative collection of poems in which Bland uses evocative language to describe the natural world. His blend of fine detail and wry humour enable his work to be enjoyed by both children and adults.
Bland's memoir, Sorry, I'm a Stranger Here Myself was also published in 2004.
The Night Kite was a finalist in the picture book category at the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It won Best Use of Illustration at the 2005 Spectrum Print Book Design Awards, and was listed as a 2005 Storylines Notable Picture Book.
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Updated January 2017.