Poet, editor and painter Gregory O’Brien is one of New Zealand’s most prolific contributors to both arts and literature. His poems and short stories are widely anthologised, and he has published several acclaimed volumes of poetry. O’Brien’s writing often ‘incorporates elements of personal, public and religious history, graphically portrayed in his paintings and drawings, many of which illuminate his books.’ His works of non-fiction, particularly those directed at young readers, are highly regarded and have received major awards.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
O’Brien, Gregory (1961– ), is a poet, painter and editor.
Born in Matamata, he trained as a journalist in Auckland and worked as a newspaper reporter in Northland before returning to study art history and English at Auckland University (BA 1984). Apart from two years working as arts editor of the TV3 arts programme ‘The Edge’ (1993–94), he has written and painted full-time since 1984, first in Auckland, then in Wellington, where he still lives. He held the Sargeson Fellowship in 1988 and was writing fellow at Victoria University in 1995.
O’Brien’s literary output is prolific. His poems have appeared regularly in most New Zealand literary journals (including Islands, Landfall and Sport) since the mid-1980s, and in Australia (Meanjin, Scripsi), Canada and Britain. His first major collection of poems and drawings, Location of the Least Person (opening with the ‘Old Man South Road’ sequence), was published in Auckland in 1987, followed by the smaller Dunes and Barns (1988). Man with a Child’s Violin (1990) comprised three earlier verse sequences, ‘Flying Wall Cafe’ (1982), ‘Sydney Calm Joe’ (1984) and ‘Entitled’ (1986). His next major collection of recent poems and drawings was Great Lake (Sydney, 1991), followed by Malachi, a charming verse novella (Adelaide, 1993). The collection Days Beside Water, which includes the historical verse sequences ‘Marsden at Matapouri’ and ‘The Milk Horse’ (about Mother Mary Aubert) and the wonderful imagined life of the sixteenth-century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, was published in Auckland in 1993, and in Britain by Carcanet in 1994. Two further collections are in preparation. O’Brien has also published short fiction in New Zealand and Australia, and a picaresque novel with illustrations, Diesel Mystic (1989), which attempts to overlay various heightened emotional, spiritual and imaginative landscapes onto an unassuming stretch of countryside between Dargaville and Ruawai in Northland.
O’Brien’s writing is about other ways of seeing, and has been variously described as ‘surreal’ and ‘magical realist’. It both explores and embodies the mystery of creation present equally in the physical, animate world and in human artistic invention. It draws heavily on the Western cultural heritage, and in particular on the images and sounds of traditional Catholicism, yet fuses these with identifiable local references—to people, especially earlier writers and artists (James K. Baxter is a significant influence), places, objects and events. Highly original, O’Brien’s language is constantly surprising and often witty or poignant in its leaps of association and mood; not least among its many paradoxes is a lyrical quality grounded in the rhythms and vocabulary of ordinary speech.
O’Brien’s unique iconography incorporates elements of personal, public and religious history, graphically portrayed in his paintings and drawings, many of which illuminate his books. As an artist, he has held solo exhibitions and participated in group shows in Auckland and Wellington, and has illustrated the work of other New Zealand writers as well as designing covers.
Among O’Brien’s other work is a collection of interviews with twenty-one New Zealand writers, Moments of Invention (1988, with photographs by Robert Cross), a monograph on the painter Nigel Brown (1991), and a collection of profiles of New Zealand painters, Land and Deeds (1996). He was founder editor of the deliberately short-lived literary quarterly Rambling Jack in 1986–87, and editor of Sport 15 in 1995; Sport 11 included ‘After Bathing at Baxter’s’, an essay/journal describing the influence of Baxter on younger New Zealand poets. With his partner, poet Jenny Bornholdt, he edited a collection of New Zealand love poems, My Heart Goes Swimming (1996), and co-edited, with Bornholdt and Mark Williams, An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (Oxford University Press, 1997).
In 1988, O'Brien was awarded the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship. In 1997, he became the first winner of the Landfall Essay Competition Prize, sponsored by Otago University Press.
An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O'Brien and Mark Williams, received the Montana Poetry Book of the Year award at the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
O'Briens poetry collection Winter I Was was published by Victoria University Press in 1999. Its poems are explorations of arrival and departure. Moving from the celebratory to the elegaic, this book includes a few journeys the length of New Zealand, some mediations on home and a series of love poems. (From cover blurb.)
Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, edited by Gregory O'Brien and Lara Strongman, jointly received (with Michael King) the Montana Award for History and Biography at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance also won Best Typography at the 2002 Spectrum Print Book Design awards.
After Bathing At Baxter's, 2002 is O'Briens personal exploration of some of the important New Zealand poets and painters of the 20th Century, beginning - as the title suggests - with James K. Baxter.
Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People (Auckland University Press, 2004) is a vivid introduction to contemporary New Zealand art and a lesson in how to engage with art. Over 45 artists are discussed and colourfully represented by at least one piece of their work. Welcome to the South Seas won the Non-Fiction Award at the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It was highly commended in the Best Book, Best Cover and Best Typography categories of the 2005 Spectrum Print Book Design Awards. It was also listed as a 2005 Storylines Notable Non-Fiction Book.
Welcome to the South Seas also won The Elsie Locke Award at the 2005 LIANZA Children's Book Awards. The judges said: 'Beautifully designed and presented, Welcome to the South Seas is an outstanding introduction to a great range of New Zealand art and artists. It asks deep philosophical questions about the nature of art in ways that successfully reach young readers; the text is full of insights guiding rather than leading the reader.'
Afternoon of an Evening Train, another poetry collection, was published by Victoria University Press in 2005. Afternoon of an Evening Train won the PANZ Book Design Award for Best in Non-Illustrated.
The Colour of Distance New Zealand Writers in France, French Writers in New Zealand was published in 2005 by Victoria University Press and co-edited by Jenny Bornholdt.
News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore (Victoria University Press, 2007) is a travel book, an autobiographical novel and free-floating meditation on Europe and the Antipodes. It introduces a cast of underwater characters including Jacques Cousteau, the French secret service agent Dominique Prieur, Henri Matisse and the naked river-swimming nineteenth-century nun Mother Aubert. Modernism, the politics of French nuclear testing, swimming, drowning and underwater explosions are twined together with the life of a family in an innovative and engaging exploration by one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers.
A Nest of Singing Birds (Learning Media, 2007) was edited and compiled by O'Brien. It won the Reference and Anthology category at the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Back and Beyond: New Zealand Painting for the Young and Curious (Auckland University Press, 2008) is an introduction to art galleries around the country and the treasures they hold. It is a companion-piece for Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People.Back and Beyond won the Non-Fiction Award at the 2009 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and was listed as a 2009 Storylines Notable Non-Fiction Book.
Big Weather: Poems of Wellington was published by Mallinson Rendel in 2009. This enlarged edition captures the vivacity of the capital, beginning with the inner city and harbour, moving into the suburbs and parks, heading out to Lower Hutt, Porirua, and as far north as Paraparaumu before turning again into the heart of the city.
A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (Auckland University Press, 2011) is an account of artist, designer and illustrator, Graham Percy, one of New Zealand’s highest achieving illustrators. This book rediscovers his life and art, by way of motorbike and hot-air balloon, through sketches and bookshelves, touching on childhood losses and adult nostalgia. Kate De Goldi writes, 'A Micronaut in the Wide World is a little gem: a telescope fixed intently on the singular, driving preoccupations of a wonderful artist’s working life. Inspirational.'
Gregory O'Brien's collection of poems Beauties of the Octagonal Pool was published by Auckland University Press in 2012.
The ACB with Honora Lee, written by Kate De Goldi and illustrated by Gregory O’Brien was published by Random House in 2012. The ACB with Honora Lee was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards in the Junior Fiction category.
His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell by David Craig and Gregory O'Brien, with new photographs by Haruhiko Sameshima was published by Auckland University Press in 2012. Pat Hanly by Gregory O'Brien and Gil Hanly was published by Ron Sang Publications in 2012. Both books were finalists in the Illustrated Non-Fiction category of the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Pat Hanly was announced the category winner.
Gregory O'Brien was awarded the Stout Memorial Fellowship for 2015.
Whale Years was published in 2015 by Auckland University Press and charts the poet's travels through the South Pacific Ocean between 2011 and 2014. O'Brien spoke about the book on Booknotes Unbound, 'Unlike all my other collections of poems to date, Whale Years had a very strong shape in my mind from the outset. It speaks of a sequence of linked and overlapping voyages. While I have written much prose about these voyages, the poems were to be my last and defining word, to plumb the depths of those experiences in the most personal way I had at my disposal.'
O'Brien's introduction to New Zealand photography, See What I can See, was published by Auckland University Press in May 2016. See What I can See was a finalist for the Elsie Locke Non-Fiction Award in the 2016 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Last updated September 2016.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Whale Years: Q&A with Greg O’Brien on Booknotes Unbound
- Gregory O’Brien’s bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File
- Gregory O’Brien in Turbine
- Gregory O’Brien’s work on the Bowen Galleries site
- Gregory O’Brien’s poem Malachi- an Entertainment
Updated January 2017.