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Ian Wedde is a poet, novelist and critic. His work as an art critic in particular led him to curate a number of key exhibitions and work as the head of art and visual culture at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa from 1994 until 2004. His poems appear in numerous journals and anthologies, and in over 13 poetry collections. He has also written several novels and books of essays. He was editor of the 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, co-edited with Harvey McQueen. He was awarded an Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2006, and he was the 2011-2013 Poet Laureate for New Zealand.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Wedde, Ian (1946– ), poet, fiction writer and critic, was born in Blenheim and lived there until the age of 7 when he travelled overseas for eight years with his parents, living first in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) then in England, where he attended boarding school. He returned at the age of 15 and went to King’s College and the University of Auckland (MA in English 1968).
From 1966 his poems began appearing regularly in periodicals, including Landfall and Freed. He edited the New Zealand Universities Literary Yearbook in 1968. After graduating he travelled extensively, living for periods in Jordan and, from 1970, England, where he wrote criticism for London Magazine and published a first pamphlet of verse, Homage to Matisse (1971).
He returned to New Zealand as Burns Fellow in 1972, living in Port Chalmers until moving to Wellington in 1975. His first substantial volume of verse, Made Over (1974), collected poems from the years 1967–72, including those written in the Middle East and England. In a note for The Young New Zealand Poets, ed. Arthur Baysting (1973), Wedde wrote: ‘My own instinct is to write longer poems. I tend to quest about like a dog backtracking; crisscrossing a terrain in search of an odour’s source. Most of my poems begin as enquiries of a personal nature, attempts to explain myself to myself. Most of my poems are concerned with how we live, how we should live, and are political in these senses. At the same time I think I seldom tell; I enquire.’
Poems from his Otago sojourn were collected in several books published in quick succession. Pathway to the Sea (1975), a long poem dedicated to the American poet A.R. Ammons and protesting against the planned siting of an aluminium smelter near Aramoana, was included, despite its length (46 nine-line stanzas), in several anthologies. Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos (1975) is a sequence of sixty sonnets spanning the first year of life of his first son. Other poems from this period were collected in Spells for Coming Out (1977), co-winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. Like other poets of his generation, Wedde was especially interested in the experimental tradition in American poetry, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan and John Ashbery being some of the many American voices he attended to.
As well as poetry Wedde also regularly published fiction, influenced in part by the Americans William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. In 1977 he won the Book Award for Fiction for his first novel, Dick Seddon’s Great Dive, which strongly evoked the atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s and which shared many locations and concerns with his poems of that period. It was initially published as complete issue of Islands (16, 1976) and reprinted in The Shirt Factory and Other Stories (1981), which collected stories published through the 1970s. Castaly: Poems 1973–1977 (1980) incorporated the pamphlets Pathway to the Sea and Don’t Listen (1977) and covered the transitional period between Otago and Wellington, encompassing a noticeable shift in tone towards irony and satire.
New poetry volumes appeared regularly though with less frequency after the mid-1980s, namely Tales of Gotham City and Georgicon (both 1984), Driving into the Storm: Selected Poems (1987), Tendering (1988) and The Drummer (1993). Two further novels appeared in the 1980s, Symmes Hole (1986) and Survival Arts (1988), a shorter comic novel. Symmes Hole, one of the most important novels of its decade, is of epic scope, sustaining a prolonged parallel between the nineteenth-century plot which involves the activities of James ‘Worser’ Heberley, an early whaler, and a contemporary plot-line concerning a researcher who is investigating aspects of nineteenth-century New Zealand settlement with a particular focus on the whaling industry. There are many points of connection between the novel and the poems written during the lengthy period of its composition and revision.
Another major undertaking of the mid-1980s was the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (co-edited with Harvey McQueen) which included substantial quantities of Māori poetry both classical and contemporary, and in both Maori and English translation. Wedde’s introduction argued for language grounded in the realities of location as a key defining characteristic of New Zealand poetry. A second anthology, The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, focusing on poetry of the 1980s (for which Miriama Evans joined Wedde and McQueen), followed in 1989. Between 1983 and 1990 Wedde was art critic for the Evening Post in Wellington, a position which led to a progressive reorientation of his career towards the visual arts. He curated several exhibitions which were accompanied by book-length catalogues, notably Now See Here! Art, Language and Translation, co-edited with Gregory Burke (1990) and Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them? (1994), for a touring retrospective of Tony Fomison’s work. A large sampling of Wedde’s critical writings was published as How to Be Nowhere: Essays and Texts, 1971–1994 (1995).
In 1994 he became arts projects manager at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. His grants since the Burns include the Writers’ Bursary 1974, the Scholarship in Letters 1980, 1989, and the Victoria University writing fellowship 1984. He was a member of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee 1977–79, and of the Queen Elizabeth II Visual Arts Panel in 1990. Wedde’s literary versatility and significance established him as a leader among the generation of writers born in the immediate post-war period.
Note to the Oxford Companion Entry: Wedde's Te Papa job description is incorrect – Wedde was head of art and visual culture, and for a time of humanities, but not a project manager.
Ian Wedde was awarded the 1972 Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
Dick Seddon's Great Drive won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction at the 1977 New Zealand Book Awards. The following year, he received the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry (which he jointy shared with Bill Manhire) for Spells Coming Out.
The Commonplace Odes (Auckland University Press, 2001) was Wedde's first poetry collection in eight years.
Ralph Hotere: Black Light, of which Wedde was the general editor, received the Montana Award for Illustrative Arts at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Wedde's novella 'Dick Seddon's Great Dive' appears in Nine New Zealand Novellas, edited by Peter Simpson (Reed, 2005). This is a companion volume to the bestselling Seven New Zealand Novellas.
From 1994 to 2004 Wedde worked as a member of the conceptual team charged with developing the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa's radical agenda. Making Ends Meet: Essays & Talks 1992-2004 (Victoria University Press, 2005), provides a running commentary on the pressing cultural issues of that project and those years.
Wedde was the 2005 Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellow. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France. He used the fellowship to write the novel The Viewing Platform and to complete a draft of the novel Chinese Opera, which he had put aside in 1989. Later that year, he released his poetry collection Three Regrets and A Hymn to Beauty (Auckland University Press, 2005).
The novel Wedde wrote during the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, The Viewing Platform, was published by Penguin in 2006 .
Wedde had a poem included in Shards of Silver (Steele Roberts, 2006), a book investigating the interplay between photography and poetry.
Wedde was awarded an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award in 2006.
In 2007, Wedde received a Distinguished Alumni Award from The University of Auckland. These annual awards honour alumni who have made outstanding contributions to their professions, to their communities, and to the nation.
Victoria University Press published Chinese Opera in 2008.
In August 2009, Wedde published a monograph on the artist Bill Culbert, Bill Culbert: Making Light Work (Auckland University Press).
Wedde's fourteenth poetry collection, Good Business, was also published by Auckland University Press in 2009. At the heart of his most recent poetry collection is the sequence "Good Business", which is at once an ode to walking the side streets of central Wellington, and an elegy of the poet's father.
Also in 2009, Wedde was honoured as an Auckland University Writer in Residence, which aims to foster New Zealand writing by providing a full-time opportunity to work in an academic environment.
Ian Wedde was the 2011-2013 Poet Laureate for New Zealand. Wedde was the recipient of the 2013 Creative New Zealand $40,000 Berlin Writer’s Residency.
Wedde's collection of poems The Lifeguard: New Poems 2008–2013 was published by Auckland University Press in 2012. It was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.
Wedde held the 2013/14 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency. His memoir, The Grass Catcher – A Digression About Home (Victoria University Press), was released in 2014.
Ian Wedde received the 2014 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for Poetry.
Last updated: October 2014
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- There is a bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File
- Ian Wedde interviewed by Kevin Ireland on the Cultural Icons site
- Ian Wedde’s Arts Foundation Laureate profile
Updated January 2017.