Tributes to John O’Connor 1949-2015

By Sandra Simpson

The well-known Christchurch editor and poet (both long-form, and haiku and renku) died at home on May 12. In accordance with John’s wishes a private funeral has been held. He is survived by his wife, Sandra, and sister Jill Dodson. John passed away due to a sudden, and unsurvivable, medical event in the early hours of the morning.

Sandra O’Connor has been kind enough to provide a few details of John’s life for publication here.

He had always loved poetry, even as a child, though when he left school he went to work for an auto-electrician, a job he hated, Sandra said. However, he credits his dislike with motivating him to go to night school to get his University Entrance so he could attend Canterbury University where he gained a degree in political science before going to teacher training college. John taught for many years and then swapped the classroom for a taxi cab and spent the rest of his working life as a taxi driver. He retired from part-time work at the beginning of 2015.

The couple had recently moved within Christchurch, something they had wanted to do since the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. “He’d just about got his study completed,” Sandra says. “It had taken him months, weeks, days and hours – and much sorting and re-sorting to get his books how he wanted them.” John’s sister is taking care of his literary estate and both she and Sandra have had strict instructions not to throw things out. “He was a lot of fun,” Sandra says, “and a lot of worry too. His death has been such a shock.”

I spoke to John just a few days before his death. When I commented on how well he was sounding, he agreed that, yes, he was in a good place health-wise. John was a major help in my preparation of the history of haiku in New Zealand, offering information, advice and reading the manuscript.

John was, along with the late Ruth Dallas, one of the first in New Zealand to write haiku seriously, developing his interest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He recalled last year that he was likely to have written his first haiku in 1973 but that it was “tossed away” and the form not looked at again until 1978/79. “I believe I was the first person in New Zealand to write a number of good haiku,” he said at the time.

garage sale –
in the dressing-table mirror
a stranger’s face

– John O’Connor, published in Parts of the moon, selected haiku & senryu 1988-2007 (Post Pressed, Australia, 2007)

John won both the Haiku and Open sections of the New Zealand Poetry Society competition in 2006 and judged the Haiku section in 2014. He was co-winner of the Haiku competition in 1998. In 2011 he published Bright the Harvest Moon, “haiku and renga imitations”, which includes typographical symbols and typefaces to pay homage to the Japanese masters of earlier times. I understand that at time of his death he was working on a collection of tanka.

He founded poetry magazine plainwraps in 1989 and was an occasional editor of other publications including the journal Takahe and the NZPS annual anthology. He was co-founder of Sudden Valley Press and Poets Group, for a time was co-editor of the Canterbury Poets Combined Presses, served 12 years on the committee of the Canterbury Poets Collective, including 5 years as chairman. His long-form poetry and haiku were both published widely – and his haiku have been translated into eight languages. In 2001 he received a Museum of Haiku Literature award (Tokyo) for:

dusk –
up to my ears
in birdsong

for JK

which had appeared in a special international edition of Frogpond 24.1 (2000), the journal of the Haiku Society of America. John had three haiku engraved on boulders on the Katikati Haiku Pathway.

Please go to John’s Showcase page to read some more of his haiku. And read some of his long-form poetry here. Hear a 2013 National Radio interview with John here (8 minutes, 3 seconds).

After the
taking our leave
without sadness

– John O’Connor, after Hokushi, published in Bright the Harvest Moon

Tributes to John

It is hard to say anything in a few words about John, whom I worked closely with for years, as he, David Gregory and I were editors of Sudden Valley Press. As well as being a foundation person of New Zealand haiku, he was a stalwart of the Canterbury poetry scene, but always behind the scenes. He put in huge amounts of energy into everything he did. I personally found him very supportive to me as a poet.

Barbara Strang (Christchurch, NZ)

John was a big name in haiku when I started out, and an inspiration. I’m using my take on honkadori by including a title of a book or a couple of lines from a poem by John (honkadori 本歌取り is an allusion within a poem to an older poem).

parts of the moon
I meet another man
who owns it

– Alan Summers, who notes that the first line is from the title of John’s 2007 collection Parts of the Moon

stars fail to break
as long as the sand
& moonlight

– Alan Summers, who notes that the last two lines are from John’s poem Mother & Child (Tiny Gaps, NZPS, 2003)

He was so young by any standards, general standards, and by our standards as poets. He did so much, and would have been a magnificent elder in haiku, worldwide as well as for New Zealand.

Alan Summers (Bristol, UK)

I met John at the taste of nashi launch in Christchurch in 2008 and although we had already met via letters (he famously didn’t do e-mail or have an internet connection), I felt shy in the presence of someone so in command of his art. However, he never treated me as a ‘student’, only as an equal and I thank him for that.

We had a cup of tea together in February 2014, talking about all sorts of haiku-related matters and generally having a lovely time. He then took me out to his car, opened the boot and suggested I borrow a box of books. As I had travelled to Christchurch by air, a box wasn’t an option, but he pressed several on me to take home and read then post back. When I got home I posted him a couple of mine that I thought he might be interested in and we swapped backwards and forwards for a good half-year, his return parcel always containing pithy comments about the volume enclosed. A couple of weeks ago John asked me to do him a favour (using email). Last year he’d said that when he moved, he would definitely begin using email so – as he had recently moved – I teased him about that and we both had a good laugh …

John, I will miss your kindness , your insights and your friendship.

Sandra Simpson (Tauranga, NZ)

I don’t think I’d have made it as far as I have into haiku and tanka without John’s consistent and constructive support. He was always honest, even acerbically so, as a colleague and instructor may have to be. We first came into contact in the 1980s, when I contributed to his fine small magazine, plainwraps. We met twice, in 1990 and 2008, but have been in more or less regular contact by mail or phone for over 25 years. My 2002 book Human Scale owes everything to his able editorship for Sudden Valley Press. He was roughly a year younger than I am, so certainly should not have left us this soon. His poetry will live, as will the positive influence of his generosity to others. Love and thoughts with his wife Sandra at this time.

an old friend
carries the light
in front of us

– Tony Beyer

– Tony Beyer (New Plymouth, NZ)

We butted heads quite often, but he was very good to me, and I liked and respected him greatly. His importance to haiku in Canterbury cannot be overstated. First Helen Bascand, and now John. The Canterbury poetry community is reeling.

Joanna Preston (Christchurch, NZ)

I never met John, but we corresponded by snail mail for a while. I have the deepest respect for him and his work.

Vanessa Proctor (Sydney, Australia)

John was a huge influence when I first got interested in haiku, along with Cyril Childs and the ever-present Ernie Berry…. sadly missed.

Tony Chad (Wellington, NZ)

I remember John not only for his pioneering role in haiku in New Zealand but also for his integrity, independence and willingness to experiment with haiku presentation. And for haiku like this:

turning the light

Nola Borrell (Wellington, NZ)

I am very sorry to hear of John’s passing. When I edited the first issue of winterSPIN in July 1995 the person I most wanted to hear from was John O’Connor. John’s opinion was very important to me. John contributed a very informative essay, Beyond Masks and Pretenders, which is just as worthwhile reading today, twenty years later, as it was then. John was a very gifted writer of both haiku and mainstream poetry. His contributions and support of haiku will be greatly missed. He was a genuine haiku trail-blazer.

Catherine Mair (Katikati, NZ)

I never had the honour to meet John but his haiku and senryu struck a resonance with me. Parts of the Moon is one of my favourite haiku collections. He will be sadly missed by the haiku community but his words will live on.

Sue Courtney (Auckland, NZ)

I, an NZPS member from Japan, would like to express my sincere condolences. Although I have not had the honour of meeting Mr O’Connor since I became a member about 20 years ago, I learned a lot from him through reading his haiku, senryu and other work. I believe he contributed greatly to the New Zealand haiku society. May his soul rest in peace!

Kenichi Ikemoto (Tokyo, Japan)

Like all of you, I was shocked and saddened to hear that recently John had died so suddenly, and far too early. I certainly didn’t know him as well as many of you, but I would like to add a small story to the many others that will be gathered in his memory.

The first time I visited New Zealand was in 2000, and among the many very kind people I was able to spend time with was John. It was not John’s way, I gather, to attend a lot of meetings or celebrations, but he did seem to have a willingness to engage with poets one to one. I was one of those lucky ones.

During my visit to the South Island, John took a couple days from his life to be sure that I got an appreciation of the larger poetic and natural life of New Zealand. We visited literary landmarks, like the site of Caxton Press, and to this day I can recite The Magpies by heart, courtesy of John. We also travelled out into the countryside, for the natural beauty, and to visit Denis Glover’s (far from accessible) burial site. I recognised that these were acts of generosity on John’s part, but also acts of communing with his kindred spirits, opportunities to reconnect with his poetic roots. Much of my circumnavigation, which included visits to 11 countries, took exactly this form: I was honoured to be the catalyst for poets in many places to do something they had been meaning to do, and now had just the excuse. John gave me an experience of the South Island similar to that which another of your gentle poets provided me on the North: Cyril Childs spent a week camping with me, and I think I was able to come to know something of the best of New Zealanders through my encounters with these two men.

I expect it will be with John as it is for many of us, that our poetic legacy is our best foot forward, distilling the energy that most moves through us, shaping and refining it through the filter of our person, and offering it back to the universe. It was my good fortune to have had some small taste of this from John, which you have all come to know in much greater detail. My condolences to all those who loved him.

Jim Kacian (Virginia, US)

I always enjoyed meeting up with John over the years to discuss poetry, Zen and other matters. He was a great haiku practitioner and a comrade-in-arms. I shall miss him.

an Irish dragon
beyond the waves

– Richard von Sturmer

Richard von Sturmer (Auckland, NZ)

Each of us lives a life of special interest and value, and each of us is a unique human being, with our own gifts. John O’Connor was one of those people whose special gift was writing haiku and encouraging writers either by phone or letter to perfect their work. John was a friend, who published my work in his magazine plainwraps when I first began writing poetry many years ago. He phoned me on a regular basis to talk about haiku, writing and publishing. The last time I heard from him was only a couple of weeks ago. He sounded cheerful and we discussed a book he was working on and one I’d just published, of which I sent him a copy. The following haiku was inscribed on a boulder on the Katikati Haiku Pathway and is one of my favourite of John’s poems:

            across water – parts
                    of the sun

Patricia Prime (Auckland, NZ)

It was with great sadness that I learnt of John O’Connor’s death. John has been a pioneer for those of us who’ve come after into the art of poetry, and in particular haiku, and have learnt and been inspired by his example. Three of John’s haiku are in my personal all-time list:

nothing special the wind shifts a cloud

– John O’Connor

parlour window    a flicker of lace

– John O’Connor

empty carousel –
the ticket booth attendant
combs his hair

– John O’Connor (Parts of the moon, selected haiku & senryu 1988-2007)

I enjoy John’s sense of restraint and delight in the ordinary, and I’ve written about his work in essays and reviews. I met John a couple of times on visits to Christchurch and we used to correspond and exchange books. When he told me about his volume Bright the Harvest Moon, a set of fond parodies of haiku masters, it sounded a little ad hoc, but it’s a tremendously focused and convincing collection. Each volume of his work, in fact, has a clear character, engaging but challenging.

I’ve always been intrigued to read the poetry that stemmed from his occupation as a cab driver, as the work seemed so eminently suited to a student of life’s strange moments. I’ve written these haiku in tribute to John, imagining my way into one of the spaces he occupied.

from his taxi cab
the loneliness
of the night

taxi cab
the clock

Owen Bullock (Canberra, Australia)

I too met John at the taste of nashi launch in Christchurch in 2008. Fairly new to haiku, I was not aware then of John’s contribution to the poetry of New Zealand, but have since read many of his poems, both long form, haiku and renku, and admire his mastery of language. I understand that he went through a period when he believed he had no more to give to haiku, and certainly of the first three editions of Kokako that I co-edited there were no submissions from John. Then with issue 20 to the latest issue, 23, his submissions came in. John had returned to haiku. His death is a great loss to the New Zealand haiku community, a small community where every haiku writer is treasured. In issue 23 of Kokako this haiku of John’s was published:

my father’s
mandolin –

So much said in four words. John’s presence in our community will be truly missed.

Margaret Beverland (Katikati, NZ)

I first got to know John around fifteen years ago when I was editing the NZPS newsletter and we corresponded at length. I found him very supportive, indeed a great help both in telling me about happenings down South and in giving me valuable advice as to what the society should be doing. Later we kept in touch and I had a sense of happy anticipation when a letter came addressed in his distinctive hand – or, even better, a small parcel with his latest volume of poems. He was a good friend whose poetry I shall continue to read, be provoked by and enjoy; but I shall miss those letters and the chance to meet up with him again.

Kerry Popplewell (Wellington, NZ)

Hearing of John O’Connor’s death is like losing a band member, one of those rare collaborators that gets your jokes, your lyrics, your individual rhythm and idiosyncrasies and plays along with you for the love of the jam. John was the first real editor of my poetry from 1996-2010 and featured me in Spin, March 1997. We had a mutual respect that never left. I was delighted to have published his last two books through HeadworX: Whistling in the Dark and Aspects of Reality. I will write something longer on him for the Poetry Archive newsletter. In the meantime, a haiku for John, from my collection Trespassing in Dionysia (Original Books, 2008), which picks up on John’s insightful and original nature:

in John’s poem –
a side-valley

for John O’Connor

John said he’d souvenir it! Sad we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, John will be missed by many New Zealand poets who he helped and supported over the years.

Mark Pirie (Wellington, NZ)

Like so many others in New Zealand, I met John in person only a couple of times, but considered him a friend through his correspondence, phone calls and occasional gifts of his latest book. He was nothing but supportive of my initially amateur editorship of a fine line, and regularly contributed enlightening articles. We shared an interest in rugby that only saw the light of day when the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes, and which led to claims that he didn’t follow the rugby anyway when, by some fluke, the Hurricanes won. His voice has long been an integral part of our poetic landscape and heritage, and we are all the poorer for its silencing.

Laurice Gilbert (Wellington, NZ)

I was fortunate to meet John in Christchurch,at the launch of the taste of nashi, one of my favourite haiku anthologies. Re-reading his work, I am struck again by the way in which he captures sound and scent, in poems so brief their resonance surprises. I particularly admire his skill with senryu that amuse, or strike deeper:

by the piecart             

before the execution …
a guard checks
his tie

– both John O’Connor

Today I took his book away from my busy office and down to our deserted beachside cafe.

pouring rain –
snug in the empty café
with ‘Parts of the moon’

– Beverley George

Beverley George (Pearl Beach, NSW, Australia)

I didn’t know John well but looked up to him as one of New Zealand’s leading lights in the world of haiku, one of the stars in the southern cross.

Andre Surridge (Hamilton, NZ)