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5 March 2014

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Voyages round his kitchen table

Voyages round his kitchen table

Bob Orr calls me – twice – with afterthoughts. "I'm not very good at interviews," he explains, and his tone is apologetic, as though he’s let me down.

But he’s just thought of something that he wishes he'd said when we spoke: "Poetry is where language goes to reinvigorate itself and that’s what keeps inspiring me."

No apology is required, of course. We all have staircase thoughts. But for Bob (I'm buggered if I'll call him Orr; it smells too much of the boarding school we both went to) afterthought is a tool of the trade. His poems are what’s left after he has pounded out draft after draft at the kitchen table of his small flat in Westmere.

I was one of more than 100 who recently crammed into the Grey Lynn Library for the launch of his eighth collection of poetry, Odysseus in Woolloomooloo. It was, as publisher Roger Steele later mentioned, "a riot". Bob read a couple of pieces standing on a chair; people bellowed "Encore!".

The crowd, crammed with poets, was full of faces I hadn't seen since the 60s, which was when I first met Bob. They were there to salute a man whose kindliness and self-effacement touches all who meet him. And they were there to drink in the new work of a wordsmith who for almost 50 years has been creating lyric poetry dense with meaning yet devoid of pretension, utterly accessible yet layered with metaphor that makes the words echo on the page.

Here’s an ant, walking across [a map of] Mexico: "As I've said/ hombre / this road is strange." Here’s a Pasifika woman, holding a watermelon: "Behind one ear a pink hibiscus / Listens to the South Pacific."

I tried to set up a chat, but he said he was off to his bach in the Coromandel bush, perhaps to recover from this unaccustomed exposure. It’s several weeks before we finally sit down at that kitchen table to talk.

No indigent artist, Bob has spent 32 years working at the port. He drives the pilot boat now. He was off work the day I went down to ride that boat, but I noticed how fondly the blokey others spoke of the poet in their midst. He reckons he’s the oldest there now, 65 in May and "still clinging on like an oyster".

"There’s no way you make a living as a poet," he says. "I do it because it puts me in touch with the world. Not people, really – I've no idea who reads it – but it’s language, connecting with language."

Poetry was the earliest form of shared remembering, he reminds me, and people who never read it still have recourse to it at funerals and weddings. It taps into a need. Advertisers know this. I once read a comment that "Sunkist", an orange brand, was "a conceit worthy of Shakespeare".

"Yes," says Bob, "you can imagine Lorca using that. It would be hard to think of a more concise and sensual way of describing an orange. Obviously the sun can't really kiss an orange; that’s preposterous. But with a leap of imagination, it’s entirely credible."

Bob loves John Keats who said that poetry needed to come "as naturally as leaves to a tree" but his particular brand of effortlessness is hard-won.

"There are some in this collection that I've revised 30 or 40 times, some more. It gives an illusion of spontaneity but it’s hard work."

That hard work can consist of two or three hours on his midweek days off when he has the house to himself. He may have jotted an idea or two down on a piece of paper, but the hard work is done with one finger, on a typewriter.

"It’s a strange process, really. It’s impossible to understand. It’s like following the scent of something: you get thrown off the scent and then you come back."

For a man whose work is littered with the names of exotic places – Jerusalem, Bali, Afghanistan, Valparaiso – he is remarkably little-travelled. He’s always been too busy working, he says, raising three kids – now all grown – but in any case, all his voyaging has been poetic.

"It’s an act of discovery. Sometimes it’s better not to go physically. I've heard so many stories of people who had lifelong ambitions to go to certain places, and when they got there, it was a terrible disappointment."