Critical Introduction

Philip Trusttum: Cover image
[Leicester Kyle: Five Anzac Liturgies (2003)]

Digitising Leicester Kyle:
The Dilemmas of a Literary Executor

When Leicester Kyle fell terminally ill with cancer in 2006, he asked David Howard and me to act as his literary executors. It's easy to agree to such an arrangement for an old friend, especially when you're not anticipating having to do all that much work.

In Leicester's case, a great deal of his later writing had already appeared in photocopied pamphlets and booklets, so I suppose I was anticipating that some small sum of money would come to us with which we could finance the printing of a posthumous selection of poems, somewhat like his friend Joanna Margaret Paul's Like Love Poems, which had just been published by Victoria University Press (edited by one of her two literary executors, Bernadette Hall).

That's not quite what happened, though. As it turned out, no part of the estate had been set aside specifically to pay for future literary projects. Leicester had a large family, and had recently remarried, so a complicated set of arrangements had had to be devised to provide for each of them.

David, who was on the spot in Christchurch, retrieved the two large boxfiles marked "Collected Poems" 1 & 2, which Leicester had used as a chronologically ordered grab-bag for any poems he thought worth preserving. He also, crucially, managed to download the contents of Leicester's hard-drive onto two CDs.

Next time he was in Auckland, David passed the two boxfiles on to me, as well as the two computer discs (he'd already emailed me a large number of computer files of various ages and provenances). This was to be the starting-point of our discussion on "what to do about Leicester."

The difficulties were obvious from the beginning. Leicester had little visibility in New Zealand poetry (though we were already, at the time of his death, seeing the beginnings of a fruitful sub-genre called "Visits to Millerton," examples of which might include Jim Norcliffe's Villon in Millerton, some of my own pieces from Chantal's Book, poems by Tony Chad, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, David Howard ... the list goes on). We didn't have any money to pay for the reprinting of any of his longer works, which were (in my opinion) by far the most interesting. Nobody came forward with any intriguing Leicester-related projects. The few approaches I made to publishers, large or small, drained off into the sand. All in all, the whole question of his literary legacy ended up in the too-hard basket.

And yet, those two big boxfiles sat in my study, glaring at me, somehow daring me to ignore the challenge they presented. They remain there to this day, though their contents have been pretty exhaustively indexed and sorted now.

The years flew by. Leicester was almost five years dead. On Tuesday, 15 February, 2011, David Howard emailed me to the following effect:

To:Jack Ross
Subject:Leicester's work
Dear Jack,

...So, with Leicester well buried, we need to honour our responsibilities to his work and his memory. I spent four months examining and cross-checking his papers. You have the two box files that I extracted from the four large cartons I packed then freighted down from the Christchurch flat that was his final domestic address. Clearly, nothing outside of these two box files has Leicester's blessing to be republished. But no one is likely to want the lot. It seems to me that we have these options:
  1. Use your blog and library website skills to put the lot on-line (Peter Simpson's Smithyman is a glorious model).
  2. Use the approach of (1) but jointly select from the two box files so that 100 odd pages are available to all and sundry.
  3. Approach Titus Books as Leicester's executors with the proposal of a Selected Poems.

Let's get one of the above underway.

love, David

To which I replied next day:

Well, I agree, David - it's just a question of when and who.

Perhaps the best thing would be to set up a website initially with scans of some of his work up on it, and then consider whether a selected poems is really needed. How much of an audience is there for his work?

I have the two boxfiles at present, but am quite happy to surrender them to you if you want to get underway with the project.

I guess what occurs to me is to annex some free space online at blogspot or some such address, and put up some jpg. scans of the individual pages of (say) Heteropholis together with transcripts of the text. If we were both joint site editors, we could both work on building up the site gradually. Do you have a scanner? Maybe we don't need scans of all the pages, but just the ones with illustrations?

...It'd take quite some while to do, though, and I fear I'm a little snowed-under at present at work - not to mention aspiring to get some of my own work done at some stage ...

best, jack

David replied enthusiastically, and so I set to work.

I do have some experience building such sites - since 2006, in fact, when I first got the bug, I've been running a series of experiments in just how many permutations you can run on the free web-space of a standardised blogging site. I've used them to index literary magazines (a brief index) and poetry archives (The Aotearoa NZ Poetry Sound Archive); I've used them to put up entire novels (Nights with Giordano Bruno) and poetry collections (Papyri); I maintain one for each of the courses I teach; I have one for my Masters thesis and one for my Doctoral dissertation. Let's say that they hold few fears for me.

But I think if I'd known just how complicated and time-consuming it would be to put up an entire critical edition of a fairly prolific poet's collected works online, I might have hesitated before agreeing to David's proposition.

Let's start with a few statistics. In his lifetime, Leicester self-published 19 poetry books or pamphlets, with lengths varying from 117 pages to 10 pages (12 in A4 format and 7 as A5-sized chapbooks). This was in addition to two commercially produced books, A Safe House for a Man (2000) and Five Anzac Liturgies (2003), both published by Polygraphia Ltd. If you add together the contents of those 19 books, that makes 913 pages of material to scan and transcribe.

Besides that, one of the more exciting parts of this whole Leicester project has been the discovery, among his papers, of three long hitherto-unpublished works: Koroneho, the God Poems and the Galapagos Tracts. Extracts from the first and last of these appeared in brief magazine during his lifetime, but the God Poems – a long, tragic family saga – was entirely unknown to me. Together they come to another 233 pages.

As well as these longer works, there are 746 shorter poems and sequences included in the two boxfiles marked "Collected Poems." On top of those, I've discovered another 36 uncollected poems among the computer files left on his hard disc (Leicester had a curious habit of saving each individual poem, and every page of a longer work, as a separate word file: this means that there are literally thousands of files to trawl through before one can hope to reach the end of his oeuvre. I don't think that I've missed anything, but - to be honest - you can never really be sure).

So let's say roughly 2,000 pages of poetry, with a few little additions here and there in the form of Christmas letters and miscellaneous poetry pamphlets.

I think it's fairly obvious that, while all that work needs to be indexed and recorded, not all of it actually needs to go up online. What I've done, then, is to put up in full, with facsimiles of each page and transcriptions of the text, the contents of each of the 19 books. Because of their - in my own critical opinion - exceptional literary quality and personal interest, I've done the same with the three posthumous works, though there I've had to be more daring in my editorial choices, given the lack of a single indisputable authorised text for each of them (some are more complex than others in this respect).

I intend to put up a representative selection from the "Collected Poems." Not all of them (I feel) merit reproduction, and deliberately publishing sub-standard material can hardly be seen, in my opinion, as in the best interests of a writer who's no longer here to defend himself. All of that material will eventually be donated to a library collection, though (probably the Macmillan Brown library, given Leicester's strong personal and family ties with Christchurch and Canterbury), but in the meantime I've provided a complete online list of everything in his files.

Which brings me to the precise nature of this once-and-for-all, as-critically-rigorous-as-I-can-reasonably-make-it, online edition of Leicester's works. I decided at any early stage that, while it would be perfectly feasible to reprint each book as a single lengthy computer page, that could result in a rather unwieldy artefact. I therefore determined to set up two parallel sites: one, Leicester Kyle for indexing, critical apparatus and secondary materials: chronology, bibliography, galleries of images; the second, Leicester Kyle Texts, for accurate, readable texts of each work.

So far that's worked quite well. The distinction between primary and secondary materials - works by and works about an author - is a familiar one, and given the hyperlinks which connect every part of each site to every other part, a reader can easily use them both at the same time without even noticing the different headings.

The two sites went live on July 4th, 2011, the fifth anniversary of Leicester's death. My work on them is ongoing, but I'm hoping to have them both finished by the end of this year, 2012.

As well as that, the Leicester Kyle Literary Estate has so far published one volume of literary remains, an edition of Koroneho, his epic poem about William Colenso, in partnership with Ian St. George of the Colenso Society. There's another book in the works, an edition of some of his late poems from the West Coast, to be called Five Millerton Sequences. After that, though, and with the completion of the online edition (with the exception of updates and occasional tinkering), I think we can consider our duty to an old friend done.

Mind you, I don't think I'd have bothered with any of this if it hadn't been for my firm conviction that Leicester's work as a poet and crusading ecologist is still timely, and merits a far wider audience than it's hitherto had. Whether or not I'm right about that is for the future to say.

- Jack Ross, Mairangi Bay
(March 13, 2012)

© Leicester Kyle Literary Estate, 2012

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