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This interview is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

‘A Letter to God’:
Kevin Toomey in Conversation with Father John Weir SM
Kevin Toomey
Forty-two years after James K. Baxter’s death, his poetry and the broad reach of his social vision are still hugely present and debated in New Zealand – beyond as well as within the literary sector. Editor of Baxter’s Collected Poems (1980, second edition 1995), John Weir believes Baxter’s legacy was twofold. Alongside an immense body of poetry, ‘the second element of his legacy is his prophetic nature. Prophecy, as he defined it, was telling the truth, speaking the truth… And that truth, as he often said, was uncomfortable.’

The last phase of Baxter’s life – 1969–72 – was spent coming and going from the remote settlement of Hiruharama/Jerusalem beside the Whanganui River. The period was both a flowering and a collapse of everything he believed in. The community he founded at Hiruharama became ‘the country’s most famous hippie commune’, according to John Newton’s The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (2009), and continued, in different guises, for some years after his death. The uncertainties and travails Baxter encountered during his ‘Jerusalem’ years led to some of his most argumentative, politically enraged, spiritually infused and inspired poems.

Born into an agnostic, culturally Protestant household, Baxter converted to Roman Catholicism; raised in a Pakeha (European-­descent) family, he became an adopted member of a Maori tribe and, when he died, he was honoured with a traditional Maori tangi/funeral. (The name inscribed on his gravestone, on a plot of Maori land, is ‘Hemi’ – the Maori version of James/Jim.) From being a young writer ...

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