2015 Artists Alliance Mentor Profile | Anthony Byrt

What interested you in being a mentor?

Probably flattery, at first. Writing’s a pretty isolated thing, so it’s always a joy when you discover that someone has noticed your work, and wants to engage with you about it. But there’s also the fact that art criticism in New Zealand is still a pretty amateurish game. We’ve never valued it as a discipline. And I think our art history departments are doing a terrible job right now of presenting criticism as a viable option for their students, and teaching them how to do it.  So as much as it’s a chance to mentor new writers, this is also a way for me to help develop a community of peers, who care about the same things I do.

Have you been mentored yourself at some point?

Not in a structured way like this programme – which was another reason I was interested in being involved. But I’ve always been lucky to have people take an interest in my work. And I’ve always sought out people who could help me become a better writer. In my early twenties, the generation just ahead of me – people like Robert Leonard, Justin Paton and Christina Barton – were extremely important. All of them, in different ways, offered support, guidance, critique and writing opportunities. I’ve always tried to hang on to that spirit of generosity. And I suppose participating in this programme is a chance for me to emulate that.

At the moment, I feel like I’m on another big learning curve. I write for three different editors: Simon Wilson at Metro; Jennifer Higgie at Frieze; and Barry Schwabsky at Artforum. All of them are superb writers. And all of them kick my arse, regularly. It’s bruising, and most of the time when I open up their emails I want to pick up my laptop and throw it across the room. But after my ego calms down, I realise that they’re almost always right. And they’re always motivated by finding the best story and making me a much better writer that I could be on my own. It’s rare to find that degree of attentiveness. So working with all three of them is a real privilege.

What does a day in your working life look like?

Right now, my writing life is dominated by two things: a regular gig for Metro, and a book I’m working on with Auckland University Press. I’m busier than I ever have been, which means I’m having to be a lot more disciplined. But even still, I’m not one of those writers who sits down religiously at 6am and works away for 4 or 5 hours. I almost never get anything done in the morning, which is usually full of coffee, distraction, and self-loathing. After I get all that out of the way, I settle into the serious stuff around midday. If I’m lucky, I have a good day and get something out.

I also have to travel a lot. I have a young family, so I’m very conscious that every minute I’m away is a minute my wife is having to do all the hard work at home. It’s a useful reminder to stop me pissing about. So I get a lot of work and thinking done when I’m on the move.

What do you most like to write?

I’m not sure any more what I “like” about writing. It’s hard, and I regularly question why I do it. On some level, it keeps me sane. And it gives me a platform to spend most of my days thinking about smart things made by smart people, which is something I’m grateful for. The thing I’m working hardest on at the moment, and starting to find rewarding, is finding a space between magazine feature writing and hardcore criticism. I’m hoping that will start to pay dividends soon – it feels like an interesting zone to occupy.

And finally how do you take your coffee, tea, or favourite beverage?

I’m pretty severe when it comes to coffee. Black, no sugar. I hate tea. At the end of 2013, I spent a few months on a residency just outside Detroit. It’s a really messed up city, but it’s also in Michigan, which is one of America’s craft beer capitals. Since then, I’ve become a total craft beer tragic. It’s the only thing I’ll concede Wellington is better at making than Auckland.