Photo credit: Robert Cross
Hinemoana Baker is an acclaimed Wellington-based poet who was recently awarded the Berlin Writer’s Residency. She descends from the South Island’s Ngāi Tahu and from the North Island’s Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa. She also has English and Bavarian lineage. Victoria University Press has published her three poetry collections: mātuhi | needle (2004), kōiwi | kōiwi (2010) and waha | mouth (2014). She has produced five CDs of poetry and music. Hinemoana was the Queensland Poet in Residence, has participated in the Iowa International Creative Writing Programme and was Victoria University’s Writer in Residence in 2014. She is currently convening a Poetry Workshop and with Tina Makereti co-convenes a Māori and Pasifika Writing Workshop at IIML in Wellington.
Congratulations on receiving the 2015 Berlin residency Hinemoana. This seems like a golden opportunity to talk about poetry and writing, but first, what projects do you plan to work on while you are there?
Thank you very much Paula, I really appreciate the congratulations. It still doesn’t quite seem real yet, but I’m booking my tickets this afternoon, so it must be, right?? In Berlin I hope to finish a new collection of poetry. As is the way of writing projects, I will also be continuing work on a family memoir called ‘Dear Mother Basillise’, which is proving to be an even more gigantic undertaking than I had thought at first.
Poets often suggest writing a poem is an act of discovery as opposed to the rendition of a predetermined plan. Being in a foreign city is also an act or discovery but it may involve a bit of planning. What sorts of places and experiences attract you?
Several things. I spent a week or so there in 2012, and I was compelled by the history of the city, and fell in love with its present-day self, too. The markets, the many dogs on the streets, the public transport, the way people seem to walk so much slower than they do here.
Also, my mother’s ancestors are from Oberammergau in Bavaria, so travelling there will be much easier from Berlin. I visited once in my 20s, but I want to go again. It’s near the Black Forest, and it’s where the residents have staged the Passion Play every ten years since 1634, in return for god having spared them from the plague. The play brings many tourists to the village. The script has a history of anti-semitism, though some changes have been made to that over the years. I feel a million miles away from a place like Oberammergau, in almost every way, and yet my close ancestors sailed here from there (via Hamburg).
I am keen to experience the arts culture of Berlin, music and poetry and sonic art and burlesque and everything else. I want to join the Berlin Pop Choir and do tango. I want to eat grilled fish sandwiches at the market every weekend and drink Weiss Bier. I want to bike everywhere. Walk around in snow. Visit friends (and hopefully woo publishers) in Italy, London, Manchester. Drift through the Christmas Markets and museums and art galleries. Be anonymous.
What effect does travel have upon your writing? Can you write on the move? Or do you absorb and store and write later when it comes to poetry?
I write best when I’m on the move. Trains work best for me. I think it’s something to do with there being boundaries around the length and nature of the experience. And someone else is driving.
When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?
I wrote poems and stories and even a few chapters of a novel as a young child. I don’t remember being really transformed by poetry until I was a teenager, though. Alistair Campbell and Fleur Adcock and Hone Tuwhare and Leonard Cohen, I memorised poems and said them aloud to myself until I cried. I had a wonderful English teacher at Waimea College who really encouraged my own writing.
I read a lot of Enid Blyton and Doctor Seuss as a kid, and I turned out ok. I was pretty much an only child, so I played a lot on my own or with my next-door-neighbour skater-boy friends. I liked skateboarding. I liked music. I became addicted to Louis Armstrong at a young age, and then Kate Bush when I turned 12.
What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?
So many! I’m going to choose three here (refer to comment about time and boundaries above). Lynn Jenner – her latest book, Lost and Gone Away, is sustaining me at the moment. A person on Facebook whose user name isn’t, I don’t think, her real name: Hangi Pants. Heh heh. She posts poems in her feed once a month or so and I hang out for those days. It’s such good stuff. And Bill Manhire. If I had written ‘Hotel Emergencies’ I would probably just put my pen down and spend the rest of my life feeling smug. Thank god Bill hasn’t done that.
I agree on ‘Hotel Emergencies!’ Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.
OK three different poets this time. The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow by Geoff Cochrane. Star Waka by Robert Sullivan. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt by Tusiata Avia.
What about poets from elsewhere?
Sharon Olds, Joyelle McSweeney and Joy Harjo.
What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have sparked you as a writer.
My friend and art mentor Siân Torrington has begun writing more alongside her visual art. Her courage and determination towards freedom are things I’d like to emulate. Also her work ethic. I have been very moved by Rilke and Pablo Neruda, whose work I’ve only really started to investigate in the last couple of years.
I love the way your poetry is anchored in the real world in a way that makes physical detail luminous yet does so much more. This is what I wrote in my review of your most recent collection (waha | mouth): ‘your poetic melodies remind us that there are other layers of reality embedded here, layers that sing and tremble in the candle light — joy, pain, recognition, trust, narratives that we inherit and carry with us.’ What are some key things for you when you write a poem?
I have to feel like the poem is being co-written in a way – by me and by the poem itself. I need to feel surprised by the language but not distracted by it. I want to feel after I’ve written it that it has taught me something about the nature of life, or love, or the heart, or politics, or power, or just language.
Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?
No, not really. But I see myself as a person who is acutely aware of the dynamics of power. I am not as well-versed in local or global history and politics as I would like to be, but I’m constantly learning and reading. When that learning moves me and/or transforms me, it will no doubt make its way into my poems in some way.
In 99 Ways into NZ Poetry, I talked about the way the opening poem of your debut collection mātuhi | needle acts as a mihi. It invites us as readers across the threshold into the meeting ground that is poetry but that is also a surrogate marae. Now I see your poetry (as a whole) laying down invitations. Labels are tricky things but do you see yourself as a Māori poet? What differences does your Māori inheritance make to your writing?
I think the one thing my Māori self contributes to my writing, whether I like it or not, is a keen sense that there are feelings everywhere. People and places are alive and sensate and usually in some state of pain or longing. There’s a saying I heard once, I can’t remember where, but it was someone indigenous speaking about someone else ‘acting as if she has no relatives’. My relatives are everywhere, and not just because I have a big extended family.
The titles of your collections juxtapose English and Māori underlining these two personal lineages. Do you see this relationship as a rope (entwined, frayed, strong)? A bridge with different rhythms of traffic?
I’m not going to do it any more, this bi-lingual title thing. I’ve done what I wanted to do with it. Which is to, somehow, lock the different voices together for a moment.
You are a terrific musician and performer of your work. It shows, too, with the writing on the page. There is an exquisite cadence that draws upon silence as much as it does the shifting melodies. Do you write poetry as musician as much as you do as wordsmith?
I think in the end the thing I’m most interested in is sound. Adding meaning to the mix is a bonus, but it’s hard to keep meaning contained, and it can get a bit out of hand. I hope to make good and interesting sounds in people’s heads and in the air with what I write on the page.
Do you think your writing has changed over time?
Yes, but only in that I’ve gotten more confident.
I love the way you are unafraid of heart. Your poetry has a beating pulse that is both warm and inviting and utterly human. As a reader there are electric connections between my heart and the heart of the poem. How does heart matter to you as you write?
I try and make poems that matter, in the sense that people might care about them, because they might get that heart feeling from them. What you’ve said here is very honouring, Paula.
Is there a single poem or two in your collections that particularly resonates with you?
‘Rope’, because I didn’t even hear the ‘rape’ rhyme until a few hours after I’d written it. And ‘Magnet Bay’, because it was the last holiday I had with my ex-partner Christine, and I remember walking that beautiful land with her and playing taonga pūoro in the sun.
Your two books are beautiful to behold. How important is it to you that a poetry book is an object of beauty in view of its ‘look.’
I like a good cover image! And I like the book’s arrangement and font to be reader-friendly and readily available.
As my review attests, I loved your last collection. Did you make any discoveries as you wrote it?
You’re very kind. I discovered as I wrote it that it is very hard for me to write about things as they are happening. Sometimes I can do it – I wrote the Terrorism poem in kōiwi while that appalling crap was still going on. But mostly I have to wait. The experiences I had in the years writing waha will probably turn up in my next collection.
In the blurb for this book you wrote: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’ I adore the comparison of the act of reading to holding the light of candle to a poem where something will always remain in the dim shadows, barely sighted, inaudible. How do the light and dark of poetry matter to you?
Like all the binaries – tension/release, light/dark, sad/happy – it’s the dance they do that makes art, for me. If you believe in binaries, that is.
What irks you in poetry?
What delights you?
Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where you are satisfied with a poem?
I don’t know if it’s a key part, but it seems to be an unavoidable part of my process. There’s some kind of off-balance precarious posture I manage to achieve between giving up altogether and re-working obsessively. It never feels comfortable or certain, and it never feels reproducible. After finishing a poem, I’m often certain, I’ll never be able to write another one.
The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?
Walking the wild coastline of Wellington, and her streets and waterfront, her Town Belt. Visiting with other artists’ work whenever I can. I teach creative writing sometimes, and that always makes me fall in love with language all over again.
Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?
Cardinal rules, no. Guidelines, yes. They’re really the same as for other kinds of writing. Show don’t tell. Concrete images. Verbs and nouns are often more powerful than adjectives. Etc. But there are some that pertain to poetry in particular I suppose – especially around line breaks and stanzas etc. That said, if I did have a cardinal rule, it would probably be ‘Don’t publish a poem your writing group hasn’t seen.’ One day I might break this rule but it’s served me well so far.
Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?
Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?
Something by Robert Hass – I’d have lots of time for re-reading, and Robert Hass very much rewards re-reading…
Hinemoana’s web site
Victoria University Press page
Victoria University page
NZ Book Council Author page