Tightrope, Selina Tusitala Marsh , Auckland University Press, 2017.
Let’s talk about unity
here in London’s Westminster Abbey
did you know there’s a London in Kiritimati?
Republic of Kiritibati, Pacific Sea.
We’re connected by currents of humanity
alliances, allegiances, histories
To celebrate Selina’s new poetry collection, Tightrope, and her appointment as our current New Zealand Poet Laureate we email-conversed over several weeks. Selina is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. Her debut collection, Fast Talking PI, won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland. Last year as Commonwealth Poet she performed ‘Unity’ for the Queen at Westminster Abbey.
‘I leapt for joy when I found out our new Laureate was Selina. Firstly because I am in awe of what she writes and she is a good friend. Her latest book catches you from first to last page on so many levels. Secondly I follow behind her at schools and I can see how she has utterly inspired teachers and students, whatever the level. This is poetry gold. Thirdly I leapt for joy because that now makes it 5 women poets out of the 11. Did it matter to me that a woman was picked -yes it most certainly did. Selina has talked about the way she wants to have 1000 hands touch the tokotoko – how she wants to bring the poetry of brown faces to the spotlight. When I look about and see how whitewashed we are in so many ways – what gets published, what gets reviewed (check out the latest list of best poetry books 2017 in The Listener), what gets put stage centre at festivals, journal content etc – I leapt for joy that we have Selina. Hone Tuwhare and Sam Hunt are the two poets that are so beloved by our nation. I predict Selina is our third. I am currently writing a book on NZ women’s poetry and while my aim is to showcase the poetry that so often gets eclipsed by theory and dogma and bias, I also, at times, talk about the woman holding the pen. She has existed in the shadows. She has been maligned and misunderstood and devalued. I want to give women poets presence where it seems apt because their stories have so seldom been told. So while I think the poem is the first most paramount thing, I also think it is important to navigate the difficulties and triumphs women have faced as poets over the past century in New Zealand; how their poetry has been denigrated and erased due to gender or race. To have Selina given this golden opportunity to write further into our sightlines is heartwarming.‘
Paula Green 10 October 2017 on Facebook
Paula: I have spent a stormy Sunday morning lying in bed reading your new poetry collection, Tightrope, from cover to cover, and now I want to read it again slowly as an email conversation unfolds between us. The reading experience moved shook soothed challenged diverted me with the ooh and aah of recognition pain delight. In other words, the poems take you so many places in so many ways. I love it!
heavy and sweet
clings to the bone
from ‘Kiwitea Street in the ’80s’
The cover is striking with the tightrope moving from top to bottom rather than stretched taut across a horizontal line. I had held up my piece of red wool at your book launch, but it is only now, I am wondering why it holds a vertical line. It as though the rope stretches from the sky (heavens) to the earth (grounding), or from earth to sky. It is like an upturn, an overturn, and is infinitely resonant in its red to green glow. Why this placement?
Selina: Instinctively insightful as always Paula. In part, it references the living conditions of what I think of as the first poem of this land – the poetic parting of Papatuanuku, Earth mama and Ranginui, Sky dad, and the struggles of living before, during and after their separation. What does it mean to live in between such aroha, such passion, such angst? Sometimes, like this morning, it means submitting to Tawhirimatea’s restlessness in the driving wind; other times, it means tuning into a mist-like longing in the light after-rain. I’m often in between. As a middle child I’m used to it and have finely honed skills of negotiation. Inbetweeners possess tightropish qualities: a tender balance between joy and pain; the toe inching forward of a line that demands feeling before seeing. That’s why the line is raised (much to Michele Leggott’s joy, who proclaimed at the Devonport Library launch recently that it was one of few books which she could hold up to an audience and know it was rightside up!) Because I feel my lines. Because that’s what brings me out of the abyss. It’s also what gives depth to the abyss.
Unity is an underlying theme in the collection, as well as being the title of the poem for the Queen. Unity is what’s needed in ‘the struggle’, however you define it in your life at that point (evoking the brothers’ struggle against the darkness imposed on them by their parents). Unity is what my poetry seeks to create. Unity of the multitudinous stories that constitute our memory, which in turn, form our history, ‘the remembered tightrope’, to quote Albert Wendt. The morphing colours of that beautiful vertical rainbow line (thanks Katrina Duncan and Spencer Levine) evokes the many hues of our lives that refuse to be forgotten.
I’ve taken a black vivid marker
pressed it against your page
and letter by space by word by phrase
inked across your lines
streaking pouliuli pathways
wending in and out of the Void
from ‘The Blacking Out of Pouliuli (1977)’
Paula You climb reverse-wise through Albert’s quote, so to speak, in your three sections: from the abyss to the tightrope to the trick. It seems the poetry pollinates the inbetween space between forgetting and remembering. He places this in view of history, but is it also personal?
‘We are what we remember, the self is a trick of memory … history is the remembered tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all that we have forgotten.’ Maualaivao Albert Wendt
Selina: History is deeply personal, after all, it’s ‘written by the winners’, as I first saw in my undergraduate years graffettied under Grafton Bridge as my bus was heading out to Avondale (and later attributed to Churchill). I’m reading a delicate collection of poems titled ‘Luminescent’ by Nina Powles at the moment (PG: my review here). 5 chapbooks are stacked in a fold out box (Seraph Press does a beautiful job) and each of them speaks back to women figures – some famous (I especially like the poem ‘If Katherine Mansfield were my best friend’) and some lesser known (to me), like ‘The Glowing Space Between the Stars’ responding to the award-winning New Zealand cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley (1941-1981), who ended up at Yale University teaching on galaxy evolution. Where was her history in school? Nina’s personal, poetic connection with five (early) New Zealand women is helping to build this history.
I think that’s why I so love Al’s line ‘the self is a trick of memory’, because that’s the personal self (‘Queens I Have Met’, a way to memorise moments), the communal self (‘The Dogs of Talimatau’ – how did all those dogs really die?) and the national self (from the New York poems, see for example ‘Inward Hill, New York’ – what happened to the indigenous people of Manahatta? – to Oceania’s ‘Atoll Haiku Chain’ – Tahiti’s stories fan the flames of its history of colonisation, nuclear testing, and protest. That inbetween space between forgetting and remembering though, is probably most potent in the abyss of death, but ‘Essential Olis for the Dying’, the poem written for my beloved colleague and ‘shooting black star’ Teresia Teaiwa (1968-2017), to whom this collection is dedicated, appears in the ‘Tightrope’ section. That’s because, to quote Al again, ‘we are what we remember’, and we choose to capture moments of relationship that are ephemeral by nature, that’s the act of tightrope walking.
We choose, inch by inch, what we will feel beneath our toes, how we will balance ourselves in the air and keep our centre of gravity so that we can keep moving forward. Certain moments, particular memories, we will throw across the abyss of time in order to reach back while moving forward. Other things will recede into the background – we think we’ll never forget, but then we do. We lose shades of it, pieces of it, and even though the loss stays, even that, the depth of it, the pain of it begins to diminish over time. Maybe it’s meant to.
Take this cardamon
to ease you into the next plane
not the one taking you back to Santa Cruz
or Honolulu or Suva
but the next plane.
from ‘Essential Oils for the Dying’
Paula: I also love Nina’s collection and the way she is casting light on these five diverse women. That you dedicate your collection to Teresia Teaiwa resonates deeply, on an individual level, but also because you are part of a weave of women writing, speaking, sharing. You don’t write out of a vacuum.
I was particularly moved by, ‘Apostles’ and the way it challenges on so many levels. Alice Walker lays down the first challenge:
Alice Walker said
before placing a red
cushion in the middle of the road
that poetry is revolutionary.
You recount events that speak to such a claim. I am musing on way you highlight the example you accidentally found when googling lime; a brown skin woman mob tortured for sorcery. Not famous; one woman suffering. Do you think poetry can make a difference?
A brown woman is sitting
her back to us
bare on a corrugated
noose round her neck
mar her back
one gash so deep
its creviced meat
in the smoking air.
Selina: ‘Apostles’ is my answer to that question, which is answered by a question back to Alice Walker, poet, writer and activist extraordinaire: ‘Alice, how can a poem possibly revolutionise?’ Then Kepari Lenara, the name of the young woman murdered by mob, appears and fades over the following lines. These visually echoing whispers evoke the power of orality at the heart of poetry. Poems are meant to sit on the tongue, be spoken and sung, flung into someone’s ears.
One of my favourite lines of all time is by poet and lyricist Rangitunoa Black: ‘A fire burns on the tip of my tongue, I should cry to put it out.’ That’s the power of poetry, that it matters, that it creates fire and movement out into the world. It’s why the Poet Laureate Matua Tokotoko (parent tokotoko) is so gorgeously poetic. The parents have three detachable sections to them (to enable easy travel!). It comprises of a mama section (which has a hand written poem by Hone Tuwhare in its belly) and a papa section (which has a grooved tip). When you rub them together – ahi! Smoke! Isn’t that what poetry is about? It’s why I’d love love love to have a flint embedded in my own tokotoko so in performance, I can strike it and create that spark. A living metaphor. A heightened engagement with the audience. An interactive poetry. That’s the difference poetry can make. And poetry has made a tangible difference in my life. Poetry enabled me to articulate my turangawaewae (standing place) at university as nothing else could. Poetry can make a difference. That’s why I take it out to schools, community halls, corporate boardrooms. For the difference it can make.
Paula: And you take it to your sons in ‘Warrior Poetry’. It is like a letter coming from the gut, saying this is what I do, but it also feels like an energised song-chant-poem for teenagers, especially boys, who skirt books and poetry.
Putting together a poetry collection, boys
is like the NLR nines
Eden Park, 45,000 packed
you’ve got 90 pages of lines
to work the eclectic crowd
into some kinda synthesis – some kinda wonderful
from ‘Warrior Poetry’
Poetry does many things in your collection – even act as a little spot of revenge! Ah! the revenge poem.
Selina: Poetry for all occasions right? You see, often in a difficult, embarrassing, confronting, uncomfortable situations, my first reaction is to smile (my kickboxing trainer used to call me the ‘Smiling Assassin’). It’s only later when the brilliant retorts, the intellectual one-liners, the sardonic replies, come to the tongue. Or I should write, the pen. And poems can carry the weight of my anger or angst; they can take the push-pull of my righteousness and ambivalence (at the same time); they can turn a moment of indecision about what just happened or shock at someone’s rudeness or felt gut-disempowerment and re-story it ways that return power to me. Call it ‘the revenge poem’ or call it ‘the re-storying painful or uncomfortable events poem’, whatever you call it, its at all of our fingertips!
My moana blue Mena
My Plantation House shawl
My paua orb
My Niu Ziland drawl
My siva Samoa hands
My blood red lips
My va philosophising
My poetic brown hips
from ‘Pussy Cat’
Paula: Five poets were Te Mata Estate Poets Laureate, with Bill Manhire (1996) and Hone Tuwhare (1997), the first two. In 2007 the National Library took over the administration and appointment process and selected Michele Leggett as the first New Zealand Poet Laureate. You are the sixth Laureate appointed by the National Library with the change in title.
Looking back across the Laureate blogs and tenures, each Laureate seems to shape the role to fit him or herself, just as the tokotoko is carved by Hauamoana artist, Jacob Scott, to fit the individual. I love the idea that you will shape the role to fit – what matters to you as Poet Laureate?
Selina: In 2 weeks I leave for Samoa where I’m judging the Pan-Pacific Tusitala Short Story competition, giving the keynote for the Pacific Arts Association, running two writing workshops, and performing on opening night. While this was arranged well before becoming Poet Laureate, I am taking the Matua Tokotoko with me and ‘they’ (the parents) will feature. Usually behind lock and key in a glass case at the National Library in Wellington, I have instinctively known, as a person from the Pacific, the taonga, the national treasure, that I have in my possession.
Polynesians know the mana such taonga possess. Material objects become taonga as they are passed on and down; as they pick up the stories, histories, and genealogies of those who possess them. I will have reached my goal of a 1000 pairs of hands touching the Matua Tokotoko in Samoa (I’m currently at 977) since the Award was announced on August 25th. Everywhere I go people are enthralled with the story of its making – but it’s not really common knowledge. That’s what I want to do, at least among the diverse communities I engage with. Most are not aware of what the Poet Laureate is, nor what the tokotoko represents. Each Laureate has helped increase awareness in their own circles, in their own way. That’s what I’m doing now.
After visiting Hawkes Bay and finally having a korero with carver Jacob Scott from Matahiwi Marae, we’re really excited about bringing my tokotoko into the world. This trip to Samoa will also enable my Samoan treasures to be included in its making. One idea was that I source (that means ‘cut’) some wood from my grandfather’s house in Elise Foe, the original ‘Tusitala’, to include in the carving. Then when I visit Vailima, Robert Louis Stevenson’s plantation house, I do the same there (with permission from the owners) and source material from the other ‘Tusitala’ to somehow incorporate. I’d like to bring home a stone from the river my mother used to bathe and play in. I’d like to include some other historical objects. As poets are wont to do, I will wait for synchronous moments to come – I know these material stories will make themselves known to me.
This is part of a journey and Mike Hurst, along with his film-mate Andrew Chung, and Tim Page are the guerilla film / photo crew capturing formative moments in order to make a lovely documentary – more on that later!
I guess this is a round-about way of also addressing the question: ‘What does it mean to be a Pasifika Poet Laureate?’ It means doing this stuff. Taking the Laureate-ship along in my Pacific-infused life (we are, after all, in the middle of the Pacific), not just in incidental ways, but in deliberate, epistemologically-informed ways that centre Pacific worldviews, at least, as far as I see and experience them in my life as a Pasifika poet-scholar.
So, as the Poet Laureate, people matter to me, stories matter to me, especially when those stories have existed on the margins of mainstream consumption. Creativity and freedom matters to me, honoring my own unique poetic voice, and continuing to grow it matters to me. I have two years to work on these things that matter to me: to continue taking poetry ‘to the people’ and to continue growing poems!
We are about to step
on stage at Aotea Centre
in front of a sold-out
crowd of two thousand
How would you like to walk on –
before me or after me?
Let’s just do this
and take my hand.
We stroll on
side by side
to a standing ovation
your hands become doves
from ‘Alice Walker’ in ‘Queens I Have Met’
Auckland University Press page
Poet Laureate blog
NZ Book Council page
Watch Selina perform ‘Unity’ at Westminster Abbey here
Gina Cole picks ‘In Creative Writing Class’
‘The Dogs of Talimatau’ at The SpinOff
Selina picks Tusiata Avia’s ‘This is a photo of my house’