A few years ago I bought Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry because of the title and because there is, indeed, an awful lot of awful poetry that I have felt hatred towards. However, despite the title, the book, is ultimately a celebration of poetry and these are six poems I certainly find worth celebrating.
Tusiata Avia’s ‘How to be in a room full of white people’: I guarantee any person of colour who reads this poem will nod – if not cackle – with recognition at line after eviscerating line. One of my favourite grenade lobs: “ Listen to what funding white people have applied for again, now they have whakapapa.”
Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Rain’: When one of my oldest friends asked me to do a reading at her wedding, I chose Rain because it’s such a beautiful piece. The groom came up to me afterwards and was like: What the hell does that mean? (FYI: they are still married).
Tayi Tibble’s ‘Homewreckers’: The poem begins, amusingly, with a young Maori woman’s lament: “When I was a girl/God tested me with stepbrothers.” Samoan step-brothers, to be exact, who break shit and generally torment the narrator. But as the poem unfolds it gets more melancholic as the narrator reflects on truths about her own life.
Chris Tse’s ‘What’s Fun Until it Gets Weird‘: This had me at “bukkake.” Actually, it had me way before that as it recounts an excruciatingly awkward game of Crimes Against Humanity where the writer has to explain various sexual terms to his insatiably curious mother and aunties.
Talia Marshall’s ‘KIng of the Dive’: Talia’s essays always take me somewhere surprising, utilising language in a way that never fails to fill me with a mixture of jealousy and awe. Her poems are no different.
Aziembry Aolani’s ‘Parking Warden’: Aziembry wrote this when he was a student at the Maori and Pasifika creative writing workshop I convene at the International Institute of Modern Letters. He actually works as a parking warden and I love that he represents his specific point of view here, throwing shit right back at the people who throw shit at him.
Victor Rodger, September 2021
How to be in a room full of white people
See the huge room
Count the brown and black people in the room
Count to one or two or maybe three
Count to only you
Breathe in onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnine / hold /
Breathe out onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnine
Listen to white people talk about_____________and___________
Listen to white people talk about writing
Listen to white people who are writing as black men and
Hush for prize-winning white people talking
Listen to white people who are painting dead, black bodies
with bullet holes
Listen to white people say they don’t know why they are
painting dead, black bodies with bullet holes, but their
art-school tutors are encouraging them to keep going
Hear white people pause before they miss the word they
used to use
Hear the tiny-tiny pause
Hear white people say diversity
Wonder if you could unscrew that word like a lid, what might
be inside the jar
Listen to white people call you the name of the other brown
Repeat your name for white people who ask you to repeat your
Listen to white people say: That’s such a beautiful name, what
does it mean?
Listen to white people say: I went to Some-oh-wa on my
holiday, I didn’t stay in Up-peer, I stayed on Siv-vie-
ee, it’s traditional, they haven’t lost their culture like
the Mour-rees, I stayed in the village, everyone was so
Listen to white people say: What do your tattoos mean?
But do they have meaning?
But were they done in the traditional way?
We saw the proper ones – you have to be a chief to have
Hear white people say: My daughter has a tribal tattoo, it
looks really similar. Celtic.
Hear white people say: I own a diary, the Hori kids steal the
blue lighters and the red lighters
Listen to white people say: Crips and Bloods
Listen to white people say Hori again and look at you
Listen to white people say: Well, you’ll know what I mean?
Listen to this in your head for weeks
Listen to this in your head for weeks
See white people clasp a brown hand
Hear white people mispronounce te reo
Listen to white people talk about their roots and their discovery
Listen to white people talk about their research and their
discovery and the discovery of their great-great-great-
Listen to what funding white people have applied for again,
now they have whakapapa
Watch white people watch you as you enter
Wonder if you’ll have to empty your bag
Breathe in / onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnine / hold /
Breathe out / onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnine
Breathe when you leave
and then feel so angry that you walk back in and walk
Pretend to white people that you’re not watching them watch you
Watch white people’s eyes follow you when you leave
Watch white people startle when you use the words white
Listen to white people tell you they don’t like being lumped
together like that
Watch white people when black and brown people are killed
again because they are black and brown people
Hear white people say: It’s hard to be white too
Listen to white people say: I feel culturally unsafe
Listen to white people say: I’m a woman of colour, white’s a
Listen to white people say: I don’t see colour
Listen to white people say something about the human race
and something about we’re all the same and that all
Try to reframe it
Try not to sound so negative
Try to stick your fingers down your throat and vomit up
the poison pellet
Try to say something positive at the end of this poem, so
you don’t come across as the angry brown woman
writing about the things that white people don’t want
to be true.
from The Savage Coloniser Book, Victoria University Press, 2020
I hear you
making small holes
in the silence
If I were deaf
the pores of my skin
would open to you
should know you
by the lick of you
if I were blind
special smell of you
when the sun cakes
when the wind drops
But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see
you would still
wash over me
from Come Rain Hail, Bibliography Room, University of Otago Library, 1970. The poem also appears in Small Holes in the Silence: Collected Works, Hone Tuwhare, Godwit, Random House, 2011.
When I was a girl
God tested me with stepbrothers.
I was eight years old.
I was thirteen.
They were mean.
I began to nurse
a few feminist embers
that they were happy to fan
with their grandmother’s
leaf-shaped ili slapped
on the back of my head or
the whip of wet tea towels
exposing the white in my legs.
I wondered if it was true
that you can grow too used to
the feeling of pink pain spraying?
On a good day
you might have called them spirited
the same way Satan is spirited,
all cigarette butts and stink bombs.
I was offended by the audacity
bleaching their bright Samoan smiles. Well,
I was soulful. Only used to
baby-soft sisters and playing the piano
and it physically hurt me.
Every wince seemed to shuck
my ribs from my spine as I witnessed them
pulling electronics apart like a carcass,
searching for the static in the back of the stereo.
Then one Christmas an uncle
whose actual relationship to anyone
we couldn’t quite place
gave the younger one
a mechanical Beavis or Butthead
I dunno which one
but you’d press the button
on his plasticated stomach
and he would say something
rude and crass and gross
but ultimately forgettable.
He unwrapped it,
It seemed like for once
in his little brutal life
he was actually considering
his words, choosing tenderly
until finally he gave his reply
and his reply was
Should I break it?
And we all sighed and rolled our eyes
with the distinct feeling that life
was suspiciously too predictable
and already we knew everything
that we would ever be doing.
Well, I didn’t grow up wrecking things
but very often
the world wrecked itself around me.
Even if I was light
on the kitchen floorboards
the geraniums curtseyed,
fish threw themselves
from their fishbowls,
on their skateboards
and I always won Jenga.
Even my mother said I had a talent
for extracting things from people
and so had to be careful.
No one was going to light up
violently and tell me
that I was taking something from them.
Life’s not a game of Operation.
Stop playing with people.
But I’m a lonely Mum. I’m a Libra
I’m a Libra just like you.
As a teenager,
a man whose opinion I truly trusted
said I was a dangerous girl
and this made me so afraid of myself.
I avoided being alone with her.
I never left her unattended.
I made sure she had someone
with her at all times.
Even if they belonged
to someone else, they were mine.
And pink pain became desirable.
As an adult, the sensation
found a home in my chest.
It reminded me of tea towels
and hidings and how
fresh to death and nervous
but alert, and alive I was then.
I can’t remember the last time
I ever saw my brothers but recall
and how long it would take
to stack the blocks
only to take turns
trying to take
Which is where I learnt
to understand the risk
and do it anyway.
I just hold me breath.
from Rangikura, Victoria University Press, 2021
Chris Tse reads ‘What’s Fun Until It Gets Weird’. Originally published in Aotearotica #4. Recorded at The Sex and Death Salon, WORD Christchurch, 1 September 2018. Thank you to Rachael King and WORD Christchurch.
King of the Dive
Lately, I have been feeling a little like the reaper
but I’m drinking again and this guy from Auckland
tries to tell me that when he walked into The Crown
it felt like he was home and there’s not much of a moon
but I still have to slay him, and I remind him that Friday
was mob night and Jones is a good cunt and boy is there
but I still tell the table he was conceived at The Crown Hotel
well not literally but his father was playing pool
and the other boys were noodles who fucked liked planks
and he had excellent posture and loved Johnny Marr
and Tuhoe Joe would jam up the jukebox with $2 coins to stop me
because I was the gold heron that was not there for the band
I wanted Prince, Dragon and George McCrae and Tuhoe Joe would put pies
in the warmer because I was the only bitch who ever asked for one at 2am
My colleague says my skin colour shows that I like rugby.
I tell him, ‘I don’t follow rugby …’
He says, ‘Your skin tells me though …’
My skin has never spoken to anyone.
A man yells from a moving vehicle,
‘Get a fucking real job!’
He extends one of his fingers towards me.
That. Is. Talent.
A woman says the job I do is ridiculous.
Despite paying for the wrong space,
she continues to question my presence.
‘Like why do you even?’
Is that even a question?
‘I’m actually quite odd,’ I reply—
awkward and triumphant silence.
I am called a fat shit.
The driver isn’t in the best shape himself.
‘Why don’t you go for a run, ya fat shit!’
He snatches the fresh white print.
I try to catch laughter in the middle of my throat.
I walk almost 30 kilometres a day,
and I’m Polynesian.
At a pedestrian crossing,
I overhear a woman tell her child,
‘You see, son. If you work hard at school, you won’t have to do a job like that.’
She points to me.
I turn to the child, ‘And I have a walkie-talkie!’
The child smiles.
To his mother’s evil eye,
I pull a thumbs up.
Two elderly ladies ask for directions.
One lady says, ‘Darling, you don’t speak the way you look …’
The other: ‘You’re a very polite young man … Good for you …’
I pity them.
I see taxis on broken yellow lines
double-parked on a one-way street.
A driver spots me and alerts his companions.
‘Go, go! The brown one is here!
The brown one is there!’
I see panic spilling out of their ears and exhaust pipes.
‘Does anyone give you shit, bro?’
asks a man gripping a can of beer.
‘Why would they? Look at you …’
I attach a printed headache to a vehicle.
‘You’re a big dark-skinned brother. No one will give you shit, my kill!’
I have a sudden vision of myself, as fresh kill, on the roof of a parked vehicle.
A mechanic spots me checking resident and coupon zones.
Just another white jaw rattling to remind me of what I am.
from Turbine 2020
Victor Rodger is an award-winning writer and producer of Samoan (Iva) and Scottish (Dundee) descent. Best known for his internationally acclaimed play BLACK FAGGOT and for spear heading the revival of Tusiata Avia’s WILD DOGS UNDER MY SKIRT, his works of fiction have been included in the Maori/Pasifika anthology BLACK MARKS ON THE WHITE PAGE as well as the upcoming LGBTQIA+ anthology OUT HERE. His first published poem, SOLE TO SOLE, is also part of the upcoming Annual Ink poetry anthology, SKINNY DIP. Victor leads the Maori and Pasifika creative writing workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters and was this year named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to theatre and Pacific Arts.
Tusiata Avia was born in Christchurch in 1966, of Samoan descent. She is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s book writer. Her poetry collections are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004; also staged as a one-woman theatre show around the world from 2002–2008), Bloodclot (2009), Fale Aitu | Spirit House (2016), shortlisted at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and The Savage Coloniser Book (2020), winner of the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry. Tusiata has held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai’i in 2005 and the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury in 2010. She was also the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. In the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Tusiata was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts.
Hone Tuwhare, of Ngāpuhi descent, (1922 – 2008), was born in Kaikohe and moved to Dunedin in 1969 as the Robert Burns fellow. He spent the last years of his life at Kākā Point on the South Otago coast where his small crib has been renovated for an upcoming creative residency. He was a boiler maker, husband, father, and as one of Aotearoa’s most beloved poets received numerous awards and honours. His poetry has been gathered together in Small Holes in the Silence, a big anthology that contains many poems translated to Te Reo Maori (Random House).
Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) was born in 1995 and lives in Wellington. In 2017 she completed a Masters in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, where she was the recipient of the Adam Foundation Prize. Her first book, Poūkahangatus (VUP, 2018), won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award. Her second collection, Rangikura, is published in 2021.
Chris Tse is the author of two poetry collections published by Auckland University Press – How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (winner of Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards) and HE’S SO MASC – and is co-editor of the forthcoming Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers From Aotearoa.
Talia Marshall (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne ō Wairau, Ngāti Takihiku) is currently working on a creative non-fiction book which ranges from Ans Westra, the taniwha Kaikaiawaro to the musket wars. This project is an extension of her 2020 Emerging Māori Writers Residency at the IIML. Her poems from Sport and Landfall can be found on the Best New Zealand Poems website.
Aziembry Aolani (Ngāpuhi / Kanaka Maoli) is a poet with a sweet tooth and a love of animals, and he is a mad gamer. He has been studying at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington, and his work was recently published in Anton Blank’s Ora Nui Journal.