Poetry Shelf: Renee Liang interviews Makyla Curtis

Apertures, Makyla Curtis

Through the eye of time

When I receive one of 40 precious copies of Makyla Curtis’ chapbook, Apertures, it comes carefully wrapped in layers: tissue, cellophane, paper. It is the prelude to digging down through the meticulous archeology of Curtis’ poetry.

As she journeys in ever widening circles to find the fragments that will fill in the gaps of who she is, she also finds spaces. From Auckland’s West Coast to Scotland’s North Sea, Curtis finds touchstones in the landscape. A hagstone that allows her to see through time. Greywacke stones that she piles into a cairn.  Filmy ferns that she plucks and imprints onto the pages of the book itself.

on the shore I sweep my feet for a hagstone to cast a vision
to find a doorway in the rock, in the earth, in time
to cast a moment of an ancestor’s eye

Apertures is a work of art: one of several text-and-art pieces that Curtis made in fulfilment of her 2021 Master of Visual Arts project.  The other pieces have been displayed in a recent exhibition at the Angela Morton Room at Takapuna Library (https://www.instagram.com/angelamorton.room/), along with videos, photographs and found objects all collected on Curtis’ journey of self discovery. Leanne Radojkovich, the Angela Morton Room’s curator, tells me the response to the exhibition has been warm, searching and curious: much like Curtis’ words on the page. 

The book in my hand is small but heavy for its size. Its compact square form, made of heavy paper, are carefully bound and the pages open up to lie flat.  The text is the dark blue-green of the ocean. Interspersed, allowing me to breathe between the intense experience of each poem, are pages of impressions: leaves, threads, wood in a delicate pink.

The poems advance and recede across the page, gradually revealing Curtis’ purpose and her journey. From beach to bush to council records, the ephemera are footprints left by migrant ancestors. Some are even physical objects, such as her great great grandmother’s sewing machine which she restores and then brings back into modern-day use.  The act of making with a physical object connects her directly with the hand of her ancestors and creates a new history, a continuation of the old:

When you ask me what I am making I twist the threads through
the shuttle boat bobbin, we are the colour of rust
when the sky leans against us
                                                  I am threading us through
the eye of a 130 year old needle, I cannot see the gap
only feel it there.


Curtis’ purposeful journeying is a trail of stones for us to follow, one version of the search for identity that most of us undertake in our lives. In doing so she deals with difficult intersections: how did her ancestors’ path cross with that of Māori?  How then does she reconcile their building of their own histories on top of those that were already there?  But as with any journey, the spaces and silences are opportunities, too.  Sometimes it’s just as satisfying not to know the whole story. To accept you will never know and grow yourself into the silences:

where there is a gap in things there is a threshold

this is where I go in a lacuna – through the gaps
in the rain and see across time in the holes in the leaves
their multitude is vast in possibilities – across the threshold
I am a different kind of whole, a tardigrade in every corner of the earth
connected at core essence; no longer isolated
on a patch of stolen land.

Apertures, pages 20-21

I sent some questions to Makyla after reading her work and seeing the exhibition.

When you embarked on your Master’s project, what were your initial driving questions?  How did that shift over time?

My initial question, or goal, came out of my Master of Arts in English project: I was researching the interpretative possibilities of reading image and text together. I was looking at the work of Cilla McQueen and John Pule and the way their work intertwines image and text as a simultaneity of storytelling.

I wanted to try this theory out in my own artistic practice and chose to do a Master of Visual Arts as the grounding for that experiment. I have been studying te reo mē ngā tikanga Māori for a few years at a few different institutions, and asking a lot of questions about the history of Aotearoa and what it means to be Pākehā.

These two things came together while I was working on my MVA research project. In responding to your question, I’ve returned to the research question I constructed for an assessment early in 2019 and I talk about the ‘(im)possibility of simultaneous presence in Aotearoa and Alba (Scotland),’ and I think that remained a driving force. To be Pākehā is to be fully present in Aotearoa and guided by a Māori worldview, which means knowing where you are from. But in returning to Scotland (I lived there from 2008-2011), despite it being my mother’s birthplace, I was not seen as Scots. And so, there is a contradiction: for me, to be Pākehā is to be Scots, but in Scotland I am not Scots and I am not Pākehā.

The shifts over time were more about how I might explore my complicity in colonisation alongside ideas of identity and belonging here as a settler descendant. I began with wider questions about what a Pākehā identity might be, and then brought it in closer as to what my Pākehā identity might be.

The poems in Apertures have a sense of fluidity – the sense of place and time shifts constantly.   What were your poetic influences, and what types of writing techniques did you experiment with?

I’m glad that fluidity comes across. I was looking for that ‘simultaneous presence.’ Cilla McQueen is a huge influence in that regard. Her poems (particularly those in Markings and Soundings) take you to McQueen’s ancestral home in the Western Hebrides of Scotland while keeping you in the South Island of New Zealand in her drawings. The places become kind of overlaid, and that becomes an identity in a way.

Other big influences while I was writing were Ruby Solly, Tōkū Pāpā (Kai Tahu), Roseanne Watt, Moder Dy (Shetlean), Frances Presley, Halse for Hazel (English), Natalie Harkin, Archival Poetics (Narungga). Early drafts of a lot of the poems included a lot more te reo Māori and Scots Gaidhlig, and those languages certainly guided me a lot, but ultimately, I didn’t feel it was quite appropriate for me to keep so much of them in the final poems.

Apertures, pages 24-25

The images in Apertures are contact prints of items you found on your journeys to places of significance to your family.  How did you make them, and are they the same in each book?

There are a few different methods of print in the Apertures collection. I printed with found objects including threads, ferns, sliced driftwood, kawakawa leaves, but they’re not all ‘contact’ prints as you describe them, for example some are printed from the remnant ink impression. All, though, are a form of planograph monoprinting (printed from a flat printing plate or surface to create one-of-a-kind single prints that cannot be reproduced in the same method). The prints were photographed and digitised to be included in this book. The originals are in other artworks and single edition books. The images are all the same across the copies because the book was printed using risography (a digital duplicator, it uses screen printing methods but functions more like a photocopier).

When I read your poetry, I feel an urgency – a sense of searching for identity.  The Pākehā search for identity in this country now seems to carry with it a sense of shame or shyness – I’ve had friends tell me they have ‘no’ identity. What’s your take on that?

There’s a term I used a lot when teaching at the university that I think was coined by Stephen Turner: ‘productive discomfort.’ This is the active side of the white guilt coin. ‘White guilt’ doesn’t help anyone, least of all Pākehā. The shame, or shyness, makes us inactive, and you can sink into it and drown in it. But productive discomfort allows for the unpleasant feeling of facing our complicity in colonisation of ngā tāngata Māori, but enables us to use it towards action and reparation, even if that reparation is small.

No one has ‘no’ identity. Everybody has culture. If you think you don’t have one, it just means yours is so ubiquitous that you haven’t had to think about it. Something that causes me great concern is that when people think they don’t have a culture or an identity, it can lead them to seek out and steal the culture of others. Cultural appropriation is a further act of colonisation and violence. We need to ward against that by exploring our own culture. I think that we Pākehā have been very lucky to have been given a unique identity that acknowledges that our ancestors are from elsewhere but that we can belong here in Aotearoa. Māori gave us this identity and I think it is an extraordinary gift and privilege. We can be proud to be Pākehā, but it should include that productive discomfort.

Your poems however show that you ultimately uncovered a richness and depth to your past, and a real sense of connection to Aotearoa through the actions of your ancestors. Was this an easy journey for you personally?

Overall, I have found the journey extremely rewarding so far. I been able to spend a lot of time with my Dad because the project was, for the purposes of the thesis, focused on my Dad’s side of the family. I’ve especially enjoyed that aspect. My Dad has come along on the journey with me as an active participant, asking a lot of the same questions as I have.

There have been some very joyful discoveries: learning about the owner of our heirloom sewing machine, Eliza Riley, and repairing the sewing machine to working order; finding an amazing photograph of my great grandparents Florence Annie and Ernest, with Florence’s parents Sarah Ann and Thomas, with Sarah’s sister and her husband and baby. And some very surprising discoveries: I found my great great great grandfather, Thomas Riley, in the Auckland Lunatic Asylum records. We’re still working through what we can find of Thomas Riley’s life; it may well be he was involved in the invasion of the Waikato before he was committed.

It isn’t easy, and I don’t think it should be. If it’s easy, I’m not asking hard enough questions! But it is rewarding, and I recommend anyone who doesn’t know much about their history, to give the search a go. And if you are Pākehā and can’t find your own ancestors, it’s a good idea to learn about our shared settler colonial history and use that to help understand your identity as Pākehā, because the wider history still shaped your identity and our present.

Tell me about how you typeset and printed your book and about your design choices.

I had been writing poetry throughout the project, and snippets of it was finding its way into the single edition books I was making. It wasn’t until February last year (’21) when I attended a workshop introducing the risograph machine at AUT that I thought of compiling the poems into a printed collection. So, the typesetting and design was informed by what I thought I could do using risography, and the fact that I would be handbinding the book (I used the French lace method). You can only print one colour at a time, and because I hadn’t done a lot with riso in the past, I decided on a straightforward split: teal for the text and pink for the images, and then brought them together for the cover. In the rest of the project I was working with Garamond, Bodoni, Univers, and assorted wooden type, because I was working with material type: metal and wooden moveable type, letterpress. But this was a digital design, and so I jumped at the chance to work with two of my favourite typefaces, both from leagueofmoveabletype.com: Fanwood and Raleway. That was, however, occasionally frustrating because Raleway doesn’t have any macrons so I had to add them manually. These two faces weren’t too much of a divergence, though, from the general feel. I think the added typefaces to the project here were enriching rather than distracting. They give the poetry collection its own voice, amid the voices of the other books that worked with text in a different way.

I’d love to know more about your research into letterpress, on this project and others. How did you develop your macron typeset, and what are future projects you’re contemplating?

The first ever language to be printed in Aotearoa was in te reo Māori. The grounding of language and print in this country is te reo Māori, and that is important to remember, especially while English remains dominant.

There have been two letterpress research projects I have conducted, the first was in 2016 and was the creation of a contemporary case for handsetting te reo Māori. The second was in 2019, an experiential research project to handset He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

2016: I found it frustrating to handset metal type in te reo using an English lay out case: there aren’t enough k’s, and what k’s there are, are in a small compartment on the far left. Likewise, the p’s and w’s are relegated to smaller compartments. Meanwhile, the English case has e as the dominant vowel, when in Māori it is the a, and the s, h, d, c, y all take up prime real estate. Add to that the lack of macrons, and it was becoming clear I needed a new case to set from.
In 1834 William Colenso was hired by the Church Missionary Society to come to New Zealand and print Te Paipera (the Bible). He made numerous requests to his employers for the tools he would need on arrival, but they missed the memo and when he arrived one of the major things he was missing was type cases, the trays that hold the type. There are loads of different type case layouts, even just in English, but the premise is that the most often used letters are near the centre bar, and the less often used ones are in the outer compartments. Colenso had learned a little bit of te reo on the boat over, so he designed some new cases and had them built by a carpenter in Kororāreka. He filled the cases with the type his employer had ordered from England, but didn’t bother to unpack the English only letters. I used Colenso’s design of his upper and lower cases as the basis for my contemporary job case (upper and lower cases in the same tray) design, and built the case. We purchased some new type in Garamond with macrons from a typecaster in Upper Hutt. The case is now filled with the 14pt Garamond, and I used it to print a poem by Vaughan Rapatahana, and a poem by Cilla McQueen translated into te reo.

2019:  In 2019, I commissioned a cabinet-maker in Kaiwaka to build Colenso’s cases based on drawings from 1890s. Then, using these cases I handset He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi to look as like the original printed versions of these documents as I could (only bigger, I used 18pt). It was an experiential experiment. What was it like to print these documents using these type case layouts as they had been by Colenso in 1835 and 1840. For me, when I handset type, I get very close to the text, I address every letter individually and bring it together. It’s intimate and familiar, and it was an amazing way to get up close to these two documents: documents that are the basis of how I came to be living here in Aotearoa, and are a guide for how to do so.

NB. There’s often confusion with these projects that I designed a typeface for te reo, that is not so. These are all about the tray layout of where the material metal type is stored and where you get it from to handset with it. It would be similar to talking about the qwerty keyboard and alternative keyboard layouts.

Two images from a whole story in the eye of the sea, artist book, 390 x 220mm, silk-cotton pages, 14 leaves, hardcover with stab-binding

This book is one of several that you made, but the rest are much more limited edition, and are experimental in their choice of materials. Can you tell me about these and the process you used to make them?

My MVA project (titled ‘Folding Time’), was made up of a number of fabric printed hangings of collected and pressed ferns (‘Ink Herbarium’, ‘Pteridomania series’); the printing of HW and ToW and an accompanying zine with a collection of poetry, short essays and documentary photographs (Ka mua, ka muri); eight single edition books; the poetry collection Apertures (edition of 40); three essay zines; and two photo zines. Of the eight single edition books, one was digitally printed with a page for each site visit and field trip I conducted for the project between March 2019 – May 2021 (there were 45), and bound as a concertina book so that it can unfold into one very long page. Of the remaining seven, two are printed on rice paper and five are printed on silk-cotton fabric.

By your question I am assuming you are most interested in the five fabric books.

They are titled: advance / recede; a whole story in the eye of the sea; an aperture shows me an arrival; gaps / thresholds; and little archives. They’re handprinted using relief printing (letterpress – metal and wooden type) and planograph monoprinting (mentioned earlier) with found objects (threads, pressed leaves, sliced driftwood), and some lasercut mdf. When working with fabric, it’s all handprinted, usually on my kitchen table. Occasionally I used a Farley proofing press, but I found it more effective to print with the pressure of my hands. Some prints have the remnants of my finger marks (although those are more evident in the fabric hangings). A lot of the time I will print from the remnants of an impression. By that I mean that I ink up a plate, place a pressed fern, for example, on the plate, print that to produce a negative, or an outline (which I usually throw away) and then remove the fern and place the fabric against the plate. I get the remnant, or the shadow, or an ink impression. It’s a fun and beautiful way to print. Every print is a discovery.

advance / recede, artist book, 150 x 200mm, silk-cotton pages, 21 leaves, hardcover with stab-binding. Courtesy of the Angela Morton Room Collection, Takapuna Library

What new projects have come out of this course of investigation?

The where to from here is that now that I’m not bound by the confines of the thesis, I am exploring my mum’s side of the family. I’ve just moved to West Auckland, and this is where my mum grew up. Earlier this month (March 2022) my mum, Nana and I did a driving tour of West Auckland to look at the houses they lived in, and where they worked and studied, and I’ve begun conducting oral histories with them too. My maternal grandparents and my mum came to NZ in 1957 as ’£10 poms.’ It’s quite a different story to the six ships that brought my paternal family to NZ.

I recorded my journey in a blog (which I’ve been meaning to update) and on my Instagram @makylac

You can hear Makyla read from Apertures here

Renee Liang is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher and essayist.  She is the Asian Theme Lead and a named investigator on landmark longitudinal study Growing Up In NZ. As an established writer, Renee has collaborated on visual arts works, film, opera and music, produced and directed theatre works, worked as a dramaturge, taught creative writing and organized community-based arts initiatives such as New Kiwi Women Write, a writing workshop series for migrant women, and The Kitchen, a new program nurturing stories in local kitchens. Her work The Bone Feeder, originally a play, later adapted into an opera, was one of the first Asian mainstage works to be performed in NZ. Renee has written, produced and toured eight plays. In 2018 she was appointed a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to the arts, and won Next Woman of the Year for Arts and Culture.

Makyla Curtis is Scots Pākehā and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau. She is a poet, printer, and artist. Makyla is a volunteer compositor in letterpress at MOTAT, Museum of Transport and Technology. She has a Masters in English from the University of Auckland, and a Masters in Visual arts from Auckland University of Technology.

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