Poetry Shelf conversation: Vaughan Rapatahana

Vaughan Rapatahana, Te Ātiawa, commutes between Aotearoa New Zealand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. He writes across genres, in both te reo Māori and English, and his work has been translated into multiple languages. He has published eight poetry collections and has a PhD from the University of Auckland (a thesis on Colin Wilson). His collection Atonement was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines (2016). He was awarded the inaugural Proverse Prize in 2016. He appeared at Poetry International Festival at London’s Southbank (2019) and at Medellin Poetry Festival Poetry (2021).

Vaughan reads at Medellin Poetry Festival Colombia

Paula: In 2022 I am running a series of email conversations with poets whose work has engaged me, often over a period of time. In these jagged and uncertain days, it is a welcome chance to talk books, writing, reading, hearts and minds. And in our case, an opportunity to discuss your two new books (ināianei/now, cyberwit, 2021; mō taku tama, Kilmog Press, 2021). Has reading offered uplift, solace, diversion? Have certain books really stuck?

Vaughan: Tēnā koe mō tēnei Paula. Reading has certainly offered ‘busyness’, if there is such a word. I am fortunate to be involved in several projects right now and am doing a lot of reading. Of poetry, of short stories, flash fiction, creative non-fiction in both my main languages – te reo Māori rāua ko te reo Ingarihi. I have been very aware that ngā wāhine Māori especially are right at the forefront of current Aotearoa New Zealand writing. And I am impressed. Very impressed. Several collections have recently been published. Tupuranga Journal, Kei te Pai Journal, Saltwater Love Journal, Te Whē, Awa Wāhine, Atua Wāhine have all impressed me greatly, while I know that Cassandra Barnett has a new collection (which I have read) and Anahera Gildea and Alice Te Punga Sommerville also have collections out this year. And Briar Wood of course. I am also looking forward to Robert Sullivan’s new poetry collection, which I have just received. And Michael Steven’s too, eh. Then essa may ranapiri will impress us all with their own new set! Wow, this country has a mighty rich vein of poets.

Reading becomes religion.

Paula: If you made a roadmap of your own poetry writing, are there any significant presences, guides, lamps that you would mark?

Vaughan: To be honest, I did not get into poetry writing until about 2007, when I started to get into the craft more. I was well into my fifties. I do recall getting good advice from my old schoolmate, David Eggleton, and from James Norcliffe – we first met in Brunei Darussalam last century – about the poems I was learning to write back then.

I had always been very aware of Sam Hunt, as a  poet, and had a few dealings with him over the years before I got serious about writing poetry myself. To a degree he and James K Baxter had kept poetry in the public eye for a long period. Two distinctive Cancerians, eh. To digress, I remember drinking at the Kiwi Hotel with Baxter. Way back when. Hone Tūwhare was also a favourite of mine. And Jacquie Sturm became one, when I ‘discovered’ her work. There are a couple of her poems that really impressed and – probably – motivate the ‘political’ poetry I often find myself writing. And Hinewirangi too. I knew of her Moana Press collections and got what she was saying. As I noted earlier I am also very impressed by the wave of wāhine Māori poets right now. I won’t name more names as there are several, but I am sure you will see a lot of their work over the next few years.

But, on reflection, you know, the poet who really drove me, from waaaaay back when I never wrote poems, was Sylvia Plath. Too many pained shared echoes for me and I can always read some of her lines and be instantaneously moved.

ināianei/now, cyberwit, 2021 and mō taku tama, Kilmog Press, 2021

Paula: I think, among many things, I am drawn to your poetry because of the strong presence of te reo Māori. Yes it is music that adds to the poems, but it is also individual words that are like gold beacons on a musical staff – maunga, kōrero, manaaki whenua, manaaki tāngata, whakarongo. They take me back to growing up in Tai Tokerau. It is like being welcomed onto the marae that is poetry. What does it mean for you?

Vaughan: E tuhituhi ana ahau ki tāku reo tuatahi ināianei, i te reo Māori. Nā te aha? Nā te mea e pīrangi ana ahau kia whakapuaki whakatepe ngā mea katoa i tāku hinengaro, i tāku mānawa, i tāku wairua. Kāore e taea e au te tino whakapuaki ahau i tētahi atu reo. 

[I now write in my first language, the Māori language. Why? Because I want to fully express everything in my mind, in my heart, in my soul.

I cannot express myself fully in another language.]  

I think that the sentences above express why I now write a good deal of the time in te reo Māori. While at the same time utilising te reo Ingarihi [English] to twist back upon itself as a sometime circumlocutive, certainly dominating, even duplicitous tongue – or at least its fiscally motivated agents!

Paula: Thank you. Your two new collections, ināiane/now (2021) and mō taku tama (2021) both pulse with vital heart. Especially because you bring a deep-seated pain to the surface of your writing: the tragic loss of your son. The second collection gathers poems you have written to and for him since his death. The first includes some. At times I feel like a trespasser but, at other times, I am reminded why poetry matters to me. A poem can draw me deep into human experience and affect how I live and write my own life. This is what your poetry does. I am reminded of the gift of reading Iona Winter’s Gaps in the Light, who also tragically lost her son. mō taku tama is such a loving tribute and so beautifully crafted by Kilmog Press. The poetry says your grief. How was it, choosing to write this? Putting it out in the world?

Vaughan: Tēnā koe mō tēnei pātai. A good question.

I write in the introduction to mō taku tama (for my son) that composing poetry about him, his far too early demise, and my resultant various mixed feelings about this, keeps him alive – at least for me. In the end that collection, despite the sorrow imbued across the pages, is a celebration.

For Blake was a great guy and I miss him, even although I do often sense his presence. I want others to share not so much my grief , but my love for a wonderful son.

And I guess that I will at times write more poems which relate to him.

Thank you to Dean at Kilmog Press too. He mahi tino pai tēnei.

talking to my son in a funeral home
[tiwhatiwha pō tiwhatiwha te ao:
gloom and sorrow prevail, night and day]

I spoke more authentically
to you
during those thirty
estiolated minutes
than I ever did
when you were alive.

the stark room,
shaped more like a coffin
than what you lay in
quite composed,
unmoved by
my ascesis of angst,
my agenda of guilt.

the wooden floor
an eavesdropper
bouncing back a farrago
of belated apologies,
an echolation
of mea culpa.

those faded walls,
the fake flowers in a neutral vase
and the box of tissues
supplicating for the tears
I could no longer summon
during that one-sided
confession to myself.


Paula: I was thinking about the way you bring knitting into a couple of poems. I especially love ‘knitting a poem’ (read here). What we knit into poetry and ‘what exists beyond it’, and took me back to Blake. I have an uncertain year ahead and your beautiful two books made me hold my daughters closer. What do you think of the idea of poetry to keep us warm? Of poetry that is craft and heart gift? Or a different thought, a net even?

Vaughan: Yes, I guess we – as poets anywhere – are knitting and weaving and sewing together a final tapestry of sorts. It could be a long shawl to warm us up, to keep us snug. It could be some showy patterned piece to display our cleverness. It could be a blanket to stir up a fiery blaze within us – perhaps about an injustice. Equally it could be a fire retardant blanket created to quell raging conflagrations also within us. 

I think many of my own poems have elements of these. In the end though, I guess I do like to knit poetry into a coverall that – although it may be angry and sad and clever-dick at times – shares emotions, stirs up thinking, yet can comfort and console even in times of doubt and disaster. After all, eh – 

ko taku mahi
kia tuhituhi te tika
kia wewete ngā roimata
mō katoa ō tātou ki te tangi.
nō te mea,
ki muri ngā roimata anake tātou kia kata.

[it is my task
to write the truth
to release the tears
for all of us to cry.
only after the tears
can we laugh.]

Paula: Oh I love that riff on knitting and poetry, that ends with ‘coverall’! Did any poems surprise you when they reached the page? Were there some poems where you felt the stars aligned?

Vaughan: Yes, sometimes – but not often – a poem will arrive, if not ‘fully formed ‘at least well on the way. This usually happens when I am emotionally connected and the emotions have been brewing for some time. The stars aligned for example when I wrote ‘to my wife overseas during lockdown’ and ‘sixteen years’ (both in ināianei/now)I was surprised by the strength of my own feelings and the words just tumbled tightly onto the pages. Almost in perfect alignment.

Other poems are a travail. I can spend a lot of time and make several return trips to a poem before I am content with it. Especially if there is historical research associated with the kaupapa.

And then there are poems which never get completed. Despite many revisits. I guess that they just do not want to be written. Yet, anyway.

Paula: I sometimes think this is how it is as reader too. Sometimes the stars align, you cross the bridge and you are in the poem, and it is utterly wonderful. At other times you cannot sight the bridge and it is travail. But then the next day, the stars do align and you find your way into the poem.

Your poems are personal, but there is also a strong political spine. It seems to be a growing trend in Aotearoa. I welcome this. How important is this presence in your poetry? How does it connect with the poetics? How to write political poetry is wide open!

Vaughan: I don’t consciously write ‘political’ poems. Not in the sense of mainstream party political discourse.

However, when I feel, see, research injustice, whether contemporary or historical I write poetry that depicts the injustice and calls for recompense, recognition, realisation. In this way the poems are personal too. And so, important.

In the end, then, I write poetry from inside, and bugger the (political) ramifications.

Paula: Yes! The political is most definitely personal. You have produced a number of excellent teaching resources (including Poetry in Multicultural Oceania 1-3, Exploring Multicultural Poetry, Te Whakaako Toikupu: Teaching Poetry, Essential Resources) that open up poetry bridges for secondary school students. What prompted you to do this? And what are your aims?

Vaughan: You know – or maybe you don’t! – I was never any ‘good’ at poetry when I was at school.

I only started to ‘get’ it much later when I was overseas teaching English as a foreign language and I needed to somehow simplify the ordeal of comprehending how a poem was structured and only then any comprehension of what it might be ‘all about’ came through.

So all of these poetry teaching resources, commencing in Brunei Darussalam last century and carrying through Hong Kong SAR, to Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond nowadays, are designed to assist an EFL/ESL/poetry lost student – whether adult or at school somewhere – to open the poetry car door, start the engine, and then career down the highway of comprehension, switching gears up to appreciation and then writing their own.  Not an automatic this vehicle: you got to work on the gears a bit, eh.

More than this, I want multiculturalism presented as part of the entire package. This country is increasingly multicultural and I am fortunate to have many international poetry contacts to draw on when sourcing material. It is also why I produce bilingual resources, i roto i te reo Māori rāua ko te reo  Ingarihi. Such as Te Whakaako Toikupu.

There you go, then. These resources started off to help me work out poetry was ‘all about’ and then grew well beyond.

Paula: Such important resources. I have been wondering about our own personal poetry resources, the poems we have written over time. The poems that stick, whether sweet or sharp. I sometimes wonder: how did I write that? Can you share one of your poems that has stood out for you, for whatever reason?

And thank you Vaughan, for this warm and generous poem kōrero.

Vaughan: Sure, here is a poem. Sort of says a lot about what we have been talking about –

he waiata kai

at times,
writing a poem
   is like beans on toast.
easy to apply,
in cheap
economic actions
      & reasonably tasty.
especially if
with melted chyrons;
some cognoscenti cheese.

never anodyne
if served hot,
straight from the pot,
eaten with relish
& digested in
short, sharp bites.

the aftertaste
l  I  n  g  e  r  s
well                                       after               
you’ve scanned
    the can
in  the  cupboard,
  the      lines
on     the     page.

Cyberwit author page

Essential Resources page

Read NZ page

Vaughan reading his poetry on Youtube

NZEPC recordings of Vaughan’s poems

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