Poetry Shelf celebrates our new Poet Laureate: Chris Tse – a reading, a conversation

What great news to hear Chris Tse will be our next Poet Laureate. His poetry is remarkable, he is a sublime anthologist, an excellent reviewer and is doing a stellar job editing the Friday Poem at The Spinoff. I am excited by the prospect of new poetry produced during his tenure and how he will inspire us with whatever he chooses to do in the public arenas. And that is what I love about the Poet Laureate role – how individual poets can ignite a passion for poetry across communities, ages, locations, ways of writing. Each poet makes the role their own, and each leaves us with a gift of words, the power of poetry to illuminate who and how and where we are.

So I raise my glass and toast Chris Tse – a supremely good choice! I wish him all the best over his two years.

To celebrate I am re-posting a conversation we had earlier this year to acknowledge the arrival of his terrific new collection, Super Model Minority (Auckland University Press, 2022). Plus two readings from the book.

“The Poet Laureate Award celebrates outstanding contributions to New Zealand poetry. The Laureate is an accomplished and highly regarded poet who can advocate for New Zealand poetry and inspire current and future readers.” NZ Poet Laureate website

A reading

‘BOY OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY’ from Super Model Minority

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ from Super Model Minority

The conversation

Paula: In 2022 I am running a few email conversations with poets whose work has affected me over time.  I have loved your poetry since your appearance in AUP New Poets 4 (2004). Your new book, Super Model Minority, strengthens my enduring relationship with your writing. The collection is an explosion inside me, but first I want to touch upon the spiky times we live in. What helps you? I am finding books keep repairing me, sending me on extraordinary package holidays, depositing me in the sky to drift and dream, to think. All genres. What are books doing for you at the moment?

Chris: Books have been such a comfort for me these past few years. Emma Barnes and I were still up to our necks in reading for Out Here when we went into lockdown in March 2020, so there was plenty to keep me busy and distracted. Things did get a bit more difficult when we couldn’t access some older and out-of-print books, but we made it work. I’m not a very fast reader so I do tend to take my time with several books on the go at any given time. Books have always made me happy – I was always happiest hunched over a book while my family watched rugby or played mahjong in the background. These days a big part of that happiness is the thrill I get seeing friends getting published and receiving well-earned praise for their amazing work. It’s such an exciting time to be a reader and a writer – to be able to experience the world through the poetry of essa may ranapiri and Rebecca Hawkes, or to have your brain recharged by the essays of Megan Dunn and Lana Lopesi. Aside from a few small projects I have no plans to start writing a new book, so I’m just hungry for stories and ideas right now to see where that might take me next. I want to read as much as I can for pleasure while I can.

Paula: Out Here gripped me on every human level imaginable, yet I never considered how Covid might prevent access to the archives. That was such a joy for me researching for Wild Honey. With Emma, you have gathered something special. Wide ranging and vital. It is how I feel about the younger generation of poets. I fall upon brittle, vulnerable, edgy, risky, exposed heart, potent – and I am grateful to Starling and The Spinoff’s Friday Poems for representing these wide-ranging voices. I am decades older than you, but how is the new generation affecting you?

Chris: For me, it’s such an exciting time to be a poetry reader right now with so many young poets producing ground-breaking and challenging work. Also, they’re voices and perspectives that we’ve been sorely lacking for such a long time – poets like Cadence Chung, Khadro Mohamed, Lily Holloway and Ruby Solly are all redefining what ‘New Zealand poetry’ means in their own ways. If I look back at what it was like to be a poet at their age, the playing field has shifted a lot because of journals like Starling and Stasis, and publishers like We Are Babies Press. I find their energy so infectious and inspiring – it certainly makes me want to keep pushing myself as a writer.

Paula: Exactly how I feel! But I also have poets I have carried across the decades since my debut collection in the 1990s. Bill Manhire, Michele Leggot, Bernadette Hall, Dinah Hawken, JC Sturm, Hone Tuwhare. Poets that helped me become a writer in so many ways. Particularly as I didn’t do any creative writing courses. Were there poets from the past or the present that were writing aides for you? In person or on paper?

Chris: My exposure to New Zealand poetry was sorely lacking as a high school student, so I’m really grateful that the papers and creative writing workshops I did at university introduced me to the canon and more contemporary writers. Jenny Bornholdt, Stephanie de Montalk, Bill Manhire and Alison Wong are poets whose work played a huge role in shaping my fumblings as a young poet. My poetry world was further expanded when I started to stumble across contemporary US poets like D.A. Powell, Frank Bidart, Cole Swensen and Richard Siken, whose first collection Crush I have written and spoken a lot about. It really is one of those life-changing books that set me on my current path. For Super Model Minority specifically, I turned to Chen Chen, Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Tusiata Avia, Nina Mingya Powles and Sam Duckor-Jones for comfort and inspiration. Their work feels so vital during these times of change and uncertainty.

Super Model Minority, Chris Tse, Auckland University Press, 2022

Paula: Inspired and comforted seem crucial for both readers and writers. Your new collection is body shattering and heart repairing. And yes, both inspiring and of comfort. The book includes the best endorsements ever (Nina Mingya Powles, Helen Rickerby, Rose Lu). They catch how the reading experience affected me perfectly. Would you couch the writing experience in similar terms?

Chris: Writing this book caught me off-guard, in a number of ways. First, I didn’t think I’d have a manuscript ready so soon after HE’S SO MASC – I was happy to take my time with the next book. Then a few things happened that set off something in me – an urgency to write and respond: the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, and the rise of anti-Asian sentiment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. These events all triggered powerful emotions, but the overriding frustration I felt was that things seem to stay the same no matter how much we push for societal change and equality. I was overcome by anger, sadness, and helplessness, so I decided to write myself out of that state and turn it into energy. The poems kept coming and I found myself confronting a lot that I’ve left unspoken for so long­ – some of it out of guilt, some of it out of fear. Overall, the writing process taught me a lot about myself because of these responses and the realisation that it’s important to hold on to hope throughout the dark times – I’m not as nihilistic as I thought I once was, even if that’s how it may come across in the book!

Paula: I am coming across a number of poets who are re-examining a drive to write poetry in a world that is overwhelming, disheartening. Gregory O’Brien muses on poetry expectations: ‘If the times are dark, oppressive, tunnel-like – as they seem presently – maybe poetry can be a lantern?’ For me it’s Covid and impinging greedy powers. Shattered everyday lives in Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine. And it’s like you say – despite waves of resistance, critique, standing up and speaking out – a world free of sexism, racism, poverty, classism, homophobia can feel impossible. And yet … poetry can be essential at an individual level. It seems so, for you and I, as both readers and writers.

I will use my tongue for good.                    I say I will
because this book needs to start with the future    even though the future
has always scared me         with its metallic fingernails poking through
the metaphysical portal     come-hithering.           Aspiration—and the threat
of what we have awakened from the salty ashes of a world gone mad—
aspiration will bolster my stretch goals.        I will       use my tongue to taste
utopia, and share its delights with my minority brothers and sisters
before the unmarked vans arrive to usher me back in time.

from ‘Utopia? BIG MOOD!’

The first poem ‘Utopia? BIG MOOD!’ is an inspired entry to the book. The opening line gives me goose bumps. I want it tattooed on my skin. Heck just reading it make me want to cry, stand up and getting going. It implicates the writing of poetry in the world and the world in the writing of poetry. It gives me hope reading this. You say it all in the poem but do you carry utopia in your heart? Despite your sadness and anger and helplessness?

Chris: That’s such a lovely quote from Greg – it sums up exactly how I feel as a poet and when I’m reading submissions for the Friday Poem. I’ve definitely noticed that recently poets are using poetry to light the way, even if we’re not sure where a particular path is leading us. Better to walk in light than stumble in darkness I suppose. I’m so glad that the first line resonates for you in that way. Here’s the thing – the first lines of all three of my books are a thread that ties them together. (I won’t presume that anyone is reading my work that closely to spot it!) All three books open with a reference to speech or being heard. In Snakes, it’s “No one asked me to speak…”; in HE’S SO MASC I wanted the flipside so the first line is “Shut the fuck up”. I knew I wanted the first line in Super Model Minority to echo the first two books – “I will use my tongue for good” felt like the best way to open this book about confrontation and working towards a brighter future. So, to answer your question, I do carry some form of utopia in my heart because without it I’d be resigning myself to a future that is ruled by sadness and anger. If there’s a conclusion that I come to in the book, it’s that utopia will always be out of reach because we’ll never agree on a singular utopia – the version we carry in each of us is built upon our own desires and subjective perspectives of the world around us.

Paula: Ah it gives me hope to imagine our world no longer governed by despair and anger. I loved your review of Janet Charman’s new collection with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ National ((The Pistils, OUP). I haven’t read the book yet but I got the sense it was personal, intricate, political. The same words apply to your collection. Each poem opens up in the process of reading, and then lingers long after you put the book down. It feels so deeply personal. The way you reassess vital things: the past, the importance of names (your name), speaking more than one language, your parents, relationships, being gay. And in this personal exposure and self-navigation, there are the politics that feed and shape who you are. Inseparable. It feels like a landmark book to me. Is that placing too much on its shoulders?

Chris: It feels like a landmark book for me personally in terms how far I’ve come as a writer over the last decade. I look at my three books side by side and  even though there are things I would change in the first two (and I’m sure I may have similar feelings about some of the poems in Super Model Minority in a few years!) I’m really proud of this body of work I’ve created. HE’S SO MASC has those early flourishes of the personal and the political, and I remember being so worried about how it would be received because it was so different in tone and outlook than Snakes. All of my books to date have required a lot of self-reflection and self-critique to get to a place where I’m not only comfortable writing about these topics, but also to be able to share them. Even though the work is personal I hope people can see themselves in it too, or can see why some of the things I write about are a big deal for me and the queer and POC communities.

Paula: Would you see yourself then as a hermit poet, a social poet where you share what you are writing along the way, or something in between?

Chris: I’ve got a small group of trusted writers who I send works in progress to if I’m stuck on something, but this time around I did hold a lot back until it was ready in manuscript form because I wanted to work on trusting my own instincts. However, when it comes to sending work out into the world for publication, I’d say I’m more on the social side, although there were a few poems from Super Model Minority that I chose not to submit anywhere because I felt like they needed to be read in the context of the collection as a whole. 

Paula: Is there a poem (or two) that really hits the mark. Whatever that mark might be! That surprised you even.

when asked to explain the lines that lead to now, you describe /

the shape of your body as it hits water / the shape of cold water

shocking muscle / the shape of fleshy chambers forced to loosen

and acquiesce / the shape of your grandparents in their coffins /

the shape of coffins that are too small to contain entire lifetimes /

the soft and hard moments we can’t forget no matter how often we

turn our backs to the light / [you write this poem out of love / but

even love can be a blindfold] / the shape of you and your parents

standing in your grandparents’ driveway / after being kicked out

for talking to your aunty’s white boyfriend / your hand reaching

out to someone you don’t recognise in a dream /

from ‘Identikit’

Chris: I’m really proud of ‘Identikit’ in this collection – finishing that one felt like a fist-in-the-air moment. I think it’s because it covers a lot of historical and emotional terrain that I’ve wanted to write about but had struggled to find a way to balance the pain with moments of joy. Same with ‘Love theme for the end of the world’, which is the slightly more optimistic and hopeful sibling to ‘Identikit’. In fact, the way the “…for the end of the world” poems revealed themselves as I wrote them was surprising to me, because they felt like a valve had ruptured and all this pent up pressure was being spilled out onto the page.

Paula: I wrote down ‘a bath bomb effect’ in my notebook as I was reading. The whole book really. A slow release of effervescence. The kind of poetry that you think and feel. That inspires and comforts! This comes through when you perform or record your poetry. The poems you recorded from the book for Poetry Shelf. Your performances with the Show Ponies. Your readings have got a whole lot of love on the blog. Mesmerising! Does it affect the writing? The future performances in the air? 

Chris: Sometimes I’ll have a feeling as I’m writing as to whether or not a poem will be one suited for performances. ‘The Magician’, ‘What’s fun until it gets weird?’ and ‘Poetry to make boys cry’ were written to be performed at particular events so I was conscious about how they flow and build during a performance. Having that embedded into the poem really helps me when it comes to performing it, and hopefully that effect comes across on the page when others are reading it. Reading my work out loud, either at home or to a crowd, has become a much more integral part of my writing and revision process in recent years, even if it isn’t necessarily a poem that I think will make it into high rotation as a ‘live’ poem. This wasn’t really a major consideration when I was writing Snakes because the thought of sharing my work in that way wasn’t really front of mind, although I do love the opportunities that book presents when I’m asked to do a long set and have the chance to read a substantial selection from it.

Paula: I agree that what you write must be a big deal for the queer and POC communities. I am heartened by an increased visibility of Asian writers not just as poets but as editors. But at times I am also disheartened. How do you feel?

Chris: It really is heartening to see so many POC and queer writers getting published and stepping into editing and leadership roles, but there’s still a long way to go to undo decades of erasure and disengagement with the industry, and to not feel like we exist only to be a tick in the diversity box. When it feels like we’re not getting anywhere, I hold on to as many moments of joy as I can and celebrate our achievements. I’ll never forget being on the bus home after the last event at Verb 2019 and being overwhelmed with emotion after spending the weekend attending events featuring so many Asian authors. It felt like such a turning point to have so many writers I could consider contemporaries, and to be graced by the presence of US poet Chen Chen, who has been a major inspiration. The other time I’ve had the same feeling was while rehearsing for a staged reading of Nathan Joe’s play Scenes from a Yellow Peril – the entire cast and crew were Asian. It’s the dual power of being seen and finding your people! When I started writing, the concept of ‘a Chinese New Zealand writer’ felt so murky and out of reach, and I also wasn’t even sure if it was a role I particularly wanted to inhabit. The word ‘whakama’ comes to mind when I think about who I was at that time, and it’s taken me literally decades to push back against that shame and unpack the effect of racism on my life to understand why I need to be loud and proud about who I am.

Paula: Your epigraphs signpost both past and future. This is important. Both in view of poetry and life. Like I have already said, many poets are examining the place and practice of poetry in our overwhelming and uncertain world. Are you writing poems? What do you hope for poetry, as either reader or writer, as editor of The Friday Poem?

Chris: It’s been wonderful seeing more people read and engage with poetry over the last few years both on the page or in person. I think a lot of this is a result of people not relying on old structures and established means of production, and just getting on with getting their work out there through new channels, or putting on innovative events and festivals and mixing poetry with other artforms. It’s proof that we can continue to challenge people’s perceptions of poetry and to find ways to introduce it into people’s everyday lives. But it’s more than just poetry being ‘cool’ again – a lot of work still needs to be done to address diversity, equity and accessibility. From my perspective as a writer, reader and editor, the future looks bright – and isn’t that what we want poetry to do? To show us the power of possibility and give us reasons to be hopeful.

I guess there’s always the pull of more to do—flags to fly and
words to scratch into the world’s longest stretch of concrete.

I guess what I’m saying is—I am not done with snakes and wolves;
I am not done with feathers or glitter on the roof of my mouth.

This is me begging for a fountain to taker all my wishes.
This is me speaking a storm into my every day.

from ‘Wish list—Permadeath’

Chris Tse was born and raised in Lower Hutt. He studied English literature and film at Victoria University of Wellington, where he also completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Tse was one of three poets featured in AUP New Poets 4 (2011), and his work has appeared in publications in New Zealand and overseas. His first collection How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (2014) won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry, and his second book HE’S SO MASC was published to critical acclaim in 2018. He is co-editor of AUP’s Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa, published in 2021. 

Poetry Shelf: Chris Tse reads from Super Model Minority

Poetry Shelf: Chris Tse’s ‘Identikit

Auckland University Press page

Chris Tse website

Standing Room Only interview RNZ National

Naomii Seah review at The Spin Off

Interview at NZBook Lovers

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