The winners of the Given Words competition for Phantom National Poetry Day were announced last Friday 17 September. The director of Given Words, Charles Olsen, invited poets Pat White, Savarna Yang and Aine Whelan-Kopa, to read their poems for NZ Poetry Shelf.
All entries had to include five words chosen from the te reo poetry film Noho Mai, which features a poem by Peta-Maria Tunui. The poems could be written in English or te reo Māori or a mix of the two, with the five words being: pō/dusk, hau/breath, tūpuna/ancestors, hiki/raise, and karoro/black-backed gull.
The winners and one special mention were selected by Mikaela Nyman, Michael Todd and Charles Olsen. Their comments on some of the poems along with a selection of 45 poems by both adults and under-16s can be read on Given Words, along with a reflection on the use of te reo in many of the poems by Peta-Maria Tunui.
Pat White was the winner of ‘Best Poem’ for his poem ‘After visiting the IC ward.‘
After visiting the IC ward
You might think at dusk that a black-backed gull, and the terns would be flying for the rookery. The fishing folk with an empty basket might trudge homeward, instead of standing longer on those moving dunes dividing shore between offshore tūpuna and inland ancestors, here sea birds just like words tie the waves’ surge to lives between two worlds.
Another chance to keep going as if every breath matters, coming to rattling rest, as waves do over shell and pebbles shifting over and over the planet’s body, one grain of sand at a time. Your bed occupying a place between light and dark the soul poised to raise a voice in praise of one more day giving thanks, flying in the mind to where uplift drafts will raise pin feathers of an albatross wing tipped slightly to infinite nautical miles over the breaker’s lip, reflecting water movement into light carrying driftwood to be dragged home. for burning like the flicker of life burning in your chest.
Savarna Yang, aged 13, won ‘Best Poem by Under-16s’ for her poem ‘Eventide’.
alabaster moths flutter on indigo shadows of dusk I press my toes into cold sand, listen to the inbreath and outbreath of sea and I remember my tupuna tāne, how he died moored to a ventilator, breaths drowned in risen tides far from his whānau
the moon spills silver over ocean ripples I raise my face to the sky through a blur of tears the first stars form an outline of wings, tips of white against the black I imagine my tupuna flies free as a karoro
Aine Whelan-Kopa received a Special Mention for her poem ‘Hiki te hoe’.
Hiki te hoe
I got goosebumps today When Tāwhiri breathed And I heard the words When I opened my heart To tūpuna They whispered Hoea te waka Hoea te waka Hoea te waka Like a chorus And on the beat It hurt like hope But felt like home I’m sorry I ever told them to go Hoea te waka Their words sing on In my puku-heart As wiriwiri In my head-heart Sways the pūriri In my heart-heart There’s aroha And that’s everything It pumps my veins Out of and into The pull The row The drag The flow Hiki te hoe Hoea te waka I’m moving on Out of te pō Upon Cool waters misty Like a lake before dawn Hoea te waka To where karoro flies Hoea te waka To where the green flash glows Hoea te waka To where the four winds blow Ngā hau Hoea te waka Along the long awa Guided by whispers And one hundred tuna Black and blue Hoea te waka By starlight To sunlight With Hine ā Maru And you
About the Poets
Pat White lives just out of Fairlie in the South Island of Aotearoa/New Zealand. There he works as a writer and painter, with his wife Catherine, a musician and painter. He has published a number of volumes of prose and poetry since the 1970s, including; How the Land Lies, (VUP 2010) prose memoir essays, Watching for the wingbeat; new and selected poems (Cold Hub Press 2018). He was editor of Rejoice Instead: Collected poems of Peter Hooper (Cold Hub Press, 2021).
His entry in Given Words honours the experience of a son who was in an Intensive Care Ward four years ago. ‘Such events hone our appreciation of every breath, and the need of each of us to give thanks for the miracle of ordinariness that is daily life. This afternoon the sun is shining, soon it will be time for a glass of red wine while sitting looking at the mountains to the west. Who knows a poem may be gifted on a gust of wind … if we sit quietly enough?’
Savarna Yang is thirteen years old, home-schools, and lives near Ōtepoti, Dunedin. You can often find her spinning and weaving wool from her pet sheep or baking mountains of cookies (especially over lockdown). She plays football for her local team but unfortunately they have lost every single game this season… She loves writing short stories and reviews.
Of the inspiration for her poem she says, ‘My grandparents live overseas, in Australia and China. I haven’t seen them for a long time and maybe I won’t get to see them again. In Aotearoa, we had an elderly friend nearby we loved like a grandparent. They died in hospital during lockdown when we could not visit to say goodbye.’
Aine Whelan-Kopa lives in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and grew up in very small rural, coastal towns in the Hokianga and Taranaki. She is of Ngāti Hine, Te Hikutu o Hokianga, Ngāpuhi and Irish descent. Being bi-racial has been challenging and impactful, writing and art are ways for Aine to express herself and explore her identity. The mix of te reo Māori and English in her poetry is a natural extension of the way she talks. Aine is a student majoring in psychology and aims to use art therapy to help children affected by trauma. Whānau, whenua, atua and taiao are the cornerstones of her connection to Te Ao.
Hiki Te Hoe was written as a note to self that in order to get to where you want to go you need to pick up the paddle and start to row. Aine loves running and chocolate equally, because life is about balance.
Breakfast is a lifelong ritual for me: the fruit, the cereal, the toast, the slowly-brewed tea, the short black. It is the reading, it is the silence, it is the companionship. It is finding the best breakfast when you are away at festivals or on tour, on holiday. This photograph was taken last year at Little Poms in Christchurch when I was at WORD. One of my favourite breakfast destinations. Breakfast is my gateway into the day ahead, it is food but it is more than food. It is the ideas simmering, the map unfolding, the poem making itself felt.
The poems I have selected are not so much about breakfast but have a breakfast presence that leads in multiple directions. Once again I am grateful to publishers and poets who are supporting my season of themes.
Unspoken, at breakfast
I dreamed last night that you were not you
but much younger, as young as our daughter
tuning out your instructions, her eyes not
looking at a thing around her, a fragrance
surrounding her probably from her
freshly washed hair, though
I like to think it is her dreams
still surrounding her
from her sleep. In my sleep last night
I dreamed you were much younger,
and I was younger too and had all the power –
I could say anything but needed to say
nothing, and you, lovely like our daughter,
worried you might be talking too much
about yourself. I stopped you
in my arms, pressed my face
up close to yours, whispered into
your ear, your curls
around my mouth, that you were
my favourite topic. That
was my dream, and that is still
my dream, that you were my favourite topic –
but in my dream you were
much younger, and you were not you.
from Pasture and Flock: New & Selected Poems, Auckland University Press, 2018
You refused the grapefruit
I carefully prepared
Serrated knife is best
less tearing, less waste
To sever the flesh from the sinew
the chambers where God grew this fruit
the home of the sun, that is
A delicate shimmer of sugar
and perfect grapefruit sized bowl
and you said, no, God, no
I deflated a little
and was surprised by that
What do we do when we serve?
Offer little things
as stand-ins for ourselves
All of us here
women standing to attention
knives and love in our hands
From The Facts, Victoria University Press, 2018
How time walks
I woke up and smelled the sun mummy
a pattern of paradise
casting shadows before breakfast
he’s fascinated by mini beasts
how black widows transport time
a red hourglass
under their bellies
how centipedes and worms
curl at prodding fingers
he’s ice fair
sometimes when he sleeps
I lock the windows
to secure him in this world
from Entangled islands, Anahera Press, 2015
Woman at Breakfast
June 5, 2015
This yellow orange egg full of goodness and instructions.
Round end of the knife against the yolk, the joy which can only be known
as a kind of relief for disappointed hopes and poached eggs go hand in hand.
Clouds puff past the window it takes a while to realise they’re home made
our house is powered by steam like the ferry that waits by the rain-soaked wharf
I think I see the young Katherine Mansfield boarding with her grandmother with her duck-handled umbrella.
I am surprised to find I am someone who cares for the bygone days of the harbour.
The very best bread is mostly holes networks, archways and chambers
as most of us is empty space around which our elements move in their microscopic orbits.
Accepting all the sacrifices of the meal the unmade feathers and the wild yeast I think of you. Happy birthday.
from The Internet of Things, Victoria University Press, 2017
How to live through this
We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep. We will eat a decent breakfast, probably involving eggs and bacon. We will make sure we drink enough water. We will go for a walk, preferably in the sunshine. We will gently inhale lungsful of air. We will try to not gulp in the lungsful of air. We will go to the sea. We will watch the waves. We will phone our mothers. We will phone our fathers. We will phone our friends. We will sit on the couch with our friends. We will hold hands with our friends while sitting on the couch. We will cry on the couch with our friends. We will watch movies without tension – comedies or concert movies – on the couch with our friends while holding hands and crying. We will think about running away and hiding. We will think about fighting, both metaphorically and actually. We will consider bricks. We will buy a sturdy padlock. We will lock the gate with the sturdy padlock, even though the gate isn’t really high enough. We will lock our doors. We will screen our calls. We will unlist our phone numbers. We will wait. We will make appointments with our doctors. We will make sure to eat our vegetables. We will read comforting books before bedtime. We will make sure our sheets are clean. We will make sure our room is aired. We will make plans. We will talk around it and talk through it and talk it out. We will try to be grateful. We will be grateful. We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep.
from How to Live, Auckland University Press, 2019
Your high bed held you like royalty.
I reached up and stroked your hair, you looked at me blearily,
forgetting for a moment to be angry.
By breakfast you’d remembered how we were all cruel
and the starry jacket I brought you was wrong.
Every room is painted the spectacular colour of your yelling.
I try and think of you as a puzzle
whose fat wooden pieces are every morning changed
and you must build again the irreproachable sun,
the sky, the glittering route of your day. How tired you are
and magnanimous. You tell me yes
you’d like new curtains because the old ones make you feel glim.
And those people can’t have been joking, because they seemed very solemn.
And what if I forget to sign you up for bike club.
The ways you’d break. The dizzy worlds wheeling on without you.
from The Ski Flier, Victoria University Press, 2017
14 August 2016
The day begins early, fast broken with paracetamol ibuprofen, oxycodone, a jug of iced water too heavy to lift. I want the toast and tea a friend was given, but it doesn’t come, so resort to Apricot Delights intended to sustain me during yesterday’s labour. Naked with a wad of something wet between my legs, a token gown draped across my stomach and our son on my chest, I admire him foraging for sustenance and share his brilliant hunger. Kicking strong frog legs, snuffling, maw wide and blunt, nose swiping from side to side, he senses the right place to anchor himself and drives forward with all the power a minutes-old neck can possess, as if the nipple and aureole were prey about to escape, he catches his first meal; the trap of his mouth closes, sucks and we are both sated.
just some huge rude dinner plate you left unwashed
brilliant with bioluminescent mould
how dare you rhapsodize my loneliness into orbit
to the thought of us
halfway across the planet staring up
at some self-same moon & pining for each other
but now I long for a fixed point between us
because from here
even the moon is different
a broken bowl
unlatched from its usual arc & butchered
by grievous rainbows
celestial ceramic irreparably splintered
as though thrown there
and all you have left me with is
this gift of white phosphorous
dissolving the body I knew you in
to lunar dust
in New Poets 5, Auckland University Press, 2019, picked by Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor
I never meant to want you.
the laughter and the toast
the talking and the muffins
somewhere in our Tuesday mornings
I started falling for you.
Now I can’t go back
and I’m not sure if I want to.
from woman, phenomenally
Breakfast in Shanghai
for a morning of coldest smog
A cup of black pǔ’ěr tea in my bedroom & two bāozi from the
lady at the bāozi shop who has red cheeks. I take off my gloves,
unpeel the square of thin paper from the bun’s round bottom.
I burn my fingers in the steam and breathe in.
for the morning after a downpour
Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly
opening under swirls of soy sauce. Each mouthful of doufu
huā, literally tofu flower, slips down in one swallow. The
texture reminds me of last night’s rain: how it came down
fast and washed the city clean.
On the table, matching tiny blue ceramic pots of chilli oil,
vinegar and soy sauce. In front of me, the only thing that
warms: a plate of shuǐjiǎo filled with ginger, pork and cabbage.
I dip once in vinegar, twice in soy sauce and eat while the
woman rolls pieces of dough into small white moons that fit
inside her palm.
for a pink morning in late spring
I pierce skin with my knife and pull, splitting the fruit open.
I am addicted to the soft ripping sound of pink pomelo flesh
pulling away from its skin. I sit by the window and suck on the
rinds, then I cut into a fresh zongzi with scissors, opening the
lotus leaves to get at the sticky rice inside. Bright skins and leaves
sucked clean, my hands smelling tea-sweet. Something inside
me uncurling. A hunger that won’t go away.
NIna Mingya Powles
from Magnolia 木蘭, Seraph Press, 20020
Serie Barford was born in Aotearoa to a German-Samoan mother and a Palagi father. She was the recipient of a 2018 Pasifika Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre. Serie promoted her collections Tapa Talk and Entangled Islands at the 2019 International Arsenal Book Festival in Kiev. She collaborated with filmmaker Anna Marbrook to produce a short film, Te Ara Kanohi, for Going West 2021. Her latest poetry collection, Sleeping With Stones, will be launched during Matariki 2021.
Amy Brown is a writer and teacher from Hawkes Bay. She has taught Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne (where she gained her PhD), and Literature and Philosophy at the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School. She has also published a series of four children’s novels, and three poetry collections. Her latest book, Neon Daze, a verse journal of early motherhood, was included in The Saturday Paper‘s Best Books of 2019. She is currently taking leave from teaching to write a novel.
Kate Camp’s most recent book is How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems published by VUP in New Zealand, and House of Anansi Press in Canada.
Tate Fountain is a writer, performer, and academic based in Tāmaki Makaurau. She has recently been published in Stuff, Starling, and the Agenda, and her short fiction was highly commended in the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition (2020).
Paula Harris lives in Palmerston North, where she writes and sleeps in a lot, because that’s what depression makes you do. She won the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize and the 2017 Lilian Ida Smith Award. Her writing has been published in various journals, including The Sun, Hobart, Passages North, New Ohio Review and Aotearotica. She is extremely fond of dark chocolate, shoes and hoarding fabric. website: http://www.paulaharris.co.nz | Twitter: @paulaoffkilter | Instagram: @paulaharris_poet | Facebook: @paulaharrispoet
Rebecca Hawkes works, writes, and walks around in Wellington. This poem features some breakfast but mostly her wife (the moon), and was inspired by Alex Garland’s film adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation. You can find it, among others, in her chapbook-length collection Softcore coldsores in AUP New Poets 5. Rebecca is a co-editor for Sweet Mammalian and a forthcoming collection of poetry on climate change, prances about with the Show Ponies, and otherwise maintains a vanity shrine at rebeccahawkesart.com
Anna Jackson lectures at Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University of Wellington, lives in Island Bay, edits AUP New Poets and has published seven collections of poetry, most recently Pasture and Flock: New and Selected Poems (AUP 2018).
Therese Lloyd is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Other Animals (VUP, 2013) and The Facts (VUP, 2018). In 2017 she completed a doctorate at Victoria University focusing on ekphrasis – poetry about or inspired by visual art. In 2018 she was the University of Waikato Writer in Residence and more recently she has been working (slowly) on an anthology of ekphrastic poetry in Aotearoa New Zealand, with funding by CNZ.
Maria McMillan is a poet who lives on the Kāpit Coast, originally from Ōtautahi, with mostly Scottish and English ancestors who settled in and around Ōtepoti and Murihiku. Her books are The Rope Walk (Seraph Press), Tree Space and The Ski Flier (both VUP) ‘Morning song‘ takes its title from Plath.
Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Wellington, currently living in London. She is the author of Magnolia 木蘭, a finalist in the Ockham Book Awards, a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, and several poetry chapbooks and zines. Her debut essay collection, Small Bodies of Water, will be published in September 2021.
Helen Rickerby lives in a cliff-top tower in Aro Valley. She’s the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019), which won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the 2020 Ockham Book Awards. Since 2004 she has single-handedly run boutique publishing company Seraph Press, which mostly publishes poetry.
Lately, a lot of people seem to be turning to poetry to work through their thoughts and feelings around the climate crisis. There’s a very specific way nature has been used in poetry for a long time, which is very symbolic and focused on the aesthetics of the natural world as some kind of perfect, untouched source of images. This feels to me like an appropriation of sorts, which ignores the reality of the natural world and our responsibilities towards it, as well as the fact that we’re complicit in a very calculated and systematic destruction of the very places we romanticise.
Of course, there’ve been poets writing with environmental themes for a long time, but the school specifically dubbed ‘eco-poetry’ has only been around since the early 2000s, with a few key works of ecocriticism and anthologies of poems claiming the term. Some ecopoets insist on a very rigorous set of criteria for the subgenre, such as John Shoptaw in his essay in Poetry, “Why Ecopoetry?”: “The second way in which an ecopoem is environmental is that it is ecocentric, not anthropocentric.” To earn the label, he says, a poem must not prioritise human interests. The distinction seems small, but it makes a big difference. If a poem can only be an ecopoem if it disregards human interests, it sets us apart as Other to the environment. It suggests that the devastation we inflict moves in one direction only, outwards from ourselves, and that the impacts are all in non-human spaces.
The reality is that we live within the environment. We are not separate from nature, no matter how much it can sometimes seem like it when you live in a city. The perpetuation of that idea is incredibly dangerous, as it allows us to believe that, in the years to come, as the earth warms, we’ll be fine. It’s become clear that sympathy for the planet’s other inhabitants is not enough to inspire change within our (colonial, capitalist) human systems. For us to implement other, less damaging ways to live, we have to recognise that within our lifetimes, our lives will be worsened—some far more than others, but everyone’s in some way. So, what’s the point of an ecopoetics that focuses only on human action and non-human consequences? It is too late for that.
It also shows a blatant and dangerous disregard for the indigenous peoples who live with the land rather than just on the land. It’s important to recognise the necessity of work like Stacey Teague’s poem “toitū te whenua”, which is a decolonisation poem and a climate justice poem, because the two things are inseparable:
sacred soil settler guilt
the past speaks grief the water speaks pollution
the public sings in the colonial landscape
the womb of the earth is full of protest
As essa may ranapiri writes in their poem from the same collection (Te Rito o te Harakeke, edited by Rangatahi o te Pene, Hana Pera Aoake, Sinead Overbye, Michelle Rahurahu Scott and essa may ranapiri), “where we stand is where we will always / stand / on the whenua that we are / and are one with.” Tangata whenua are part of the land, and so there can be no ecopoetics without tangata whenua.
With the current trend towards environmental poetry, it seems important to ask what we want from this kind of work. One of my favourite poems about the environment is Vanessa Crofskey’s “There’s Real Manuka Honey in Heaven” from issue 7 of Starling, which includes this brilliant image:
a global conference of bees will be livestreamed strapping on
army helmets khaki stripes and matching jet packs
then flying off into the stratosphere in tiny astronautical booties
The poem ends with “the tuatara [singing] a eulogy to the end of the anthropocene” and the cockroaches, who we all know can live through anything, “[waiting] for spring.” It’s the perfect mix of humour and very real devastation, without just saying the same things that everybody else has already said. The world in Crofskey’s poem is the complete opposite from the idyllic landscape of the Romantic or pastoral poets, and humans are very much present. Otherwise how could we take any kind of responsibility for the damage?
Another approach is that of Joy Harjo, whom I doubt James Shoptaw would call an ‘ecopoet’, though hers is some of the most moving writing about the natural world I’ve ever come across. In “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet”, Harjo tells us to “Be respectful of the small insects, birds and animal people / who accompany you. / Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought / down upon them.” In “Talking with the Sun”, she writes, “Humans are vulnerable and rely on the kindnesses of the / earth and the sun; we exist together in a sacred field of meaning.” Harjo isn’t only writing about non-human interests, because in her poems human and non-human interests are one and the same.
I’m interested in a school of poetry that doesn’t restrict or close off possibilities for writing about the environment, while also acknowledging that every piece of writing being written or read now exists in a world in crisis. Like humans, poems do not exist in a vacuum. Everything we read is informed in some way by our lived experiences, and the writer’s lived experiences, and since everybody shares the very big experience of living on Earth, it seems vital to recognise that in the poems we read and write. Moving forward, as we continue to make sense of the natural world through poetry, we must keep asking the question—what do we want from this work?
Ash Davida Jane
Ash Davida Jane is a poet and bookseller from Pōneke. Some of her recent work can be found in Starling, Peach Mag, Scum, The Spinoff, and Stasis. Her second book, How to Live with Mammals, is due to be published by VUP in 2021.
Rebecca Hawkes is a poet and painter. She’s from a high country farm near Methven and is now living in Wellington. Rebecca’s poems have appeared in various journals, including Starling, Sport, and Sweet Mammalian – and on her website. A collection of her writing was published in August 2019 in the revival issue of the AUP New Poets series, alongside the work of Carolyn DeCarlo and Sophie van Waardenberg.
Janet Newman is based in Horowhenua. She has a PhD in creative writing from Massey University for her thesis entitled: “Imagining Ecologies: Traditions of Ecopoetry in Aotearoa New Zealand.” Her poetry collection Unseasoned Campaigner was a runner up in the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award and will be published by Otago University Press next year. She was the winner of the 2017 IWW Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems, the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition, and the 2014 and 2016 Journal of New Zealand Literature Prize for New Zealand Literary Studies.
Today we have a poetry and music video premier from Ruby Solly with film created by Sebastian Lowe and Viktor Baskin, as well as a wānanga around toi kupu, music, and writing into place between Ruby Solly and essa may ranapiri.
I’ve been reading your poetry forever (since before I even knew you) and have been so privileged to hear you play and sing in public, and these songs on Pōneke are just giving me so much life recently! Just stilling those anxious jitters I’ve been struck with after the end of lockdown. It feels so of the outside as well. To me the songs create this river where you dip in and out of such a strength of emotion, I go from chilling and vibing to crying and humming along; face wet! It feels like something I’ve been needing for a long time. And there also poems that go with each one!
Before I ask you anything about the album could you talk a bit about how you got to where you are, your whakapapa and journey here to this time/place?
Ruby Solly Kia ora Essa!
Kā mihi nui for opening this wānanga space. I was a reader of yours before we met too! I love how we get to be woven together in this way, it’s very special to me. I really like the idea of these pieces forming a river as when I was recording them, I looked at a lot of old river routes from pre-colonial times. I like to think of the water under the concrete and how it can be heard in these pieces. After I finished the album I was actually gifted some of the original river stones from the Te Puni Stream which runs under my street, which joins up to the Waimapihi which features on the album. Was a perfect taonga to be given to mark being able to bring those songs and sounds out into the world again.
I whakapapa to Kai Tahu and Waitaha on my taha Māori, but I also have Jewish, Irish, Scottish and English whakapapa within me. I whakapapa back to Waihao as my tino marae in Te Wai Pounamu, from the Rōpa whānau. I was really lucky to grow up on the foot of Mount Ruapehu where I learnt koauau from my primary school teacher, Maria Kuppa, which was my first time meeting ngā taonga puoro. I started playing cello when I was about seven when we lived in Taupo, which also features on the album. I started playing taonga puoro again at university under the korowai aroha of mentors such as Al Fraser, Ariana Tikao, and Rob Thorne. I’ve lived in Pōneke for seven years and over that time have been lucky to receive teachings on our whakapapa here from Kai Tahu kaumātua, as well as learn from locals and historical records about this place and how my histories are placed within it.
essa Sounds like the album is such a culmination of things for you, everything is of course, but it’s cool to pay attention to the whakapapa of our mahi so thank you for sharing that e hoa.
So the songs are lyricless but you wrote these little pieces of toikupu to go with the waiata (which i love!) it really gives context to the music but they work so well as pieces of music themselves. They are full of stories from around the region, what was something (or some things) you learnt that really stuck out to you and why?
Ruby Completely, I think with me when I get an idea it’s not necessarily a poetry idea or a music idea or an art idea; it’s just an idea in and of its self and I get to grow it into whatever direction I choose depending on how I treat it and feed it.
I did! It was hilarious because I wrote these very dry factual explanations of each track and then showed one of my cousins who pointed out how academic and dry they were. I’d just finished my masters so I was in this very academic Pākehā writing frame of mind and it reminded me to break out of that. I thought about how so much of our histories have been given to us and passed down through toikupu and song, and that maybe this work is adding to that tradition. I wrote all the poems in one big day during lockdown, but I had all the info in my head from the descriptions I’d written previously which took a lot longer. That’s often how I work as a writer anyway with a research and thinking phase taking up a lot of time and the actual writing just coming in at the end, I call it the internal blackboard a lot to explain it. The original descriptions can still be seen on the bandcamp page though in case that style suits people better.
I think the things that stuck with me the most were the places that I could whakapapa too, which says a lot about representation within arts and the importance of it. Pieces like the two Karaka poems / songs, and the ones with tohu from ōku mātua tūpuna like Koukou are so special to me. Something I love about taonga puoro is the presences that show up for you when you play, and learning to not only read those tohu but play with them.
I thought about you for this wānanga because one, I love your work, and two, because I’ve heard you read some hōhonu, beautiful pieces about place and your connection or disconnection with it. I love the way you unpack these things like taking things out of a messily packed suitcase, then show us everything inside then pack it neatly so we can see the whakapapa behind these feelings. It really inspires me as a writer and an artist. For you personally, how does writing about place affect you as a Māori writer?
essa I just want to speak to something you were saying at the top there before answering your question. It’s so true that the lines between forms are colonial constructions and it makes so much sense for me for this art to take on many forms, I often have paintings and poems and songs that speak to similar things like a little family work. I don’t know I just think that smooshing of form is really cool!
Writing about place is everything really, it hurts a lot, it challenges me, it makes me feel everything I lack, but also it’s everything we are and will be and have been. Because it’s all about place right? The whole state of things is due to where we are placed, where we are displaced. I wrote a poem about my marae, a place I have only passed on the highway or “visited” via the google maps and the work really does summon something, like just putting words into the world establishes some tenuous connection point. Like a little gift from my ancestors. But also I do worry I fetishize that disconnect sometimes, make my life about the things I don’t have rather the opportunities and connections that I can make. It’s also funny as well because growing up I feel like a lot of things teach you that place doesn’t matter like all the names of the streets are some dead colonizers from Britain and the shows on TV are American, none of us present on the box. It has really been a learning experience for me over the last ten or so years finding place or even coming to see it.
And that is another thing about Pōneke that I really love is how it seems to cuts through that noise – that hypermarketed, hyper commercialised, there is always an ad waiting noise, especially with the melodies that keep returning and returning (we see that spiral again) and the all that incidental sound of place itself. And also it’s so layered, taonga puoro, instruments, found sounds, voice, and bird’s song. Would you be able to talk a little bit about the recording process?
Ruby Yes! The idea of art, or just expression in general being placed into different categories is really colonial when you boil it down. Being able to communicate across mediums and languages is a strength we have inherited from our ancestors that we continue to build upon.
I feel that sense of being challenged. Place is so… present in te ao Māori, we’re asked where we’re from before we’re asked who we are which is both a beautiful thing, and a very complicated thing for those of us who have not been privileged to have that relationship with turangawaewae cultivated in the physical sense. Writing into a place is a very Māori way of creating I think, and yes, it hurts to do it and to move through it. But it definitely gave me a deeper sense of understanding and helped me work through the kind of fetishizing that can happen with any diaspora. I’ve heard it referred to as “competitive pain” within our Jewish diaspora, and I really wanted to be able to choose how I presented that pain and how I wove it with all the other emotions that come with it, the full spectrum of it.
Thank you! When I create complete works like a book, or album, or a large piece without a major prompt I like to try and have it so even if no one was ever to see it but me (and my descendants possibly); we would still grow and learn from it. Then I decide whether I want that to be shared wider. I think in many ways that can cut out the subconscious desire to make something to fit the norm or to serve others, which in many ways serves people who don’t always have their needs met in media usually.
For the recording process I recorded taonga puoro within the different environments, responding to them in real time. Then I layered up cello at home afterwards to support the taonga puoro. Some tracks have some extra layers of sounds from the places when I wanted to really tune in to particular sounds like the gulls on Matiu-Somes island for example (they were also dive bombing me so I had to have a few goes). The whole thing was actually recorded on an iPhone four which I haven’t told anyone until now because I was super whakamā about it! But I learnt a lot about recording and took principles from how jazz bands recorded around one singular microphone in the 1920s with things being placed different distances from the mic. The mixing really added to the sound too which was done by Al Fraser.
essa I have listened to a lot of pro stuff recorded on phones there is a lot of life in those kinds of set ups I think! There is even a strange ideology I think behind those pristine soundproofed spaces set aside for recording, it benefits the subject matter so much for the recordings to done in the spaces they’re responding to! The mix is awesome, brings it all together so well, Al did a great job!
Some final questions, what would you want people to take from this record if just one thing?
Also you have a book of poetry coming out next year do you feel there is an overlap between that work and this?
Ruby Completely! It’s given so many people so many more options! I think as well it can be used as a tool to remove the ’sacred room’ element of recording where we try to eliminate all noise in a studio, and through that it can bring the environment back into the music as a contributor. I think acknowledging the space you’re in and all that brings is a big part of te ao Māori and it feels really good to be able to look at recording in that way as a method of decolonizing the recording process. Al is awesome! We both had finishing off the album and all its components as a sort of lockdown project, and it was so good to have someone who really understood the work and how I’ve developed as a player and a person through it.
I think if I could pick one thing for people to take away… it would be an increased ability to listen to and feel histories in places, with more of a sense of presence. To show people that idea that the repercussions of the past are still here, and we kind of get to look back at them in a way where we see the good and the bad all mixing together, and we get to decide where we go with that information. I’ve had lots of conversations with friends and whānau recently about matakite and te ao wairua, and I think my path into that world is being able to hear places and their histories. It’s deep work to be able to share that and I feel grateful to be walking on that path.
I do! I think for me there again is that creative process where there is a seed of an idea or an experience, and I get to choose what I feed it with and how I grow it. With the book, I started writing it long before I realised. So many of my pieces were about growing up on mount Ruapehu and Turangi, or my family histories and relationships, and then I just saw this thread with my connections to Kai Tahu and all these other people and places through my Dad and that was what was growing as the book. I’m excited for people to read the book because it does that same thing I think, it acknowledges that there is the good and the bad and all of it is our history and has lead to us. There’s a real narrative of me starting to see and hear that through my childhood and figuring out how I choose to live with it. I’m super fascinated too with the parts of our culture we don’t always acknowledge. Things like how we raise children, or the things we value, or the way we structure our speech. I think those things are often the parts that colonisation struggled to remove, and through them that’s often how we find and reclaim our ways of being and so much of our matauranga. Dad used to get me to swim down this river every summer, while everyone else had boats and life jackets, because he wanted me to be a strong swimmer because it was a survival skill for us and our environment. Little pieces like that are often misunderstood, but can be great gifts. I’ve saved myself from drowning many times.
We have a wealth of literary journals (online and hard copy) at the moment that draw upon diverse communities and regions and that underline the fact poetry is currently piping hot in Aotearoa. Pick up a journal and you will find emerging voices, our poetry elders and everything in between – and that is as it should be. Loud quiet political personal inventive funny heartbreaking groundbreaking traditional mesmerising …. the list is endless when it comes to local poetry.
Landfall offers poetry, prose, reviews and artwork and comes out of Otago University Press with Emma Neale the current editor. It boosts its poetry review section by posting a bunch on line at the beginning of every month, and hosts the annual Landfall essay competition and the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize.
The latest issue is a hit with me on the poetry front because there is a pleasing diversity of voice and style, and a number of poems that have stuck to me like glue, and that I have shared with others.
But first the essays. The Landfall Essay competition is always on my annual must-read list. Emma selected the 2019 winning entries. In her introduction she talked about the way the best essays might be self-essays but also move beyond that to the gritty or glittery challenges of the world. I always think of an essay as a testing ground for ideas and at times a testing ground for how you convey those ideas which is why I love to read them. Essays can generate contagious feelings; but again, how that feeling is stitched into the writing gets tested. Emma’s introduction made me want to get back to an essay I have been working on for a year or so but, more importantly, read the winning entries.
Alice Miller’s winning essay, ‘The Great Ending’, closes in on the year 1918, on a false armistice and on Armistice Day. She juxtaposes events and anecdotes gleaned from newspaper cuttings and books and produces one of the best end paragraphs I have read in ages. A glorious read. I mused upon a future little handbook of essays that offer a selection of collaged years and a re-invigoration of history. Susan Wardell’s runner-up essay, ‘Shining Through the Skull’, is equally captivating. After reading Emma’s notes I was really keen to read the other placed essays.
Landfall has always promoted local poetry. Emma has selected an exquisitely contoured mix. On this occasion I find I am drawn to poems featuring various kinds of migration, movement and intimacies.
In Harry Rickett’s standout poem, ‘Pink Blanket’, the poet greets his 92-year-old mother and tries to tell her of his trip to India but she only (seemingly?) pays attention to her bared knee. This is the power of poetry – it takes you to a moment and makes you feel its intimacy. It felt like age as a form of migration.
I replace the blanket, try camels,
horses, donkeys, dogs, finally
an old photo of my long-dead father,
taken by her. ‘Do you know who
this is?’ She shakes her head.
She refolds the pink blanket,
exposes her bare left knee,
gives me a nose-crinkling grin.
Aiwa Pooamorn’s ‘A Thai-Chinese Stay-at-Home Mother gets Political’ gets both political, personal and utterly topical in a must-read kind of way. Home is both movement and necessary anchor.
I’m as Thai as Pad Thai noodles
invented to be the national dish
by military dictator Phibun
when actually it’s quite Chinese
all to create the myth
of a homogeneous monoculture
Thailand the land of smiles
pledge allegiance to
chaat (the Thai nation state)
satsana (the Buddhist religion)
phramahakesat (the demi-god King)
Siobhan Harvey’s ‘Someone Other than Yourself’ moves out from the sharp point of her migration from the UK, in a poem that completely unsettled me with its slender but potent admissions and wavery pronoun. The writing is sure-footed, the images clear, and the overall effect strange, intimate, puzzling. This is the kind of poem that adheres. I tried to select a piece to quote but the poem needs to stay together as if taking a bit out is a form of damage.
Landfall issue is rich in poetry that leaves its traces upon you in diverse ways: poems by essa may ranapiri, Tusiata Avia, Jodie Dalgleish, Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod, Trevor Hayes, Helen Yong, Jane Arthur, Michael Mintrom, Jessica Le Bas, Richard Reeve do just that.
A bonus: In June 2017 a poem, ‘StreetNOISE’, attached to a building in Moray Place, closed down Dunedin’s central business district. The bomb squad was called, a court case ensure but charges were dropped. Justin Spiers offers seven images of the poet, artist and musician, L.$.D. Fascinating.
Plus David Eggleton’s picks for the Caselberg Trust prize, loads of fiction and reviews to get your reading teeth or heart into (so to speak).
22 October, Blyth, HBAF18
Written by Tusiata Avia
Directed by Anapela Polata’ivao
Review by Nafanua Kersel
‘I’m starting at The End. The End, with standing ovation done, when lights return to remind us of where we are in time and space. When patrons look around them for reconnection with belongings, or companions. It’s the space where some leave quickly, while others are left sitting with questions. Where I see strained faces, some with eyes that shuffle more than the feet of their owners. There is a sense of “what did we just see”. I turn to a friend, a wahine Māori, we talk, smile and cry. I hear someone say “well, that was eye-opening”. Yes, for some it was. For others it was heart-expanding. For me there was also gut-wrenching where I felt exposed down to the bone, to the guts, with the intricacies of my inner make-up being inspected and clucked over, deemed too complex to put away. My heart is racing, my spine and scalp tingling.’
Sue Wootton will use the fellowship to work on an historical novel. She says: ‘I’m proud and delighted to be the recipient of the 2018 Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship. It’s really invigorating to receive this vote of confidence in my project, and wonderful to know that I can now dedicate a sustained stretch of time to work on my second novel, which begins during the 1948 polio epidemic and explores the effects of this on one NZ family’.
Sue Wootton’s poetry, fiction and essays are widely published in New Zealand and internationally, and her work has been recognised in a number of awards and competitions, including the International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, the Caselberg Poetry Prize, the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Prize, the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition and the NZ Poetry Society International Competition. Her debut novel, Strip (Mākaro Press), was longlisted for the fiction prize in the 2017 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and her fifth poetry collection, The Yield (Otago University Press) was a finalist in the 2018 poetry category of these prestigious national awards.
Selection panel convener David Hill commented: ‘Sue Wootton is a versatile and much-admired writer, with a growing track record in both poetry and prose. Her sample of work is distinguished by writing that is both adventurous and accessible.’