Sleeping with Stones, Serie Barford, Anahera Press, 2021
Serie reads ‘The midwife and the cello’
Serie reads ‘Piula blue’
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. Her latest poetry collection, Sleeping With Stones, was launched during Matariki, 2021.
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.
Briar Wood grew up in South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. Until 2012, she lived and worked as a lecturer in Britain. Welcome Beltane (Palores Press, 2012) made poetic links between family histories and contemporary places. The most recent collection Rāwāhi (Anahera Press, 2017) is focused through a return to Northland places where her Te Hikutū ki Hokianga, Ngāpuhi Nui whakapapa resonates with ecological concerns.
Briar Wood’s poetry collection gathers, with a wide embrace, details of travel and living, and as the lived-in world grows on the page, the poems set up all manner of conversations. This book draws upon whakapapa, love, relations, ecology, the past and the present. Its warmth and its empathy are infectious. I love the way you can take two poems, such as these, and listen to the talk across and beyond their bridges.
Briar grew up in South Auckland and has returned to Northland places where her Te Hikutū ki Hokianga, Ngāpuhi Nui whakapapa resonates with ecological concerns.
Auckland poet, Simone Kaho, is from New Zealand and Tongan ancestry. She earned her MA in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her poetry has been published in journals such as JAAM, Turbine, and The Dominion Post. She joins Jesse to read from her book Lucky Punch.
Simone Kaho, an Auckland poet with Tongan ancestry, graduated from the International Institute of Modern Letters with a Masters in Creative Writing. Her debut poetry collection, Lucky Punch, delivers a sequence of lucid prose poems or small fictions. At the heart—and this glorious arrival has heart—family, friendship, love. Scenes are so evocative you can smell and taste them. Anecdotes offer honeyed soft patches with sharp spikes.
There was a flurry of bush between us and the neighbours. One bush grew glowing green seed capsules we wore as earrings, there was a sticky bamboo hedge and the rotten log sat solidly in a gap. The bush was hick enough for birds to nest in, dark patches in the twigs that cried in spring. Sometimes we’d hear strangled shrieks and sprint to retrieve dying bodies from cats’ mouths; saving lives for a few months. Dad said we’re allowed to pick flowers to put on graves but otherwise it’s a waste.
Serie Barford is of Samoan and European descent and lives in Aotearoa. Her poetry and short stories have been published in literary online anthologies such as Snorkel, Trout, Blackmail Press, Cordite Poetry Review and Jacket and in recent print editions such as Maui Ola (AUP:2013), Pacific Identities and Wellbeing (Routledge 2013), Essential New Zealand Poems (Random House:2014) and Whispers and Vanities (Huia:2014). Her third poetry collection, Tapa Talk, was published by Huia in 2007 and her fourth collection, Entangled Islands, was released by Anahera Press in December 2015. Serie was the recipient of the 2011 Seresin Landfall Residency.
To celebrate the arrival of her new collection, Serie agreed to answers a few questions for Poetry Shelf.
Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?
I clearly remember the first poem I wrote outside of a classroom setting. I was at primary school and had spent the night with my paternal grandmother. I wrote a poem about the rain and her flooded garden. Her spontaneous delight kick-started my love affair with poetry. A few weeks later I declared, “When I grow up I’m going to write books!”
I had a teacher who favoured Donald Grave’s writing principles. She facilitated a process that encouraged students to write authentically. We were allowed to go to sleep or write freely every Friday afternoon. Our journals were collected and locked in a cupboard when the bell rang. We were told “your words are safe with me.” The teacher scribbled personal responses to our ramblings. By the end of the year we were writing as quickly as we could to maximise our precious hour. She was a sympathetic audience and we trusted her with stories from our lives. Many years later I met this teacher again and told her how important the writing hour had been to the class. She laughed and said, “I just wanted peace and quiet on a Friday afternoon!”
Those Friday afternoon writing sessions were the closest school ever came to validating the storytelling environment of my home. I still like to write conversationally and shares stories as if they’re anecdotal recounts.
I also liked the family picnics, parties and meals that the maternal (Samoan) side of my family shared all the time. I still get a “buzz” when I walk into a crowded room and know that everyone present has a familial story that relates us by blood or association.
I started relating to other people’s poetry when I discovered a slim volume entitled Some Modern Poetry from Western Samoa in the Wesley bookshop in Apia in 1975. It was edited by Albert Wendt. I was hooked by the opening stanza of Rupert Petaia’s poem:
I was six when
Mama was careless
she sent me to school
five days a week
One day I was
kidnapped by a band
of Western philosophers
armed with glossy-pictured
‘Holder of B.A.
and M.A. degrees……..
These days I refer to Albert as my “literary papa’ and I still have this book on my bookshelf. It cost 50 sene (cents) at the time. I won a ‘Special Prize for English’ when I was in Form Five (Year 11) and was presented with a handsome edition of The Poems of John Keats. We didn’t study non-European poetry when I was at school and we weren’t rewarded for our scholastic achievements with “other voice” books. John Keats resides on a varnished shelf beside Whetu Moana, Mauri Ola and other books with a South Pacific focus.
What poets inspired you when you started writing poetry as an adult?
I wasn’t inspired by any of the poets I studied at varsity until I encountered their work years later in non-institutional settings. One day my Samoan grandmother asked me at the dinner table, “What did they teach you today?” I couldn’t say that the professor had talked about cocks and sexual desire and sexual politics because my maternal family hadn’t left their beloved homeland and made huge sacrifices so that I could study poetry about orgasms. We were studying Adrienne Rich’s Reforming the Crystal. I am trying to imagine how it feels to you to want a woman
trying to hallucinate desire centered in a cock focused like a burning-glass
desire without discrimination: to want a woman like a fix
To put this in context, my grandmother was born in 1912, was a teenage bride and the blooded sheet from her wedding night was proudly paraded through the village by her mother the next morning. My grandmother was the daughter of a taupou (a ceremonial female village virgin) and had witnessed public deflowerings of taupou when she was a child. We talked openly about such matters. But the poetry and sexual politics I studied in Stage I English in 1979 was a world away from our dinner table and only increased my sense of isolation at university.
I was inspired and supported by poets I met at the Poetry Live evenings during the 1980s and early 1990s. This was the first time I’d heard Maori and Pasifika poets live. I listened to John Pule, David Eggleton, Robert Sullivan, Albert Livingstone Refiti, Michael O’Leary, Emily Karaka, Haare Williams and Apirana Taylor, as well as many other wonderful poets. Through them I learned to appreciate poets such as Hone Tuwhare, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Sam Hunt and James K. Baxter.
In 1984 I bought a couple of volumes of poetry while I was waiting for a bus in Los Angeles; Relearning the Alphabet by Denise Levertov and The Women and the Men by Nikki Giovanni. I read and reread their poems as I flew from LA to Alaska to Dusseldorf and felt inspired to write. I returned to Aotearoa-New Zealand a few weeks later with a clutch of poems that appeared in Plea to the Spanish Lady, the first of two experimental collections published by Hard Echo Press.
I only read “other voice” writers while I was struggling with identity issues but now that I have found my personal voice and tūrangawaewae (standing place) I have eclectic tastes, although I’m still drawn to to the works of Polynesian writers when I want to be nourished and swamped by a sense of familiarity and belonging.
Your poetry is so evocative. As reader, it is as though you can absorb a poem through senses, bite into flavor and smell the poem’s very essence. What kinds of things do you want your poetry to do?
I like my poetry to feel ‘alive’ and hope that it will continue to contribute to the canon of Pasifika literature and writing in general that is flowing from the South Pacific and connecting us to people around the world. I imagine the universe as an infinite tapa canvas with tusili’i (fine, wavy lines) connecting disparate beings and ecosystems. I’m fascinated by the Samoan concept of ‘Ia te’u le va’ – to take care of/cherish relationships across Spacetime. In ‘Connections’ a poem from Tapa Talk (Huia:2007) I wrote:
there’s no such thing as empty space
just distances between things
made meaningful by fine lines
connecting designs and beings
in the seen and unseen worlds
distances can be shortened
made intimate or dangerous
until the connections weakens
finally withers away
I want my writing to explore and express connections and disconnections by positioning myself and my audience within various communities of belonging, as if we are plotted on a sociogram. Each narrative maps my emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual journey through Spacetime. By engaging with my journey the audience fixes itself upon my (metaphorical) tapa canvas. We are connected long enough to hongi. To mingle breath. To experience the human condition on the same page for a few seconds.
Your new collection, Entangled Islands, is like an album of anecdotes and occasions transcribed lyrically. It feels both political and personal. What was important to you as you wrote?
Entangled Islands is attentive to liminal zones and explores blurred boundaries where states of being and historical events co-exist with political and personal pou whenua – posts that mark territorial boundaries or places and events of significance.
I chose the motif of a fala su’i, a woven pandanus mat fringed with wool, to represent a Spacetime matrix. Each poem or short story is a co-ordinate that can be located and mapped within one of seven embroidered panels. Each panel is a chapter. Entangled Islands begins with the arrival of a life force and ends with a life force returning to its namesake – Sirius/Takurua. The audience traverses Spacetime with the me, the narrator, guiding them over trails and revealing pou whenua that stand upon the matrix mat demanding attention, understanding and empathy.
I have exercised a certain amount of poetic license because traditional fala su’i are fringed but not embroidered like the Cook Island tivaevae. However, descendants of Polynesian migrants are fusing tradition and innovation, and I was inspired by an embroidered fala su’i that was for sale at a festival. It was a syncretic creation and did not look out of place in cosmopolitan Aukilani (Auckland).
Entangled Islands explores and reinforces the concept of Ia teu le va. Albert Wendt describes the Va as the between-ness that relates or holds separate entities and things together in the unity-in-all; the space that is context, giving meaning to things.
I love the title. It can signify knots, webs, even braid. I got a sense of tangles that are personal and tangles that implicate communities, history, patches of the world. Tell me about the tangles you trace.
The introduction explains that “ ‘Entangled Islands’ was the first in a series of exhibitions held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum to mark the WWI centenary period. Damon Salesa’s speech on opening night referred to the colonial, genealogical and spatial entanglements that resulted from New Zealand’s occupation of Western Samoa … Our family history is entangled with colonial expansion, suppression, intermarriage, migration and migrants’ dreams of a better life for their children on the islands where they live.”
You are warmly invited to the launch of Serie Barford’s poetry and short story collection, Entangled Islands, published by Anahera Press, and held in conjunction with Poetry Live. With music by Brendan and Alison Turner, and readings from the book by Serie. MC-ed by Kiri Piahana-Wong. Entangled Islands will be launched by Karlo Mila. Food and drink available from the bar. Thanks to Creative New Zealand for supporting the publication of this book.
8 pm: Brendan and Alison Turner (folk/blues duo)
8.45 pm: Book launch
9.15 pm: Poetry Live resumes with open mic – all welcome to read
In 2012, I wrote an article for Metro magazine called ‘Mouths Wide Shut’ which tackled the issue of racism in New Zealand. The article focused on the implications, both personal and public, of choosing to remain silent, or do nothing, when confronted with racism. After writing the piece, I collaborated with artist Janet Lilo to stage a social / artistic intervention whereby Janet took photographs of me boarding a public bus in Auckland with my mouth covered with black duct tape. We rode the early morning bus from Avondale to Point Chevalier and during the trip not one person asked us what we were doing. People seemed to feel more comfortable ignoring us and most people looked uncomfortable. It was this experience and the subsequent photographs that inspired the poem.
Leilani Tamu is a poet, social commentator, Pacific historian and former New Zealand diplomat. In 2013 she was the Fulbright / Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. Leilani’s work has appeared in a diverse range of anthologies and her debut book of poetry The Art of Excavation was published in August 2014.
Paula’s note about the poem:
I had no idea about the genesis of the poem when I first read it but it really struck me. Stuck with me. I love the mesh of surprise and political bite. The title and the phrase, ‘mouth taped shut,’ were the initial hooks. It first brought to mind Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in 1955. Leilani’s title is an oxymoron yet it makes sense as the closed mouth of the title speaks volumes. It is a little cipher to carry through the poem. By being ‘sentenced’ to silence, willfully or otherwise, the taped mouth is both potent and resonant. It cuts into your state of ease. For me, it caught hold of centuries of thought, loose conversations, anecdotes and theory on women speaking and women silent, that reach back as far as Aristotle’s ‘A woman’s crown is her silence.’ The poem suggested to me that subject isn’t yet dead and there is still much to be said on the matter. Who is silence? Why is she silence? How is she silenced? Does it matter that she is a woman?
Yet this poem isn’t just issue based. It is vital, vibrant and rich with possibilities.
When I hit the word ‘silence’ in its own pillow of white space, I was tugged in a completely different direction. Now I was lead to the notion that you can observe and absorb and thus understand the world so much better if you are quiet (like the chatterer in the bush doesn’t get to experience the bush beyond the filter or screen of talk).
Then you reach the poem’s passenger and her distance. This returns you to the title and the poignant phrase. The passenger’s stance ignites thoughts on how we navigate difference and how difference is so often held at arm’s length because it is threatening, unfathomable, confusing. The notion that you can observe and absorb and thus understand the world so much better if you are quiet is tilted, flipped on its head. You get to observe, absorb and understand the world more through interrogation, through conversation. The poem is both the public bus and the public performance and it is over to us to draw close and raise questions. I love the way this poem is both understated and packs a punch. I have barely begun to pick at its threads.
Maybe you get to observe, absorb and understand the world by both silence (observation) and engagement (questioning).
Jess Holly Bates is a Pākehā poet, particularly a spoken-word poet, and has studied English and Chemistry at The University of Auckland. Her Masters Thesis (she gained First Class Honours) is entitled ‘Revolting Others; Disgusted Bodies as a Function of Colonial Continuity in Aotearoa NZ and the Pacific.’ She did a Rising-Voices workshop which spurred her desire to write spoken word poetry. Her first piece, ‘P.I.P: Pakeha Identity Poetry’ was performed at the Rising Voices Slam in 2011. Since then she has performed in various places; most notably, REAL FAKE WHITE DIRT, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (with a four-star review).
Anahera Press (publisher is Kiri Piahana Wong) published REAL FAKE WHITE DIRT in 2014 and it is a terrific debut. It is the first Pākehā poet that this press has published and I can see why Jessie was chosen. The poems overlap and interlace with a vibrant cutting bite. This is wide open, loud politics that navigates identity issues face on. Tough. Uncompromising. Edgy. I loved the urgent challenging punch of ideas but I also love the way the words on the page split and weave into poetry. There is glorious word play at work. On the page, phrases flit and float. You have to keep your eyes roving as this is not conventional poetic forms/form (although not exactly unconventional as you can trace back examples of this for decades). I see it as poetry misbehaviour. There is enviable rhyme (taxes/ masses, bleached/ keen, schtict/ poetic). There is leapfrogging assonance and the aural allure of repetition. Repeated things gain flesh in shifting contexts. Sound enacts political punctual marks. Everything comes back to the white-hot core that this is poetry from the heart and that vital ideas percolate above the surface. Wonderful!
PS: It is a gorgeous production with a striking black cover and a fake patch of grass that in the manner of poetry could equally be something else.