This weekend friends, family and poets gathered to join CK Stead celebrate his Poet Laureateship and the presentation of the tokotoko. It was a marvelous occasion that will stand in my memory for a long time. The weekend featured two key events. The formal and informal proceedings at Matahiwi Marae on the Saturday morning and a Poets’ Night Out in the evening.
With exemplary dedication to New Zealand poetry, Te Mata Estate’s Peter Buck and poet Bill Manhire established the award twenty years ago. In 2007, The National Library took over the administration, although the Buck family still remain involved, and donates a stipend of wine to the Laureates. Unlike most of the visitors, I got called onto the marae on the Friday evening with Chris Szekely and Peter Ireland from the National Library, and a number of their colleagues, including Oliver Stead and his son Isaac. Peter was the driving force behind detail of the weekend, and Ian Wedde’s moving tribute to him at The Circle of Laureates hit the mark. Thoughtful, attentive, committed to making a celebration fit for a Laureate. His back-up team are pretty special too (Joan, Cellia Joe, Lynette, Jason and Oliver).
Kaumatua Tom Mulligan and other members of the marae welcomed us with much aroha.
Joan, Cellia, Jason and I practiced some waiata back in the whare nui. CJ on ukulele.We crack up when CJ says all her family knows she can’t sing and she just fakes it. We are all fooled and I wonder what I can’t do but could fake and get away with.
On Friday night we hived off to Havelock North (one poet, five librarians) for dinner at Maine where the food was divine. We fell greedily into the comfort of the best hot chips ever and with that salty comfort digging deep into our bones were ready for whatever the weekend delivered. One plate of salmon with the best Niçoise salad and I was ready for a weekend of poetry and celebration.
I got up early to walk in the near rain and saw a black cat stock still on a fence post eyeballing my lack of sleep. Not budging an inch until a car came down the gravel road and sent the cat sliding down like a snake into the golden corn. I had no idea what it meant. But it glowed with options.
CK Stead was called onto the marae with his whanau (around 20), poets Gregory O’Brien and Chris Price, her partner Robbie Duncan, and other guests. To have such family support felt very special. He is poetry but he is most definitely family. His daughter had travelled from London with her children.
After the formal speeches and the waiata exchanges, the tokotoko was presented to Karl by a kuia. She had such presence. Jacob Scott, who carves the tokotoko for each Poet Laureate said he had wanted to make a tokotoko for a gentleman and a scholar that could be used on a daily basis if needed. He had gained inspiration from Karl’s poem, ‘Scoria.’
Karl responded with a speech that mixed graciousness, humbleness, love. He said he was not only honoured by the role but honoured by the marae: ‘by being here, by your presence, by your aroha.’
Before he read a few poems, Karl talked about place, about the importance of one’s childhood occupation of place, and the way that place becomes one of return. He grew up with three maunga facing him whichever way he turned. He also underlined the primacy of poetry for him since his teenage days and the way he has ‘always come back to poems.’ With much humbleness, he added,’that’s why it is extraordinary at this late stage in my career as a writer to be honoured as Poet Laureate.’
Karl paused in his korero and then said; ‘I am getting advice from the tokotoko. We have to get used to one another.’
At that we all paused.
I am delighted that the Poet-Laureate role honours our elders, our writing taonga. It felt good to be part of the protocol. The talking. The listening. The exchange.
MC-ed by Marty Smith, the informal part of the morning was like a miniature poetry reading. As his invited poets, Chris, Gregory and I read a couple of poems and Chris sang a Bill Manhire song with her partner Robbie. What made this section special were the performances from local secondary students. One student used the analogy of a bird to explore the Poet Laureate’s original function to write poems on dictated subjects. She was keen to let a Laureate fly free! A student played a solo violin piece, one sang a Māori version of ‘Hallelujah,’ while another wrapped up the morning with Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance.’ Wonderful! I pictured us all dancing slow motion with the wind in our hair. Instead the wind whipped the music sheet up and away.
It was a morning of korero, waiata, music and poetry and it felt good to inhale both words and song. Nourishing. We moved to the whare kai where a tremendous lunch of fresh local produce matched the hubbub of conversation. You don’t get to experience many days like this in your lifetime. Such warmth, and connections.
Marty Smith was the MC extraordinaire in a poetry reading of two halves. It’s ages since I have heard Chris and Greg read, but to hear them read in this context was something special with poems handpicked for the Laureate occasion. Greg read a terrific poem now showcased in the selection of Best NZ Poems from 2015, while Chris confirmed that her new book is her best to date (we have an interview in the pipeline!). Three young opera singers from Project Prima Volta wowed us with two arias. The room befitted the occasion: white cloths on tables, astonishing flower/plant arrangements, platters of food, Te Mata wine. Karl started and ended the night and showed very clearly why he is Laureate. He read across his range and his last set gave me goosebumps. The clarity of voice, the poetic strata, the acute detail that makes you want to pick up your pen and write.
Breakfast and poroporoaki for everyone on the marae. The goodbyes. At breakfast Karl and I talked about the weekend and how we both spent chunks of the night wide awake as though we had to rehearse the next day and analyse the day before. I probably had about two or three hours sleep a night and it seemed like a state of wakefulness that kept me on high alert. What had happened, what was about to happen. I had brought seven books to match most moods (everyone laughed at my big bag of duvet and books) but I only got to read snatches of The Lie Tree. The gap between YA fantasy and the marae was unbridgeable. I got up early and walked my way into wakefulness before Emma Scott, Jacob’s sister, took me out to the river mouth and then coffee at her brother’s house. To see the meeting waters, where river meets ocean, to soak up the gleam of sun on waves and estuary, felt like a poem on the surface of the world. We talked and we looked. Emma is a stone mason. We talked about poetry and we talked about stone. We talked about what holds things together. It matters that we hold up our treasured poets. Give them a place to stand and speak.
There was much korero after breakfast, and song. Chris and Robbie sang a mesmerising Bob Dylan number, almost lullabying me into necessary slumber.
Peter Ireland, running on empty after little sleep, spoke with characteristic thought and thanked everyone personally. It felt like a garland of words to wear out into the world of planes and trains and motorways. Or for me, a place of solitude and bush.
Jacob said it beautifully. He said that the Poet Laureate was significant for the marae. That it spread the hapu’s power and influence. That this is now Karl’s place as well. The undercurrent is that poetry matters. Jacob said it is significant ‘that the Poet Laureate can articulate the thoughts and expressions of who we are. Of what we can do. Of what we have got. And what we could do.’ Like a bird.
We all felt in debt to Tom Mulligan and his drawing together of this poetry clan. With much aroha and generosity of place, stories and a willing ear.
Our heads are full of days we cannot remember, but for many of us, this weekend will not be one of them.
Thank you. Especially Karl, The National Library and Matahiwi Marae.
A quick trip into Havelock North to drink the best coffee and eat the best lemon tart in a cafe on the brink of closing for the day. Peter was a very good guide.
The writers, friends and family ate at Pipi Cafe, a cafe renowned for its love of poetry and its excellent pizzas in Havelock North.
Poets’ Night Out
The last morning.