Tag Archives: Selina Tustitala Marsh

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Dark Sparring: this collection takes you to the sun and the moon and the clouds

Selina KBox Image

Selina Tusitala Marsh, Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013  photo credit: Emma Hughes Photography

Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent and teaches at The University of Auckland. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate from its English Department with a PhD. Her debut poetry collection, Fast Talkin’ PI, was awarded the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010. She represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Parnassus event in 2012.

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Selina’s second collection, Dark Sparring, lifts off from her debut in extraordinary ways. The poems embrace a variety of subject matter and forms, but they are held together by a voice that has grown in both strength and lightness. Selina writes out of two experiences that might seem opposed but that are equally linked both in life and on the line — the death of her mother and her adoption of Muay Thai kickboxing.

I have heard Selina perform these new poems twice in the past week or so. On each occasion, the strength of the poetry resonated in the air. At her launch, Selina was accompanied by Tim Page’s musical layerings, and she interrupted a kickboxing poem with a round or two of sparring in the room. The music and words fed upon each other with infectious energy, and the kickboxing was like a trope for the poems — graceful, startling, strong. Her performance was energised and entertaining (a definite wow factor). On the second occasion, Selina read at the Ladies Litera-Tea without musical accompaniment and without a round or two of sparring. What struck me about this performance was the way silence was a significant part of the poetry palette. The little and longer pauses heightened the emotional, personal and political kick.

The poems in this new collection embrace both the personal and the political; the former reaches out and draws you in close to private moments (a poetry of intimacy) while the latter is a voice that probes and exposes (a poetry of conscience). Both are fueled by Selina’s ear; by her attentiveness to the musicality of the line.

In the terrific opening poem, ‘Matariki,’ the poet is guiding a young writer named Matariki (who has no idea of the constellation and its meaning) in a writing workshop. The poet’s response on what to write serves as a perfect gateway into the book: ‘write what you remember/ write your lost and found/ write the toiling of the year’s grief/ write the seeding of new ground.’

Sound is always paramount. In ‘Chant from Matiatia to Orapiu,’ the words are like present-participle, daisy chains between the two locations with rhyme building the linking stems. The words zigzag down the page like bird flight or like an autobiography of movement. Then there are the single lines, without rhyme and without present participle that check you momentarily. Selina’s fondness for the present tense (a kind of be-here-now philosophy) accentuates the moment and movement.

The political poems (as with Selina’s first book) explore notions of identity, representation, genealogy, tradition, ethnicity and so on. There is always an acknowledgement of the line of writers (mostly women) from which Selina writes. Albert Wendt is there in ‘Emailing Albert.’ There is the poem about the Somali refugees that make words ache and rebound in new ways in the poetry workshop. This poem’s structure is handled beautifully so that it becomes an occasion for both poetry and politics with elegance and a sharp edge. There is the poem, ‘NZ, the Lucky Country,’ that is like a homage to here, unblinkered, incantatory, thankful. It is like a breath of fresh air.

The poems that centre upon the death of her mother, are deeply personal, utterly moving, and stall you, but they have a touch of the grace and strength of the kickboxer. These poems are highly original as Selina has moved about her boxing ring falling upon different shapes and forms to house her experience. The titles suggest this terrific movement; ’30 ways to Look at a Mother,’ ’13 Ways of Looking at Mourning,’ ‘To War with Story,’ ‘On Plagarism’ (which is after Bill Manhire and is all for killing off cancer and breaching copyright). ‘Genesis’ is like a biblical tale or parable on the origins of cancer, on cell warfare. These poems tug at you, stop you, soothe you, make you laugh out loud, and they feed empathy. In ‘A Formal Dinner,’ Selina moves you from smiling at the need to provide so much food at the funeral to a heart twinge at the absence of the table setter. These poems work as glorious symphonies of sound on the page but they also work as acute and tender tributes to a beloved.

In the debut collection, ‘Fast Talkin’ Pi,’ became a vital mantra for Pacific-Island women and women in general. In this second collection, Selina has returned to the poem by way of ‘Kickboxing Cancer’, but now the poem opens it arms wider to take in all women and a more personalised, particular woman. And then the poem holds its arms close in an intimate hug as this is a poem that comes out of love and death and loss.

Selina’s second collection lifts you out of your senses. She lifts her grief out of her body and  translates it into word music on the page and in the air (there is A CD in the back). Reading this collection takes you to the sun and the moon and the clouds, and then returns you to your own patch of ground to grieve and celebrate and challenge. I adore it.

Thanks To Auckland University Press I have a copy of this book to someone who likes or comments on this post or either of the two interviews. Thanks AUP!

Poetry Shelf Interview

Auckland University Press page

nzepc page

New Zealand Book Council page

Radio NZ interview

Best New Zealand Poems here

Blackmail Press page

Selina Tusitala Marsh talks to Poetry Shelf (Part 1): It is my voice as woman, kickboxer, and Pacifican


Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. The first Pacific Islander to graduate from the University of Auckland with a PhD in English, she now lectures in the Department. Her debut collection, Fast Talkin’ PI (Auckland University Press, 2009), won the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the NZ Post Book Awards. Selina represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Poetry Parnassus event. Her second collection, Dark Sparring (Auckland University Press, 2013), is to be launched in Auckland tonight. Selina is a strong role model for emerging poets and writers in our Pacific communities, through the poetry she pens, the courses she teaches, the ideas she circulates, the writers she mentors and the schools she visits.

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Selina’s first book has two lives — on the page and in performance. For some poets, one is a dilute form of the other, but with Selina the strength in one is the strength in the other. Her voice is, as her poetry underlines, a voice in a long line of women writing, and in particular Pacific-Island women writing. She acknowledges her literary forbears. Her voice is sweetened with musical honey, but it is also unafraid to bite as she questions her place in the world. The long poem, ‘Fast Talkin’ PI,’ has captured the ears and hearts of festival goers around the world as she pulls us into the thick of what it means to be human. This list of what a woman can be and do (in debt to Anne Waldman) is a song in the ear, an infectious beat and rhyme momentum and an act of liberation from straightened stereotypes —  and it gets under your skin. Selina has the courage to speak out, and her ideas are not veiled beneath hint and allusion, but as she speaks, you get the textured delights of poetry. Like several New Zealand women, Selina is showing that Performance Poetry (or Spoken Word Poetry) is a vital part of our poetry culture. It exists in a spectrum of subtly, passion, politics, heartbreak, musical chords, love, connections, word play, autobiography, body dance, tradition and experimentation.

In celebration of her new book, Selina kindly agreed to be interviewed by Poetry Shelf. I will post a review of Dark Sparring next week. The Photo Credit is Emma Hughes Photography. Thanks to Auckland University Press, I have giveaway copy of Selina’s new book for someone who likes or comments on this post or the review I will post next week.

Selina KBox Image

The Interview:

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I’ve never mentioned this before but when I was young my dad, who worked in a stainless steel factory, made us kids a stainless steel slide. My favourite past time was to lie, tummy down, on the slide and peer into the warped face staring back.  I’d also stare at the reflected warped sky, birds, trees, other people, but mostly this face that was mine and not mine.  Then I’d sing and chant to this other self. I think, without getting too psychoanalytical,  that those endless hours went some way to being conscious of me as other, and of my words as potentially independent of myself. Something that exists beyond my body and is emitted through another body that looks somewhat like me but isn’t me.  That duality continues through life.  I’m an incredibly social person and yet, need time alone, and enjoy deep one-to-one friendships.  I also used to while away entire Saturdays reading books in bed, pretending the backyard fence was a horse (and riding it), and got really good at Galaga at the corner takeaways.

Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?

Undoubtedly yes.  Because it gave me books, books from all over the globe and introduced me to the world of post colonial theory where marginalised voices were recognised and given space to flourish. It gave me a lens with which to view the gaping absence of voices like mine – Pacific, political, raw, performative. In terms of being exposed to New Zealand poetry, it was Hone Tuwhare’s gutsy voice and concrete grindings of the line that got me excited, as well as Sam Hunt’s embodied lyricism and bardish behaviours!  These poets thrilled me because they made poetry relevant to my way of being.  Yet, I didn’t write in response to anyone else’s poetry, that is, it didn’t feel as if poetry with a capital ‘p’ belonged to me until I met the words of black American women poets like Maya Angelou and Audrey Lorde. And coming across the black feminist theory of bell hooks was also a game changer.  Suddenly the right to write and claim space was not only an option, it was a responsibility, not only to one’s perceived community, but one’s self.

When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

The earliest poem I can remember being enamoured with was ‘The Highwayman’.  It simply stunned me and I became obsessed with its drama, sacrifice, violence, and redemption, along with its haunting clip clopping rhythms.  I had an illustrated book of poems and its picture also haunted me.  All the other poems in the book were babyish in comparison.  This was adult and therefore, a real poem!

Your poems are as alive on the page as they are when you perform them. They draw upon a passionate engagement with life (there is heart at work), but they also have a political edge. Plus of course there is the vitality of sound — from repetition to rhythm to rhyme. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I guess it begins with movement, like, something has to move me emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  And then it has to fit right in my mouth, which doesn’t necessarily mean it must rhyme, but that the words must be able to mill about together on the tongue. Fitting in the mouth and on the tongue often means that the words dance with each other, shadowing each other’s rhythms.  Juxtapositions are important in order to disrupt expectation and widen the reading audience.  For example, what happens when Muay Thai kickboxing, a traditional Tuvalu dance, and grief move together in the same space, on the same page?  And then a poem has to move someone else.  The most gratifying response to a poem I’ve received lately was when I penned the long poem ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ on the walls of the old Waiheke Police Station holding cell (converted into the Waikare Maori Art Gallery).  It’s four walls became the four sides of a boxing ring.  Janine, the curator, told me about a couple of tourists who came to see the exhibition.  The husband couldn’t get his wife to leave.  For a good half hour she sat in the cell  reading and weeping. That’s gratifying.

What PI poets might not have come to our attention that you would recommend?

Grace Teuila Taylor launches her first collection, ‘Afakasi Speaks’, published by *, in Hawai’i. She is a stunning Niu poet able to bridge the page with the stage and back again. She co-founded the South Auckland Poets Collective, gives back to the community, is sensitive, strong and humble.  I love Grace and her work.  She really demonstrates how poetry can be an emancipatory vehicle in so many ways.

Do you think your writing has changed since your startling debut with Fast Talking PI? For example, how does your new collection link back to that? And then move away from it?

The signature poem in Dark Sparring is ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ and is a distant cousin to ‘Fast Talking PI’.  They both echo Anne Waldeman’s ‘Fast Speaking Woman’ – the bones are there in both.  End line repetition, its chant aesthetic, the reclaiming ‘I’ – it’s all related and ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ is a return to the woman- centred focus Waldeman began with.  Its Pacificness is less overt, which isn’t a bad thing.  It’s more implicit in the tone, mood, and empowering politics of the piece. Subtle references to Tangaroa (Maori God of the Sea) and Tagaloa (Samoan Supreme Being) are made but a Pacificness pervades the entire piece – it is the centre, not the margin – it is my voice as woman, kickboxer, and Pacifican!


Auckland University Press page

nzepc page

New Zealand Book Council page

Radio NZ interview

Best New Zealand Poems here

Blackmail Press page