Tag Archives: Tusiata Avia

National Library’s Peter Ireland on the tokotoko event for our Poet Laureate at Matahiwi

 

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Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh, with fue and ‘Tusitala.’ Photographer: Fiona Lam Sheung

 

Poet Laureate, Matahiwi, tokotoko

 

Last weekend at Matahiwi marae near Clive, Selina Tusitala Marsh received her very own tokotoko. Since her appointment as Laureate in August last year she has been inseparable from the National Library’s matua tokotoko, loaned in anticipation of Jacob Scott creating hers. During that time Selina has shared this taonga with ‘three thousand pairs of hands’ from students of St Joseph’s school in Otahuhu – on the tokotoko’s first public outing – to those of Barack Obama on his recent visit to New Zealand. It’s been on protest marches, on half marathons and has even been dunked in a river – by accident, I think. All of this is a far cry from the tokotoko’s more sedate duties of sitting in a display case at the Auckland office of the National Library, and there can be no going back now! This preamble to last weekend speaks volumes for where Selina has taken the work of the Poet Laureate; it’s ‘out there’ like never before.

John Buck of Te Mata Winery in Hawkes started all this off in 1996 when he initiated the Te Mata Estate Laureate Award. Together with the honour, each Laureate received a tokotoko and a generous stipend of wine – and still do. The National Library took over responsibility for the Laureate in 2007 and Michele Leggott was the first Laureate appointed by the Library. Michele joined Selina last weekend with friends and fellow poets Tusiata Avia and Serie Barford. Selina’s family and the National Library were there in good numbers. It was quite a party all in all.

 

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Selina and family with Luka her brother with the guitar, leading a waiata. Photographer: Elizabeth Jones

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Jacob Scott having just unveiled ‘Tusitala’ before presenting it to Selina. Photographer: Elizabeth Jones

 

Selina has been working closely with Jacob on the creation of her tokotoko and was amazed, as we all were, with what Jacob has made. Selina’s tokotoko – ‘Tusitala’ – is carved out of maire, our heaviest indigenous wood, sharing that distinction with the matua tokotoko, to which it has other carved features in common. It is splendidly crowned with a fue or Samoan orator’s fly whisk – and clearer of the air of any unsympathetic spirits. To aid in what will undoubtedly be a lot of travel, the tokotoko is made in several sections and the fue, which was a gift to Selina from His Highness Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, unscrews off the top.

I’m restricting myself to korero about the tokotoko because it is central to the way Selina thinks of her part in the Laureate story, and it feels right to allow Selina first go at capturing the spirit of the weekend. There was poetry aplenty, there was the most talented lot of students performing in Selina’s honour, and cool days on the edge of spoiling rain held at bay I’m sure by the warmth and breadth of Selina’s smile. There was Poets’ Night Out, the public reading on Saturday night in Havelock North, another round of pizza at Pipi café, kaumatua Tom Mulligan presiding with his special brand of manaakitanga and pride in what the Laureate means for Matahiwi. It was thrilling, exhausting, scintillating, as words blazed a trail across the firmament of poetry – and I badly need for it all to happen again this weekend. Most of all there was warmth and celebration and aroha by the bucketful. To close, a salute to Selina, our brilliant ‘Fast Talking PL.’

 

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Matua tokotoko in foreground joining protest against new marina on Waiheke on penguin nesting ground. Photographer unidentified.

 

Peter Ireland, 20 April 2018

 

Peter Ireland has ‘minded’ the Poets Laureate for the National Library since 2007. They seem not to have minded.

 

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NZ Herald and Hawkes Bay Today clip

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comfort and discomfort: A fragmented Writers and Readers Week diary

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All mixed-quality photos without credit by me

 

 

Back home after a head-and-mind-rich time at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington. I loved the change of venue to the waterfront cluster: Circa Theatre, the Festival Club tent, Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, the Michael Fowler Centre and Renouf Foyer along with a few outlying places such as The National Library. The diversity of the programme, as it moved across genre and person, was terrific. With four sessions in each slot, like the Auckland Writers Festival, it was impossible to get to everything you ticked. And that is what festivals are about: an explosion of taste and flavour.

At festivals, I love supporting my friends, going to local writers (especially poets),  much loved international writers, but I also like stepping out of my comfort zone and trying things that are completely unfamiliar. You could say that opting for discomfort along with comfort – because you never know what gold nuggets will gleam – is a festival must.

Things didn’t quite run to plan and I came home with a fragmentary notebook and novels unread as you will see.

But warmest congratulations to Mark Cubey and his team, because this was an excellent occasion that had audiences, including me, buzzing with delight. Thanks for the invite!

 

My fits and starts diary

 

Thursday

I have my checked-in bag with books for every mood because I am off to Wellington’s Writers and Readers Week to mc and read poems at Call Me Royal and chair Capital Poets, Bill Manhire and Mike Ladd. Having sent off my ms on reading New Zealand women’s poetry, this is my poetry treat. I want to go to every poetry event and read novels in the gaps.

I leave the heat and humidity of Auckland’s West Coast and step out into the wet and cold of Wellington. It is a sweet relief to feel like moving and thinking again.

First up is a bus ride to Rimutaka Prison to participate in a writing workshop with some prisoners thanks to Write Where You Are Collective. On the bus are a mix of organisers, festival people, balloted public and a handful of writers. Waiting for the bus, I am asked to speak at the end – what I thought of the event and about writing poetry – and I am really nervous! I have run countless workshops but have rarely if ever been a participant. I summon Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Rain’ and  Y12-me to find courage. I say that while we are not allowed to take the writing out, I am also not going to share the details of the experience in public. And I am not. However the general mood I carry back into the city is absolute enthusiasm for what has taken place. This is special and I would do it again at the drop of a hat.

Next up my hotel room – the chemical cleaners are so strong it triggers an allergic reaction that just grew worse over the five days. I know not to stay in this hotel again – luckily the hyperactive Wellington wind is able to blast through the window each day. My post-writing treat suddenly becomes a matter of survival and definitely not luxuriating in a hotel room reading novels or writing lucid accounts of the sessions for my blog. (I had to flee several sessions with a coughing fit fighting for breath and attendees were wondering whether to call an ambulance.)

I arrive at the VUP book launch late but love the tail end of Damien Wilkin‘s launch speech celebrating new books by Vincent O’Sullivan, Therese Lloyd and Gigi Fenster).  I am sitting here in a toxic chemical haze and the little readings flick about like little hallucinogenic butterflies. I buy the two books, that I don’t have, to read at home.

The Gala Night, Women Changing the World – is kaleidoscopic in range and impact and I am still on planet hallucinogenic butterfly. Renée gets an almost-standing ovation. Selina Tusitala Marsh shares a poem for Teresia Teaiwa (1968 – 2017) to whom she dedicated Tightrope, her most recent book.  I am reminded how important Oceanic foremothers are for Selina, not just as a poet but as a woman forging her way in the world. This is breath-catching (dangerous in my state!). Along with Selina the highlight for me is hearing Harry Josephine Giles read their body twisting, word slipping, gorgeous glorious evocation of life and living. Check out graphic artist Tara Black‘s take.

I am at Loretta eating snapper pie with freekeh topping and it is comfort food cutting through the toxins. I am wondering if poetry is comfort food as much as it is discomfort food and that we need both and everything in between. At the moment I crave comfort.

 

Friday

I have coffee with Jane Parkin who is going to edit my book. We have never met before but it is such a pleasure to talk about the pleasures of punctuation. I didn’t tell her I used to read grammar books and dictionaries in bed at night when I was primary school. I am thinking grammar and punctuation is always on the move – I am so excited she is going to go through my writing with a fine-tooth comb spotting all the infelicities. As a poet I often use a punctuation mark as a guide to breathing and pause. How will this change in prose?

Next up Sarah Laing talks with two American comic artists, Sarah Glidden and Mimi Pond. The conversation flows between the personal and the political with revelation and reflection and I buy both books risking an overweight bag. Tara Black is in the front row drawing her fabulous renditions of a session.

This festival puts comic and graphic novelists centre stage, both local and international. I like that. Check out Tara’s review and images.

This is where my good plans go awry and I have to opt out of a few things. Sadly.

I am lying on the bed with the wind gusting in. I feel like I am in the cleaning cupboard.

I make it to Tusiata Avia in conversation with her cousin Victor Rodger (and an excellent chair not named in the programme). This is mesmerising stuff. I instantly connect with their need for some kind of truth. Truth got a bad rap when I was at university because it is mobile, unreliable and hard to pin down. Yet when I hear or read a writer working from the truth of their experience, (however you see that) it just gets me. Check out Tara‘s review and images.

Tusiata talks about her epileptic history, perhaps for the first time in public, and how she might have an aura on stage. She reads her epileptic poem and it feels tough and vulnerable and full of music that replays a fractured inner state. I want more poems but I am loving the talk. She reads a poem that responds to an ongoing painful knotty experience of Unity Books wanting to check her bags fifteen years ago, on two occasions, because they suspected her of shoplifting. She has mashed up an email from them to show her point of view, to show how racism is embedded in the unconscious way we speak and communicate. She puts pronouns on alert. My heart is breaking because I don’t know how to fix this rift knot. I love Tusiata. I have family connections that link me and Tilly back to my daughter’s parents. I love Marion, bookseller extraordinaire. I don’t know what to do to help.

I have to stand on stage and mc tonight and celebrate poetry and I can’t breathe.

My first book, Cookhouse has a poem, ‘Listing the breathless women’, that I wrote in hospital when I couldn’t breathe.

who will live in this place of white sheets

when the stories built to terrifying pitches?

I have missed The Lauris Edmond Memorial Award. I have missed the Bloody Difficult Women and I loved Kirsten McDougall‘s Tess so much.

I put on a blue dress and a Parisienne necklace Sue gave me, and Tusiata’s pounamu bracelet. I told a prisoner that when I get nervous, I picture something in my head that I love, or wear something someone has given me (usually a gift from Michael). Then I am fortified to go on. When you lose your breath you lose your voice and I am wondering if I will be a ghost on stage even with the necklace and the bracelet.

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Photograph credit: Mark Beatty, photographer, The National Library

To be in the Alexander Turnbull Library, at Call Me Royal, with a fine showing of the librarians who helped me find my way through the archives is restoring; to catch sight of dear Elizabeth Jones for a second is restoring. And Peter Ireland the Laureate guardian, ever helpful, ever supportive of poetry. I lay my stones for Selina Tusitala Marsh as a gift for her mana, and then let her do the talking and the poems. We write and speak from an embrace of women. The ‘Unity’ poem for the Queen, the way it came into elusive being, always captivates. Again the pronoun strikes: the ‘i’ and the ‘u’ in ‘unity’ is genius.

I am wondering what the audience makes of us. The way we hug and perform because this is a poetry whanau. We have many connections and we are all driven to write and stand on stage and open up poetry for the ear, heart and mind. The space between is alive with what we think and feel. Check out my photo gallery and intros here.

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Photograph credit: Mark Beatty, photographer, The National Library

 

I am back at Loretta having another snapper pie and talking about poetry with Helen. All I need is comfort food in this state of discomfort. Maybe that includes poetry.

 

Saturday

I am eating poached eggs with Bill and Marion and the conversation sets me up for the day like a good slow release protein. I miss Charlie Jane Anders and Samin Nosrat. I miss fun and games with Harry Josephine Giles. I miss the amazing Charlotte Wood because I am about to go on stage with Mike Ladd and Bill Manhire, the Capital Poets. First I need to lie down with the window wide open.

 

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I have an early lunch with Selina and Serie, and we bump into Rachel McAlpine, whose poetry I write about in my book. Four poets, by chance, in Cuba Street,

 

 

When I agreed to chair the Capital Poets session a month ago, I thought these poets were chalk and cheese, and I wasn’t quite sure how Bill was a capital poet bar the fact he was a good one, and he lived in Wellington. But as I ran on the beach each morning, I began to find connections. I decided they both write with an economy that is paradoxically rich and they both write from attention to humanity, not necessarily blazing on the line, but as a vital core. MIke’s poetry often takes me to a sharply rendered scene that is so bright (or dark) I get goosebumps.  Bill can transport a reader into a more mysterious interplay of dark and light, full of glorious movement, offbeat or sideways, so you find and lose and find your bearings. Another kind of goosebump. Goosebumps are an excellent, but not the only poetry barometer.

Being a chair, in a space that feels like a lounge, means it is like you get to talk poetry at home with quite a lot of strangers listening. I find it fun. You set up a conversational field and go exploring. I cheekily got Bill to pitch Wellington to a stranger in 60 seconds which he did with good grace. I really liked the idea of a city where you constantly bump into things around corners. But as always it is the poetry readings that get me – and I can now play Mike’s poems in my head in his voice and that makes a difference. I can hear his fascination with sound and the way politics always find a way in. Bill read a brand new short poem with Colin Meads and some good rural vocabulary before turning a corner and letting us laugh-bump into the ending.

I spent two and half years writing my book, and when I sent it off a few weeks ago, I felt there was so much more I could explore and write. Same with a festival session; the time goes by in a whizz and we barely scratch the surface of conversation.

 

Paula Morris gets to talk to Teju Cole and it feels like balm and challenge as we see his photographs and hear the story behind them. I could have listened for hours. I reviewed his tremendously good essays for The NZ Herald ages ago – so it was a treat to listen to that mind roving. Paula is just the right mix of adding comments and getting the speaker talking.

Next up Blazing Stars: Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood with Charlotte Graham. I miss most of this session. I sit down in the front row with a bunch of writers but have a coughing fit to the point I can’t breathe and have to walk out. Embarrassing! The festival people are so kind bringing me things. I sat on a chair outside and then at the back. I am back with the hallucinogenic butterflies. Charlotte is wearing a butterfly dress and Hera and Patricia seem to be in some kind of butterfly bitch challenge. Hera reads a poem with psychedelic metaphors. I desperately need a stunt stand-in to pay attention and write things down for me.

I eat roasted fish and fig pie at Floridita before going to bed. I am thinking about my new poetry collection and how I need to blast it to smithereens. Then I might see what to do with it. This happens at festivals. It gets you thinking about your own work and all its failings and possibilities.

I miss Outer Space Saloon. I really want to go.

 

Sunday

Fruit at Loretta and a coffee to pull the bits of me together. If I wasn’t making this my Poetry Day, I would be off to hear the fabulous Ursula Dubosarsky.

 

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Essa and Tayi

First up The Starlings – a festival highlight for me. Chris Tse is also in the audience supporting these young writers. The session features 9 writers aged under 25 who have been published in Starling (now up to 5 Issues). The journal is edited by Francis Cooke and Louise Wallace. They mc the session with Sharon Lam, Rebecca Hawkes, Claudia Jardine, Tayi Tibble, Emma Shi, Joy Holley, Henrietta Bollinger, Sophie van Waardenberg and Essa Ranapiri. The poetry resists homogenisation as it travels across distinctive and diverse moods and revelations, challenges and connections. I love it – and will be posting poems from this across the next month or so when I reignite Poetry Shelf next week. See my photo gallery here.

 

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Apologies to David Larsen because I don’t know how to mute my camera – just took photos at start and end.

Second up, my other festival highlight: Harry Josephine Giles in conversation with Chris Tse. The poetry  –  with its meshing up of Scots and English, its filthy patches and rollercoaster rhythms, its musical effervescence and its little heart taps  – is astonishing! No other word for it. Great chair, fluid talk, happy audience. I go out and buy all their books so I can do a feature on the blog if I dare. This session was like a dose of breathing medication and was the only time I wrote screeds in my journal.

One sample: ‘When your body is at odds with what is normal – not that anyone is normal – I can play with this. I can muck around with it.’

I like the idea of mucking around much better than blasting to smithereens. At breakfast when I asked Bill if he was writing he said he was mucking around. I thought of Tom and the Hired Sportsmen who were expert at mucking around before they ate greasy bloaters. Poets like mucking about.

One other thing. Harry Josephine was at pretty much every NZ poetry event I went to. I loved that. There was a handful of Wellington poets at the Laureate event – but mostly it was poetry readers not poetry writers. I wondered why this was. Harry Josephine was there talking to the locals.

 

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Next up Patricia Lockwood is talking with Kim Hill and I get another coughing fit – the breathing medication has worn off so I have to walk out several times. It is like they are talking on another planet and I can’t make head nor tail of anything. I decide you need oxygen to listen.

I am sitting outside in the wind sun wondering what makes writing matter. What makes a poem matter when this one over here doesn’t. I can’t think of a single thing. It seems to depend upon the individual. Some kind of mysterious alchemy. I told the prisoners music is always the first port of call for me. Actually I told Bill that on stage when he said music mattered. The first hit from a Manhire poem is music.

 

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Marae and Vana

I am off to Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press launch of Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation. We are welcomed on with a little powhiri and a big mihi.  Editors Vana Manasiadis and Maraea Rakuraku acted as mcs. This is my third festival highlight. An utterly special occasion, uplifting and challenging, as I listen to Te Reo and English versions of each poem (Anahera Gildea, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Tru Parahaa, Michelle Ngamoki, Dayle Takitimu, and Maraea). I will be posting a poem from Maraea on the blog. 

I am reminded, how on so many occasions at this festival, I witness the creative strength of women (wahine mana), not just in the poetry families/whanau, but across genres. Maybe because poetry is such a poor cousin in the book world, the bonds are forged tighter.

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Helen Rickerby from Seraph Press

 

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I miss the editing session with my new editor, because I just can’t duck out of this one. Like I said, when you are on the verge of breathing collapse you crave comfort. That doesn’t mean poetry without edges, because this poetry has raw cutting edges, sharp spikes, but it also feeds upon humaneness, writing with heart, hankering after truth. In a lopsided endangered world that can be a vital tonic.

 

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I bump into Elizabeth Knox and her fabulous skirt. She is long overdue for a Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, just saying.

 

I made the Poetry International event where post accident, highly medicated Chris Price does a stellar job as mc/chair. This feels like a risky format combining reading and questions with nine poets, both local and international. As you would expect, several resist the brief in their 6 minute slots. But you end up with a glorious explosion of words and thoughts and poems. I jot this down from Bill after saying he had read a lot of American poetry: ‘I feel uneasy about my enthusiasms. I feel I’ve reverted to the local.’

 

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The final thing and I am at Anna Jackson and Chris Tse’s AUP book launches in the crowded Circa foyer. I did an email interview with Chris over the past weeks so I know his book well and love it to bits. His speech moves the socks off us when he says he wanted his friends and family to be proud of him and that he hopes the book will fall into the hands of those who will see themselves in it. I am equally in love with Anna’s book, a Selected Poems, that travels through decades of writing with new writing at the end. Anna and I are in the middle, or near the end, of an unfolding email interview that I will post soon.

This was my experience, slightly skewed by being on the edge of a breathing precipice. Elizabeth Heritage wrote up the Harry Josephine session like I wish I could have done!

 

There is always a bridge between ourselves and the page, between ourselves and the reader and speaker. Sometimes we skim across it with ease, with all kinds of sparking connections. Other times the bridge falters and it is hard to find a way. Then there are the occasions where crossing is like an impossibility and the page, the reader and the speaker are utterly out of reach. It happens to me. I wait. It may mean I need to retune the way I walk.

 

Wednesday

I am back home grateful for the invitation to participate. Happy to be back to the quiet and the wild and the chance to write new things.

There is a strong chance this blog is riddled with mistakes – let me know so I can correct. Meanwhile I am off to sleep.

 

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A photo gallery: Call Me Royal

I am about to post my big but fragmented New Zealand Festival Writers and Readers Week diary but first two photo galleries. First up: Call Me Royal.

These photos were taken by Mark Beatty, one of the The National Library photographers, and they catch the spirit, warmth and generosity of the event so beautifully. It was an utter privilege to mc, to read poems with Jenny Bornholdt, Serie Barford, Tusiata Avia and our Poet Laureate extraordinaire, Selina Tusitala Marsh. I have put my intros at the end.

Grateful thanks to Peter Ireland, Chris Szekely and the National Library team. This was special.

All photographs courtesy of Mark Beatty, The Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library

 

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My mihi

The Poet Laureateship began under the administration and vision of Te Mata Estate with Bill Manhire the inaugural Laureate and has moved through to the six poets appointed by The National Library. Each Laureate is gifted a tokotoko, a walking stick, a personal fit, carved by Haumoana artist Jacob Scott. This to me is like the Laureate role – each recipient shapes the role to fit their own predilections and circumstances, from the Laureate blog, to poetry written, to a book published, to engagements and visibility within our reading and writing communities.

I jumped for joy on Poetry Day when I discovered Selina was our new Laureate; she is invigorating how the tokotoko is held, how the role is shaped. Of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent, she was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English at the University of Auckland – where she is now Associate Professor.

 

In her debut collection, Fast Talkin PI, Selina lays a circle of stones to acknowledge the embrace of women from which she writes, from which she throws the calabash for us to catch the seeds. I want to lay a circle of 6 stones for Selina.

The first stone is the gift of her poetry from her effervescent, award-winning debut with the title poem already a classic, and far ranging poetry that establishes movement on the page and charismatic movement in performance. To the second collection, Dark Sparring, written out of strength and lightness, out of her adoption of Muay Thai kickboxing and the death of her mother from cancer. The kickboxing is like a trope for poems that are graceful, startling, strong. This book lifts you out of your senses as she lifts grief out of her body and translates it into word music carrying us to the sun and moon and clouds. Selina’s latest book, Tightrope, longlisted for the book awards, travels in myriad directions, in ways that soothe, challenge and delight, that move us along fecund highways between sky and earth.

The second stone is the poetry mana Selina carries to young writers (I have witnessed this as I follow in her slipstream at Auckland schools) and to emerging writers – because she liberates the word. She stands, speaks and sings poetry, from self and wider communities and lineages, with such passion and drive the audience is compelled to read and write.

The third stone is Selina’s drive to bring Pasifika women poets to our attention – with a groundbreaking book in the making.

The fourth stone is the way she has carried poetry from our shores, in multiple translations, at myriad festivals, representing Tuvālu at the London Olympics Parnassus event, and as the 2016 Commonwealth Poet performing her commissioned poem UNITY for the Queen.

The fifth stone is the life of the poem in performance that Selina has made utterly her own. I am thinking of two mesmerising performances of Dark Sparring. 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. It was breathtaking. 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. Again breathtaking. And of course there was the performance for the Queen that so many of us adored on the internet.

The sixth stone is the circle itself, the poetry connections and friendships, the poetry whanau that links us readers and writers that Selina tends with aroha and prodigious energy. Let us offer a warm to welcome dear friend and poet, Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh.

 

The second half 

Jenny, Serie, Tusiata, me, Selina

Jenny Bornholdt, a much honoured poet, anthologist and children’s author, is a former Te Mata Estate NZ Poet Laureate. VUP has paid luminous tribute to her poetry in her recent Collected Poems. The book showcases Jenny’s intricate movements in the world – close at hand and roaming wider, and on the page itself, with large themes such as love, loss, illness and family, and smaller attentions such as a cotton shirt, a tea towel or a blanket, the large animating the small, and vice versa. You might get a conversational tone, with images unfolding like origami, surprising turns, linguistic agility and ample room for pause. You will always get a necessary heart beat, because Jenny’s poetry refreshes our relations with a living world, both complicated and vital. When I had to pick my ten favourite NZ Poetry books for a newspaper once, I picked Jen’s The Rocky Shore, but I could have added Summer or Mrs Winter’s Jump or These Days.

Tusiata Avia, of Samoan lineage, a poet, performer and children’s author, currently living in Christchurch, is a significant presence, a poetry beacon say, for emerging Pasifika poets.  She has carried that beacon on her overseas travels. Tusiata originally staged her debut collection, Wild Dogs under My Skirt, as a one-woman show – but we can now see this must-read book performed at the festival by a cast of six. I went to the goosebump launch of her latest collection, Fale Aitu / Spirit House, and like slow release food resides in your blood, this became my favourite book of 2016. The book releases skeletons, darkness and pain, yet in doing so, the roots of being daughter, mother, poet are tended with such animation, such love, such a willingness to be open, self reflective, world reflective, these poems, this book, matters so very very much.

Serie Barford is a West Auckland performance poet of Samoan and European descent with four published collections. Her poetry, both political and deeply personal, is rich in evocation. You can absorb her poems through senses as you bite into flavour, catch the lull and lift of melody, smell the poem’s very essence. You get to travel with heart and with challenges laid down. Her most recent book, Entangled Islands, with both prose and poetry, emerges from a tangle of family, motherhood, partnership, colonisation, history, communities, migration, childhood memories, culture and love, most importantly love. Connections are nourished: between words, things, people, places, events. Disconnections are acknowledged. As with Jenny’s poetry, the essential undercurrent, the fuel in the pen, is love.

 

 

 

Stephen Burt’s Letter from NZ celebrates local poetry

Letter from New Zealand

by Stephen Burt
complete piece here at PN Review May-June, 2017
‘To live in Christchurch at the end of 2016 is to encounter, daily and seemingly everywhere, construction: cranes, scaffolds, burly workers in lemon-fluorescent vests, bright orange cones, PVC pipes jutting up from the ground, all of it part of the ongoing, city-wide multi-year recovery after the earthquakes of 2010-11. The fences and pits are a great inconvenience, a melancholy sight for those who grew up in what was (I’m told) the most sedate and stable of NZ cities. For me, on the other hand, the construction is mostly inspiration: I see a city that’s putting itself back together, a nation that has recognised (and chosen to pay for) a shared public good, while my own home country, the United States, is tearing itself apart.’

Reviewing the very fabulous poetry books on the Ockham NZ Book Award short list

I have gained much pleasure from reading the books on the long list. Of course – how can it not be?! – excellent poetry books did not make the cut.  Take Chris Price’s glorious Beside Herself for example. I was transported by the uplift in Chris’s writing and celebrated it as one of her very best. I have said good things about all of the books because they gifted me reading experiences to savour. In my view, the long list was a go-to-point for the terrific writing that we are producing. I could not have picked four if I tried. I would have headed for the hills!

Boutique Presses are doing great things in New Zealand as are the University Presses, but in this showing, and with such noteworthy books appearing each year, and in quite staggering numbers, I am sendingsend a virtual bouquet of the sweetest roses to VUP. Three extraordinary books on the shortlist! Wonderful.

I adored the books shortlisted and will share my thoughts.

 

 

Tusiata Avia’s book is so rich and layered and essential. I have been reading and writing about this book in the past few months, and the more I read and write, the more I find to admire and move and challenge me. I wrote this after going to the launch:

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Fale Aitu / Spirit House Tusiata Avia, Victoria University Press, 2016 (VUP author page)

Last night I drove into the city into some kind of warm, semi-tropical wetness —like a season that no longer knew what it ought or wanted to be — to go to the launch of Tusiata Avia’s new poetry collection. Tautai, the Pacific Art Gallery, was a perfect space, and filled to the brim with friends, family, writers and strong publisher support. I loved the warmth and writerly connections in the room. I have been reading Tusiata’s book on planes as poetry now seems to be my activity of choice in the air. I adore this book and have so much to say about it but want to save that for another occasion. I was an early reader so have had a long-term relationship with it.

 

the launch

The room went dark and an MIT student, bedecked in swishes of red, performed a piece from a previous collection, Blood Clot. Mesmerising.

Tusiata’s cousin and current Burns Fellow, Victor Rodger, gave a terrific speech that included a potted biography. I loved the way he applauded Tusiata not just as a tremendous poet, but as a teacher and solo mother. Her names means artist in Samoan and he saw artist in the numerous roles Tusiata embodies. Writing comes out of so much. He identified her new poems as brave, startling, moving and political. Spiky. I totally agree.

Having dedicated her book to her parents, Tusiata said that it was hard to be the parent of a poet who wrote about family. When she told her mother what she was writing, her mother embraced it. She opened her arms wide. She said the skeletons need to come out. The atua. Tusiata’s speech underlined how important this book is. It is not simply an exercise in how you can play with language, it goes to the roots of that it means to be daughter, mother, poet.  It goes further than family into what it means to exist, to co-exist, in a global family. When a poet knows how to write what matters so much to her, when her words bring that alive with a such animation, poise and melody, it matters to you.

Four poems read. Lyrical, song-like, chant-like, that place feet on ground, that open the windows to let atua in and out, that cannot turn a blind eye, that hold tight to the love of a daughter, that come back to the body that is pulsing with life.

Yes I had goose bumps. You could hear a pin drop.

Fergus Barrowman, VUP publisher, made the important point that these poems face the dark but they also face an insistent life force.

Congratulations, this was a goosebump launch for a goosebump book.

 

Hera Lindsay Bird’s debut book broke me apart, gushed oceans of reaction through me and quite simply filled me with the joy of poetry. This is what I posted earlier on the blog:

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All I care about is looking at things and naming them’

‘I love life’

Hera Lindsay Bird Hera Lindsay Bird, Victoria University Press, 2016

 

For the past week or so, after visits to our key research libraries,  I have been writing about Jessie Mackay, a founding mother of New Zealand poetry. What I am writing is under wraps but my relationship with both the woman and her poetry is not clear cut. She moves me, she astonishes me, she irritates me, but I am always filled with admiration. One question bubbling away is: how different is it for women writing over a hundred years later?  Sure, contemporary poems are like a foreign country, we have changed so much. But what of our behaviour as poets? Our reception? What feeds us? What renders us vulnerable and what makes us strong?

I want to draw a pencil line from Jessie Mackay to Hera Lindsay Bird and see what I can peg on it. But I want to save these thoughts for my book.

Hera Lindsay Bird has attracted the biggest hoo-ha with a poetry book I can recall. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of a cult object. Images of the book cover on the side of a bus or a building (photoshopped?!?!) created a little Twitter buzz. Lorde tweeted. Anika Moa tweeted. Tim Upperton reviewed it on launch day on National Radio. Interviews flamed the fan base on The Spin Off, The Wireless and Pantograph Punch. The interviews promoted a debut poet that is hip and hot and essential reading. Poems posted have attracted long comment trails that apparently included downright vitriol (I haven’t read these and I think just applied to one poem). The Spin Off cites this as one of a number of factors in the shutting down of all comments on their site. The launch was jam packed, the book sold out, and took the number one spot on the bestseller list. Hera is a poet with attitude. Well, all poets have attitude, but there is a degree of provocation in what she says and writes. Maybe it’s a mix of bite and daring and vulnerability. Just like it is with JM, Hera’s poetry moves, astonishes and irritates me, but most importantly, it gets me thinking/feeling/reacting and prompts admiration.

 

A few thoughts on Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird  (VUP author page)

 

This book is like rebooting self. Each poem reloads Hera. Click click whirr.

At first you might think the book is like the mohawk of a rebellious punk who doesn’t mind hate or kicking stones at glass windows or saying fuck at the drop of a hat.

The word love is in at least two thirds of the poems. It catches you at times with the most surprising, perfect image:

‘when we first fell in love

the heart like a trick candle

on an ancient, moss-dark birthday cake’

 

‘it’s love that plummets you

back down the elevator shaft’

 

You could think of this book as a handbook to love because Hera doesn’t just write love poems, she riffs on notions of love:

‘It’s like falling in love for the first time for the last time’

or: ‘What is there to say about love that hasn’t already been’

 

Some lines are meant to shock you out of reading lethargy:

‘I feel a lot of hate for people’

or: ‘My friend says it’s bad poetry to write a book’

or: ‘Some people are meant to hate forever’

 

or:

‘It’s a bad crime to say poetry in poetry

It’s a bad, adorable crime

Like robbing a bank with a mini-hairdryer’

 

Hera reads other poets and uses them as springboards to write from: Mary Ruefle, Bernadette Mayer, Mary Oliver, Chelsey Minnis, Emily Dickinson.

Sometimes the book feels like a confessional board. Poetry as confession. It hurts. There is pain. There is always love.

This poetry is personal. Poems (like little characters) interrupt the personal or the chantlike list or the nettle opinion the honey opinion as though they want a say and need to reflect back on their own making, if not maker.

Love hate sex girlfriends life death: it is not what you write but how you write it that makes a difference, that is the flash in the pan, not to mention the pan itself.

Hera writes in a conversational tone, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, as though we are in a cafe together and some things get drowned out but the words are electric and we all listen spellbound.

 

She uses excellent similes. On poetry:

‘This is like an encore to an empty auditorium

It’s a swarm of hornets rising out of the piano’

 

‘Neither our love nor our failures will save us

all our memories

like tin cans on a wedding car

throwing up sparks’

 

‘I can only look at you

Like you are a slow-burning planet

And I am pouring water through a telescope.’

 

Hera likes to talk about bad poems; like the wry punk attitude that says look at my bad style. I am not convinced that there is much in the way of bad poetry here unless you are talking about a vein of impoliteness. It kind of feels like a set of Russian dolls – inside the bad poetry good poetry and inside that the bad and then good and so on and so forth. There is always craft and the ears have been working without fail.

One favourite poem in the book is ‘Mirror Traps’ but I am saving that for the Jessie Mackay pencil line.

Hera’s sumptuous book comes out of a very long tradition of poets busting apart poetic decorum, ideals and displays of self. It’s a while since we have witnessed such provocation on our local poetry scene. What I like about this scintillating writing is that each poem manifests such a love of and agility with words — no matter how bad it tries to be. It is addictive reading. Yes there is a flash that half blinds you and spits searing fat along your forearms, but you get to taste the sizzling halloumi with peppery rocket and citrus dressing.

 

‘I love to feel this bad because it reminds me of being human

I love this life too

Every day something new happens and I think

so this the way things are now’

 

PS I adore the cover!

Hera Lindsay Bird has an MA in poetry from Victoria University where she won the 2011 Adam Prize for best folio. She was the 2009 winner of the Story! Inc. Prize for Poetry and the Maurice Gee Prize in Children’s Writing. She lives in Wellington with her girlfriend and collection of Agatha Christie video games.

 

 

In a spooky moment of synchronicity, I was walking along Bethells Beach this morning in the crisp gloom hoping Gregory Kan’s book made the shortlist, not realising the decision was out today. I loved the inventiveness, the heart, the attentiveness, the thrilling electricity of his language and so much more:

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Gregory Kan This Paper Boat Auckland University Press 2016 (AUP author page)

 

Gregory Kan’s debut poetry collection, This Paper Boat, is a joy to read on so many levels.

Kan’s poetry has featured in a number of literary journals and an early version of the book was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize in 2013. He lives in Auckland.

Paper Boat traces ghosts. We hold onto Kan’s coat tails as he tracks family and the spirit of poet, Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson). The gateway to family becomes the gateway to Iris and the gateway to Iris becomes the gateway to family. There is overlap between family and missing poet but there is also a deep channel. The channel of difficulty, hard knocks, the tough to decipher. There is the creek of foreignness. The abrasiveness of the world when the world is not singular.

Kan enters the thicket of memory as he sets out to recover the family stories. He shows the father as son fishing in the drains, the mother as daughter obedient at school. Yet while he fills his pockets with parental anecdotes, there is too, the poignant way his parents remain other, mysterious, a gap that can never be completely filled:

 

In the past when I thought about people my parents

were somehow

not among them. But some wound stayed

 

wide in all of us, and now I see in their faces

strange rivers and waterfalls, tilted over with broom.

 

The familial stands are immensely moving, but so too is the search for Iris. Kan untangles Iris in the traces she has left – in her poems, her writings, her letters. He stands outside the gate to Wellington house, listening hard, or beside the rock pool. There is something that sets hairs on end when you stand in the footsteps of ghosts, the exact stone, the exact spot, and at times it is though they become both audible and visible. Hyde’s poems in Houses by the Sea, are sumptuous in detail. I think of this as Kan muses on the rock-pool bounty. When he stands at her gate:

 

I have to hear you to keep you

here, and I have to keep you

here to keep coming back.

 

I think too of Michele Leggott’s plea at the back of DIA to listen hard to the lost matrix of women poets, the early poets. To find ways to bring them close.

Kan brings Iris (Robin) close. His traces. Iris becomes woman as much as she does poet and the channel of difficulty fills with her darknesses as much as it does Kan’s. There is an aching core of confinement: her pregnancy, her loss of the baby, her second pregnancy, her placement of the baby elsewhere, her mental illness. His confinement in a jungle. His great-aunt’s abandonment as a baby.

 

The strands of love, foreignness and of difficulty are amplified by the look of the book. The way you aren’t reading a singular river of text that conforms to some kind of pattern. A singular narrative. It is like static, like hiccups, like stutters across the width of reading. I love this. Forms change. Forms make much of the white space. A page looks beautiful, but the white space becomes a transmission point for the voices barely heard.

At one point the blocks of text resemble the silhouettes of photographs in a family album. At another point, poems masquerade as censored Facebook entries.Later still, a fable-like poem tumbles across pages in italics.

The writing is understated, graceful, fluent, visually alive.

I want to pick up Hyde again. I want to stand by that Wellington rock pool and see what I can hear. I have read this book three times and it won’t be the last.

 

In the final pages, as part a ritual for The Hungry Ghost Festival, Kan sends a paper boat down the river ‘to ensure// that the ghosts find their way/ back.’

The book with its heartfelt offerings is like a paper boat, floating on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all (or Hyde, or family).

 

Auckland University Press page

A terrific interview with Sarah Jane Barnett

Sequence in Sport

 

 

 

 

Finally Andrew Johnston’s book caught me in a prolonged trance of reading. This from my SST review:

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Andrew Johnston, Fits & Starts Victoria University Press (VUP author page)

Based in Paris, Andrew Johnston writes poetry with such grace, and directs his finely-tuned ear and eye to the world and all its marvels. The poems in his new collection, Fits& Starts, luxuriate in white space and they are all the better for it. You want to savour each set of couplets slowly.

The middle section filters Echo through the chapters of the Bible’s First Testament; the final section runs from Alpha through to Zulu and forms an alphabet of exquisite side tracks. With Echo coasting through the sequences, it is not surprising rhyme catches the deftness of Bill Manhire.

Ideas drift like little balloons in and out of poems, experience lies in gritty grains. What is off-real jolts what is real. A taste: ‘How I married distance/ and how close we are.’

This book replays the pulse of living, dream, myth. I am buying it for a poet friend.

 

 

 

Ockham New Zealand Book Award Poetry Short list – Congratulations!

book

  • Fale Aitu | Spirit House

    Victoria University Press

    Tusiata Avia

    This is an urgent, politicised collection, which finds eloquent ways to dramatise and speak out against horrors, injustices and abuses, both domestic and public. The poems are tough, sensuous, often unnerving. Prose poems, pantoums, short lyrics, list poems, hieratic invocations: the passionate voice holds all these together. We teleport between geographies and cultures, Samoa to Christchurch, Gaza to New York. The world we think we know is constantly made strange, yet disconcertingly familiar; the unfamiliar seems normal, close to home.

  • book

    Hera Lindsay Bird

    Victoria University Press

    Hera Lindsay Bird

    The twisty, aphoristic, wrong-footing poems in this striking debut collection play the deliberately crass off against the deliberately ornate: ‘Byron, Whitman, our dog crushed by a garage door / Finger me slowly / In the snowscape of your childhood’. Similes, once a poetic no-no, perform exuberant oxymorons and flamboyant non-sequiturs: ‘I write this poem like double-leopard print / Like an antique locket filled with pubic hair’. Bird’s poems readjust readers’ expectations of what poetry can do, how it might behave.

  • book

    Andrew Johnston

    As the marvellously titled opening poem, ‘The Otorhinolaryngologist’, puts it, these poems ‘hunt[] for something / in the hollow spaces // in the voiceless spaces’. These spaces include: found material from ancestry.com, the thoughts of an Afghani, the books of the Old Testament, the myth of Echo, the radio alphabet. The reader is trusted to puzzle, to fit, to start all over again. This hugely impressive, challenging collection is scored through with a broken music that sings in the head.

     

  • book

    Gregory Kan

    This ambitious debut collection is built around slivers of life-narrative, principally drawn from the life of Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde) and — with moving laconic restraint — from the lives of the poet’s parents, before and after coming to New Zealand. These strands are made to intertwine with, and haunt, each other, not least through the evocation of various Chinese ghosts. The collection aches with bewildered loss, a sense of emotional loose ends and pasts only half-grasped.

     

  • Full award list here

 

Poetry Shelf The Summer Season: Selina Tusitala Marsh picks Tusiata Avia

 

 

This is a photo of my house

 

It has pink bricks and a big tree. This is the driveway, you can lie on it in the summer, it keeps you warm if you are wet. This is the screen door, swallow. Front green door, hold your chest. The carpet is dark grey and hurts your knees, it doesn’t show any blood. Here are the walls, be careful of the small girl in the corner. Here is the door into the hall, be careful of that too. Here is the line where the carpet stops and the kitchen starts, that is a different country—if you are in the kitchen you are safe, if you are in the lounge on your knees you are not. Watch out for the corners. She isn’t going anywhere. There is the piano. There is the ghost. Here is the hall, it is very dark. Here is the bedroom. Here is the other bedroom, babies come from there. Here is the last bedroom, it is very cold, there is a trapdoor in the wardrobe, it goes down under the floor and you can hide if there is a flood or a tornado. There is the bath. The aunty punched the uncle in the face till he bled, they lived in the small room, the cold one, that was before I was born. Here is the lounge again, here is the phone: ringthepoliceringthepolice. Here is the couch, it is brown, watch out for the man, he is dangerous. Here is the beginning of the lino in the kitchen again, here is the woman. Watch out for the girl in the corner, she is always here. There is the woman, she just watches and then she forgets.

I am cutting a big hole in the roof. Look down through the roof, there is the top of the man, you can’t see his face, but see his arm, see it moving fast.

I am removing the outside wall of the bedroom. Look inside, there are the Spirits, that’s where they live.

Stand outside in the dark and watch the rays come out through the holes—those are the people’s feelings.

 

©Tusiata Avia,  Fale Aitu | Spirit House, Victoria University Press, 2016.

 

 

 

This is not a favorite poem.  It is not kind or gentle on the ears, eyes or heart.  But it is unforgettable.  Its quiet violence, the way it creates in-breaths of silent horror through concrete objects, the materiality of the powerful against the powerless in domestic spaces, the neutrality of nothing, imbalances me.  The manner of this poem reflects the nature of domestic violence – that all is seemingly known and visible, like a normal brick house on a normal street, and yet, inside the walls thrive secret spirits inhabiting the dark corners of our lives.  The voice in the poem remembers and pries open these walls, as one would do with a doll’s house.  She stands back and notices the pinprick light escaping through the openings she’s made.  This is how she begins to exorcise secret pain.  This is how memory might work.

Selina Tusitala Marsh

 

Selina Tusitala Marsh is Associate Professor of English and Pacific Literature at the University of Auckland. She is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English, Scottish and French descent. Her first collection of poems, Fast Talking PI (Auckland University Press, 2009) won the 2010 NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry. Selina was the Commonwealth Poet for 2016 and performed her poem, ‘Unity,’ for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. She was made Honorary Literary Fellow in the New Zealand Society of Authors’ annual Waitangi Day Honours, 2017.

Tusiata’s collection is longlisted for The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.