We are asking four quick questions of writers and thinkers coming to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival on from 24 to 28 August. First up, it’s Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh, award-winning Auckland-based Pacific poet and scholar. She recently performed for the Queen as the 2016 Commonwealth Poet.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
I look forward to jogging around the city to see resilience in action and get my feet earthed long the Avon River! Also, catching up with Festival participants, soaking up the creative energies of others, writing in my hotel room, enjoying the air.
What do you think about libraries?
I love libraries (and librarians – especially school ones because they are my key contact people when I visit schools to perform and run workshops) and I especially love the relatively recent development of turning them into active, brimming social spaces (we’ve got a cafe in the Auckland City library) with noisy and quiet areas!
What would be your “desert island book”?
No island is a desert, there were always people there before us! Plus, I read buffet-style with commonly 5 on the go, so, at the moment my 5 must have’s are Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, Austin Kleon’s Black Out Writing journal, the latest Chimurenga journal (picked up in Cape Town – amaaazing!) and Cherie Barford’s most excellent poetry collection, Entangled Islands.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
I got caught in an arm bar during this morning’s MMA sparring session and am filled with thoughts of revenge!
We have just subscribed to a fantastic magazine that is for Kiwi kids and by Kiwi kids. Toitoi is a journal for young writers and artists that gives Kiwi kids the chance to submit their own writing and pieces of art to be included in the journal. There are 100 pages of original stories, poetry and artwork in every issue. Check out these examples from Issue 3 this year:
It looks really fantastic and who wouldn’t want to see their story, poem or artwork published in a magazine! You can brag to all your friends and your family will be super proud of you. It’s a quarterly journal so that means that there four chances throughout the year for you to submit your writing and art and see it published in the magazine.
Anyone aged 5-13 years can submit a piece to Toitoi. To submit a piece all you have to do is go to the Toitoi website, click on ‘Submit’ at the top of the page and email your submission to the editors. The next deadline is 8 July so you’ve still got a few weeks to get your submission in. What are you waiting for?
Matariki, Aotearoa New Zealand New Year has arrived with the return of the star grouping of the same name, what is widely known as The Pleiades, a star cluster within the constellation of Taurus.
In some Māori traditions Matariki forms a pou or post along with Tautoru (Orion’s belt) and Takurua (Sirius). This is the post of Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death, and symbolically marks the death of the old year.
The Matariki cluster, for whatever reason, has fired the imagination for millennia, appearing in poetry and stories since time immemorial. All around the world there are many traditions, legends, and stories based on this cluster of stars.
Matariki in Māori songs and poetry
The stars of Matariki make an appearance in a number of Māori songs and mōteatea (a traditional form of chant or sung poetry), in the latter it is often in a lament or remembrance of a loved one.
Such as this lament by Mere Reweti Taingunguru of Te Whanau-a-Apanui for her husband Te Whatu-a-Rangahau which opens with the lines –
Tērā Matariki huihui ana mai. / Ka ngaro rā, ē, te whetū kukume ata.
(Behold the Pleiades are clustered above. / Lost, alas, is the star that hauls forth the dawn.)
Or this one by Mihi-ki-te-kapua –
Tirohia atu nei ngā whetū, / Me ko Matariki e ārau ana; / He hōmai tau i ngā mahara / E kohi nei, whakarerea atu / Nā te roimata ka hua riringi / Tāheke ware kai aku kamo.
(I gaze up at the stars, / And the Pleiades are gathered together / Which gives rise to many thoughts / That well up within, and freely / Do the tears pour forth / And flow shamelessly from mine eyes.)
Wow. That’s almost got me a bit teary myself.
Then there’s this lament for Ngati Mutunga chiefs Te Whao and Tu-poki
Ka ripa ki waho rā, e Atutahi koa, / Te whetū tārake o te rangi, / Ka kopi te kukume, / Ka hahae Matariki ē, / Puanga, Tautoru, /Nāna i kukume koutou ki te mate, ē.
(Away out yonder is Atutahi, / The star that shines apart in the heavens. / The noose was pulled taut / At the rising of Matariki, / In the company of Puanga and Tautoru. / It was thus you were all hauled down in death, alas.)
The presence or rise of Matariki is also used to indicate the time of year as in this action song of Ngati Rangiwewehi –
Mō te Matariki, e totope nei te hukarere, / Ngā taritari o Matariki.
(In the winter time, heralded now by snowstorms, / And this cold weather of Matariki.)
Or this lament for Te Umukohukohu –
Ka puta Matariki ka rere Whānui. / Ko te tohu tēnā o te tau e!
(Matariki re-appears, Whānui starts its flight. / Being the sign of the [new] year!)
More recent examples include the song “Te Aroha” by Tuini Ngawai, written in 1960 which has the lines –
Horohia e Matariki / ki te Whenua / Te māra-matanga mo te motu e / Kia tipu he puawai honore / Mo te pani, mō te rawakore e / Mo te rawakore e
(Spread your light oh Matariki / On to Mother Earth / As a guiding light for this land / May the seed become an honoured bloom / for the poor, for the needy. / For the needy.)
The Pleiades in poetry around the world
These same stars, though called by other names have been referenced multiple times in poetry in other cultures too. In the 20th century a Japanese literary magazine mainly focused on poetry, was called “Subaru”, the Japanese name for the Pleaides/Matariki cluster.
In 16th century France there was a group of poets who called themselves “La Pleiade”, naming themselves after an even earlier group of poets from 3rd century BC Alexandria, the Alexandrian Pleiad. Another french group of poets based in Toulouse in the 14th century and made up of seven men and seven women also used the name to describe themselves.
Sappho, the greek poetess, thought to have been born around 630 BC, made at least one reference to The Pleaides in her “Midnight poem” –
Tonight I’ve watched / the moon and then / the Pleiades / go down / The night is now / half gone; youth / goes; I am / in bed alone
Worsley was born in Akaroa in 1872 and the New Zealand Antarctic Society has republished an epic poem about him ‘Worsley Enchanted‘ written by New Zealand-born poet Douglas Stewart and illustrated by Myra Walton. The poem takes readers through his experiences on the Endurance Expedition – which has become legendary – and reflects on his relationship with the rest of the crew.
If you are aged between 12 and 15, come and join us for a Matariki themed workshop with Lyttelton poet, Ben Brown. You’ll be reflecting on memories and crafting those memories into poetry.
You can book at Shirley Library or ring 9417923 to reserve a spot.
All you need to bring is something to write on (it can be pen and paper, or a tablet/laptop – whatever suits best).
More about Ben Brown
Ben writes children’s books, non-fiction and short stories for children and adults. Born in Motueka, he has been a tobacco farm labourer, tractor driver and market gardener. Since 1992, he has been a publisher and writer, collaborating with his wife, illustrator Helen Taylor. Many of Brown’s books have a strong New Zealand nature background.
Anis Mojgani is a songful sculptor of words. It was apt that on his return visit to Christchurch, the US slam poetry champion performed at both the Wunderbar in Lyttelton and the Christchurch Art Gallery – hosts to music and art – because when you witness Anis in full flight you can’t help but marvel how artful and performative he is. WORD Christchurch Literary Director Rachael King introduced him to Saturday night’s audience as someone who “engages your brain and heart and something intangible within you”. On Saturday, he certainly engaged a few librarians.
Here is our list of reasons why one should never miss out on seeing Anis in performance:
1. The way he moves
It is as if Anis embraces the whole world with his arms. Along with his voice, his gestures illustrate images in front of one’s eyes. His expressive hand gestures call you in and lift you up; they manage to point to the cosmos and vital organs all at once. His exceptional performance illuminates poems in a different light, so they reveal themselves in a new, unexpected context, different from the ones that surface up during a reading experience.
2. The way he is in relationship – with you and the world. His empathy and inclusiveness.
The phrases and lines of his poetry honour who you and we all are as human beings. He draws you in to be in relationship – with him and with others (Come closer). He invites you to be empathetic and to see the good in others and yourself. He speaks of the human condition in a playful uplifting way. His poems resonate the excitement of being alive (Direct orders), but also battle with the enigma of it (For those who can still ride an airplane for the first time). His poetry honours the holiness in the ordinary and looks for ‘God’ in the everyday.
In particular, his well-regarded poem Shake the Dust is an ode to the unheard, the unnoticed, the unnamed, the unloved, the innocuous and the banal and even the inappropriate. He doesn’t discriminate. He bears witness to us all. He speaks for the bullied and bullies. He honours, validates and appreciates everyone.
During the performance, Anis revealed one of his favourite phrases these days – “10-4“ – which is his way of saying “Ok, I read you, I hear you, you are understood.” Having grown up in New Orleans, he has a genuine understanding of the process of grief, sorrow and healing we experienced here. His particular affinity to Christchurch is obvious, you feel “he gets it.” And when Anis tells us his name means “companion“ an “aha“ moment happens. Yes, he is a companion in our collective journey of experiencing and examining humanity. Indeed, we are all each other’s companions bearing witness to one another’s existence. In Here I am he answers our fears:
“Will I be something? Am I something? And the answer comes: you already are, always was, you still have time to be.”
3. He honours childhood and a child’s view of the world
Particularly striking is how many of his poems deliver an impressive and colourful tapestry of a childhood. Told from the eyes of a child, who has an incredible innate gift of poetic language, they draw from childhood memories and experiences such as climbing trees, playing on street or overhearing parents in another room. His poetry takes listeners back to their childhood and school days, and reveals a child’s open, innocent and exuberant experience of the world (Even if somebody pooped a poem it’s alright cuz somebody somewhere made it or Invincible) in which “small children speak half English and half God” and “peace comes with a popsicle” – instant resonance from both a child’s and a parental perspective.
4. We love how he oscillates
He manages to write about his own individual experience and a collective experience in one swoop. He says he speaks to the spectrum of love – and not-love. He conveys what it is to be at once both vulnerable and invincible. Ordinary human abilities to a child can seem like superpowers. Within a single poem, he swings listeners from amusement to sadness, from love to fear, from laughter to deep contemplation about the saddest and cruellest moments of human experience. And while performing, at times Anis seems to hardly stop to breathe when he recites his poetry, but can slow things right down and draw you in.
5. His vibe and presence. His warmth and wit. His generosity. His aroha.
Anis doesn’t talk to the audience as a crowd, he addresses each individual. Even though you find yourself sitting in a hall full of people, you have feeling that he is talking directly to you. His poems are “for you”, they are yours – it seems his generous outreach to the listener:
“I am cutting out parts of myself to give to you… make my words worth something more than just a poem, write make this more than just a night that sits heavy over every one of us …”
His poems seem to reach out, to hug and kiss you, inviting you to walk with him through ups and downs of life (Come closer).
Watching Anis perform is like being at the concert of one of your favourite bands. The anticipation of your favourite lines to come is electric! When they come, you find yourself grinning. You can feel that warm feeling of satisfaction spreading through your body and lifting you up above the crowd. It’s addictive. And then there are some lines that are totally new to you and come like marvellous gifts, falling from the sky. “Rock Out”, he insists in a prolonged invitation in his poem Direct orders. On the drive away from his show the temptation is too great to not blast the car radio and do just that – singing at the top of one’s voice.
For one librarian lucky enough to get a book at the signing afterwards – just before they sold out – his inscription reads: “Keep your heart full of wonder”. It feels like quite the invitation indeed.
In vain, I have trawled the email highway of Christchurch City Libraries in an effort to “out” some closet poets amongst all the erudite librarians out there, but the only contributors to Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes, an anthology edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston, that I could find were myself and Greg O’Connell. Greg works at Linwood Library and I work at New Brighton.
I know of at least one other poet working at the library – Dylan Kemp.
The anthology was launched on Monday 29 February at The Laboratory pub in Lincoln and the launch was extremely well attended. Mayor Lianne Dalziel gave an introductory speech before a packed crowd of poetry lovers and then, because there was only limited time and 87 contributors, some contributing poets were picked from a hat to read their contributions. I was one of the lucky ones who got picked from the hat to read at the launch which was an honour.
So get out there and grab yourself a copy from any good bookstore and get the real story behind the earthquakes – from September 2010 until the present day.
Performance poet Anis Mojgani is coming to town this week courtesy of WORD Christchurch. He is performing at the Wunderbar in Lyttelton on Thursday 17 March, and at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Saturday 19 March. Check out WORD Christchurch’s info and get some tickets. Librarians – and fans – Kim and Masha asked Anis some questions, thanks Anis for your fab answers!
You performed in Christchurch at the WORD Festival in 2014 – what impact has visiting the city and its people had on you?
My visit felt pretty impactful on opening me up to a literary community on the other side of the world, both the the work and stories produced by it, and also the people making and supporting such literature, which I’ve been very grateful for. But also, I had a very strong connection to visiting in 2014. New Zealand felt like a place I would return to and could see myself spending an extended period of time inside of, and still feels as such. A lot of that was definitely connected to being in a city like Christchurch that seemed to be in a period of sorrow and confusion and rebuilding, one similar to my hometown in the wake of its destructive natural disaster. But also, the strange quirky creative patches of Christchurch that I was shown or stumbled upon, spoke to me, as well as being inspiring. And the audiences I had in Christchurch were some of the best I’ve ever had, terribly kind and inviting, present and excited.
You are from New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What observations or messages would you share with people of Christchurch based on your experience in New Orleans?
I don’t know if I’m the best person for such, I haven’t lived in New Orleans in a number of years. But being from there, and going there often, as that’s where my family still is and is, as Rachael King shared with me the other day, one of the places I would refer to as tūrangawaewae, there was a strong connection to Christchurch I felt because of the disasters in both cities.
When walking through Christchurch in 2014, I was reminded of how confused New Orleans was while in such pain, that it didn’t know in what direction it was supposed to move, how to begin rebuilding, what was the right choice. And as I write that sentence, I recognize the same connection in my personal journey over recent years. And as such with both, just to say that 1. when in broken places, sometimes, often, it is important to just get moving. To get out of the rubble, to move debris out of your home, to build again. And then see what to fix and change. To not let the destruction make you fearful of a future or to hinder the decisions that need to be made.
And 2. To use this opportunity for change, to change in good ways and with different patterns, while not forgetting to hold on to the beautiful traditions from before. I think about how it has been challenging for New Orleans, a city so incredibly rich with culture and tradition, to progress and rebuild, while keeping the parts of itself that make it the city that it is. A lot of growth there has threatened to change the city, and not necessarily in good ways. There are definitely people in New Orleans that have used the wake of Katrina to shape the city that may be more in line with the city that they envision it should be––losing and getting rid of people and cultures that they deem undesirable, which is a travesty. So I think of that, but don’t want to suggest that a broken thing should only then heal back to the same place it was before. What I loved, utterly LOVED, about Christchurch on my earlier visit, was how people embraced their city and claimed ownership of it by creating these pockets of awesome and weirdness and creative endeavours, to inspire others and to push forward perhaps the possibility of what an additional aspects of their city could grow to embrace. And those things are not what should be lost as the city rebuilds itself but rather invited to the table to participate, perhaps more fully.
What role/influence have libraries and books played in your upbringing? Is there a library you call your favourite (besides yours, which has 17 books).
Huge influence. There was a library called Nix that was about three blocks from our house growing up and was also on the walk home from school, and having one so close was very special. Not to mention memories of my school library, and of course the children’s bookstore my mother had when we were growing up. We’d walk there from school usually about half the week, and it was like having a large personal library, combing the shelves for the next thing to open and discover and explore. That was crazy influential, I think in a myriad of ways. Not only the importance of stories and how many different ways there are to share them, but also the feeling one gets from being surrounded by possibility, that here are these shelves to walk between and you have no idea what’s between all these covers – it could be anything! And you’re allowed to seek that out, you have permission to step into that mystery and many mysteries. So that sense, that feeling of discovery and curiousness is something I feel was fostered from the library and the bookstore.
I don’t know if I have a favourite library – the library as a whole in Portland Oregon where I live, is a really great library system that has an incredible selection. And there is a beautiful house of a library in New Orleans, the Latter branch. I love though seeing photos online of libraries that stand out, ones that are so beautiful, like temples designed and built to respect that which they hold. But also ones that are so small and tiny, in the middle of nowhere, that illustrate that even in the emptiest places, there should be a place where a person can go and discover books.
A rumour reached us about your current project, which – if we got it right – includes illustrations and is aimed at children. Could you tell us a bit more about that or is it a secret?
Can definitely tell you some! And it’s a couple things that you may have heard of. The first is my new book The Pocketknife Bible, which is a weird book that’s kind of a poetry-novel-memoir-picture book for both adults and children. It’s through the voice and eyes of me circa 6-8 years old and my childhood and the surreal wild boring beauty of childhood, but enters into some strange and dark places. It’s fully illustrated by me which is the first time I’ve done a book like this.
The other thing is that I’m starting to more seriously work on some stories for children, picture books mostly at the moment. Just completed a residency specific to that, so finished that up with a number of my stories more developed and fleshed out, story- and art-wise. So excited to see where all that goes.
Slam performances have a similar spirit as music gigs, there’s a flow in communication and audience seems to be very expressive. What was the most unusual reaction from the crowd you ever got?
I can’t think of a specific instance unfortunately, but it can be pretty interesting and fascinating. Because we all process information so differently, so there are plenty of times where you might share something that you think is funny and no laughter, or where a laugh may spring out of a random audience mouth, in the middle of something serious or sorrowful. And it’s definitely like music, because those little blips add to me then rolling with it, maybe reshaping little bits in the moment, like if there was something sad I spoke to and there was a chuckle, how can to offer up the next line in a manner that both makes that reaction comfortable and allowed, while also pulling the person/audience back in the direction I’d like to move them towards.
Who are you at the moment? A poet, an illustrator, a slam star? All together? And what else?
Who am I at the moment. I don’t know. Tired? But excited. Scared. And curious. Filled with sorrow and pain. And joy and a terrible gratefulness. I don’t know. I’m asked this question at a very open and new chapter in my life, one where I’m not fully formed, one where I’m reforming so many parts of who I am and what I’m seeking to make. I look at myself as an artist, and strive to continue creating work that respects this and speaks to it, whet here that’s through words, pictures, music, performance, or whatever. I love the work that I’ve been focused one for the past decade, but feel a reimagining of this as of late, or a new exploration of it, whether that is in the context of what is being written, or through more performative ways such as dance or theatre, or whatever.
Who/which are your recommended/favourite reads/authors and illustrators? Any that you have recently read and have lingered with you for a while?
I always recommend the poets Lucille Clifton and William Stafford, Kevin Young’s Dear Darkness. Tracy K Smith’s Life On Mars is wonderful. I didn’t get to finish Brown Girl Dreaming but it is beautiful. I’m drawing a blank on his name, but the author of the Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, I think it’s Gary something? His books are magic.
My three favorite books, novel wise, are probably East of Eden, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Maniac McGee. But I have too many books stacked up to read and probably even more that I’ve only started. I need to crack the whip and find my way back into a good kick butt reading habit. Crossing the seas is both a good and bad thing, as it invariably introduces me to books/writers that I wouldn’t have known before. As such, I’d want to read Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, and Tina Makereti’s Where the Rekohu Bones Sing.
What do you hope to do while you are in Christchurch / New Zealand this time?
A return to C1! Miniature burgers delivered through vacuum tubes is how all life should be!
Life is too short to fall in love only a couple of times. One should fall in love at least once a month. That’s what I do. I fall in love with people who just walk into my life but it feels like they have been around for ages. I fall in love with my dog nearly every day. Sometimes I fall in love with characters from books, foreign towns, landscapes and their unfamiliar faces.
This month’s love of mine is Anis Mojgani. When I first discovered him, I felt like this (from his poem This is how she makes me feel):
Someone has saved a baby.
There is a parade.
Someone has saved every baby.
I felt as if I was the one who saved a baby in Brooklyn in 1950s. I felt that this time, it will be different. This time, it will last. And sure I was right – Anis is coming back to Christchurch to perform on Thursday 17 March (Wunderbar, Lyttelton) and Saturday 19 March (Christchurch Art Gallery) – presented by WORD Christchurch in partnership with the 2016 New Zealand Festival Writers Week and Golden Dawn Auckland. I am convinced his visit will make my relationship only fiercer.
I am also convinced that I am not the only one fiercely hopeful and in love. Anis visited Christchurch in 2014, enchanting the festival’s audience with his slam poetry performance. Alison’s post is a true testament of his power to compel people through words and poetry. Of course, there are other testaments as well, like the double win at the National Poetry Slam and a win of the International World Cup Poetry Slam, three published books of poetry, an illustrated poetry-novella, multiple TEDx talks and all sorts of other creative projects. To finalise his portrait in your mind, I suggest visiting his neat and cute website: http://thepianofarm.com/
I must admit that this romance started in quite an unusual way. Old-school librarian like myself would normally embark on this kind of adventure with tried and tested methods, like reading poet’s books. On this occasion the media was … You Tube. Once I started watching recordings of his performances, I couldn’t stop. Performed poems like Come closer, This is how she makes me feel, In my library there are 17 books, Shake the dust have been proper hits on the web for a few years now. Discovering them felt as if I just joined the party, which has secretly been going on for a long time.
Anis is not only smart with words, he is also a talented illustrator and graphic designer. His abundant imagination echoes in the poems – they are full of childhood inspired imagery: growing cities, tall skyscrapers, teenagers running through the evening air, birds trapped underneath breastplates. At the same time, they are brutally honest, revealing humanity and humbleness to all things greater than us.
He is one of those performing/writing poets in English, whose work actually talks to me. It addresses me and I can easily relate to it. When I read or listen poetry in foreign language, I often find myself falling in the deep crevices of comprehension diaspora: a poem sometimes does not reach me, it does not resonate with me. It feels like many of its layers and nuances are beyond my grasp and preventing me to trace some sort of meaning among the lines.
This never happens when I listen to Anis. The flow is spontaneous and easy. What that mean for his poetry or tells about me, I don’t know, and I sincerely don’t care. As long as this love lasts, I am happy.
In an attempt to tame her ever-growing For Later list, Robyn has decided to share with us on a regular basis the titles that she has recently added to her list. The theory being that, even if she doesn’t ever get round to reading them, she can perhaps do so vicariously through you… So please do share your opinions of her picks – are they worthy, do you think, of inclusion in that lofty list?
Pink Up Your Life: The World of Pink Design Embarrassing but irresistible. Who knew there was such a thing as Pink Design? I’m game though. “Pink for old and young. Pink for everyone!” Perhaps a pink feature wall is just what I need.
The Hollow of the Hand by P. J. Harvey
Polly’s poetry combines with the images of photographer/film-maker Seamus Murphy to tell the story of their travels around the world between 2011 and 2014. Harvey wanted to “smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with”. Should be interesting.
The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits by Simon Schama Portraits and Simon Schama seem like a good match; Schama has a lovely light touch with art and history. This book has been produced to accompany an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London where Schama considers what makes a successful portrait, grouping portraits from the gallery’s amazing collection into themes: Power, Love, Fame, Self and People. According to The Times reviewer Schama’s approach here is “not systematic but wonderfully compelling” and the book is “entertaining and idiosyncratic”. Let’s see about that.