Lee Child has just released his 23rd Jack Reacher book – Past Tense – and I can hardly wait to get my hands on it. The only thing that could possibly be better, is attending ‘An Evening with Lee Child’ – but you also won’t be surprised to hear that this WORD Christchurch event is already sold out. With a drawcard like bestselling author Lee Child having a chat with local author Paul Cleave – it’s no wonder! There was much seat bouncing and skiting to anyone who would listen when I heard that I would be going to see the creator of the Jack Reacher series in the flesh. It is almost like being in the same room as the great man himself – and who wouldn’t want to be up close and personal with someone like Jack?
Lee Child is one of an elite group of authors of whose work I have read in its entirety – and eagerly anticipate his next offering. This doesn’t sound like too big of a deal, I agree; but I am actually one of those librarians who don’t read many books. Blame the alluring pull of technology, being time-poor and feeling like it is taking my work home with me. But for another tale about Jack, I will always make an exception.
With 23 books under his belt and more than 40 short story anthologies, Lee Child has been giving his imagination and typing skills a serious work out over the last 21 years. His books have been bestsellers and he’s sold well over 100 million of them all over the world. From a librarian’s point of view I can honestly say that they are rarely back in the library long enough to actually get shelved.
Now I can see how this is a wee bit like teasing you all given that the event is actually sold out – but don’t despair. You can put your name on the waitlist according to the WORD Christchurch website – so you might be in with a chance! I on the other hand will be there with bells on and will let you know what you missed from the comfort of your lounge room – so watch this space!
Kaveh Akbar is more of a shepherd than a wolf. The internationally acclaimed Iranian-American poet not only produces amazing thought-provoking poetry, but nurtures other poets to achieve their full potential too. So it was a perfect date for us to be hosting him at Tūranga, the flagship of the future. We are all about helping our citizens to access all they need to reach for the top.
Mr Akbar is a really nice guy. Humble and quietly spoken (though this changes when he reads) Kaveh kept thanking us for coming. When reading, Kaveh is animated, moving with the lilting rhythm of his words, his voice rising with the swell of emotion and experience.
An Iranian-American, he sees his poetry as:
“the membrane between myself and the divine…a new idiom for ancient binaries.”
Binaries such as solitude and community, decay and rebirth, literature and culture.
Kaveh has been posting interviews with poets making waves on DiveDapper; a website he created as a platform for exposure, promotion and connection. It has become a community, bringing poets and enthusiasts together worldwide. The list of poets on this website is impressive! Akbar sees this as a way to “push (his gratitude) outwards.” He further demonstrated this by reading two poems by New Zealand poet Helen Heath.
Kaveh’s book of poetry Calling a Wolf a Wolf was released to much acclaim this year. In it, Kaveh addresses difficult themes from addiction to desire; his poetry refreshing in a way that feels uplifting rather than downbeat.
Akbar’s work shares a sense of lessons learned and experience shared, as opposed to a self-indulgent train wreck. In all, there is a theme of hunger: for the physical sensation of being alive. Akbar’s poems grabbed me at first taste. Alliteration, onomatopoeia and themes of life, death and longing fill his poems. Addiction is portrayed as a kind of death; “a void to fill in wellness”. The poetry came from a need to fill the gap left after he became sober: “my entire life up to that point was predicated on the pursuit of this or that narcotic experience.” All this brings to mind a Persian poet who celebrated the wine and song of life, yet without the cautionary tale: Omar Khayyam.
In the light of current politics, Kaveh asserts that the ‘utility’ of poetry ‘forces us to slow down our metabolism of language’. A useful antidote to doublespeak, perhaps. He makes it sound like a science. And in fact it is.
Although he now only speaks a few words of Farsi these days, Akbar sees feeling as a ‘universal language,’ one that we all understand. The purpose of poetry, he says, is as Homer put it – to ‘delight and instruct.’ So often, we leave out the delight, loving to lecture others on the way of things. Pre-sobriety, Akbar the poet painted himself as the hero of his works; a ‘gloriously misunderstood scumbag.’ A way of being, he says, that’s insufferable (I’ve dated guys like that).
‘So you’re the sobriquet of the School of Delight?’ quips Eric Kennedy. Sobriquet. Oh clever. Thus begins a new Golden Age in Poetry. The interview website DiveDapper came from Kaveh’s hunger for dialogue with other poets while going through recovery. It’s a way to share experience with others – ‘a vast expanse of empathetic resources.’
The internet has meant that ‘the age of coy diminishment of one’s passions is over’…it is now an age of ‘unabashed zeal.’ Eric: Zeal Land!”
Kaveh read a number of wonderful poems from Calling a Wolf a Wolf. I love the titles – so real but imaginative. He really does have a way with words:
Kaveh has won awards, and his poems have appeared in heaps of prestigious publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Poetry 2018, and The Guardian.
Check out Kaveh reading Max Ritvo’s “Touching the Floor” and his own poem “Portrait of an Alcoholic Frozen in Block of Ice”:
He founded DiveDapper, a poetry interview site. It is pretty much the poetry equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld’s show ‘Comedians in cars getting coffee’, but in DiveDapper you get two poets on top of their games in conversation. It features a stellar lineup of poets including:
Claudia Rankine, “I’m not investigating race as much as I’m investigating intimacy.”
and slam poet Anis Mojgani (who many of you will remember from his previous visits to Christchurch, slaying us with his potent words).
It makes total sense that Jeevika Verma in NPR refers to him as “poetry’s biggest cheerleader”:
He believes that everyone should be reciting poems as they walk into a coffee shop, as they do the dishes, as they go on with their lives.
“The fact that poems exist is the load-bearing gratitude upon which I have built my life,” he explains. “And what do you do with gratitude when it piles up? You have to push it outwards.”
He says it’s sort of like eating a Snickers bar. “Not sharing your gratitude is like holding a Snickers bar in your mouth for a week. You’d just get cavities,” he laughs. “This is what I want to do with DiveDapper. As far as I’m concerned, poetry is the best thing that exists in the universe.”
The event will be followed by a book signing, with Scorpio Books will be selling copies of Kaveh’s book. There will be food and drink available for sale too.
The nation’s best poets will compete in a literary showdown on Saturday, November 3rd in Christchurch. Poets representing Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, Dunedin, Nelson and Southern Lakes will perform in a three-round poetry slam as selected members from the audience will judge to determine the winner. Can Christchurch defend their title or will a new city take the crown?
Featuring 2017 National Slam Champion, Christchurch’s own Daisy Lavea-Timo (DaisySpeaks), this is not a night to miss.
What: NZ National Poetry Slam Finals
When: Saturday November 3rd 2018
Time: Doors 7pm, Show 7:30pm
Where: Haeata Community Campus, 240 Breezes Rd.
Cost: $20 general, $15 students
This WORD session was hosted by David Higgins, Upoko of Moeraki Rūnanga, with kōrero by the book’s editors Helen Brown (Ngāi Tahu) and Takerei Norton (Ngāi Tahu), and by book contributors Robyn Walsh (Ngāi Tahu) and Mike Stevens (Ngāi Tahu).
The book emerged from the work of the Ngāi Tahu Archives team on Kā Huru Manu, the amazing Ngāi Tahu digital atlas. While collecting and recording places names around Te Waipounamu, the research team realised they were also discovering the names and stories of people who were the very heart of Ngāi Tahu whakapapa. This book is intended to be the first of a series born out of the work of the atlas, and a second volume is already in process.
The individual biographies in Tāngata Ngāi Tahu cover 200 years of Ngāi Tahu whānau history, producing a ‘tribal family album’ of stories and images. Editor Helen Brown talked about how among the stories of the ordinary, often household names in te iwi, have been revealed the extraordinary lives of so many Ngāi Tahu people.
The book has been arranged by person/name, which Helen said gives a more nuanced history than a book based on themes or a more traditional history book arrangement, perhaps in alphabetical or chronological order. The order of the book does invoke a back-and-forth journey across time, with people from the 1800s to more recent times spread at random throughout the book. The effect embraces serendipity, with a mix of stunning, historical black-and-white photographs between more modern colour images drawing the reader into the rich history within.
Each biography had a limit of 1000 words, and editing to this limit Helen described as often excruciating. “Whole books are needed,” she said. Perhaps for individual whānau this book will plant the seed to pick up the stories and expand on them for their own tīpuna?
The biographies have been written by a team of writers, whose writing experience in this context Helen described as ranging from gathering the purely anecdotal to more academic pursuits. We were lucky to have some of the writers present in the team of speakers at the WORD event, and each speaker featured an individual from the book, giving the audience a summary of their whakapapa and life.
Robyn Walsh talked about her mother Dorothy Te Mahana Walsh of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Kahungunu decent, a leader heavily involved in the ‘hui hopping’ during the Waitangi Tribunal Hearings and a keen performer who travelled to San Francisco supporting the Te Māori exhibition. Robyn concluded “we need and must remember these histories and people.”
Others spoken about on the day were Amiria Puhirere – a stunning figure standing in her full-length korowai in the photo on page 86, she was a prominent leader and renowned weaver who lived at Ōnukū on the Akaroa Harbour; Trevor Hapi Howse – a major part of the research team that led the long work for Ngāi Tahu Te Kerēme/the Ngāi Tahu Waitangi Claim and a key figure in the Kā Huru Manu project; and William Te Paro Spencer – a seafaring kaumātua and muttonbirder, described as “proudly and strongly Ngāi Tahu” and “very much a Bluff local but wordly with it”.
As mentioned above, one of the strong features of the book are the photographs, many of which are from iwi archives and other private collections, and often have not been published or displayed outside the embrace of whānau before. It is clear that it is something special these photos are being shared not only with iwi whānui but with the whole country, and such a personal act of whakawhanaungatanga is to be valued and cherished.
Although the prime audience for the book is Ngāi Tahu tāngata there has been huge interest in it since media company The Spinoff published an article about Mere Harper, who helped setup the Plunket organisation. The audience has since become national and international, with a strong focus on the book’s contribution to the historical narrative of Aotearoa.
During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.
What brought you to writing about mountaineering?
My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.
You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?
They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.
A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.
That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.
At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.
Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…
Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.
Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?
The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.
Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.
What are you currently working on?
I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.
What are you reading at the moment?
Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.
Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!
Once again, WORD Christchurch was fabulous. All the session I went to were thoroughly interesting and enjoyable, and reading all the fabulous write ups of other sessions caused some serious past-tense FOMO. My holds list has also got rather long…
However, I’ve also been thinking about some of the connections between different sessions. One very sparkly connection was Stacy Gregg‘s silver boots, another around leaving New Zealand – or not. At the very wonderful Mortification session Steve Braunias told a beautifully crafted story about giving a well-known politician fleas, but one of the points he made was about how he wasn’t particularly keen to do a big OE – he was settled in New Zealand. In Explosive ArchaeologyBrannavan Gnanalingam noted that Robin Hyde developed her career in New Zealand, rather than going overseas to do so. Sometimes it seems that some Kiwis have to go away to achieve in order to come back and be successful, but as these stories show that isn’t always the case. New Zealand is more than enough.
As we found out, when you are mortified you are very vulnerable – think inopportune periods, an inopportune goat in the buttocks, assorted inopportune number twos and buttocks exposed to the elements. I enjoyed hearing people talk about things in life that had not gone so well – we need to be open about our screw ups. Sex also makes us vulnerable. Sharing your wibbly bits with someone else is risky, as is showing your mum poems you’ve written which contain a lot of sex. Tayi Tibble was nervous showing her mum her more sexual poetry, but her mum was fine with it. Her risk paid off.
But, as Chris Henry reminds us, it really is ok to be vulnerable. Looking after our mental health is so very important, and reaching out to people and telling them how we feel is huge and so worthwhile. Chris demonstrates very well how you can be a hero and vulnerable. ‘We can make a life‘ not only covers family stories and the earthquakes, it also advocates for the amazing work that rural GPs do, which Chessie feels is sometimes under appreciated.
Advocacy came up again in Explosive Archaeology – in terms of making sure we are speaking about underappreciated artists and genres, and also in terms of making sure we are leaving doors open for those that come after us. When we succeed – who do we take with us? Who do we raise up?
I love events that make me think and WORD certainly did that. I’m going to make sure that I’m ok with my vulnerability, and that if I like something I tell people about it.
I like the WORD Christchurch Festival, and I’ve enjoyed telling you about it.
This fantastic session included no stripey jumpers or whips or trowels – the archaeology was metaphorical, asking us to look back, elevate, uncover and dig up those who have been excluded from the literary canon. Poet Tayi Tibble, academic Erin Harrington, novelist Brannavan Gnanalingam and curator Jennifer Shields were asked by session chair Pantograph Punch editor Lana Lopesi to wrestle with the canon and to share their favourite underappreciated artists and genres.
Jennifer told us about Wellington-based emerging musical talent Hybrid Rose and Christchurch contemporary art collective The Social, who specialise in making cheap, accessible and engaging public art in a post-quake environment.
Brannavan talked about Merata Mita, also the subject of a recent documentary, who made protest documentaries like Bastion Point: Day 507 and Patu! which do not fit with the ‘man alone’ narrative of the emerging New Zealand film industry. Someone else who doesn’t fit into an established narrative is political journalist and social realist Robin Hyde. Unlike the ‘Mansfield narrative’ she didn’t need to leave New Zealand in order to find her purpose. Let’s widen out the canon so people don’t have to ‘fit’ and can be as they are.
Erin spoke about children’s material, and how formative influences can be left out of the canon, referencing Karen Healey‘s article about absences in the New Zealand Book Awards. She talked about Aotearoa’s special relationship with Badjelly the Witch, played regularly on Sunday morning kids’ radio and how this helped learn to be listeners and to understand story and narrative. BTW, childhood influences are something that I have explored on Library Whisperers with Christchurch’s good friend Matt Finch.
Tayi introduced us to two up and coming poets Jessica Thompson Carr and Joy Holley, advocating for their work by reading us some of their poetry. Finally Lana spoke about artist Leofa Wilson who has mentored and opened so many doors for Pasifika women.
Opening doors was a big theme of the questions that followed. How do people get to that place where you become an overnight success? How can doors be left open for the people that come after? What are the best ways to advocate and champion others and build networks and relationships? This was an interesting debate, suggesting that we must be mindful of who we promote, always have our wings open so people can be taken under them, keep making connection, and above all speak about the the things, and the people, we love.
Broadcaster and writer Miriama Kamo introduced the lineup for WORD Christchurch’s final session by prefacing with a definition of the topic:
adventure (n.) a wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful)
All four women featured fully fit the description, from extreme endurance to joyous risk-taking while travelling. The only thing I have in common with these ladies and their incredible lives is our gender, but while I won’t be running off to the Greenland ice cap anytime soon, their talks have inspired me to be a little more adventurous in my own life.
Hollie Woodhouse began her adventures with an Outward Bound course in her late twenties. While alone in the bush she wrote down four goals she wanted to achieve:
Start her own business
Go to the UK and do her OE
Sign up for an event each year that would challenge her
Get a tattoo
For me a challenging event would be speaking in front of a crowded auditorium at The Piano, but for Hollie that meant signing up for the Coast to Coast with no prior experience, after which she headed to London and now publishes a magazine called Say Yes to Adventure, which combines her love of design, adventures and the written word. So that’s three checked off her list, but instead of resting on her laurels she decided to apply for an expedition to the Greenland ice cap — a natural next step, I’m sure you’ll agree.
This part of the talk had me putting multiple question marks and exclamation points next to my notes: for 29 days Hollie and three others would walk from 8-14 hours on the ice, pulling a 60kg sled behind them. The weather was unseasonably bad, causing at one point a hurricane that kept them shut up in their tents for so long that a necessary toilet break was made, and in the 20 seconds they were outside the frostbite already set in. The delay caused them to take longer than anticipated, resulting in a grueling 30+ hour trek on the last day to get to the helicopter. (Who does this to themselves?!) Really puts my holiday food poisoning in perspective.
Our next speaker, Lilia Tarawa, thankfully began her talk with something I could relate to: growing up on the idyllic West Coast, surrounded by rivers, trees, bush, and mountains. She was close with her friends and family, loved going camping, and excelled at learning musical instruments. At age six she was proud to receive a glowing first school report with excellent grades and the comment that “Lilia demonstrates leadership qualities which could be useful when she gets older.” Lilia’s grandfather read this out to their gathered community at the evening dinner, and as her heart swelled with pride he popped it by saying: “We don’t need women like you.”
Lilia grew up in the cult of Gloriavale, and this was her first inkling that her world was not as wonderful as it seemed. The use of shame and humiliation to control others made it difficult for her to see herself raising children in that environment, and after the mistreatment of her best friend as an older teen she resolved to leave. Luckily the rest of her family were already on board (her two elder brothers had already left) so they were able to escape together. Despite leaving the environment it hasn’t been easy to shrug off her upbringing:
They began by using shame and guilt to degrade my self worth. Every day I was told I was a worthless sinner so when people treated me badly I thought maybe I deserve this, maybe this is my fault. My love for others broke the chains that shackled me — why was I willing to stand up for them but not for myself?
Lilia now fulfills the prediction of that early report card, standing up for both herself and others as a strong leader. “I want to tell my six year old self that she can do anything she wants to do, and never let anyone tell her otherwise.”
From the sobering reality of escaping a cult to the wry humour of Margaret Austin, who prefaced her speech with two confessions. 1) She is not Margaret Austin the former Labour MP, and 2) She grew up in Palmerston North. I forgave her these defects when she continued on to detail her escape, first from her home town and later from a cottage in Port Chalmers, fleeing overseas for 14 years. After some good experiences (Amsterdam) and bad (Athens), she ended up on a street in Paris described by Henry Miller as full of pimps and prostitutes. Perhaps that explains why, when looking for a job as a dancer, she was directed to Les Folies Bergère. (If you’re not familiar, think Moulin Rouge.) It wasn’t until she saw the picture of topless dancers on the wall of the director’s office that she realised quite what she was auditioning for. Luckily Margaret is nothing if not game, and that is how an ex-Sunday School girl from Palmerston North became a Paris cabaret dancer.
I’ve taken a lot of risks, and most of them have worked out well. If you’re going to take a risk, why take a calculated risk?
Her parting shot to the audience was the advice that if someone tells you that you shouldn’t do this or can’t do that, do it. An appealingly contrary attitude that describes Margaret perfectly.
After three incredible speakers you might be thinking that the fourth couldn’t possibly live up to the others, but Dr Michelle Dickinson put that thought to bed with the revelation that not only is she a competitive kitesurfer, she also does snow-kiting, mountain biking, runs ultra marathons, swims with sharks, goes rock climbing, and used to do competitive martial arts and cagefighting for money(!!). This is all in addition to her work as an engineer, nanotechnologist, lecturer, and now founder and Director of Nanogirl Labs Ltd. Whew! Despite being intimidatingly smart, Michelle didn’t come from a home of academic excellence — both parents dropped out of school early and Michelle herself failed the exams needed to get into nursing college, the only career option the school advisor recommended for girls. No one recognised her skills with a soldering iron and electronics at home as being valuable, or that being bad at tests didn’t mean you weren’t smart. Luckily she got into university a couple of years later and studied “the art of breaking shit and never having to put it back together!”.
Despite her many challenging hobbies, Michelle says one of the hardest things she’s done is be a woman engineer. It’s a lonely position to be in, with only 11% of engineers in Aotearoa being female. Often she has literally been the only woman in the room. As a lecturer in Auckland she struggled with letting her female engineering graduates out into the workplace, as she recognised that many won’t be safe in their jobs. The audience was treated to a range of sexist adverts and logos from engineering firms across New Zealand to illustrate her point. This situation is unlikely to change while we continue to reinforce job stereotypes, confirmed by a survey done on age 5-8 year olds where they were asked to draw a picture of an engineer. 100% were of a man. Since Michelle has started Nanogirl Labs Ltd and has brought female engineers into schools to talk about their jobs, the survey results have changed drastically. “Every one of you is a role model,” she told us (no pressure), “Every one of us can do a tiny thing that shifts New Zealand into a brand new space.”
We’re so afraid of failure in New Zealand. Take a risk! If it works, you’ll be happy. If you fail, you’ll be wise.
The perfect conclusion to a literary festival celebrating adventure and the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, recognised by a standing ovation by the audience. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
Selina Tusitala Marsh is impressive. Tall and exuding warmth with an open, smiley countenance topped by a mass of long dark curls, she enters carrying her tokotoko which is topped with long hair mirroring her own.
One immediately feels drawn to her and the packed audience settles down to be entertained. Selina is in conversation with her sister poet and friend, Tusiata Avia. They are obviously at ease with each other and enjoy talking together.
Selina is New Zealand’s current Poet Laureate, the fifth woman to hold this position and the first woman of colour. She feels she has an obligation and responsibility to make everyone feel included as well as showcasing her Pasifika heritage.
Her mission is to get the story of the tokotoko out there and she regularly invites people to come along and touch it. It is fitting that she is the 11th Poet Laureate and the tokotoko breaks down into eleven pieces which is necessary for travel.
Paula Green, NZ poet, says “Hone Tuwhare and Sam Hunt are the two poets that are so beloved by our nation. I predict Selina is our third.”
One wonders how she manages to fit everything in in her extremely packed schedule. She has composed and performed for the Queen and welcomed Barack Obama to New Zealand. As well as travelling extensively both here and abroad, she is involved in the Writers in Schools Programme which is booked up for the next two years.
She feels women find it hard to value their self-worth and to ask for help. With the help of her friend Tusiata, she is learning to be more forthright. She equates life to four burners – Family, Health, Work and Friendship. For a long time the friendship burner was missing. She felt guilty about leaning on friends when she had so little time to reciprocate. She is definitely in the fast burning lane.
Tusiata meanwhile is recovering from burnout, suffering ill health from her fast pace of life. Whilst recuperating at home, they spent many hours on the phone talking. Selina was thrilled. She could now talk whilst running around Waiheke Island, where she lives and maintain two burners at once – exercising for health and friendship by being each other’s sounding board. She also advocates movement of mind and body for relaxation. This is achieved by running, yoga, writing and creating. Running is also where she has inspiration for her poetry. She has boundaries surrounding her family time and makes sure she spends weekends with them when she is in New Zealand, hence her 4pm flight back to Auckland following her appearance.
We were treated to Selina reading a poem from her latest book Tightrope titled ‘The Working Mother’s Guide to Reading Seventy Books a Year‘.
Where to now? Her latest project is a graphic mini memoir very aptly titled “Mophead to Poet Laureate” which is due out in 2019.
Kate Sylvester introduced the two poets and her assertion that poets were the antidote to a world out of kilter brought rousing applause.
It’s not an easy thing to report on a poetry reading. You listen with different ears to poetry than you would to a speaker.
Being tagged with the epithet “poetry stars”, might bring with it an unfair burden of expectation and if Hera Lindsay Bird, who was first up, felt that she didn’t show it as she appeared quite at ease on the stage. The poems she read were generally dealing with love and sex, but often in a tangential and quirky way. She read the poems: Jealousy, Love is like laying down in a major intersection, Monica (about the character, Monica Geller, from the sitcom, Friends), Da Vinci Code, Six Seasons of the Nanny and Pyramid Scheme.
Now, I confess, I’m a sucker for humour in poetry because poetry can often take itself very seriously. There was a strong vein of humour running through all the poems that Bird read and the audience chuckled a lot during her reading.
I’ve read that the poet, Lord Byron, was treated like a rock star in his day with people, mainly women, queueing for hours outside booksellers when Byron released a new book of poetry. He died a rock star’s kind of death too, dying at Missolonghi, aged 36, while helping the Greeks battle the Turks for their independence.
Perhaps Hera Lindsay Bird will revive the “poet as rock star” phenomenon if the reception of her eponymous debut is anything to go by.
Hollie McNish came to poetry fame via that most 21st century medium, YouTube. A little older and a little more experienced than her reading companion, McNish read poems that traversed her life from childhood to pregnancy in her thirties. She read the poems: Yanking (a variation on what she claimed was a Kiwi-ism “giving a wristy”), Call On Me (about the nature of friendships changing as we get older), Hiccups (for her daughter), A Dead Pig I Mean (about a bizarre ritual David Cameron indulged in at private school), Wow (about her one-year old daughter admiring her naked body in a mirror), Sex (about not wanting sex for six-and-a-half months after her daughter was born, Bricks (talking with her 92-year-old grandmother about what turned Hollie on) and McNish ended with a poignant poem dedicated to her Grandad called Cherry Pie with its echoes of post-war trauma.
I’ll be first to put my hand up and say that I am all for the popularising of poetry (being a poet myself and wanting to get my books out there in the hands of poetry readers), but there are still ivory tower elements fiercely guarding poetry for the elitist few as evidenced by the poet, Rebecca Watts, refusing to review Plum, McNish’s latest poetry collection, for P. N. Review. Watts instead wrote a polemical article titled Cult of the Noble Amateur in which she wrote: “Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.” Watts’ article subsequently received broad coverage in several English news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC.