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Interview: Selina Tusitala Marsh, New Zealand Poet Laureate

We’re excited that we were able to catch up this month with New Zealand’s Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh, to talk about the culture of storytelling and the power of poetry.

Kia ora Selina!

On performance, presentation and storytelling

 

Flash Frontier: You’ve become recognised for your performance poetry. Your poetry contains rhythms that glide – sometimes staccato and punchy, sometimes elongated as smooth ocean swells. Do you write poetry as words on the page or sounds in your mouth, or both? Do you know when you write a poem that it will be a ‘performed’ poem?

Selina Tusitala Marsh: Definitely both!! Often, as of late, when I’m running. For me, it’s about intuitive movement, of the body, of the mind, of the sound in the mouth. Walking and running fits into the iambic pentameter of the mindscape. It’s a very cool thing for me to find a line or two swirling around in the mouth. At the moment I’m working on a running poem and while I was running along the cliff tops of Waiheke Island I got this phrase and so stopped and turned the Dictaphone function of my phone on (yes, I carry my phone, but only to use STRAVA…well, sometimes run a meeting or two…). I began recording everything I saw on that run. Playing it back is a hoot. You must allow for gaps (breathe) and that translates quite beautifully on the page. But the whole moving from page to stage conundrum is certainly an issue – it needs to be carefully ‘stage managed’, and crafted, to fly in both forums.

FF: In the poem naming myself, you play with Tusitala and its rearrangement, ‘tala tusi’. This remains a constant theme for you; we hear it again in your Radio NZ interview last year (and readers will be interested to see your poem ‘googling tusitala’). Can you tell us more about this idea, how you view yourself as an individual telling stories, how an individual is herself a story, and how naming a thing is a story as well?

STM: Albert Wendt said ages ago (in the 80s), ‘the teller is the tale’. Indeed, I wrote extensively on how I realised this for the annual NZ Book Council lecture.

When I realised that I was in fact, growing into a family legacy – the Tusitala legacy – I began to decipher the happenings in my life through that particular lens. A story made itself known. This is a very powerful thing. And it’s something I try to bring into the workshops I take, the classes I teach, the speaking events I hold: we already have all the stories we need within us – they just need unlocking. I love, love, love Maya Angelou’s line: ‘Bird doesn’t sing because it has the answer, bird sings because it has a song’. And isn’t that what creative writing and creative living is all about?

FF: Many of your poems, like the above, explore words and their meanings. Here, for example, the opening of ‘a tide, a term’:

 

the restless surging of ocean is a term,
moana nui a kiwa, tiding
like a tongue over lip, it dips
and rises to tell the story
Pasifika
 
the restless surging of the term is an ocean
moana, a tongue over lip, like a 
tide it dips and rises in Pasifika
telling a story
 
like a tongue moana nui a kiwa
talkstory, restless surging of lips
a term dips and rises like the
term Pasifika
 
ocean lip tiding to tell
moana, a term surging like
Pasifika nui a kiwa,
a tongue dipping
into a story

 

Why do you think Pasifika culture and history lend themselves particularly well to storytelling? And do you think of yourself mostly as a storyteller?

STM: All cultures have storytelling traditions. Many Pasifika cultures are adept at telling their stories in multitudinous ways: through flying hands in dance; scripted ink on bodies; Sunday sermons and Monday lectures in the home; singing, lots of singing; stories told while groups of women weave, tap, wash and groups of men cut, carry, dry. But lest we romanticize village life, listen to a Samoan bus driver – oh, the stories! Listen to the child vendor selling stiff dyed Chinese lavalavas – oh, the stories!

Now I do consider myself a storyteller. I never used to. I was that kid with her nose pressed up against the window, looking through to all the Poets and Writers and Artists and Storytellers because seldom did I read ‘me’. I didn’t even have the confidence to take a Creative Writing course, even when it was offered by Albert Wendt, Witi Ihimaera and Reina Whaitiri at Auckland University where I studied! Nadda – that’s how many writing courses I’d done before publishing my first book! But I was a reader, and a dreamer, and I had a couple of people around me like Michele Leggott and Paula Green, who believed, unequivocally, in my voice, my story.
 

On the power of poetry

 

FF: As Poet Laureate, you’ve noted that you’d like to take poetry to ‘unpoeted’ spaces. And it’s been noted elsewhere that you do not view poetry as an elitist form but rather something that ought to be inclusive. Can you elaborate on this idea of where you like to take your poetry, and why?

STM: The ‘why’ of this question was answered above. I’m the mother of 3 rugby-leaguing sons and the wife of a sports fanatic. These men keep me grounded. These men keep it real for me in terms of challenging me to ask ‘Can poetry matter?’ I steal this from Dana Goia’s brilliant essay. Part of Goia’s argument was that (in the 1990s) poetry had become an elitist academic thing, poetry readings were attended either by those who studied it, or those who wrote it. Where was Shakespeare’s bard of the streets? For me, our Kiwi bard, Sam Hunt, irrevocably changed the course of my life in terms of what poetry was, how it could behave, and how it could carry my voice. Same with Pam Ayres. I wanted to do that – to take poetry to the people. To get people to connect with words, the sound of language, the spirit of metaphor and be able to capture something that you could only hold lightly in the palm of your hand because to squeeze it too hard would be to kill it. Sadly, for my boys, their education in poetry at school is…well…picture a run-over sparrow squished on the road a mere centimetre from a slice of bread.

FF: In an earlier interview you said (here): ‘Reading brown’ still isn’t core to the curriculum … the students who come into my Pacific literature course at stage two do not know that the Pacific, that Māori, have their own literary canon.’ Tell us more about the Māori literary canon.

STM: It’s certainly there and Māori writing is vibrant. I was at the Auckland international airport waiting for a flight and was delighted to spy Paula Morris’ False River on the shelves on the Relay Store. Then, when landing in Sydney, uber-delighted to see its sparkling blue river cover on the shelves there too. Māori fiction is actually everywhere, if you have the eyes to see it. Briar Wood’s beautiful, thoughtful, provocative collection of poetry, Rawhiri, has been shortlisted for this year’s Ockham Book Awards. We’re teaching Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti’s anthology Black Marks on the White Page in our Creative Writing course at uni. Māori writing is everywhere and, more importantly, should be everywhere – not just in my Pacific Lit courses.

FF: ‘We are what we remember. The self is a trick of memory. History is the remembered tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all that we have forgotten.’ That’s Albert Wendt, and you quote him in a recent interview. Is your latest poetry collection, Tightrope, attributed to Wendt’s concept of history and memory? Can you give examples from the collection that address this idea of history and memory?

STM: Tightrope has three sections taken from Al’s quote. ‘Abyss’ explores death and how we idiosyncratically remember, recall, reimagine it. ‘Tightrope’ is about balance, finding oneself in tough or challenging situations and being able to keep moving one foot in front of the other. ‘Trick’ is about agency and how for me, keeping my agency in situations that seem designed to take it away from me, require a little bit of magic, sleight of hand trickery, the often comic turns required to get out of or rise above of situations. These themes are umbrellaed by Al’s sense of story and that history is the story we tell ourselves.

FF: In your reflection of your 2016 performance before the Queen at the Commonwealth Day Observance in Westminster Abbey on 14 March, as the Commonwealth Poet, you noted: ‘Her peeps also colonised my peeps. Our shared colonial histories put a controversial spin on my acceptance of this commission.’ And your commissioned poem ‘Unity’ was equal parts politics, history and art. Can you talk about the relationship between the things we create and the messages they carry?

STM: The Greek etymology of the word ‘poem’ means ‘to make’. I’d rather make and create than tear down. I remember Elaine Paige (a New York based poet) saying to a class here, ‘A poem isn’t about the telling, it’s about the discovering.’ And it caught me because as a Pasifika woman poet, it’s all about ‘telling tales / I never heard / till yesterday / born away / for another life’. And I use poetry to do that. But not at the expense of the poem itself. She was really talking about letting the language lead you, discover you, giving yourself over to the process. So, what does that mean? It means that I want to write a poem about running, about the power of movement, and how it’s somehow connected to my going through perimenopause and my feminist radar asking ‘Where’s the poetry on perimenopause and how can I claim this as an empowering goddess stage?’ and that has something to do with doing too much, the early death of a beloved friend who was renowned for doing too much, and that’s connected with the book I’m reading, Sarah Knight’s The Life- Changing Magic of Not Giving A F—K and Ariana Huffington’s book Thrive and that all needs to be talked about BUT I am led by the language that comes out as I record a poem on my phone while I run along Waiheke cliff tops. All this is swirling around in my head, but my words and the images I capture in language are being dictated by my running pace, the need for breath and my aural propensity for rhyme and rhythm. I allow the words to discover the story that wants to come out at that given time. That’s the abyss, the tightrope and the trick!

Ia manuia Malaga (may your journey be blessed)

Selina

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