In conversation with Vaughan Rapatahana
Kiri Piahana-Wong: Ngāti Ranginui
KPW: I work as a freelance editor and book project manager; I’ve also run Anahera Press, a small press dedicated to publishing Māori and Pasifika poetry, since 2011. I am a poet with one full-length collection, Night Swimming (2013), and a second, Tidelines, very close to completion. I live in Tāmaki Makaurau with my partner and 2-year-old son.
KPW: Where it feels natural to me to include te reo Māori in my poetry, then I include it, but I don’t try to force it. I am not fluent so I am more likely to include single words rather than full stanzas. I do very much admire poets who use te reo extensively in their work.
KPW: It is so important for us to have writing in te reo Māori. It’s impossible for Māori culture to be strong and vital without the language being strong and vital. It is most important that this writing comes from Māori writers. It’s good if Pākehā want to learn te reo, but in terms of telling Māori stories, about our experiences, our culture, and our people, that should come from us, in my opinion.
KPW: In 2018 I was published in the groundbreaking anthology Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation. My poetry has been published in more than fifty journals and anthologies, including Landfall, Essential NZ Poems, Puna Wai Kōrero, Solid Air and Poetry NZ. This year I have been co-editing Ora Nui, NZ’s only Maori literary journal, with Anton Blank. This edition of the journal is a collaboration with the indigenous Taiwanese, and is being co-published in Taiwan. I have also previously edited editions of JAAM Magazine and Flash Frontier. I have been doing a lot of poetry judging this year. I judged the Open Section of the NZ Poetry Society’s annual competition earlier in the year, and I am a judge for the Poetry Prize for the Ockham NZ Book Awards. The winner of this prize will be announced in May next year.
PihaThere is a small blue pot, filled with daisies picked from the roadside, sitting on the windowsill, framed by plywood, glass, the dim, warm, pre-cyclone light —it is mid-afternoon. There are grapes, not yet ripened, hanging on a trellis above me, the trellis covered in clear plastic, giving the illusion of open space, protecting me from the rain. Behind me, pōhutukawa are flowering, our brilliant red Christmas trees. Because yes it is Christmas, it is Christmas Eve, and this is where I start to lose it, I stop looking and start listening, I’m listening to you drumming, Ahurewa singing, and while I want to describe the precise nature of the sound, what I can hear, all I am thinking is —nobody plays the drums like you do and then I’m lost, you see, I want to be lost and I am lost and I'm gone. Sometime later I come back to myself to the sound of flowers. I am in a high place, close to the sky. There are light green leaves above me, as perfect as stencils. There is a creeper growing, wrapping itself tenaciously around the trunk, the limbs, of a pūriri tree. I think the vine is winning, it is smothering the tree, but then I see no, the tree is still strong, although part of it looks dead, and then I wonder if nature even thinks like that. And I'm a part of nature too, never more so than now, this day, this pre-cyclonic post- apocalypse-that-never-came rainy early- summer Christmas Eve, this early evening/afternoon. There is more rain falling now. It runs in rivulets from the top of your head down the bridge of your nose onto my half-open mouth, running over my lips, and it runs over my chin and it runs down my body and pools in my centre, and then as I turn over to press my face, my warm, bare face, against the grass, dying leaves, the earth, I feel it —the sky’s water: all the wondrous light weeping joyous tears of the sky god, Ranginui, running down my side and into the earth, Papatūānuku, and then settling there.
Kiri has published her work widely in journals and anthologies in NZ and Australia, including Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, The NZ Poetry Society Anthology 2008, Bravado, Blackmail Press, Sidestream, Snorkel, Trout and The Lumiere Reader. She is the author of the poetry collection Night Swimming (2013), and she serves as the publisher of Anahera Press. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, most recently in Essential New Zealand Poems (2014), A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children (2014), Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (2012), and Puna Wai Kōrero (2014). Piahana-Wong is a former emcee at Poetry Live, New Zealand’s longest-running live poetry venue.