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Live Encounters Aotearoa New Zealand Poets & Writers April 2023
Guest editorial by Lincoln Jaques
Rākau tukua ō peka ki raro:
kaua e oho noa te hiki anō ki te inoi
ki te kapua āwheo hihiwa.
Meinga kia kaua ō ringa e mārō
te manahau, ehara noa tēnei i te toki
te pūhuki, te ahi rānei te pokia.
Tree let your arms fall:
raise them not sharply in supplication
to the bright enhaloed cloud.
Let your arms lack toughness and
resilience for this is no mere axe
to blunt nor fire to smother.
From ‘No Ordinary Sun’, Hone Tūwhare. Small Holes in the Silence:
Collected Works. (Vintage 2011). Te Reo trans. Waihoroi Shortland.
Nau mai, haere mai!
It’s now gone 25 years since the death of one of Aotearoa’s finest and favourite poets, Hone Tūwhare. Tūwhare reverberates with me as he lived for a time, in 1963, in Beach Haven, a low socio-economic suburb on Auckland’s North Shore. In the sixties it was still tucked away behind surviving pockets of kauri forest, thick bush and mettle roads. One dairy and a hardware store. Rich in orchards in the 19th century, by the time the poet moved in those once lush food baskets were now shabby scraps of land pegged for infill housing. Ten years after Tūwhare lived in Beach Haven my family was to emigrate from the outer depressed suburbs of Southeast London to a small weatherboard house on a shingle road where not even the streetlights yet reached our letterbox.
Of course, I didn’t know the great poet once lived nearby. I’d never heard of him until my early teens when I stumbled across a volume of his poetry in the local library. That book was No Ordinary Sun, his masterpiece. It instantly transformed my life, the way I thought about poetry, words, literature, the world. Rarely before this had any New Zealand poet spoken to me about everyday experience, to meditate on our anxieties, our fears, the injustices of the world in that captivating style of his.
Add to that, Tūwhare was a boilermaker, with little education, a self-taught poet, who gave us sons and daughters of factory-workers a voice. He also introduced Te Ao Māori to a bunch of us Pākehā kids who never learnt much about ‘that sort of thing’ in school. Especially not at home. When I flicked open that book, I knew from that moment on I wanted to be a poet. And it’s through poetry I have learnt most about the country in which I’ve grown up.
Poetry and writing in New Zealand has experienced a huge metamorphosis in the intervening years since that great poet’s death in 2008. Poetry has taken on a new sense of self-confidence, of political activism, of urgency. Take the recent controversy that’s raged over Tusiata Avia’s poem to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in Aotearoa. The poem is from the collection The Savage Coloniser Book. This has also been made into an equally controversial stage show – The Savage Coloniser Show. It’s a frank and no-holds-barred work exposing the colonial theft and brutal suppression of Indigenous lives, land and resources. The language, tone and message are confrontational, raw, honest. It picks at the still-wet scabs of colonialism.
The overwhelming backlash to the book (the Captain Cook poem in particular) and subsequent show quickly became personal and alarming (although, sadly, not surprising), with many citing ‘hate speech’ and ‘racism’ as their go-to slogans when faced with their mirrors.
A poet friend of mine who attended a reading of the Captain Cook poem told me of the elderly gentlemen sitting two seats away from her, fuming red in the face, spittle forming in the corners of his bloodless, white lips, becoming more and more enraged as the poem progressed, as if he were a Colonial Administrator straight out of the New Zealand Company in 1850. It shows we as a nation still have a way to go to wake up and take ownership of our colonial past; but it also shows that the power of the word through poets and writers to shake those established hierarchies is at the forefront to bring about change. To steal a line from Erik Kennedy:
“…every one of us / has a heavy wooden implement that we know how to use”. (from ‘Croquet: The First National Sport of Aotearoa New Zealand’).
I’m truly humbled that so many great writers were generous with their contributions. They place us solidly within our own unique vernacular, cut off in many ways from the world as we are—and as we tend to think of ourselves—it’s a vernacular that has at once struggled to find its voice yet has successfully broken free from conventions of traditional, external forms to turn towards more inwards looking. It’s writing that connects us with the whenua (land). Aine Whelan-Kopa shows us this in her beautiful ‘Moemoeā’, where
“The happenings of the past flip over in chronological order, how the chords got broken on our ipu of love. We got stretched so hard that some whenu snapped.”
I’m pleased to include well-established writers alongside emerging talent and those who are relatively new scribes. The more seasoned poets include Richard Von Sturmer. I remember Richard from my teenage years, when he wrote the lyrics to the famous anthem There is No Depression in New Zealand by the band Blam Blam Blam, an anthem we ‘lost punks’ used to play on repeat as we negotiated the mean streets of Auckland in the eighties. Now a Zen Buddhist, he’s turned more to haiku, and this sense of pared-back, powerful snapshots on solitude and reflection shine here in ‘Rain in the Hills’: “An hour later / stretched out / on a pebbled beach / I remember / what you once said.” There’s the great David Eggleton, Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate 2019-2022, with his typical mix of original word-slang and urban street-discord, found screaming out in ‘Drunk Uncle’:
He’s biggy; he’s bowsered; he’s baggy-trousered.
He’s standing on his head.
He’s poncing through Ponsonby.
He’s half-way down Dominion Road, looking for the exit.
Janet Charman gives us her ‘27 Scenes from Modern Life’, a magnificent piece of loss, yearning and the deciphering of a world where the search for meaning falls short, revealed in the sudden daydream glimpses of our past, as in the lines:
19. when i saw you at Daily Bread last week
it must have been a hallucination
because you’re dead
Siobhan Harvey refers to herself as an “exiled writer” and this bleeds through all her poetry. No exception is the hauntingly dark and disturbingly sensuous, aptly titled poem ‘Survivor’, where she talks of the writer’s compulsion to draw out and face head-on rather than turn away from that darkness found everywhere:
where, each morning, the world disintegrating
into war, pandemic, environmental disaster,
extremism, racism, misogyny, transphobia,
hate hate hate … the writer finds devotion
in creating the first line of another story,
It begins like this: the night …
and the next …
and the next …
Mark Laurent, although a poet who’s been around for a long time, is known more as a singer-songwriter who plays regularly around Auckland. I first saw Mark perform at the opening of The Roots of Empathy exhibition at Art Depot in Devonport. With just himself and a six-string, Mark sang a hypnotic tune about the wrongs of the world which captivated me. That talent for song writing reflects here in the poem “Not Such a Good Friday” where the poet recalls a horrifying medical experience during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Arthur Amon offers a unique flavour of poetry backed with music. I read alongside Arthur a few years back at Kumeu Live! for a Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day event. Arthur had an electronic backing set where he performed the words to “Easy, brother”, a fast-paced, hilarious piece with anxious undertones of a world spiralling towards AI technology.
And of course, Rikki Livemore (aka RikTheMost), a slam, spoken word, performance poet who has stunned audiences the world over with their captivating live presence and delivery, gives us an apocalyptic-style message in their breathtaking piece ‘Apathetic Moon’, where it feels everything may already be too late and out of reach:
Each treading trembling legs to keep heads higher than the horizon,
Armstrong; we should dive in,
One giant leap made wider when the tide is tsunami-rising,
And we can’t help riding on it;
Catapulting ourselves beyond,
We are all so far above it.
Some newer poets are represented here: Cassandra Loh, a Graphic Artist who blends poetry with the digital image; Aine Whelan-Kopa, already highlighted; Sue Glam, Hua Dai, who has published widely in her homeland of China, to mention just a few. These, along all the voices in this collection, I’m sure will stun you, uplift you; make you laugh, cry, pause, think, reflect. Most importantly, they will make you change the way you look at life.
Thank you to all those who came on board this special edition. Warm thanks also to Mark Ulyseas who approached me to make this happen. There are many others I could have included, so I hope we can collaborate on another edition in the future.
Ka kite anō
© Lincoln Jaques
Lincoln Jaques’ poetry, fiction and travel essays have appeared in Aotearoa, Australia, Asia, America, the UK and Ireland. He was the winner of the Auckland Museum centenary ANZAC international poetry competition, a finalist and ‘Highly Commended’ in the 2018 Emerging Poets-Divine Muses, a Vaughan Park Residential Writer/Scholar in 2021, and was the Runner-Up in the 2022 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems (judged by Janet Charman). He holds a Master of Creative Writing from AUT.