Poets’ Night Out

14 April 2018, Havelock North Function Centre
By Bridie Freeman

In a formal ceremony at Matahiwi Marae on Saturday morning, our New Zealand poet laureate and first Pasifika representative, Selina Tusitala Marsh, was gifted her storyteller’s tokotoko after nine months ‘gestation’. She shows it to us: a beautifully carved talking stick, replete with detachable fue – the Samoan orator’s fly whisk, used, poetically speaking, to clear the air that the orator’s message may be heard and received. Selina drapes the fue over her shoulder and it rests there, lightly, easy to hand.

In keeping with tradition, this is an evening of poetry and celebration, in which the poet laureate invites her poet friends to support her in a shared offering: Michele Leggot, Tusiata Avia, Serie Barford. It would seem, this is the night of the matriarch – those with a streak of white in their hair, bold colours, strong voices; the night of the assured, gracious, sagacious, versatile performer.

The Havelock North Function Centre is filled with a diverse throng of people; it’s a joy to see such fullness in the name of poetry.  There’s a strong smell of cheese and the sweetness of figs from platters on tables, the headiness of wine. The lights are bright, and although I wish for more ambience, these poets don’t need softening – they can stand in their truth without tricks of the light.

They are all, each one, extraordinary, consummate performers. These are women who know how, and when, to lay claim to space, to fill it with their visions, voices, stories. These are women, who in taking space, unapologetically, expand space itself. Each word becomes a universe, in which we are held completely.

Theirs are not poems tethered to a page, but oratory gifts, evocative, textured, and sensuous.

Collectively, they show us a New Zealand stitched by the South Pacific, as we crisscross from Auckland to New Caledonia, from Samoa to Taranaki, from Kiribas to London. Collectively, their poems speak of connections to land, ocean, blood, the stars; of belonging, relationship, colonisation, the meeting of cultures. And above all, they speak to the potency of language and imagination.

For all the intimacy and ease with which these poets offer their voices, with the evening’s touch of spontaneity, humour, its playful riffs, the event has a deftly woven structure that takes its own poetic form – even the programme is shaped like a palindrome. There has obviously been careful consideration to the arrangement and unfolding of readings, and for this, I’m sure, we have Marty Smith, Hawke’s Bay poet and MC for the night, to thank, who offers us thoughtfully crafted, lyric introductions to each poet, and in the bridging turn after the interlude, her own strong poem.

In a beautiful circle of transubstantiation, the poets take turns speaking each other’s works: Serie reads from Michelle’s Vanishing Point; Michelle, with Tusiata’s voice in her ear, relates ‘This is a photo of my house’; Tusiata re-envisions Selina’s ‘Fast-talking PI’; Selina returns Serie’s name to her, ‘Say my name without the ‘sh’’. Each poet transforms her peer’s poem in the gifting back, while being herself altered, to our ears, by the poet’s words she’s reading. It’s a simple, yet powerful ritual.

Along with experiencing poems from their published collections tonight, we are treated to the poets’ individual creative processes, to a glimpse of their working, and the larger, ripple implications of poetry itself.

Serie’s poems “under construction” address the grief and healing process in living with the recent death of her partner to suicide. They are raw, luminous … “pecking in the empty spaces like a hungry bird”….

Michelle shares from her current project: looking for Emily Harris, a woman who became a painter, writing poetry in Taranaki in the 1860s. She’s reaching into the holes in archives, writing what she terms ‘magnet poems’ to reel in information; poetry as archeological tool.

Tusiata, in her reciting of Selina’s ‘Fast-talking PI’, demonstrates the playfulness and spontaneity of testing out, of taking a poem and in a cat’s cradle looping of words remaking it her own. While Selina unpacks her commissioned Commonwealth poem, the elaborate royal constrictions she had to work within, and how she pulled it off ‘for the people’ – as Marty Smith says after, “Selina, you’re the queen!”

In this collaborative, richly woven celebration, Selina has shown us how deserving she is of the mantel ‘poet laureate’, and how she intends to explore the role and responsibilities of poetry advocate in fresh, decisive ways.

Finally, LJ Crichton, Katherine Winitana and Jordan Fuimaono from Project Prima Volta, offer us a sweet restraint to the evening in the delicate, surprising beauty of their rendition of ‘Edelweiss’. And as an encore, bring us ‘Pōkarekare ana’ to break the spell, gifting us back our own voices in a rousing sing-along.

Image credit: Emma Hughes, radionz.co.nz

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