Flash Frontier

Kōrero: NZ Poet Laureate David Eggleton

Interviews and Features

Vaughan Rapatahana with Aotearoa’s Poet Laureate David Eggleton, including new prose poetry.


Vaughan Rapatahana: Ngā pātai. Can you please tell us about your own Pasifika background?

Downtown bus, Suva, Fiji

David Eggleton: Noa’ia ‘e mauri. The sea is my mother. I was born in a double-hulled canoe during a storm. From her, the sea, I received my life-source. Now the seaweed grows in her floating hair. Faieksia. My grandfather, my ma’piag fa, was a carver, a canoe-maker from Motusa, on the island of Rotuma. My grandmother, my kui fefine, was from Namoli, on Tongatapu. She swam and dived, and sailed between the islands of Tonga and Rotuma in the Fiji group, and eventually she went to live at Levuka on Ovalau overlooking the sea. She had many children. My father was an airman at the RNZAF base near Suva. I left Fiji at the age of eight for Aotearoa, skimming over the waves in a Sunderland flying boat white as an albatross. Slowly I felt the tropic sun leave my veins. After years dwelling in the land of the long white cloud, I returned to find the colony of islands I knew then had vanished to be replaced by the Republic of Fiji and globalisation, the whole world tightly interconnected, and the Moana Nui a sea of islands linked by boat, plane, and social media. And now my cousins, my kaīnga, living across the Pacific toast us all, me and my siblings, with Mai Tai cocktails, with Mimosas, with Mojitos, with Fiji Gold and Mokusiga and Vailima beers. And a gliding frigate bird rides the trade winds, the equatorial breeze between islands, as my guide to the flight path, above the phosphorescent wake of the vaka. Vinaka vakalevu. Nofo lototo’a pea hanga ho ulu ki olunga!

VR: Can you also please tell us more about yourself? That is, about your writing career and genres, including latest poetry collection? Current projects?

DE: To keep it short and crisp, here’s a blurb: David Eggleton has been known as a poetry performer since the 1980s, when he emerged as part of the punk rock scene, performing alongside New Wave bands on the pub and cafe circuit. A South Auckland pathfinder, one of the OGs, an old-school rapper and Kiwi ranter. David Eggleton’s Pasifika heritage and passion for poetry performance result in poems which have a strong oral and rhythmic quality. Dramatic, lively, witty, and anchored in Moana Oceania, David Eggleton’s work exemplifies and maintains the vibrancy of contemporary poetry in Aotearoa New Zealand. Poetry reviewer Alan Loney wrote in New Zealand Books “David Eggleton is unique in New Zealand in his chosen mode. And he is to be valued for that.” David Eggleton now lives in Dunedin/Ōtepoti. A writer and critic and winner of many national awards for his writing, he is the former editor of Landfall magazine.

Poem quote, the Octagon, Dunedin

VR: Do you write much prose poetry or flash fiction yourself?

DE: I have written some short fiction but not at the moment. I do write prose poems. In general I suppose I am known for favouring a more unfurling, banner-like, digressive mode. Actually in practice in poetry, as in prose, I oscillate or pinball between forms of different lengths, modes and manners. I hover perpetually between the epiphany of the single slice and the crusty doughy experience of the whole loaf, though sometimes settling for a few crumbs. What I like about short forms is that they demand ingenuity born out of limitation. In flash fiction you strive for a sense of linguistic inevitability. Each word counts, contributing as a unit to the unity: pull one away and the whole thing begins to collapse, or perhaps becomes tighter, more gnomic.

Pool at night, Honolulu, Oahu

The flash fiction form has in my view become much more significant in the age of the internet, being bite-sized or miniature, suiting the various competing demands on our attention spans, but the origins are ancient and primal, in folkloric story-telling around the fire, or stories told by parents to children. More recently the French Surrealists , beginning with Rimbaud and  Lautréamont, have made the prose poem acceptable to high literature, and after them Gretrude Stein and the American ‘Language’ poets.

VR: Do you think you might have a piece of flash fiction or a prose poem for us to include, please? That would be great too.

Two new prose poems

Kīlauea, Hawai’i

Garlands of fire on the waves, caldera blowing hot and cold, magma hissing like a dragon, lava brighter than a tropical flower, snow settling above the rainforest. The sea holds and cloud holds. A scrollwork of ferns shelters chandeliers of orchids, beyond the bulge of black ripples of lava whacked by wind and sun glare. On hot spring waters, prismatic bubbles slide and pop. The ashy volcano smoulders, and waits, reptilian in evening calm. Pupualenalena the Dog-spirit dwells in a rock, and ghosts of the underworld rise to the surface in episodic eruption. Molten magma, cooled, settles to a black satin mass, an extruded river of lava, the surface of which has weathered shiny and smooth as plastic. Break it open and you see where the taffy-like lava has hardened into layers; it splinters, wafer-like, full of air bubbles. Now along the cracked roads weaving around slumbering Kilauea, those dried hanging wisps of lava flutter in the wind to tell the whole island is alive, and when again it stirs and its fire surges through vents to plunge into the boiling sea, sending up multiple plumes of steam, there will be wave echoes from islands far out, baling for dear life.

Waikiki, Oahu

Red zone, green zone, blue zone, street zone, food zone, bed zone, dead zone, as if looking round cloud nine, seventh heaven, some resort island, or some slum, where the poor live, and dream of owning something larger than themselves. The suntanned rough sleeper sits cross-legged on his traffic island, complete with coconut palm. The bearded rough sleeper in a blanket lies flat along the bench at a bus stop. The manic pram-pusher, whose baby buggy contains only a loaded boom-box blasting rap music, hurries, skittering along, but stops to dole out a couple of dollar bills to each rough sleeper, fishing in a clutter of plastic bags hanging from the pram handles, and the day is as dry as hot sand grains blown in from the beach two blocks away.

The man paralysed from the neck down steers his electric wheelchair onto the bus-door ramp, and down the street. He trundles a block or so to his busker’s pitch on the boulevard next to Waikiki Beach. He stops first at a bike shop, where the friendly manager helps him drape the set of small bells around his neck and over one arm that he then jiggles to make delicate music. His Stetson hat that travels on top of the canopy over his wheelchair is now on the pavement in front of him, and here is where this wheelchair-bound performer will remain all morning, his jingle of bells competing with the roar of refrigerated ice-cream trucks, the clatter of open-sided tourist trolley buses and the clamour from Sheraton Hotel workers on strike further along the road, using megaphones and steadily banging on drums.

Kia ora, David!

David Eggleton is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate. Current projects for late 2020 include many collaborations in the form of art exhibitions, performances, recordings, videos and touring shows across New Zealand with a number of visual artists, musicians and performance poets. His The Wilder Years: Selected Poems is forthcoming from Otago University Press early in 2021.
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