This month, our feature conversation is with poet and artist Reihana Robinson, whose artwork ‘H’rizon’, from the 2020 Matariki issue, makes up the new 2021 Flash Frontier banner. Vaughan Rapatahana sat down to kōrero with Reihana.
Vaughan Rapatahana: Can you please tell us something about yourself? Writing career and genre, including poetry collections? Overseas experiences? Current projects? Just a bit of background…your tribal affiliation(s)?
Reihana Robinson: So, what I would like to share is the notion of storytelling, how literature is bound in ethnic identity and the anxieties, dramas, crises, and crossroads encountered. I think it was Amy Tan who many years ago responded to a question about her Chinese heritage, something to the effect that there are many kinds of identity.
Growing up whāngai’ed (looks like shanghai’ed) as a brown baby into the loving arms of a white family did not really hit home until one of my best friends at age 9 or 11 gave me a nickname – Cocoa. So my cultural blend – being a half caste in my case – had only blessings and finds me immersed in so-called Pākehā culture with only the fairy tales of Māori on the other side of the scale. Re-claiming notions of identity really came about because in any conflict, my inner self has always chosen the underdog, hence I overcompensated, given my upbringing, including one visit with amazing neighbours – the Haumaha whānau, to Tūrangawaewae marae, then a full six weeks with Huirangi and Te Ariki Mei in Wellington, on my teacher salary
So, identity…Who we are and how we become …? The above offering exposes a few threads of the pathway contributing to my identity as a writer and artist. It doesn’t really reference the huge impact of whānau that inform my second volume of poetry Her Limitless Her published as part of the Hoopla series by Mākaro Press in 2018, alongside extraordinary poets, Elizabeth Walsh and Jo Thorpe.
The literature of European fairy tales and British folk tales as well as nursery rhymes were the initial delights of language that fed my early attempts to write. My first visceral comprehension of social injustice was the fuel (I see the picture in my mind) created by the groups of brown faces outside the Tokoroa District Court. Social injustice and social inequity I believe are a backbone of creativity’s manifestations. Yes, other concepts feed creative works but for me this comes high in the pecking order. Searching and illuminating what lies beyond the borders, what is out of bounds. Lynn John at Tokoroa High School fed the poetry hunger with a bolt of lightning called Dylan Thomas.
My first short story appeared in Broadsheet. First poetry published in Hawai‘i. Time spent artmaking led to artist residencies in Hawai‘i and Minnesota. Artwork from my 1989 Hawai‘ian residency is currently part of a new exhibition Beyond the Surface, at the East West Center, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
I worked as a teacher, art teacher and lecturer, then art educator at the Wellington City Art Gallery, then Victoria/Wellington Teachers College art advisor, all amazing jobs with long stories and friendships. Aue Rona published by Steele Roberts at the end of 2012 sharply reveals my purpose in reclaiming a Māori myth that not only confronts my Māori construct but also involves my feminist proclivities.
I have spent quite a few years of my life as an American citizen. Experiencing performances of Laurie Anderson, Maguy Marin, Ernesto Cardinal, Naomi Wallace, David Hare, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Phillip Glass, Peter Sellars, Robert Wilson, Joy Harjo, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, David Mamet. OK so one poet was visiting from Nicaragua. But today the list is constantly re-energised: Ocean Vuong, Patricia Smith, Gwendolyn Brooks.
I travelled as Deputy-Director of the student trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1974…a fierce lifelong imprint evidenced by a purchase still in my library of Ho Chi Minh’s poems written while incarcerated, trips with the left-wing Nation magazine to Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, all magnificent cultures and soulful peoples. And a visit to Pitcairn via freighter in the year 2000 formed the source of one segment of my poems in Auckland University Press’ AUP New Poets 3
So being half-caste for me was all about crossover (I even wrote a nursery rhyme called Crossover Queen).
Current projects are two new volumes of poetry, plus poems for young voices and a novel. Who am I reading? Vana Manasiadis, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Tusiata Avia.
The year of 2020 was a year of editing both a new volume of poetry and a collection of poems for young voices. I was invited to participate in Ko Aotearoa Tatou/We are New Zealand (an anthology), Nga Kupu Waikato, Kotahitanga and Love in the time of Covid: A Chronicle of a Pandemic.
VR: I know that you do would like to and do write i te reo Māori. How important is it for you to write in te reo, please?
Reihana Robinson: Te reo I use frugally as my first second language is German. Te reo as waiata resonates, given my lack of fluency. Reading aloud or just reading in any language other than English inspires. Hesitant crumbs of translation create whole new poems.
VR: Relatedly, how important/vital do you think it is for Kiwi writers, especially Māori, to write in te reo Māori, please? Or at least attempt to?
RR: Ideally we should all be bilingual and all of us capable of writing in both languages. That is my gut feeling about the question so hopefully the next generation will grow up fluent in both languages so it comes as second nature. Social justice comes with economic justice so we have work as citizens and poets and artists. It is considered normal in many nations for kids to learn multiple languages. We are shortchanging our tamariki and mokopuna.
VR: What is the kaupapa regarding your fine H’rizon piece, and when was it painted – e.g., during the COVID period?
RR: The painting hinges itself to the idea of dust and horizons and where we sit in the maze of galaxies…namely right here right now. The verticals reference the made environment we create planted to disrupt and unsettle the spinning place we call home…Papatūaānuku, mother earth fizzing off into the distance of Ranginui our sky father. We don’t get to see the stars until after the separation and wars…
Oil painting and screen printing are my preferred mediums. I was fortunate to see the first big contemporary American art exhibition in NYC at the Met in 1970 with the likes of Clyfford Still and Franz Kline and Georgia O’Keefe resonating with their potent paintings (New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970). Today I get to bounce off of other whanau as daughter Noa Noa von Bassewitz is an accomplished woodblock printmaker and oldest moko is a singer songwriter of some renown, Ngahere Wafer.
VR: Do you try to tie in your written work with your artwork – or are they separate creative processes?
RR: When it comes to art making UNRULY comes to mind…I don’t think in words when I’m painting or print-making…I think in colour and form.
VR: You have spent some time teaching art as well. Can you tell us about that?
RR: The first line I would ask students to write when I was an art teacher at South Wellington Intermediate school was ‘Art is hard work’, partly to help overcome insecurity around mark-making on a blank surface and secondly creativity can require sweat and courage
I have done stints of art education lecturing and teaching at what was once called Palmerston North College of education now Massey plus Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts
I loved teaching art to kids at South Wellington Intermediate School and that is something I miss.
VR: Do you sometimes write prose poems and/or flash fiction? Do you think you might have a piece of flash fiction or a poem for us to include, please…?
A poem and a story by Reihana Robinson
we erase the world
shaken awake it’s 2.27am awakening earth shake shaking
what to me is the whole world our bed bed walls walls
painting painting floor floor eating earth rattles heaves
the air is still no hint of less emissions in spite of the
lockdown no change in our earthly rapacious digging
what do fish feel when unusual motion swells their world?
we are all trained to hate we are all trained to find enemies
plant or animal or other ‘fill in the epithet’ nation
always lesser always to be humiliated I can’t
find my face in the mirror – too dark I sense it is there
will this shiver remain although memory begins to shimmer
and blur just too many to keep track of what will we find
on the other side? we can’t even find language to talk
with the birds who flee flame and disruption chaos and deluge
singed feathers we erase the world we erase the world we erase the world
JULEP was tattooed above her right breast. The name sat hard-edged into the material of her uniform. Her shaven head did not rise. Her eyes were in some magazine under the counter.
Whatever the normal odour of air was, it was creased and severed as her deep sigh mouthed a medicated pungent:
Jeff watched the word waver in and out the mail pigeonholes behind her lowered head, searching for some new laundered home and into the ears pinned to Jeff’s skull. He realized as the word slid over the drum-tight skein inside his ear and bounced out. He did however see she was addressing him as no one appeared to be in the foyer but himself and the tattooed JULEP.
“I want a room.”
“One night or more?”
“Oh, just one night. I have to be back in the city early morning at the latest.”
One delicate hand unfolded from beneath her seat and pawed a sheaf of keys, one she slid to him. The hand, he would sometime later state in confidence, was the real beginning of his story.
He hadn’t intended to stay the night in the small town. No aftershave. No toothbrush. No deodorant. Uh ah nothing, a two-bit horse town with no horses even.
The delivery had been straightforward but somehow time traipsed by unnoticed until the gloom of dusk reflected in his side mirror. Intermittent echoes of a storm coming, lightning flashing on and off, or maybe it was the neon from the hotel. He wouldn’t ever be able to add it all up.
Earlier in the day Jeff had argued his way onto the job. He could have stayed at the factory. He could have ended up at home, tucked into his own bed. But lately the city air had been bothering him. ‘Respiratory relapse’ is what he was told. All he knew it was getting harder to breathe. Newspapers said the whole city was a death trap. Jeff felt the factory somehow held an answer. At the factory, each worker knew only their part of the job. Everyone accepted this limitation and on the job the air was mesmeric. But when the job came up to deliver beyond the city limits, he fought for it. He changed into his regular uniform. The journey was peaceful.
A hum began deep inside and soon he found himself chanting childhood songs he thought he had long forgotten:
Piko piko piko piko toro piko
And laughing, he jerked his head into actions to “Oma rapeti oma rapeti.”
Silence he had learned to endure (not to discuss his fears) became the stranger.
The hotel must have been a hospital in its past life. Massive stone walls gashed for the emergency entrance. Ambulances arriving in the dead of night. White-coated bodies hurtling in the headlights. Urgent voices above stifled cries. Never sufficient anaesthetic outside city limits. Housing the war wounded. Weather-worn stone steps leading to the heavy glass revolving door.
Jeff looked back at his parked van.