This month’s Flash Frontier featured author is Brian Potiki, who is a poet, playwright, scriptwriter, songwriter and performer. His poems have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, and he has toured extensively, performing, and running workshops as The Travelling Tuataras with his partner, Jill Walker.
Vaughan Rapatahana: Can you please tell us your tribal affiliation(s)?
Brian Potiki: Ngāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha.
VR: Can you also please tell us something about yourself? Writing career and genre, including any recent publications/participations? Just a bit of background.
BP: Since the 1970s I’ve written poems, songs, plays, many, many letters (postal), articles. I directed Harry Dansey’s Te Raukura in the old Ngāti Pōneke marae, September 1975, cast of 40…all sweeties.
Before this – my cherry got busted at the Ngaio Revue Players production of Canterbury Tales (musical by Neville Coghill, Oxford Uni prof/moderniser of Chaucer), directed by Don Selwyn (beret-wearing, close friend of Selwyn Muru et al) playing ‘student Nicholas’. Each night I got to kiss Nan – the older, attractive wife of another in the script. Not a bad part in other words.
Then came Te Raukura: feathers of the albatross.
After that, Ngā Mōteatea, a performance programme about traditional Māori song-poetry which a handful of younger Te Reo Māori Society members toured around Wellington schools, with the same agenda: He Wiki mō Te Reo Māori! I narrated and directed (wearing a long raincoat & a nascent beard).
After that I moved to Auckland and formed Tangata Māori Theatre with Roma Potiki and Peter Turei. I rode to work at Outreach on a new brown 12-speed.
I wrote the start of Hiroki’s Song (then – called from a source text – Wandering with The Prophets Te Whiti and Tohu Kākahi).
Peter & I hitchhiked to & from Auckland to Wellington to perform a scene at Rowley Habib’s performance event in Courtney Place and we stayed on Thompson St with Keri Kaa and Tungia Baker. Then came Maranga Mai & the rest is history.
Editor note: Brian is rather modest here, as he was a founder figure regarding Māori written, produced, and performed drama nationwide, with especial mention of Maranga Mai, which has been described as ‘a seminal work of Māori theatre’. This link rounds out his literary career. Please also see Brian’s piece titled Trees, below. -VR
VR: I know that you do sometimes write in te reo Māori. How important is it for you to write in te reo Māori, please?
BP: I have a basic understanding of te reo, engari, although I may use words. Occasionally, I write in English, my own first language and one I’ll never get to the end of. For me writing and reading are closely twinned. I read all the time. My favourite novel is Ulysses. My favourite poem is ‘The Odyssey’.
VR: Relatedly, how important/vital do you think it is for Kiwi writers to write in te reo Māori, please? Or at least attempt to?
BP: I feel myself now to be like an old car with worn-out springs, seats, tyres (see above). My two daughters are passionate about te reo. They talk, sing, write in it.
Yesterday I heard Stacey Morrison say that Witi Ihimaera intends to master te reo so he can write a novel in it. He’s 80 now.
VR: It would be great if you could also provide a sample of your short fiction, please. If it has as its kaupapa, ngā rākau, even better, eh. If it is ‘creative non-fiction’ kāore he raruraru.
In winter 1981 we’d just finished a year of touring Maranga Mai, our song-play about the modern Māori protest movement.
When the Minister of Education called for the play to be banned, we were a main item on TV1 news. Talk about free publicity.
Our home at Mangataipa in the Hokianga – with an older history of passive resistance against local council takeovers – had become a centre for national and international activists.
First it was time to try to disrupt the forthcoming Springbok tour.
Then the focus turned to Nuclear-free-Pacific and an end to nuclear testing at Mururoa. One of our group, Huhana Oneroa, sailed on the Pacific Peacemaker to blockade the launch of an American trident submarine.
(Also in the crew, making his first overseas trip, was Tihema Galvin, who was our kaumātua ten years later when I toured my first history play, Hiroki’s Song).
Making another play and touring it was an obvious choice. When Hōri Chapman asked what sort of songs will there be? I took the guitar and sang ‘No Ordinary Sun’, which I’d written using the words of Hone Tūwhare’s great anti-nuclear poem from 1964.
I sang it as a slow ballad, changing the words a bit as his poem is written in formal language, that now sounds antiquated.
My partner Jill Walker brought her prop-making skills. Steven, a young drummer, juggled some of the light-weight fish that were made at this time in one skit. (I still use one of them in our Travelling Tuataras story theatre in the story about a boy from the sea which Jill and I performed as recently as January 2023).
The skit-based play was short but some of the group put together a band, Ahurangi, with tight reggae songs that became the second part of the show. We had a bus and a car.
Our itinerary was between Te Araroa and Hamilton; winter 1983 with the annual Ngapuna Waihanga (formerly Māori Artists and Writers) hui en route at Te Kaha.
Since 1973 this hui, which attracted many contemporary and traditional artists, had been held over Queens Birthday weekend. In other words, at one of the coldest times of the year. For me the hui’s highlight was the Sunday concert, a chance to try out new poems, songs and play scenes.
The stars were aligned, the Fates in harmony: this year each rohe would present a concert item, starting with Tai Tokerau.
Hōne Tūwhare had travelled up from Dunedin. He was in the audience when we sang “No Ordinary Sun’. He came up to me outside and said, “Sweet, real sweet…sweet.” (I took this as a compliment…much later his son Rewi suggested that Hōne may well have been – gently – disparaging the song as his intention had been to write an angry poem.)
1984, time for another play, this time to welcome the Hikoi-ki-Waitangi from Ngāruawahia led by two uncomplimentary matriarchs, Eva Rickard and Titewhai Harawira. Liz Marsden had garnered some Internal Affairs funding so we could rehearse inland from Kaikohe at Mataraua. Don Selwyn called in and choreographed the ‘No Ordinary Sun’ song.
The night before the hīkoi arrived at Waitangi everyone was camped just south of Whangārei. The air was warm, the sky starlit, our Hikoi Roadshow was a hit.
So too was ‘No Ordinary Sun’, now with its graceful dance actions.
It quickly became one of the repertoire of new waiata that included Hirini Melbourne’s ‘Ngā Iwi E’.
When Hōne Tūwhare died in Dunedin and it was known that he’d be brought back to his ancestral home in Kaikohe, Hōne Harawira (then still an MP) put the call out: Let’s perform ‘No Ordinary Sun’ when he arrives at the church.
The only one who remembered the actions was Jill as she and I had performed it many times over the years. We rehearsed it, and next evening performed it in the tiny old church with green leaves surrounding Hōne’s coffin.
Many of the activists who sang the song had no knowledge of Hōne’s great poem. They just knew it from its first line:
Tree…let your arms fall.
They called it ‘Trees’.
Brian Potiki is a poet and playwright. He is also an experienced scriptwriter, songwriter, and performer. Potiki’s poems have been published in numerous magazines and in a Hawaiian-based anthology. Aotearoa, a book of his collected poems and songs, was published in October 2003. He also worked on a book about the play, ‘Maranga Mai’, a seminal work of Maori Theatre from 1980-81. In 2007 Potiki completed a cycle of history plays begun in 1990: Hiroki’s Song, Boultbee, A Mutiny Stripped and Motupōhue, set in the South Island. They were published as Te Wai Pounamu, Your Music Remembers Me: Four South Island History Plays (Steele Roberts, 2007). In 2010 Potiki finished writing Hey Māori People, a book about Māori theatre in the 1980s. Potiki lives near Rotorua. He has toured schools teaching drama, and he is a popular member of the Book Councils Writers in Schools programme. More can be found here.