We’re excited that we were able to catch up this month with New Zealand’s Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh, to talk about the culture of storytelling and the power of poetry.
Kia ora Selina!
On performance, presentation and storytelling
Selina Tusitala Marsh: Definitely both!! Often, as of late, when I’m running. For me, it’s about intuitive movement, of the body, of the mind, of the sound in the mouth. Walking and running fits into the iambic pentameter of the mindscape. It’s a very cool thing for me to find a line or two swirling around in the mouth. At the moment I’m working on a running poem and while I was running along the cliff tops of Waiheke Island I got this phrase and so stopped and turned the Dictaphone function of my phone on (yes, I carry my phone, but only to use STRAVA…well, sometimes run a meeting or two…). I began recording everything I saw on that run. Playing it back is a hoot. You must allow for gaps (breathe) and that translates quite beautifully on the page. But the whole moving from page to stage conundrum is certainly an issue – it needs to be carefully ‘stage managed’, and crafted, to fly in both forums.
STM: Albert Wendt said ages ago (in the 80s), ‘the teller is the tale’. Indeed, I wrote extensively on how I realised this for the annual NZ Book Council lecture.
When I realised that I was in fact, growing into a family legacy – the Tusitala legacy – I began to decipher the happenings in my life through that particular lens. A story made itself known. This is a very powerful thing. And it’s something I try to bring into the workshops I take, the classes I teach, the speaking events I hold: we already have all the stories we need within us – they just need unlocking. I love, love, love Maya Angelou’s line: ‘Bird doesn’t sing because it has the answer, bird sings because it has a song’. And isn’t that what creative writing and creative living is all about?
the restless surging of ocean is a term, moana nui a kiwa, tiding like a tongue over lip, it dips and rises to tell the story Pasifika the restless surging of the term is an ocean moana, a tongue over lip, like a tide it dips and rises in Pasifika telling a story like a tongue moana nui a kiwa talkstory, restless surging of lips a term dips and rises like the term Pasifika ocean lip tiding to tell moana, a term surging like Pasifika nui a kiwa, a tongue dipping into a story
STM: All cultures have storytelling traditions. Many Pasifika cultures are adept at telling their stories in multitudinous ways: through flying hands in dance; scripted ink on bodies; Sunday sermons and Monday lectures in the home; singing, lots of singing; stories told while groups of women weave, tap, wash and groups of men cut, carry, dry. But lest we romanticize village life, listen to a Samoan bus driver – oh, the stories! Listen to the child vendor selling stiff dyed Chinese lavalavas – oh, the stories!
Now I do consider myself a storyteller. I never used to. I was that kid with her nose pressed up against the window, looking through to all the Poets and Writers and Artists and Storytellers because seldom did I read ‘me’. I didn’t even have the confidence to take a Creative Writing course, even when it was offered by Albert Wendt, Witi Ihimaera and Reina Whaitiri at Auckland University where I studied! Nadda – that’s how many writing courses I’d done before publishing my first book! But I was a reader, and a dreamer, and I had a couple of people around me like Michele Leggott and Paula Green, who believed, unequivocally, in my voice, my story.
On the power of poetry
STM: The ‘why’ of this question was answered above. I’m the mother of 3 rugby-leaguing sons and the wife of a sports fanatic. These men keep me grounded. These men keep it real for me in terms of challenging me to ask ‘Can poetry matter?’ I steal this from Dana Goia’s brilliant essay. Part of Goia’s argument was that (in the 1990s) poetry had become an elitist academic thing, poetry readings were attended either by those who studied it, or those who wrote it. Where was Shakespeare’s bard of the streets? For me, our Kiwi bard, Sam Hunt, irrevocably changed the course of my life in terms of what poetry was, how it could behave, and how it could carry my voice. Same with Pam Ayres. I wanted to do that – to take poetry to the people. To get people to connect with words, the sound of language, the spirit of metaphor and be able to capture something that you could only hold lightly in the palm of your hand because to squeeze it too hard would be to kill it. Sadly, for my boys, their education in poetry at school is…well…picture a run-over sparrow squished on the road a mere centimetre from a slice of bread.
STM: It’s certainly there and Māori writing is vibrant. I was at the Auckland international airport waiting for a flight and was delighted to spy Paula Morris’ False River on the shelves on the Relay Store. Then, when landing in Sydney, uber-delighted to see its sparkling blue river cover on the shelves there too. Māori fiction is actually everywhere, if you have the eyes to see it. Briar Wood’s beautiful, thoughtful, provocative collection of poetry, Rawhiri, has been shortlisted for this year’s Ockham Book Awards. We’re teaching Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti’s anthology Black Marks on the White Page in our Creative Writing course at uni. Māori writing is everywhere and, more importantly, should be everywhere – not just in my Pacific Lit courses.
STM: Tightrope has three sections taken from Al’s quote. ‘Abyss’ explores death and how we idiosyncratically remember, recall, reimagine it. ‘Tightrope’ is about balance, finding oneself in tough or challenging situations and being able to keep moving one foot in front of the other. ‘Trick’ is about agency and how for me, keeping my agency in situations that seem designed to take it away from me, require a little bit of magic, sleight of hand trickery, the often comic turns required to get out of or rise above of situations. These themes are umbrellaed by Al’s sense of story and that history is the story we tell ourselves.
STM: The Greek etymology of the word ‘poem’ means ‘to make’. I’d rather make and create than tear down. I remember Elaine Paige (a New York based poet) saying to a class here, ‘A poem isn’t about the telling, it’s about the discovering.’ And it caught me because as a Pasifika woman poet, it’s all about ‘telling tales / I never heard / till yesterday / born away / for another life’. And I use poetry to do that. But not at the expense of the poem itself. She was really talking about letting the language lead you, discover you, giving yourself over to the process. So, what does that mean? It means that I want to write a poem about running, about the power of movement, and how it’s somehow connected to my going through perimenopause and my feminist radar asking ‘Where’s the poetry on perimenopause and how can I claim this as an empowering goddess stage?’ and that has something to do with doing too much, the early death of a beloved friend who was renowned for doing too much, and that’s connected with the book I’m reading, Sarah Knight’s The Life- Changing Magic of Not Giving A F—K and Ariana Huffington’s book Thrive and that all needs to be talked about BUT I am led by the language that comes out as I record a poem on my phone while I run along Waiheke cliff tops. All this is swirling around in my head, but my words and the images I capture in language are being dictated by my running pace, the need for breath and my aural propensity for rhyme and rhythm. I allow the words to discover the story that wants to come out at that given time. That’s the abyss, the tightrope and the trick!
Ia manuia Malaga (may your journey be blessed)