This journalism was published in early 2014 by The Big Idea. Some of the interviewees got mad that they weren’t allowed to control the story. They also decided the story was somehow offensive. Mohamed Hassan, Grace Taylor, Michael Rudd and others began harassing me and The Big Idea with online comments until they succeeded in getting the story taken down. The abuse contained racist undertones. I recall being distraught and feeling like no one in the world supported me -especially when The Big Idea caved in and took down the story. Online bullying is not acceptable and I will never bow to it or be intimidated into not publishing a piece of writing. – Michael Botur
Mouths From The South
by Michael Botur
Three of New Zealand’s best-known poets – all Polynesian, and all women – were sent to London as poetic ambassadors for the Cultural Olympiad of 2012. Out of the fraction of poets who manage to get published on paper, some have only been accepted by publishers in distant Pacific countries. Some Aussie slam poets are bypassing the university scene and heading straight for Manukau, where the poetry is distinguished by international connections, media innovation, and a moral puritanism.
Poets from Penrose to Papakura are stamping the South Auckland style from Adelaide to New York. Here’s how it happened.
All photos by Michael Botur
The South shall rise again
The South Auckland Poets Collective (SAPC) was founded in 2008 by Daren Kamali (Wallis and Futuna / Fiji) and Grace Taylor (England / Samoa.) The couple now run Niu Navigations, a company promoting Aotearoa and Pacific poetry. NN builds upon Kamali’s success (at least according to what’s written online) as a Fulbright scholar, Creative NZ Pacific Writer in Residence, and NZ rep at Solomon Islands and Palau festivals. Kamali has published books which sell at the University of the South Pacific. Taylor, too, has found her first publication far away, in Hawaii, where the New Oceania Reading Series called ‘Native Voices’ demonstrates a world view that puts Polynesia first.
Conscientiousness is what it’s all about. NN helped organised our nation’s first poetry slam for deaf people; Maryanne Pale (Tonga) used poets to fundraise over $8000 for wounded Tonga following January’s Category 5 Cyclone Ian.
At the February 13 Tonga fundraiser, Pale told me how South Auckland poetry stands out from central Auckland’s stalwart Poetry Live. “Our stories come from different upbringings. With my poetry I include Tongan language and singing. Most of my poems are stories.” South Auckland poets typically memorise all of their work, incorporate song and dance, and they embrace multimedia: YouTube is littered with SAPC workshops, performances, and lectures; Taylor and SAPC poets did a TEDx talk in 2013; Pale runs CreativeTalanoa.com; Doug Poole (Samoa / Europe) runs a website which frequently publishes poetry about Pacific cultures, and he organised the POLYNATION performance poetry show in Queensland. That’s just the tip of the ice berg, with dozens of South Auckland poets running blogs and websites, posting videos online, touring shows across the country and fighting to represent the south at nationwide poetry slams.
South Auckland poetry is distinguished by a concern for sister nations in the Pacific, an obsession with ethnicity and otherness, and a moral puritanism which may be attributable to Grace Taylor’s influence (she is a Youthline social worker; Youthline hosts some Stand Up Poetry readings.) The south style could be because of the significant role of the church in the lives of most Pacific Islanders.
“Out south, it’s much more influenced by communal living and personal identity,” says Rewa Worley, who is an associate of SAPC on top of founding Wax Poetic Revival as well as Nova Riche. “Out south there is a lot more poetry that involves God and prayer, purely because it’s pacific. At Poetry Live, there is a different demographic who have different social norms. I feel some PL poetry isn’t accessible. In the SA context there are some things that can’t be talked about. Out west I saw one poet whose whole poem was about her pussy. It was awkward. I don’t understand why someone would share that.”
He’d be more shocked if he knew that many Palagi poets look up to fascists (Ezra Pound), junkies (Jim Carroll) and hoboes (James K Baxter.) Alcohol is available at almost any poetry event in Auckland – except out south, where prohibition pervades.
Poet Maryanne Pale says “I’ve never associated poetry with drink and drugs, not with the poets I’ve been around. A typical hangout period is exercise, coffee and going for walks.” Their alcohol and drug-free, council-endorsed and family-friendly events might not have enough street cred for Poetry Live acolytes, whose midnight readings on K Road are often accompanied by prostitutes and drunks making noise on the street outside.
Worley’s part of a generation who believe that YouTube represents what poetry is. “Getting published is a goal, but the urge to take the stage and propagate spoken poetry is what I’m more driven towards. I don’t look up written poetry on websites, it’s definitely more YouTube.” None of the influential poets he lists are long-dead British men; instead, most are people aged in their 20s on the South Auckland circuit. “Basically everyone in Wax Poetic came to poetry through Grace Taylor.”
“I would love to build up a new poetry scene on the North Shore, but it’s difficult, partly due to demographics. The community is stronger out south. Stand Up Poetry isn’t perfect, but it’s continually encouraging, and the people there feel you, encourage you, and look like you: they’re young brown kids.”
Pale had ideas about why the preoccupation with ethnic identity occurs more in the South Auckland scene than the very active poetry gatherings in west and central Auckland. “The commonality here is being proud of where we come from. Some of us are first NZ born in our families. Our European friends could be different.”
Getting published takes a backseat to proclaiming personal identity out here, where few poems performed use stanza, metre or stress. Unstructured personal commentaries full of I, me and myself are aired, punctuated by dramatic pauses and breaks for laughter after in-jokes. If the Manukau Institute of Technology’s creative writing classes have influenced these poets, it may mean MIT’s teachers are inventing their own rules for poetry.
SUP is hosted by Youthline. Performers typically emulate Def Poetry Jam, whether they realise it or not. The February SUP reading I attended was a sea of backwards caps with gold stickers on them in a shiny café serving non-alcoholic drinks. Many poets read off iPads and cellphones, the musical interlude was hip hop beats spun by a real DJ, they rapped in American accents, their words dwelled on their skin colour while people in the audience clicked their fingers like jazzy beatniks.
The SAPC was clearly right at home when it made a pilgrimage to the Nuyorican Poets Café in 2012. The café had influenced Def Poetry, which had itself ripped off Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, all of who helped hip hop emerge as a distinct genre.
Pale sends me YouTube links showing her influences, instead of lending me a book. The YouTube vids show poets talking only about themselves, rejecting traditional poetic structure, and all the poets have American accents. Her biggest influences all work in English, but none of them are European. There’s Luka Lesson (Greek Australian rapping poet), Lemon Andersen (American ex- con playwright) and Pacific Tongue (Hawaiian youths concerned about the marginalisation of Polynesian culture in Hawaii.) The Pacific Tongue influence is hardly surprising – Hawaii is where Americana means Pasifika.
Karlo Mila (Tonga) represented Tonga at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in the United Kingdom, alongside Tusiata Avia (Samoa) and Selina Tusitala Marsh (Tuvalu.) While Mila wasn’t the first P.I. writer in New Zealand, her antecedents spent decades in solitude before a wave of Pacific writing emerged after the year 2000. “Albert Wendt was on his own for a very long time. Pasifika poetry is still quite strongly characterised by women, although there are still Doug Poole and Daren Kamali around. You also had Oscar Kightley and bro’Town at the same time. The guys were writing plays, the women were writing poetry.”
“There were Pacific women poets” who were around before me, like Konai Helu, Momoe Von Reiche, Sia Figiel the novelist, my first book contributed to this genealogy of poets. They were influenced by Maori poets such as J. C. Sturm. Tusiata and Selina were published around the same time. There was a clear next wave of us mentored by Albert. He was our matua.”
She says the Maori publisher Huia “deliberately hunted” Pacific work around 2000. Before Huia’s efforts, Pacific material was considered exotic by editors.
“The current crop of university press editors publish what they deem to be familiar to themselves. Selina Tusitala Marsh talked to the Auckland University Press publisher who didn’t understand Konai Helu Thaman’s poetry. There were different metaphors and ideas in it.” Today Polynesians are nothing unusual in the written world. “It’s easier for a publisher to relate to our poetry now as it is grounded in an NZ experience.”
She handed down her expertise to the next wave of Pasifika poets who emerged a decade after Avia, Marsh and herself, copy-editing their work or including them in anthologies. Mila says the SAPC isn’t just some inevitable cultural phenomenon. “It’s largely because of the work Grace has done.”