Mana muses

On September 30th, artist Penny Howard launched the Mana Muses Exhibition at Whitespace Contemporary Art Gallery

Lynn Freeman interviewed both Penny and me on Radio New Zealand — Penny Howard's four muses

The four muses are Marama Davidson, co-leader of the Green party (pictured), Anika Moa, musician and television personality, Sia Figiel, Samoan author, and myself.

Penny Howard, Marama's portrait, Marama and Selina Tusitala Marsh.

I think this makes the perfect official New Zealand Poet Laureate Portrait (do we have these?) and I think it's extraordinary how Penny has placed each of us in our dynamic context.

Marama Davidson, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Selina's portrait.

I wrote 'Mana Muses' to gift back to Penny, which brings together her culturally-infused visual storytelling in this very special year of anniversaries and celebrations:

Mana Muses

She who paints the red thread line
She who brushes mortal into divine

She who beats a wing to ways
The past through whakapapa always stays

She whose eye casts North to South
She whose canvas is her mouth

She who sprouts East with roots in West
She who rises to each test

It is She who stories Mana Muses
This 125 year of She who Choses

Left to right: Davey, Selina's son, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Selina's portrait. Sam, Selina's sister, Selina and Selina's portrait. 

Sunrise Celebration — Suffrage Day, 19 September 2018

I was invited to speak at the above event with the following promo:
Join Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and MC Jennifer Ward-Lealand as we honour the fight for gender equality in Aotearoa. The morning’s Suffrage 125 celebrations will continue with renowned songstress Annie Crummer and New Zealand Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh performing live, along with other women leaders and musical guests.

Be a part of history at this special event that marks 125 years since New Zealand became the first country where women were able to vote in a general election. This event is hosted by the National Council of Women, Auckland Council and Auckland Live.

Buy your breakfast or a hot beverage from one of the visiting food trucks while you enjoy the entertainment. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is scheduled to speak just after 7am, so make sure you arrive with plenty of time to get a good spot.

Free admission.
I thought it 'appropo' to share the speech I gave to a crowded Aotea Square in Auckland. I titled it ‘Inappropriate Woman’:

My mother was an Inappropriate Woman

Today is her birthday.

Sailigi Tusitala was born in 1944 on 19 September, in Samoa. Her name, Sailigi, is the Samoan transliteration for siren. On the night of her birth, a year before World War 2 ended, the sirens rang out in Apia. And my mother, who had the loudest voice in the village, certainly lived up to her name.
I am wearing one of the dancing tops she wore in the late 1970s. Mum:
  • danced her way through New Zealand’s economic boom when the immigration floodgates opened its arms wide to the Pacific
  • danced her way through the economic downturn in the late 1970s when our house was Dawn Raided
  • danced her way through sexism and racism, ageism and classism
  • danced on Avondale RSA tabletops and, in turn, taught me how to be an Inappropriate Woman.
I define ‘inappropriate’ here as being ‘not proper or not suitable for the occasion’.

Kate Sheppard was an Inappropriate Woman.

You, Jacinda, are an Inappropriate Woman.

Because when one is ‘not proper or suitable for the occasion’ one changes the occasion, forever.

And we, as a nation, were hanging out for change, as the awarding of me as your NZ Poet Laureate attests. As the voting in of a Prime Minister who gave birth while holding office, attests. I wrote this poem to mark the occasion:

Jacinda and Clarke and the Baby and Us: A Rondeau

The baby’s here, the baby’s here!
Aotearoa, New Zealand, what a year!
Jacinda, our partnered and pregnant world first
Has, this 125 Suffrage year, given birth
To a wee girl so dear

Women are extending the frontier
In Census 2018 let’s be clear
And count the ways women in the stats have reversed
The baby’s here, the baby’s here!

Patsy, our Governor General is near
Sian’s our Chief Justice, Lianne’s Christchurch Mayor
Jenny and Carmel for Labour (but Winnie came first)
Marama co-leading Greens, another burst
But the real labour has happened, let’s be clear:
The baby’s here, the baby’s here!

In this year of new beginnings and anniversaries, my fellow Inappropriate Women, we still need to Lead.


You’re leaders in the making
You’re making history
You’re redefining this nation’s

Gender equity
It’s trailblazing from all over the country
It’s Kate Sheppard and Xena in the city

And now
In tautua, service, lead our community
Lead through uniqueness, your diversity

Lead through leaning, lead through learning
Lead through others, lead by earning
...............................................................Your own way in this world.

Lead in alofa, lead in compassion
Lead in fun, lead in your own fashion

Lead by falling forward when you make a mistake
Lead by giving more than what you take

Lead when your strategy is a forward-thinking story
Lead when the task in front of you holds no glory

Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, let your ‘No’ be ‘No’
Lead and follow in the footsteps of all your heroes

Lead by creating out of happy accidents
Lead by taking risks when there’s no precedent

Lead by following the cup of tea trail
Sit, listen, eat, and they’ll follow without fail

Lead by digging up diamonds in those around you
Lead when you scale the heights, then plummet to ground zero

Lead with transparency, lead with laughter
Lead in celebration, lead in disaster

Lead with your strengths, lead in honesty
Lead when you see between the lines of policy
...............................................................And into the people’s eyes.

Lead, even in the times you just want to follow,
Lead for today, lead for tomorrow

Lead and when you want to end all injustice
Lead in the crowd, lead when it’s just us

Lead when you want to revolutionise
When you no longer want to be hypnotised

By what everybody else says is right
Lead when you have your vision in sight

Lead from the front, lead from behind
Lead from the middle, wherever you find
...............................................................Your standing place.

In the workplace, in the home
Lead when everyone’s watching, and when you’re alone

Lead with an eye on your dream, an eye on the rest
Lead when you can look at yourself and assess
Your weaknesses and strengths with clarity
Remembering humility and charity

Lead when you’re brave enough to ask different questions
And when the answers aren’t good enough, to raise objections

Lead and give yourself permission to fail
Lead and take the less-often-walked trail

Lead and never forget to be kind
Lead with the heart bound up with the mind

Lead with a child’s curiosity
Lead with the end goal of unity

Lead with national excellence and innovation
Lead through intimate conversation

Lead with courage and determination
Even in the face of discrimination — Lead.

Lead with balance, a sense of fair play
Lead to help others lead in this way

Lead through connecting, lead through informing
Lead through changing, lead by transforming
your own patch of earth in this world

And now,


Pics and coverage

Selina with Annie Crummer
With Annie Crummer

Selina with Jennifer Ward-Lealand
With Jennifer Ward-Lealand

'Within the ordinary stands the extraordinary': 125 years of women's suffrage

The Friday Poem: ‘Jacinda and Clarke and the Baby and Us’ by the NZ Poet Laureate

Harry, Gandalf and the Tokotoko

At the Governor General's invitation, I performed an adapted version of my poem 'Lead' at the Royal Reception for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Government House, Wellington on the 28th of October. The theme for the evening was 'Women's Words: Where To From Here?'

My speech before the poem follows:

Each New Zealand Poet Laureate receives a specially carved Tokotoko, a Maori walking stick, made by Jacob Scott from Matahiwi Marae, to reflect their unique poetic contribution to the country. Mine, as you can see, has a LOT of hair [lots of laughter from the audience]. As the current New Zealand Poet Laureate I lead through words. So, I say this to you, fellow wild women of worded whirlwind, and those who stand with you (yes, there were about 6 men in the room):

'You're a leader in the making, you're making history...'

 and so begins the poem 'Lead':

I changed the last stanza to:

Lead through action, lead through word
Lead with your voice, lead and Woman, be heard.

After my poem, Le Art, three glorious song-makers (they write their own material too) from Porirua College whose YouTube clips have gone viral with over a million hitstook centre stage. Radio New Zealand covers their viral-ity.

Selina and the song-makers Rosetta Lopa, Me, Anastasia Sirila and Tiresa Foma'i.

We didn't get to meet Meghan in the shortened time we had due to the unexpected alarm and evacuation just prior to the reception, however, we four did speak with Harry.  My conversation went something like this:

Harry: Yes, I remember you!
Me: Oh, pishaw! [Pishaw? Was this my nod to using royally in/appropriate Old English to voice my disbelief?]
Harry: You were all in blue.
Me: Yes, I was!
Harry: But your hair was different.
Me: Erm, no it was the same. Except for this silver streak. Watch out, it's coming for you!

Then, when the ring of photographers had all turned away to capture Meghan in yet another engrossing conversation.

Me: Would you like to touch the Tokotoko?
Harry: I would. Wow. [Harry feels the weight of it and runs his hands along the carvings, then suddenly widens his stance and stamps it on the ground]
Harry: You shall not pass! [As in Gandalf's famous line in Lord of the Rings]
Me: Ah...yes, thanks. [Reaching for my Tokotoko, straightening her tousled hair]


Prince Harry meets Selina, Tiersa Foma'i and Anastasia Sirila. Photo: NZ Heral

Making stones

Black Stone poem Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

Black Stone

Black Stone
Molten lava

jagged forms
awe inspiring.

Black Stone
flowing free
from depths
a viscous form

Jet black
sleeping fortress
weather rock
come wind or shine.

Black Stone
and obstinate

Black Stone
bird of wealth
solid bedrock
dwelling of death.

Eternal essence
of immortal soul's steadfast fixture
founding Man's
physical cosmos.

of the spirits
to the stable
of constancy
and permanence.

Black Stone
Black Stone.

I look at this poem on the page, as you have.

I see the short lines of physical language simultaneously rise up and fall down the page. Its adjective-heavy lines offer material descriptions of volcanic rock: ‘molten lava / solidified’. But its spare language lures me into digging for more. Something more simmers beneath its calm surface. I Google images of Vanuatu’s volcanoes. Obsidian is found throughout its volcanic areas. Black basalt rock lines the shores of Molisa’s birthplace, Ambae, home to the nation’s most voluminous live volcano, the formidable Manaro Voui. Reminds me of Grace Mera Molisa herself.

I look again at the poem on the page. Now I see a volcanic fissure vent on the page with oppositional activity murmuring beneath and spilling up through it. I move from stone, ‘solid’ and ‘jagged’, to ‘free flowing’ and ‘viscous’ forms; I move from what is immediate and knowable to intangible ‘depths unknown’. Black stone is a source of life and ‘wealth’ and yet a ‘dwelling of death’; it is a tangible ‘fixture’ yet holds ‘Eternal essence’; it is a ‘threshold’ of ‘spirits’ who are at the same time ‘transfixed’ by the materiality of black stone. Black stone embodies physical and spiritual properties.

I move between this poem and other of Grace’s writings, where black stone is synonymous not only with the land, but its people. In ‘Blackstone Milestone’, the epigraphic poem in her book Local Global Indigenous Network, Grace writes ‘Blackstone means Vanuatu....Blackstone is Vanuatu’. The idea that the land and its people are one and the same reflects the NiVanuatu principal of manples, the Bislama transliteration of ‘man’ and ‘place’.

Anthropologist and long time friend of Grace, Margaret Jolly, defines manples as the ‘condensation’ of the land and its people, noting that the term is often used to differentiate between local Melanesians and Europeans. Both the term and the idea then, is loaded with political agency in Vanuatu’s postcolonial era. The description of black stone as a ‘sleeping fortress’ links its protective potentialities against foreign incursions with the intensity of the stone’s ‘jet black’ colour in the previous line.

Then I turn back to the title of this poem — just two words, ‘black’ and ‘stone’.

I see the word ‘black’ releasing contestable cultural and political meanings. ‘Melanesia’, a label first applied by European explorers, stems from the Greek translation for ‘black islands’. Today Melanesia and the racial marker ‘black’ has been reclaimed from its origins in imperial racialist taxonomies. Molisa employs both terms as proud identity markers, most strikingly conveyed by the line drawn portrait on the covers of both Black Stone collections.

Black and white drawing of Grace Mera Molisa Image from front cover to Black Stone.

Black dominates this cover. Wearing her trademark Afro, Molisa stares directly into the reader’s eyes, defiantly asserting an indigenous visibility. Her portrait is drawn in white on black for the cover of Black Stone and on feminist purple for its sequel. Here, black is the basis for proud Melanesian identity, politically and poetically.

I also see the word ‘stone’ releasing paradoxical elements. Stone is fluid and in flux while also solid and constant. The stone foundations of these volcanic islands are also used to build roads, buildings, walls, and paths. Stones literally ‘build up’ the nation. Likewise, the one to three words per line, building-block layout of Molisa’s poems, build up words on the page. Both stones and Grace’s poems evoke the nationalistic Bislama phrase that urges everyone to ‘build ‘em up’ — to build the nation.

Building one nation was always going to be a volcanic experience. With over 80 distinct languages and clan groups, Vanuatu is a cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope, captured by the Bislama phrase ‘wan wan aelan’ — each separate island. With two colonial systems operating on a ‘divide and conquer’ basis, the challenge of transitioning from diverse, multiple and independent clan and regional allegiances to one politically unified base to thwart foreign powers, has been volatile. Despite eruptions from competing French, British, and NiVanuatu political parties, an equilibrium was maintained long enough so that in 1980 the New Hebrides (1906-1980) became the new nation of Vanuatu.

Equilibrium is crucial to both the formation of a nation and to the formation of black stone. Black stone is made when lava is produced, cools, then solidifies. Too cool and there is no lava; too hot and lava won’t solidify. When hot fluid comes into contact with cool air or water, stone is formed. This counteraction of forces — equilibrium — creates new land.

Molisa’s political and poetic writings are like the sentiments of her visionary father. Both aim for unity in diversity. Both proffer ways that multiple and conflicting forces can work in productive counterbalance to make one nation. One tactic for creating unity is to find a way to tell the new nation’s story that connect all its citizens. As a poet, Molisa understands the power of metaphors to bridge cultural and linguistic divides. Black stone does exactly that.

Part 2 of a 3 part blog about the poet Grace Mera Molisa

Read Part 1 of the blog — National Poetry Day — want to know a secret?

National Poetry Day — want to know a secret?

What better day than on National Poetry Day to let you in on a secret.

Oceania has poetry foremothers.

They’ve been publishing in English since 1979 – but who knew? I didn’t. Not until I did a doctoral thesis on them. But you shouldn’t have to have a PhD to discover the literary genealogies of our own region. So I’m writing a book. Its called Star Navigators: First Oceanic Women Poets. It navigates their poetry as guided by their own unique star charts. I map their collective constellation so others might explore the terrain of Oceanic literature in Oceanic ways. The following essay is a first installment. It begins in Vanuatu, 3,000 kilometers away, that’s three and a half hours flying time from Auckland.

I want you to meet Grace Mera Molisa and her poetry because like many first Oceanic women poets, she shares a connection with Aotearoa New Zealand. In the 1960s she attended Queen Victoria’s Maori Girls School in Wellington, eventually becoming Head Girl, before moving on to Auckland Teachers’ Training College. Her children, Viran (1976-), Pala (1979-), and Vatu (1983-), all boarded in Nelson during their high school years. Viran attended Nelson College for Girls from 1991, Pala attended Nelson College from 1993 and Pala followed four years later.

Viran and Pala went on to earn degrees at Victoria University while Vatu graduated from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. All three children have continued their mother’s legacy in the respective fields of Law, Accounting, and Environmental Studies. Viran and Vatu both live in Vanuatu now, with Viran having held the office of Solicitor General and Vatu working in the Environmental Unit under the Ministry of Lands. Pala continues to live in Wellington. After graduating with a Doctorate in Accounting, he accepted a lectureship at Victoria University. Pala recently left his teaching post to focus on writing a memoir on his mother’s extraordinary life.

This is the first of a three part blog.

Black Stone Poetry

Photo of Grace Mera Molisa
Grace Mera Molisa (1946-2002),Vanuatu

I never met Grace. By the time I arrive in her Port Vila home in Vanuatu in 2008, she’s been gone six years. She was 56 years old when she died from diabetes complications. Her husband Sela, a former Member of Parliament, and his family, welcome me with a lunch of fish, yam and laplap — pounded breadfruit, coconut cream and chicken in earth-baked parcels of taro leaves. We then walk around Grace’s garden.

Sela doesn’t know how she did it, but Grace managed to bring home all manner of plant species during her global travels. Their backyard is full of Pacific, American, English and European specimens. Eclectic, rich, unusual, exotic, the garden was a deep source of pleasure for a woman who ‘carried the bag’ for her family and her nation.

This colloquial phrase reflects the disproportionate and multiple burdens commonly carried by NiVanuatu women. Grace challenged this norm in the title of the first NiVanuatu women’s poetry anthology she edited, Who Will Carry The Bag? (1992).[i] Its cover bears a striking line drawing of a small scarfed woman dwarfed by a huge sack on her shoulders, complete with husband, child, and dog sitting on top of it.

Grace’s garden was a retreat, a delight, a respite from the daily challenges of being a leader, and often the only woman representative, in politics, women’s affairs, and writing. Sela recalls that she worked hard and well in it. I walk around the huge plants whose names I do not know, their leaves and blossoms plush with deep greens, reds and yellows. Sweet smelling seeds, spikey fruits, prickly stalks. I imagine her squirrelling away a root rolled up in The Observer or The New York Times, pressing seeds within books.

From the garden we walk inside the house and into Grace’s office, their bedroom. There, in Grace’s ceiling-to-floor bookcase, I find a similar kind of chaos — rich, bright, crammed with energy. It inspires my found poem, ‘Grace’s Bookcase’:

she got The Five Pillars of Tom and The Power of One
she got Usage and Abusage and How to Skyrocket Your Sales
she got Birds of Vanuatu and Kali’s Yug
she got Politics in Melanesia and Hidden Treasures
she got My House Has Two Doors and The Canterbury Tales
she got Doctor Zhivago and Thief in the Night
she got Carve her Name with Pride and Celebration of Awareness
she got Voltaire and Dr. Suess
she got The Peacemakers and The Politics of Land in Vanuatu
she got Everyone Can Win and Daughters of the Pacific
she got Agriculture in Vanuatu and The Melbourne Women’s Handbook
she got Vanuatu: Economic Performance and One on One
she got Change and Adaptation in Western Samoa and Warrior
she got Isles of Illusion and Culture, Kastom, Tradition
she got Winds of Change and The Written Word
she got Transport And Communication and A Life of Adventure
she got Poisoned Reign and One Hundred Years of Mission in Vanuatu
she got Malice in Blunderland and Small is Beautiful
she got Famili Loa and Stud Beef Cattle Breeding
she got The Russian from Belfort and Vanuatu
she got Vanuatu Victory and With Heart and Nerve and Sinew
she got Across Canada by Train and The Contemporary Pacific
she got Beyond Pandemonium and The New First Aid in English
she got Roget’s Thesaurus and Oiwi: A Native Hawaiian Journal
she got A Thousand Coloured Dreams.[ii]

Grace’s insatiable appetite for words and knowledge, power and beauty, are captured in the eclectic titles cramming her bookcase. In six years Sela hasn’t moved a book. The title of Josephine Abaijah’s autobiography, A Thousand Coloured Dreams, ends my poem and sums up Grace’s spirit as much as it does her tropical garden.

Described as ‘a love story set against a background of political intrigue in a decaying colonial regime’ in Papua New Guinea, the book resonates with Molisa’s own life of fighting for her country’s independence.[iii] Dame Abaijah’s many firsts, including becoming Papua New Guinea’s first woman member of parliament in 1972, mirrors Molisa’s own ‘litany of firsts’ in education and politics.[iv]

Some of these include being the first NiVanuatu woman to graduate from university (1977), the first woman to occupy a political position (1978), the only woman signatory to the Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu (1979), Private Secretary to Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister, Father Walter Lini (1983), and the first woman to write a book. Molisa was front and centre when Vanuatu won its Independence in 1980 from a 74 year British-French Joint Condominium.[v]

Molisa’s political career, like Abaijah’s, was characterized by trailblazing streaks, both up and down. Molisa rose to the heights of Secretary to the Prime Minister when the Vanuaaku Pati came into power and led Vanuatu to Independence. Just as spectacularly, she fell from political favour when she was abruptly dismissed for challenging what many felt was Prime Minister Lini’s totalitarian behavior. Soon after, the Vanuaaku Pati split.[vi] Like Abaijah, Molisa also represented the needs of those most vulnerable to exploitation — women and children — and sought to hold the government accountable to its post-election promises for gender equity. Such highs and lows of political life were a constant.

Molisa’s family was no stranger to challenging the status quo for the communal good. Molisa’s father, Basil Meramalto Merakali, founder of the first independent district school, was a leader known for his ‘singleness of mind and purpose among Aombans’.[vii] Although he died when Molisa was young, her grandparents ensured she was educated, first in Aomban, then in other knowledge systems. She was literate in Ambae before English (two of the five languages she spoke), before attending the local boys-only school established by her father.

Early on Molisa exhibited an ability to thrive in multiple worlds by being grounded in her cultural identities. As the first NiVanuatu scholarship recipient to attend Queen Victoria’s Maori Girls School in Wellington, she saw first hand the impact of colonization on Maori. She lamented the cultural loss experienced by many of her peers.[viii] Determined to avoid the same fate, Molisa embraced both NiVanuatu and English worlds, eventually rising to the rank of Head Girl. This ingrained ability to rise in challenging circumstances and ‘stay steadfast’ (an exhortation found throughout her poetry) would prove invaluable in both her political and poetic lives.

Sela leads me from Grace’s office outside to the cool shade of the veranda. Dominating the space is a wooden table, at least five meters long — the heart of the indomitable Black Stone Publishing press established by Grace. This is where Grace wrote. This is where Grace laid out, page by page, pro-Ni Vanuatu tracts, post-Independence women’s rights pamphlets, soft covered books on sustainability and the arts, and poetry manuscripts, her own and others.

The end of the table is charred black. ‘From the fire’ Sela tells me. In the mid 90s their family home was burned down. Rumors tell of retribution for the family’s political views and their challenges to the government’s broken promises. They lost the house, but the table and Grace’s jam-packed metal filing cabinets escaped the worst of the fire. Against the backdrop of Grace’s defiantly beautiful garden, the table stands to this day, a blackened tongue still speaking.

Sela, Viran, Pala, Vatu and Grace enjoying a meal at the table in Grace’s Black Stone Publishing office/garage/dining area. Grace’s garden is appropriately seated at the head of the table (Photo: Pala Molisa)

Part 1 of a 3 part blog about the poet Grace Mera Molisa

Read Part 2 of the blog — Making stones


[i] Grace Mera Molisa. Who Will Carry The Bag?: Samfala Poem We I Kamaot Long Nasonal Festivol Blong ol Woman Long 1990. Port Vila, Vanuatu: Vanuatu Nasonal Kaonsel blong ol Woman, Festivol Infomeson mo Pablikeson Komiti, 1992.

[ii] Selina Tusitala Marsh. ‘Black Stone Poetry: Vanuatu’s Grace Mera Molisa.’ Cordite Poetry Review, 1 Feb 2014, 158-9, Accessed 11 Jan 2018.

[iii] Pearson Education New Zealand Limited, 2001.

[iv] Shirley Randell, ‘Tributes to Grace Mera Molisa’, 24 February 2001, Accessed 20 February 2018.

[v] Vanuatu: 10 Yia Blong Independens. Rozelle, NSW: Other People Publications, for the Government of the Republic of Vanuatu, 1990.

[vi] See ‘British Friends of Vanuatu Newsletter.’ Pacific Creative Writing in Memory of Grace Mera Molisa, edited by Shirley Randell, Port Vila: Blackstone Publishing, 2002, 74-75.

[vii] Paiaporou Antfalo. ‘Grace Mera Molisa: Second Secretary to the Prime Minister.’ In Yumi Stanap: Leaders and Leadership in a New Nation, edited by Brian MacDonald-Milne and Angela Thomas, 77-80. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, The University of the South Pacific and Lotu Pasifika Productions, 1981, 79.

[viii] Personal Communication, 10 April 2000.

The wait is over: Selina receives her tokotoko

Everyone’s talking about it… what, you haven’t heard?  Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh has been given her Laureate tokotoko — at last.

Here Elke Thompson, Manager of Public Programmes, National Library describes the weekend. Thank you Elke!


Beautiful green carvings greet us as we arrive at Matahiwi marae. We’re being welcomed onto the marae and not long after and we’re inside drinking a cuppa.

The next day we’re standing on the other side with mana whenua as we’re welcoming manuhiri, our Poet Laureate, Selina, and her whanau. The powhiri starts, stories are being shared, then the moment we’re all waiting for — the reveal and blessing of the tokotoko.

‘Tusitala’ — Selina’s tokotoko

And what a tokotoko it is — a nifty piece of art, telling tales of mana and friendship.
Peter Ireland gives a wonderful description of Tusitala. (You can read his complete article on Paula Green’s NZ Poetry Shelf website).

'Selina’s tokotoko – ‘Tusitala’ – is carved out of maire, our heaviest indigenous wood, sharing that distinction with the matua tokotoko, to which it has other carved features in common. It is splendidly crowned with a fue or Samoan orator’s fly whisk – and clearer of the air of any unsympathetic spirits.

To aid in what will undoubtedly be a lot of travel, the tokotoko is made in several sections and the fue, which was a gift to Selina from His Highness Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, unscrews off the top.

LJ Crichton, Catherine Winitana and Jordan Fuima’ono of Project Prima Volta with Selina Tusitala Marsh and Selina’s tokotoko ‘Tusitala’ at Poets’ Night Out.LJ Crichton, Catherine Winitana and Jordan Fuima’ono of Project Prima Volta with Selina Tusitala Marsh and Selina’s tokotoko ‘Tusitala’ at Poets’ Night Out. Photographer unidentified.

Selina speechless ?!

A rare sight — our Poet Laureate is speechless. But not for long and soon we’re watching her and her whanau perform a dance of gratitude as rain drizzles from the sky and birds are singing.
Selina on the paepae after receiving her tokotoko, with Serie Barford, Michele Leggott and husband Mark Fryer, Bill and Kate Macnaught.Selina on the paepae after receiving her tokotoko, with Serie Barford, Michele Leggott and husband Mark Fryer, Bill and Kate Macnaught. Photographer: Fiona Lam Sheung

Selina performing her Siva dance with the help of her family, including husband Dave, underfoot.Selina performing her Siva dance with the help of her family, including husband Dave, underfoot. Photographer: Joan McCracken


After the closing karakia we get to hear poems and waiata. I’ve got tears in my eyes as the first student, a young girl, performs the most amazing haka to Selina followed by her heartfelt waiata ko au - I’m amazed.

The last performers are LJ Crichton and Jordan Fuima'ono, two young Samoan men from Project Prima Volta , who surprise everyone with their opera performance. What a spectacle!

Selina greeting Taradale High School student Isabelle Lorch following her performance.Selina greeting Taradale High School student Isabelle Lorch following her performance. Photographer: Elizabeth Jones

Poets’ Night Out

We’re ready to go inside, have some kai and catch our breath before the next highlight of our weekend – Poets’ Night Out.

On that evening I hear familiar poems, beautiful, sad, fun and inspiring. I think ‘I’ve heard them before’, but every time I hear them they are different. I think – ‘wow our Poet Laureate is amazing’ and I know everyone thinks the same.

After the poets have shared their poems, Project Prima Volta performs again – this time it’s the familiar sound of ‘Edelweiss’. A weekend to be treasured and remembered concludes.

Everyone’s talking about it

NZ Poet Laureate receives tokotoko — Māori television video
Poet Laureate honoured at Matahiwi Marae — NZ Herald video
National Library’s Peter Ireland on the tokotoko event for our Poet Laureate at Matahiwi — NZ Poetry Shelf website

Selina’s brother Luka Crosbie (on guitar) leads the family in a waiata for Selina.Selina’s brother Luka Crosbie (on guitar) leads the family in a waiata for Selina. Photographer: Elizabeth Jones

Tokotoko tales: What's poetry got to do with it?

Growing Pasifika Niu Leaders

Growing Pasifika Niu Leaders participants holding the Matua Tokotoko

Here's some of the first 'Growing Pasifika Niu Leaders' cohort (Capability Group and Vector). 'Niu' is the pan-Pacific word for coconut palm. Right to left: Ronnie Seumanu, Lynette Reed, Jo Lepua, Angelik Singh, Tom Kavaliku, Pat Masina, Taliilagi Sagala, Eseta Tonutonu, Henry Gray. Absent: Hadleigh Pouesi, Trevor Aumua, Nora Ape.

'A right to write'

Sir Ken Robinson's book The Element, mentioned in one of the most downloaded Ted Talks of all time 'Do Schools Kill Creativity?', defines how we are in our element when our 'work' is built at the crossroads of passion and skill.

I'm in my element when I bring poetry to the 'un-poeted' — those who (usually through bad or boring school experiences) feel that poetry has nothing to do with them, or worse, excludes them from something that everyone else 'gets'. Grubby fingers clinging to the top of the fence, they can only glimpse momentary peaks of the cool blue pool of understanding on a sweltering day. Sweaty and exhausted, they either give up or hock a spit over the fence: "Damn you Poetry! Don't need you anyway."

When, as part of a leadership programme, I walk into the corporate sector and introduce Pasifika leaders in middle management positions to poetry, they are ripe for the picking! Their eyes typically gloss over. They ask, to riff off Tina Turner's famous anti-love song, 'What's Poetry got to do with it?' My answer: everything.

And that's not just because of who I am or what I teach at Auckland University (Pacific Poetry, Creative Writing, Postcolonial Literature).

It's not just because:
  • of the astronomical demand in the corporate sector for poets like California's Poet Laureate, Dana Goia, whose 1991 essay Can poetry matter? garnered international attention in the business world, or
  • of the phenomenal demand for poet/philosopher David Whyte who comes to Aotearoa New Zealand at the end of the year, or
  • Oxford academic Clare Morgan's book What poetry brings to business is a bestseller.

It's because, like the millions of creatives who follow Julia Cameron's creative recovery programme The artist's way, I believe that everyone has the 'right to write'. Everyone has a voice, an identity, a mission statement, a person mandate, a vision and dream for their life and the impact they might have on others and the environment. I stumbled into mine in 1996.

My right to write

I was a year into my PhD on First Wave Pacific Women Poets under the supervision of Professors Albert Wendt and the irreplaceable Professor Terry Sturm, in addition to the interested eye of Witi Ihimaera and the critical largess of Professor Vilsoni Hereniko at the University of Hawai'i (I studied there for 2 years under a Fulbright Travel Scholarship).

The year before that though, I found myself on a plane flying to Honolulu to present at my first international academic conference: Inside Out: Theorizing Pacific Literature.

I was freaking out. I was 22 years old and would be speaking in front of the first wave of Pacific poets and literary scholars, including the formidable Haunani-Kay Trask (Hawai'i), Nora Vagi Brash (Papua New Guinea), and Konai Helu Thaman (Tonga).

I felt the tight confines of the economy seat pressing in on my 6-foot frame. Who the hell did I think I was? Samoans have a phrase for those young 'uns who overstep the mark, teasing overreachers back into place: 'moe pi' — bed-wetters. Who did I think I was, to tell these people what they were doing in their poems and how we might be reading them, and what innovations their work offered the field of poetry written in English? Who did I think I was? And then, it came. Like golden syrup on a pikelet, a reminder, a line, then a pouring out of a poem:

teller of tales
that I never heard
till yesterday
born away
for another life.
the tale I tell
is theirs
and yours
a way of seeking
some more
of my sacred centre.
the tale I tell
will book its way
through tongued histories
sanctioned mysteries
spaces of silence
timeless lives.
Tala tusi
tell the book
word the spirit of brown
in theory
in creativity
we make our sound

Tusitala is my Tuvaluan grandfather's name. This poem reminds me, and tells others, where I come from, where I am, and where I'm going. It has stayed relevant for over 2 decades. It is both legacy and prophecy. I wrote about this experience for The New Zealand Book Council Lecture in 2016.

That's the magic poetry can offer. It's something that leaders I've worked with for the past 7 years have found empowering. We work together, in a curious mixture of creativity and leadership philosophy; amidst talk of the power of rhythmic and rhyming language and collaborative team management; of the curiosity created by concrete over abstract language and courageous conversations. I've seen Poetry crack the hardest (coco)nuts, and pour out the sweetest juices.

Poetry in motion and as voice

Selina and Eseta holding her vision board

Eseta is a minority — she works for North Power and is their ONLY woman power line manager. Yep, she manages and fixes the power lines when our power goes out — she's amazing, as is her poem painted on her vision board!

Each Pasifika Niu leader is challenged to think of an object that best represents them now — a metaphor to carry their identity. Eseta's was a conch shell, one she brought and blew through at our next meeting. We witnessed poetry in motion and poetry as a vehicle for voice!

Tokotoko tales: St Joseph's and the Ladies' Litera-Tea

St Joseph's School poetry cushions

Selina with 3 St Joseph's staff holding poetry cushions St Joseph's poetry cushions

As part of the fabulous New Zealand Book Council's Writers in Communities programme, I run poetry writing workshops. On my last day at St Joseph's school, I was presented with beautiful gifts, including these 'poetry cushions'.

Making poetry fun, accessible, and meaningful is part of the mahi. One of the challenges is to shift students from using wholly abstract language to concrete, image-centred language. Here, students present me with poetry cushions, making the word material in more ways than one! Of course, behind great students are great teachers: Anne Kulik (thanks for your creative eyes and hands!), Cathy Franich, and Michelle Timoti-Hohaia.

When the 'I' is 'we'

Anne, Selina and Liz in front of the celebration boardAnne, Selina, Liz, and the Celebration Board

This award is received on behalf of many, as evident in the gorgeous Poet Laureate Celebration Board adorning St Joseph's School corridor. Magically working behind the scenes is star Principal Liz Horgan on the right (who has served St Joseph's for almost 3 decades and has taught multiple generations!) and Anne Kulik.

A Ladies' Litera-Tea

Women holding the Matua Tokotoko Ladies' Litera-Tea holding the Matua Tokotoko

The Women's Bookshop's annual Ladies' Litera-Tea festival, held over several weekends, is always packed out. The indomitable Carole Beu and her passionate staff host 'an afternoon of women's words, wit and wisdom' at Epsom Girls' Grammar, Auckland.

During my session on 3 September, newly minted, I began telling the tale of the Matua Tokotoko after which I handed it out so that participants might also touch and imbue the 'parents' with their good energy and mana.

First days

Friday 18th: Day of discovery

10am: I’m at the Radio New Zealand studios being interviewed by Wallace Chapman about my forthcoming collection of poetry Tightrope, being launched on National Poetry Day. Because I often mis-remember faces and forget names, I google Chapman while walking up from the ferry. I’m intrigued to learn that his real name is Walesi — it’s Fijian, as is his dad. ‘Bula Walesi! I didn’t realize you were Fijian?’ We launch into a talanoa (open-ended conversation) about his Fijian identity and Pasifika identity politics, especially when you look and have grown up Pakeha, but are actually half Fijian. ‘You’ve got a huge public platform here Walesi — people need to hear your story.’ He’d never really thought about it that way. I hope he does as my interview of him ends, and his of me begins.

Meetings. Admin. Marking. Txts from my 15 year old, Davey: ‘Wat bt u on? Im hungry’.

3.30pm: While I walk from campus to the downtown ferry to catch the boat home to Waiheke Island I talk to BFM campus radio about Tightrope. ‘What’s poetry about for you?’ asks Amelia. ‘For me, its not so much ‘doing’, it’s a way of ‘being’.’ I allow myself to feel very Zen — for about three seconds. ‘But ‘being’ is a state of becoming which means that poems come out at the most inconvenient times, and often, in messy, raw forms. But that’s ok. That’s what it’s about. A visiting poet recently shared with my class how a poem isn’t about saying something, it’s about discovering something. I love that.’ ‘Ooh, me too’ says Amelia.

4.45pm: I’m disembarking at Matiatia with hungry Davey. It begins spitting. He starts putting forth arguments as to why he should drive home. The wind picks up. I want to placate him. His report from the Concussion Clinic had come in two days ago. He’d been undergoing testing since the side of his head met the front of someone’s knee during the first rugby game of the season. He saw flashes of black and didn’t know why he was standing in the middle of a field covered in mud. This, 12 months after he was completely knocked out during a league game. Sue says Davey’s biomechanical treadmill tests, alongside the Neuropsychological Screening Assessment, reveal that Davey is not yet symptom free. They can’t give us a ‘for sure’ but there’s enough grey to rain on his parade — that is, the school boy rugby week-long tournament in Wellington coming up. He was gutted when we told him. He thinks we’re overacting. But we all watched the film Concussion last year. I’d been doing some research of my own and despite wanting Davey to enjoy 4th form, his sports and friends, Dave and I decided it just wasn’t worth it. We’re a bit more sensitive about looking after the brain now. Along with my BFF’s benign brain tumour, some close friends have been recently experienced the long-lasting and unpredictable effects of concussion. ‘Concussion’ isn’t a word to be taken lightly, despite its usage in rugby being as common as the word ‘tackle’ or ‘scrum’ or ‘score’ or even the phrase ‘body on the line’. The ongoing repercussions of having your brain bounce around in your skull until one sees flashes or just black, are accretive and significant. I know that driving home would make him happy, but keeping us all safe on the road is equally important. So, we’re having this argument when my cellphone rings. ‘Hello, it’s Chris Szekely here from the National Library’. Why does that name sound familiar? Why has the light rain turned into a steady pour? Why is Davey still digging into my backpack?

‘Congratulations Selina, you’ve been awarded the New Zealand Poet Laureate.’

Photo by Mike Hurst.

I’m trying to untangle Davey’s fingers from my backpack, trying to put the umbrella up and not to get my laptop wet, and still wondering whether to let him just drive around in the carpark instead. Would this small concession make up for his disappointment over missing out on his first tournament? How did I end up being the mum of 3 league-obsessed boys and an equally league-obsessed husband? I want to do the right thing, and be a mum who meets her kids exactly where they are, rather than expecting them to meet me where I am, which is outside the house of poetry, at the intersection of writing and creative expression, art and music, in the town of books and reading and learning and yet, none of the boys have shown any interest in living here. They’re always at the footy field. The 2nd novel Davey ever read, ever wanted to read was Ted Dawes’ YA novel Into the River. Famously banned for its sex and drug scenes, it sold out fast. I’d heard Ted speak at a ‘True Stories Well Told’ event at Kings College, organized by Head Librarian and reader extraordinaire John Cummins. As Ted told his tales I thought, yes, he might reach the boys. And so it came to pass. I read the first few chapters out loud to Davey and after that, he was hooked. Like, hooked in a way that Lord of Rings or Harry Potter could not hook. Into the River was taken to bed, to the bathroom and read even on the boat on the way to school. Miracles of miracles (though, sadly not to be repeated with its sequel. ‘Too much sex stuff’ Davey tells me. That’s a good sign).

Hearing the pause in my voice, Chris says ‘There’s no need to decide now. Please take the weekend to think about it, there are certain requirements...’

‘Hello? Hello Chris? There’s nothing to think about... my kid is trying to get into the driver’s seat, my laptop is getting rained on, just a moment.’

‘Well get back to me after you’ve had a think about it.’

‘No! Yes! I mean, yes...I accept!’

Saturday 19 August (Day 2)

I’m MCing the New Zealand Book Industry Awards. Son No. 2, Micah, is playing in the finals of the Under 17s at Eden Park for the Mt Albert Lions. I’m able to live-stream the game on my phone. I sit in the reception lounge of Rydges with my ear buds on, listening to the full commentary and inappropriately ‘whoop whooping!’ when they score a try or hurrumphing at the ref who obviously can’t see what we can see on screen. A woman who looks up from her solitary sauvignon at the bar. I mouth ‘It’s my son’ pointing at my phone.

Half an hour after the end of the game, I cart my orange ukulele on stage and lead everyone in a revised version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallellujah’:

I heard there was a Book Industry Awards
for publishers, booksellers, and it pleased the Lord
but you don’t really care for the Front Page do ya?
Your name might appear on the 4th or 5th (page)
way down on the left-hand bottom inset
there we’ll see the publisher, maybe the stockist

C’mon folks, join in with me: Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your books are strong cos you always proof
you welcome authors under your roof
the beauty of the book overthrew ya
you tie them in a cardboard box
and send them out to all the bookshops
who spend hours making displays to woo the reader

You know this one now: Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Baby, you may have been here before
Rydges Hotel, Awards galore
where the crème brulee and wine will go right through ya
I've seen your page on the booksellers arch
your love for books is a victory march
so everyone here deserves our hallelujahs

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

It’s a fun evening, a beautiful evening, and an opportunity for me, as an author, to bring some badly sung but cutely composed poetry to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to create and cultivate our nation’s vibrant book culture. The feedback is overwhelming. They’ve never quite had an Awards evening like that — like a great big celebratory family sing-along. Yes! I’m in the spotlight and I keep my secret secret.

Sunday 20 August (Day 3)

I’ve just returned from an ‘easy’ (this is Sarah Gloyer’s poetic translation) 17.5km trail run, beginning from Orapiu and running to Onetangi. We run through bush, rivers, bogs of mud, abseil down mountain backs. We run over roots, collapsed clay banks, through Kauri and Nikau groves, along Te Matuku’s mirroring wetland coast. I’m now settled down to a bowl of recovery food: vanilla ice-cream, warm chocolate sauce topped off by crumbled waffle. I’ve been re-reading Slow Burn by Stu Mittleman, the ultra-marathon runner and fitness guru. His philosophy for long distance running (100 miles plus) resonates with what I’ve been thinking about lately: how to do this life with all its exhilarating, often chaotic demands as woman, wife, mum, daughter-in-law, sister, Pasifika Poet-Scholar with multiple community responsibilities and service, and ‘me’. Last week I’d thought of training for marathon. My monthly schedule typically resembles a plate of neon and ink spaghetti pasta. The big bits of sausage are my ‘real’ job responsibilities as an academic and lecturer at the University of Auckland. The sauce is everything else. Poetry herbs are scattered throughout and infuse everything. But lately even the busiest people I know take a look at my schedule and start getting heart palpitations. Noticeably self-care was being squished to the side of the plate, runningeth over. If I trained for a trail marathon, wouldn’t that ‘force’ me to prioritise the thing that keeps me grounded — my running? I’d have no choice then. I’d have to say no to the many regular requests to speak/perform/workshop/mentor...

Photo by Mike Hurst.

Then I read the line that gives me the heebie-jeebies. I take a photo of the page (my dessert/re-fueling food keeping the page open). I’m reading about an ultra-ultra trail runner. Here’s the line: ‘Nathan is considered the poet laureate of the running world.’ Of all the descriptors, of all the possible roles or comparisons to make, Nathan is the ‘poet laureate’, on this day, two days after learning of the award — now that’s poetry in motion!

Monday 21 August (Day 3)

I’ve been listening to David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding: Diaries Volume One while running so I know it okay to skip a few days/months/years.

Tuesday 22 August (Day 4)

After teaching my postgraduate course Pacific Poetry, I have an hour to walk to the TVNZ studios where I’m being interviewed about Tightrope for TV3’s Café morning show. They’re interested in the book being launched (as it turns out, portentously) on National Poetry Day. I go via Smith & Caughey’s. My grandmother, Eileen Gebores (nee Miles) worked here once as a salesgirl. It’s from Gran’s mum that we have French blood. Her mother was a Marchant. My dad and his sisters grew up on the boarder of Avondale and Mt Albert, where the yellow-bee Pak n Sav supermarket is now. Dad used to tell me about how after school they’d follow the trains picking up bits of coal for their fire. I’m at S&C’s and want to get my face made up at MAC. It’s ‘free’ with over $90 of makeup purchased. I don’t usually wear foundation but TVNZ advises this so I multi-task and schedule another radio interview at the same time. I try not to move my face as I respond to the interviewer’s questions. The Chinese makeup artist (she’s been in New Zealand for 8 months now), wears a flawless mask of perfectly toned foundation and is very accommodating. I ask her to make mine as natural as possible. She tells me it takes twice as long to get that ‘hardly anything on’ look but she’s up for the challenge (I told her I have 20 minutes).

TV land is a weird, glossy, bubble-gum kind of world. We (the guests) sit in rows in makeup chairs in front of long overlit mirrors. Mike Hosking breezes past, laughing, teasing — this is clearly his kingdom. Other semi-familiar celebs gossip while their faces are being patted down, brushed over, and their hair gelled and hairsprayed up. In the studio set, laid out in café style, we are instructed when and where to smile and wave at the camera. It’s fun. It’s light. It’s high energy entertainment. Off camera I share with one of the hosts, ‘Sorry — I don’t watch daytime TV. I wish I’d seen an episode so I knew what to expect’. He replies ‘That’s ok, I wish I’d read your book.’ Cameras on. It’s not really an interview, more like a promo piece on the book. I ditch deep discussion about the ideological underpinnings of the book and go with entertainment. Much to TV land’s delight, I have just enough time to share the poem written on site:

TV people are weird
extreme close ups, focus on chairs
snapper ceviche (Samoans call it oka)
there’s a coffee machine
even a barista
a home improvement team
a dancing duo off screen
I’m served a green tea
two theatre actors discuss their latest show
Meagan, the blogger, in canary yellow
sips coffee
and we end with advertorial warrior, Holly.

Friday 25th: National Poetry Day (Day 7)

I email CK Stead to make sure he knows about the book launch — I’d promised him I’d do so when we chatted during the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival in May. I don’t know whether he knows the secret. He emails back that he already has three events to perform at that day, pretty mean for an 84 year old. Karl wishes me “last Laureate blessings (I expire that day)”.

Selina and Son No. 3, Davey. Photo by Mike Hurst.

Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, but then it all goes wonderfully right. Held at the University of Auckland’s Fale Pasifika, my sons, nieces and nephews welcome people with mini red tightropes. My mentors, Maualaivao Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri have come. Samoa’s former Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Mealofi Ta‘isi Efi (who, to my horror, lined up for 15 minutes to get his books signed!) has come, along with Sister Vitolia Moa, and historian Patty O’Brien. Secondary school teachers of English have come. Poets, Pasifika writers, the New Zealand Book Council, colleagues, friends, students have come. Raised on the parable of the ten lepers who are healed, only one of which comes back to thank Jesus, I know thank yous are important. For this reason, I include my Tightrope book launch thank you speech here:

Fa’afetai Tele Lava and thanks

In the universal sign language of rugby league [here I kiss my fist and raise it to the sky pointing upward], I say fa’afetai tele lava i le Atua – thank you to the First Poet, our Divine Scribe and Creator of All.

Photo by Mike Hurst.

Thank you to:

Sam Elworthy and the AUP team, Katrina, Louisa, Andrew, Katherine, Spencer.

Anna Hodge — for the first look at the manuscript.

Tusiata Avia, my BFF currently at the Queensland Poetry Festival — for the final look at the manuscript.

The NZ Book Council for their koha, their belief in books ‘because reading matters’ — thanks to Jo Cribb, our new CEO, for being here and available to bring writers and schools together. Teachers sign up your schools and get a writer in your class!

Maualaivao Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri — for being my soft place to land — it doesn’t hurt to have a good Chardonnay on hand either. They have always believed that not only ‘reading matters’ but as put recently by my colleague Paula Morris, that ‘reading BROWN matters’.

Thank you to the teachers who accepted my invitation — you’re on the young-minds frontlines and tonight was also about bringing you kanohi-ki-te-kanohi, face-to-face with more Brown stories.

Hence, Carole and The Women’s Bookshop are here selling Brown literature only! Thank you to The Women’s Bookshop! Please do meet your kids where they are, reflect their realities in this outrageously colourful, multi-identitied world! Please do look and buy!

Photo by Mike Hurst.

Fa’afetai tele lava O le Tama aiga le afioga Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi for inspiring my poetry (see ‘Dinner With The King’ and ‘Whispers and Vanities’) — I’m blessed by your presence here, also, by nun-poet dear Sister Vitolia Moa and historian Patty O’Brien.

Fa’afetai tele lava to Best Pacific Institute of Education for their kind koha towards this launch — Anita Finnegan — you rock! Luka Crosbie (my older, shorter brother) you rock too and Kerry Ann and Phil for looking after my brother.

Big thank you to the lovely Christine and David Kernohan (owners of Gladstone Vineyard) for their generous support of this launch and of the NZ Book Council.

My fellow rugby-mum mate, Joanne Budge who organized this spread — she was promised an epic Homer Odyssey budget and was handed a Spike Milligan limerick — Jo, your practical, no-nonsense, logistical Granma Wenzel skills are a perfect complement to my, er, poetic ones.

Thanks to the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts, for helping to grow an open, curious mind when I was first a BA student here, and continuing to cultivate me as a Poet-Scholar staff member.

Thanks to the Centre of Pacific Studies and its Director Assoc. Prof. Damon Salesa for giving us this beautiful Pasifika place to celebrate poetry.

Thank you to Kat and the Coven from the Manukau Institute of Technology, for activating this book and choosing a poem which celebrates the life of the late, beloved Teresia Teaiwa — poet, scholar, mentor, mate.

Thank you to my family, Dave, my beautiful husband for your quiet, unfailing support; my sons Javan, Micah, Davey for being such stubborn converts to poetry — you force me to keep poetry real and relevant; thanks to my family here, my blister Sam — you continue to inspire me, Nessa, Annalina, Nathan, Luka, Cinzia. Thanks especially to Nana, Taele Marsh, who is at home on Waiheke Island looking after her four year old great grand-daughter for the comfort of you all here.

Last but not least, thank you to my creative partner in crime — musician — Tim Page. Tim, I could never forget you. Except I did. I left you out of the Acknowledgements in the book, so I’ve written your name in here — sorry.

Tim and I are going to perform from Tightrope for you now. As you were greeted you were given a mini tightrope. Would you kindly hold it up like so? Remind you of anything? It’s an evocation of this cover. Because we all walk tightropes of various kinds — the trick is not to fall off! It’s also a bookmark for the copy I’m hoping you’ll purchase in about 20 minutes so.... buy brown, but buy black first!!!

Wednesday 30 August (Day 8)

A fellow commuter sees my schedule. She chokes on her vegan bun. This is why we both must go to Joyce’s yoga class tonight. We go. We stretch. We release. We have lavender scented wheat pads placed over our eyes, a soft woolen blanket placed over our bodies in shavasana. We breathe.

Thursday 31 August (Day 9)

I take the Matua Tokotoko for their first public outing. I’m running poetry writing workshops for St Joseph’s School in Otahuhu. I’d worked with the school last year and was back again this year, running a total of six workshops all month. The relationship is now familial.

Props from St Joseph’s school.

The school is ecstatic about ‘their’ Poet Laureate! I am greeted with chant. I am gifted with handmade tivaevae (Cook Island quilt) inspired cushions with the Year 7 and 8’s poetry printed on it. I am gifted two books: Poetry For Kids: Emily Dickinson (the previous week we’d marveled at Emily’s ‘edited poem’, all of which had completely been scribbled out); the other, a handcrafted inspirational journal featuring some of my favorite poets and writers. Some Year 7 and 8 students then perform their own version of the poem I’m most well known for, ‘Fast Talking PI’:

You’re a poet PI
A lover of words PI
A writing, changing, wordsmithing PI

You’re a storyteller PI
A teller of tales PI
A Tusitala, show me, don’t tell me PI

You’re a degreed PI
A healer with words PI
A university, doctor of poetry PI

You’re a brown-faced PI
In your own style PI
A bright-eyed, Pasifika smiling PI

You’re a reader PI
A Queen of words PI
Read the words, in a book, on a screen PI

You’re a writer in schools PI
A big haired PI
A never too tired, inspired hard-wired PI

You’re a one-of-us PI
A role model PI
An honorary St Jo’s, ‘give it a go’ PI

You’re a smooth-talking PI
a ‘use your words’ PI
Words are your power, find you voice PI

You’re a Poet Laureate PI
You’re a poetry lovin’ PI
A provocateur, orator, advocate PI

I’m left speechless — but not for long. I thank everyone and then launch into the meaning behind the Matua Tokotoko, the parent tokotoko (Māori walking stick). Samoans have the ‘to‘oto‘o’ – the orator’s staff. Along with a fue (fly whisk), it is held by the tulafale (talking chief) who speaks on behalf of a higher chief who in turn, represents the voice of the village. For Polynesians who traditionally imbue inanimate objects with spirit, the mana of this tokotoko is significant. As he has done with the previous Poets Laureate, artist and carver Jacob Scott, will visit with me in order to inform his carving of my very own tokotoko. As is the tradition, this will then be presented to me at Matahiwi Marae, Hawkes Bay.

Students at St Joseph’s School, Otahuhu do their bit to reach 1000.

I do a workshop on haiku and get the Year 10s to write haiku to and about the Matua Tokotoko. I’ll post them up here when they’re finished. I aim to get 1000 pairs of hands touching the tokotoko before I return to Wellington in a few weeks’ time to meet the folks at the National Library kanohi-ki-te-kanohi. I pass the Matua Tokotoko around to students and staff who stroke, caress, welcome, and chant to them. Last count was 401.

Talofa Lava Selina!

Selina Tusitala Marsh is your new Poet Laureate.

New Zealand Poet Laureate Award acceptance speech

Read on National Poetry Day, 25 August 2017, Fale Pasifika, University of Auckland book launch of Tightrope (Auckland University Press).

I accept this award on behalf of the ten-year-old
at St Joseph’s in Otahuhu
who found a word to rhyme with monocle

I accept this award on behalf
of Writers In Schools
whose powers are bionicle

I accept this award on behalf of Pasifika peoples
whose brown faces
aspire to higher places

I accept this award on behalf of women
whose hypothetical babies are born
while running political races

I accept this award on behalf of working class
who press against
windows of privilege

I accept this award on behalf of tangata whenua
-- without land,
you know it takes a village

I accept this award on behalf of those
for whom poetry induces vomit
I will woo you with haiku, spoken word, slam, rhyming couplet and sonnet

I accept this award on behalf of mum
who spoke no English
when she came from Samoa

I accept as her daughter
the award of New Zealand Poet Laureate
quite poetic – don’t you think Aotearoa?

Selina Tusitala Marsh is a Pasifika poet-scholar of Samoan, Tuvaluan, Scottish and French ancestry who lives on Waiheke Island. She was the first person of Pacific descent to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland, and her 2004 doctoral thesis – entitled Ancient banyans, flying foxes and white ginger: Five Pacific women writers – focuses on the first Pacific female poets to be published in English. Tusitala Marsh asserts that literature was an integral vehicle for the empowerment of Pacific women and children in the largely male-dominated post-colonial era: 'Poetry was used as a political voice. These women were all quite remarkable boundary-breakers.' She is now an Associate Professor and lectures at the University of Auckland, specializing in Māori and Pacific Literary Studies and Creative Writing.

Selina Tusitala Marsh, 2013. Emma Hughes Photography

Selina’s poetry has been published in over 70 national and international anthologies, academic books, literary and scholarly journals and on various notable literary websites.  Its multicultural appeal is evident; since 2005 she has been invited to take part in over 140 poetic performances, has led over 110 workshops for community and professional organisations, spoken and mentored at over 45 schools and delivered over a dozen keynotes at literary and community events.
Selina’s first collection of poetry, Fast Talking PI (Auckland University Press, 2009) won the 2010 NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry, and it made the top 5 Best Sellers List shortly after publication. Albert Wendt wrote in praise of the book: 'A new generation of poets has emerged in Aotearoa and the Pacific. Most of that generation are women, and Selina Tusitala Marsh, in this, her first collection, shows she is one of the most gifted and influential members of that generation.’

Cathie Koa Dunsford wrote in the Australian Women’s Book Review, ‘She peppers her poetic narrative with the rhythms and staccato of urban hip hop beats, in tune with slick contemporary themes and voices, showing her and their disregard for the romanticisation of the past and for the politics of the present.’ Nicky Pellegrino writes in the NZ Herald: ‘For Marsh, poetry is an inclusive rather than an elitist art form. She’s particularly enthusiastic about going into schools to perform and encourage students to find their own poetic voices.’

In Dark Sparring (Auckland University Press, 2013), her second book of poems, Selina combats family loss — specifically, her mother’s cancer diagnosis and long journey to recovery — with all the techniques of poetry, ritual and Muay Thai kickboxing that are at her disposal. Dark Sparring has been quoted as ‘an appealing voice, a strong right hook and an affecting, rhythmic heart.’ In her review for the NZ Listener, Lynley Edmaedes wrote that Marsh’s poetry ‘navigates mourning without sentimentality, the vernacular without cultural cringe, and tackles some of the big questions of Pacific diaspora with wit, bravery and poetic and personal integrity. And the result is superb. This collection puts Marsh at the vanguard of contemporary Pacific literature and cements her place as one of the most important poetic voices of her generation.’

Passionate about all poetry, especially that by Pasifika peoples in New Zealand, the Cambridge University Press recently published Selina’s chapter on this subject in A History of New Zealand Literature (ed. Mark Williams, 2016), titled 'Nafanua and the New World: Pasifika's Writing of Niu Zealand'.  Her poet-scholar efforts are currently focused on writing a book about first-wave (1974–2017) Pacific women poets.

Her most recent book, Tightrope (Auckland University Press) was launched on National Poetry Day, 25 August 2017.

Recent highlights

Media links and clips about Selina Tusitala Marsh