Great expectations

The first time I meet Lloyd Jones is nearly my last.

He’d promised me breakfast and a dip near Captain Cook’s Lookout – I should’ve suspected something then. Indigenous encounters and all. We were both at the Bryon Bay Book Festival and I was curious about meeting him kanohi ki te kanohi, ever since 'that review'.

I know that Karl Stead, my fellow Poet Laureate, knows a thing or two about getting up people’s noses with less than favourable reviews of their work. This isn’t my area of speciality. I enjoyed reading Mr Pip, and had written as much in my review. It was, to appropriate the Hopi saying, a story that I hadn’t known I’d been waiting for.

But I did mention a couple of things that let me, as a brown woman reader, know instantly, that this was a white male author writing with the voice of a young brown girl. Why would Matilda objectify her own hair and call it stiff and fuzzy? Why would women, hiding from guerrilla soldiers, squat in the bush while their babies sucked their teats rather than their nipples? Don’t cows have teats? Humans have nipples last time I’d checked.

null
L to R: Selina Tusitala Marsh and Lloyd Jones. Photo courtesy of the Spinoff. 
I shared these observations in my review for the Dominion Post. I’d heard it didn’t go down well with him. Not my problem 8 years ago.

But now they’d stuck me on a Three New Zealand Writers panel with Lloyd Jones, and the wild dog in the room would have to be addressed. The other writer was Courtney Sina Meredith. We’re meant to be on the same plane. I spot her in front of me in the boarding queue. A woman in a floral shirt behind me grabs my arm.

'I’ve just read about you in the Kia Ora magazine! You’re the New Zealand Poet Laureate aren’t you?'

'Yes. Hello. How are you?'

Floral shirt lady begins telling me about her high school sonnets as we file past business class. She grabs my arm again.

'Ooo, that’s Lloyd Jones! How come he’s in business class and not the New Zealand Poet Laureate?'

'Ah well, you know how it is between novelists and poets,' I reply, thinking the same thing.

At the baggage claim at Gold Coast airport, I spy Lloyd at the front of the conveyer belt, waiting for his priority luggage. Best to bite the teat and introduce myself. I stride over, holding out my hand.

'Lloyd? Hi. I’m Selina.'

He’s broader than in the pictures, but has the familiar looking hairline, and is about the right age and colour.

'Yes? Hmmm. Well.' He limply takes my hand.

'I thought I’d come up and say hi, since we’re sharing a panel.'

Deadpan stare. He obviously hasn’t forgotten about that review.

'I’m on the New Zealand Writers panel with you?'

'No.'

“Excuse me?” My throat is itchy. I didn’t think we were going to get into it this early. We haven’t even left the terminal.

'No. My name’s Ian.'


When I finally meet the real Lloyd at the Writers Tent he’s actually quite friendly. We find a point of connection almost immediately: running, sons, rugby, Courtney’s future. Courtney tells me later how when she was just starting out as a writer, Lloyd spent three hours mentoring her through the minefield of publishing in and beyond New Zealand.

They’ve kept in touch. I like Lloyd for this.

The panel goes well. We have a friendly disagreement about voice. I speak about wearing the mantle of representation — when you’re the only brownie in any given context, you find yourself representing all brownies everywhere. I’m not talking about Girl Guides. It’s only natural that you straddle the writerly line between your personal voice and a more political one.

'I disagree,' says Lloyd. 'I can only write for me.'

After the panel I lean over to Lloyd.

'Has anyone ever come up to you and thanked you for representing them? Told you that you speak for them?'

'No.'

'That happens to me all the time. It’s not something I choose — it's chosen me.'

'But you can only tell the story as you see it.'

'On that, we both agree.'
Later, I tell Lloyd I plan to run up to the Bryon Bay cape lighthouse. Lloyd’s being hosted at the Treehouse, a place one back from the beach.

'Come over for breakfast and we’ll go for a dip.'

I run the 5kms to Lloyd’s accommodation. He’s already gone out earlier to buy us organic muesli and fresh blueberries. Lloyd tells me there’s been a slight change of plan. Christine, his neighbour and owner of the Treehouse, has invited us to swim before brekky. She’s been ocean-swimming at the bay for the past 35 years.

She swims with a tribe of 60 and 70-something-year-old women weekly. When we walk the path down to the beach, there they are. Waiting with extra masks and snorkels. I even get handed wetsuit togs. I’ve never worn a wetsuit before. Lloyd is given the sole pair of extra flippers.
Lloyd Jones (third from left) and Selina Tusitala Marsh (third from right) go swimming. Photo courtesy Selina Tusitala Marsh. 
'Take one, it makes a difference,' says Lloyd, handing over a thin yellow piece of rubber. A difference for what? I’m wearing a bikini top for goodness sake. I chew my lower lip as I look out at the expanse of blue, the rising and falling. But Lloyd’s up for it. He keeps reminding me of the ages of our escorts, but they look like sleek dolphins to me.

And so they prove to be. The group swims out and soon split off. I keep close to Lloyd. His neighbour is out a little farther, the others are now well ahead. Somehow I thought they’d be within arm’s reach should I start sinking.

I follow Lloyd. I wonder what surfers are doing out here and then soon see. The waves build up from nowhere. Their white foaming crests rise behind me and, somehow, to the side of me as well. We’re out deep. The coast is now a kilometre away.

I see Dave and the boys standing on the beach yelling 'What the hell are you doing?'

My husband and sons are, of course, at home in New Zealand, watching league. But I imagine them on the beach. I catch glimpses of them as the waves rise and fall. My leisurely stroke turns into a bid to stay afloat in the churn. I can’t catch my breath. I turn to Lloyd.

His neighbour calls out, 'You okay dearie?'

'Um, I’d quite like to go in now please.'

I swallow another mouthful of salt water. It occurs to me that if I lose my shit I will sink and drown. While the sun is in the blue sky. While bathers heat themselves on the beach. I count slowly: 10, 9, 8…

Lloyd swims over.

'Selina, it’s okay. The beach is just there, but we’ve got to head out before we can head back in. Just follow me.'

It’s now that I realise maybe Lloyd is trying to kill me on purpose. Maybe he never did get over that review. The ruse with the octogenarian ocean-swimmers to lull me into dangerous waters begins to make sense. Another of the tribe pops up. She is a lithe 70-year-old.

'You’re okay. Don’t follow him. Follow me.'

I watch Lloyd swim off. I follow her. She cuts across the water. Calm, lean strokes. In the murky sea I track both her flippers with my one flipper. Pink fins, up, down, up, down, up, down.

We clear the breaking surf. The beach is still a slip of yellow. My breath is still ragged. A 65-year-old pops up next to me.

'Okay, luvvie, you’re doing well. Just swim in a bit more otherwise you’ll get caught by the current and it’ll carry you all the way out then you’ll have to swim to the next bay.'

Breathing becomes laboured again. Bloody Lloyd! I spot him near where the other current is meant to be. I have no air to call out to him.

'Turn over on your back. Isn’t the sky a pretty blue?'

I look at her glowing face and see her rainbow-coloured swim cap for the first time. I feel calmer with my head above the water. I look up at the blue sky I could still drown under. Dolphin lady keeps encouraging me. 'Nearly there luvvie.'  I turn and see that the beach is nearly there. I freestyle towards it.

'Come around a bit, there are stones there.'

I want the fricken stones. I want solid ground beneath my feet and I don’t care if they get cut. Lloyd is now right behind me.

'Alright then? Well, that was a bit more than a dip wasn’t it? You were so polite out there.'

Flipper you, Lloyd Jones. I’m gonna drown you in a poem.

This blog was originally published on the spinoff.co.nz.

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. 








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]

End.



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
solidified.

Solid
jagged forms
starkly
awe inspiring.

Black Stone
flowing free
from depths
unknown
a viscous form
coagulated.

Jet black
sleeping fortress
weather rock
come wind or shine.

Black Stone
hard
and obstinate
indelible
solidity.

Black Stone
bird of wealth
solid bedrock
dwelling of death.

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

Threshold
of the spirits
transfixed
to the stable
equilibrim
of constancy
and permanence.

Black Stone
immovable
immobile
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?

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.

Lead

For
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,

Lead.

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

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

Footnotes


[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,http://www.vanuatu.usp.ac.fj/library/online/Vanuatu/Tributes.htm. 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.

Super powers in South Auckland

As promised, I returned to St Joseph's School in Otahuhu, South Auckland last week with my own tokotoko: Tusitala Kapura.

Tusitala Kapura and St Joseph's School

At a specially gathered assembly of 1000 school children, I shared the story of my tokotoko, telling a tale relating to each of its 11 parts (it's no coincidence methinks, that I'm the 11th Poet Laureate). Afterwards I ran a workshop with Year 7 and 8 students.

Selina Tusitala-Marsh and her tokotoko talking to a class at St Joseph's school. 


The power of difference

I shared a story about how my difference, in this case my big hair, made a powerful difference in my life once I learned to embrace it. This is the tale behind my graphic mini-memoir, 'From Mophead to Poet Laureate' — out in March 2019!

I asked students to think about their own 'difference' and relate it to a piece of the tokotoko:

What is the tokotoko telling you about your difference and how to turn it into your super power?

Delicious poems about difference

They came up with these delicious poems.

Thanks to Liz Horgan, Anne Kulik, and all the superheroes at St Josephs!

Theresa Niulevaea

My smile is tokotoko Samoan hardwood
Carved in an ever-increasing curve,
To show my positivity
My hard-core confidence.

Kara Seko

My eyes are tokotoko wood
Brown as maire wood
I can cross my eyes like the muka “X”
My eyes are what make me me
They are my identity

Fusi Lo

I am the tokotoko’s rubber stopper
Small but essential
Placed at the bottom
Holding my ground
The youngest one
Small but essential

Madison Ulberg

My hair is tokotoko fu’e
Wild and thick
Rough and woven sennit
Plaited strands make
A long smooth curve
Of darkened Samoan hardwood

Marie Grace Rusia

My braid is tokotoko chocolate wood
Curved and carved
Twisted and turned
Uniquely woven

Empres Ta’ale

My Beauty spot
A darkened mark
Etched on pale Marie hard wood
It is who I am
A part of my mother
A part of me
Beauty on caramel skin

Anitimoni Aholelei

My loud laugh is the tokotoko’s fu’e
Swishing and swaying
Weaving in and out of life
Plaiting friendships together

Savelina Kautai

My feet are the tokotoko’s rubber
Planted on the ground.
Big and fast
Once I start running, I cannot stop.
Like the words
That Selina says!

Anna Falaniko

My scar is a tokotoko carving
Carved into my brow
A mark that remains
It tells a story
Just like the tokotoko

Matamoana Hufanga

My forehead is tokotoko steel
Hard metal
Firm and strong
I Stand
Solid in my Pasifika culture

Fou Tupa’i

My Grandma is the Tokotoko’s sennit
It’s many strands
are the many notes
My Grandma sang
All the threads
Weave to make her song
Worth telling
Her lyrics speak to me of
Her homeland in Samoa
How the love of God is in her
She’s a prayer Warrior
A song that is
The music of my life

Petra Sinclair Fui

My eyes are tokotoko muka
Expertly woven
Perfectly placed
Connecting me to
Generations past
Telling stories
Of long ago
Achievements, Failures
Hopes, Losses.

Rita Timoti Hohaia

My smile is tokotoko resin
Found in unexpected places
Brining soft curves to a
Hard world
One in a million

Elena Alao

My voice is the tokotoko’s solid steel ring
Loud, strong and bold
Nothing can stop me
Dent me
Scratch me
You can hear my voice
Echo in the sky
Calling out for you
Searching for you
And making sure you’re fine

Lose Ahomee

My eyebrow is tokotoko sennit
A tick
Hairs ending with a flick
Just like my Mum
Just like a tick from
The teacher

Evalata Taimovai

My ears are tokotoko stainless steel
A metal curve that
Reflects and repeats
What I hear
Stories and poetry
For me

Mercy Fariu

My crazy hair is tokotoko sennit
Plaited from a Pasifika coconut tree
Swishing everywhere
Expanding with its own energy.
Pasifika hair!

Liselota Tuigamala

My crazy and loud self is a tokotoko fu’e
Bursting forth just like me
The knots try to control but it doesn’t work!
My Pasifika personality sashays

Kiarah Torillo

My height tells my tokotoko story
I am the shortest,
But I am a part of something bigger
Just like the small, petite muka
Woven in story
I weave my own story

Leila Schmidt-Sopoaga

My hair is tokotoko Samoan hardwood
Feminine curves of sennit
Flowing waves
Twisting and spiralling
Tangled and knotted
A Pasifika story

Miracle Iuvale

My hair is tokotoko sennit
Each strand long and dark
Each strand the same
But different
Each strand single
But not alone
Ready to be plaited
United

Maryanne Niukapu

My eyes are the colour of
Tokotoko marble
A caramel blend
Precious eyes
My Dad’s eyes

Selina Tusital-marsh talking to St Joseph's school assembly

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!

Welcomed

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

Celebration

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.
No.

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:

Tusitala
teller of tales
that I never heard
till yesterday
born away
for another life.
Today
the tale I tell
is theirs
and yours
a way of seeking
some more
of
Samoa
of my sacred centre.
Today
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
renown.

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.