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.

Part 1

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)

[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  

Last last — C.K.S signs off as laureate

A month ago I signed off what was meant to be the last of these laureate blogs but there are a few ‘last things’ still deserving report before I vacate the chair.

One was the death of Nicholas Tarling, a colleague, Auckland University Emeritus Professor of History, and a younger colleague of Professors Sinclair and Chapman whom I wrote about in my two previous blogs. Nick was my age, and like me, a resolute and regular swimmer, but on the North Shore.  Last May he was ‘seen swimming vigorously’ and then seen to be not swimming. A heart attack or something similar had taken him off, and it seemed to me a great way to go – no preliminary decline, no slow loss of faculties of mind. How nice it would be if one could arrange such a departure for oneself. So I was sad Nick was dead but not sorry that his life had ended in that way, at that time, while he was still lively, interested, knowledgeable and grumpy. Consequently when he found his way into a dream, and a subsequent ‘Nocturne’, he would have been surprised to find himself confused and conjoined there with thoughts about rain on the roof, and a leaking gutter, and how one should go about seeing them repaired:

Another nocturne

remembering Nicholas T. who died swimming

In Shallowsleep, that life-of-the-mind that comes
at three or four a.m., hearing big rain

beat on the roof and spill from broken gutter
to concrete path, and quoting to myself

(faultlessly) a sonnet of a single sentence
and great complexity by Willie Yeats,

I promised I would call that comic-strip
tradesman I had named, just to amuse you,

Gutterfix. It was the day we’d buried Nick,
historian, daily dipper, opera aficionado

with song and stories of his gloomy wit.
‘Come to our aid, great Gutterfix’ I sang

in my opera voice, and laughed, and seemed to fall
a moment after into a dream of drains.

Perhaps Nick’s ghost would laugh, perhaps not, and one will never know.


I got back from our (as it has become) annual visit to our daughter in London just in time to recover from jet lag and take part in the end-of-July Marlborough Literary Festival, which centres on the Boathouse Theatre in Blenheim but occurs also in various supporting vineyards within ten or so kilometres of the town. My solo session as a fiction writer was on the Friday evening of the first day, and my parallel session as poet ended the Festival on the Sunday late afternoon. In between I did a poetry reading with the Iron Man of NZ Poetry, Brian Turner, and the multi talented Emma Neale. I was housed at the Dog Point vineyard with Brian, and also Anne Salmond and Gavin Bishop. Awake at 4 a.m. (jet lag) I stepped out of doors in my pyjamas into the frosty night to look at the sky, something I had not done in the South Island for several decades. Later I wrote a poem about it which I here dedicate to the Festival, the people who run it and the vineyards that support it:

At Dog Point

After a day of frost and sunshine
in the valley of winter vineyards and winding streams
that teach the far brown hills by definition
and the farther mountains by peaks and caps of snow
Dog Point at 4 a.m.
showed me the night of another world
created by gods and peopled by their children
each one distinct, a point of  brilliant light
each family a constellation
and needing all together
a name to match and affirm their magnitude –
‘the Heavens’ for example or ‘the canopy of the stars’.

There is a dream of love
so far from the avidities of lust
and dramas of fidelity and possession
it is like that southern sky at night
burned across by a single shooting star.


Since Marlborough there has been a visit to Wellington sponsored by the Alexander Turnbull Library for the launch of a small book, a sampling of poems done during my period as laureate, beautifully printed and hand sewn by Brendan O’Brien, illustrated by Douglas MacDiarmid, a Paris-based New Zealand artist, in an edition of 85 signed and numbered copies, 50 for sale. We launched it with speeches and a reading on the evening of Tuesday the 8th and then next day we had a lunch-hour panel discussion, the printer, the poet, and the painter’s niece (who is writing his biography), chaired by poet-and-painter Greg O’Brien who is the printer’s brother and the poet’s former student. This was a very lively occasion and by the end of the day there were only a very few of the ‘for sale’ 50 copies left.

While I was there the 2017 issue of the Turnbull Library Record appeared, which included, among many articles of interest, an account of how the Library acquired and prepared to catalogue and house Sam Hunt’s archive. It also printed another five of the poems I have written while laureate. These were so attractively set on the page I was reminded how important form is, how sharply and significantly it differs from poem to poem, and how the visual appearance on the page can make this clear – or equally can fail to do so.

C.K. Stead in conversation with Greg O’Brien, National Library, Wednesday 8 August 2017. Photographer: Mark Beatty

Here are two poems from that Turnbull Library Record offering:

An Horatian Ode to Fleur Adcock at 80

When I wanted only to sing
        war and hunting
                     it was Phoebus warned me
                                  remember sooner

friends of your youth, especially
        that princess of quiet fire
                     from a southern city
                                  she of the classic lyre

on which she counted lovers
        one perhaps a prince
                     one a certain pirate
                                  too many to remember

until in middle life
        she gave them all away
                     denied herself meat
                                  and cigarettes in favour

of her family’s fables
        and deftest celebrations
                     of the life of things
                                  with feelers and wings.

All that’s fine in Fleur
        I celebrate and sing
                     as you commanded Phoebus
                                  but on my solo string

and sounding from so far
        gone in an instant –
                     and I still wanting
                                  war and hunting.

‘Auckland’: the renaming

Now that we know
he was only another
imperial duffer,
a Caesar’s bumbling sidesman
and journeyman of Empire –
couldn’t we quietly
wipe him from the record
and give back the name
tangata whenua first
accorded her –
our clement isthmus
between two harbours
and two oceans,
hub of the South Seas
loved by too many?

The Alexander Turnbull Library is one of New Zealand’s great institutions, beautifully housed within the larger framework of the National Library of New Zealand, and containing the Treaty of Waitangi newly and permanently on display.


I now have ahead the Outwest Festival where I will be involved, with editor Linda Cassells and chaired by Professor Alex Calder, in a discussion of the new biography of Allen Curnow by the late Professor Terry Sturm. This biography and the new Curnow Collected Poems (both to be published by Auckland University Press) will be the subject of a symposium three weeks later (30 September) at the University, and it will be my job to make the opening address – something which will be difficult only because there is too much to say and too many possible ways of going about it, and I have only 30 minutes.

Not too far beyond, but still in 2017, will be the launch of my new novel, The Necessary Angel, and the Whanganui festival (6–8 October). And after that perhaps a quieter life.

I and my laureate tokotoko bid you farewell/haere ra! Here is the last poem in the Brendan O’Brien’s fine little book:

The laureate’s last…

His last
was not least
nor yet his best
but shaped for a shoe
his size
and like his sighs
not to last.
— C.K. Stead

Hail and farewell! – & a postscript

A month from now the new Poet Laureate will be named and my two-year stint will conclude. I was more than pleased to be named Laureate, since poetry has been the centre of my writing life, the part of it I always returned to with most pleasure, that seemed the most demanding, and the most satisfying when it went well – and the award came at a time in life (I was 82) when an end to writing of any kind could not be too far away – so perhaps a rounding off, a kind of culmination, an honour I valued probably more than any other. Although I had a few direct requests for ‘a Laureate poem’, and responded to these, and of course more invitations than usual to appear at festivals and readings, there was nothing particularly demanding about the role unless you made it so; and since it’s my temperament to pursue what Yeats calls ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’, I have made a bit of a burden of the Laureate blog. I have not been, and still am not, ‘a blog person’. The literary blogs I had read seemed as often as not vehicles for malice and gossip, and I did not want to go down that path. I did them, rather, as literary exercises, thinking aloud about whatever poetry theme or bit of local literary history happened to be exercising my mind at that time. So they have become a collection of literary essays, loosely autobiographical, which I suppose at some point might be published as a book. There have been so few reactions to them that I have never been sure whether I have been talking to myself, or to a small roomful, or more; I’ve only been certain that the bigger world out there, the world of crowds and popular culture, was not listening. But if they are publishable together the effort has not been wasted. For those who have read and commented on them, my grateful thanks!
I should mention especially here the constant help I’ve had in the role from Peter Ireland of the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the support of its Chief Librarian, Chris Szekely; and also the help with technical (blog) matters from Reuben Schrader. The Matahiwi marae experience at Havelock North where I was accompanied by Kay and our family (including a daughter and two grandchildren who had come all the way from London), and by my three fellow poets, Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Paula Green, the warmth of our reception there, and the lovely tokotoko carved by Jacob Scott, were all together high points of the Laureateship; and the supplies of wonderful wines by Te Mata Vineyards (thanks to John Buck and his son Toby) were a delightful bonus.
It has also been very rewarding to have occasional literary festival readings with what has come to be called ‘the circle of laureates’ – we are quite a gang, and such a rich assortment of talents and personalities.
My laureateship is to be rounded off with the publication of a small sample of the work I’ve done during the two years in the form of a beautifully printed and produced book from Brendan O’Brien’s press with illustrations by Douglas MacDiarmid. The title is In the mirror and dancing and we will launch it in Wellington on August 8th, and with a lunch hour reading on the 9th.

In my June blog I wrote about what I called ‘the Sinclair cohort’ which included Bob (R. McD) Chapman, Maurice Duggan and Kendrick Smithyman. I think anything of interest I have to say about Smithyman is in my essay on him in Kin of Place (A.U.P. 2002). There is an essay in that collection about Duggan as a writer, which veers over into observations about Duggan the man. Of the quartet I have had least to say about Bob, because he was the least successful as a writer and I saw less of him as a university colleague. But I was his student in the History Department in my second year, a member of a remarkable tutorial, and I have this to say about it in my memoir South-East of Eden (A.U.P. 2010):
...almost a prototype of what tutorials were supposed to be, was the one I attended in history, conducted by Bob (R. McD.) Chapman, later to be the university’s first professor of political studies and mentor of two Labour Prime Ministers, first David Lange, then Helen Clark. Chapman had a round, baby face, plump, pompous jowls, and the manner and voice of a Grand Old Man. He wanted to be counted among the poets, but only ever published a handful of rather clumsy poems; he aspired to academic leadership, yet was never to publish a significant book, nor even to finish his doctoral thesis. But if the word ‘intellectual’ means anything (and something that is not simply disparaging or dismissive) that is what Chapman was. He was remorselessly, and rather abstractly, a ‘thinker’ – one who wrestled with ideas valiantly and not always with complete success. If he had arrived on the scene half a century later, he might have made a top-rate literary theoretician, where the confident opacity of his thought, and his inability ever to make perfect sense, would have been seen as virtues.
The Chapman tutorial I was assigned to, in which Bernard Clark (who had beaten me for the Lissie Rathbone scholarship in History) and Barbara McKay (who claimed she had beaten us both, and only failed to collect the scholarship because her school had forgotten to enter her name) were also members, produced the most stimulating classroom interactions I would experience at least until I was an MA student in 1955. Chapman recognised our intelligence and engaged with us. No doubt there were others in that class, but I remember it as if there had been only three students and our tutor.
There was a brief period when I was first back in Auckland from my period as a post-graduate student in the UK when the Chapmans seemed to see Kay and me as part of a group of Bob’s younger acolytes – which included Jonathan Hunt (who would become a senior Labour Party Minister and then Speaker of the House), and Jim Holt and Mike Stenson, senior History students who would become significant in the Party but both to die relatively young.
Conversation with Bob was unrelenting. He was forever trying to persuade me of something and I seemed to be forever resisting. He had a big round face and orotund delivery. His features were youthful and yet his jowls shook as he made his points, always with heavy emphasis. He was especially prone to metaphor which often failed to clarify the point. Where Keith Sinclair’s discourse was brutally clipped and to the point, Bob’s was eloquent, tending to circumlocution and obscurity. Chapman parties and dinner parties went on into the night and the early hours. Whereas Kay and I, with no children in the first few years of the 1960s, could sleep till noon next day, Bob and Noeline had three small sons to deal with. Their stamina, Noeline’s in particular, was remarkable.
Like Keith, Bob was a New Zealand literary nationalist; and an academic nationalist too – we had not only our own literature to study and to write, but our own history to come to terms with, our own politics to practice and record. They were, like most New Zealand intellectuals of the time, deeply resistant to, even resentful of, the Royalist fervour that assailed the country whenever a Royal (or a Vice-Royal) approached, because this was a subservience which compromised our independence, our identity, ourselves. I was entirely in agreement with this, especially in feeling that the Royal fervour and the old designation of Britain as ‘Home’ were demeaning; but I think as Bob saw it, I was compromised by having loved every minute of my two years in Britain, and by showing signs of regretting having come home.
Some of my debates with Bob sprang from my story/novella, A Race Apart, which won the first Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1961, and was described by Edna O’Brien, when it was published in the UK, as ‘subtle funny and dextrously written’. Bob felt this story in some degree compromised my New Zealand identity by seeming to denigrate its young Kiwi athlete hero at the expense of the wiser ‘Old World’. In retrospect our arguments don’t seem important except as part of my intellectual growing up. We might both have remembered Andrew Marvell’s advice: ‘for men may spare their pains where nature is at work, and the world will not go faster for our driving.’ New Zealand would grow out of its colonial sailor suit without our assistance; and we had (both, I imagine) to remember that although at times in a nation’s history heightened national consciousness could be productive of good things, it was more often than not the source at least of bad outcomes, and often of evil ones.
Bob and Noeline were one of two couples (the other was Allen and Jeny Curnow) to whom the novelist Bill Pearson (then a lecturer in the English Department) attached himself for comfort and protection. Bill’s recent biography by Paul Millar has revealed that he spent a long period of unhappiness, trying to unmake the gay man he was and remake himself as a good hetero Kiwi chap. It was in this period that he produced his one novel, Coal Flat, in which he represents the hero, Paul Rogers, with whom he clearly identifies, as the man he wanted to be rather than the man he was. This unhappiness, and the anxiety that went with it, made Bill a rather sad, paranoid and frightened figure; and these couples to whom he attached himself were sources of kindness and protection.
Bob had known and hugely admired Bill’s historically important essay, ‘Fretful Sleepers’, before they met, and had written his own notable essay, ‘Fiction and the Social Pattern’; and these two items are often cited as parallel advances in New Zealand national, social and literary consciousness in the 1950s. It was clear that Bob had pictured someone (like himself) large and personally impressive as the author of the Pearson essay; and I was there at their first meeting, when Bob was unable to conceal his momentary disbelief and disappointment. The introduction took place in the echoing circular foyer of the University.
‘Bill Pearson,’ Bob boomed. ‘Same name as the essayist.’
‘Same person,’ Bill said, in a shy sideways way he sometimes had of talking, as if out of one side of his face.
Bill was small in stature and unremarkable in appearance. Keith Sinclair described him as ‘the little jockey’. Bob stared at him. It took a moment for him to register that what had just been said meant that this was the man whose analysis of our Kiwi faults and failings had been (as he saw it) so acute, so devastating. I can’t reproduce exactly what followed except that it was very loud and embarrassing, revealing at first Bob’s disappointment, and then his joy to be meeting the author of ‘Fretful Sleepers’, a pleasure whose genuineness (and it was genuine) was somehow compromised because its noisy excess was a cover for that initial disappointment.
For no very clear reason there are two dinner parties with Bob which I remember particularly, both occurring a good deal later than those 1960s evenings. One was a time when we invited a group to dinner which included Bob and Noeline, and I decided it was wrong that Kay should always be the cook. I would do the main course – and what I chose was lamb knuckles. Because there were to be a number at the table I cooked most of them them in the lower oven and two in the upper. It had not occurred to me that these two ovens cooked at different temperatures and speeds; the lower lot emerged beautifully tender, the top two tough, but I did not recognize this until it was too late and the meal had been served. Bob got one of the tough ones, and sat to my left at the table, sawing away bravely, while others told me how well I had done. It seemed that even as a cook, with Bob I was destined to fail. Or perhaps I had subconsciously served up to him the culinary equivalent of those circumlocutions I’d had to chew on when he had been still one of my academic mentors.
The other was a dinner party at the Chapmans’ and Roger Douglas, Member of Parliament but thus far still in the Labour Opposition, was among the guests. Over the meal we argued, all for Labour (no dissenters at the Chapman table), but about how the Party should present itself and make its case. I was all for forthrightness and for less concern about whether what Labour wanted to do would be well-received. If we knew something was right we should say so boldly. In the end you had to sound as if you meant it. People were more impressed by the genuineness of the appeal than by its ‘rightness’, which mostly they were uncertain about. Bob, the psephologist and expert in ‘the art of the possible’, spoke in favour of going for the middle ground, the only place where Labour, or any party in New Zealand, could win – a lesson his later protégé and star pupil Helen Clark, though by nature a radical, would learn, partly from his teaching, and profit by.
Douglas was mostly silent, and when he did put forward his ideas they were unappealing and remote; but he affirmed the idea of conviction politics and the rare power of authenticity. It must have been around this time that he introduced a private member’s bill proposing a compulsory superannuation scheme which, if it had been enacted and retained, could have meant the current [2017] argument about how National Super can continue and be sustainable, and whether it should begin at 65 or 67, would have been unnecessary. Later, in the Kirk Government, such a scheme was initiated by Rowling and Douglas together, only to be scrapped by Muldoon in 1975.
Roger Douglas had an interesting family history. I remember as a child hearing his grandfather, Bill Anderton who, with A.S. Richards and John A. Lee, formed a trio of Auckland members of the first Labour Government, each of them a natural outdoor orator who, with neither notes nor amplifiers, could hold a crowd spellbound. (Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was also from Auckland but had no such power of public oratory.) Roger’s father Norman was a Labour M.P. who sided with John A. Lee and went with him when he was sacked from the Party, but later returned to it and won Auckland Central when his father-in-law Bill Anderton retired from the seat. Another of Bill’s grandsons was Jim Anderton. I remember Jim first as a Parnell dairy-owner, a close friend of some of Bob Chapman’s protégés, particularly Jim Holt, and very active and bossy in the Party. In 1984 Jim won a Christchurch seat for Labour where he has remained ever since. Jim was to oppose his cousin Roger’s financial and economic reforms and to split from the Party forming first New Labour and then the Alliance; and finally to merge with it again under Helen Clark who made him her Deputy P.M.
By the time the Muldoon years were over and a Labour Government under David Lange was elected (1984), Douglas, their finance spokesman, and soon Minister of Finance, had shifted away from Labour’s traditional Keynesianism towards the Friedmanite economics of the Chicago school. For a few years I was dazzled by Lange’s wit and eloquence, and believed that whatever Labour was doing under his watch must be necessary and good, until (like Lange himself with his ‘time for a cup of tea’) I came to see it, not only as a betrayal of Labour traditions, but simply bad economics.
I remember that quiet man at the Chapman table, with his desert-dry crackling voice, like some dark figure in a Russian play. Everyone at that table opined and theorized, but it was Douglas who was to change our world – as it happened, I now think, for the worse. Will it ever be possible to return to a high-tax economy and a full Welfare State? I would like to think so, but it is nowhere in sight.
Douglas had an odd outside-Parliament life as purveyor of alternative medicines, remedies and ‘health supplements’, all of dubious curative effect; so it might be argued that the two sides of his life, though apparently so different, were not incompatible.

I have found the following note about Maurice Duggan, written it seems after he died in 1974.
I ought to be the ideal person to write about Maurice because my feelings about him were unequivocal. I liked him unreservedly, always enjoyed his company, never found him disagreeable or dull. He seemed to me of all the writers I had known the least egotistical, and the most generous – but not from an over-eagerness to oblige. He stood firm and independent, asked for no favours, was pleased if I liked something he had written, told me when he liked something of mine, and otherwise simply gave me to feel he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. When we were alone together we talked about books and writers and writing – almost never about ourselves. I see now, looking back, that for all the informality, a kind of (old-fashioned? professional?) decorum operated, which did not allow for personal feelings and confidences. So I am only apparently the ideal person to write about him. There was a whole inner life I could find evidence of in the stories, and hear about by way of gossip (and one knew by report about his affairs, and drinking, and that he could be ‘difficult’ at home) but which was never mentioned.
His last letter, dated just a few weeks before his death from cancer, begins in that rather formal way he so often had on paper: ‘I was reminded, when we touched on form in the novel...’ – and goes on to urge me not to hesitate, if something I am writing seems properly 80 pages, to stop at that length: ‘Don’t regret the murdered darlings in the 80 pages that lie closest to your appreciation.’
I go on in this note to remember Maurice in that always orderly house with its polished wood floors, its Keith Patterson painting over the fireplace, wooden deck and windows looking out on an equally orderly garden and trees. No doubt, I went on, this domestic interior represented them both, Barbara and Maurice.
All this seems on reflection rather odd – though the good feeling was genuine. Maurice was indeed orderly. His tradesman’s tools, screwdrivers, saws, hammers, drills, were always in their proper designated places; the floors were swept, the windows clean, the lawns mowed and the hedges clipped. His handwriting was neat and his manuscripts always in order. Nothing bohemian about that household. He must have deplored the Duddings’ bohemian ménage at Torbay. And yet when I wrote this about him I knew that as well as an orderly man he could also be a Lord of Misrule. I knew that he was at his best at a dinner table at a certain point in the evening when he would offer a story so funny, and so brilliantly told, he would have us all rocking with laughter; but that soon after he would sink into alcoholic gloom.
I still make a huge (critical) distinction between the rather conventional stories for which he is probably best known and admired, and which match that domestic scene, and the two, different from and superior to anything else he wrote – ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’ and ‘Riley’s Handbook’ – which found a lucid and rich vehicle for the disorderly Maurice. The first of these I rate as the best New Zealand short story ever written (and yes, I include Mansfield in that); and the second as a novella that must rate in quality alongside (though so totally different in character and tone) Sargeson’s ‘That summer’.
Here, by way of postscript is another view of Duggan. It comes from an essay I wrote about Barry Humphries (another old friend) for the London Review of Books in 1992:
I took Barry once to visit the short story writer Maurice Duggan, without quite realizing how far each of them was down the road to alcoholism. Duggan, large, strong, physical, once summarised his life for a literary magazine, beginning each section “And the nurse said, ‘Drink this.’” His limp was noticeable and even picturesque, but the loss of a leg which had caused it was something Duggan was extremely sensitive about.
He was a great Irish-style talker, who also tended to peak with a brilliantly funny story that would have everyone sick with laugher, and then lapse into alcoholic despondency, and even sometimes anger and violence.
Barry listened while Duggan explained about toheroa — the season, the limit on the bag, how the fish was minced to make an incomparable soup; listened too, and looked, while Duggan, quietly proud, showed the books on his shelves, and how many of the modern fiction writers he owned in first editions.
Duggan must have been up on the plateau ready to go into his usual hilarious anecdote-and-plunge when Barry pre-empted the moment, launching into a characteristic Humphries monologue about his own collection of hardcover toe-he-rowers, and about how short the season was on books and how tight the limit on the bag, but the great soups that could be made by critics who put them through the mincer. I remember it now only in crude outline; but in detail - in performance so to speak - it seemed bewildering and clever. It was the only time I ever saw Duggan driven backwards into sobriety. Afterwards, if ever Humphries was mentioned, Maurice would dismiss him as “a clever magpie.”
— C.K. Stead

The Sinclair cohort

In the early 1960s James Bertram referred to the three K.S’s (Kendrick Smithyman, Keith Sinclair and Karl Stead) as ‘the Auckland Metaphysicals’, a description repeated by Louis Johnson in 1964 – and it’s true we were all influenced by John Donne and by T.S. Eliot’s essay on the Metaphysical poets. Both Donne and Andrew Marvel remain with me in the form of memorised poems and as part of my notion of what constitutes the best in poetry in the English language. But much earlier, as early as the 1940s, Smithyman and Sinclair (both ten years my senior) had named themselves ‘the mudflats school’, signifying that the bays of the Auckland harbour were their imaginative playground and their primary source of inspiration.

Of the two Smithyman, who at the time Bertram wrote that description was often discounted as ‘too difficult’, has become established as one of our major literary figures. One cannot say there are no detractors, no equivocations, none among our literary community for whom he doesn’t significantly figure (he was dismissed by Lauris Edmond for example); but for most of that community Smithyman is ‘up there’ among the New Zealand poets who are deserving of close attention, and likely to remain so – one whose admirers have included some significant poets (Murray Edmond, Jack Ross) of later generations. My own admiration was made clear in an essay in my collection, Kin of Place, which is also the title of a poem I wrote in 1987 about Kendrick on his retirement from the English Department of Auckland University where he was senior tutor:

Kin of Place

(a poem for Kendrick Smithyman)

A student stumbling upon a blind mountain
found its wizard had written a Christmas sonnet
to the best man at his sister’s wedding.


Those of us who know the far North know
that if death isn’t total extinction
we will cross a bridge on rotting piles
over an estuary. On the far side
tide out, day hot, the light grey-green under mangroves
the ears and eyes of childhood
will be restored to us.

That single crack is a mud-shrimp;
that far wet flap, a heron departing.

Casual as a cocky
one kahawai is herding mackerel in the green of the stream.


When I wrote of Mangawhai what I remembered was
the crack of whips and weight of wooden yokes.
What’s known now seems to come, half from what’s written
half from what’s half-recalled. It was a warm morning
the bush wet, the bullocks’ steaming flanks
heaving, sinking cloven shafts in the tracks.
We were re-enacting history, not for itself
but for a purpose, the taking of one kauri
to be sawn at the pit. I remember the old house
due for displacement. Sash windows wouldn’t shut,
hens had invaded bedrooms and laid their eggs
in mattresses and pillows. Harness and gum-spears
rotted and rusted on the big verandas. I found a cup
won by two brothers, Wallace and Nelson Hastie,
cousins of my cousins, Champions of Australasia
at the cross-cut saw. What I remember is fact.
‘How deal with’ is half our story. Words come first.


Sargeson told me domestic conflict
was killing your talent. He was wrong.
Your talent was a hungry dog that fed on scraps.
On that North Shore we all bayed at the moon.

I used to think if I understood your poem
too soon you might correct it. But I helped you choose
poems for your third book. I remember a hut
by a summer creek. You kept returning indoors
for another typescript. My merest doubt
meant death to a sonnet, amputation for an ode.

Being about once, walking with Mary
you met us on a beach, showed us a shell,
wrote a poem describing a meeting minutely of poets
and the showing of a shell. It was a poem about being.

No day beyond Kaitaia or east of Eden
was ever ordinary, not anyway after
your eye had lit upon it. Up went your words
like salt on the wind; in came tide under mangroves.
This was our proximate world we could talk of only
to the kin-of-place in the language of a landscape
known only to the senses, spoken in sleep.

When summer comes down out of the bush hills
spice on its breath, clematis in its hair
I think of a stream flowing out of deep-carved rock
to a shingle pool where brown fish hung suspended
in shafts of light. That was the place of beginning.
Even fantails seemed to respect its oracular quiet
so the water words that gurgled from the stone
were properly heard, never interpreted.


Strange flocks are seen to straggle over the isthmus
fact carrying word, word carrying fact –
ungainly pairs. Dark weathers gust across
and out to sea before the powers can act.
Mostly we like what we live. Pain is reflexive
to be read between the lines, not for discussion
while fish swim and butter melts in a pan.

This is the season when blossoms take a beating
in a strong light. One poet, asked to dream,
conjures a mud-flat; another, a scoria cave.
Scene becomes anecdote, anecdote history, and still
verbs tug at their moorings, nouns are tossed,
the harbour spills its sails out on the Gulf,
a city goes on growing under our feet.


A dwarf with a billiard cue and a mania for fact
was asked was there life south of the Bombay Hills.
He said he believed there was, and went on working.

(Notes: in the first three lines, Kendrick’s first book of poems was The Blind Mountain which I bought as a student. It contained a sonnet to Graham Perkins who had been through World War II in the same regiment as John Datson, and was consequently ‘best man’ at John’s marriage to my sister Norma. In the fourth section the poem Kendrick wrote about our encounter at Wenderholm was called ‘About Verbs’, and appeared in Earthquake Weather. In the final section the Smithyman collection referred to is The Dwarf with the Billiard Queue.)

Smithyman is perhaps in some ways a poet’s poet, though the longer he went on the more anecdotal and accessible the poems became – stories, as one of his titles, Stories about wooden keyboards, suggests.

Keith Sinclair, on the other hand, has not weathered as well as poet and is remembered and honoured more as one of New Zealand’s most important historians, for which he received a knighthood. This was well deserved and must have pleased Keith; but he would have been disappointed, and probably was already disappointed before his death in 1993 at the age of 70, that his poetry had not made a stronger impression. He told me that as a young man he wanted most of all to be a writer – poet, but novelist and short story writer too. He chose history as his academic study and, since he excelled at it, it became his ‘day job’, and eventually more than that, his vocation and the discipline in which he made an enduring mark; but I’m sure he had hoped the time would come when he would be known for (and perhaps live by) fiction and poetry.

Keith was a friend I admired for his quick mind, which was also a source of irritation – it was so much quicker than mine, and impatient. I was always anxious and explanatory in conversation, wanting to be sure I was understood. Keith understood before I’d finished speaking – but then what he understood might be, as I saw it, an approximation. I felt he cut corners; he probably felt I wasted time with refinements and elaborations. I liked his company, especially when Kay and I holidayed with him and his first wife Mary and their sons at Coromandel where they had a bach. These holidays gave me a source for the Coromandel parts of my first novel, Smith’s Dream.

At the university where we were colleagues Keith liked to lunch in the common room, and probably thought me anti-social because I mostly chose to eat lunch reading or writing alone in my room. But there was a time when we played badminton together in the University gym, with Joan Anderton and Helen Clark as our partners. Joan was at that time wife of M.P Jim Anderton who would one day leave Labour to form the Alliance Party and then be made Deputy P.M. when Helen became Prime Minister.

In 1968 Keith was chosen as Labour candidate for Eden, and brought a rather uneasy Norman Kirk to the University Common Room for an informal chat with supportive friends. On 27 July that year Kay and I put on a farewell party for the Sinclairs. Keith had won a Smuts Fellowship to Cambridge, and his plan was to take it up for nine months, and return still in time to fight the election. The party invitation, designed by Kay Davenport in the English Department, showed Keith and Mary riding a Kiwi with a road sign ‘To EDEN via CAMBRIDGE.’ The following year we door-knocked in support of his campaign, and distributed his leaflets.

Labour Party leaflet of Keith Sinclair, photo by Marti Friedlander.

National won the 1969 election, its fourth successive term, though the numbers were close, and Keith won the Eden seat on the night from the Cabinet Minister John Rae. He attended his first Caucus meeting in Wellington while still waiting for the final count, which included special and overseas votes, and reversed the result. Keith had mixed feelings. He knew he was too impatient to have been happy sitting out three years in Opposition, so the Eden outcome was both a disappointment and a relief.

He and I were strongly opposed to New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War. Keith’s approach to this question was probably better informed and certainly cooler than mine. For me it became for some years a political obsession and led, among other things, to the writing of Smith’s Dream. We were both involved in the Peace Power & Politics Conference in Wellington in 1968.

CK Stead and Wolf Rosenberg at the Peace Power & Politics Conference, photo by Marti Friedlander.

Together with David Ballantyne and Maurice Shadbolt, Keith and I were also instrumental in establishing an Auckland branch of PEN (now the NZ Society of Authors) and succeeded, against quite determined opposition from Wellington writers who tended to claim what I called droit de géographie, in turning the organisation into a truly national body. We saw eye to eye on many things, and I was convinced that he, my senior by ten years and already a full Professor, played a significant part in my own early elevation to that rank.

CK Stead and Keith Sinclair at Takapuna Beach, photo by Marti Friedlander.

If there was also sometimes a certain uneasiness between us it would have centred on his suspicion that I had reservations about his poetry. We exchanged poems, and I have one of his manuscripts from as early as 1956. Putting a new collection together in 1968 Keith wrote to me,

I think you may like to read these, or some of them. At least you’re the only person whose opinion matters. Please return them. Tread softly...


My reply had plenty of detailed praise, a very few demurs, some suggestions for deletions (of lines, not of whole poems), and concluded

Even if I quibble about details I always enjoy reading your poems because (1) something has happened and (2) someone has thought about it. I hope there will be more. Thanks for letting me see them.

He had said ‘tread softly’, evoking the Yeats line ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’ (a line Maurice Duggan, in his role as creative director of an advertising agency, had proposed for use in a carpet advertisement), and clearly I did that; but there were unspoken reservations.

His poems are intelligent; they have substance, ideas, thinking; and more than that, they are full of Sinclair’s acute sense of the landscape and seascape, particularly of the Auckland isthmus where he grew up. Along with that goes the lyricism of loving and sometimes the hard realities of sexual desire. When I was still a student I used to like to quote these lines from the title poem of his 1954 collection, Strangers or Beasts

Our minds can speak, but words
are not understood, cannot possess like the verbs
of the active blood, and we are always
strangers or beasts, always.

I think I might have seen those lines (along with the whole of Marvell’s ‘To his coy mistress’ some or all of which I would, given the least excuse, recite) as a weapon in the armoury of seduction. Looking at them now I still find them strong – a rhetorical overstatement, but with a hard grain of intelligence, of desperate truth.

Raewyn Dalziel, Keith’s second wife, was an academic feminist. He was strongly influenced by her, and his behaviour and writing showed the influence. He’d been a man of his time, liberal, left wing, egalitarian (all of which Raewyn approved and applauded), but on the whole accepting of the male-female dispensation in which he (and I) grew up. He was, however, capable of reform, and I think Raewyn reformed him. That was no doubt good, worthy, intellectually proper; but it was not entirely authentic. It was a slightly false note, of the intellect, not of the whole man who had written from the heart, and at least half believed, that men and women were ‘always/ strangers or beasts, always.’

In his introduction to the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse Allen Curnow commended Sinclair for having ‘matched a historian’s understanding with a poet’s insight in his remarkable “Memorial for a Missionary”. There is no other New Zealand poem’ (Curnow went on) ‘which contains, in so many glances of a wary imagination, such a span of our history. Thomas Kendall, the missionary who went native a century and a half ago, could not have been better chosen as hero of this legend, not of a New Zealand waiting to be found, but of a New Zealand forever lost.’ And he quotes

Father he left us a legacy of guilt,
Half that time owed us, who came from the north, was given:
We know St Paul, but what in that dreaming hour,
In that night when the ends of time were tied – and severed
Again and so for ever – did he learn from the south?
He could not turn to teach his countrymen,
And lost (our sorrow), lost our birthright forever.

I’m still not entirely sure what these lines mean, but they certainly have a tone of resonant regret, and an authority, and Curnow with his usual accuracy had lit on a poem that would stand looking at closely. Judith Binney, when she wrote her biography of Kendall, adapted the phrase ‘a legacy of guilt’ for her title.

But a little further on in his introduction Curnow wrote, ‘Sinclair uses fairly conventional syntax, but many of his words seem to be placed with a kind of careful absent-mindedness, lest he should compromise his meaning. He lets his limitations be seen, disarmingly; and they are considerable.’

Keith asked me if I knew what this last sentence meant. I thought I did, but didn’t feel I could say. His poetry was packed with thought, intellect, knowledge, history and experience; what it often lacked was grace. He did not have a safe ‘ear’. He strove for lyrical beauty to match his strong feelings but what came out at some times had a patched feel about it, and at others resorted to a kind of jog-trot:

We larked it, we liked it, all play-timing on,
It was dripping with moonshine from kiss to doomsday;
One night full of nothing and then she was gone,
O why did she linger and why did she stay?

This invites parody – it stays in the mind but it sticks in the craw. Baxter’s parody in The Iron Breadboard ends

We kept it, we carved it, we each had slice
Of the sugarloaf moon in its lollipop sky,
And each of us thought that the other was nice
Till she lopped off her finger and giggled goodbye.

Even in poems like the one commended by Curnow the articulation is uneven, in parts strong and clear, in others obscure or inept.

Sinclair was possibly at his best in poems where he generalized his own sexual and domestic discontents and made them representative of a New Zealand (or modern Western) failure. These complaints were often powerful because they had the ring of real pain about them. ‘Notes from the Welfare State’ for example ends

From the towers of the forty hour week and the long
Monogamous weekend arises a nocturnal howling:
In a nameless back street, in forgotten slums
Of the heart, is heard the brush of furry prowling:
In a government basement priest-physicians have thrown
A white goddess, to lie wide-thighed in chains,
Who will come again, flaunting her carnal pennon,
In a green riot, to set us free again.

I write these remarks, however, flicking through my collections of Sinclair’s poems and aware that I have not looked long and hard enough (and neither has anyone else) to say anything definitive about him as poet. Strangely, no biography has been written. Perhaps when that is done it will be by someone sufficiently literary to do justice to his poetry as well as to his eminence as historian and his success as teacher.

I liked going out fishing with Keith at Coromandel in his small launch, and then assisting at the filleting and pan-frying or the making of fish-head soup. One night when the Sinclairs’ bach was full Kay and I stayed next door in Jack Northey’s. Jack was Auckland University’s Dean of Law and Keith had a key for such emergencies. It was a beautiful clear winter night and very cold, and I lay awake and composed a poem in my head:

This Time

These are the stars of poetry
Too good to be true
Over the hills
And in the brim-full bay.

And this that ultimate coin
The dead exchange –

Unscrew your ears?
Put them away for good?
No. Unstop them.
You’re not a spirit.
Dews gather at an edge and
Drop. Drop
On frosted blades.

Even such small
Crystalline vocables
Tell time.

Count them.
Count yourself lucky.

At home in Takapuna Keith gave dinner parties which included mutton birds sent up from the South Island, and Bluff oysters. He could be good company in the right place at the right time; but he often showed signs of nervous strain. When he was first trying to give up smoking, Mary said he was given to sudden moments of violence. Later he developed strange tics and would sometimes grind his teeth. Kay said when he came to the library in the mornings in his later years his hands shook and she wondered was he on (or over) the brink of alcoholism. Certainly he was not so relaxed and genial as his brother Jack, Professor of Medicine at the Auckland Medical School and, in his day, New Zealand mile champion and record holder. When Keith died and there was a tangi on the university marae, Jack told how when they were small, he always counted on Keith as the older brother for protection against night terrors.

Keith was in fact the eldest of ten talented children, their father a waterside worker. I went with Keith and Jack to watch the All Blacks play the visiting Lions at Eden Park in 1966. We left the car some distance away, and as we walked to the ground Keith talked about the deprivations of their childhood, when kids went barefoot to school, and sugar bags were put at the front and back doors especially in wet weather to wipe your feet on. ‘We didn’t have bread and butter,’ Keith said. ‘We had bread and dripping.’

Jack grinned. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But it was good dripping.’

Among Keith’s closest friends and associates were Maurice Duggan, Bob [R. McD.] Chapman and Ken Smithyman. All four were writers, all four born in 1922. Keith had four sons, Ken and Bob three each, and Maurice one – eleven sons and no daughters, a superfluity of testosterone. Keith and Bob admired one another, worked together as academics, and published together an article in Landfall about Marx. Keith wrote of this time

Bob had the most original mind of any history or political science student that I met in New Zealand or abroad... Certainly I learned more from our reading and our discussions than I did in class.

And yet they could not get on. As historians they competed and Keith always won in the sense that his work was published whereas Bob’s was never finished. Even Bob’s PhD remained uncompleted, so he had to suffer the indignity (which he felt deeply) of wearing a black Master’s gown rather than a bright red or maroon doctoral robe among the professors at Graduation. I think Keith was largely responsible for shifting his friend and rival over in the Arts Faculty to the subject of Politics and making it a separate Department. So Bob became our first Professor of Political Studies and Head of that Department.

Bob also failed (I think one can say that) as a poet, though he aspired to be one. He edited with Jonathan Bennett O.U.P’s An Anthology of New Zealand Verse (1956), and had a very few poems of his own published in places like the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, but they were not very good and he never published a collection.

Keith, Ken and Bob were ‘called up’ in WWII, rather late to be involved in significant fighting, though Keith records that he spent two years with the RNZ Navy; the fourth of the quartet, Duggan, had had a leg amputated as a result of osteomyelitis in youth, and was ineligible. Smithyman, whose mind tended to jump, or swing, from one branch of learning to the next, was, I suspect, a failure academically, never completed a degree, and yet he easily outstripped Keith and Bob as a poet. Duggan was a good friend to Keith but seriously alcoholic. He made his reputation as a writer of short stories and novellas – and at his rare best we possibly still have no better practitioner; but he published poems too, and a collection published after his death, A Voice for the Minotaur, showed some of the ‘natural grace’ Keith mostly seemed to lack. Maurice died in 1974, aged 52.

As a piece of social history it is interesting to put their wives into the picture. Barbara Duggan was a physiotherapist, and continued to practice after marriage, for a considerable period supporting Maurice while he wrote full time. Unlike the other three she had only one child. Mary Sinclair, Noelene Chapman and Mary Smithyman were all school teachers until they married and had their first child, after which they devoted themselves, for a time in the Smithyman case, I think for life in that of the other two, to family – which was, I suppose, what they had been brought up to expect of married life. But Mary Smithyman, who wrote poetry using her maiden name, Mary Stanley, returned to teaching after the birth of her third son, and would have continued if she had not been so disastrously afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis. She was a notable poet, and Kendrick was her second husband, her first having been killed in the war. She published her first and only collection of poems, The Starveling Year, in 1953. It’s impossible to be sure why she did not continue as a poet (and she did try), but it seems the early onset of the arthritis set her back in every way. She died aged 60 in 1980 and Kendrick married his fellow-Senior Tutor in the Auckland English Department, Margaret Edgecumbe.

Keith Sinclair’s second wife, Raewyn Dalziel, was likewise some decades his junior, a professional woman, an academic who would publish a biography of Julius Vogel and other work on 19th century New Zealand history, would follow Keith as Professor of History at the University of Auckland, and rise to the rank of Deputy Vice Chancellor. I suppose she was technically Lady Sinclair after his knighthood, but she preferred always to be Professor Dalziel and never used the title or the name. In the case of Keith and of Kendrick the difference in role between the first and second wife marks almost a change in our social history; and it’s notable that, like Allen Curnow’s second wife, Jenifer (née Tole), another academic/professional woman, neither had children – as if this was the price of being the second wife.

Of the four men I have written about here, Bob Chapman seemed the most securely married. ‘Bob and Noel’ were such a tight unit there were sometimes affectionate jokes about their being of ‘one mind’ – and sometimes out of it. They seemed always to read the same books, and either would say what ‘we’ thought of any one of them – or equally of a movie, an art exhibition, a political event, a jazz concert.

These four Aucklanders, Keith and Bob, Kendrick and Maurice, I see as, each of them, exceptionally talented, serious, committed, ambitious, driven, hard-working and successful. Keith established New Zealand history as a serious academic subject, and in his published work he was one of the first to do some kind of justice to the Maori side of the race equation. Kendrick will endure as one of our most notable 20th century poets; and Maurice likewise as one of our best short story writers. Bob was one of the earliest to establish New Zealand Politics as a subject of serious academic study.

Keith’s personality was urgent, impatient, quick, curt, seldom charming although too intelligent to be entirely lacking in tact. Bob’s was ponderous, important, serious, instructive, full of conviction and emphasis, but with ample good will and therefore kindly. Kendrick’s was theatrical, loquacious, oblique, often obscure, a self-protective and self-concealing story-teller whose apparent confidence was largely a cover for its lack. Maurice’s was also theatrical, a whole second persona or mask constructed over the first, not false exactly, but a larger and louder and posher self, sometimes priestly (a residue of the Catholicism he had unequivocally rejected) and often necessarily fuelled by alcohol.

Viewed close up, they could seem in one way or another damaged. If there is any truth in that view, then damaged by what? Was it anything more than alcohol and tobacco, and in the case of at least two, testosterone and an inability to accept the limitations of an orderly domestic and professional life? Were the conflicting demands of art and the need to earn a living excessive? Or was it something inherent in being New Zealand-born at that time in our history – something to do with provincial uncertainty, ‘remoteness’ and insecurity? I think Allen Curnow, who wrote of ‘the New Zealand sadness, always there however deeply buried in the mind’, and of the difficulties of ‘[standing] upright here’, would have said yes to that. (If there is any truth in that idea, I’m sure Curnow would not have exempted himself, and neither do I exempt myself. Whatever the nature of the ‘boat’ at that point in our history, we were all in it together.)

I cannot ask these questions without being aware of myself as their junior by ten years, and imagining them collectively looking at me, not uninterested, perhaps grateful for serious attention, half-amused, but most likely also irritated by my impertinence. Perhaps this ‘up-close’ view is too close for a clear and fair focus – too close for comfort – and their varying successes and failures were no more than the vicissitudes of chance and the genes in any one group at any place and time. They were important enough to deserve a close look, and so the slight cracks become apparent. If they were less significant no such inspection would be called for; no such questions asked.

Whatever the truth of the matter, I value their memory. As Yeats puts it in his memorial to Major Robert Gregory:

They were my close companions many a year,
A portion of my mind and life as it were,
And now their breathless faces seem to look
Out of some old picture book.
I am accustomed to their lack of breath...

Accustomed perhaps – but they are missed.

— CK Stead