At Matahiwi

Matahiwi has been the focal point of the New Zealand poet laureateship since the honour was first established at the suggestion of John Buck and his Te Mata Vineyard roughly 20 years ago.  The laureate’s tokotoko (talking stick) has been carved, in all but one case, by Haumoana artist Jacob Scott, and presented with due ceremony at the marae.  

One off-shoot of this, important because of the award’s connection with the Te Mata estate, is that the laureate receives gifts of the finest Te Mata wines – a practice that took its idea from the British Poet Laureate’s receiving an annual ‘butt of sack’ (barrel of sherry). 
Group in front of the house, Te Mātau a Māui. Seated, Tom Mulligan on left, and CK Stead.

Matahiwi is a beautiful little marae a few kilometres out of Havelock North, down a long road, paved but hardly wider than one lane, and in countryside full of orchards and vineyards which at this time of year are in full glorious production.

Our group of marae visitors – the laureate and his family (a party of fourteen), three of the Laureate’s poet friends (Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Paula Green), and students from local schools, and others, were led on to the marae with the usual exchange of karanga as we approached.  I was shepherded by Cellia Joe from the Alexander Turnbull Library, and our group was seated on one side of the wharenui, under a kind of porch, and on the other, under a matching porch, were the marae people, their kaumatua, Tom Mulligan, who made the welcoming speech in Māori and in English, staff from the ATL who had spent the night on the marae, Chris Szekely, the Chief Librarian, and Peter Ireland.

Lee Kershaw-Karaitiana spoke for the visitors, a speech in Māori of great forcefulness, eloquence, and (I detected – in the word rangatira) hyperbole when it came to the great worth of the person about to be honoured.

The visitors coming onto Matahiwi marae on Saturday morning. Poet Laureate CK Stead (white shoulder bag) walks beside Lee Kershaw-Karaitiana.
This exchange of greetings and compliments, each with the usual support-waiata, was followed by the hongi down the whole line, visitors and locals, a novel experience especially for my London-based grandchildren aged 10 and 13. 

The lead party (myself with Kay and our three children Oliver, Charlotte and Margaret, Chris Szekely, and my three invited poets) then moved on to the paepae.  The presentation of the tokotoko was preceded by a short extract from my poem SCORIA and a brief explanation of the carver’s thoughts and materials.  He had in mind, he said, that this was a stick for a ‘scholar and a gentleman’.  He had been working in South East Asia, and had taken his materials locally.  The wood is black ebony, hardwood, and the beautifully carved handle is of water buffalo bone, a smoky colour somewhere between white and cream.  There is a circle of silver below the handle and a silver ferrule.  My name and the date and details of the award are inscribed.  The whole effect is almost ‘old world’ and distinctly elegant. 

The tokotoko was blessed in a beautiful oration/poem in Māori by Ngatai Huata, who towards the end of her reading involved the whole gathering calling on us to follow her in repeating its final phrases, and describing the position of laureate as one awarded to a person who was toi kupu rongonui.  This I felt was another great honour.  Kia ora Ngatai!
In making my speech of thanks, I regretted my lack of reo Māori, but I saluted the marae, its wharenui which takes its name (and the carving over our heads) from the hook (Te Mātau) with which Maui dragged up the land under our feet.  I saluted the ancestors of Ngati Hawea, and the people themselves.  I acknowledged and thanked John Buck and Te Mata, the Alexander Turnbull Library, Kay and our three children and their partners, and our seven grandchildren, six of whom were present; and then also my fellow poets, two of whom, Chris and Greg, had been in my Creative Writing class at the University of Auckland (its first) in 1984.  All I could claim about them was that they had arrived with what seemed fully formed talents, and that they left after a year with talent intact and undamaged.  They have since gone on to publish outstanding collections of poems, and both made their mark as arts administrators.  Likewise my fellow Aucklander, Paula, has published fine collections, and beyond that has played a significant part as an educator, both through her poetry blog, and as a visitor to schools.  Cumulatively these three have done massive work for the cause of poetry in New Zealand over the past two or more decades, and I felt my hand as laureate was immensely strengthened by their presence.

Poets and family on the paepae. From left: Poet Laureate CK Stead  (holding his new tokotoko) and his wife Kay, Oliver Stead, and Paula Green.
The tokotoko, I felt, required me to introduce myself in terms of place – my whenua – so I did that: ‘Ko Karl Stead, no Maungawhau, me Tamaki-Makau-Rau – ahau.’  Poetry is almost always regional; it belongs to, or at least has beginnings in, one place.  There is something mysterious and magical about the location where words and things first come together for the child and begin to make language.  Jim Baxter said for him it was a beach south of Dunedin. When poetry failed him he had only to return there, in fact or in imagination, and the fountain would flow again.  No matter how much you travel and how wide your range of ‘subjects’ may become, that place, where language began and the verbal imagination first took root, is your whenua.

Where I grew up there were three principal maunga in sight – the nearest, ‘in your face’ so to speak, was Maungawhau; to the east was Maungakiekie, and to the west Owairaka. We had Pakeha names for them – Mt Eden, One Tree Hill (which should now be No Tree Hill thanks to Mike Smith’s chainsaw vandalism), and Mount Albert.  But the Māori element persisted.  My primary school was Maungawhau.  My secondary school was Mt Albert Grammar but the suburb (its name up on the front of the trams) was Owairaka.  And if you wanted to get to the parkland around One Tree Hill you could go via Maungakiekie Avenue.  I knew the Māori form of the name Auckland was Akarana; and that the Ngati Whatua knew the region between the two harbours, Waitemata and Manukau, as Tamaki-Makau-Rau.  That was popularly translated as ‘the place of a thousand lovers’.   But as I grew older and learned a little of our pre-history I realised that the aroha was not just of the people for one another.  It was for the place – the region, the isthmus – a place worth fighting for and fighting over.  Those three maunga of my childhood, with their characteristic indentations, were defended pa.  They were warrior sites; from time to time war zones.

Some of this I said in my speech; and I suggested that the same aroha expressed itself now in high house prices and gridlock at rush hours.  We were the place of a 1.5 million lovers; but it was still my whenua – the place where my imagination had taken root and sometimes had taken flight.
Left to right: Musician Robbie Duncan, poets Chris Price, CK Stead, Paula Green and Greg O’Brien at Poets’ Night Out.
I began writing poems at the age of about fourteen; and though I have gone on to write short stories, a dozen novels, literary journalism, academic studies of poets and poetry, even a couple of movie scripts, I have always come back to poetry.  Poems can be simple and beautiful, or complex and difficult; they can be the result of hard work, or occasionally of ‘inspiration’; but however they arrive, poetry can never be described as ‘easy’.  It is the most challenging, the most demanding, but also the most satisfying of literary forms.  Language is what distinguishes us, the human race, on our planet; and poetry at its best is language at its best – the fullest expression of that humanity.

That is why this welcome on the marae, the presentation of the tokotoko and all it symbolised, seemed to me a wonderful moment at this late (and no doubt last) stage of my career as a writer.  I was immensely honoured and touched – and I’m sure everyone could see that I was.

My son Oliver, who is also a curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, sang a powerful waiata, and that brought the presentation part of the morning to an end.        

What came next was organised by Marti Smith, a local poet and school teacher.  There were readings from each of the four poets (Chris Price accompanied on the guitar by her partner Robbie Duncan), and then performances of high quality – singing, violin, and guitar – from students at local schools.  There was also a poem from a local student (she was absent, ill, but a school friend read it for her) which she had written, it was said, in protest at the idea that a laureate might be required to write poems to meet public occasions (something the New Zealand laureate is not in fact required to do, though he/she might choose to).  The image was of a bird, and the poem asked did it need to be taught to fly, or does it just fly because it’s a bird?  This struck me more as a telling rejection of the idea that the writing of poetry can be ‘taught’ than of the idea that poems can be written to order.  Poets write poems because they are poets, just as birds fly because they are birds: this was the message, I thought, and effective as an argument because the poem itself was so graceful, so beautifully turned.
The crowd of 150 for Poets’ Night Out at the Havelock North Function Centre.
Then came an excellent and generous marae lunch, with Te Mata wines. 
The afternoon was free.  Some slept, others climbed Te Mata Peak.  In the early evening we all ate at the Pipi café whose owner, Alexandra Tylee, is a poet and poetry aficionado.  From 7.30, at the Havelock North Function Centre, I read with Chris (accompanied by Robbie again), Greg and Paula, an event publicised as Poets’ Night Out.  We were supported by the wonderful voices of Taylor Wallbank, Emanuel Fuimoano and LJ Crichton, three students aged 17 and 16 who are products of Anna Pierard’s Project Prima Volta. The boys gave a sort of ‘Three Tenors’ opera performance and a display of great talent for the future.  

Marty Smith was M.C. for this reading which had been organised by the Writers in Wineries Charitable Trust, a group mainly of women – writers, booksellers, librarians. 

Next morning we returned to the marae for poroporoaki and breakfast, more speeches, and a general reflective and grateful korero.  Talking to Tom Mulligan I was struck by how pleased he was that all my whanau had come back for breakfast.  This, even more than their presence at the event itself it seemed, signalled our warmth and gratitude and that the role of the marae in the whole process of the Laureateship had been taken seriously, as indeed it had.
                                                                                                                         - C.K. Stead
   Images by Joan McCracken and Lynette Shum

For other inside view of these events see