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.