Wonder: Poets Laureate at the National Library, an event held in association with the exhibition Mīharo Wonder: 100 Years of the Alexander Turnbull Library on August 6th 2021

A flock? A laurel wreath? A vine? A stanza? A chapter? A library? What collective noun might best define an assembly of Poets Laureate? Such national figureheads of the art of poesy-making are generally considered rugged individualists to be prized for their distinctive poetic voices, for their various 'ways of saying', rather than their harmonious concord.

New Zealand has had twelve poet laureates since the Laureateship was established by prime mover John Buck of Te Mata Estate Vineyard in Hawke's Bay in 1996. The badge of office for each of Aotearoa's Poets Laureate is their own tokotoko. The matua tokotoko or 'parent' orator's talking stick is held at the National Library Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, which became kaitiaki or guardian of the Laureateship in 2007, with Peter Ireland acting as facilitator.

The attending Poets Laureate and friends in front of Cliff Whiting's 'Te Wehenga' mural. Back row L to R: Brian Turner, (Wendy Buck), Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh, (Peter Ireland of the National Library), Jenny Bornholdt, (Jacob Scott), David Eggleton,  Front row L to R: (John Buck), Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde, Elizabeth Smither, Vincent O’Sullivan. Photo Mark by Beatty.

All the tokotoko thus far have been carved and fashioned by master carver and artist Jacob Scott (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Kahungunu), in consultation with the poet. Each Laureate receives their tokotoko at Matahiwi marae near Havelock North in Hawke's Bay. In a way, then, these customised wooden talismans might serve to suggest a single 'poet-tree' growing out of the land.

The large audience being welcomed to the Poets Laureate event by Rachel Esson, the National Librarian Te Pouhuaki.
Photo by Mark Beatty.

And so a tree of singing birds, a lorikeet-like flurry of laureates convened at the National Library in Wellington on Friday August 6th to mark 25 years by raising their tokotoko in the air and shaking them together in unison, while reciting Hone Tuwhare's poem 'Reign rain' — or almost. Michele Leggott and C.K. Stead couldn't be there, but Selina Tusitala Marsh, Vincent O'Sullivan, Ian Wedde, Cilla McQueen, Brian Turner, Elizabeth Smither, Jenny Bornholdt and Bill Manhire, along with myself, took part in the evening's celebrations, which included poetry readings expertly conducted by Master of Ceremonies Gregory O'Brien in the acoustically-resonant auditorium.

The occasion was also distinguished by the launch of a poetry chapbook in a limited edition of 100, hand-crafted by master printer Brendan O'Brien of Fernbank Studio in Wellington. Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i consists of nine poems drafted by me in various notebooks when I held the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer's Residency at the University of Hawai'i in Honolulu towards the end of 2018. These recently completed texts are accompanied by woodblock prints produced by my brother Tonu Shane, an artist who formerly lived in Hawai'i and taught at Windward Community College in Honolulu, and who now lives near Mendocino on the coast of Northern California.

Cover of Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i

I am extremely gratefully to Brendan and his helpers for all his hard work and the time involved in putting this exquisite publication together, from the actual letter-press printing, to the hand-sewn binding, to the choices of ink colours and textures, to the careful sourcing of high-quality papers from various places. And I would like to thank the National Library for enabling this project to happen. Images are below.

All in all a lambent occasion, highlighting contemporary New Zealand poetry, and ending with libations of fine wine and a raise-your-glasses toast to the history and the future of the Laureateship, proposed and delivered with a Falstaffian flourish by wine-maker and legend John Buck.

Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i

Below are images of the poem Throw Net and the woodblock that accompanies it in the book Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i  hand-crafted by master printer Brendan O'Brien of Fernbank Studio in Wellington.
Image of the poem Throw Net printed by Brendan O'Brien.

Woodblock print that accompanies the poem Throw Net, produced by my brother Tonu Shane.

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