Welcome to the latest in a series of pieces we’re running as part of ReadNZ, which is a campaign to get more of us reading books written by New Zealanders.
Think of any type of storytelling, and there’ll be a New Zealander who is good at it.
We produce a huge range of fantastic books here in Aotearoa, and we want to help readers find something new to them!
Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui/Ngāti Porou) is a Wellington writer and the author of Poūkahangatus, her first collection of poems, which was published by Victoria University Press and launched last week. She was the 2017 recipient of the Adam Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters.
The Book Council talked to Tayi about what it means to read, and write, in Aotearoa.
Is there anything about New Zealand poetry that sets it apart do you think?
This is going to sound uh, particular, but actually I really like the isolation of living in here, and I often wonder what influence that might have on our writing. As a teenager, I felt hyper aware of how isolated we are. Mainly because I was trying to order clothes online and shipping is so expensive. I used to feel like I could really tell that we were at the bottom of the world, and this put me in a semi constant state of creative anxiety. But one of the benefits about isolation is that it forces you into your imagination and encourages you to use you ingenuity…. and get a little weird. I actually think it’s our weird Kiwi sense of humour that sets New Zealand poetry apart.
We are a nation of haters and mockers, but I also think that’s where our humour stems from, and our humour is often our only resilient torchlight in the night of our lonely mock-worthy existence. I’m only kidding, but I do think it’s our ability to recognise our own absurdity, while also finding the bits of beauty or humour or hope that can be elevated into poetry.
I also think Māori makes New Zealand poetry distinct; whether it’s the incorporation of Te Reo, or our history or tikanga, you will often find Māoridom or biculturalism throughout poetry written by Māori and non-Māori alike.
I should also add something about the landscapes bla bla but landscapes bore me at this current point in my life. I haven’t been anywhere barren or polluted enough to love mountains yet.
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read poetry from this place?
Read NZ means supporting our writers and readers in order to develop an industry and community of engaged lit lovers who are woke, empathetic, encouraging and inclusive.
We read it in order to know about ourselves; who we are, who we have been and what we could be, both as individuals, and as a nation. I think reading our poetry is particularly useful because New Zealanders don’t really like to be told what to do, and poetry employs the art of subtlety. Often poetry is not going to be screaming at you, telling you ‘the thing.' Instead, it’s quietly winning you over, suggesting ‘the thing’, making you feel ‘the thing’ in your cold Kiwi emotions, and this is the elaborate scam of poetry, slowly taking over the world one off-handed metaphor at a time.
I also tend to think of Read NZ as a way of decolonising. I think it’s important to read our own stories and writing so it grows organically from the inside. I think if we want our literature to stand out and become a viable product it’s got to be original, and unlike writing anywhere else in the world.
But more importantly, I think it’s an absolute necessity to see ourselves reflected in writing, in books, literature, film, television etc. Especially for those who have been underrepresented in books and the media. This is why Read NZ is also about reading diverse and inclusive New Zealand books. This means reading and supporting our Māori, Pacific, Asian, immigrant, LGBT, gender fluid and non-binary writers with priority.
Which New Zealand books or poets have been special to you in your life?
Alice Tawhai is a short fiction writer, but her prose is very poetic. Her short story collection, Festival of Miracles was major for me when I was a teenager. She was the first writer to convince me that localised, New Zealand stories were interesting and urgent to write about. It was also the first time that I thought NZ Lit was cool.
Courtney Sina Meredith is a poet who very much inspired me to start putting my work out there after I first saw her performing at LitCrawl in 2015. She was reading the title poem from her book, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, and it was the first time that I really saw myself reflected in New Zealand poetry, and she was so hot and cool, her performance was really stylish, and it made me so excited about New Zealand literature.
Tusiata Avia’s book Fale Aitu really served me as a touchstone text, especially during my MA year. Fale Aitu is just so powerful. No one will read it and not gasp, or shiver or flinch but in the best way. Fale Aitu is important to me because it’s a book that inspires honesty and bravery. It’s a book that I return to, to kind of realign my artistic intentions.
Louise Wallace is a poet who is really special in my life, not only via her work which is fantastic (I adore her book Bad Things and her poem, ‘The Poi Girls’ especially) but also personally. Louise was my MA supervisor, and she was perfect; so funny and direct but endlessly kind and supportive. Louise is also the founder and editor of Starling magazine alongside Francis Cooke and I really love Starling for its commitment to showcasing fresh and diverse voices.
If you were going to recommend New Zealand poetry to other New Zealanders, which books would you choose?
I think I’d recommend an anthology as a lil taster, such as The New Zealand issue of Poetry Magazine because it features some of our most distinguished contemporary poets like Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt, alongside some of my personal favourite poets like Hinemoana Baker, Courtney Sina Meredith, Tusiata Avia, Nina Powles, Chris Tse and Essa Ranapiri.
Then I’d just recommend my favourite books as mentioned above, but also People From the Pit Stand Up by Sam Duckor Jones, This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan and Autobiography of a Marguerite by Zarah Butcher McGunnigle.