The shortlist for the prestigious Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry, which carries prize money worth $10,000, was made public this morning. Our poetry editor Chris Tse is ecstatic.
Here’s a sobering statistic: since 2001, only two non-Pākehā poets have won the poetry category at the book awards – David Eggleton (who is of Rotuman, Tongan and Palagi ancestry) in 2016 and Hone Tuwhare in 2002. This year, one of four outstanding shortlisted poets will join them. Tusiata Avia. Hinemoana Baker. Mohamed Hassan. Nina Mingya Powles. Whoever wins will make history. Don’t mind me while I cry tears of joy, but this means the world to me and all the aspiring writers who have struggled to see themselves represented in our national literature. A win at the book awards won’t change things overnight, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.
This year’s four shortlisted poets are writing and publishing at a time when the topics of race and diversity are triggering for those who cry “wokesters!” at anything that questions the status quo. In these books, the personal doesn’t just rub up against the political – the two are so inextricably intertwined there is no room for compromise or coded messages. “Just look at what we fucking well have,” writes Baker. “Look at what we have now the leash the booming / groan.” Yet even when dealing with anger or frustration, these poems still make room for hope and humour. Hassan takes a light-hearted look at being “randomly” selected at Customs for additional searching, and Avia’s wicked humour amplifies the savage barbs aimed at James Cook and politicians.
The twin forces of escape and arrival propel these books along their geographical and cultural paths with one eye fixed on Aotearoa and the other looking out at the world beyond our shores. (Interestingly, three of the four are currently based overseas.) Whether it’s a flea market in Berlin, Eileen Chang’s apartment in Shanghai, a hurricane that devastates Puerto Rico, or a stroll along the Bosphorus Strait, these poets have tapped into a global heartbeat that at times feels at odds with what we have been told is “New Zealand literature”. An insular, inward-looking reflection has given way to an exploration of Aotearoa on a much broader canvas – as Hassan puts it, “this tiny country / that shakes the world.”
Funkhaus is a stirring broadcast from Berlin, where Baker has been based for a number of years. Despite the geographical remove, her poems still tackle local issues and concerns, from Ihumātao to the inescapable echoes of her family stories. Baker’s already powerful voice feels amplified by the distance between Germany and Aotearoa in Funkhaus.
In Magnolia 木蘭, Powles revisits the places she calls home to explore and give voice to her experiences of being mixed-raced. Her poems burst with colour and glisten with crystalline focus. “There are so many things, I’m trying to hold together. I write them down each day to stop them from slipping.”
A similar want to hold the many parts of one’s self simmers away in Hassan’s National Anthem. In Turkey he realises “no one has asked me where / I’m from and when they did it was warm / and kind”, but back home in New Zealand he wrestles with the Islamophobia that both caused and was emboldened by the mosque shootings.
Any of the shortlisted poets would be deserving winners, but my money’s on Avia for The Savage Coloniser Book. As the title and formidable cover suggest, Avia is not playing games. These poems are among some of her most visceral and political, and her most personal: she details with unflinching honesty what it’s like to live with seizures. The Savage Coloniser Book sets its sights on the excuses Pākehā make to absolve themselves as the cause of POC frustration and rage, and tears them down one by one leaving a trail of evidence to build her case. The power of poetry is the ability to open a reader’s eyes to new worlds, even when that world is the one that’s been in our backyard all along.
The winner of the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry, as well as the other categories of the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, will be announced during a ceremony as part of the Auckland Writers Festival on May 12.
Read books editor Catherine Woulfe on this year’s other finalists here.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.