Book of the Week: The revolutionary live email interview with Tayi Tibble

Spinoff Review of Books editor Steve Braunias revives the revolutionary live email interview with a new star of New Zealand literature – the wildly talented Tayi Tibble, author of Poūkahangatus, her debut collection of verse which is launched later today by Victoria University Press.

I’ve been thinking for a little while now that something extraordinary is going on with New Zealand poetry. It is, in that gormless phrase, having a moment. A golden age appears to be in progress and I base this entirely on the quality and direction of the poems I’ve published in the Friday Poem slot at The Spinoff. Something new and challenging and exciting seems to be happening, led by poets such as Hera Lindsay Bird and poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh and many others, one or two men such as Nick Ascroft and Chris Tse, but mostly women, including Courtney Sina Meredith, Jane Arthur, Paula Harris, Freya Daly Sadgrove, Tusiata Avia, Amanda Kennedy, Talia Marshall, Simone Kaho, Joy Holley, Claudia Jardine, and Liz Breslin, many of whom are writing long, bold, confident poems which reach out and capture a mood or spirit of the age. The latest in this pantheon is the wildly talented Tayi Tibble.

Victoria University Press launch her debut collection of verse, Poūkahangatus, at Unity Books in Wellington this evening. It’s a dazzling book which operates as a kind of family memoir – three generations of Tibble women step through the pages, with their long, dark hair. It includes “Hoki Mai“, the heartbreaking poem she read at the Anzac Parade in Wellington this year in front of 25,000 people. It also includes “Ode to Cindy Crawford of Johnsonville”, which will run in its full glory in the Friday Poem slot in The Spinoff tomorrow.

Even before it was published there was a widespread feeling that Poūkahangatus had better be good, that it had to live up to the hype and expectation of Tibble winning the Adam Foundation Prize last year. The annual prize is awarded to the IIML creative writing student who shows the most obvious and compelling signs of genius. Hera Lindsay Bird won it, Eleanor Catton won it, Ashleigh Young won it – everywhere in New Zealand literature, women at the forefront. Poūkahangatus merits the hype. It’s the poetry event of 2018, so far, and I thought I ought to mark the occasion by reviving the revolutionary live email interview as pioneered by the Spinoff Review of Books.

The following interview was conducted with Tayi on a recent Tuesday evening between the hours of 8pm and just after 1am. It’s a simple form – I email a question, and wait for her reply before composing and emailing another question, and so on, with a fair bit of nagging on my part for her to write quicker, think quicker, respond quicker. Haste is all. Caution is the devil. I was at my estate in Te Atatu, listening to a four-LP boxed set by Mike Oldfield; Tayi was at her flat in Kelburn, a few doors down from Fergus Barrowman, her publisher at Victoria University Press. Emily Perkins popped in to borrow some sugar, Damien Wilkins dropped by to play Twister, Ashleigh Young knocked on the door and ran away – O Wellington!

Tayi Tibble (photo: Tessa Aitchison)

Good evening Tayi and welcome to the latest edition of the revolutionary live email interview as pioneered by the Spinoff, but which has been somewhat in hibernation for a while, in recess, in absentia, but really we were just waiting for someone special to come along and you’re it. I want to ask you things about your new book Poūkahangatus and about poetry and also about lipgloss, because that’s an important theme in your writings on the Twitter machine, but I’ll start by asking about your background. I gather you’re from Porirua, or possibly Johnsonville. And that immediately suggests Denis Glover’s poem, with the famous lines, “I think of what may yet be seen/ In Johnsonville or Geraldine.” He may have thought that but it’s actually a false premise because he never wrote a word about Johnsonville. But you have. Please expand.

Thanks! I like feeling special and I’m very happy that you think the book is good. Everyone has been very kind and generous towards me.

Good gathering! I was born in Wellington, spent my primary school years in Johnsonville, and my teen years in Porirua. Johnsonville was where my great-grandparents built their house after they got married — my grandad was from Amsterdam and my nana from Te Araroa. Their house was the epicentre of my family for many years. My mum and her partner Rob, and my six little sisters and brothers, yeah live in Porirua.

I always assumed Denis Glover was talking about some other Johnsonville, tbh.

You were born in 1995 and there are various assorted millennial references in your book to Twilight, to Kim Kardashian, to La Perla. But you also write about Waikato, and the King Country; these places seem central to your family history, and form powerful presences in the book. How do you regard these places?

Yeah I think they have powerful presences because they are powerful places. My iwi are Te Whānau a Apanui and Ngati Porou, which are east coast tribes, but I only returned to the east coast and went to my marae for my Nana’s tangi as an adult. The marae I would go back to as a child was in Te Awamutu, with my sister’s family who are Tainui and helped raise me. I think the Waikato/King Country area has a real energy. I studied history during my undergrad and I found Waikato history the most interesting and devastating, the Waikato Wars, the Kingitanga movement etc. Because I was raised in the city, these places always seemed almost mythical and inextricably connected to my heritage and identity. When I went back to the east coast for the first time, it was really overwhelming, being in the place I had always heard about, being in the place I had always been told I came from. I had a funny feeling, like a wholesome sadness.

You know, I presume you wouldn’t have learned anything about New Zealand history at school on account of the fact they don’t teach it. Vincent O’Malley at Victoria University is leading a really fascinating campaign sort of thing at the moment for schools to teach the New Zealand Wars. Do you back this? I mean I’m sure you do, why wouldn’t you, but I guess I want to ask you this specifically because the past and your identity as a young Māori woman – who you are, and what formed the person you are – seems to be a major theme or preoccupation  in this book.

Well I’ve always very much directed my own education and taught myself the things I wanted to learn. This hasn’t always gone down well with professors and teachers, but I’ve had a few good ones who helped me on my journey towards historical enlightenment. I completely agree that New Zealand history needs to be mandatory in schools, and taught properly, not just bizarro inflammatory shit like Māori killed the moas. I remember learning that in primary school. I consider myself a little academic, so I definitely believe education is the cure to ignorance. I often think about how much ignorance and racism could be alleviated by education about the past and then I get annoyed. I’m all about the past. If I hadn’t done the MA at the IIML, I would have continued studying history.

I think identity is an obvious theme or preoccupation in the book, but it’s something other people probably notice or focus on more than I do. Lots of the things that people might read in the book and think “this must be the making of a Māori” or whatever, I probably think is as mundane as patting a dog at a bach or whatever other image is considered impartial New Zealand non-identity poetry. That said I think all poetry is identity poetry and if you don’t think that, you’re most likely Pākehā tbh. And I want people to read the book and investigate the poems and look for meaning even though I’ve heard people say searching for meaning kills the fun in poetry. So I’ve tried to make it fun too. I want readers to see me winking at them. That’s why some poems literally have titles like “Identity Politics” or “Agenda” or “Sensitivity”. I think what I personally find successful about my book is that it’s upfront about its politics, and its themes of identity. I don’t think I’m sneaking up on the reader and scaring them with, gasp, meaning. I tried to write about my experiences as a young Māori woman in an inherent and natural way.

I also like to write about cool things and being young and Māori is cool.

I wish to alert you to this insight into Poūkahangatus, and its author: You posted on Twitter, “I showed my 18yo sister my book and she took one look at the cover and said ‘Your book should be called Poūkahanarcissist.’” Please discuss.

Oh that was Aniqueja! She was a big inspiration to this book. She has long straight thick shiny hair down to her thighs. She’s really mean. But she’s a proper G and she keeps it real. What I love about having sisters is that they just say the most awful heinous things to you all the time and there are no consequences. We all really bully each other for fun. We love reading each other filth.

I think she was just trying to keep me humble. It’s a bold cover! I can admit I sort of have a big head but I assure you it’s squarely on my shoulders.

(photo: Tessa Aitchison)

But hang on this one doesn’t sound like fun – you also wrote on the Twitter machine, “My 13 year old sister punched me today and made my eye bleed.”

Oh yeah well that wasn’t fun, because it hurt and I have a scar below my eyebrow from her witchy nails.

That was Jordan. It was mostly accidental because we were playing basketball. But I say mostly because she’s very competitive and jealous of me. She’s a lot like me, but even more ambitious and clever. 

When you won the Adam Prize, you said at the presentation ceremony, with aching formality, “Although I am sad to see the end of this invaluable year, winning the Adam Foundation Prize signals the beginning of a new chapter.” Since then, you wrote recently on Twitter, “It’s my last shift at Warehouse stationery.” So what’s the new chapter?

I don’t think I actually said that. That wasn’t from my speech, that was from the press release and I think the Comms team at Victoria University put that bit in. BUT if I did say that (and I might have, idk) I was probably just referring to finishing University and leaving the IIML. These days I’m interning at the New Zealand Book Council via Toi Māori Arts. I’m the assistant programmes manager to Kathryn Carmody. I like it a lot.

If you’re asking me what’s next in terms of the writing, I’m not sure yet. I spent last year and the good part of this year getting this book finished. I have a couple of other projects I’m working on, but discussing them would be foolish.

We need to talk about Hera. What do you make of her work, and also the amazing impact and popularity of her work? And, further to that, what do you make of the notion I have that New Zealand poetry is experiencing an exciting moment, with Hera, and Selina, and others  – why only today I got some new verse submitted to the Friday Poem from Paula Harris, of Palmerston North, and they were fantastic, very much part of what I think of as a new….well, not a new movement, but a new kind of sensibility in New Zealand writing, by women writers predominantly, although the exuberant Nick Ascroft also, where the poetry is often written at enormous length, is very personal, seemingly casual in tone, i.e.  conversational, and has a listicle quality where the lines are variations of the same theme. Your great poem ‘In the 1960s An Influx of Māori Womenis a bit like that. Each line is a kind of variation of this satirical vision of Māori women enjoying a middle-class existence, shopping at Kirks and drinking margaritas. Anyway – the question was about Hera, and whether you think something new and amazing is going on, with Hera, Selina, Nick, and many other new or newish writers.

Hmmm it’s kind of hard for me to tell because I don’t really know what was going on before. I mean I know about like the Sam Hunt and Gary McCormick years, or when Bill Manhire set up the IIML, and like Hone Tuwhare, Te Ariki Campbell, Baxter, Curnow etc, but I know about them in a kind of historical sense almost. I don’t know a lot about the NZ poetry scene before I came to it, or at least I can’t hold it all comprehensively in my mind to compare it to what’s going on now. What I do know is that it’s exciting to be writing during this time. One of the reasons I said yes to publishing when VUP approached me was because yeah,  I wanted to be publishing during the time of Hera, while Selina is Poet Laureate, while there’s a lot of exciting writing happening here. NZ poetry is my favourite genre of writing now. It’s almost all I read. I’m obsessed with it.

Someone’s comments about Hera recently prompted me to think about that whole societal pressure where women are made to feel like they need to compete with other women, and in a career path like poetry in particular, where you are told to expect nothing, that the likelihood is that you will be unread and underwhelmed, it can be intimidating to see someone like Hera achieve so much. I was a little bit jealous when she first came out with her book, because it was intimidatingly brilliant and I had to lie down. But I really believe that those who walk the path before you make that path easier, and I was lucky I think to be able to write my book having read Hera’s and people’s work I admire like Tusiata Avia, Hinemoana Baker, Faith Wilson, Zarah Butcher McGunnigle, Chris Tse, Hana Pera Aoake, Courtney Sina Meredith etc. A couple years ago somebody of my demographic might not have had any work to look up to. Hera is also very generous. When I wasn’t up to much she put me in readings and invited me to karaoke after Litcrawl. I was so happy.

And if someone’s mean about my book, I’m just gonna say, “Sorry Dad” too.

I don’t want to reduce the poems to mere autobiography – the use of language and form is dazzling, and there are many fascinating techniques going on – but if I can reduce it to autobiography just for a second, I loved the poems about school and there was that strange poem which had some horrible kind of sexual undercurrent, that is, it seemed to be about a male teacher with abuse on his mind. The two of you – if it’s autobiographical, that is – are alone in a classroom. He says: “Why are you so nervous?” Do you mind revealing what was going on?

That poem you’re referring to, from that series called “Shame” is the one poem I would never read aloud and had naively hoped no one would ask about. I would never publish it separately in the book either. I had hoped that poem would stay in the book, just for the reader. I do understand that it stands out.  It’s the last poem from the second section which I think has a slightly darker or heavier tone and it’s definitely an uneasy poem.

I will say that I think about power dynamics quite a lot. Especially between Māori women and Pākehā men, how the first relationships between them began as a result of contact and colonisation and how that has played out over time. I guess I’m talking about the idea of having dominion over another people for years and how that could  play out in modern relationships in microaggressive or insidious ways. I think there is some exploration of this in a few poems, “Shame” definitely. Also “Assimilation”, “Red-Blooded Males”, “Poukahangatus” etc. I’m being slightly avoidant. But yes, I have had quite a few experiences where men have been way out of line with me and I recognised it coming from a weird place of colonial entitlement.

Male or female, good intentions or not, teachers have often singled me out in ways that could often be uncomfortable. I think this is a common experience for a lot of high achieving brown kids, this thing of being “white savioured.” I don’t know how much of that idea is visible in the poem, but it was in my mind when I was writing it.

On the other hand, I read this really great interview with Australian poet Omar Sakr who said he finds the degree to which writers of colour are taken literally, as if we are incapable of imagination, hilarious.

He also said a lot of time we are fucking with you, which made me laugh and laugh and I think that’s very true. Not that it’s completely applicable to that poem, which isn’t funny or light-hearted at all. It’s heavy going.

And thank you for acknowledging my wonderful skilled language techniques. I recognise that the autobiography or anecdotes demand a lot of attention, but it’s still very much language and words and rhythm that come first to me while writing poetry. I just like to have my cake and eat it too. I don’t think technique and meaning have to be exclusive of one another.

(photo: Tessa Aitchison)

I have to confess that I overlooked your work when I first saw it appearing in Starling, that excellent online poetry journal by young New Zealand writers. I always scour it when it appears, on the hunt for new writers to approach for the Friday Poem, and the one who has stood out the most is Claudia Jardine – she’s really good, isn’t she? But yeah I didn’t pick up on your poems. The other day actually I came across an early poem of yours somewhere, it had a fantastic opening line: “I’ve got a chocolate box of sugar daddies and I eat them /one by one”. Gosh that’s good. If I’d seen that back when you wrote it, I’d have been hammering on your door and asking for more.

But anyway so it wasn’t until you won the Adam Prize that I got in touch, and asked to see some work, and that’s when I read the ‘In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women’ poem which just floored me, it’s so funny and poignant. The next one of yours I saw was ‘Hoki Mai’ and that is just a stone-cold New Zealand classic. You read it live at the Dawn Parade this year in Wellington. There was even a news story about it: “Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant Tim Keating delivered the Anzac address followed by a poem Hoki Mai by Tayi Tibble.” Rare for a poet to be in the same sentence as the chief of defence. You also met Willie Apiata that day. Can you describe what that event was like, and what it was like to experience? And, any thoughts you may have on the role of poetry at public occasions like the Dawn Parade?

Claudia and I did the undergrad poetry workshop together with Hinemoana Baker which is also where I wrote that early poem and I very much hope you didn’t read past that line. We were writing slam poems in class. It was the first poem I ever read at my first proper reading at Vic Books so I shouldn’t be too mean about it because it did get me some li’l gigs after that. But yes. I was very slept on until I won the prize lol! Though you should have appreciated my poem in the second issue of Starling. I love that poem.

Thank you for your kind comments. I love both those poems very much.

Yes Anzac Day was an experience. I think there were like 25, 000 people there. When everyone was singing the National Anthem, I got so scared. My heart had never beat so violently. I was freaking out, thinking great I’m literally going to have a panic attack. But then I like prayed to my ancestors for guidance and remembered who I was and it was fine lol. It was actually really nice. I felt very proud. As a kid I was an avid Māori Battalion essayist. My first ever public reading was at the RSA to the remaining 28th Māori Battalion soldier in 2008 when I was 12, and they cried and I cried and I was very moved. So 10 years later it felt like a full circle kind of moment. Lots of veterans and mothers of soldiers came up to me and thanked me and talked to me about their serving relatives and it was really beautiful. My nanny was there in the crowd too, so that was really nice. And I met Willie Apiata, who was very upstanding and very handsome. He grew up where my family grew up on the east cape, so we talked about the Awatere river which is featured in that poem.

Re public poetry – Anzac Day was an incredible experience because it was the perfect case of the poem finding the right audience. I really hope it becomes a quintessential New Zealand poem!

I can imagine it being read out loud every Anzac Day, a fixture of the event. Hey so I wanted to ask you about the impression I got of you when we met, briefly, in Wellington, during the writer’s festival. Emily Perkins introduced me to you, and we said hi and exchanged pleasantries or whatever, and I thought: “This person seems very self-contained to the point of supreme indifference.” What do you make of that?

I can’t tell if that impression of me pleases me or displeases me. I am a Libra and my alignment is a true neutral so maybe you were vibing that energy lol. I can be very polite to the point where I drain myself of personality, so I was probably doing that. I guess I can be quite self-contained. I don’t need a lot from anybody. I was accused of being a snob in high school.

You know what, I have no idea what my personality is like. I think I’m funny. I think I have charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. I’m a positive bitch and life’s what you make it. I’m doing what I love and I have heaps of fun all time.

I suspect that impression of you displeases you to the point of detesting your interviewer, which would be a shame, because I have a favour to ask. I’m wanting to publish an anthology of poetry which has appeared in the Friday Poem; and I’d like to take this opportunity to ask for your permission to use ‘Influx of Māori Women’ and the incredible ‘Johnsonville’ poem. I’d be honoured to be able to include your poems in what I see as a showcase of exciting new New Zealand verse. In fact I can’t imagine the book without your work in it. What do you think?

No it’s fine! You’ve just catapulted me into an existential crisis where I now have to go back and mentally comb through every interaction I have ever had to form some sort of picture of my true self tis all.

Haha of course you can include the poems. Thank you.

But I was really hanging out for the lipgloss question…. fuck poetry!

(photo: Tessa Aitchison)

What are your views on lipgloss? What’s happening in that field these days?

Well Rihanna came out with a line of lipglosses with her makeup line Fenty Beauty. I watched her recent makeup tutorial and I think that one video has universally increased the popularity of glossy lips. Overlined super matte liquid lips have really dominated the beauty world for the last 4 years re Kylie Jenner. I used to think lipgloss was more of a summer thing, but I have come to the realisation recently that glossy lips for winter is a look. This realisation was forced because it’s winter and my lips have been dry and chapped and you do not want to be putting a dry matte on chapped lips because that’s dusty. I wrote on twitter recently about Jennifer Lopez’ lip gloss and overall look in her 2002 music video “All I have” and everyone pretty much agreed that is the vibe everyone should be aiming for for Winter 2018. A cute look I recommend is a lil blush on the nose, highlighter on the cheekbones and a gloss on the lips to tie it all together. Everybody should try this family friendly look, especially men. My friend works at Mac but recently moved to Auckland and he loaded me up with a 1000 lip glosses as a farewell gift. I think my favourite lip gloss is Babysparks Dazzleglass from Mac. I definitely recommend prioritising lip glosses with glitter reflects to really give you that kissed by a snow angel look.


Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $20) is available at Unity Books.

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