Chris Tse’s third poetry collection, Super Model Minority, often walks the line between the bizarre and the banal, writes Naomii Seah.
Chris Tse is The Spinoff’s poetry editor.
“Can you blame me
for attempting to reverse-engineer utopia as a means of survival?”
In his opening poem, Chris Tse sets the agenda for his latest collection, Super Model Minority. Described as the final book in a “loose trilogy” of collections, including How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC, in Super Model Minority Tse looks to a future that’s as absurd, troubling, hopeful and unexpected as his writing. In his first two collections Tse wrote to the past and to the present in a “queer coming of age”; now he dares to dream of a new age, speaking its coming into existence.
“It’s not a prediction if you have a say in making
it a reality”
In the first section, Super Model Minority, Tse lingers on intergenerational trauma; in Vexillology, he cycles through colours and emotions and eventually lands on a growing hope; and in Poetry to make boys cry, Tse explores queerness in a modern New Zealand, and synthesises the themes of the previous sections to a symphonic crescendo.
“I wrote all my desires in my breath for anyone to read them.”
In all three sections of the book, Tse manages to capture another aspect of the sheer chaos that comes with being alive in 21st century Aotearoa. In his words:
“It’s tiny hammers pounding at your skin and not knowing why you wake up every morning covered in bruises.”
Super Model Minority comes in the wake of the poetry anthology Out Here (2021), edited by Tse and Emma Barnes, which carves out a space for LGBTQIA+ and takatāpui writers in Aotearoa. Super Model Minority holds space in a different form, but it too is an example of Tse’s sharp observation of the social fabric of Aotearoa, and an unabashed, loud call to action. At times Tse’s words read like one long, controlled scream, at others a tired whisper. In Super Model Minority, Tse builds a future rooted in the past and present, yet always yearning, daring to ask for more.
“I wonder if knowing the meaning of now will be enough to prepare me to embrace tomorrow.”
Tse’s poetry often walks the line between the bizarre and the banal, the familiar and the unexpected, and he juxtaposes the two with lightning-quick wit. His words are sometimes literal, sometimes figurative in the extreme. One of my favourite lines in the whole book is:
“Sometimes you’re Holden Caulfield hogtied in someone’s boot and I’m a souped up Holden Commodore with a subwoofer so ferocious everyone in the traffic jam shits their pants.”
It displays Tse’s knack for mashing the recognisable into a shape that’s strange and unfamiliar. It’s a line that could become desperately profound if you marinate on it long enough, yet it’s also laugh-out-loud ridiculous. It’s an example of how Tse doesn’t shy away from displaying the everyday in all its stark, fluorescent-overhead-light glory, but in a surprising, new way. Through Tse’s eyes, we see that the profound and the everyday coexist. Chris
As a fellow double minority, for me Tse’s self-conscious portrait of existence in New Zealand is relatable, and for that reason, deeply uncomfortable. As diaspora, and as diversity tick-boxes, we’ve all sacrificed and commodified aspects of ourselves in an attempt at fitting the mould. I, too, “was off somewhere in the distance using all my guiles to convince a racist country to love me”. This collection signals the beginning of a healing process.
Embedded in these deeply confrontational narratives is also a sense of catharsis. Tse gives the reader permission to be angry, and holds space for hard questions and strong emotions, never apologising for or minimising them.
“what is safety? / it is
never fearing silence/ or the sound and fury within us”
Tse makes use of his signature spacing and considered form to bring the collection to life, letting certain poems sit heavy and square on the page, and others dance through space. In doing so, he holds ample room to mourn the sense of loss that comes with embracing the future – like in ‘Backbreaker’, where lines and phrases float over the page like “refractions splitting like blood cells under siege”.
Light is a recurring theme in this collection, and with every poem, Tse pushes us to keep looking no matter how uncomfortable we may be. Because loss and love are both “too bright to look in the eye, too bright to ignore” – no matter how much we may want to. In this collection, Tse dares us to examine our own trauma to understand the collective.
“Fastest to supernova wins.”
But the collection is also deeply funny. Tse’s dark, sometimes dry humour is on full display, because if you’re not laughing, you’re crying. Super Model Minority is a burning effigy for a sometimes unfriendly, sometimes broken, yet still wonderful world: “I can so easily put aside my mistrust of water whenever I’m taken by its exquisite roar”.
And Tse writes many exquisite roars, managing to pull off a perfect balance between the borderline asinine and the deeply poetic. A particular favourite is when he writes “I realise now nothing is ever truly finished” and “I am a flashing corpse regenerating in a video game with limited credits” in the same stanza. Tse writes about explaining bukkake to your mum and watching the aurora in Iceland with the same deft hand, displaying the diversity of his poetic voice.
But most of all, Tse’s collection works because it’s deeply accessible. It’s grounded in the landscape of Aotearoa, referencing New Zealand artists like Sam Duckor-Jones and Guy Ngan. It’s also sprinkled with references to pop stars like George Michael and Carly Rae Jepsen, with an opening quote from Bic Runga that sits right beside Confucius. Tse’s unfailing instinct for finding the fun and whimsical among the otherwise bleak state of the world, and giving these seemingly contradictory outlooks equal weight, is the shining beacon that pulls the reader through the collection. Super Model Minority truly heralds the future – a future full of possibility; a future that is what we make it.
“The future scares me,
but it’s good to be scared of what I want”