Poets Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) and Arihia Latham (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) talk about their new collections of poetry, and the many resonances between them.
‘Hineahuone’ from Birdspeak by Arihia Latham
My legs are swamp maire
hip sockets wide like
the pae maunga
on either side of the lake
that holds all of our DNA
swirling in small spirals
like mayfly larvae
Drag circle drop
My bones you mould
pumice filled with
red clay swirling over your fingertips
my muscles are taking shape
as you drag the wet earth
up and around
up and around
with your palm pulling
Drag circle drop
In my puku you place
a gift from the heavens
the pūmanawa is
all of us
it is all of us
from all of time
before and after
from all of time
You push the manawa
it quakes all of our pain
in concentric circles
Drag circle drop
It is the pulse of Papatūānuku
reverberating the cycle of love and loss
the whatumanawa pulling
thoughts through the needle of
Drag circle drop
You sweep my lips
to form sounds that began
the tips of your fingers
circle the wet clay of my cheeks
pinching an ihu to
make me something that has never been
The creature that
the trees will absorb as their own
inside them, it shakes
you push their breath
back in my nose
Back back back
Your ethereal hands
mould small conches at the sides of my head and
I have no idea what that will mean
Drag circle drop
Pushing an orifice
pushing the future and
suddenly the sound
is in me and of me
light breaking the sky
birds’ souls turning inside out
the sound of time splitting
a song of something beginning
something that had always been inside us
Around us the birds
are asking me
asking me to join
vibrating inside me
the wiri in my hands
beginning the world with
this new body
smearing red clay
all over the place
Drag circle drop
The throats of birds
forming my very first
Back back back
Guttural as all the birth
and death that will
fall from me
Ruby Solly: Firstly, I want to mihi to you for this book and all of the mahi within it. There’s a beautiful depth of experience and mātauranga in these pages, it feels like sitting down with your coolest young aunty, and your wisest taua all at once. I’ve chosen the first piece, ‘Hineahuone’, as I love that the book starts with the creation of the first woman who in many ways can also serve as the voice of the book through whakapapa. Joy Harjo talks about how all poems have ancestors, who do you feel are some of the ancestors of this book and how do they come through it? What whakapapa speaks to this book for you?
Arihia Latham: It was cool because I wrote that poem for our group show Ngā Oro Hou at Auckland Writers Festival. I listened to your music of a dawn chorus and that is what came. Hineahuone is always an important ancestor to act as an anchor. She is the first human form, yet she is mother to the dawn Hine Tītama who becomes Hinenuitepō. I think this whakapapa in particular is one that informs a lot of my work. It shows the depth and power of our beginnings. It shows we are capable of great light and great darkness and both are necessary. The darkness of night is cut through with the lightness brought by the call of the koukou (ruru). And this is the name of our great grandmother and my daughter. This call of birds is in our line and somehow I wanted to understand the women in our whakapapa within that. Most of our tīpuna Māori were our grandmothers. Especially at the time when our culture was being silenced. So this is a lament of that, a call to our tīpuna to speak to me, to speak through me.
As someone who knows you, this book feels like a beautiful culmination of all the things you are and roles that you hold so well. You as a rongoā practitioner, as a māmā, as Kāi Tahu, as an advocate for Māori and Pāpātuanuku, and you as a creator. How has writing, and this book in particular, brought these strands together? Are there any pieces that you feel speak to one or more of these realms in a particularly significant way for you?
That’s an awesome affirmation. I think as I get older I am more at peace with all of me showing up. I used to think the health science part couldn’t be with the poetry part or that being a māmā wasn’t synonymous with being an artist. I think now I’m like an eight strand whiri and that’s strong enough to hold the weight of pounamu. The role of the mother definitely is the strand that changed me, that grew me, that both inspired and held off the publication of this collection a few times. I think poetry for many of us is a process of sense making; it was that for me within many of the kaupapa I exist in. It was also the most feasible way for my creativity to live while I was solo parenting and struggling to make time for art. So in some ways my words are pictures I wanted to paint, they are rongoā to our whānau, they are love notes to my bruised heart, they are political submissions demanding change.
Something I love about our whānau is how birds are strong tohu for us, and how their names live within our whakapapa. This book features many tohu and symbols such as birds, clouds, rivers, bones and their marrow. Are there any tohu that you’d like to give a whakamarama for? To explain what they symbolise for you or how they act as kaitiaki for the poems, or you as the writer?
I think just like as a rongoā practitioner I have a set of plants I use most, I guess as a poet I have tohu too. Koukou, being our tīpuna, is definitely the instigator and is holding the mana in this collection. Koukou have always shown up when I am hapū. A koukou flew into the window of my bedroom one night when I was pregnant with my first child. It knocked itself out and I brought it inside to care for it. Likewise with my third child I started to hear a koukou calling from outside our urban whare for the first time and it was then that I knew that was going to be her name.
This book is an arc between the dawn chorus and the dusk song, yet it contains everything in between. The digging bird is the middle phase. Named for the pīpīwharauroa who is controversial in its place here. An outsider, yet an important tohu for telling us the time to get digging and to plant kumara. It embodies my imposter syndrome yet despite this, a dogged determination to connect to our whenua. The song manu tiria weaves through the book speaks to that. Tūī are important too.
The cover art was done by my amazing Ngāti Tūwharetoa hoa Natalie Couch. When Tāne collected the three kete of knowledge from the heavens, many say he also was given birds from his brother Rehua. This painting holds this reminder of the role manu have as messengers to taha wairua and as our tīpuna. The painting sits beside my writing desk and has beautiful clouds in it too. I’m obsessed with clouds, with how they can change our perspective of a day, how they can cleanse us in a downpour of Ranginui’s tears or fly past us like incredible sky sculptures. Hinepūkohurangi can shroud things and make us look at what is right in front of us. Rivers are I guess important in that water cycle with clouds, cleansing, travelling, acting like Papatūānuku’s arteries.
I think bones and marrow are somehow indicative of the innermost part of us, the feelings in our bones. The soft sustenance that exists within a hardened structure to hold us through this life. Bones were important to our tīpuna, it’s what we buried, sometimes after birds had cleaned the rest. We have the bones of a whale in the back paddock of our marae, curing. We carve stories and play music through bones. I think bones are storytellers.
One of my favourite things about Birdspeak is how it works with tone and time, with pūrākau from long ago being made fresh, but still deeply grounded in wā tīpuna. I think my favourite example is in ‘Check my tone, Mareikura’, where our wāhine guardians have your back as a wāhine Māori in the world today. How did you approach combining stories and experiences across time into the book as a whole? And how does this reflect your relationship with both whakapapa and te ao Māori as lived experiences?
I think because many of our stories were lost with colonisation, and there are very few photos of our tīpuna, this book has been a lot about reconstructing and imagining. I hope our tīpuna have my back or let me know if I’m doing life wrong. I think many of the poems are making sense of being Māori now, and also acknowledging the privilege I innately hold as kiritea – a light skinned Māori, as someone brought up in a middle class home, with the opportunity to attend kohanga reo, and taken home often to my marae.
A lot of poems are looking at us almost from our tīpuna’s perspective, highlighting the awkwardness as we bumble around trying to make sense of things. Whenever I felt a bit lost in this collection I would read our waiata or think of people that have guided me and it would remind me that in order to keep our stories alive, we need to make them ours, give them a home in our mouths. I think the concept of sharing poems through an arc of a day was to represent time: these poems are from the hope and energy of the beginning, they are from the hard slog of the middle, and they are from the soft reflection of the end. I think this helped to ground my work in te ao marama, by remembering the gifts from te pō.
As well as the meaning of the words creating the landscape of these poems, there are poems where the shape of the words and symbols included gives deeper meanings to how Māori have passed down our literature through mahi toi including tukutuku, whakairo, and tāmoko. Could you expand on how these patterns and shapes, such as those within ‘Whakapurenga’ and ‘Koia’, have been used within your poetry? Does writing in this way change your process or intention?
I often find a poem will suddenly flow when I change its layout or structure.
In Whakapurenga, it’s about the ritual of purification called a pure. I wanted it to be in the tukutuku pattern of the pātiki, the shape of the flounder, the fish found in our rivers as they meet the sea, at night. This shape acknowledges especially that women were often the ones out at night when the flounders came, doing the mahi that needed to be done.
Koia uses the shape of poutama, or in this case, as a tāua down home taught me, pouhine, as it reaches up to the left. This pattern is like climbing, and I thought about that internal climb, to understand the point of it all. So it felt like the perfect pattern to challenge the title of that poem koia which means to dig. It’s like Papatūānuku reaching for Ranginui. Sometimes digging things in allows them to grow.
‘He Ao He Kōpae’ from The Artist by Ruby Solly
The world is a disk
made of stone,
living on the sand bank
placed grain by grain
by the song.
It whispers into their heads,
Sing us into the wind,
sing the winds into being
and so the primordial mother
of the wind goddesses
for her daughters
placed in all directions
of the primeval compass.
Sing us into the wind,
says the song,
with the gentle backing
of tumutumu tap-tap-tap
in each consonant.
te pū o te hau,
gifts each daughter a fan
woven from the song,
its raki sung through every fibre,
through the very cells she was made from.
And so each daughter sings her verse:
the northern winds powerful and wild.
the daughter held in the west.
pressing the sands into their bank.
the one who holds the birds in place.
the one sister who rests on land
singing the echoes of the world
again and again and again.
She hears herself becoming quieter
with each repetition
until something changes deep within her waters. The current turns
. . . in the reverse
in the last whispers of the echo
the song returns;
There is a time where this is happening again,
as it rises from the land
in shimmers of light
whiti te rā
as it is sung in as many ways
as there are voices
knowing that it will be sung
again and again and again
the new fates emerge
Arihia Latham: He mihi aroha ki a koe e te whanauka. This pukapuka is a gift to anyone lucky enough to read it but especially to our whānau, our iwi katoa. This book is a story of poems, a poem of stories. I too have chosen an early poem in the book, He Ao He Kōpae. It tells the story of our female wind atua, and our very own tīpuna, your namesake Hinepūnui-o-Toka. How important was it to make sense of and in some ways restore our Waitaha and Kāti Mamoe whakapapa? What has the process of research and imagining been like for your own sense of belonging?
Ruby Solly: Kia ora e kahi, it’s so good to be able to write for our whānau first, and our iwi beyond that. I definitely grew up with a very strong Kāi Tahu identity, despite living in Te Ika a Maui. But as I’ve spent more time down south and have looked deeper into our whakapapa and have talked with a lot of our whānau, I’ve realised how Waitaha and Kāti Māmoe are just as relevant to our whakapapa and identity. I think because of the controversies around Waitaha especially, there’s a great need for mana enhancing kōrero about the early mana whenua of Te Wai Pounamu and all they have brought to our crafts, understandings, and ways of being. Finding people to talk to and making sure that those stories were told for Waitaha first, was a really important part of this project for me. Stories such as that of Raikaihautū, and pigment making were crucial to the book’s plot. Just like us, ‘The Artist’ couldn’t exist without Waitaha or Kāti Māmoe. For my own sense of belonging, I feel a real sense of intertwined whakapapa, not just within myself, but within my thinking. This has definitely come from leaning into the information from these iwi and people, and being able to uplift that kōrero has been as big of a privilege as it has been a responsibility.
There is a lot of subtle labour in these pages. Decolonising / reindigenising our history, dismantling the patriarchy and its gender binary. How did you navigate making those decisions with verse?
I feel so grateful that people are noticing that labour and not just the fruits of it. I spent a lot of time just thinking really deeply about how I could show ways towards re-indigenising within this book, with it still being a strong story and one that fits the ideals of our iwi. I think being able to recognise that decolonising or re-indigenising isn’t necessarily entirely changing your life, but its making small conscious changes and knowing that it is a mahi that lasts entire lifetimes, a “take” that is passed on with your love and time included. This is part of why it was important to have multiple generations in the book to show how we can change our views and ways of being over time.
I also wanted to see echoes of myself and the people I love in the characters, including characters and people who have worked along with their village to change patriarchal views, views around binary gender, and diminutive views around disability. Matiu was a character like this, who I recognise in so many tāne I know. He’s a beautiful person, and I love how his narrative develops across the book where he learns so many new ways to love and be proud of his family. I think having this book in verse format was really a blessing and a curse, because I would have so much information and so many ideas, but then I’d have to boil it all down to an essence to make a poem. I think this style of writing is similar to so many of our traditional forms like moteatea and oriori; even cave art is about getting big stories and telling them in a simple and elegant way.
You are a talented musician as well as a writer. Your PhD is focussed on taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. I really appreciated spending time at our marae in wānanga with you, making and playing taonga pūoro. The resonance and shapes of pūoro call through your book. The concepts of stages, songs and sound build beautiful pictures. I love this passage in the poem Hine:
‘And as she became more herself
she went not for the silence
but for what she could fill it with’.
How much has music informed your writing and vice versa?
I think more than anything, taonga pūoro has influenced my writing in terms of form and whakapapa. The idea that all the sounds within taonga pūoro have whakapapa back through time to our atua, and for us as Kāi Tahu, te waiata timatanga o te ao. I think understanding that anything I create when it has that oro in it has a pathway back to the beginning and everything within it, can be an incredibly healing thing.
I felt so lucky to have you and your whānau at our marae for my research, and I think knowing that our whenua is a source of oro and words for us is a real strength that we both draw on as artists and writers. Somehow the deeper something is, the simpler, both within oro and writing for me. Writing was oratory, karakia, whaikōrero etc in many ways before colonisation, so when I hear Māori writing or read the kupu of these forms, I always find so much rhythm in the words. I think that rhythm, and form, is within our writing today. I definitely always try to write that combination of rangi and papa, of tune and rhythm, into my writing as well as pūoro.
Two of your main characters are twins that don’t fit social norms. Their ability to communicate and find union with each other and also characters that are more bird or stone is a mesmerising concept. Was building characters with disability and gifts an intentional decision or did these characters emerge as you wrote? What is your relationship with the nuances and challenges of the living and dreaming worlds ?
I think in some ways, the writing of this book was me coming to terms with the fact that I had a disability, and that the disability I had was something that had come through my whakapapa. I think being able to get to a point where I can own the good and I can work to talk with and talk down the bad, was something that writing this book gifted me back as I wrote Rere and Kiki, the twins. Having these two characters be able to see the strengths and needs of being tangata whaikaha / tangata whaiora within each other, was a powerful thing I learnt to see inside myself as someone as tangata whaiarorua (a person with bipolar). Realising too how talking is only one way we speak, and being able to show the reader, and the whānau in the book, that there are as many ways to communicate within te ao Māori as there are Māori ourselves, was crucial to me realising the true depth of what our taonga pūoro and all of our mahi toi can do to help our people speak.
I think also that my learning during this book has really shown me how powerful it is to live within this inbetween space, and to lean into wairuatanga. As someone living with mental health issues, that’s not always something we’re encouraged to do. But being able to strengthen myself to be in that unknowing, to close my eyes and see te kore there, has helped me get beyond that darkness to see what comes next.
I love that we both wrote these books without showing any of it to each other the whole time till now. Yet they talk to each other. So I want to echo your pātai to you too. Our whānau have birds as tohu for us, and their names live within our whakapapa. Your book also holds many tohu and symbols such as birds, stone, rivers, bones and kokowai Are there any tohu that you’d like to give a whakamarama for? To explain what they symbolise for you or how they act as kaitiaki for the poems, or you as the writer?
Haha! Of course these shared tohu pop up! They’re so deeply part of us, and part of our whakapapa too. I love how as Kāi Tahu Whānui, our art is so deeply influenced by tohu: cave tohu, tohu of the seasons, tohu of the future…. I think that so much can be said using our tohu, like Reremai’s pounamu eyes in the book, which is a reference to the eyes of Hine nui te Pō and also connects them to Hine Pounamu. Or the references to kōauau in the bush, as in the sounds of patupaiarehe.
I like to think that this book exists as a story without knowing those extra pieces, and a sort of landscape in the mind to store knowledge for those who do. I think that Hinepūnui-o-Toka really acts as a kaitiaki in this book, and in my life too, as she does in yours and that of your whānau. I think having some specific atua and tīpuna within the book helps us to feel that safety within it, even when we’re jumping between worlds and times. Seeing those tīpuna and atua in your book is such a beautiful way to see how far the aroha of tīpuna spreads and connects as whakapapa grows. It’s one of those special things that links our work just by us existing and writing from the same space.
You’ve done the drawings through the book. Could you unpack some of the symbology in the pukapuka and its role or representation in telling the story you’ve so beautifully written?
Cave tohu and pigment mahi became an important part of my practice for writing the book, because I didn’t want to write things that didn’t happen or wouldn’t be possible. Next minute you’re mixing dirt and weka fat and figuring things out. Working to create modern cave tohu pieces had lots of challenges in order to remain within the realm of the work of our tīpuna, while still expressing what we need it to. Things I really tried to keep was the idea of the wairua space in the centre of figures, or the egg tohu or hei tiki within the book. Playing with that light and dark, that space and relief, was a big part of illustrating the book. Essentially that’s where te waiata timatanga o te ao, the song that brought the world into being, flows through within taonga pūoro, which is that line of story that the book follows right from the source then on through each generation.
The oracle / character cards in the book have been a hit, which is great! I often make cards to use in different areas of my practice for randomisation of variables, or to help me create. So being able to show how they work as a tool to figure out relationships and who is featured and how within a chapter was really useful for me as a writer, as well as for the audience to engage with the storyteller and the wider world of the book.
The Artist by Ruby Solly (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
Birdspeak by Arihia Latham (Anahera Press, $25) can be pre-ordered from Anahera Press.