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Ockham national book awards: the poet who wore a swan

Poet Chris Tse won two awards at last night’s Ockham NZ Book Awards – best first book of poetry, and best dressed male. He tells the truth about those swans on his shoulders.

Something I wasn’t prepared for heading into the Ockhams ceremony was the number of people who would want to touch me. I expected, in the event that I might win, the odd hug or a congratulatory handshake. There were those, but it was the feathered epaulettes on my jacket that people were drawn to. Many of them asked before touching, which we all know is a general rule of thumb to keep in mind when you want to stroke or finger a stranger’s clothes.

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One woman earnestly asked, “Is there some sort of cultural significance with the feathers?” I told her that the cultural significance was Björk and her swan dress at the 73rd Academy Awards.

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I’ve always said to myself that if I’m ever up for an award and I get to attend a glitzy ceremony, I’d pay homage to that freakishly wonderful dress, which attracted such a divisive response all those years ago. To me, that dress perfectly represented what Björk stands for: an unapologetic demonstration of owning how you express yourself through your art. Also, it was worth it just to see the fashion “experts” worked into a comical frenzy to come up with the best insult. The fools! (That dress would eventually reappear on the cover of Bjork’s 2001 album Vespertine, and when you listen to that album and its intricate arrangements, you can’t help but think of swans, snow, and crystalline lakes.)

Within days of the Ockhams shortlist being announced, I found the swan print shirt and the jacket, both from WORLD. But how could I take this homage to the next level? On Etsy, among replica swan dresses, I found all sorts of other swan-themed accessories – scarves, shawls, and epaulettes. My friend Kirsten offered to make me a set of epaulettes. When she presented them to me a few weeks later, I was floored. It’s amazing what you can do with an old bra and some $2 Shop feathers.

So, yes, my outfit attracted many comments – nearly all positive (more on this in a sec) – and I was certain that Witi Ihimaera was going to knock me out with his trophy and steal my jacket. As I was leaving the after party, feeling loose from the free wine and plotting what to do with my newly acquired prize money, one writer I’d just met moments before said to me, “That is a terrible jacket.” I’ll hold on to this comment dearly because if you haven’t pissed off at least one person with your choice of outlandish outfit then clearly you’re not doing right. And, to borrow and adapt a mantra from the glorious Jinx Monsoon, it’s just water off a swan’s back.

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