A lot goes on behind the scenes of being poet laureate – and it’s not all writing poems. In the second instalment of our Art Work series, Chris Tse explains what the job actually entails.
Chris Tse has published several collections of poetry, including How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, HE’S SO MASC and most recently, Supermodel Minority. His poetry, short-fiction and non-fiction has been published in multiple journals, magazines and anthologies, including Best New Zealand Poems, Turbine and Landfall. He is a frequent performer at literary festivals throughout the world and also serves as the editor of The Friday Poem on The Spinoff. In 2022, he was named New Zealand’s 13th poet laureate.
The work of a poet (and poet laureate)
“My life as a poet has been a lot bigger than just writing poetry, there’s all these other projects and sort of side hustles associated with it, and so that’s always what’s kept me quite busy. In addition to all of the writing and the reading I get asked to organise events, I get asked to host events, curate events, reviews, and articles. There’s also the Friday Poem in The Spinoff, so I read submissions and make my choices and do all the admin associated with that.
The poet laureate role is all that but supercharged. The job description is: “To promote and advocate for poetry, and to write poetry.” Each poet laureate can decide how they do that, and how much effort they put on either one of those.
Writing was always gonna happen, even though I just finished a book and published it last year, and was thinking, “Oh, I’m not gonna work on a book project for a while.” I thought I’d probably just write poems here and there. Since being poet laureate I’ve been commissioned to write other things, in areas that I thought I’d never write about, which is cool.
It’s the promoting and advocating for poetry that is taking a lot of my time. It’s festivals, events, lots of engagements. I’ve been invited to speak at a secondary school English teachers’ conference, which is something I never thought I would do.
I’ve also had to remind myself that even though the term is only two years, I don’t have to do everything I want in the two years – I can set things up and then continue it after I step down. Hopefully, I might actually have a bit more breathing space once I’m done!”
How his art interacts with his day job
“I work for the office of the auditor general as my day job, and I’ve been there for almost a decade. My work week now is Monday to Thursday, I went down to four days a couple of months ago.
The four days at my day job are still quite full on, because there’s a lot of stuff that needs to get done, but I’m really lucky that they are really supportive about this, and have given me the space to do it. My boss actually in her calendar Friday has a note saying ‘Chris being poet laureate’ as a recurring item, which I thought was cute.
Fridays have become that little window that I’ve now protected for anything that might come up. If I get asked to do an event or a workshop, I’ll do all that I can to try and get it happening on that Friday, because it means that if someone invites me to something and it’s gonna be happening on that Friday I can just also accept or decline straight away. Whereas in the past, you know, I had to talk about it with my boss, figure out leave and that sort of stuff.
I have also used those Fridays for house chores and life stuff, because that all piles up. But it meant that I didn’t have to go home every single night thinking that I need to do at least an hour of emails, or work on that piece, or on that commission, and that actually I could save some non-urgent stuff for that day.
But my day job has never really bled into or affected my creative jobs and vice versa. Someone asked me, ‘after the laureateship is over, would you go back to five days?’ and I don’t think I would, because I actually feel like that at this point in my career, I kind of need to make a decision about what is my focus, and where does my heart actually lie?”
The financial side of things
“I’ve had one major CNZ Arts Grant, for the most recent collection [Supermodel Minority] and there’s a stipend that comes in the laureateship which is probably the most money I’ve ever been given in like one sum for poetry!
That was the deciding factor – the financial stuff – about going down to four days. A lot of people said ‘You should have gone down to three days because you really do need to give yourself space and time’. But I still need to pay the rent, try and save for a house. If I go down to three days, that’s a real big chunk of my income!
Everything is so admin-heavy when you become a creative or a writer and no-one ever tells you that. There’s the paperwork, like invoices, taxes. It’s all the stuff they don’t tell you about and you have to figure it out. I got registered for GST because someone said I should, and then suddenly I have to figure out what all of this means, and how this affects all of my other financial stuff.”
The importance of support
“Knowing that I can ask my partner to make dinner, or do the laundry, or do the dishes when I’ve got a million deadlines and I just need to focus. My family have always been super supportive of this part of my life, even if sometimes the world isn’t, which is important because they don’t come from the arts or a creative background.
When I got the laureateship, I did have friends say to me, ‘If you need someone to do the e-mails, do the filtering and all that sort of stuff, I’m happy to help out.’ People get behind you and they’ll do whatever they can to help out.
I’ve also been very fortunate that I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to develop as an event producer. For example, I’ve been invited to programme events for LitCrawl and Verb, been invited to programme for the Auckland Writers Festival.
These are things that you have to learn on the job. If you’re curating one event, that’s just one thing to consider. But when it’s a programme, or a series of things, there’s so many other things that you have to consider, and how those events interplay and all that sort of stuff, then there’s all the financial stuff associated with it as well, which is like ‘Argh!’”
The hardest part
“I feel like there’s this imbalance in what is required for people to justify why they need funding for their practice and an appreciation that sometimes part of that creative process is just a lot of thinking time that doesn’t necessarily produce anything tangible.
How we sell our projects to CNZ is a big issue that I’ve grappled with. To be successful in getting an arts grant or any other sort of funding, you have to demonstrate that your project will meet certain criteria in their strategy, and it’s got to almost feel like a project that has never been done before and has a really big hook.
Poets say to me all the time, ‘Why can’t I just put in an application that says I just want to write poems and see what happens’? Because sometimes that’s what you need to do, you don’t want to have to be like, ‘Oh right, I’m going to write this concept book about xyz, and this is the structure, and these are the things I’m gonna do’.”
But sometimes that doesn’t come until you’ve done like the six months of thinking and just writing whatever comes!”
What makes it worth it
“I was talking to the students who came to the Auckland Readers and Writers festival this week, about how I fell into being a poet and how it first started off as FOMO because my friends were doing it and so I didn’t want to miss out, I wanted to hang out with them so I started writing poetry.
Then it became this series of little goals: to get into an undergrad workshop, to get to do my Masters, and then to get published, then to have a book. Poet laureate was on the list but in like 10 or 20 years’ time!
For this to happen at this point in my career is still very strange and overwhelming for me and I hope that it does shift the goalposts a bit. I hope it helps people to realise that things like the laureateship and the Prime Minister’s Award aren’t just for people who stick at it for a long time.
I worry that young people entering the arts are going to get burnt out, or feel like that there’s actually nothing in it for them. Because then they fall out, and we lose a whole bunch of talent, right?
I just love poetry. This whole poet laureateship has reminded me of that; how much I love doing it, how much I love going out there and talking about it and sharing it with people. Even though it’s not gonna make me rich, I don’t think that’s the be all and end all.
I think for a person of colour and a queer person, just being in the arts is super important and I myself never really appreciated that until recently, so that’s kind of like what keeps me going. And I hope that I get to do this for a lot longer.”
– As told to Sam Brooks