‘In a role established by Te Mata Estate winery, New Zealand’s latest Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh has accepted her new post with – what else? – a poem.
The prestigious two-year post was announced in a surprise ceremony on Friday night at the tail end of the launch of her new poetry collection, Tightrope. Tusitala Marsh gave a nod to her mother, who came to New Zealand from Samoa speaking no English, as well as the recent controversy regarding Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy plans.
“I accept this award on behalf of Pasifika peoples/whose brown faces/aspire to higher places,” she said.
Earlier, Tusitala Marsh – an academic and strong advocate for Pasifika poetry and literature – said the role of Laureate was “breath-giving”. She wrote her first poem – about nuclear fallout – at the age of 12. It was published in Grapevine magazine. “I remember walking through Avondale and someone came up to me and said, ‘I loved your poem’,” she said.
Marsh wrote and performed a poem for the Queen at the Commonwealth Day Observance last year. “At 12 I thought, this was an amazing way to share your thoughts with the world.” Tusitala Marsh is now an associate professor and lectures at the University of Auckland, specialising in Māori and Pacific Literary Studies and Creative Writing.
She described poetry as “the power of articulation. It’s the power to be able to embody language and connect with other people.” The Waiheke Island-based poet published her first collection, Fast Talking PI, in 2009. In 2010 she won both the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry, and Best First Book at the New Zealand Book Awards.
Each laureate receives $80,000 over two years from the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa to create new work and promote poetry throughout the country. Tusitala Marsh says while she would not do anything “remarkably” different, the award would allow her to take poetry to “some pretty impressive spaces”.
“I talk about ‘unpoeted’ spaces, where it doesn’t usually have a space or is heard or made,” she said.
She was also given a carved tokotoko, or orator’s stick, symbolising her authority and status. Tusitala Marsh said the post was a “wonderful opportunity to extend the poetic page and stage to this nation’s multi-coloured, multi-hued voices. “To be recognised in this way is breath-taking. To occupy the role is breath-giving – I can’t wait to take the Laureate’s tokotoko to the people and make poetry.”
New Zealand’s first poet Laureate was Bill Manhire in 1996 and the outgoing Laureate for 2015-17 is C.K Stead.’