Friday, December 6, 2013

The point of poetry

I've been thinking a lot about poetry recently. Things started to shift in my head about a month ago when my dear poet friend Leilani Tamu asked me what was happening with my own poetry.

I remember exactly where we were: we'd left a movie at Dole Cannery (yes, even the names of cinemas bear traces of history in settler colonies), and we were driving down the ramp from the parking building towards the road. There was a small booth at the bottom of the ramp, and as we edged closer I saw the attendant had gone home, which meant that even though we'd been issued with a ticket on the way in, noone was there to collect it at the other end. Something we wouldn't have been able to leave without suddenly became another scrap piece of paper.

(Yes, this is a foreshadowing metaphor.)

When Leilani asked me, I was only half paying attention because I was driving down said ramp, looking into said booth, and clutching said ticket, so I accidentally told her the truth: "I've given up on poetry."

Once I said the words, I realised they were true; but at the same time, as they hung quietly in the car between us and I eased the little blue Nissan onto the dark wet road that night, they betrayed me not only by being true but by forcing me to admit how true they were. Since then, I've been wondering about whether I really have given up on poetry, and perhaps whether poetry has given up on me. Perhaps both of us would say it was mutual, to protect each other and also perhaps so we don't have to figure out who started it.

There are practical reasons to give up on poetry when you're a Māori poet: publishers aren't interested, and there's too much other stuff to do. Although there are a thousand more reasons, these two are the most harsh and most true.

Poetry will always be a form of journalling for me, and perhaps even a form of intimate communication. I am keeping a secret blog of poetry about the difficult journey of fertility, I write poems all the time to save 'for a rainy day,' and just yesterday I wrote a poem to my husband in which I complained, apologized and shared a vision for our marriage. All of these kinds of private poems make a kind of sense: I'm not sure the latter would have made sense on a post-it note, and he and I both know that if I'd tried to express the things I wrote in the poem by saying them out loud rather than typing and editing, typing and editing, I would have had far too many words and quite probably would have dissolved in tears before I got to the bits that I really wanted to say.

These are private poems.
But what about the other kind?
What about public poems?

When I was a graduate student at Cornell, one of my fellow students invited one of his fellow Nigerian poet friends to come and share his poetry. After the event, which I had thoroughly enjoyed, there was a small function to finish the evening off nicely, and I ended up meeting the poet over a glass of wine, at which point I thanked him for a wonderful reading. Having understood his poetry in my bones, I accidentally made the mistake of thinking he also would understand me. So I confessed that I, too, was a poet, and I continued by saying how much I appreciated the way he'd talked about the role of a writer. He smiled at me in a warmly condescending way, and corrected me that although I may write poetry, our role as a writer was totally different because I probably wrote about (and here he didn't literally scratch his head, but I could tell he was wondering what on earth I might write about) flowers and things, whereas he came from a community that was actively and violently oppressed, and his poetry was about the difference between life and death.

Of course, it goes without saying that he saw my beige skin and assumed I was white. He wasn't to know that beige can mean different things in other parts of the world, and that sometimes Māori people come in exactly my colour. I actually have sympathy for him, because sometimes I, too, wonder how on earth poets who aren't writing on behalf of an oppressed group of some kind manage to feel so passionate about what they do. I would probably have come up with "flowers" too.

Now, perhaps one poetic response would be to write a poem about how deeply hurt and angry I am that this awful man hadn't imagined that I wasn't white, and that I demand respect for myself which he hadn't given, and this is why it's so hard to be a Māori with beige skin. I could write a whole series of poems about my tragic life of being caught between two worlds, and I could spend time coming up with lyrical descriptions of my own personal individual oppression. Oppression which, it has to be said, usually works for me more than against me: looking the way I do, sometimes my own community asks where I'm from, but they believe me when I tell them; looking the way I do, I am very rarely followed around shops, pulled over or abused by police, or asked if I'm the cleaner when I turn up to my professional workplace. Now I'm living in gun toting America, I am well aware that the time it takes for someone to be murdered for wearing the wrong skin is a lot shorter than the time it takes for me to patiently explain who I am to those who ask.

But this poor man hadn't met a Māori person before, and didn't know we come in all shades. He looked at me and, at the end of a long poetry reading and lots of schmoozing during which he was gobbled up by so many hungry conversations, he found himself trying to be polite to someone he didn't immediately recognize as an ally and had actually - to his credit - given me the benefit of the doubt by even spending three seconds coming up with "flowers."

So, I decided to focus instead on the claims he made about the role of the writer, and the politics of poetry. His response to me revealed his deep commitment to poetry that can make a real difference, and even though that gift didn't come wrapped up in a way that felt ideal at the time, his stories of being arrested for poetry and my ongoing curiosity if I would be prepared - or able - to write arrest-worthy poems has more than overshadowed his perfectly understandable mistake.

When Leilani asked me about my poetry and I told her I'd given up on it, I meant it. Then a week later I started to teach the ni-Vanuatu poet Grace Mera Molisa's first poetry collection 'Black Stone' to my undergraduate class of Pacific Lit students, and the poems reached out to us from 1983, past all the work we'd been reading, and grabbed us by the scruffs of our necks: the first time for me students; for me, all over again. Molisa writes about independence, violence, freedom of the press, and the range of possible futures for her people. This past week a group of wonderful Wellington women held a fundraiser for West Papua by reading their own poetry. In 2007 I was involved in a project in which a whole range of people - including poets - shared their pieces for 'Burn this CD,' a compilation about the police raids on Tūhoe in October that year. I've seen what poems can do for students who connect for the first time with a text from their own cultural or experiential background.

So I guess it's not poetry, it's me.

Or, maybe it is poetry, but it's certain poetry. It's poetry that spends so much time talking about identity and self-righteous accounts of individualized oppression that it doesn't even bother to deal with the life and death stuff. It's poetry that thinks it's being political and doesn't realise it's just another flower. It's poetry that feels like it means something, like you can't leave the parking building and enter the big wide world without it, but when you see what it's worth - politically, I mean - you find it's just a scrap of paper.  

Epilogue: Eventually, later that evening, someone told the visting poet I was Māori, and when I walked down the steps outside Goldwin Smith Hall he saw me from where he was enjoying a quiet cigarette and apologised profusely. We had a laugh about it, talked poetry and politics for a while, and I went home.

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