ARTicle Magazine

Taking poetry to new places: Selina Tusitala Marsh

Rebecca Lancashire · 06 February 2018

Rebecca Lancashire catches up with Selina Tusitala Marsh ahead of her appearances at Writers & Readers in Wellington.

Selina Tusitala Marsh

Selina will appear at 2018 Writers & Readers as part of the Writers & Readers Opening night gala, Women Changing the World on 8 March at the Michael Fowler Centre, and at the National Library's Poet Laureate event, Call Me Royal, on 9 March.

New Zealand’s Poet Laureate – the Pasifika poet-scholar, runner, kick-boxer, Commonwealth Poet (2016) and mother of three Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh – is clearly an expert multi-tasker.  

Not just today, when she’s talking to ARTicle ahead of her appearances for Writers & Readers while also driving her youngest son to the dentist, but particularly since National Poetry Day on 25 August last year – when she launched her third book, Tightrope, and was announced as the country’s first female Pasifika Poet Laureate. 

The Poet Laureate is one of the most prestigious national awards for New Zealand poets, recognising outstanding contributions to New Zealand poetry. Each Laureate is awarded $80,000 over two years by the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa to create new work and promote poetry throughout the country. They also receive a carved tokotoko or orator’s stick, symbolising their authority and status.

Unlike other Laureates around the world, New Zealand’s isn’t expected to write poems about national events: “I was thinking I might have to write about Jacinda’s baby,’’ Tusitala Marsh laughs, while chivvying her reluctant-sounding son into the dentist’s chair. 

"The lovely advice I got from the National Library was 'just do you' which was the best advice; it gave me the permission I hadn’t known I was waiting for,’’ she says.

For Tusitala Marsh, the first person of Pacific descent to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland, where she now lectures in creative writing and Māori and Pacific literary studies, just being herself means taking poetry to as many people as possible, particularly diverse or marginalised communities. 

The lovely advice I got from the National Library was “just do you” which was the best advice; it gave me the permission I hadn’t known I was waiting for

“For me essentially poetry is a vehicle for voice and wellbeing.’’ She quotes one of her favourite lines, by poet and lyricist Rangitunoa Black: “a fire burns on the tip of my tongue, I should cry to put it out.’” 

The Laureate's tokotoko, or orator’s stick, is the key. Since August, it has accompanied her hectic schedule of workshops in schools, literary events and more, including a pilgrimage back to Samoa. So far it has been touched by – and has touched – nearly 2000 people, she says, evidence of the power and relevance of poetry.

She’s joining a powerhouse panel of women writers for the 2018 Writers & Readers’ Opening Night gala Women Changing the World.  Typically, her personal take on contemporary feminism involves offering a different world view.

"Lately I’ve been wanting to actively reclaim some of the no-go topics or topics that have been vilified by patriarchy – and the issue affecting me most at the moment is this thing called peri-menopause. I’ve been trying to find poetry about it and I can’t find anything… that’s a signal from the universe for me to write about it… the language around it is so abraded. This is a beautiful thing! I refuse to let mainstream language [dominate] and I deliberately bring it up in my day-to-day context."

Lately I’ve been wanting to actively reclaim some of the no-go topics or topics that have been vilified by patriarchy ...

That means talking about it while out with her fellow Waiheke Island trail runners, with her rugby-league obsessed sons, and maybe even fuelling the poems she will write during her laureateship.

While it’s too early to talk about her fourth book yet, she says her tokotoko will definitely form the "spine" – "It is so rich with stories…"

Selina will be joined by broadcaster Kim Hill, novelist Charlotte Wood, fantasy champion Charlie Jane Anders, poet and memoirist Patricia Lockwood, poet and games maker Harry Giles, columnist and falconer Rachel Stewart, free-range celebrity cook Annabel Langbein, poet Anahera Gildea and others at the 2018 Writers & Readers Opening Night gala Women Changing the World on 8 March. Tickers $49.  Find out more.

Rebecca is a Senior Communications Advisor at the Department of Internal Affairs