Selina Tusitala Marsh is a Pasifika poet-scholar and the current New Zealand Poet Laureate (2017-2019). As the 2016 Commonwealth Poet she wrote and performed a poem for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, while she recently hosted a poetry event with Barack Obama. Selina is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Auckland, while her third collection is Tightrope. She spoke with Katinka Smit at Byron Writers Festival 2018.
Your maternal grandfather’s name, Tusitala, means ‘storyteller’ or ‘teller of tales’. It’s a name that, by your admission, you’ve grown into. How does that fit with your role as New Zealand’s Poet Laureate?
In 1996, out came my Tusitala poem. I recite it before every major event, before every big challenge. It tells me where I’ve come from, where I am and where I’m going. It’s my vision poem. That’s how I incorporate the legacy of being a storyteller, to both my academic world and my creative world. They have become one and the same over the years. I call myself a Pacifica poet-scholar; poetry is how I know my critical stuff, and my critical stuff is how I know my poetry. It’s taken years and years to find the confidence to actually do what I do, the way that I do it and be true to my own Pacific epistemologies or ways of knowing, doing and being. It’s all holistically integrated now, whereas when I started off in academia, there was no role model to do it that way. The role model was typically male, white and older. So as a young, brown, female it has taken a while to find my voice there too.
What is your view of the Commonwealth in relation to those two opposing things?
I think the Commonwealth, as a notion, as fifty-three nations, has more agency than its critics give it credit for. My conversation with Prince Phillip, where he (perhaps with tongue in cheek) questioned my academic specialty – ‘post-colonial?’ – is a brilliant story from which to platform other conversations about Britain still clinging to the notion of Empire and being the centre of the world. We realise independence in different ways and different stages. Poetry has had a role in articulating a defiance against being seen under that colonial rubric.
How did it feel to write a poem under royal censorship?
I had writer’s block for two months. I had to have confidence in my storytelling abilities and go back to myself because it was all going to be worth it as long as I could politically represent Samoa, Tuvalu, Oceania, New Zealand, Australia, and so on. Then when the fifth rule came in that I wasn’t allowed to be political, it deflated me a little bit. I thought, ‘What? Why should I go on this global stage? I’m not there to entertain, I’m there to enlighten.’ But then I went back to my own personal story and that’s the best way to politicise people, because then they lean in. Everyone has a granddad. Going back to my granddad, I found a way to decentre the British Empire and point to a larger world that existed before Western colonisation came into the Pacific, to speak to the dignity and the pride in pre-existing, non-Western ways of knowing and being in the world.
You have a diverse ancestry; Samoan, Tuvaluan, Scottish, French, English. Has that affected your development as a poet?
Being a person of Pacific descent in New Zealand, it’s all about representation and coming out of the margins and being heard and holding the government or the powers that be accountable for what they’re saying. That’s informed my poetry; it’s given it direction and meaning. It’s enabled me to flourish and articulate my mixed identity.
Do you think that’s part of your responsibility in the role of Poet Laureate?
Absolutely – show people that you’ve got the power to re-story your reality and the world around you, and you’ve got a responsibility to do that. I don’t believe poetry is a solitary or confessional activity. It’s there to do stuff. I go back to the Latin root word, poesis, which is to make; we’re making stuff to build a better world, in whatever shape or form that takes.
Do you draw on all of your lyric traditions?
Not overtly or consciously, but there are beautiful connections. In this memoir I’m writing, I’m writing about how my mother (Samoan) and father (English, French, Scottish) met in Samoa, and I was recently in Gravesend, a little seaside town at the mouth of the River Thames. My great, great grandfather boarded the Aurora there in April 1839. He arrived in Wellington in 1840, the year the Treaty was signed. I was walking through St George’s Church in Gravesend, and suddenly there’s a nine-foot bronze statue of Pocahontas. Her remains are buried there. She and John Rolfe are one of the first recorded mixed marriages of the 1600s. The synchronicity of it, the beauty, blew me away. It was a wonderful, poetic, loopy thing, to come back to my parents’ own mixed marriage and then to stumble upon Pocahontas.
That’s when you realise that poetry is made of the world itself.
That’s right. It’s magic: big magic, little magic, sideways magic. You see connections and pull out a strand of narrative to tell a story in this beautifully succinct form that you can put in your back pocket and pull out anytime you want.
Tightrope is published by Auckland University Press.