Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Devoy cursed in verse

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Dame Susan Devoy is an unwitting muse for Kiwi poets. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Dame Susan Devoy is an unwitting muse for Kiwi poets. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

By signing up Susan Devoy as the new Race Relations Commissioner, Judith Collins has flaunted her power by flouting her responsibilities. No matter how heroic, well-meaning or nice Susan Devoy may be, this was a provocative, symbolic, even poetic act.

Fitting then, that the Minister for Ethnic Affairs has been answered by acts of poetry. Devoy is now an unwitting muse for the nation's creativity, inspiring not fanfares but raspberries.

Sociologist and writer Tulia Thompson started things off with an angry ode on her blog, ending with a direct note of warning to Devoy, who has reportedly been refusing interviews and swotting up: "No, this is not a kettle that can be taken off the boil, left aside for a month to cool off, while National finds manuka-honeyed words to slip inside your mouth."

Thompson's eloquent tirade prompted The Daily Blog's Marama Davidson to call for more poems, for a Tumblr webpage bluntly called "Susan, Stand Down".

To date she has received over 50 poems from friends and strangers. People registering their complaints in half-lines range from blogosphere debutantes, such as 13-year-old paper boy Campbell Harrison, to well-known poets and human rights authorities; former Human Rights Commissioner Robyn Hunt, playwright David Geary, anti-deep sea drilling lawyer Dayle Takitimu, Spartacus actor Antonio Te Maioha, and commentators Tze Ming Mok and Victoria University lecturer Aroha Mead.

Dashed-off rhymes are sandwiched between more thoughtfully crafted pieces. Some are jokey, some get personal; many are bitter about what Davidson calls the appointment's "dangerous message" of suppressing difference. One poem portrays Devoy as "Judith's new toy", while Collins is described elsewhere as "... twisted and bitter ... even fouling a poor squash ball hitter."

Then again, not all waste their sympathy on Devoy: "Your vast remuneration/ is the source of vast frustration," writes one.

Why protest in poetry? It makes a change, says Davidson, from the "mundane narrative we're up against every day ... Poetry has a way of getting a little bit deeper into people's souls."

The poetic form is multicultural and flexible. Poems can easily express emotional as well as rational thoughts and poets can join the dots quickly between ideas with their shorthand of imagery and metaphor.

Some poets have had fun playing with language (Anna Forsyth calls the appointment "Collinisation", and several others refer to Devoy's squashing of black balls), and some are sarcastic: "Ungrateful brown people! Why they not read Kipling?" writes Christopher Fung, referring to the great Empire apologist.

It's a happy surprise to find that "ordinary New Zealanders" have found writing poetry less daunting than writing prose. Davidson says shy, cautious people have finally felt safe voicing their political opinions when they are "just one thread of a collective poetry blanket".

Tze Ming Mok has already pointed out that Devoy's "appointment alone may make her the first Race Relations Commissioner to actually make race relations worse", but here is another way Devoy makes history: hers may be the first government appointment that a multitude of citizens have cursed in verse.

- NZ Herald

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