Poet heads to Olympics for marathon gathering

By Denise Montgomery


She's an educated, successful, talented Pacific Islander - the first to get a doctorate in English at Auckland University. Those are just a few of the reasons Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh penned her poem, Fast Talking PI. She was sticking up for herself and all Pacific Islanders.

The impetus came from a Wellington newspaper's 2008 front-page story, headlined "Pacific migrants a drain on economy". The article created an outcry because of an academic's claims using data that was found to be outdated.

"It was taken to the Human Rights Commissioner and the complaint was upheld. It started up this whirlpool of views, horrible stereotypes," Marsh explains. "And I thought, 'I don't know one criminal, I don't know one rapist and none of my friends or family are on welfare'.

"You just hear doom and gloom about Pacific Islanders. If you are young and coming through school and that's what you see, it entrenches [that as] reality."

Fast Talking PI was also the name of her first poetry collection, released in 2009.

It won the Society of Authors' Best First Book of Poetry Award in 2010.

Its musicality means it's the kind of poem you have to listen to (listen here) - and it was released on a CD with five other poems. Its approach is simple - line after line describing the types of Pacific Islander that Marsh was thinking of.

"I'm a fast-talking PI, I'm a power-walking PI ...

I'm a village is the centre of my world PI,

I'm a cross-gendered, soul-blended, mascara'd PI,

I'm a published in a peer-reviewed journal PI,

I'm a gout-inflated, incubated, case study PI."

We're sitting in the hallowed surroundings of Auckland University's Old Government House and the poet's rapid-fire, passionate and slightly excited way of speaking is in keeping with her performance poetry ... not so much the hushed tones of academia.

But she's finally starting to feel she fits in, after seven years teaching part-time (she has three young sons with husband David), moving to full-time this year. She teaches a creative writing paper, a Maori and Pacific literature paper and a Masters Pacific poetry course.

"The message from me to them is: 'This is your place, too'. So I try to make it a warmer place. I'll rock up in jeans and a T-shirt, it's me!"

She's immaculately dressed and keen for us to take a picture nice enough to give to her husband. She's been married to the former Avondale College head boy for 18 years (she was head girl).

Marsh grew up in Avondale, attending its primary, intermediate and high schools. The family now lives on Waiheke Island where weekends are taken up with the boys playing rugby and league.

The daughter of an English father and a Samoan mother, she has plenty of cultural fodder to draw on. She inherited her middle name from her maternal Tuvaluan grandfather; it means "teller of tales".

It's Tuvalu's tales she will convey when she represents the tiny island at the world's biggest gathering of poets in three weeks. She was selected to represent Tuvalu - from more than 6000 nominations - for the Poetry Olympics which will feature 204 poets performing around the UK during the Olympics and Paralympics (see bottom of page).

She will perform a sequence about the impact of global warming on one of the world's lowest-lying nations.

MUM UNDERSTOOD

As a child, her concerns were fewer but she admits she was a little different from her siblings. "Mum knew enough to give me space. I always had my own study area, even in a communal setting. She let me have isolation - making the others leave me alone, which was what I needed."

While her mother was buying clothes at the Salvation Army, Selina was buying books. When she received her PhD, her mum was there. "She didn't pretend to know what the hell I was doing here but she was proud."

Sadly, her mother died shortly before Selina's first collection of poetry was published. It was a tough time.

"At the funeral I talked about the Tuvalu side of the family and they farewelled mum's body from the house with the customary Tuvalu dance called 'faatele'. It starts off slow and rhythmic, you fall into it, and it gets faster and faster and more frenzied."

Marsh was so taken by its power , she's taken up movement of a different kind - kickboxing.

"It's helped me show my body a different way to move, to get rid of that grief."

The inherent rhythm and movement in Selina's poetry makes it appealing to schoolchildren. Her signature poem is popular even outside the decile 1, 2, and 3 schools she visits most often. Recently, she spent a few days as writer-in-residence at King's College.

"There's about a 5 per cent Maori / Pacific population there but the whole school response to that poem, when I performed it in assembly, was overwhelming. The teachers remarked later that they have never heard the applause carry on and on as it did.

"I talked to the kids later in their classes and asked them, 'What did you respond so strongly to?' And they said, 'It was our poem' even though they were not Pacific Islanders. 'You talked about the good things and bad things in every person and community'."

Now, when she performs it, people come up to her and ask why she hasn't included other types of PI in it.

"They say, 'But you didn't talk about the taxi-driving PI or the bus-driving PIs, and the homeless PIs'. I say, 'But you just have, so you go and take that and you write it! It's an open form of a poem."

Some of those organic additions have been very clever.

"When I performed at Going West, the literary festival in Titirangi, the guy who organised it came bounding up the hall and said, 'I'm a slow-talking palagi all the way from Titirangi'."

That night she looked out on a sea of grey rinses during her performance and wondered if the poem would work. "Later on a woman comes up to me and she goes, 'I'm a slow-knitting granny all the way from Takanini!' It was wonderful."

SAM HUNT CONNECTION

She knows all too well the importance of getting into schools. Sam Hunt's visit to Marsh's school sparked her love of poetry.

"I was about 11. He got told to leave his bottle of beer in the car when he came in, but the thing is he embodied the spoken word in a way that I hadn't seen before. It made the poetry on the page come alive and I thought, 'Wow, is that a possibility?'. It feels so weird to get that response myself now when I go into schools."

She is comfortable being a poet, growing to be comfortable as an academic. She has had good support - Albert Wendt supervised her PhD, Witi Ihimaera and Michele Leggatt are also mentors. And she is taking her message beyond the Pacific. Recently, she performed in Ukraine. After she'd done a couple of poems in a coffee bar, a couple approached her. "They asked me to do Fast Talking PI. I couldn't believe it!"

She's a life-loving PI.

She's a high-achieving PI.

She's a loud-laughing, family-doting, inspirational PI.

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POETRY OLYMPICS

From June 26 to July 1, poets, rappers, singers and storytellers will gather for the Poetry Parnassus as part of the London 2012 festival. They will perform at free events and contribute a poem to a landmark anthology to be published in celebration of the gathering.

* Online, Dr Marsh established and co-ordinates Pasifika Poetry. Hear her poems, and others, at nzepc.auckland.ac.nz

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