It's National Poetry Day on August 23, so Canvas has corralled some of New Zealand's finest female poets, including the Brave Voices world champion slam poets from Western Springs College, Ngā Hinepūkorero, to explain what a poem says that no other art can.
Ngā Hinepūkorero: Manaia Tuwhare-Hoani, Arihia Hall, Terina Wichman-Evans and Matariki Bennett
Spoken word, also known as slam poetry or performance poetry, is the art of expressing poetry through both an oral and physical performance. It is poetry in its freest form - a conversation between the performers and the audience. The difference between poetry and spoken word can be illustrated through the analogy, "you don't read sheet music and bop your head". Written poetry is sheet music - you can read it and understand it - but spoken word is like a live musical performance, during which the audience can witness all the elements of the poem, the movement, the writing and the emotion, carrying the message of the poet even further.
Ngā Hinepūkorero use spoken word to bring awareness to issues Māori face in the modern world. We explore a variety of themes - loss, language, abuse, race and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. When we first started out writing and performing spoken word, poets like Roimata Prendergast, Sheldon Rua and Stevie Davis-Tana inspired us to reclaim our culture and tell our stories. We were captivated by the way culture can be intertwined in performances, through physical actions and speech. Now, we hope that our spoken word poetry can do the same, and empower other young Māori to speak out about what excites, inspires and concerns them, because our voices have been disregarded for far too long and we deserve to be heard.
When it comes to subject matter, the possibilities are endless. You can make people love, smile, cringe, as they continue to be drawn in by your stories. Spoken word performances take audiences on an emotional journey. It is amazing how just one person could paint the same picture in everyone's mind and have the power of making so many people feel what they feel.
* Ngā Hinepūkorero, founded at Western Springs College, became the first Australasian team to compete at Brave New Voices, the world's largest youth slam poetry tournament. They travelled to the United States in July and were the only international team to make the semifinals.
Sugar Magnolia Wilson
A poem is an act of engaging with the multi-horned animal that is humanity / a poem is the looking glass / a poem is the white rabbit / the small cake / the lengthening neck / a poem is a voice calling your mother's name in the dark and she calls back but her voice is strange / a poem is an act of reckoning / of negotiation / of defeat and resurrection.
I don't know that poetry can say something that other art can't because all art is a form of yelling into space from down here in the cave. I think of those handprints by early humans in the caves in Spain. Poetry is just an evolved version of that - 'Here I am! I exist! Wow! I see the mammoths! They are big! Holy Moly! That's what poetry is, but sometimes with more words.
Recently, I tried to write a poem about how my 2-year-old daughter is an apex predator but it was impossible because ... well, she's not. She's a unique super-predator. Unique super-predators unbalance things. They focus heavily on taking down adult prey, rather than the young. They focus on the capital when they should be focusing on the interest. Humans typically take out adult fish populations at 14 times the rate that marine animals do.
We are not the wolves that were released back into Yellowstone National Park, whose presence somehow allowed the beavers to thrive, which in turn allowed certain plants to bloom ... and the whole ecosystem was regenerated. That's not my daughter. That's not me. That's not us. And it's so devastating because we could be, if we tried. We have so much power.
Poetry helps me reconcile the fact that my daughter is an adorable looking predator, and that I'm just a bigger, uglier version.
* Sugar Magnolia Wilson, from Fern Flat in the Far North, completed her MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has been published in literary journals and, in 2014, she co-founded the online poetry journal Sweet Mammalian with Hannah Mettner and Morgan Bach. Her first book of poetry, Because A Woman's Heart Is Like A Needle At The Bottom Of The Ocean (Auckland University Press, $25) was published earlier this year.
I'm drawn to poetry because poetry cares as much about the white space as it does the words on the page. The opportunity to use "the unsaid" is not only attractive to me, but necessary for me as a writer who wants to write about indigeneity. While I also write essays, I sometimes find the convention to "explain" why I think or feel a certain way both boring and exhausting. It can feel as though I am having to justify my experiences and the way I exist in the world, as a wahine Māori.
With poetry I don't have to over-explain myself. I have control over what I give away. I find agency in the brevity of a poem. What you withhold has as much weight as what you write, and so the words stay with you longer. Because, I guess, when I am writing a poem I am writing towards the verge of articulation, not to articulate something itself.
I don't want to come out, placards waving, and say what I mean, otherwise all my poems would be like 'lmao colonisation suxxx xoxo still cute tho' and tbh,' most of the time I don't even know what I mean. I prefer the subtle, sexy art of alluding to, which poetry is perfect for.
I also appreciate how accessible poetry is to create, more so, I reckon, than any other art form. Sure, fancy fountain pens, a moleskine notebook, a rose-gold macbook, multiple writers retreats, residencies and stipends, awards, and a $10,000 dollar creative writing degree, might help, but the only essential material you really need is words and words are free. Chur.
* Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) completed a Masters in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2017, where she was the recipient of the Adam Foundation Prize. Her first book Poūkahangatus (Victoria University Press, $20) won the Jessie Mackay Prize for Poetry at this year's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Ash Davida Jane:
Poems have an incredible capacity for tonal expression, for relating seemingly disparate things and for emotional generosity. While I'm hesitant to make definitive statements about what poetry is or isn't, what it can or cannot do, I do think poems can be particularly useful in places where language otherwise fails us—they can illuminate the gaps between the world and the words used to describe it.
This has always been important but it's becoming especially pressing as we get further into the climate crisis. If a poem can get us closer to its subject matter, whether through precise description, humour, deep empathy or anything else, we have a better chance at really knowing that thing. That's vital in a time where, if we don't hold tightly on to them, natural phenomena will vanish and we'll be left with only empty names and symbols.
Another reason I love writing poems is that it's a process of constant surprise and wonder. It's so distant from the motives of consumerism or a system where people's worth is defined by economic production (though please pay artists, we have rent due), because to write a poem you have to give your mind time and space to breathe. And on the other end, the gaps — physically between words, and figuratively — leave space for a reader to bring their own thoughts and feelings to the party. With a few precise words and line breaks, the layers of meaning can multiply and expand. Reading a poem isn't like solving a problem or completing a task so you can move on to the next one, it's like looking at doors infinitely opening on to themselves.
* Ash Davida Jane lives in Wellington. Her first book, Every Dark Waning, was published by Platypus Press in 2016. Her work can be found in Starling, Sweet Mammalian, Mimicry, Food Court, and -Ology.