Grace Iwashita-Taylor's love of Pasefika poetry has taken her on a journey to breathe new life into the words of Oceania's finest poets
Upu [kupu, reo, lea, words, language]
Fasitua Amosa and I first met when we worked together on my poetic theatre show My Own Darling in 2015. Throughout the season, Fasi was exposed to the world of poetry from our ocean (I can't stop sharing it) and he asked, "Why didn't I know about these amazing writers?"
And thus Upu was born. In 2018, our passion for poetry saw us, as Pasefika creatives, join forces to breathe life into written words, taking them from the page on to the stage so that others may fall in love with our writers.
But this isn't your ordinary poetry reading. The curation of Upu sits on a spine informed by two critical essays: Towards A New Oceania, by Maualaivao Albert Wendt and The Ocean In Us, by Epeli Hau'ofa. Fasi and I consulted with academics, artists and thinkers on these essays, to then pull out themes to provide the skeleton on which we would hang the poems.
I fished for published poems, blissfully indulging in days sprawled on the floor with books all around me. I aimed to pull poems from as many islands of Oceania as possible. One opportunity that UPU provides is to expand the audience's understanding of what they know to be "The Pacific Ocean". Pacific – derived from the word pacify or peaceful, Micro (small) nesia, Mela (black) nesia, Poly (many) nesia – all words placed on us from the outsider. Terms used to make us easier to define and be "managed" by colonisers. On that note, for any publishers reading, I want to take this opportunity to highlight the gap in our publishing landscape for writers from Micronesia and Melanesia. I challenge you to think broader than Polynesia for your Pasefika writers.
Upu, in Samoan, means words and, in the case of this show, it is words that are living and breathing offerings written by people of the vastness that is Te Moana nui a Kiwa. Our literature has existed for centuries in the oral word passed on through song, story and tatau/tattoo, from one generation to the next.
The published written form of our literature is a few decades deep and growing; it is devoured and sought after all over the world in libraries, taught in universities and featured at literature festivals. These words are living-and-breathing offerings written by people born throughout the vastness that is Te Moana nui a Kiwa, rich with skill and craftsmanship, truth, intelligence both ancient and new/niu and withstanding the ongoing effects of colonisation. Unfortunately, access to many of our published writers is too frequently limited to academic spaces and geeks of literature, such as myself.
Upu serves the idea offered to us by Tongan scholar Epeli Hau'ofa, that we are a sea of many islands, that it is our vastness that connects us.
Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous, Oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, Oceania is us. We are the sea, we are the ocean ..."― Epeli Hau'ofa
Upu is the union of great writing and a skilled cast. Our writers deserve to have their extraordinary poetry elevated and accessible to large audiences; our writers' skill deserves to be honoured and our people deserve to see themselves reflected on the stage. The international success of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is testament to this truth; audiences in New York were recently exposed to a Samoan perspective through theatre and poetry penned by "fearless goddess" Tusiata Avia. I say "hell yes!" to this.
Upu invokes the richness of our published stories to live, breathe and dance on the stage, offering an evolved oral storytelling experience.
Audience members will not walk away from Upu feeling one type of way. They should find it challenging, they should find a sense of belonging, they should question, they should find resonance. It should cut and soothe, satisfy and leave them hungry. And that is what we want. For people to walk away utterly curious about writers from our ocean, write down names of poets in the programme, go to the library or google and research our names - read our work - fall in love with the richness of our words, stories and people. So come and join us, no matter your walk of life.
"Come home to the sea. She has a big heart: she adopts anyone who loves her,"
- Epeli Hau'ofa
Upu is a co-creation between Fasitua Amosa and Grace Iwashita-Taylor. Both have bloodline links to the island of Samoa. Amosa is an established actor and theatre-maker, who is directing Upu; Iwashita-Taylor, an established poet and theatre-maker, is the curator of Upu. It is Silo Theatre's first production of 2020 and runs at Q Theatre's Rangatira until Sunday, March 15 as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.