To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, the Herald and online magazine E-Tangata are telling the video stories of six inspirational Māori and Pasifika women, made with the support of NZ On Air. Today: Poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh.

Selina Tusitala Marsh is used to being "the first" — and acutely aware of the responsibilities that come with that.

She was the first in her family to go to university, and the first Pasifika to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland, where she now works as an associate professor in the English, drama and writing studies department.

She's also the first Pasifika woman to be appointed New Zealand's Poet Laureate — an award celebrating outstanding contributions to New Zealand poetry.

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With that heavy "mantle of representation" on her shoulders, she has made it a priority to visit schools, to see and be seen by Māori and Pacific children.

"Because we don't necessarily grow up in the context of having doctors and lawyers, people with degrees in the family, right? It's not the norm. Certainly, for me, it was not the norm. For the people around me, it was not the norm."

At St Joseph's School in Ōtāhuhu, the Conversations crew watched as she worked her magic, armed with her tokotoko, a carved Māori walking stick presented to her as poet laureate (hers is fittingly crowned with a fue, a Sāmoan orator's fly whisk).

New Zealand Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh speaks to invited guests during a reception at Government House in Wellington on October 28, 2018. Photo / Herald file
New Zealand Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh speaks to invited guests during a reception at Government House in Wellington on October 28, 2018. Photo / Herald file

She charmed, she held hands, she was hugged. She was "touchable".

"Kids want to lean in," she says. "There's a line in my New Zealand Poet Laureate acceptance poem, and it talks about pressing your nose against the windows of privilege. I grew up feeling a bit like that. With my nose pressed against stuff I thought I might like but didn't know how to connect with.

"So when girls come up and give me bear hugs and I'm rubbing their backs, that's how I connect. That's how they're wanting to connect with me. There's something about the joy in a 12-year-old girl who's jumping up and down, saying: 'My hair's like your hair! My hair's like your hair!'

"It's incredibly humbling, and it's exactly the reason why, no matter where I get to at university, where I get to in the scholarly field, that I have to keep my heel to the earth, and stay connected with my school and community groups."

Selina grew up in Avondale, one of three children born to Sailigi (Lina) Tusitala and James Trevor Crosbie. They met and married in Samoa. James was a stainless-steel manufacturer who courted Sailigi by giving her village their first stainless steel bench and shower tray. They were divorced when Selina was eight.

Selina Tusitala Marsh says her boys are mad about rugby league but couldn't care less about poetry. Photo / NZME file
Selina Tusitala Marsh says her boys are mad about rugby league but couldn't care less about poetry. Photo / NZME file

Sailigi didn't speak much English, because she'd sacrificed her own schooling to help put her siblings through school. But she knew that books and reading were important and she made sure Selina had access to them.

"We were avid op-shoppers," Selina told E-Tangata. "Everything in our house came from second-hand stores. And she would give me 50 cents or a dollar and I'd be able to fill up a box with books that I scored from the Salvation Army or the Avondale Spiders or St Vincent de Pauls."

Selina now lives on Waiheke Island with her husband of 24 years and their three "rambunctious, testosterone-driven rugby league boys who don't give a stuff about poetry".

She has published three poetry collections: Fast Talking PI (the title of her signature poem), Dark Sparring, and Tightrope. Her poetry has brought her many awards, plaudits and interesting gigs — including reading a commissioned poem to the Queen at Westminster Abbey in 2016, when she was the Commonwealth Poet.

Selina Tusitala Marsh is one of six women featured in Conversations, a six-part video web series created by E-Tangata, an online magazine specialising in Māori and Pasifika stories and perspectives. You can see all the videos and stories at nzherald.co.nz/suffrage