Tayi Tibble, Māori Poet & ‘It Girl’, Trusts The Wisdom Of Her Ancestors

By Natasha Frost
New York Times
Poet Tayi Tibble. Photo / Nicola Edmonds

At 28 years old, poet Tayi Tibble has been hailed as the fresh, funny and immensely skilled voice of a generation.

As an Indigenous New Zealander, poet Tayi Tibble is descended from expert Polynesian navigators who traversed thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. When disoriented by self-doubt or impostor

“I can tell that my ancestors are helping to guide me on this path,” she said in an interview at a wine bar in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where she has recently relocated from Wellington, the capital. “And if I wasn’t supposed to be, they would take me off.”

Tibble’s ancestors are everywhere in her second collection, Rangikura, which will be released in the United States by Knopf on Tuesday. Those ancestors are visionary and radical. They are twerking atop the Uber to the party. They are even sending her screenshots of your group chats.

“Don’t tell me what they would do,” she writes in the poem My Ancestors Ride Wit Me. “I know them better than you.”

“Her poetry just has this huge, wild energy,” said Hera Lindsay Bird, a New Zealand poet. “It always takes you somewhere really unexpected.”

At 28, Tibble has amassed a rare clutch of honours and experiences. Critics herald her as the funny, fresh and immensely skilled voice of a generation in Māori writing. Her work has been published in The Atlantic and The New Yorker. She appears in a music video by pop musician Lorde. On recent travels, she taught in Paris at a New York University summer school programme, mingled with New York City’s glittery literati and gave readings around the world.

Even as she travelled, she found herself wondering why she had roamed so far from home, and how these international experiences — glamorous as they were — served her community and her people.

Those questions were answered, she said, when she met other Indigenous writers from around the world on the West Coast of the United States and saw similar sentiments and ideas in their work. She plans to return to North America in April.

“I feel way more purposeful,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is why it has actually all happened, this is why I’m being published in the States. There is an audience here for me.’”

Tibble’s work has a distinctly Māori worldview — one that also wheels through constellations of references across high culture and hip-hop, online and off.

“You read her and think, this is a person who’s possibly read Edward Said, and also watches The Kardashians,” said Nicholas Wright, a lecturer in English literature at Canterbury University in New Zealand, who compares her work to that of American poet Claudia Rankine, as well as that of Danez Smith and other members of the Dark Noise poetry collective.

On its surface, Rangikura is a coming-of-age narrative by a young Māori woman from an urban New Zealand environment, wrestling with the personal, the postcolonial and the political. Tibble wrote most of it during lockdown, thinking about climate change and how “the desecration of the planet,” she said, relates to the disenfranchisement and dislocation of Indigenous women worldwide.

In the first poem in the collection, Tohunga, Tibble issues a wero — a kind of Māori challenge used to test the intentions of newcomers — to those who would take what is not theirs to possess:

you can see it all / the unpanned gold / the wild pounamu / the thrashing tuna / family jewels / you can never have / taonga / you can never taste / forbidden fruits / reserved for me / are you afraid again? / like you were of Eve? / The world / is getting unbearably hot / but so am I / and so is she.

That undercurrent of pride and defiance appears throughout the work. Joshing young Polynesian men, oceanside, are “like a pack of crackling gods,” and romantic prospects are “demigods” to be extinguished between thighs. In the poem Mahuika, she is Hine-nui-te-pō, the Māori goddess of death and night, carousing with drag queens and ruling the queer club, “queen of saying things / that I do and don’t mean.”

“There’s this kernel of humour in everything,” Tina Makereti, a Māori novelist, said of Tibble’s work. “Like: ‘Don’t take us too seriously — but yes, we are gods.’”

Tibble was born in Wellington, but from age 7, she grew up in Porirua, a city about 12 miles to the north with a population of around 60,000 and a large Polynesian community. The eldest of seven children (the youngest of whom is now 8), she remembers those years as deeply stressful. School was a refuge.

“A lot of physical violence, a real ‘eggshell’ environment, poverty — like, pretty extreme poverty,” she said of her home life then. “I remember being super concerned and worried about money, and food, and what we were going to eat next.”

Tibble is a member of the Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau ā Apanui iwi, or tribes, and her ancestral homelands are on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island. But she is the third generation to be born farther south, her family caught up in the rapid transition to urban life that took place for many Māori in the second half of the 20th century.

In Rangikura, she reclaims her identity as urban Māori and addresses her ambivalence over the displacement by the “mechanical arms of settler fire,” as she puts it, which disrupted traditional ways of life, left many Māori living in poverty and deprived Tibble and many of her peers of the ability to speak their language from birth.

Still, she said, “I really identify as, and am proud of, and enjoy being an urban Māori.”

Porirua — she calls it “P-town” — feels like home, but through her whakapapa, or genealogy, she is also one of a people who are, by dint of their geography on the edge of New Zealand, “the first in the world to feel the sun on their face,” she writes. “Knowing this helps the East Coast girl in me to be brave.”

From a very early age, Tibble dreamed of being a writer, and as a young person, she posted verse with broad, “Tumblr-coded” themes — sex, heartbreak, ‘70s motels and silver sports cars — online. But while studying creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington’s prestigious International Institute of Modern Letters, she was advised to summon a more authentic, specific expression of her world.

Tayi Tibble in Wellington, 2018. “I really identify as, and am proud of, and enjoy being an urban Māori.” Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tayi Tibble in Wellington, 2018. “I really identify as, and am proud of, and enjoy being an urban Māori.” Photo / Mark Mitchell

“I remember being really averse to it at first,” she said, “I thought, ‘No, you gotta keep it generic, so more people can relate to it.’ "

Her teachers prevailed. Roughly six weeks into the course, she wrote a first draft of the lyric essay Poūkahangatus, about “Indigenous hair do and don’ts.” (Its name is a neologism of Tibble’s own invention, pronounced “Pocahontas.”)

“Everyone liked my flair, but no one was really taking me seriously, because there was nothing of substance going on,” she said. “Until I wrote that, and everyone paid attention to me. Like — ‘Oh.’”

A year out of her bachelor’s degree, at 22, she was awarded top honours in the course, placing her on a fast track to publish her first collection, Poūkahangatus, which addresses similar themes of identity, the Māori worldview and colonization. It later won the Jessie MacKay Prize for Poetry at the New Zealand Book Awards.

That early success sometimes attracted haters. “Some other writers said that the only good thing about me was my potential,” she said. “That I’d been overhyped so much I’d never get there.”

“It hurt me,” she added. “In my demographic — being an Indigenous woman, being young, being poor, at the time — I still felt really vulnerable and really underrepresented.”

Yet a handful of critics is far eclipsed by the number of her fans. Her work, her high-octane Instagram presence and a certain sparkly star quality have made her something of an “it girl” and style icon in New Zealand, as well as a renowned poet.

On a recent afternoon, she glittered with gold jewellery, including a large crucifix and wire-thin hoop earrings the size of teacup rims. Her nails, lacquered seashell-pink, were an inch long and sculpted to a careful claw.

“The satisfaction I get from composing an outfit that is balanced and harmonious is the same as from writing poems,” she said. Her background also plays a role, she added. “In Porirua,” she said, “being fresh is really important.”

Navigating pride in herself and her work, Tibble has sometimes been reminded of a well-known whakataukī, or Māori proverb, that warns against ego: “The kūmara,” or sweet potato, “does not speak of its own sweetness.”

These days, she said, she sees the saying not as evidence that Māori value humility, but rather as a testament to who they are. “Māori are historically showoffs,” she said, laughing behind her hands. “The only reason that whakataukī exists is because we’ve been showing off. We’re a really proud people.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Natasha Frost


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