Thursday, 13 September 2018

When Prime Ministers drink with poets ...

Heads of State aren't known for hanging out in bars with writers, so when Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, revealed to me quietly at the recent Creative Hub Trust Launch that he had spent a bit of time in Wellington's St George Hotel with the legendary James K Baxter in the 1960s, I was taken aback. Baxter was a revolutionary force in New Zealand literature, and many of his views have permeated our culture. Writers of radically different cultures are often drawn together, and Baxter was known for his spiritual connection to Polynesian ways. Tupua was Samoa's Head of State for ten years until last year, and got to know the poet, a notorious drinker, when he was a student at Victoria University.

Tuiatua Tupua - Samoa's former Head of State

Baxter, our most charismatic and radical poet, went on to establish the commune of Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, where he forged strong links with local iwi, railed against social inequality and injustice in the Pig Island Letters, before alcoholism killed him at the age of 46.

Tupua, a tall, elegant figure now aged 81, had flown in from Samoa to grace the launch of our Creative Hub Charity. One aim of the Trust is to create scholarships for Maori and Pasifika writers, and Tuiatua Tupua has published three books of his own.

With the number of Samoans living in New Zealand almost equaling the population of Samoa itself, the preservation of Samoan cultural identity in Aotearoa is pressing: new generations of Samoan writers, such as Selina Tusitala Marsh are staking out their own vivid hybrid identity - and we were thrilled to have Selina, NZ's Poet Laureate, execute her galvanising verses at the launch.

Selina - Warrior Poet Princess
Selina is a statuesque figure, with the charisma and verve of a warrior princess ... a warrior of the word, and her hypnotic incantation lifted the night and challenged us all with its invocation to write as though the world is about to end.

Also present was Al Wendt, perhaps the best-known of all Samoan writers, renowned for his humility ... so much so that he declined to speak his own poetry on the night, despite several attempts to get him to do so.

To me, the most delightful moment of the evening was the opening karakia, delivered by singer Soulsista Aotearoa, which chilled and thrilled us in equal measure with its force and beauty.

Her website says: "With lyrics that bleed truth and a voice that reflects the name, Soulsista represents a modern culture of New Zealanders influenced by traditional funk and soul. Based on Waiheke Island, Soulsista is of Maori descent ... Ngāti Rangitihi & Te Arawa Ngāti Porou, & Ngāpuhi. Kai Tahu & Te Ati Awa. She looks to the environment to provide inspiration, as well as ... Bob Marley, Jill Scott, Sade, Ben Harper."

Soulsista - on song
Creative New Zealand chief Stephen Wainwright delivered part of his speech in Maori to the gathering, which also included Brian Morris of Huia Books, the country's premier Maori and Pasifika publisher; some of our successful graduates (including the publishing collective Eunoia Books); a number of their tutors, and a variety of others from Auckland's humming literary world.

When I spoke, I lamented the death of many great Auckland publishers in recent years - and the pressing need to partner with Creative NZ to create fresh new publishing outlets for the rising talent in the literary gene pool of Tamaki Makaurau.

The future of writing in Aotearoa will be the story of the creative cross-fertilisation of many cultures - the great adventure of Western literature colliding with the epic story-telling and voyaging traditions of Polynesia. History teaches us that the most propitious periods in literature have been at the points when the tectonic plates of culture collide. It is a truly thrilling future in prospect ... and we hope, here at the Creative Hub, to play a small part in conjuring it into existence.

You can read Tuitua Tupua's speech for the launch of our Trust here

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