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Selina Tusitala Marsh
Photo by Florence Charvin

Selina Tusitala Marsh ONZM

J A Thea —

Young writer, J A Thea interviews the Ignition Festival Gala keynote speaker

Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh is the former Poet Laureate and Commonwealth Poet, and winner of the 2020 Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award, the Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction, and the Storylines Notable Book Award. 

Selina is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English from The University of Auckland and is now a lecturer in the English Department, specialising in Pasifika literature. 

Her first collection, the bestselling Fast Talking PI, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010. Marsh represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Poetry Parnassus event in 2012; her work has been translated into Ukrainian and Spanish and has appeared in numerous forms live in schools, museums, parks, billboards, print and online literary journals. As Commonwealth Poet (2016), she composed and performed for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. She became New Zealand's Poet Laureate in 2017. [Auckland University Press]

Selina will be a guest at the 2022 Ignition Children's Book Festival in Dunedin.

Q: In your recent graphic memoir Mophead: How Your Difference Makes a Difference you bring complicated, political topics to young readers making the content accessible to everyone. Why do you think it's important to get people thinking of these subjects earlier rather than later?

A: Because the personal is political. Because politics isn't just for buzzy bees in the Beehive. Because politics is about power, representation, who controls the narrative and kids understand inequity, unfairness, and justice. Because many 7 years old know what the word 'racist' means, and how to apply it in Mophead. Because many already have.

Q: More generally, how do you see the correlation between poetry and politics/social issues?

A: Poetry is a vehicle for voice. Always has been. Always will be. This doesn't mean it has to be didactic or polemic (although it certainly can be), but that poetry comes from that most personal of places – one's imagination, one's life. And as I said before, the personal is political. This is especially true if you are indigenous or brown or migrant in a 'post' colonial society; if you are female in a patriarchal society; if you are working class in a capitalist society – basically, if you are not part of the power hierarchy or if you are standing on tippy toes peering over the wall of power, defined here simply as who gets to make and enforce the decisions in our society.

Q: What do you think is most important -- or what are some of the most important things -- about encouraging children to read?

A: Imagination is all. Our mind has no walls except those others erect. We're all born curious and creative. We have it socialised out of us. Reading helps nourish it again. Imagining yourself in other worlds, others' lives, is an emancipatory act of self-love. We get to be with ourselves and the page when we read alone. And when we read with others we're in relationship. Reading vitally grows empathy for others. And for most of us, it's free. Available to all, whenever, where ever. There's much research that shows a correlation between the most disenfranchised of us and the lowest literacy levels – basically, good readers are less likely to end up in prison – there's many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that systemic inequality in our society exists. If a kid leaves school without knowing how to read, or developing good reading habits, or gaining access to texts (all interrelated factors), it is not just a personal issue – it's a political issue. They are more likely to be chewed and spat out (and incarcerated) in our society. And that's on all of us to address.

Q: How do you think reading works that address social issues affects the way people think, and therefore behave, later in life?

A: The most important way I think reading works is that it just opens you up to the infinite wonders of the world. It can transport you from your immediate circumstances, if that's what you need at the time. It can push and pull you into other ways of living, seeing, thinking and feeling, exposing you to infinite possibilities – infinite because our imaginations are infinite. It can grow you from the inside, at your own pace. It can make you bigger, brighter, quieter, lighter, louder, prouder. It's no accident that the lowest rates of literacy are found among the poorest of us and is part of a vicious circle of racism and poverty.

Q: What is one of the most exciting things that you've done, or had happen to you, during your career?

A: In 2016 I was crowned the Commonwealth Poet and commissioned to write and perform a poem for the Queen at Westminister Abbey as part of Commonwealth Observance Day. I tell that tale in Mophead TU: The Queen's Poem, coming out this October. TU means 'stand' and Mophead figures out how where you stand makes all the difference!

Q: Why do you feel inspired to create? Is there a specific, tangible thing that inspires you or is your expression more broadly motivated?

A: Making and creating is how I value my life. It slows me down in the midst of all my chaotic busy-ness and enables me to focus on one thing and meditate on it. I go inside, and when I do I begin to 'know' a thing; I tap into my own mind and how I think or receive a thing in the world, whether it's an event in history, a moment in my world, an exchange, something I see or hear or taste or smell, or feel. More specifically, writing poetry helps me make sense of the world. Words, sounds, images help me ruminate on life's juices. I can figure out and understand the world much better through a creative lens.

Q: There's a musicality in your work in rhythm and sounds -- how do you think poetry and music interact? What holds them together and what separates them?

A: I'm currently working on a collaboration with Rob Thorne, a taonga puoro specialist. I perform my poetry and he responds by playing a number of beautiful bone, shell, and wood instruments. We both breathe to make sounds: mine are words; his are music. We both breathe, we both pause. We both use gaps and silence to speak into the words and music, to hold rhythm and hone into meaning. I don't think much (apart from the medium) separates them at all. Our mouths are instruments of music, poetry and making. I've worked with other musicians though and the difference between a musician who is also a poet (in terms of technique) is quite stark. Some musicians want to just want to play and hear their own sound, no matter what the words are doing. They tend to go full volume and overpower. They don't breath, or pause for silence. Others, like Rob, listen and help carry my words to the winds. Rob would say the same about my words carrying his taonga puoro.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share that I haven’t asked about?

A: I believe that everyone is a poet. Everyone has that in them. Part of my mandate is to make poetry accessible to all. I take the idea of making poetry out of its reified air and into the mud – literally. I'm a trail runner. In my New Zealand Poet Laureate portrait painted by the fabulous Penny Howard, I'm running with my tokotoko (the carved walking stick each Laureate has carved for them by Jacob Scott, as told in Mophead) on the headlands of my home on Waiheke Island. It's important to disrupt people's expectations of where poetry belongs and who has the right to write it. That's why I teach poetry to university students and still teach it to primary schoolers. That's why I wrote Mophead. And it's why Mophead Tu: The Queen's Poem is hot on its heels!