My name is not refugee is the title of an event we’ve just had at the Porirua Public Library. Organised by extraordinary children’s librarian Bee Trudgeon, it was a real celebration of diversity. And on the programme were 10 of the ESOL students from the school workshops I’ve been running. They all introduced themselves in their first language, then read their poems in English. It’s hard enough standing up to read a poem in your first language, let alone in a language you’ve only been learning for a few months. But they all did it. Their supporting cast was Moira Wairama as MC, storyteller Tony Hopkins, drummer Sam Manzana and the Kaka family from Syria telling their own story. As Bee said, it was a ‘truly moving evening of spoken word performances with World roots.’
Along with the collection of poems, All of us, by Carina Gallegos and me, I’m part of a group compiling a collection of poems written by migrants and refugees. So we’re asking for poems from people all over New Zealand. But at the same time we want to create some new work. So I’ve been running some poetry writing workshops with ESOL students in three high schools in the Porirua area – Aotea College, Mana College and Bishop Viard College. There’s some real magic happening here. Some of these students have only been in New Zealand for six months, but they write lines like:
Me and my friends liked to throw a stone into the well
and listen to the voice that came from the water.
I wish I could fly.
I wish I was at my future already.
I wish I could throw back
So I could redo all of my mistakes.
We’re just at the beginning – who knows what these students will come up with!
Migrant Journeys, the book of interviews with migrant taxi drivers that Liz Grant and I edited a couple of years ago, is being reinvented in a new medium. Michael Wilson, manager of Access Radio in Wairarapa, is doing a radio series based on the interviews in the book. Reading the words of these drivers is great, but hearing their voices as they tell their own stories is even better. Michael is doing a great job of capturing the essence of a life in just a short space of time. We’re looking forward to hearing the final series.
Last year I started writing a collection of poems. I was influenced by the translations of some Chinese poems I’d been reading, particularly the fact that they were so simple but often about big issues – loss, journeys, grief – as well as small moments of happiness and observation. I decided that I’d write these poems around the themes of migration and refugee experience. Now Carina Gallegos has joined me, and we’re combining to produce a collection of poems around these themes. We’re not making up much of it – basically we’re just retelling, as poems, lots of stories we’ve been told. How are we going to knit together our two different styles of writing? Well that’s one of the interesting challenges of writing together.
I’ve been reading tributes to Dr Hashem Slaimankhel, outstanding Auckland community leader who was killed in a terrorist attack while visiting his home country of Afghanistan. Several years ago when I was working on The Crescent Moon book and exhibition, I interviewed five members of the Slaimankhel family, including Dr Slaimankhel’s nephew Omar, who has been speaking about his uncle. I’ve just been reading about them again. All of them are keen sportsmen, and one said, ‘I describe myself as a Kiwi, but inside I’m a full-blooded Afghan.’ Foot firmly in both camps. Over the summer I’ve been reading about Afghanistan, and Gaza, and Cambodia, and it has all reminded me how illusory ‘them over there’ and ‘us over here’ is. We’re all in it together.
Although some publishers don’t do book launches these days, both Escalator Press and Landing Press (two small publishers I’m involved in) believe in having great launches. It’s a celebration of the writer’s accomplishment of producing a very good book (that’s the most important thing) but it’s also a way of letting a large number of people know of the book’s existence, and of selling a lot of books! At the two launches for Because Everything Is Right but Everything Is Wrong, a Young Adult novel by Erin Donohue (Escalator Press) and for My wide white bed, poems by Trish Harris (Landing Press), between 80 and 100 books were sold at each launch. Both of these are books to be proud of – excellent books that will make a big mark.
I spend quite a lot of time on publishing work these days, and being part of a team (well, two teams) who produce books that really matter is very satisfying.
We’ve just had National Poetry Day. Landing Press, together with Escalator Press, ran a competition at the National Library, around Keel and Drift and Rob Hack’s collection of poems Everything is here. With a giant origami boat as the eye-catcher, and a free biscuit and a poem as a bribe, we got 235 entries in a competition. Very easy to enter – just one word about the sea – and you went in the draw to win dinner on a boat, or books. It was all about making poetry something for everyone. At the end of the day, as well as announcing the winners, 3 of us (Mary-Jane Duffy, Trish Harris, and I) made all those 235 words into a poem – a very long poem – and sent it out to all the entrants, along with names of the winners.
Reading with other poets in Best New Zealand Poems 2016 at Writers on Mondays at Te Papa was also a great way to mark National Poetry Day.
In some other countries, poetry is very much part of everyday life. That’s my idea of what poetry could be.
The Curioseum: Collected Stories of the Odd and Marvellous was published by Te Papa Press in 2014 (go to the Books page to read about it). It’s a wonderful door for kids into looking at objects in a museum very imaginatively. Having edited it, I’ve always seen it as having great potential for all sorts of spin-off activities. So we – Margaret Tolland, Education Co-ordinator at Pataka Art and Museum in Porirua, and I – ran a writing workshop for kids and some of their parents. Everyone wrote a story that came from some strange or wonderful object in the Pataka collections. We’ve made our own little Curioseum out of these great stories! One of the special things about it was having kids and their parents writing alongside each other.
Last year a report from the NZ Book Council and an article in The Spinoff ignited a debate about elitism and exclusiveness in the New Zealand literary community. Inclusiveness has been a driving passion for me – how to include people who otherwise don’t get opportunities, in education, in writing, in many parts of life, so I wanted to contribute to this debate. I wrote an article for the New Zealand Author, the journal of the New Zealand Society of Authors, and I’ve included it here.
Poetry is alive and well in all sorts of places – at the Fringe Bar in Wellington where Mary-Jane Duffy and I read poems in April and the audience helped us along, and at Featherston Booktown. Escalator Press authors had a series of sessions, and Landing Press sneaked in on one of them, where Rob Hack and I read a bunch of poems together. Featherston Booktown brought together an amazing range of workshops and readings – I’d absolutely recommend it.