Ashleigh Young launches Poūkahangatus and People From The Pit Stand Up

Tayi Tibble and Sam Duckor-Jones (photo courtesy of Unity Books)

Tena koutou and thank you all for coming tonight to celebrate these two writers and their first books.

With both Tayi and Sam, at VUP we did an unusual thing: Instead of waiting and hoping that they would come to us with their manuscripts, we sidled up to each of them in turn and tried to woo them. We were besotted with their poems. Even though it’s now clear that Sam and Tayi do like VUP back and did want to get married to us, I still have a residual shyness and blushing reaction as I remember that first approach, and I feel so lucky that I was able to work on these indescribably good first books of poetry – and that now they’re being launched together.

I tend to have quite physical reactions to manuscripts. When I first read these manuscripts, I was either laughing my head off or weeping a little bit, in good ways. The fearlessness of both writers was intoxicating. After calming down a bit, I’m still marvelling at the intricate machinery and music of both books – and how astutely these writers speak of beauty, domesticity, belonging, sex, power, activism, small towns, youth, death, and men. As well their shared affection for big gaudy colours, which we’ve tried to capture in the production, these books share a fascination with quite weird objects. In both cases, particular objects seem to elicit strong reactions – like someone in one of Tayi’s poems telling a man that she finds this custom-made bathtub to be a very weird and inconvenient gift; or a sculptor called Jeff, in one of Sam’s poems, telling people at a party how he was about to deinstall one of his sculptures in Christchurch when some old bloke came by and, not realising that Jeff is the artist, grabs the sledgehammer off him and says ‘Good! I hate this fucken piece a shit’. Then you see everybody in the poem roaring with laughter at this story and their eyes bugging out, but Jeff’s all, ‘That’s art, they don’t always approve’ and then someone else says, ‘Well, time for tea.’ I love how we’re allowed to see all the awkward packaging around the sledgehammer story as well as the story itself.

Tayi Tibble (photo courtesy of Unity Books)

Tayi does something similar when she starts a poem with, ‘helen clark announced / that she wet herself / listening to annie crummer / singing at a concert fundraiser’, and then in the next part of the poem: ‘you know this story because / your grandmother wrote it down / in a brown photo album / she kept poorly hidden’. And you have this feeling of being taken deep inside that story of shame – and the poem keeps unwrapping it and circling inwards: the story of the grandmother being in love, then we’re in the WINZ office, then watching the kapa haka tutor at primary school, then we’re looking right over the poet’s shoulder as she looks at the lines in her 1B5 notebook, the words blurring before her eyes as someone insists that she reads her work to them.

One of my favourite poems by Tayi is called ‘Mint-Green Cross’, which describes sort of peevishly wandering around the David White Gallery, looking at ‘bric-a-brac shit’ like a neon sign of Jesus, some Girl Guide badges and a kilt like the one Kurt Cobain wore. The two friends in the poem are on the look-out for treasure but they keep being disappointed, and it seems to me that they’re trying to understand the psychology of the person who collects these objects. The poet has no patience for someone who doesn’t organise their things properly and who isn’t able to recognise a really good object versus a bit of meaningless tat. I think that for Tayi objects are meaningful when they have a history and a purpose, and most of all when they’re personal. Like a honeycomb vase with the flowers that you grew on the roof. A glamorous paua shell ashtray at your Nan’s. Doc Martens that sound like gunshots when somebody’s leaving. At the gallery nothing seems to have life, and the narrator concludes, ‘Sometimes we say we hate David White, what with him being an inconsiderate hoarder and all.’

I love the attention these poems pay to the work, the effort of ornamentation and beauty; how for instance a fancy G-string costs more than your weekly rent, or if you want a veil you’ll make one from a fishing net, if you want a Juicy Couture tracksuit (for a joke) you will have to trick a man on the internet into buying you one. Things don’t just materialise in life; you have to go out and get them. Some of the most moving poems in the book are about Tayi’s mother, and gathered around her are things like her PlayStation 1, her purple sarong, her see-through Apple Mac, her custom ringtones. And in the end it’s not the objects themselves, of course, but the experiences that backlight them – of grief, hope, loneliness, friendship – that give these poems such dazzling potency. Those stories that flood through generations of women can’t be touched, but they have permanence. Hinemoana Baker has said that Tayi’s poems have a liquid quality in the way they rush through time and the way their form and language moves. I think Tayi’s influence is going to be similar in the way it travels; already I can see it flowing through the work of other writers.

Sam Duckor-Jones (photo courtesy of Unity Books)

At the heart of Sam’s book is an uncanny sequence called ‘Blood Work’ where we see the sculptor making a giant man of clay. It’s a hilarious, heartbreaking sequence that includes unanswered text messages, an earthquake, frightened bike thieves, instructions for killing the man if he comes alive and starts threatening innocent people, a sex scene (added at the last possible minute before we went to print), and a beautifully weird exchange in which the clay man finally speaks, and he asks: ‘Why did you make a man?’ And the sculptor responds, ‘I made a man because at least two people in my life have suggested intimacy is important.’ (I can imagine this sequence as a musical that culminates in the clay man himself starting to sing. Then the sculptor is jostled onto a plane to Barcelona, as he requests should be done if we ever see him starting to build another clay man again. This musical will run for many many seasons and when it finishes it will come back immediately by popular demand.)

There are lots of people having yarns in Sam’s book – some good yarns, and some less satisfying yarns, as we see in the poet’s week-long ‘Speaking diary’, where the only entry for Tuesday is: ‘Hey buddy (to a dog)’. I feel like I haven’t heard that particular yarning voice – it’s almost, somehow, Fred Daggish in places – in NZ poetry in ages, but here the register is different again because it’s one of acute sensitivity to ordinary beauty. For instance there’s an ode simply to the keeping of lawns, including the lawns of poets; the poets are referenced by initial and you can look up the poets he’s referencing in the Notes. Apparently Kate Camp can’t get her mower started. (Because of this poem, I had a dream that I saw Kate Camp carrying her broken lawmower on her back out to the tip on Happy Valley Road. ‘It’s time,’ she said.)

There’s also a lot of music in this book, often broken music, like a piano-player being interrupted by a door-knocker who wants to sell him a better power plan; or this tiny broken song in the marvellous ‘Sensitive Boys’:

I’m not going to attempt to capture what this book is and isn’t saying about masculinity, because I’m not sure it’s asking to be read in that way, but I do think many of these poems are playing with a familiar down-home blokiness and repurposing such blokiness to make it free-er, funnier, more generous. Sam’s paying attention to how we talk to each other and help each other, and he’s rewarding us endlessly for paying attention. I think his poems show us that we could have better and funnier banter, for a start. I also think these poems keep on subtly gesturing at the freedom we could have, if we let go of fear: fear of others, fear of ourselves. This freedom is waiting, around us and in us. It’s the kind of freedom that can turn a bucket of clay into a living being who dreams of paddling out at dawn, the kind of freedom where a zipped-up rural armpit can have a ‘small sashaying animal’ living in it. But it’s also the kind of freedom you have to work for, like seaweed – and as Sam says, ‘Nobody works harder than seaweed’. He writes: ‘Watching seaweed, I throw up my hands & say oh my god’. I hope you will join me now in throwing up my hands in great appreciation of the work, the fearlessness, the freedom of these two brilliant books.

Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble, p/b, $20

People From The Pit Stand Up by Sam Duckor-Jones, p/b, $30