I want to start by talking about location. Māori as, but I feel like where we stand and how we interact with the land is integral to the work we create and I see it in your work. The Waikato, with all her history has a specific sort of Wairua and significance I think. How has being based in the Waikato influenced your work?
I was born in Kirikiriroa, my whenua thrown out somewhere in the hospital I would guess. And my ancestors lived in this region. I descend from Ngāti Raukawa who are based in the Waikato, Tūrongo and Māhinaarangi are ancestors who come from this region. But this is also a land that has been soaked in the blood of our people. There have been such atrocities here done to us by the Crown. There is a violence even in sitting next to Waikato Awa a river I feel close to spiritually, and it’s a still water if you get what I mean. Farmers need to learn to respect this land eh. So there is a deep connection but also one that is covered in blood. I think a lot of the collection is about trying to stretch over breaks and if not necessarily healing them, finding healing in the breaks.
However you wrote a large part of this manuscript in Wellington during your MA at The IIML in 2017 - which is also where we met and became e hoa’s lol. Two years on, how was that year for you, both studying and being in Wellington?
I felt super disconnected and lonely in a lot of ways and really really poor. Rent and living in Wellington is fucked up expensive. But I made a lot of good writing friends there in you and Sam Duckor-Jones and Rebecca Hawkes and others. And as for the course Chris Price and James Brown (who was my supervisor) know what they’re talking about so I learnt a lot as a writer and being given that time to write the book was so so valuable.
Now your new book, ransack, the whole collection feels wet and red. From the title, to the cover, to the images and references to blood and body parts, to the way you cut and force language, they all emit a feeling of violence. The cover image reminds me of an inkblot test, a blood clot, a hair ball and finger-painting. So I wondered, what is your explanation for the violence in this book?
I think the process of writing the book I was very caught up in the idea of power and hierarchy as violent in and of themselves. How these structures label us which is often a way of accommodating violence; this person is different and so violence should be done to us. We also live on land that was stolen violently; and I’ve also struggled with self-harm myself and in my family and that violence seeps through in a few poems as well. So in short violence is everywhere and on everything so thus it is reflected in this work.
But while ‘violent’ what is striking to me about this work is the way it deconstructs, undo’s, unravels and yet, in the act of destroying you create really beautiful poems. You really use language like a physical material; kind of like blocks in the way that you build and break images. This is also felt in the language techniques, the enjambment, the way the lines break, how words spray across the page, how the slashes cut. Are you conscious of using language in this way? And what is your relationship between your form and content?
I think there is a whole lot of breaking down that needs to happen in reality, a breaking down of capitalist-colonial-patriarchal systems. And though this play with words doesn’t do any of that work, it is me trying to reference these hegemonic structures and how they need to be torn down so we can really understand each other. It’s alright to be anything - whoever you are - when you don’t have to worry about systems driven by profit and hate. And also it’s a lot of fun to mess with the white page. It’s not default as there is no one way to set something on the page. Some of the poems to me are like carvings, trying to bring up the shape that is held in the page rather than adhering to an expectation of form. In absence of writing in the Māori reo (finding time to learn is a real mission I’m getting there tūpuna I’m getting there!) this messing with form is my attempt to access a decolonised tongue.
Yeah cos as well as exploring identity as a non-binary person, the work also explores identity as Māori and as a takatāpui Māori. And like, I don’t mean to expose you lol, but I’m thinking back to when we first met and how neither of us were mad confident staking our claim in Te Ao Māori. I remember the conversations we had about “our right to write into this world.” But now I see you writing into this world, in poems like ‘One of the Great Ocean-Going Canoes’and ‘Koare’, with a grace and a calm authority. Maybe not from complete knowledge of Te Ao Māori but with a comfort with not knowing. What is the significance of having your identity as Māori present in the book alongside your identity as non-binary? And what is the relationship for you between the two?
I think being takatāpui is part of finding a place in te Ao Māori. I need to keep reminding myself that my ancestors are right there with me. That when I write about Tūrongo and Māhinaarangi they can hear me already. They sit inside me; as do Tiki and Tūtānekai in their embrace. There is a darkness over our history so many missing gaps in the past, but I feel safe in this particular takatāpui gap where I know there is so much for me to learn, which is nice. Writing this book and meeting you really helped with coming into that comfort, so thank you e hoa.
Another thing that struck me was the ‘ships’ throughout the collection; from The Endeavour, to waka to images of paddling, even whales; what do these vessels mean to the work?
They mean a lot of different things, I think it just comes from living surrounded by the sea; but it also represents this kind of freedom to move and how this freedom isn’t always accessible to everyone. Captain fucking Cook had that freedom, but so did Kupe and these two men did very different things with it. I wouldn’t say these vessels mean one thing specifically, they can be bodies or pathways between bodies or the transitioning body. Sometimes they represent connection sometimes, the breakdown of connection.
Throughout the collection there is a series of letters to Virgina Woolf’s character Orlando? What is your relationship and the significance of Orlando?
Orlando represents this huge contradiction in a way, me trying to find an indigenous self in a colonial figure but again pākehā invasion has created some wild fucking contradictions so maybe I’m allowed my own. The character means a lot to me because of a play adaptation I saw of Orlando. The lead role of Orlando was played by local actor Cian Gardner and she took the kind of jokey meta-character of Orlando and put a real heart into it. Watching the play I felt like I was watching a story of a writer transitioning through genders; the book doesn’t really do that for me. In the end the letters are really to myself and Orlando the name has a really nice sound to it especially for repetition.
What texts were you reading while you were writing this collection?
A lot of stuff including: TC Tolbert’s Gephyromania which I directly reference in the poem ‘Bridge(t)’, Aaron Apps Dear Herculine (the inspiration for the epistolary form), Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Beast Feast the first book I read by someone else who is nonbinary, Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka, I think I’m always dipping in and out of that book, Hinemoana Baker’s waha | mouth, Kamau Brathwaite’s Ancestors, and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and My Life in the Nineties which I reference in the poem ‘Sensephemera’.
And if you were to put yourself in your own literary canon, if you could recommend books to readers who read you to provide them some context, which writers or works would you pick?
Read pretty much anything from the previous list; other books I see as members of ransack’s whānau; Eliana Gray’s Eager to Break, Rae White’s Milk Teeth, Jos Charles’ feeld, CAConrad’s While Standing In Line For Death, torrin a. greathouse’s There Is a Case That I Am, Julian Talamentez Brolaski’s Of Mongrelitude, Roma Potiki’s Stones in Her Mouth, Tania Butcher’s Smudged Red on Cheek, Lehua M .Taitano’s Inside Me an Island, Keri Hulme’s Strands and anything by Tru Paraha. Also I think our books ransack and Poūkahangatusare siblings of a kind, yours is a year older! Lastly a recent poet I found out about, Serena Ngaio Simmons who is also takatāpui has some amazing poems online and I hope that soon there will be a whole canon of takatāpui Māori poets to draw from. Hint hint hint: publish more of us.
ransack, by essa may ranapiri is on sale now p/b,$25