Interview with Airini Beautrais

(photo by Grant Maiden)

Your latest poetry collection Flow is a narrative sequence of poems set on and around the Whanganui river. Can you tell us the genesis of the project?

The project began as the creative component of my PhD thesis. I was interested in long narrative poems and poem sequences. I had a few different things I wanted to write about and the river ended up taking over. I like the way that happened – like a flood. It’s such a huge, multifaceted subject, and it draws in so many stories. A really important event for Whanganui was the passing of the Te Awa Tupua legislation earlier this year, which gives the river legal personhood. It also states that the river owns itself. This legislation was in its earlier stages when I began writing and I felt inspired to write about the river because of that.

There are poems set in 1864 up to the present day. Did gathering the voices and events for Flow involve a lot of research?

There was a fair amount of research. I read a lot of amateur histories, put together by school reunion committees and the like. An important part of the research was reading up on bicultural history, and reading the Waitangi Tribunal reports relating to the river and other areas featured in the book. They make some very challenging, very sobering reading. I also talked to a few people, but I was quite selective with this. People were also selective with me – not everyone is cool with being cold-called by a poet.

As with historical prose fiction, poetry about history benefits from a certain amount of stepping back from the research. I found things worked better when I fictionalised a character or event, rather than sticking to purely factual detail. Some of the voices in this book are entirely made up. I felt a certain amount of freedom to do this with Pākehā figures because I felt like that’s my own history. But I felt a responsibility not to bend the facts when it came to Māori. Those aren’t my stories to fabricate.

As with your most 2014 collection Dear Neil Roberts the poems in Flow straddle politics and story – do you think of yourself as a narrative poet? Can you talk about the choice to tell historical stories in poetic form?

I’m certainly very interested in narrative in poetry. That was the focus of my PhD. I get quite bothered by the false dichotomies of ‘poetry’ and ‘fiction’ or ‘poetry’ and ‘narrative.’ An awful lot of poetry throughout history has been narrative. Even many primarily lyric poems tell stories. Telling historical stories in poetic form is certainly not a new thing, but I do think it’s something that’s become more widespread in recent times. I was inspired by sequences like Robert Sullivan’s Captain Cook in the Underworld and Cassino: City of Martyrs, and Bill Sewell’s The Ballad of Fifty-one, all of which are also quite political. It makes sense that an interest in history and an interest in politics go together. I tend to be drawn to stories that both fascinate and disturb me. There is quite a lot of dark material in Flow. But there’s also some uplifting stuff.

Whanganui is a place you write about a lot – you grew up there and live there now – but many poets don’t locate their work so specifically in a place. What is the pull of this specific location for you in your poetry?

Whanganui is an interesting place. Like many parts of New Zealand, it has a relatively recent history of violent colonisation, land being taken by force, and all of the repercussions that come from that. When I was twelve the occupation of Pākaitore happened, and my family went down there to support what the occupiers were doing, along with our church (Quakers). Meanwhile at school kids were coming in with attitudes from home like ‘They should be bombed.’ I think the scars of these events never really go away. More recently there’s been a lot of festering racism surrounding the change of spelling from ‘Wanganui’ to ‘Whanganui’ in line with the wishes of local iwi. The letters to the local paper are frequently pretty insane. This is all stuff that needs to be talked about. If it gets brushed under the carpet people won’t be able to move past the misconceptions.

But as well as all that, there are a lot of good people here doing a lot of good things. And alongside everything is the river. I’ve always felt a strong connection to the river. My religious upbringing was kind of pantheist and I do have a spiritual feeling about it. I think a lot of people do.

Flow, p/b, $30.