Framing the House

The first poem I hear performed in Aotearoa New Zealand is by a loud Australian Spoken Word guy. He’s ginger-bearded, ruddy, wearing hiking boots and a hat he stole in Nepal. His poem, “Behemoth,” begins with a wordless roar. I recognize the cast that follows, more or less, from other open mics I’ve attended in the States: there are comic rhymes, plainspoken elegies, sexy daring poems, and clever thoughtful ones. A silver-haired woman reads with crisp elocution, but others mumble into their beards. Some have memorized their work. I stare at a sooty-clothed Hamlet because, backlit by sunny windows, I could swear his ears are pointed, but I must have Weta Workshop’s latex-lobed elves on the brain. People of diverse ages, races, and fashion sensibilities listen appreciatively.

It is Sunday February 20th, exactly a month after I arrived in Wellington to inhabit the role of Fulbright Senior Scholar for a season. It is less than two days before the 6.3 quake that devastates Christchurch. I have been drinking tea with poets, poring through the university library, and establishing an internet connection, finding the supermarket, and consoling my teary kids about their new schools. Suddenly I have three interesting readings to attend in one week: this one at the Ballroom Cafe in Newtown; a meeting of the New Zealand Poetry Society at the Thistle Inn in Thorndon; and “Poets in the City,” a splashy event at the City Gallery including poets laureate and other popular and well-known writers.

During a ten-minute intermission talk buzzes cheerfully up to the exposed rafters. I chat with the friendly strangers at my table: a Kiwi sculptor, a New England poet-photographer, and an antinuclear activist from Bolivia. The blackboard menu lists kumara soup and other items that suggest I may be in a foreign country. I order bruschetta and a local pilsner.

The main event, “Nga Ngaru Mai I te Moana Nui A Kiwa: Waves from the Pacific,” is convened in Maori by poet and storyteller Moira Wairama. A band of three male singers and musicians, The Whanau (“family”), occupies a window seat; the three other poets are women who know each other from Writer’s Block, a cross-genre Wellington workshop for Maori and Pacific writers. Their hour-long performance is an enactment of community. Poems alternate with songs in a prearranged flow; no one grandstands or tells anecdotes; the members of the group clearly know and enjoy one another’s work. I don’t realize until afterwards how differently arranged this reading is than others I have attended. Instead of one poet reading several pieces in a closed program, the focus moves from person to person, highlighting the conversation between different authors’ work.

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t know how much I don’t know, but this event drives that knowledge home. I’m sure I’m supposed to recognize “special guest Pikihuia” but I can only make wild surmises. Maraea Rakuraku delivers feisty poems about mispronunciations of her name, which I suspect I’m mispronouncing (I’m double-checking the spelling now). Alice Te Punga Somerville, a new colleague of mine at Victoria University (I’m the one who’s new), delivers a poem called “The measure of a man’s worth.” It’s full of references I have to look up later and ends with a hot local controversy: the Waitangi Day opening of a new wharewaka on the waterfront, without the waka it was built to showcase, because, as Alice puts it,

our ocean-going navigating vessels
will not fit
the whare you’ve built to house them

I’m listening to her pronouns, the mixture of languages, the tone that is both factually plain and sharply pointed. Community is defined by the social scientists I’ve been reading as a function of geographic proximity; relationships that generate social capital; member participation in defining norms; and frequent, substantive communication. Often nostalgic, even mythic, “community” sometimes seems to preclude difference and dissent. Certainly it is characterized more than anything by a “we-feeling,” a subjective experience of belonging. I have been warmly welcomed, and in some sense poets are always my tribe, but I barely speak the language and have a lot more reading and listening to do. This virtual space makes a pretty flimsy whare, but I hope it will be big enough to house some thinking about poetry and community in and beyond Wellington—why writers forge or join groups and institutions, how those networks interact with other groups, and the inclusions and exclusions implied by poems themselves.

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