Magandang hapon mga kaibigan at kapwa makata.
Maligayang pagdating sa isa pang pag-usap.
Good afternoon friends and fellow poets.
Welcome to another conversation.
Conversation? Indeed, for in all of these commentary posts I have had an email (sometimes via telephone) conversation with the poets featured, given that in one case it was solipsistic — as I spoke to myself mainly in the Introduction.
In every case the poets are asked similar questions as well as for their opinions about any Aotearoa poetic and poetry in the thin country. Here the questions relate to being a Kiwi-Asian poet; to utilising specifically Asian themes, stylistic devices and languages; to views as to what the poet would like to see more of in Aotearoa poetry.
And from now I am concentrating more on the edge, the periphery, the margins. Here it is Kiwi-Asian poets, given that some have been nurtured through and published via the 'mainstream'. And inevitably they will make for their own new mainstream soon. (And, I know I 'should' not start every sentence with 'and' in English language discourse, but so what? The English language is what you make it. Especially for snakes like me)
What do I 'mean' by Kiwi-Asian poetry? What is a Kiwi-Asian poet? Of course, these are very arbitrary terms and — as we shall soon see — are rather spurned by several of the poets included under the umbrella designation generated by me. However, I want to repeat that the population of Aotearoa-New Zealand is exponentially increasing by more and more people
of Asian extraction — whether they be from Philippines, 'Mainland' PR China, Thailand, Cambodia, India, elsewhere — coming to the country to live as permanent residents and citizens, while at the same time the birth rates of Asian people already here, remains higher than that of the Pākehā (Caucasian) segment of the nation's population. As noted, this 'trend' will only increase the more Asians living here write their poetry. Kiwi-Asian poets, then, will inevitably be increasingly visible here — all of which is a good thing for our multicultural mix. Interestingly enough, it is the younger poets who are the most 'radical' in their desire to repudiate the English-writing/speaking Pakeha centre which dominates NZ poetry, even if they are, ironically, published under the aegis of this centre.
And they won't always/ever be writing in English, which is also excellent — why should they? More, they won't necessarily be writing about well-worn Pakeha themes and subjects either.
I also have considerable interest in Kiwi-Asian writing, because my whanau (family) is Asian. My wife is from Philippines, my step-children born and raised in Hong Kong, with a Chinese father. We carry passports from three separate nations. The main languages in our household are Cantonese, Tagalog, Maori and English, while my wife's own first language is Kapampangan and my children speak Putonghua (Mandarin) fluently and I speak and write Bahasa Melayu (Malay) because of several years residing in Brunei Darussalam. And most of the last 13 years in Hong Kong, so that my own recent collection of poems, Atonement, was published there and in Macao.
And Pauline Wu is the artist who designed and drew the rainbow picture heading this conversation: she is my (step) daughter, who has also designed the covers and internal artwork of several of my other books.
I will commence with Dr Stephen Chan, whom I well remember from 45 years ago at the University of Auckland, as both a poet and as a student radical. He was born and raised in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Stephen has been overseas for the last 40 years and now is a Professor of International Relations at the University of London. 'I left New Zealand in 1976 and didn't visit the country again till 1986. My last visit was in 2007.' He is well remembered also, not only because of his own poetry, but because he also published significant work, 'I published David Mitchell's Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby in 1972'. He notes further that, 'There were only 12 000 Chinese in NZ then, so I must say it was easy to stand out. ' How times have changed!
Stephen Chan (2013) in Addis Ababa, helping to open the 8th African Forum Development
'There are very few literary links or conscious influences from China in my work. I think it's fair to say I consciously used Asian imagery and motiffs in my anti-Vietnam War poems of the time... I guess the main 'Chinese' poem, still used in the 2007 lectures of Manying Ip at Auckland University, was the one published in Landfall in 1975, 'Watch how the Chinese walk', which was about watching late night kung fu movies with bikie gangs. '
Many younger poets and writers will not be aware of Stephen Chan's significance to the Aotearoa poetry scene. Yet, he must be considered the precursor Kiwi-Asian poet. he notes, 'My advice to NZ/Asian poets and writers?... I think any Asian poet should see him or herself as part of a multiculturalism that is not exclusively Asian or Pākehā, but cosmopolitan and inclusive. ..I think all young NZ writers should look for both the cosmopolitanism at home, but also abroad. We are part of a very big world.' While he does still write poetry, 'I don't generally publish it anymore' - what follows is an unpublished fragment from 2009 -
And then, one day, exhausted,
being struck by a narrow shaft
In contrast there is Ya-Wen Ho, a younger poet, living in Aotearoa right now. 'I find defining myself as 'a Kiwi-Asian poet' uneasy and problematic on two levels - the nuances of the term Kiwi-Asian itself, and the efficacy of declarative self-definitions in positioning one's work. First, why I approach the term Kiwi-Asian cautiously. Sometimes, people tell me 'oh you're a Kiwi' as well-meant gesture of inclusion, but why such a gesture unless they had been thinking of me as an Other that needed including?...my wariness of Kiwi comes from its complex linguistic history in relation to the term Pakeha, its use as national identity rhetoric, and its predominantly white, middle-class connotations. I'm a New Zealander, not a Kiwi...'
'You [Rapatahana] asked about Kiwi-Asian right? English only allows me to answer part of that question, and it's interesting to think about how the linguistic conditions of this discourse shapes discursive content. Who has the power to speak/write/be read, in which language(s)?...In local Mandarin-language newspapers, I have yet to see a Mandarin term that operates as the demonym Kiwi. In English, the transmutation from a flightless bird to a New Zealander is an easy thing of capitalisation or a contextual cue; in Mandarin, it doesn't quite fly
...Local Mandarin-language newspapers use niǔxīlán huárén 紐西蘭華人, New Zealand-Asians, or huáqiáo 華僑, Asians-who-live-abroad, to refer/address to its readership. It means something to me to have access to Mandarin-words to talk about my Asianness, where I experience Asianness with greater immediacy, unmediated by translation into English. It also means something to me that the term Kiwi-Asian fails to move with me into my other language, that it reveals its construction as an English-languaged thing, and prompts me to ask who made this label, and on whose terms am I being asked to use it to define my work?'
'...my lived experience of Asianness...I feel is becoming more and more diluted. I grew up in Auckland. I grew up bilingual, but I am more proficient at expressing complex, abstract thought in English...I feel disassociated enough from 'Asianness' to be mindful of of cultural appropriation, even if...I do wear markers of belonging... My secondary - and even tertiary - literary education predominantly involved studying work by and/or about dead, white, heterosexual men. If I hadn't been bilingual and had an interest in experimental poetry, I doubt I would have been exposed to sufficient non-white, non-normative material to develop any position of difference. In fact, I think the diversity of my reading material needs constant work!...I'm deeply aware that whatever my answer, the position of my work, and by association, my position as a poet, is decided by my peers and reading audiences...whether I am a Kiwi-Asian poet or not is not entirely up to me.'
'I took Lisa Samuel's paper on experimental poetry at Auckand University...I started writing work using aural folds, a stylistic device which folds the last syllable of the previous line as the first syllable of the following line, creating a potentially infinite chain of lines linked by sound...I've only written three so far, bilingual aural-fold poems in which sounds on the crease of the fold, for a brief second, are simultaneously both English and Mandarin... it is very important to me that the use of Mandarin serves a structural purpose...I think the Mandarin language would not have made it into my writing in any other way than through the requirements of a process, and that is how I think of the language at present: as a tool to access and process a different set of sounds and words.'
'I would love to see the richness of lived experiences in New Zealand reflected in its literature, of which the non-English-languaged-ness of bilinguals and multilinguals is a part.' [My stress, for I completely concur with Ya-Wen here.] 'It fascinates me how challenging this would be to accommodate in relation to the other key indicators of difference (race, gender, age): a non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual story written in English remains far more accessible to a far greater number of the NZ population than a stock-standard genred text written in non-English...what would it mean to publish an anthology of Best New Zealand Poems that is not typeset exclusively in Latin-script? Would a non-English poem ever be eligible for consideration for Best New Zealand Poems in the first place?...I think it would be interesting to know more about non-English-language publishing in New Zealand [Hear, hear]... the existence of a parallel literary world, likely unknown to those who do not read the language, interests me...Does the existence of such voices, speaking on their own terms and seemingly disinterested in participating in the English-languaged literary world, undermine or complicate how we construct 'diversity'?'
Once again, I concur here. Where are the Kiwi-Filipino and Kiwi-Indian poets, given the questions pertaining to these terms? Are they writing? If so, are they writing in their own scripts, their own languages? I certainly hope so.
Holding similar views is another younger poet, Gregory Kan. 'I find the term [Kiwi-Asian] to be at best impotent, and at worst, severely reductive...The term Kiwi-Asian implies that differences can be reduced to those on the scale and boundaries of race and culture and the modern nation-state. But people embody, encapsulate and pass through different worlds all the time, throughout their day-to-day lives...I believe that Kiwi-Asian poets ought to be empowered and energized to participate fully in their creative community– but the term often works to blunt, subsume and appropriate irreducible otherness and difference. I would not wish my work or anyone's work to be colonised in such a way'
'In my first manuscript, This paper boat, I did explicitly employ elements and diction from Chinese mythology, particularly with regard to the Hungry Ghost Festival. However, I did not employ these references deliberately as either representative or validating of the fact that I am Kiwi-Asian. I began from the ground-up. These ghosts were significant to me, and I allowed that to speak for itself, without the overdetermining frame of identity categories. I think it restrictive and ultimately paralyzing to anticipate where a poem will go before it's written.'
'I wish that Aotearoa poetry, both ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’, were less white, and perhaps less obsessed with Anglo-American codes of poetics. I wish that this fact were more thoroughly interrogated...I’m sadly accustomed to being one of the few non-white audience members or participants at a reading, or in a journal, or in an anthology. I would like very much for this to change...I would like very much for the community to be open to other modes of being and writing that may not be affordable to it, and for the institutions that govern poetry’s channels of accessibility to admit more persons of colour into their decision-making bodies – in a less tokenizing and nullifying manner. Until then, perhaps ‘Kiwi Straight White Male Poetry’ should be made a category, too.' [My stress.]
Once again, I find myself completely in agreement with Greg Kan. It heartens me to read such opinions.
Chris Tse also has quite definite points to make here. 'I would define myself as being a Kiwi-Asian poet because I do offer a different perspective from the “normal” one that dominates our national literature. But, that perspective does not belie the fact that many of my personal experiences are similar to those writers of other ethnicities...but there’s no denying that my experiences as a Chinese-New Zealander definitely informs the way I write.
My book How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes explores Chinese beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife, so unsurprisingly it includes many Chinese themes and imagery...A lot of my more recent writing has nothing to do with Chinese themes or imagery...I accept that there is a responsibility to tell stories that aren’t being told, and I’m just doing my part. If this encour
ages other Asian-Kiwi writers to put pen to paper, then that’s a small part of the battle won...I don’t use many Chinese words or phrases in my writing, and when I do it’s not so much for authenticity as it is for honesty...'
'Naturally, I’d like to see more diversity in the multicultural voices and experiences included in Aotearoa poetry. You [Rapatahana] said it best in one of your earlier commentaries: “… any Aotearoa poetic must reflect ALL the peoples in this multicultural land, and indeed beyond”...There weren’t many Asian-Kiwi writers being published when I started writing (Alison Wong would've been the most prominent)...'
'So, because the Chinese-New Zealand voice was all but non-existent in New Zealand literature, in a way I took this as a message that people didn’t want to read about our experiences. Cynical, right? I was wrong, of course, and was persuaded by classmates and fellow writers to share my experiences in my writing...I don’t think that my ethnicity has ever been an obstacle to opportunities...What New Zealand does have in common with other parts of the world is that writers outside the Euro-centric centre are grossly underrepresented. Part of it is due to the fact that we're a young country and our national literature is still catching up...perhaps we need more diversity “behind the scenes” – that is, encouraging more people of ethnic backgrounds to be editors, publishers, and critics as one way of improving the range of voices in Aotearoa poetry.'
Renee Liang has her own views. When asked if she would define herself as a Kiwi-Asian poet, her response was, 'Yes, I would....being born in NZ to Chinese parents...I'm also unconsciously influenced. I've tried to deliberately use Chinese verse forms in my work, but it's not that easy to emulate in English without it becoming an exceptionally poor imitation...there are images I find myself using without realising initially that they are rooted in Asian sensibilities - for example the recurrent motif of a white orchid to describe my father and grandfather. I do use language, usually Cantonese (which has its own issues when phoneticised, as the pinyin sounds nothing like the word) when the meaning and rhythm of the work demands it...'
'I've generally found the space welcoming, though at times unintentionally patronising - people always want to hear me talk about things 'from my culture'. This (to them) usually means the well worn themes of racism, identity, disenfranchisement and so on - what if I just want to write a love poem?...Critical space - as one of the few Asian poets active in NZ, I have found my work being analysed and taught...sometimes...inaccurate, or overly simplistic, as most of the critics come from a different cultural background and may not be able to access everything I have consciously or unconsciously put in. It doesn't take long before I feel like a specimen being categorised and labelled.'
Here is one of Renee's poems:
in our house we rub bellies at bathtime.
puku I say
and my daughter repeats
poo-poo!, her tummy round
and full of cherries.
puku I say again
and sometimes, pooky
and my daughter frowns
and twists her tongue around the words.
a lover once called me
pukenui in such romantic tones
I didn’t find out until later
it meant big belly.
in England or Australia
no one would understand
if they saw us
man, woman, child
saying puku, puku, puku
dancing and chuckling
like so many Gods Of Happiness.
There is also my friend and co-editor of Outloud Too — a 2014 anthology of Hong Kong poets — Madeleine Marie Slavick. Madeleine Slavick lived in Hong Kong for well over 20 years.
I would consider her Asian and much more. She writes, ' I have always considered myself — including my writing and my perspectives — to be different from the 'normal' although I am not exceptional: we are all hybrids of culture, society, community, family and more. In my 25 years of living in Hong Kong, I never called myself an expatriate and in New Zealand I will not call myself Pākehā. I call myself a human being who has lived in and has residency/citizenship rights in the United States, Hong Kong and New Zealand...'
'My books of poetry, photography and non-fiction published in Hong Kong fill with that place -- its sounds, smells, words, images, kindnesses, and more...I have read a fair amount of Chinese literature (in translation) and was a publisher of bilingual Chinese-English books.
The tradition of image-based sparseness has affected my written voice
as well as my photographic imagery.' Because Madeleine is a well-received photographer too and she often combines both mediums.
Madeleine responds to my further question as to what she would like to see more of in Aotearoa poetry, given that she has lived here for just a couple of years - 'I do not live in a city and remain somewhat unfamiliar with NZ's publishing dynamics as a whole...I can say that there has been considerable interest and acceptance towards [my] work.'
Kiri Piahana-Wong, I have mentioned earlier in these commentary-conversations and indeed Kiri will later be included as Māori poet and as small press publisher. Kiri also organises Poetry Live in Auckland every month - thank you for inviting me too - and this year has also been a co-editor of JAAM. Very busy, eh! She notes, 'To be honest I probably see myself more as a Māori poet (I have Māori, Chinese and English ancestry.) I definitely feel my perspective is different to the 'mainstream' or 'norm', but the influence of my Chinese heritage is quite subtle.'
'I don't really do anything deliberately in my poetry, it's all unconscious...One way in which I feel my Chinese heritage comes out is in my focus on landscape and the weather and physical world mimicking a person's emotional state and interior world. This is a common feature of traditional Chinese poetry.'
I'd love to see Asian, Māori, Pasifika and other voices in poetry integrated into mainstream spaces. Often there are specific events focusing on Kiwi-Asian poetry...it also has a ghettoising or tokenistic effect. We need a shift away from Pākehā culture being the default setting, with other cultures as add-ons.
It goes without saying that I fully agree with Kiri's last statement as above - which is why I have highlighted it. And here is a poem by her with the traditional Chinese influences she mentioned.
This long year is
all but over and
from the balcony
of my new home
I watch the sun
burn its passage
against the trees,
rippling the water
I am waiting for
this year to end.
I am counting the
days until you
Every day seems
twice as long as
the one before it,
every hour stretching
far past its allotted
deep into the night
The night struggles
to give way to
In the mornings, I
do not rise to
greet the sun. I
drink coffee, and
I read. On my deck
again, I watch
the clouds, circling,
circling. I let
the rain fall on
my face. When
it’s raining, no-one
can see your tears.
My conversations with all of these fine poets, display that there is already a thriving poetic that is - is some vital ways - Asian textured, Asian-influenced, exponentially evolving and growing well away from the poets and poetry recorded on New Zealand Poets Read (which incidentally includes 'only' Alister Campbell as representative of any non-Pakeha poet...here actually would be a good place to note the important website of recordings of New Zealand poets titled The Aotearoa-New Zealand Sound Archive, which although rather dated now remains invaluable. It includes work by David Chan and Jill Chan as well as Alison Wong, another significant Kiwi-Asian writer, whom I have met in Hong Kong. Alison now lives in Australia, and although she wanted to contribute to this conversation, is exceptionally busy shifting homes right now...I can certainly include more concerning the significance of Alison Wong in a further conversation-commentary.
I have to also point out that the Sound Archive is the excellent work of Dr Jack Ross and Jan Kemp, herself an important Kiwi poet, whose input deserves much more attention.
And to conclude, here is a poem by Ya-Wen Ho - not a sign of the future of poetry in this country, but of right now.
To ascend to the subject of desire one has placed out of reach: plant an acorn under each foot and wai/特級蜜桃 a hyperbole of a peach/y keen squeaky cl/櫻紅葉綠 不協調的色塊瘋在一起/ia seeds clog the sink. I think about eating. It is quiet. Chia seeds clog the sink; the old milk lets itself out any way. My onesie and I return to the business of wri/婷婷玉立 昏昏欲睡/a cat opens a bird and a cloud spills out. A nephrologist puts it back in the sky. It rains. This afternoon I want to read the essay On the Virtues of Not Understanding; I aspire to virtu/multuous falls from grace, from the great heights of oaks.
To ascend to the subject of desire one has placed out of read: choreograph dancers into a structure, climb/ every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainb/OkCupid accounts, hacked and deleted and spawned again, maybe better luck this time/s herself towards collap/私房菜包養了某某的胃/eighty sleepiness roused by a not-poem. Who is C? Your text is not a poem in the same way I am not unhappy. Three books arrive in a b/occidental backpackers on the Taipei Metro; I identify. B says this is deeply interesting; I say no compass knows true north in our iron ci/提醒我因為少寫，已經生澀彆扭不知所言語無倫次錯別字多太多/ritos travel from hand to mouth, a ruminating morning. I write out all the remaining days of the year. This year ends on a Thurs/they say the dead visit their living on the seventh they/ say my grandmother made her loneliness from a terror of having no mon/擬人化的貓湊上來，然後不負責的跑了/urking between her shoulder blades, meaning plays hide and seek with B/業了 你想做什麼呢?我啊，我想把我的連貫性一把抽了，散了，叮叮咚咚，字字珠璣，隻隻竹雞。咕，咕，咕/tenberg invented the printing press around 1440. I buy the three lead characters I need to print my name. Airport security pulls me over. The x-ray cannot see through my dense dense heart. M writes, after two years, just before going to Tokyo and says, send me careless, fast-churn writing. I do not begin to explain how the music had stopped and I couldn’t climb past the overhang of her spine.
To ascend to the subject of desire one has placed out of reach: fold letters into escalators, stand within the yellow lines and hold the handrail tight/理工科的父親留下一櫃滿滿的科幻小說 我並不急著看完/dering feet take me to the park. The light loses its temperature at quarter-past-four and shadows escort me h/唵嘛呢叭咪吽南無/ mail ends up rained on. I must remember to post the forms tomorrow, and to hang the wash out to dr/挨著枕頭 半睡半醒 一行行的詩，忽忽而過/rangutangs laugh at the forty-two-year-old white rhino – ha, the world knows your low sperm Count/down will no longer deliver online purchases to homes with (stares)/ into an insincere smile, no, no, I do not want to be eat/謄寫著自己的名字，一遍又一遍，越寫越疏離，自己的手認不太出自己的名字。還好，我的聲帶記得/matitis runs up and down her legs; she leaves a trail of cellular clues. The escalator pushes at her heels to move along, move along. Everybody is a subject of desire for somebody.
Stephen Chan - very comprehensive, inclusive webpage for Professor Chan. Well worth a tour. Here too, is him on You Tube...Stephen's written work is well-represented in the seminal poetry compilation, Big Smoke.
Ya-wen Ho - Two aural fold poems are to be found here - and a trio of sestinas. [By the way, the photo was taken by Dennis Thorpe.]
Renee Liang - Renee on You Tube...reading a poem.
Kiri Piahana-Wong - A link to Anahera Press, Kiri's own publishing arm. And to one of her own books published there.