Jordan Hamel (words) and Jane Ussher (portraits) meet poet Tayi Tibble
Like all good interviews, this one started late night in the jockeys’ quarters of Tauherenikau racecourse in Featherston, with Tayi reading from her new collection Rangikura after her reading at the Featherston Booktown Established v Emerging Poetry Showdown event. Us poets lucky enough to be staying at what felt like a deranged school camp sat in silence drinking the leftover red wine trying not to disturb the sleeping novelists as Tayi recited. Before it was over, we all knew what we’d already suspected: this book was going to continue cementing Tayi’s place as one of our most important literary voices.
I was made of the same
I was made of the same
star matter as legends
star matter as legends
Whether it was rapping over the smoke machines and strobes in the dress-up poetry show Show Ponies, transfixing a room of farmers, accountants and John Campbell at the poetry showdown, or the quiet late-night recitation, that weekend in Featherston was a reflection of Tayi’s ability to hold a room and bring people in with her poems.
Tayi’s public image goes beyond her poetry. She’s in the new Solar Power video by Lorde, she’s an an Instagram star with 15,000 views on Tiktok, she’s a socialite in Wellington’s club scene and professional astrologist for Metro and a fashion icon straight out of early-2000s peak celebrity culture and Ascot Park, Porirua. If you want a visual idea of the style and brand Tayi’s cultivated over the years look no further than the Rangikura launch hype posters featuring Kylie Jenner and rapper Saweetie holding the new collection as the must-have accessory of the hot girl summer.
The first time I met Tayi properly was at the 2018 VERB Festival poetry showcase at Meow, which we both featured in alongside Kaveh Akbar, Raymond Antrobus and a slew of other equally accomplished, equally terrifying poets. It was my first time reading at a literary festival and – as if being on stage at VERB reading to what felt like a dense, bubbling, sea of Bill Manhires wasn’t scary enough – the prospect of meeting Tayi, whose debut book Poūkahangatus had been everywhere in late-2018, nearly made me run straight back out of the bar as soon as I walked in.
But everyone was nice because mostly people are nice, and that night was the first of many which built the foundation for my maxim: poets are like spiders, they’re more scared of you then you are of them. I’m glad I didn’t hide behind the Meow dumpsters all night because, amongst other things, I got to see that the Poūkahangatus hype was real. Also, I met someone who, while being the multitude of things the speaker in her poems embodies, is just another writer trying to figure their shit out. Someone who, like many of us, is reserved, even shy at first. But the more I’ve hung out with Tayi the more I’ve found her to be someone who’s perceptive, considerate and above all, just easy to hang out with. Someone you can talk smack to and have a laugh with at launches or readings, someone who’s always got tea to spill when no one else will spill it. The other plus side of spending too much time hanging out at these events over the past few years is I’ve seen Tayi’s growth behind the mic and on the page, growth that culminates in Rangikura.
The first thing I noticed about Rangikura is what made Poūkahangatus such a hit, Tayi’s gaze extends in all directions. It’s a book that starts and ends with both her ancestors and the future. It honours her whakapapa and the whakapapa of her writing, it plays around in the recent and distant past without ever stranding the reader there. Poem after poem it drops you into situations you can’t turn away from and instead of telling you how to feel, it lets the words run out leaving you to find your own way.
Rangikura is a true flex of a book, full of devastation and desire, reflection and refraction, gazing into stars and hard-hitting bars from someone with the rare ability to reach people through the page and through the mic.
I got the chance to sit down with Tayi a few days before her Pōneke launch, and talked over coffee and a questionable savoury loaf, about releasing Rangikura into the world, writing in isolation as a Libra, and how sometimes you need to look back before you look forward.
Tayi! Congrats on Rangikura, it’s mean. Compared to Po this book feels much more focused on a singular perspective while still being aware of generational mindsets and I like how the book starts and ends with conversations about your ancestors that are futuristic and forward-looking. How’d you go about tonally building Rangikura?
Aw thanks! I wrote most of the poems in the first section very slowly over the past three years, before I applied for the funding to finish the book. They kind of set the direction for the collection. Then I wrote the rest of the book in an intense six months. I thought about a person reading it cover to cover and I wanted to make sure there was a tonal shift from section to section. The first section is quite nihilistic and as a whole Rangikura is darker than Poūkahangatus.
Because you’re older and more depressed?
Yea who would’ve thought! I’m generally quite happy go lucky, so I was writing these things thinking what the fuck. But even though there’s a lot of darker material in this book, just the same old trauma and diaspora of colonisation that I’m always writing about lol,there is a lot of ambiguity and space for the reader too, as well as jokes. I don’t want to force anything.
I think that’s one of your strengths as a writer, you leave space for the readers to find and deal with their own shit within your stories instead of telling them how to feel.
I try to be as conscious as possible when writing about mamae especially because honestly I’m pretty sensitive to the universe’s energy and just generally wanting to be a positive bitch you know and send good vibes out. And you see that in the last section of the book which has a mood lift and reasserting of tino rangatiratanga, so you’re not stuck in the mamae when the book ends.
You definitely feel that lift at the end of the book when it circles back to your ancestors and their role in your future. Apart from pissing off the universe, what else were you thinking about and conscious of when writing it?
I started realising I had another book on my hands during lockdown. I was doing heaps of weird shit during lockdown, and it reminded me of being a teenager, just stuck in my room and not up to much. As a teenager, I had this overwhelming sense of waiting for my real life to start and lockdown reminded me of the intense boredom I used to feel having all this free time but not really feeling free. Waiting is a recurring theme in this book. I was also thinking about the crazy fire in Australia. There was a zoomed-out photo of earth and Australia was being burnt off the map and that really freaked me out and got into my psyche and got into the book. I was thinking a lot about climate change when writing this book. I felt like we were so focussed on climate change in 2019 but then everyone sort of forgot about it when the pandemic started, and it gave me productive anxiety.
I think it’s hard for people to grapple with the immediacy of climate change sometimes and I love how you reflect those existential anxieties in Rangikura. There’s been a lot of climate fiction and writing that’s done quite well recently, a lot of it from pakeha or colonial perspectives, how do you think you or writing fits in the climate space?
For me I just can’t separate climate change from the desecration of indigenous women as the creators and carriers of indigenous knowledge. They’re so intertwined and really obviously go hand in hand to me. The more and more indigenous women are disrespected and decentred, the more the earth is destroyed and I like the way I have tried to explore that in this book, by putting the anxiety in the feminine experience.
You wrote Poūkahangatus at the IIML. How was that experience compared to this?
I loved my time there, I ate it up, but it was, for the most part, a pakeha environment, and I felt like I had to meet them in their world a bit. But now I feel like everyone’s on my waka, I can bring them into mine and it feels a bit more autonomous.
And now that we’re on the waka with you, where are we going?
I don’t know yet, somewhere lit and bougie native lol. I definitely, for the most part, exist in a world that’s a projection of my mind where Māori are the centre, and if you read the book I want you to also exist in the world my e hoas and I are trying to create. It’s nerve wracking though, writing a book in the IIML is such a collaborative effort and before Poūkahangatus came out, I knew it was good and lots of people I respected had told me it was worth putting it out in the world. Now I just feel like I’ve done this weird random thing by myself. I didn’t show Rangikura to anyone for ages. I didn’t have a class of people telling me that I’m doing amazing every week, or here is how it could be better.
How was it going from such a collaborative to a solitary process this time?
Pretty mental. It was fun to be able to do what I want. But there were so many weeks where I’d sit there thinking what have you done, you’re being such a frickin weirdo, sitting here writing your weirdo little thoughts for your weirdo little book, who cares. Also, because I’m a Libra, I’m a reflective mind.
Yea we Libras need constant affirmation or else we just collapse in ourselves and assume the worst thing that can happen will happen. But we like your weirdo thoughts and it’s cool to see them percolate here, like the 20-page prose poem in the second section.
I’d been working on that poem as a lil side piece for a while, but as I started putting together Rangikura I realised the tone was similar and I put it in. Also, I’d been interested in prose from reading Han Kang and people like that who experiment with that kind of prose-poetry form, and I’m interested in storytelling and narrative as a writer.
I think it’s a good change of pace and it’s cool that we’re seeing more of those boundaries being stretched a bit. Do you think your writing has been influenced by other NZ writing from the last few years or does it just sit alone in your Libra mind?
Well I read a lot of NZ writers so it definitely comes out in my work. I really love Talia Marshall’s writing. Bug Week by Airini Beautrais and Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker were my standout books of last year. Tusiata Avia is a big one for me, especially Fale Aitu. I read that a lot when I was writing my first book but its influence comes out more in Rangikura. Tusiata just really went there with a lot of things and a lot of mamae within her community. It made me feel like I had more permission to write about the heavier things and that it’s possible to write about them in a way that isn’t exploitative and feels necessary, because I do worry about writing that stuff sometimes. Sometimes I’ve asked myself if I’m exploiting my own trauma, exploiting my mamae, exploiting my own stories and my family stories etc, but most of the time I trust myself to navigate that, as well as having the skill and the touch to do it justice.
Was this reflected at all in the response to your first book? Was there a lot of support?
The reaction was overwhelmingly really positive. But there has been some weird and upsetting responses too, mostly from middle-aged white women, the random old man, or straight up salty haters who may or may not be projecting on me lol. I’ve had people ask me if I’m commodifying my indigeneity for example, or older women asking me if I consider myself a feminist or not, because they perceive the way I dress as slutty or something.
I guess a lot of them grew up in a time where everyone wrote like them and looked like them and now they feel a bit threatened? Also, it’s such a small community with finite resources and finite space so people like to hold it tight often and become quite resistant to change.
Hard out. It can be quite exasperating sometimes because as a young brown Māori woman, I’m like, literally still so vulnerable in a number of ways, and I’m like, why are you going out of your way to discourage me when I’m discouraged enough in society! It’s so dry to me. That said, I try to be good-natured about a lot of things most of the time, because I know they’re just fascinated by me, even if they’re coming at me with a whack or discouraging comment. I’m also a lot more comfortable with the idea that I, or my work, might be polarising for some people, and that’s okay.
I think there’s a really interesting cultural and generational divide there where instead of repeating that behaviour you’re often publicly offering young writers help and resources and you seem pretty generous with your time.
The more people we get through the door, the more diverse and nuanced and interesting people we get to hear from. But I feel like since I published my first book there’s been such an increase in young Māori writers around now, and that’s great.
We contextualise each other. I do feel responsible to a certain extent to Māori writers and our whakapapa, though it can be hard to navigate our obligations, that’s a hard line to walk sometimes, because my personal and creative freedom is so important to me, but also I want to belong and bring others up as well.
Yea it seems like you’re doing what you can though. Maybe it’s just because I’ve heard you read a few times recently but when I was reading the book, I could hear your voice and flow so clearly and I think that speaks to how you’ve grown as a reader and performer
It’s because I wanna be a rapper.
True and that’s the thing, it comes through so much in the book, in “Yum Yum Beef Noodles” and a lot of the other poems, there’s so much rhythm and rhyme, I found myself reading the poems once for the flow and once for the content and I really wasn’t expecting that.
I really wanted poems in this collection to feel a bit more like rap and I guess more like slam and performance poetry too. I think I was shamed out a bit for my rhyme during the IIML and rightly so because a lot of it sucked. But now I feel I have the skills and if you’re Māori, it’s smart to do work that honours your whakapapa, and a lot of my artistic whakapapa is rap, people like Lil Kim and Rico Nasty etc. Elevator Musiq by Nesian Mystik has been a big influence on me, for it’s kind of polynesian world building and swag. And my flatmate Helena. She’s got bars. She is New Zealand’s real literary icon actually. The best thing I could have done for my writing honestly was live with Helena. Everything she says I parrot.
What about your bars? Have a favourite line in the book?
Honestly, I feel like “A Karakia 4 a Humble Skux” is straight bars, like my pen really went stupid on that one, and I think it’s one of the most generous things I’ve ever written. I also think “My Ancestors Ride wit Me”, “Yum Yum Noodles” and “My Ancestors send me Screenshots” all have bars too, because they’re written like a diss track and I was trying to flex on my haters lol. Not that I really have, or am bothered by haters, but I love the energy of a diss track, and the diss track as a form. I think doing the mahi is the biggest clapback though, and I feel like this book is a frickin flex like, I did it once and I did again. That’s actually a big part of this book, but like also, honestly, I needed to flex for myself too.
The swarm of excited people at her Pōneke launch for Rangikura included what felt like every living New Zealand writer (and maybe some dead ones). While there’s never any shortage of book adjacent people in search of free booze and maybe some dried apricots at the frequent Unity launches (myself included), Tayi’s was different. The store was packed to the point of being unable to move. The wine ran out halfway through the speeches and the stacks of the new collection hiding the counter like a fortress disappeared not long after.
After the launch, a larger than usual group of us visited some of Wellington’s many fine establishments that cater to those who aren’t quite ready to let a Thursday night disappear. It started with drinks and hot dogs in a dimly lit rooftop bar called Nightflower, I vaguely remember overhearing someone at another table tell their friend, “You know Joseph Gordon-Levitt comes here to drink!” so that felt suitably glamorous, and it ended like it always does, a bunch of hyperactive tipsy poets singing Fiona Apple karaoke to an empty room, the perfect evening.
Sometime during the night, in a rare quiet moment at Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s favourite bar, a friend mentioned to me that Poūkahangatus was one of the three poetry books they’ve actually read cover to cover. Full of Unity Books wine, post-launch energy and line after line of Tayi’s new poetry, I assured them Rangikura will be the fourth.
Rangikura by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $25) is available from bookstores nationwide