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March 6, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Tuwhare: Putting Poetry in Motion

Being born in the achingly northern township of Kaihohe doesn’t normally present one with a myriad of opportunities. Apparently the ‘Pigs Arse Cricket League’ holds a lot of sway over the hearts and minds of some in the region, and clearly incites a fair bit of strong feeling too, with comments such as “u madaphukaz all bin chewin awn ur daddyz bone 2 long, da niggaz kaihohe dat will shet al ova da momo’z!!!!” (actual spelling) being thrown about the home-page. But if profanity isn’t your cup of tea, then some might say that you’re stuck in the proverbial rut. Unless of course you’re Hone Tuwhare, whose Northland roots are firmly tied down through the Nga Puhi tribe, and who has become one of New Zealand’s top-selling and most widely respected poets of this century.

Snide remarks about our northern cousins aside, the achievements of the second Te Mata Poet Laureate are truly extraordinary, regardless of his origins. It’s easy to highlight the details of his humble beginnings, and laud his success as proof that anyone can rise up into the crème de la crème of society, but in truth his honest and fatal talent in conveying raw human emotion would be no less astounding if he had been born in Parnell. However for someone who finished school at 12, spent the majority of his youth doing an apprenticeship at the Otahuhu Railway Workshops and only learnt to speak English after the age of nine, success on the level that he has achieved is somewhat awe-inspiring. What, no University education and long stints of research on Keats and Shelly? No. There’s just an innate ability to reel in a reader with familiar Kiwi vernacular, or a relevant issue, and then blow them away with the simple artistry of well-chosen words. Although Tuwhare’s family was not well off, he did have the benefit of a father who was well versed in Maori oratory and storytelling history, a man who was fluent in Maori as well as English, the latter taught to him after around eight years of speaking Maori at home and school. This accounts for his strong knowledge of and affinity with Maori myth and legends, and in part his advocacy of Maori political and cultural movements, such as the Maori Land March of 1975.

Fair enough, you say, he was hot news in his time. But wasn’t that thirty odd years ago? Surely the fuss has died down now that he’s pushing eighty… maybe eighty-five? Fortunately, time has not forgotten the genius of Tuwhare, who received the Prime Ministers Award for Literary Achievement for poetry in 2003, an award whose other recipients have included Janet Frame and Michael King. He was also granted an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the University of Auckland in 2005, although he doesn’t seem too fazed about the whole shebang. His biographer Janet Hunt was said to have been very affected by the opening words of his poem ‘To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland’, where his statue bemoans the larger-than-life status on top of a pedestal – a reflection of Tuwhare’s desire to remain human and be represented as ‘having guts’ in the chronicle of his life. ‘I hate being stuck up here, glaciated, hard all over and with my guts removed; my old lady is not going to like it’.

But although he rejects the idolatry that comes with critical success, there is no denying that he appreciates recognition, especially from ordinary working people. Tuwhare recalls that when he read a new poem to a Berlin barmaid “She was so chuffed I got a free beer”. Robin Healy commented in a 1980 review that he “showed respect for pace, movement and the surfaces of ordinary life.”

Out of the sphere of literary circles, Tuwhare’s poetry has continuing significance in a more public arena in the upcoming performance of ‘Tuwhare’ – a performance (and CD) of his poetry by a high profile range of New Zealand musicians, including Goldenhorse, Dallas Tamaira (of Fat Freddy’s Drop), Don McGlashan and director Charlotte Yates. As part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, Tuwhare’s poetry is reaching a wider audience than ever before, the magnitude of which is normally unheard of for poets while they’re still living and breathing, let alone producing work.

For Yates, this seemingly daunting project of directing a homage to such a well-loved poet is familiar ground, having already directed a similar project in 2000, paying musical tribute to poet J K Baxter’s work. Her success in this led to a commission by Toi Maori Aotearoa in 2004 to create a similar acknowledgment of Tuwhare’s contribution to our cultural heritage.

Although also respecting Tuwhare’s wishes not to be represented as something he’s not, Yates recognises the magnitude of the project. “It’s easy to forget” she muses “that he was the first Maori New Zealander to have a book of poetry published in English” – it doesn’t seem quite so extraordinary in our contemporary setting- “he’s not going to say he’s a trailblazer, but he definitely was”.

The situation for poetry at the time, 1963, was that it didn’t sell, let alone make a living for those writing it (not that this has particularly changed, the cliché of the starving poet is still in use for a good reason), and many were cynical about the selling power of Tuwhare’s first book ‘No Ordinary Sun’. Yates puts it in perspective: “This is the context of where the perception of Maori writing was at . . .the story here is the classic tale of the writer who, when asked by a publisher, ‘Who will read these books?’ responds that Maori would. The publishers’ reply was ‘But Maori don’t read books.’”

“You see now it’d be laughable, but imagine someone saying that to you? You’d just go aye yai yai!” Even more hilarious now, considering that the first 700 copies sold out in just ten days, a situation almost unheard of in 1963. Another 2,000 were printed, “that walked out the door,” Yates recounts proudly, and No Ordinary Sun is currently on its twelfth reprint.

Finding artists and bands interested in collaborating on ‘Tuwhare’ was no issue for Yates, whose only real selection criteria was the need for “established recording artists”; the offer to work on the project was very rarely turned down, and even then primarily due to prior commitments. She approached artists with varying styles to give the compilation some depth and diversity, and also looked to have a strong Maori artist presence on the album, in this case WAI, Mahinarangi Tocker and Te Kupu (Dean Hapeta of Upper Hutt Posse) feature along with the slightly more mainstream musicians.

One minor problem that she admits having to face was the fact that several different artists were after the same poem to put their own stamp on; in particular ‘Rain’ – the simple but effective sensory poem that chronicles the effects of raindrops falling on us, and our immediate surroundings.

I can hear you
making small holes
in silence
rain

I should know you
By the lick of you
If I were blind

Apparently Don McGlashan got first dibs on this one and the benefits are clear in the already musical, rhythmic fall of the words in a layout that could almost already be lyrics.
Yates herself “turns Tuwhare’s words into an effortless pop vocal hook in the almost Fur Patrol sounding Mad’”(smokecds.com), putting a new, female perspective on the immediately recognisable sentiment in a poem about waiting for one’s lover, and being blown away by their final approach.

Although known for his ability to speak across the board to a whole range of New Zealanders, drawing on common Kiwi vernacular and sense of humour, Tuwhare certainly has a penchant for a few big words, mouthful enough when spoken but a whole new ball-game when sung. In Mad he writes – ‘ . . .but for the slow exhalation of my excitement as you turn . . . to my multiple infarctions-awareness of coin silver leaves turning a-squint in air’ Mad is a poem up there with Yates’ favourites. “I love how the poem starts . . all this sort of stuff about getting so excited to see someone, and then you finally do and it’s like, you babe! And right at the end of it it’s acknowledging how lunatic that is.” Yates relates a relevant tidbit overheard recently, “intense physical desire has a lot in common with insanity . . . the saying madly in love is not far from the truth!”
Goldenhorse’ version of the brief but powerful ‘O Africa’ has been highlighted as a favourite in the compilation by many a reviewer.

On bloody acts
That make less human
Mankind’s brighter sun,
Let revulsion rise
Eclipse the moon’s
Black evil, so that

Innocence and the child
Shall reign
So that we may dream
Good dreams again

The show will be playing from March 11-13 at the Town Hall, which will be transformed into something resembling a cabaret with small tables of six scattered around the floor to produce what Yates hopes to be a relatively intimate atmosphere. All is going to plan too, although “if you’d asked me two weeks ago that wouldn’t have been the case” laughs Yates, citing the usual suspects for the inevitable last minute panic: slight technical difficulties, and the pressure of organising a show for twelve different artists, all with different performance specifications. But with seasoned show hand Rawiri Paratene taking the role of MC/convener, there to “make things run smoothly”, and a cast of passionate, experienced musicians, there is hardly any doubt that the highly anticipated homage will go just as planned.

It has been mentioned more than once that, had he been born thirty/forty years later, Tuwhare could have been a seriously talented MC, with his wicked sense of humour, strong oratorical background and serious concern for issues affecting ordinary New Zealanders. He’s a bit like a Kiwi Mike Skinner, only with better pronounciation, and maybe more hair. Whatever his medium, his work continues to have a lasting impact across all boundaries of class, race and religion, and with Tuwhare about to hit the stage no doubt it will find a whole new audience to wow. Tuwhare would take it in his stride; one could hardly expect less of a man who prepares for University readings with three cups of tea and a couple of pies.

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