Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2017

I dedicate this last 12 months of choosing the ‘best’, to my friend and mentor, the late Associate Professor Teresia Teaiwa, whose Memorial Scholarship Fund continues to help give Pasifika peoples a choice.

Everybody loves free books (excluding my sons). I accepted this invitation to judge 2017’s batch of newly published poems because frankly, I wanted the books. I wanted to be able to map the latest constellation of Aotearoa’s poetry stars and navigate the various poetic journeys being offered from a particular time and place. I wanted to be inspired. After reading what seemed like, say, 3000 plus poems, I got what I wanted.

But I soon discovered that this was not an easy task. It wasn’t just a matter of reading a few poems and picking the ones I liked ‘best’. The sheer variety of form, tone, subject matter and lyricism soon problematised what I had thought was the ‘best’. Many a judge before me has acknowledged the impossibility of the task ahead. Most point to the bright sticky pink bubble gum of subjectivity that clicks and pops in the mouth whilst reading: ‘click, I like this one; pop, don’t like this one. Blow, I’m in my own bubble anyway.’ Presumably, this lets one off the hook. But I soon discovered that what I liked was too small a cage in which to read these free-range poems—just to further mix my metaphors in the post-euphoria of having climbed the Mt Everest of 2017’s poetic metaphors. Note to self: stop with the tongue in cheek stuff and get on with the serious business of writing this Introduction! (Aah, but whose tongue and in whose cheek?)

As a Pasifika Poet-Scholar, I wanted a more egalitarian way to ‘judge’ the ‘best’. I wanted to do something different, more collaborative, more epistemologically Pasifika—recalling Sia Figiel’s famously poetic passage nestled in the middle of her novel, Where We Once Belonged:

            there is no ‘I’
            only ‘we’

So, I decided to seek out the opinions, responses, reactions of the ‘we’ for a select numbers of poems that I hadn’t liked enough to include in my measly top 25. I gave out books and I gave out poems (with the payment that they could keep what they liked). My readers? Fellow Waiheke Trail Tribe runners, real estate agents, book club members, students, teachers, family members, people at the bus stop I saw often enough to bug. I asked them to give me 1-3 poems they liked and why. I particularly sought out non-poetry readers who might find some other kind of connection with the poems, or a poem that wouldn’t quite leave them alone. Sometimes I appealed to a pre-existing connection. So, poems about the Whanganui river went to Murray, my 65-year-old running mate and native Whanganuian. If poems dealt with their own shitty nature, I sought out people who thought poetry was shit (my sons). They loved Jodi Wright’s ‘Shitty’. It is one of the few poems they’ve ever read out to each other, over the dinner table, and for that reason, worth including in this introduction. The first six lines read:

            I drive a Shitty car, live in a Shitty town.
            My job is Shitty too, my boss is just a clown.
            I have a Shitty house and watch some Shitty shows.
            My old dog is so Shitty, he never comes around.
            I got a cranky husband, he’s a Shitty fool.
            My kids are Shitty brats, they never go to school . . .

Phantom Billstickers published it at the back of their Poet Laureate edition of Café Reader (Vol 16, Summer 2017).

If many of these weren’t on my own personal poetic radar, they were now. I gave especial attention to these ones in my final selection because I’m aware of my own blinders, my own poetic favouritisms. I sought to be somewhere between choosing as the current New Zealand Poet Laureate (although I was asked to judge before this lovely bestowal) and being a collaborative Pasifika Poet-Scholar with a penchant for bringing marginal voices to the centre.

Of course, choosing 25 poems from thousands is a mean task. I believe the words I used in an email to Chris Price after finally pushing out a measly 25 poems were similar to those after giving birth to my son Davey: ‘I’m frazzled, exhausted and pissed off’.

Throughout the whole process I kept Dana Gioia’s timeless 1991 essay ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ front and centre. His advice to those who choose: ‘Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers, not to flatter the writing teachers who assign books. Poet-anthologists must never trade the Muse's property for professional favors.’

So what were my criteria for selection? Simply:

            • If a poem made me want to write a poem, it made the pile;
            • If a line stopped me, gave me an ‘aha’ moment, upset me or made me laugh, it made the pile.

These poems were then judged according to the degree in which they engaged me as a poet. They were then subjected to the memory test: if I remembered any part of the poem, they made my top 25. I hope my selection opens up spaces and helps others choose. Collected from eight books, eleven online journals, one blog post, one mainstream media outlet, and two print journals, these poems spoke to me throughout 2017, at different times and in different places.

In March I was invited by Air New Zealand to MC a private, intimate dinner of a thousand with former US President Barack Obama. I wove poetry throughout the evening and refused any blame: ‘It’s what you get when you ask the New Zealand Poet Laureate to MC.’

I was privileged enough to meet the man himself—and be sprinkled with his Obama mana-dust. He spoke of the importance of the arts, and how ‘we need more poetry’. Music to my ears (cue the Obama mana-dust to fall). I couldn’t agree with him more (having signed and delivered my last three poetry collections into the hands of his Advance Team).

We do need more poetry—of all kinds, from all voices, from all places. I hope you enjoy my eclectic favourites from 2017. The word ‘poetry’ comes from ‘poesis’, the Greek word for ‘making’. To honour these poems and their makers, to honor the spirit of poesis, I made a mostly found poem out of their titles (in italics). Making poems: it’s what I do and hopefully, after reading this selection, what you’ll do too.

            The Lifestyle Creed

            If Katherine Mansfield were my best friend
            we’d be skipping dead insects across the oceans
            into the first cold
            piecing cartographies from chipped china
            moving from food to song
            with love

            If Katherine showed me
            the quickest way to trap a folktale
            I’d show her
            a moanan theory of reality television

            we’d stop/move
            and see
            there is a house that we are in
            and one world
            ahakoa he iti he pounamu / although it is small it is a greenstone

            she’d hitch her petticoat
            and rise like a queen,
            and tell all tall women
            the reason why she quit Queen at night:
            to begin a writing exercise
            to the trees of summer
            planted round the hospital
            after my father’s death.

            Mana protests in Pākaitore
            and folktales we have galore here.


Selina Tusitala Marsh

April 2018

Selina Tusitala Marsh is a Pasifika Poet-Scholar. As the 2016 Commonwealth Poet she wrote and performed a poem for Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. She has three nationally acclaimed collections of poetry with her first book, Fast Talking PI (Auckland University Press, 2009) winning a national award. An Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Auckland, Selina teaches New Zealand and Pacific Literature, and Creative Writing. She delivered the prestigious annual New Zealand Book Council Lecture (2016), was made Honorary Literary Fellow by the New Zealand Society of Authors (2017), and is currently the New Zealand Poet Laureate (2017-2019), the country’s highest poetry accolade. She recently MC-ed an event with President Barack Obama where they spoke about the importance of poetry. Selina lives in hope that one day, one of her three rugby-loving sons will write her a poem.