The Storyteller: Selina Tusitala Marsh

The simply fabulous Waiheke poet gives us an insight into her success

Just about everything Selina says is followed by a smile. Picture / Babiche Martens

Selina Tusitala Marsh, our Poet Laureate, is sitting at her stainless steel kitchen table. Across the room deck doors open to picture-perfect views of Takirau Bay, Waiheke. A red and white car ferry bow-waves through the turquoise water heading towards Kennedy Point, down where the road runs into the sea.

Small piles of poetry books dot the table in front of her. They await judgment for Victoria University’s "Best New Zealand Poem" of 2017 but she feels a little uncomfortable with the task. Poetry isn’t a competition, she says. With a smile.

Just about everything Selina says is followed by a smile. Even the big, worthy, weighty topics will eventually end up at that smiling destination. She sees light over dark. She exudes positivity, inclusivity.

I see a book on top of one stack — Anchor Stone by Tony Beyer. I want to lobby for it. He taught me art history in the 7th form at Auckland Grammar in 1979. It’s nice to see his name. I remember, as a nervous schoolboy, handing him terrible poems to look at.

These days I nervously hand them to the Poet Laureate, who is also my supervisor for the Masters Of Creative Writing I’m doing at Auckland University. I’m her only charge, the rest of the writers are producing fiction.

READ: Why Poet Hera Lindsay Bird is a Literary Rebel

Her notes back to me are incredibly thorough and detailed. Her encouragement is kind and generous. She is the very opposite of a stuffy academic, a woman who gives you the feeling she can and will embrace the world.

This is a woman who doesn’t need to try to be fabulous. She just is. No room could ignore Selina’s arrival. Amazonian is the word that probably springs into most people’s minds. Tall. Square-shouldered. Big hair. The biggest smile.

Tusitala: it means storyteller. She is here to tell stories, collect stories and encourage other people to tell their stories. She sees the laureate-ship as a natural continuation of what she does anyway — diverse work in diverse communities, only now she does it with her ceremonial carved Poet Laureate tokotoko at hand.

Her three published poetry collections — the latest, Tightrope, came out in October — don’t shy away from difficult subjects. There’s death, memory. Post-colonialism. But there’s always humour and playfulness.

Her signature crowd-pleaser — a poem called The Fast Talking PI — is a funny, pointed, edgy ode to her cultural identity and all that comes with it, good and bad. Beneath its lighthearted disposition beats a tough satirical heart:

“ . . . I’m a slot machine PI,
I’m a lotto queen PI,
I’m tote-ticket church bingo TAB PI”

She’s had a big year. Assuming the mantle of poet-in-chief to the nation. Publishing her third book. Raising her three sons. Her associate professorship in the University of Auckland’s English Department Teaching — and working on her dissertation.

WATCH: Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh summarises her year in two very succinct words. 

Travelling. Being commissioned to write the Sir Edmund Hillary centenary poem for 2019. Having to read and assess the dim scratchings I’ve come up with — that alone is worth an accolade.

She opens her diary to literally show me her year. Not so much a diary — just pages she has drawn into a grid. Tiny boxes. Each one filled with scribbles, crossings out, alterations, appointments. Multicoloured. Just like her.

She is a medley of beautiful bloodlines: Samoan, English, Tuvaluan and French. Her purview is the wide Pacific but she is a girl from Avondale (she also wrote a poem for Avondale this year as part of the village beautification programme, which is being muralised).

She calls on her mentors to help her navigate a way through all this, including Professor Helen Sword, who she describes as an older, wiser version of herself.

She used to come to Waiheke with family as a child. Her dad would pilot a small boat up the Whau river from Avondale all the way to Onetangi, where they had a place.

These days her secluded piece of the island is a retreat from the demands of the world, a place where she can get her writing done. It’s a long way from the time she performed for the Queen at Westminster Abbey:

“How did you memorise it all?
I’m a poet, Your Majesty, it’s my job.
Yes, yes, I suppose it is.”
— from HRH Elizabeth II, in the Tightrope collection.

READ: Four Young Poets

Once the family is out of the house the books come out, spread across the kitchen table to transform it into her desk. In the evening, everything is packed away: there’s a family to feed as the table changes roles.

She says her partner and sons are reluctant accomplices in this poetry business, anything rather than verse. She has learnt to bear this. With a smile.

After we talk for a while, Selina takes me next door and shows me a secret grove of giant, ancient pohutukawa. The one called the "Mother’ is the biggest and oldest — could be 600 years, the arborists reckon — sending huge tangled limbs out through the undergrowth.

It’s like something out of a myth, a Tolkienish idyll. The local kids come to play in the weft and weave of the branches otherwise this is a place of silence and age.

There’s another pohutukawa out the back of her house — a cousin to the ones in the grove. It spreads like a colossal, protective umbrella over this piece of land. Just as our new Poet Laureate is spreading like a protective spirit over the nation’s poetic soul. I can’t imagine anyone more fabulous for the role.

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