essa ranapiri

— All art has the potential to illuminate, motivate, and instigate. In the West, it seems, we rely largely on film, television and prose to do much of this heavy lifting. How important is poetry as a form of resistance?

I think poetry for me performs resistance when it builds community. Especially since my work is often engaging with queer and/or Maaori/Pasifika work. So much of the world wants us dead or silent or imprisoned, and when we write together and share our voices I think that does something tremendous––when we use poetry to build community against those that would have the worst happen to us. Though this isn’t of course restricted to poetry, poetry is cheap to produce when compared to mediums like film and thus isn’t influenced by the whims of capital in the same way. This gives it so much more potential.

— Your online biography ends with the sentence, “They will write until they're dead.” One might assume that writing is much more than a discipline or even a passion for you. How would you characterize your personal relationship with poetry?

It’s almost everything to me. It’s how I show my love to my friends, it’s how I engage with community, it’s a lot of what I enjoy in my life or has brought me a lot joy in my life. I have made connections with friends and lovers through my words. My practice with poetry is a part of how I live and thusly will be there until I die. Then in Rarohenga I can just sing instead.

— I'm struck by the opening lines of your poem “Never start a poem with the weather if it can be helped”: “It is raining and the roof is sagging or / I like to imagine it is sagging / because that gives the reader a feeling of / precarity.” What is it about poetry that lends itself so well to the meta-textual? Is every poem always about itself?  

The poem always has itself in it. I don’t think it’s always about itself, but I feel like poetry is similar to carving: the text is an object to be considered. I personally really love when the poem makes its way into the text; it does a nice thing to my brain. This poem started life as a birthday present to a friend, and I thought the metatextual nature was suitably playful even if the poem is quite intense.

— Which poems and poets do you hold close?

I laughed at the words “hold close.” Because if you’re queer and Maaori (takataapui) and a writer, then you’re bound to find each other in this small country or beyond its boundaries. So hold close like yeah, literally! Hahaha. The following poems are by Maaori writers, with their nations (iwi) listed in parentheses.

“Te pō / When we were erased we came back here” by Kahu Kutia (Tūhoe)

This is a poem for the takataapui community––one that deals with the pain of having been erased. I cry every time I read it. It’s up on their website and it’s incredible: channelling the Matrix in colour and speaking to traditional design while forging a path ahead for us queer Maaori. “we write ourselves into being again / in this ocean of endless potential”

“Singing in the belly of the paradox” by Tru Paraha (Ngāti Hineāmaru, Ngāti Kahu o Torongare)

The way this poem moves is incredible. She throws this miasma of words and senses at us, and it feels cosmic and sci-fi and intensely placed in our time and context. And the way it drives over the page with purpose! “the sun / the moon / make / love / make / fuck o / bled / celestial.”

“He kohe / Babbler” by Michelle Rahurahu (Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Tahu-Ngaati Whaoa, Rangitaane)

This is a poem about language and languages and the world of senses that falls away at stuttering lips. The way we come to language as children and open our mouths or move our hands with our whole spirits behind it. Everything about the way this poem uses language speaks to this, from its use of New Zealand Sign Language (Michelle’s first language) to te reo Maaori to the way it fractures English on the page. A taonga. Teenaa koe.

“Huka can haka” by Tāwhanga Nopera (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Wāhiao, Tūhourangi, Ngāti Whaoa, Ngāti Tarawhai, Ngāti Rangitihi)
This is the name of their incredible thesis and the creative work within it. In this case, however, ‘huka can haka’ references one small poem in which a character named huka consults with the waves––all their hunger and loss sticks with me. “I want to smile and mihi to the moon, tint my skin with glitter, then we two can match”

“Identity Politics” by Tayi Tibble (Te Whanaua ā Apanui, Ngāti Porou)

I repeat to myself the central question of this poem all the time: “Tell me, am I navigating correctly?”

“Look at what we fucking well have” by Hinemoana Baker (Ngāti Raukawa, Kāi Tahu)

I love so much of Hinemoana’s work, but this poem is the one that stung me good. Its use of language is playful and powerful, and responds to the idea that we should be grateful for our colonisation. “the seven of pentacles can’t you see the cups and // fucking cups of it where is the gratitude. / The fresh whiff of fish! Angle of yank!”

“The River” by Sinead Overbye (Te-Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Porou, Te Atiawa)

The way this poem dribbles across the page. The way our emotional worlds move like rivers. “it starts with a drip / drop down / a trickle / it starts / with a tear —just one.”

“E nga iwi o ngai tahu” by Keri Hulme (Kāi Tahu)

This poem is a response to a question by Rowley Habib, a well-known Maaori writer: ‘Where are your bones?’ This poem fearlessly explores this idea, alongside the pain of alienation that comes with it. This poem is in my bones.

“Custard” by Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha), from her book Tōku Pāpā

Ruby and I are close friends now, but this is the poem that brought Ruby into my life. It was the first thing of hers that I ever read and it still sits with me now––especially the details of the van and the pastry around the lips. “Park up by the river, / talk, / eat, / listen to the radio a while.”

“space rake” by Cassandra Barnett (Raukawa), from her book how | hao

When I first read it, I didn’t know this poem was written for me, but then I saw myself and all the atua given their proper wingspan in this piece. This poem tastes and licks our gods. Gives them space to grow back into something far beyond the cage of colonial perception. And my euphoria blooms whenever I read this: “they never were / done up like that”.

“A Controlled Diet” by Serena Ngaio Simmons (Ngāti Porou)

This poem instantly brought me back to my childhood and all the little ways we’re colonised through food. It’s just an incredible poem that speaks specifically to the experience of being Indigenous diaspora. “Do not believe anyone / who tells you / decolonization is easy // My stomach craves / only the most American.”

“the crackling page” by Robert Sullivan (Ngāpuhi, Kāi Tahu), from his book Voice Carried My Family

This is one of my favourite poems and also one of the shortest; “my poetry is a fire / if i close my mouth i will die.” I hold this poem so close to my chest.

“my heart swings like a poi” by Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Hinerangi me Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Mahuta, Tainui/Waikato, Ngaati Waewae, Kaati Mamoe, Waitaha)

This is the poem that opens the book Te Rito o te Harakeke, a publication we put together (along with Ruby Solly, Michelle Rahurahu and Sinead Overbye) in response to the land back struggle at Ihumaatao. This is the poem I think about when I think about how poems can build community and speak to movements. Tino rangatiratanga. Aake. Aake. Aake.

— What was your earliest (or most striking) experience with poetry?

Me and my best friend from high school reading Paradise Lost to each other in the library. It was an amazing hardback copy, with all these incredible illustrations. We would take turns reading a section each, always needing a drink of water from our crumpled Pump bottles to get around the richness of the words. I smile thinking back to the indignant editor’s note at the start of the book: raging at rhyme. I still dream of those times following Satan down to hell with my best friend.

essa may ranapiri (Ngāti Wehi Wehi, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-Tonga, Te Arawa, Ngāti Pukeko, Ngāti Takatāpui, Clan Gunn) was interviewed by Lauren Peat, via email, in August 2022.

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