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Poetry is having a renaissance in the capital. Poet Laureate Chris Tse explores Wellington’s thriving poetry scene and glimpses into the genre’s glittering future.
Although I was introduced to poetry at a young age in school, until I started attending open mics and other poetry events I hadn’t realised there’s more to poetry than landscapes and war. Among the events I attended in the 2000s while I was at university was the monthly Poets Pub series at the Angus Inn in Lower Hutt. There I took the leap and first shared my writing with strangers and other aspiring poets from all walks of life.
It was a chaotic place to read – I remember having to compete with the sing-song pokie machines in the room next door and the clatter of glasses being loaded into the dishwasher. Yet I found this environment thrilling – so removed from analysing the works of long-dead poets in a classroom or lecture theatre. It’s where I learned that poetry can have a very different life beyond the page, and that there is a community out there that embraces poetry with open arms. Open mic nights and other regular poetry events are the cornerstone of local poetry communities, giving poets of all calibres countrywide the opportunity to share their work in supportive environments.
Wellington has a thriving poetry scene with a seemingly endless parade of poets. You’ll find their books displayed in bookstores and you’ll find them in person gracing our stages and venues with their powerful words. Some, such as Ash Davida Jane, Rebecca Hawkes, and Tayi Tibble have earned acclaim and devoted fans here while also making inroads internationally, picking up awards and publishing deals overseas, and appearing at literary festivals in Australia and North America.
Many have said that 2022 has been the best year in New Zealand poetry in a long time. I agree – and not just because I must in my role as the Poet Laureate! Not only have fantastic poetry collections been published by local poets (I implore you to seek out the latest by Oscar Upperton, Joanna Cho, Anahera Gildea and Nick Ascroft, to name but a few), but we’ve seen the slow and cautious return of book launches and events after two years of Covid-19 restrictions. There’s a new iteration of Show Ponies, which pairs poets with dancers and musicians for an explosive pop-concert-style extravaganza, among events blending poetry with music and visual arts. The energy at many such events over the past year has been electrifying, as audiences get their live poetry fix once again.
Editor of new online literary journal bad apple gay Damien Levi has spent the year getting to know Wellington’s live poetry scene after moving here to complete a graduate diploma in publishing at Whitireia. He admits that although he reads a lot of poetry submissions for the journal, he still struggles to connect with some poetry on the page. However, going to live events and hearing poetry performed in all its forms has helped him to deepen his appreciation and understanding of the form. He’s been impressed by the diversity and popularity of events on the Wellington scene – the turnout has “really opened my eyes to the number of people who are out there living and breathing poetry, and want to support it.”
Wellington’s poetry scene is made possible by many poets who moonlight as event producers on top of day jobs and their own creative work. Local poet Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, who won Best First Book of Poetry at the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, created the open mic series Poetry with Brownies for P.O.C. poets, after becoming exasperated by events with all-white line-ups. Poetry with Brownies has held a number of in-person and online events over several years, participating in Verb 2022. A regular reading series at Pegasus Books in Left Bank is currently organised by Rebecca Hawkes, who took over from poet Therese Lloyd.
The prolific Creatif Kate produces and hosts various events in Wellington with poets alongside comedians, musicians, and burlesque and drag performers. Her regular events include the Wellington Feminist Creative Community poetry nights and Sexy Sunday Shenanigans. “I try to include poets and poetry in every cabaret show I produce. It’s really cool to introduce people to poetry when they’re at a cabaret! A lot of people still view poetry as pretentious and inaccessible when it is far from that. There are so many talented poets in Wellington and I love giving them a platform for their voices to be heard.”
One of the longest-running fixtures in Wellington’s poetry calendar is Poetry in Motion, on the first Thursday of each month at Fringe Bar. Each night begins with an open mic, before a featured poet takes the stage for an extended set. Featured poets have included local and international luminaries such as Apirana Taylor, Mohamed Hassan, and Hera Lindsay Bird.
The seeds of PIM were planted in 2011, when local poet Ali Jacs organised an event at Happy Bar to host visiting American poets Ken Arkind and Carrie Rudzinski. Travis Cottreau had never been to a spoken word event before, but agreed to give it a go after watching Ken online performing his poem “Maggie”. The success of that 2011 event led to PIM, which started as a monthly evening at Heaven Pizza on Cuba Street and then Fringe Bar, where it’s been based since 2018.
As well as showcasing local and international poetry stars, PIM has provided a supportive training ground for newcomers to poetry as an creative outlet, and those wanting to test their material for poetry slams. Over a decade, Travis has seen many regular open mic readers blossom and go on to win regional and national slam competitions. “It’s a space for everyone,” he says. “I know people who are incredibly shy who really come out of their cage on stage.”
Travis recalls in PIM’s early days often having to turn away people at capacity limits. Audience numbers have declined in recent years and regulars have come and gone, but Travis is still surprised by those who brave the open mic: “There’s always something new – it’s not like you see the same show.” Travis is the last remaining founding PIM member. He produces the monthly series with the assistance of volunteers, and the generosity of venues like Fringe Bar. PIM also now has the support of Motif Poetry, a charitable organisation that produces events and works with schools.
Ben Fagan and Sara Hirsch established Motif after returning to Wellington from London where they were both actively involved with the spoken word and slam scene (Sara is a former UK Slam Champion). They saw the need for an organisation to support and promote slam events in Aotearoa.
Wellington-born and Hawke’s Bay-raised Ben entered the spoken word world after supporting a friend at a PIM open mic in 2012. He quickly became enamoured with the local poetry scene, seeing poets being given permission to be funny and take poetry in unexpected directions. “I remember going home after that very first event and typing ‘poetry slam’ into YouTube and being like, ‘holey moley, look at this’, and seeing the wide variety.”
Ben was involved in the performing arts but hadn’t yet quite found his people; the poetry community was full of kindred spirits and was a great “sandbox” to develop and try stuff. For Ben, what sets spoken word and poetry apart from other performing arts is the impact and immediacy of watching someone perform their own words.
Ben was exposed to the expansive spoken word scene in the UK, and worked for Apples and Snakes, a national organisation for performance poetry and spoken word. Although spoken word has a long history as an underground art form with roots in punk and cabaret, Ben thinks that having a professional organisation backing poets with access to funding and touring opportunities was integral to the growth and health of the UK’s spoken word scene. He and Sara set up Motif with this model in mind, adapted for an Aotearoa context. Since 2018, they’ve helped to establish and support spoken word and slam events in Wellington, Hawke’s Bay, and Tauranga, held workshops for young people, and toured local and international poets.
Motif is always looking for new ways to promote poetry and poets: a queer poets showcase for Wellington Pride, a team slam event, and the popular anti-slam, where poets deliberately write and perform terrible poems and respectfully send up spoken-word tropes. Motif has also produced short poetry films featuring Wellington poets such as Tarns Hood, Ronia Ibrahim, and Nadia Freeman.
Nadia is a spoken word artist, musician, and theatre maker who performs under the stage name Miss Leading. After five years living and performing abroad, Nadia returned to Wellington and reacquainted herself with the poetry scene. She noticed the effect of Covid-19 on the live arts scene’s audience numbers, but also saw the diversity of Wellington’s poetry scene and its adaptation to the pandemic. In March 2022, her poetry show Another Universe was included in the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ digital programme, and later staged in Auckland at the Basement Theatre. Using poetry as a vehicle for telling stories drives a lot of Nadia’s creative projects. She is interested in broadening the ways of integrating poetry into other art forms like theatre and music.
One of Nadia’s frequent collaborators is Wellington poet and illustrator Rose Northey, who has represented Wellington at the National Slam Championship on multiple occasions. She and Rose have worked on many projects presenting poetry to audiences in innovative and unexpected ways to challenge preconceived notions. For example, the multimedia show Writing Home was a blend of poetry, comedy, live drawing, and live music; and at the Poetry Bistro, an installation-cum-performance piece, “diners” ordered a poem off a menu to be performed at their table. Nadia said the response to both was overwhelmingly positive, to the surprise of many audience members who had not experienced poetry since school, or did not engage with the arts in general.
Nadia says that for a lot of people the “penny-drop” moment is when they realise that poetry can be funny and deeply personal, and that poets write about more than just nature. “Come to a night where there’s going to be a mix of new poets and professionals so you can see the spread of different poets and what poetry can be. Poetry’s not what it was in high school – it can be much more than that.”