Producing a Pasifika Poetry Website
Paper presented at the FUGACITY 05 Poetry Symposium, University of Canterbury, 21 April 2005.
I first encountered the prolific and widely acclaimed ‘forefather’ of Pacific literature, Albert Wendt, at University. Witi Ihimaera’s name was faintly familiar, as was Patricia Grace’s. But that was then. Unfortunately, it’s also now. I was recently informed by a Tongan student, educated in Tonga and Fiji at the University of the South Pacific in early 2000, that she’d only ever heard of one Pacific woman poet: the Tongan poet Konai Helu Thaman. As a student new to the field of Pacific literature in the early 90s, I became aware of how little information there was about the poets, especially the women poets. As I began researching, to my amazement I learned that Pacific women poets had been publishing, in English, since the mid 70s. Hence, the birth of my doctoral thesis which is the first to examine the first five pioneering Pacific Island women poets to publish in English. In hindsight, ‘discovering’ them was the easy part, access to texts and critical articles on their writing was much more difficult. Initially many books (all first editions) were borrowed from Albert Wendt’s personal collection, alongside weathered photocopied bundles. I managed to eventually acquire most of my own, either bought in person in dusty bookstores in Apia, Samoa, or expensively over the internet through the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji or other specialist book stores in the United States (all payable in US dollars). At the back of my mind, I kept thinking about ‘the girl’ – that girl – that high-school student, that uninformed or mis-informed (which ever way you want to look at it) university student: if I, as a doctoral student, had difficulty locating these poets, never mind their texts, how was the average student going to look at themselves in the ‘literary mirror’; how were their teachers going to know about these authors, and access resources connected with them?
I’m currently involved in taking more Pacific Islands curriculum to secondary school teachers in Auckland – exposing it and exploring it. But should the inevitable questions arise of ‘where do I find more of this poetry?’ ‘Where can I buy the book?’ the situation becomes irksome. They want it, they’re excited by it – but it’s hard to access. There’s only one of me, and several thousand teachers in New Zealand, throughout the Pacific, and the globe. Metaphorically speaking, that tiny protruding tip of an atoll above sea level at full tide, has become an expansive, enormous undersea continent demanding to rise. We need more comprehensive resources. As I’m still discovering, most texts have to be ordered from overseas. And still, in the back of my mind is THE GIRL – how would she have access to these resources, let alone the information to find them?
Here’s the dream: I want to create and facilitate the most comprehensive Pasifika poetry website available – which wouldn’t be that difficult, because to date, there is none. I chose the term ‘Pasifika’ because it is inclusive and has been used from grassroots level and up to include all the Pacific Island nations as well as its diasporic community . While the focus group of the website unapologetically remains Pacific Islanders themselves, this by no means limits its audience. It would however, affect its focus. For example, my dream website would be audiovisually oriented in order to cater to the Pacific’s epistemological leanings towards performance and orality. Centuries-old oral traditions, both in terms of content and aesthetics, permeate the heterogeneous cultures throughout the Pacific islands. For a student to be able to access a poet, see that poet performing their work and hear their particular poetic cadences, it would be an affirmation of Pasifika ways of knowing and being. As the literary genre closest to the nature of oral tradition, poetry readily transforms itself to this type of internet manifestation. But I also envision ‘the girl’/mother/construction-worker/boy-racer/window-cleaner/teacher/firefighter’ reading a poem that has made an impact on them, and seeing them in their contexts, hearing their relationship with the poem, how they make meaning of their own accord. The act of making this kind of working relationship with poetry public and explicit would be invaluable, as it would demystify the genre and go some steps towards making poetry itself more accessible.
Alongside this visual-aural aesthetic emphasis and organisational focus, the Pasifika poetry website would be developed along the same excellent lines established by the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc). Its poets would range from pioneering writers such as Konai Helu Thaman to contemporary Pasifika diasporic voices like that of Tusiata Avia. The click of a mouse button would provide access to a wide range of poetry, the poet’s biography, bibliographies of critical reviews and articles, archival material, reader-feedback and discussion groups. It would link to other Pacific websites where appropriate, including bookstores that stock Pacific poetry. At some point, I’d like it to facilitate the launching of, you guessed it, a Pasifika online anthology featuring the work of both established and newer writers!
There have been concerns raised about the imperialist roots of the internet, its wide-sweeping globalisation of things local, the risk of it introducing further instances of exploitative commodification, and the issue of its accessibility creating another type of margin/centre politics between islanders who have/have not access to a computer.
These are all valid matters, but in my view they are overshadowed by a greater need. Vilsoni Hereniko, Rotuman playwright and scholar, believes that ‘the most revolutionary site for Pacific Islander representation in the global arena is now the Internet’. My primary motivation for establishing a Pasifika website is blatantly political: seeing ourselves in that literary mirror is an essential move in ‘decolonising our minds’. Such terminology is not just a re-hashing of anti-colonial jargon from the 60s and 70s. Even in 2005, I’m coming across Pacific Islands university students, educated in the Pacific, who still know very little about Pacific literature.
The net is able to provide a cross-cultural creative meeting place, one that explores, examines and disperses Pasifika creativity throughout the Pacific and the globe. Only cyberspace can gather and connect writers and readers from throughout the 1500 Pacific Islands dispersed across the expanse of Oceania, with the click of a mouse. The internet is the perfect site to ‘faikava’, the Tongan verb meaning ‘to make kava’, also known as ‘awa, ‘ava, or yaqonan across the Pacific. The Kava root is one of the strongest symbols of a shared Pacific identity. The ceremonies surrounding its production and consumption reinforce its unifying role in social gatherings. Thus, to ‘faikava’ in cyberspace is to meet across time and space, to partake in conversation, to drink in the Pacific’s creative juices, feast upon its offerings, to muse, think, debate, and to commune Pasifika style.
The net will go a long way in satiating this ever-growing appetite for indigenous poetry, novels and short stories emanating from the Pacific. That child in the Pacific Islands, that child living in the Pacific diaspora and indeed, that child in the wider world, hungers for more of Pacific literature, more access, more knowledge, more exposure, more appreciation; indeed, she seeks a sharper, brighter, more reflective literary mirror.
I’d now like to hold up that poetic Pasifika mirror and introduce you to two poets that will effectively ‘book-end’ the website. Firstly, we have Tongan poet Konai Helu Thaman, the first Pacfic woman poet to publish in English. She will be followed by one of our more recent writers and performance poets, Tusiata Avia. Who knows, you may just be able to relive this very performance at the click of your mouse in a year or so!
Ia manuia and fa’afetai tele lava.
1. ‘David and Goliath: A Response to The Oceanic Imaginary’, The Contemporary Pacific 13:1 (2001), 164.
2. Faikava is the title of a popular bi-lingual Tongan literary journal established in 1978 by Futa Helu. It was in this publication that the ceremony was first used as a metaphor for the gathering and sharing of creative writings.
Last updated 1 June, 2006