Chris Tse, Poet Laureate. Photo supplied

[As published in March/April BayBuzz magazine.]

Great excitement followed the announcement of the brand new and very shiny Poet Laureate for the 2022 – 2024 tenure. Our poet is the fabulously glamorous Chris Tse who will bring to the role an element of bling, of pizazz, and a charm all his own. In addition of course to the very serious business of advocating for poetry and encouraging the reading and the writing of it.

Chris’s official response to his appointment is this carefully considered statement: “Since the public announcement, the significance of the role and the legacy that I’m now a part of has been a lot to grapple with, but I feel very honoured to be entrusted with this role for the next two years. It means so much to me that the appointment process begins with public nominations, so I really feel like I have the support of my peers and the community behind me. I’m excited about using my time as Poet Laureate to collaborate with poets around the country, and to create opportunities for poets and poetry to reach new audiences.” 

Reading between the lines, his mind was clearly blown. But the response he gave to Vanessa Mei Crofskey for Pantograph Punch when asked what he will be wearing to the appointment ceremony shows more of who we are dealing with here: 

“So many possibilities! I’d love to collaborate with a queer and/or Asian designer for something special that incorporates my Chinese heritage but is also super gay. There will be poetry and fashion over the next two years, mark my words!” 

Chris hails from Wellington but the Poet Laureate award in Aotearoa New Zealand is firmly anchored in Hawke’s Bay. Here is its origin story. 

John Buck Photo Florence Charvin

Once upon a time, John Buck, owner of Te Mata Estate Winery, had his ear caught by a conversation at a party at which several government ministers were present. The conversation concerned a flat in Bloomsbury, London, where a New Zealand poet might be offered a residency. Nothing came of the plan in the end, but a seed had been planted. 

When John was wondering how to celebrate the centenary of Te Mata Estate, he remembered the Bloomsbury idea and the seed began its germination. The writer, publisher and wine expert Keith Stewart put John on to Brian Phillips (then publisher at Random House) and along with Bill Manhire (a mentor to his son, award winning writer Toby Buck) they gathered the people who could make things happen. Aotearoa should have a Poet Laurate, a champion for the art that ‘makes your toenails twinkle’, as Dylan Thomas said. 

The wider cast of players included John’s friend Tom Mulligan and Ngahiwi Tomoana, then Chair of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi, who felt the award had an obvious spiritual home at which to anchor the poet and the proceedings surrounding them. That place was, and remains, Matahiwi Marae, of which Tom was, helpfully, Chair. Jacob Scott was to be the artist charged with carving the tokotoko, a ceremonial walking stick, traditionally a symbol of the status of a speaker on the Marae and the perfect token for the poet.

In 1996 Bill Manhire was appointed New Zealand’s first Poet Laureate, paid partly in wine after the century’s old British tradition, plus a lot of money and a book deal. “Finally,” breathed the collective breath of the nation’s poets, who had been given recognition, and a home (and some money and some wine). 

Te Mata Estate created five Poets Laureate over ten years: Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Elizabeth Smither, Brian Turner and Jenny Bornholdt, after which time John and Bill came to the conclusion this really should be a government-funded award. Michael Cullen, then deputy prime minister and a Shakespeare aficionado, supported the idea and National Library took over responsibility in 2007 under the wing of facilitator, Peter Ireland. 

Thankfully, Te Mata Estate still provides the wine. 

Since 2007, seven more Poets Laureate have been welcomed onto Matahiwi Marae and received their tokotoko: Michele Leggott, Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, CK Stead, Selina Tusitala Marsh and David Eggleton. 

So, what’s the journey from notification to inauguration? And what does a Laureate do anyway?

The Laureate’s stipend is $80,000 and this is their job, as stated on the National Library’s website: For a two-year period, the Laureate is supported by the National Library to create new work and promote poetry throughout the country.

The Laureate is an accomplished and highly regarded poet who can speak on behalf of New Zealand poetry, and to its readers.

Chris’s inauguration will take place at Matahiwi Marae on Saturday 22nd April, followed by a public event in the evening hosted by Hawke’s Bay Readers and Writers Trust. But there is a lot of work to do before Chris gets his party. 

Jacob Scott with tokotoko Photo Florence Charvin

Chris will have several conversations with Jacob Scott about the creation of his tokotoko. Jacob is principal of Scott Design, former director of Te Kura Toi o Te Wananga o Aotearoa and founder and head of EIT’s Art & Design School. He is one of Aotearoa’s greatest contemporary artists. 

Jacob likens the tokotoko to a talking stick, and a fire stick; it will feature Chris’s whakapapa, where he fits in life, his story shaped into its symbolic form by Jacob’s hand. It will serve to anchor him to Hawke’s Bay, to Matahiwi, and to his role whenever he uses it. Their kōrero will be pivotal but as Jacob states, “A poet is a poet, an artist is an artist. I take the liberty of making my own piece of work.” The matua, or parent tokotoko is held at the National Library and carved so that if it were to be dismantled, the pieces could be rubbed together to make fire, the flame passed from the matua to the poet. 

Matahiwi Marae is an integral part of the Poet Laurate story, Ngāti Kahungunu being kaitiaki of the award since its creation. John always felt that it made sense to anchor the award here in this place, to Te Mata Peak as our maunga, to the Tukituki as our awa. The recipient of the award, and of the tokotoko, becomes attached to Te Matau ā Māui. Jacob again, a wordsmith himself: “It will be his Tūrangawaewae, his ground to stand upon, and spring from.”

The day at Matahiwi is a beautiful experience for the poet. Chris and his party will be welcomed with a pōwhiri, there will be readings, waiata, oratory, mooring Chris to the spiritual home of the Laureate. The poet Marty Smith will MC proceedings, offering her own magical words, as Chris takes on the mantle. There will be kai, korero, a new whānau. 

And then there’s the party. After what is surely an incredibly emotional day, Chris will celebrate with his public, the voices he represents in his role, dressed no doubt, in spectacular fashion.

This year, the Big Night In with the Poet Laureate, will take place on Saturday 22nd April at Toitoi’s Assembly Rooms at 7pm. Chris will be joined by Marty Smith and Ben Fagan as MCs and his own poetry crew: Emma Barnes, Nathan Joe, and Louise Wallace. 

It’s a deeply significant day for the poet, personally as of course the attention is directed toward him, but on a greater level because it isn’t about him, it’s about all of us. It’s about the embodiment of the power of words to change everything. And it began here, in Hawke’s Bay, with the seed of an idea nurtured by a passionate group of friends. 

For more information on the Big Night In with the Poet Laureate, visit www.hbreadersandwriters.co.nz

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