Chris Tse is the New Poet Laureate
It was a huge honour for me (Vanessa) to sit nervously on the New Zealand Poet Laureate Advisory Group, as an openly queer and biracial Chinese poet, during the collective decision to appoint Christoper James Tse to be the next New Zealand Poet Laureate. I had this big weird feeling of history being made, and of hope and excitement for my contemporaries. I might have cried, or felt persistently on the verge of tears that entire evening: about what it meant to see Chris appointed, and to be in the decision-making room while it all went down proverbially. Plus, it just made me sooo so hungry and excited for the literary landscape and it was hard not to spill the beans.
Chris Tse is a huge mentor for myself and for many poets I know, and an elder (despite only being 39) for the new movement of poets which Aotearoa is currently in its golden midst of, which Ash Davida Jane writes about for The Spinoff. For many years, he has been one of the few writers representing the Asian population hard against the low percentage of Asian poets that have had books published in Aotearoa, although there are more who join him now. I still get chills thinking about the massive pride and excitement I have about this announcement, and of how genuinely great a poet (and guy) Chris Tse is.
Pantograph Punch: Where were you when they called? What were and are your current feelings towards the announcement?
Chris Tse: The news arrived last Friday afternoon while I was working from home, wrangling documents and attending to the persistent pinging of notifications in Outlook and Teams. The weather was terrible, and I had been reading about the planned protest at Parliament and all the slips around Wellington. So, not the chillest vibes. The call from Rachel Esson, the National Librarian, to offer me the position instantly cut through the gloom. I was caught off-guard for sure – my voice cracked and I could feel myself tearing up. There can be a bit of shame and cringe in wanting something like the Poet Laureateship because it's like admitting that you want to be King of the Nerds, or thinking that you're better than everyone else even though you suffer from imposter syndrome, but as soon as I got off the phone I couldn't stop smiling. I've spent a lot of time this past week trying to process the news and what it means for the next two years, beyond the practical stuff like fitting it in around my day job. I've been excited and nervous about people hearing the news because I know I'm an unconventional choice for the role.
PP: There were a few whispers of a 'Chris Tse For Poet Laureate' campaign going on in the undercurrents... Did you expect to be nominated? What would you say to the people who nominated you?
CT: I was aware of a campaign to get people to nominate me, but I didn't have anything to do with it. I tried not to think about it so as not to get my hopes up because you never know how these things might play out. At the very least, I was hoping that getting my name (and perhaps other younger poets' names) in front of the advisory panel and the decision-makers would prompt them to talk about what the role of the Poet Laureate is in 2022. I honestly didn't think I'd have a shot at being selected because there are so many other poets who could step into the role, but I was pleased to be wrong on that front! To those who nominated me: you're all wonderful angels. I cannot thank you enough for your belief in me. Also, can you please use your powers to get me onto Taskmaster NZ season 4?
PP: I believe you're the first poet laureate with Asian whakapapa, and to my relative knowledge, the first openly queer poet laureate that Aotearoa has had so far, of the 12, now 13, that have been appointed. How does this news sit in line with your excellent poem 'Abandoned acceptance speech for Outstanding Achievement by a Chinese New Zealander in the Field of Excellence'? What would you say to Queer and Asian writers in Aotearoa who might one day dream of becoming say, the second, third, fourth, or seventieth Poet Laureate? What needs to change to give them a better shot?
CJT: To be honest I'm not surprised it's taken so long for an Asian poet to be Poet Laureate considering the small number of Asian poets being published in Aotearoa until quite recently, but poet-by-poet we're making ourselves heard and we're claiming our space in our national literature. Underneath the silliness of that poem you've mentioned is a poet with conflicted feelings about succeeding within a system that has also been indifferent or hostile to Queer and BIPOC writers. I know this new chapter is going to make me confront a lot of those feelings again, but I guess the difference this time is I've been given a much bigger platform and opportunity to effect change and ensure that the next Queer and/or Asian Poet Laureate isn't too far behind me. If it's another 25 years then I'll not have done my job. Being the first is a step forward, but we'll need to keep challenging the status quo and championing those underrepresented voices to make that space for the next Queer or Asian Poet Laureate. For me, the challenge is to redefine how this role operates, and to embrace innovation and the unconventional in what I set out to do. Only then do I think my time as Poet Laureate will have a lasting impact for the next generation of poets.
Poet-by-poet we're making ourselves heard and we're claiming our space in our national literature
PP: What projects are you planning to tackle as the Poet Laureate? Is there a new book in the works?
Super Model Minority is still super fresh in the world, and writing it did take a lot out of me emotionally so I'm in no rush to start writing a next book. However, I have the initial sparks of an idea for something that I've been teasing out and doing some reading and research for. Over the past few months I've been lucky enough to attend online workshops with incredible Asian-American writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Alice Sparkly Kat and Hua Hsu as part of the Slow Currents programme. Even though the workshops aren't all designed to be generative they are helping me to unravel some so-called "truths" that I've had about writing. It's like reprogramming my poet brain, which is already changing the way I've been writing and thinking about writing. I'm working on some poems for events later this year, and we're hoping to further develop our opera Silence Is... for more performances in 2023. Once the excitement of the announcement has faded I'll sit down and plan what I want to achieve during my tenure. I'd really love to collaborate with artists and creatives outside of the literary world as a way to introduce different audiences to poetry.
PP: Lastly, what killer wardrobe item are you thinking of wearing to the appointment ceremony?
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 Tse takes on the prestigious role of New Zealand Poet Laureate, appointed by the National Library and the New Zealand Poet Laureate Advisory Group. He joins the ranks of former laureates including David Eggleton (2019 – 2021), Selina Tusitala Marsh (2017 – 2019), C. K. Steade (2015 – 2017), Jenny Bornholdt, Bill Manhire, and Hone Tuwhare and several other venerable writers who advocate for poetry nationwide, and have made an outstanding contribution in the field.
Chris Tse (he/him) was born and raised in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. He studied film and English literature at Victoria University of Wellington, where he also completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. His poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction have been recorded for radio and widely published in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, including Best New Zealand Poems, Sport, Turbine | Kapohau, Fishhead, Landfall, Asian Cha, The New Zealand Listener, Poetry New Zealand Year Book, Sweet Mammalian, Cordite Poetry Review, Poetry, Capital Magazine, The Spinoff, Mimicry, as well as The Pantograph Punch. He's the author of several books, makes regular appears at literary festivals here and abroad, and is very fashionable. More about Chris can be found on his website.