Time to Not Mop the Floor

New Zealand’s 11th Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh, takes pause to reflect on her journey as a “high functioning Pasifika Poet–Scholar”.

Posted on
11.02.21

We’re collaborating with Creative New Zealand to bring you the groundbreaking Pacific Arts Legacy Project. Curated by Lana Lopesi as project Editor-in-Chief, it’s a foundational history of Pacific arts in Aotearoa as told from the perspective of the artists who were there.

Covid-19 was a big reset button for many. For me, it reflected an internal Covid that had begun to set in mere months before. As a self-defined, high functioning Pasifika Poet–Scholar working on turning my PhD on first-wave Pacific women poets into a book people would actually read, contracted to work with poetry in corporations and schools, an in-demand speaker, mum of three, wife of 25 years, in-law forever, trail marathoner… an infection had set in. 

Some might call it burnout.

I was 60,000 words into a written a memoir; a poetic meditation on each of the 11 pieces of my tokotoko – my Poet Laureate's walking staff – and what it meant to be the first Pasifika person to be the New Zealand Poet Laureate. Tokotoko maker Jacob Scott had carved its name into the maire wood: Tusitala Kapura. Teller of tales, long slow-burning flame, the source from which others now take their spark. Indeed, I was burning. 

The burning question in my memoir was how do I hold the fire without burning out? In the midst of squeezing this memoir into a crazy-busy life, equating burning with its usual negative connotations was too easy. Covid gave me pause. For thought. For breath. Kapura is a home fire. It is burning. Present continuous tense. Not out. Not up. But within. And forever.

During Covid I listened to Glennon Doyle's book Untamed. It freed me from my limiting self-imposed definitions. Burning could also be akin to what Moses encountered in that holy burning bush. Burning could also come from honouring myself, my spirit. Burning was flamed by a refusal to abandon myself. In the midst of decades of good work as the first Pasifika this, the first Pasifika that, based on a servant-leadership I practice and preach, I was driven by the eternal needs of those around me. I stopped spending time with myself, stopped checking in. For many, listening happens not in the mind, but in the body. I stopped listening to my na‘o, my gut. I ignored my neck, shoulders, stomach, and feet over what my mind said I 'should' do (note to self: ban this word). Our body is a temple. Within it lies a sacred silence, the ala, a pathway to knowing what is the very next thing to do. 

I stopped listening to my na‘o, my gut.

Mophead, my first graphic memoir, about becoming Poet Laureate, is a return to myself and my story. It is a return to my first love: the drawn line. I've spent a long time working to bring to critical attention marginalised Indigenous voices in the literary field. I've been acknowledged for it. But it hasn't been enough. I need to reach me at 11. At nine. At seven. Mophead does that. During Covid I began working on its sequel, Mophead TU: The Queen's Poem. It's Colonialism 101 for kids. And adults. Where Mophead is about how your difference makes a difference, Mophead TU is about how where you stand matters.

The ending of Mophead takes place mid 2017, when I am made the New Zealand Poet Laureate. I am taking the tokotoko back to my home on Waiheke Island and explaining the story of it to Puhi, the deckhand. My tale is interrupted by a mocking sing-songy voice.

 “Look at that lady! She’s got a mop!” Puhi, stroking the tokotoko reverently, has tears in her eyes. 

“Ha, ha – that’s so dumb!” We keep ignoring his shrill voice. 

“What’s she gonna do? Mop the boat?” 

I turn to face the irritating sound. It’s coming from a Pālagi boy, about ten years old still, in his green and white striped rugby uniform. 

“It’s not a mop. It’s a tokotoko,” I say.

“A wha-wha-what?”

“Do you want to hear a story?”

“Um, okay.”

Thus begins this boy’s education. So ends my book. Last year, I encountered the man this boy might've become if I hadn't shared my story. 

At the end of my two-year Laureate tenure, I was farewelled at the National Library in Wellington. During the day I had received performances from the Oceania Arts Collective and students of Va‘aomanū Pasifika at Victoria University, along with songs from Taita College students, culminating in a haka. In the evening we launched a hand-printed book of my poems titled Tokotoko Trio, complemented by Fatu Feu‘u’s artwork. The previous evening I had delivered the Sir Edmund Hillary Centenary poem at the Beehive, ending in a photo with Jacinda holding the tokotoko, myself, Sam Neill and members of the Hillary family. The week before I had convened a 160-delegate Commonwealth conference where we hosted Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy as our keynote speaker. Crazy-busy? A little.

My aim had been to show the world how Māori and Pasifika tell and keep our stories; how objects like the tokotoko hold critical and creative whakapapa;

It's now 11pm, post-National Library event. Needing to walk out the adrenalin of the last few hours (hell, the last few years), I walk back through Parliament grounds, tokotoko tapping at my side, to the James Cook Grand Chancellor Hotel (in hindsight appropriately named). These past two years had been a blast. I’d told the tale of the tokotoko in 11 countries, 35 towns and cities, from Dunedin to Dublin to Dubai; to everyone from primary schoolers to presidents, from grassroots graffiti cohorts to Gucci. My aim had been to show the world how Māori and Pasifika tell and keep our stories; how objects like the tokotoko hold critical and creative whakapapa; how we 'do' poetry in Oceania.

I did exactly that. In the boldest, brightest, Pasifika brush strokes. I cross the road and tap tap tap my way up The Terrace. I am wearing a full-length, body hugging fuchsia, yellow and orange Tahitian print dress covered in hibiscus. My hair is wild and free. I stand outside the hotel. Through the glass foyer doors I see a group of Pālagi men in business suits clustered around the reception desk. I have a PhD. I am an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. I’ve been the Commonwealth Poet. I am the current New Zealand Poet Laureate. And everything in my brown, female body tenses, kicks into high alert. This is what it has learned since it came into the world. The usual race–gender–class defence moves begin. Breathe. Shoulders back. Chin level. Walk strong. Eye-contact your way through the group. I part the doors. They turn as one to take me in. They’ve obviously extended Happy Hour. 

“What have we here?”

“Oh, ho! It’s the cleaner!”

“Is she going to mop the floor?”

I was, and wasn't, shocked. What if I had been a Pacific dignitary? Hell, even if I was the cleaner – nothing accounts for such rudeness. Nothing except the heady cocktail they'd been sipping on all their lives: full-bodied racism, a squeeze of sexism, topped off with a splash of classism and down the hatch! When they saw me, unable to account for (read: control and define) what was in front of them (a brown woman standing in her own power), in order to wrest control back they attempted to demean my difference through definition. They were 'just joking'. Microaggression much? 

What I imagine happening: 

I walk towards the group. The pack leader, the open-collared tie-less one – the one with the cleaner comment – steps forward. Before his mouth can round out another vowel, I twist the wooden spacer on the top of the tokotoko. A switch-blade ejects from its rubber foot. Wielding the tokotoko like a taiaha, in one clean arc I thrust the spear upwards, slicing him from balls to throat. I step over his bulbous pile of steaming organs spreading across the floor. I do not mop. 

What actually happened:

I walk towards the group, who are blocking the path to the elevators. 

“Do you know who you’re talking to?”

The suits begin elbowing each other.

“I’m the New Zealand Poet Laureate. You are referring to a national treasure – the Laureate walking staff.” I hold up the tokotoko.

They guffaw. I decide the Bible's right about throwing pearls before pigs. I walk through the group. The open-collared alpha male comes after me. 

“Hey, forget them. I have this.” He reaches into his shirt and pulls out a pounamu.

“I’ve been hunting a long time for this baby…”

I push past him and press the elevator button, swishing the tokotoko behind me. 

Story has the power to take that which wants to kill you and give birth to life. These men gave me a gift. This story. I now tell it. Lest those who hear my stories of Pasifika beauty, empowerment and excellence rest on their laurels and think, “All is well and good and equitable and just in Aotearoa New Zealand. Why, just look at our 11th Poet Laureate!” 

Yes, look. See the burning, feel the flame. 

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This piece is published in collaboration with Creative New Zealand as part of the Pacific Arts Legacy Project, an initiative under Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Strategy. Lana Lopesi is Editor-in-Chief of the project.

Series design by Shaun Naufahu, Alt group.

Header photo by Pati Solomona Tyrell.