“The day-to-day mahi of a small Māori publishing press is not glamorous at all. We do it because the more Māori poems, stories and voices we can get out there, the better.” Kiri Piahana-Wong, a poet, editor and writer who founded Anahera Press. (Photo supplied)

Poet and publisher Kiri Piahana-Wong is observing the “quiet flowering” of a revolution in the poetry world — especially among Māori, and especially rangatahi. It’s a far cry from the days when she saw racism routinely locking Māori poets out of the publishing industry. Here, Kiri tells Siena Yates about how that change has blossomed, and why we must nurture it.

 

There is still this idea around that poetry is this stuffy, elitist thing — especially if you think back to the old-fashioned poetry from England that we used to learn in secondary school.

People think: “Oh, poetry’s not for me. I can’t understand it, it’s boring, I can’t relate to it.” But that’s because a lot of people are thinking about that older style of poetry.

They might not realise that we have all these other poets coming through now, like Tayi Tibble, whose work is loud and gorgeous and breaks through a lot of those stereotypes. Or there’s Jessica Hinerangi, also known as Māori Mermaid, who posts her poetry and art on Instagram and has a huge following. And Te Kahu Rolleston, whose spoken word performances have audiences mesmerised.

And they’re just three of many young Māori poets who are changing the perception of poetry. There are so many who are writing about their personal experiences, or writing commentary on current events or politics. Spoken word poetry is a particularly powerful way that I see rangatahi expressing themselves — whether it’s performing on stage, or just making videos and sharing them online.

That’s the other thing. While there’s still nowhere near as many people reading poetry as there are reading the most recent or popular novels, there is this quiet flowering of a little poetry revolution going on. I think, in large part, because it’s perfect for the way we live our lives today.

Getting through a novel or even watching a TV series is a commitment that takes hours. Whereas you can read one poem — whether it’s in a poetry book or an Instagram slide — and get something out of it in just a couple of minutes. It can touch your heart, it can lift your spirits, or it can make you think deeply about something.

That’s allowing poetry to reach a much wider audience, and particularly a younger audience, which is so wonderful to see. Especially because I think poetry is such a great vehicle for rangatahi to work through all the strong feelings and big changes that they have to navigate at that age.

“I wanted to contribute to putting Māori voices out there.” Kiri with Anahera poet Arihia Latham and some of the 13 books published by Anahera Press, at the recent Kaituhi Māori wānanga. (Supplied)

That was one of the biggest reasons I started Anahera Press in 2011. I wanted to contribute to putting Māori voices out there — our unique experiences and ways of seeing. Māori have a rich history of mōteatea, waiata, and the incredibly eloquent and poetic oratory that we hear in whaikōrero on the marae.

When you’re exposed to all of that, the idea that language can be used in such an expressive way really just sinks into your consciousness. And even if you’re not directly exposed to it, it’s still there in your DNA, regardless of how you grew up. As Māori, that whakapapa connects us back through generations of our tūpuna, to the richness of our language. Poetry is our heritage.

Yet, like with anything else, there have been barriers placed between us and that heritage.

When I started Anahera Press, there were a lot of Māori and Pasifika poets around, but they just weren’t being published. The reason certainly wasn’t anything to do with quality. It was because mainstream publishers didn’t want our kind of writing.

If a manuscript came across their desk and it was full of Sāmoan kupu or references to te ao Māori, they couldn’t understand it, so they would simply be turned off by it. They wouldn’t articulate it like that, but it’s what was happening. Let’s just call it what it was — racism.

That was when I thought: “Well, I’ll just try and publish them myself.” There was probably an element of crazy bravado in that decision, but I just wanted to do something, even if it was in a very small way. I already had some experience. I’d been working in the publishing space for many years, first in legal publishing, then freelance, and I worked at Auckland University Press in their marketing team. But even so, it was still a steep learning curve.

There were huge areas I didn’t know much about, like distribution and printing. Some of it I figured out, but I work with contractors who can do the things I can’t, like design. I’m not crafty, I don’t have design skills, so I knew I had to outsource that or the books would look terrible, and then no one would take the books or the press seriously.

The funding side of things was also a big part of the learning curve. I work to a traditional model in which Anahera publishes the books and the authors are paid a royalty, but the royalty amount is tiny. Under that model, you’ve got 40 percent going to bookshops, 20 percent (or sometimes more) to the distributor, and money going to GST and taxes. The author typically receives a 10 percent royalty, and then what’s left goes to the publishing house.

The money will add up when you’re publishing commercial titles like novels, cookbooks, and memoirs, which can sell thousands of copies. But poetry has a small readership. Generally, you’d only expect to sell maybe 300 to 500 copies of a poetry book which, of course, returns vastly less profit. I think that’s why a lot of mainstream publishing houses don’t publish poetry.

Another model I could’ve used involves asking the author to contribute to the cost of production, and then they take a larger share of the book profits. But I didn’t want this to be a barrier to writers who didn’t have the upfront money. So, as it is, no one’s making much money here. I’m not getting paid at all, and I think Anahera is just breaking even.

But poetry isn’t something you do to get rich. It’s something you do because you have to, because it’s part of you.

And I write because I have to as well, in the same way I need to breathe, sleep and eat. I enjoy having my work published, having people read my work, and also performing my poems. But even if I had no audience, and I just wrote poems and put them in a box at home under the bed, I would keep writing poetry. And my sense is that most poets write poetry because we have that driving inner force to do it.

Being published does have different benefits, though. For writers, it’s less about the royalty payment and more about the fact that you have a book, and because of that, you can then be picked up for festivals, readings, events, and residencies. All these other opportunities open up. Then there’s the fact that, when you embrace those opportunities, you’ll be seen by other people like you, who then go: “Oh, maybe I can do that too!”

I grew up on Auckland’s North Shore, in Browns Bay, a beautiful but very white area, and I went to Rangitoto College where I was one of only four Māori students in my year. My mother was Lois Wong, my father was David Piahana Wong. My father died in 2020 and we lost Mum in January of this year. Mum was Pākehā, a primary school teacher and homemaker. Dad was a builder. He built our family home in Browns Bay that remained in our whānau for 40 years. My Māori and Chinese heritage comes from his side.

I’m one of five siblings. Books and reading were very important in our home, and we turned out to be an academic family, with three of us awarded the Top Māori Female Scholar in the country in our final year of high school. My dad had a funny story where he was at Government House in Wellington for the top scholar awards ceremony (again) and the Māori doorman said to him: “Bro, weren’t you here last year?”

Kiri (far left) with her siblings Justine, Steve and Karen, and parents Lois and David Piahana-Wong. Kiri’s sister Debbie is absent from this photo. (Supplied)

Poetry has always been a big part of my life. I grew up with my mum reading poetry to me every night from when I was only two years old, and I started writing my own poetry when I was six — as soon as I learned to write.

Of course, I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up with Māori poetry as a young child — those books just weren’t there. Mum read me poetry from the English and American canons. And it’s true that that kind of poetry doesn’t reflect our experiences of living as Indigenous people in Aotearoa, not in the least.

However, I’ll always feel a sense of gratitude when I think of my exposure to those poems. It gave me a sense of how language can be used with beautiful imagery and wordplay, and as a vehicle for self-expression, connection, and storytelling. Some of those poets, like Blake, Wallace Stevens, and Dickinson, remain favourites of mine today.

Now, we have a wealth of Māori poetry available to us. There is Hone Tuwhare, of course. He is the rangatira of Māori poetry. His influence on my work and that of so many others has been profound, and I still turn to his poems again and again for sustenance and inspiration. Hinemoana Baker and Robert Sullivan also stand out as Māori poets whose books influenced me when I was an emerging writer.

There are so many Māori poets who impress me now — really, too many to mention because the scene is flourishing. But if I was forced to pick out a few, I would say that Isla Huia, Jessica Hinerangi, Hana Pera Aoake, Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, Arihia Latham, Briar Wood, and essa may ranapiri impress me a great deal.

I’ve had some traditional “successes” with Anahera Press. Authors shortlisted for the Ockhams, wonderful launch events, books flying off tables. But I think the number one most successful thing that I’ve done is just to keep doing it. That’s the hardest thing, not just for me but also for friends I have at other presses too. And the day-to-day mahi of a small Māori publishing press is not glamorous at all.

We do it because the more Māori poems, stories and voices we can get out there, the better. Everyone is doing different things with their own different interests, ideas and experiences, and the more of that variety we have, the more it enriches the literary landscape, and adds even more depth and vibrancy to the Māori publishing scene.

I’ve been so grateful that I’ve been part of that scene, and that I’ve been able to see how much things in this space have changed over the last 10 years or so. There are an increasing number of small presses, and mainstream publishers are showing more awareness and understanding of Māori writing.

So I think that, if 10 more years pass and Māori literature is thriving, that’ll be wonderful.

Kiri and her son Joseph. (Photo: Supplied)

Kiri Piahana-Wong is a writer, poet and editor of Ngāti Ranginui, Chinese and Pākehā whakapapa. She runs Anahera Press, a small publishing house which she founded in July 2011. It focuses on publishing poetry by Māori writers. Anahera has published 13 books to date. Two of those were longlisted in the Ockhams (The Art of Excavation by Leilani Tamu, and Five Strings by Apirana Taylor), and two were shortlisted (Rāwāhi by Briar Wood and Sleeping with Stones by Serie Barford).

Kiri was born in Taumarunui but lived most of her life in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. She now lives in Whanganui with her husband Marcus Sellwood and their six-year-old son Joseph. She has published two poetry collections, Tidelines in 2024 and Night Swimming in 2013, and her poems have appeared in more than 50 journals and anthologies, including Landfall, Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook, Essential NZ Poems, and Puna Wai Kōrero. She is the co-editor, with Vaughan Rapatahana, of the Māori literature anthology Te Awa o Kupu (Penguin NZ, 2023).

As told to Siena Yates and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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