Primitivism, Poetry and the Representation of Pasifika peoples.

Michael Botur recently wrote an article on The Big Idea about Pasifika poetry called ‘Mouths from the South’. He focuses mostly on the spoken word poetry associated with South Auckland Poets Collective, but also draws in notable Pasifika poets including Karlo Mila and Selina Tusitala Marsh. Throughout the article, Botur maintains a tone of mild condescension, stating:

 [Writers like Mila and Marsh] set the scene for several NZ poets who wouldn’t be in print at all were it not for Pacific publishers, leaving old fashioned scribes behind.

Hang on, who we are leaving behind?

The article has already been challenged through a response piece on Facebook by poet Grace Taylor, and poetry heavyweights Tusiata Avia and Hinemoana Baker have left stunning responses in the comment section (you can read them by scrolling down from Botur’s article).

What I want to explore here is how Botur draws unwittingly on a discourse of primitivism, that shapes his condescending interpretation of Pasifika poets. Primitivism is a discourse that originated from Europe during the colonial period. Most basically, it was a means of describing Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’ in comparison to so-called ‘civilised’ people in the West. Primitivism is associated with a series of binary oppositions that prop up the authority of West in relation to ‘the Rest’, who were seen as ‘lesser than’. So the so-called ‘civilised’ were associated with the mind, rationality, and progress, whereas the “primitive” were linked with the body, ‘myth’ and the past.  Primitivism wasn’t a benign misunderstanding of Indigenous cultures. It has legitimised over a century of political, military, economic, social and educational interventions into the lives and lands of Indigenous peoples.

Botur’s article draws on primitivism by casting Pasifika poets as naive and uneducated in comparison to Pakeha poets and the Western canon of poetry. He says:

Few SAPC poems utilise stanza, metre or stress. Gushing torrents of unstructured personal commentary full of I, me and myself are commonplace, punctuated by dramatic pauses and breaks for laughter. MIT’s creative writing teachers may well be inventing their own rules for poetry; then again, the internet seems to be the predominant teacher of creative writing out south.

There is a sly, derogatory tone in “inventing their own rules” here that conveniently forgets that the Western canon also tells a story of innovation. Ironically, the SAPC poets I have heard utilise metre and stress far more than contemporary Pakeha poets, because the Western canon has shifted towards free verse, which is purposefully unstructured. A critic who criticised Pakeha poets for not utilising stanza, metre or stress would be a laughing stock.

Botur makes repeated reference to the lack of alcohol at some SAPC events. Again, this hints at the colonial, historical depictions of Pasifika people as naive, or childlike. He says  “The February SUP reading I attended was a sea of backwards caps in a well-lit café serving non-alcoholic drinks” and later, “Alcohol is embedded in almost any poetry event in Auckland – except out south, where the poets get high on life.” I think Botur’s target here maybe what he describes as a distinctive theme in Pasifika poetry, our so-called “non-threatening puritanism”. Again, what is noticeable is that Pasifika people are being associated with religiosity – not as a statement of fact – but as a way of signalling our backwardness, compared to imagined, sophisticated Pakeha poets. Using alcohol consumption as a marker of poetic sophistication is a strange one. What was missing was the immediate context (the event Botur attended was for all ages).

Botur’s article is concerned with inherited knowledge. On one hand, he casts Pacific poets as aping their American counterparts, rather than innovating a particular spoken word art form, by saying “Stand Up Poetry (SUP) typically features poets emulating Def Poetry Jam performers, whether they realise it or not”. But then, later on, he seems concerned that Pacific poets have not sufficiently inherited the knowledge of the Western canon:

“None of the influential poets Worley and Pale list are long-dead British blokes; instead, most influence comes from digital age people on the South Auckland circuit who can be viewed on YouTube.”

Certainly, this claim is delegitimising. It speaks to an expectation that poets should be influenced by the Western literary canon, and conflates it with a technophobic and generational concern that young people will be influenced by people on YouTube, instead of by the written (and presumably non-electronic) written word. A central aspect of primitivism as a discourse has been the privileging of the written word over spoken language. A belief that spoken language is less civilised, that spoken language is less considered and therefore less eloquent then written text. Botur forgets that Shakespeare was also writing to works to be performed to crowds. I have no doubt that if Shakespeare was alive today, he would also be producing works and sharing them by YouTube.

Finally, Botur describes South Auckland poetry as having “an obsession with ethnicity and otherness”. His use of the word ‘obsession’ is an attempt to trivialise racial politics and Otherness as a significant theme. Botur’s article highlights – through it’s banal reproduction of primitivist discourses about the Pasifika Other – why Pasifika poets and critical thinkers have to stay on theme. Young Pasifika poets write and speak about their experiences of Otherness because they are continually experiencing marginalisation. So often, depictions of Pasifika peoples are coloured by historical, racist tropes.  I see the work done by Grace Taylor, Daren Kamali and others from South Auckland Poet’s Collective as providing a much needed space for telling our own stories.  Botur’s article did not tell us much about mouths from the South. An alternative title might have been “Words from the West”.

Anadarko Poem

Oh Anadarko

what a villain you are to our Antipodean ears!

Riding in with your 10 gallon hat

slick words for dark waters.

You come from Texan sun

stolen land,  where dust flies.

Maybe worth is harder to recognize.

John Key says we are just a few hundred people                            wandering.

He is a nervous Cowboy

waiting by the rodeo     for a tin star.

It reminds me                                  words      are weapons.

Oh Anadarko,

your feet are                        too heavy.

Benefit Cuts Poem

1. Wear your old jeans. Wear the matted navy jumper that is too short in the arms, and your hair in jagged waves that might drop intrepid surfers. Your bones will be a metronome for time spent waiting.

2. In the Queen St WINZ office, they have hired Pasifika girls to sit in rows and stare at monitors. It will make you feel ashamed to tell your story to a girl that knows your ‘aiga or that went to your school. Notice that she is averting her eyes. Notice that she can only enter words that will fit on the screen. Most of your words will spill away unaccounted for.

3. So offer the caseworker some beauty or some truth. Imagine truth like tiny purple violets, like felt hearts on tender stems or dragon eyes. Truth is something she can’t recognise.

4. Notice the two security guards. Notice the space around them, how they face towards the applicants like keepers. One has knotted fingers. While he talks, he drums his long fingers on his slacks like a tell.

5. Notice we are all a little dirty. There is a man wearing his best shirt. There is a girl with a beautiful rash bursting like a flower on her chest and neck. There are older, Pasifika men wearing the suits they wore to their weddings. There is a blonde kid saying he has been going to church, he wants to change his life, his whole attitude. All the while, his hands grasp his arms, and he rocks in his thin, white tee-shirt. Know that there no boxes on the screen that his story will fit into.

6. Know that we are first world poor. Let it roll on your tongue. That kind of unlucky generates it’s own disdain.

7. Ask to see the manager.

8. Ask to see Paula Bennett. Ask how much she spent to come up with the three new categories. Ask whether alongside the flagrant messaging,  we can have royal blue balloons and ticker tape too. Suggest that if we put on some country music and bought in some tumblers of gin, we could have a desperation party.

9. Notice how everybody shakes.

10. Ask to see the Donkey King. Ask him politely whether he believes in hubris.

11. Keep your head full of Katherine Mansfield. The trick with being a beneficiary is too hold tightly against the roaring tide.

Poem: An Obituary for Maggie Thatcher


Poem: An Obituary for Maggie Thatcher



Death comes.                       It has a singular certainty for us

all –        who come shuddering and shaking into the world.          The only leveler.

Labour MP Tom Watson says, ‘I hope that                      people on the left                      

  of politics

respect a family        in grief today’.

We wonder why Tom speaks so,


 Labour            abandoned the left           long ago.

And former Tory MP Louise Mensch decries: ‘Pygmies                                of the left

 so predictably

              embarrassing                                 yourselves.’

A stiff   upper lip is required,

Death is nothing                         without propriety.

David Cameron praises you as a ‘patriot’             describes

                                                    your ‘lion-hearted love’      for Britain

a wee mouse, squeaking under your iron paw.

Cameron has divided and dismantled the National Health System,

 an elderly woman made     to drink the stale vase water   of fading     chrysanthemums.


President Barack Obama says ‘ the world has lost

                                            one of the great champions of         

                                                                                                             freedom and liberty’

Nelson Mandela may not have         agreed.

But freedom after all, has come to mean            the economic              fallacy

of access to the market.  After you lady, only dreams

are                    free.


Well, Maggie

an obituary should

be prim and proper                                   as a double strand of pearls.

Or, strive      to speak the truth   about a life        who has born

    generations      of scorn                  and me-first-ism.


And I, a grown child of the colonies

Inherit irreverently, British comedy and Shakespeare’s tasteless habit

of speaking ill of the deceased,

especially those     we should honour       for their wielding of             ill-gotten power



You were a studious child                 

from Grantham who liked,        reading and poetry.         I wish you’d stayed a poet

and not

become the thin-lipped friend of tyrants.

You did not     believe in          society.                    Your pristine white gloves

waved farewell to public assets and trade unions.

Section 28 would invent a “pretended family relationship”.


To be fair;

Billy Elliot         the miner’s son                    is not a miner.  


But through you, the miners and their other sons             are not miners either.


Thatcherism                                           carried on a chill wind,     

 seeded                noxious neoliberal            blooms.


I would leave convolvulus and sticky weed on your grave.                                The only reveler,

Death comes.                      

Ghost Stories: A Review of Amber Dawn’s ‘How Poetry Saved My LIfe’

Amber Dawn spoke at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC recently. In person, she was self-confident, directing questions back to the audience in a relaxed, conversational way, and flicking her trade mark bottle-red curls behind her shoulder as she talked. Her hair is really Mermaid hair. It felt like an activisty community meeting instead of a book launch. UBC is her alma mater, where she completed a MFA in Creative Writing, so it might have been that she was on home ground, albeit the manicured politeness of home ground she was careful to disrupt. I’ve just read her new book,  How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir.

Amber Dawn’s first novel Sub Rosa won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011. Sub Rosa is about a group of magical sex workers, and Amber is keen to return to speculative fiction in the novel she is working on, a ghost story set in a carnival in her home town. How Poetry Saved My Life already had its own ghosts, despite her sometimes raw and ruthless words, you sense the ethereal presence of others left unsaid.

How Poetry Saved My Life is a memoir, but a deceptively narrow one in that Dawn is really holding her sex work history like a multifaceted stone, and showing us the plays of light across her palm.  The memoir is told in poems and essays. At the end, you have overheard conversations, the sense of having met a redhead queer girl in the middle of a bus trip, but not the sense of having gotten to know her story. In the title poem, Dawn writes, ‘Moreover, poetry reunited me with the girl/ who didn’t mind the endless backwoods tree line/ and was thrilled by the sounds of coyotes screaming at night./ Someday I’ll write about her’ (p.56). You hope that someday she does.

Yet, there is a satisfying messiness about Dawn’s life that is left on the page, instead of being forced into plastic ill-fitting labels. She is a sex worker, she is queer, and femme, and genderqueer, and feminist and a poet all at once. She is unapologetically everything publishers should be afraid of in a country so soaked through with middle-class politeness. She is funny and angry. She is both pensive, and loud: ‘those Powerpuff Girls and Bratz dolls that are doing so well in the marketplace. They wear booty shorts and speak in baby voices but, by god, are they introspective. I mean, their heads are as big as those of the Eight Immortals of Tao.’ (p.73).

In one deliberately challenging essay “Lying is the Work”, Dawn tells us to ‘Forget about hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotypes. Survivor heroism – disregard that altogether’ (p.119). It’s a hard ask when bravery bubbles out of each page: the bald-faced naked and naive bravery of her younger self with little except resilience ‘Drugstore red lipstick/ is all I need – a Lincoln Town Car/ will pick me up in the gas station parking lot/ Watch’ (p.42), the astute political bravery of demanding a return-in-kind of her reader ‘What personal and public rituals do you perform to be seen?” (p.112), and the matured bravery of being a writer that lets her vulnerability show through: ‘Sex work changed the way I fucked. Confessions don’t come any harder than this one’ (p. 141).

As a queer, femme, genderqueer and feminist reader I wanted to underline phrases in pencil, leave sticky notes in the margins, and pass my copy on to my own crew: the queer and lesbian and femme and genderqueer and feminist people that I share words, and wine, and sometimes lovers, with. In one essay Dawn invites us – the queer community – to consider how to bury our dead. In another, she reminds us of how butch – femme love creates our own ways  of being held, and seen, and safe. How Poetry Saved My Life is painful but also nurturing. I suspect it will act as a radical gathering place for all of us  – queer femme folk – who are road-weary, and have lives to grieve and lovers to remember.

Poem – Now that they’ve made Susan Devoy Race Relations Commissioner


Now that they’ve made Susan Devoy Race Relations Commissioner

Racism in New Zealand is polite –  her smile is not too wide.

She drinks tea and welcomes you in     but wait, first wipe your dirty foreign feet        outside

We like to retell the stories

of kiwi battlers that have made it       on their own

with only a rugby ball or a squash racquet                    against the tide       of Others.

We know who all the heroes are.

Racism will walk in and mutter about burqas under her breath. The people at number 19

will always be “that Muslim family”

“the Chinese doctor” and “his wife is lovely, but she doesn’t speak much English”.

We like to pretend

That Waitangi day is just another day for drinking beer with your mates

Not the signing of a dishonoured treaty. So Racism will lean close and say,

“those bloody Maori are just stirrers” not people that have endured

and                      endured.

Not resistance fighters. Not survivors.

My illegal immigrant father taught me to always be polite to elders and to authority. (Politeness – like a second skin – a skirt that needs taking out)

We were polite even after the Dawn Raids (you need to smile nicely – and not show teeth – at the people you can’t trust).

I’ve noticed when Karlo reads,                                      there are two different translations

The Pasifika version, where we hear our babies crying                         and

The Pakeha version, where somehow our pain     is rewired in their ear canals to sound like ukelele music, and they think she is just talking about                fish.

Now that they’ve made Susan Devoy

Race Relations Commissioner

I know I’ve been polite for too long                      because Paheka commentators think

Marama is just a loudmouth        and

Tze Ming Mok is the only              one that is                 angry.

(No, this is not a kettle that can be taken off the boil, left aside for a month to cool off, while National finds manuka honeyed words to slip inside your mouth).

We are all angry.