Creative work is part of Indigenous scholarship

Poet-scholar Associate Professor Selina Tusitala Marsh explains how making creative work is part of her Indigenous scholarship, as well as her poetry.

"I'm a Tusitala, a teller of tales. For over 20 years, my mandate in both my critical and creative work has been to use poetry to enrich lives.

"This includes increasing awareness of Indigenous poets in the Pacific and New Zealand. Currently, these important regional voices are not even on the literary radar, let alone incorporated into educational curricula in this region.

"Who knew that Oceania has its own poetry foremothers, first wave poets who have been publishing in English since the 1970s? I certainly didn't when I began studying literature in the mid '90s. Oceania has its own rich literary genealogy, our own literary whakapapa. We need to know our own stuff!

Indigenous literary criticism is not just about pulling apart, it's about poesis —making.

"My poetry uncovers and tells hidden stories to as wide an audience as possible. It centres indigenous stories and ways of knowing, being and doing. It keeps stories current.

"The title poem in my first collection Fast-Talking PI (2009) was a response to a sensationalist newspaper headline calling Pacific peoples New Zealand's "brown underclass", and an article based on outdated, ill-informed and racist research.

"Pasifika are not a homogenous community that can be written off with stereotypes. The issue was debated on national television and in several symposia, and the Human Rights Commission received complaints. My poem brought the issue into the classroom and it took on a weird cult status.

"My latest poetry collection, Tightrope (2017), explores how we need to maintain dynamic balance in all we do, including working between our creative and critical selves.

"I use Indigenous methodologies to critique creative work indigenous to Oceania so that such work can be appreciated on its own terms. This is an exciting, developing field. My mother is Samoan and my father is Pākehā, and I bring to my reading a knowledge of a Pacific diasporic aesthetic.

"My work appreciates Pacific texts that formal European frameworks (when they acknowledged Pacific texts) often identified as "over simplistic" or "too political" — the critic's cultural blinders fully in place.

My poetry uncovers and tells hidden stories to as wide an audience as possible. It centres Indigenous stories and ways of knowing, being and doing.

"Indigenous literary criticism is not just about pulling apart, it's about poesis — making.

"I recently examined a 1970s work of fiction by a renowned Pacific author. When it was published, the work was critically slammed for being misogynistic, resulting in a fall-out between people and institutions. I wanted to figure out how to support this early feminist critique (which I agreed with) while protecting my working relationship with the text's author. It was about protecting the Va — that inter-relational place between people and between ideas —in order to keep community intact and enable it to be better served. This matters in the Pacific where everyone knows each other.

"I proposed a new way of engaging with the text, one that not only critiqued the text's misogyny from a feminist perspective, but made something from it too.

"With text in one hand, and a black marker in the other, I proceeded to blackout most of the page's words, leaving only a few words related to girls, women, agency and voice. The black-out technique enabled the voices of previously silenced and maligned women characters to rise to the surface of the page.

"After my experimentation I consulted with the author. Understanding my kaupapa, he gave me his blessing. This is my work as a Pasifika Poet-Scholar and one that I self-reflexively documented in order to develop a culturally-centred Pasifika feminist critique. Through creative-critical means, the text has been resurrected and can now be discussed without rancour.

My achievements aren't just mine, they are shared by wider communities — Pasifika, poets, women — it's fantastic.

"When no one else is doing what you're doing, it takes tenacity and courage to keep going. But in the last couple of years I've received external recognition for my work and my ways of knowing, doing and being — performing for the Queen as the 2016 Commonwealth Poet, winning the London Literary Death Match in 2015, MCing an evening with past US president Barack Obama, and receiving my tokotoko as Aotearoa's Poet Laureate.

"My achievements aren't just mine, they are shared by wider communities — Pasifika, poets, women — it's fantastic. I'll continue being a Tusitala, telling tales in critical-creative ways. I'll also continue helping others tell theirs."