The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Interview: Teresia Teaiwa

Teresia Teaiwa (Kiribati/USA) was born in Honolulu, Hawai'i and raised in the Fiji Islands. She is of mixed heritage: predominantly of African American, Banaban and I-Kiribati descent. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand now, with her partner Sean, and two sons, Manoa and Vaitoa. Her first collection of poetry, Searching for Nei Nim'anoa was published by Mana/South Pacific Creative Arts Society in 1995. In 2000 'Elepaio Press and Hawai'i Dub Machine released a cd of spoken word featuring some of her work, titled Terenesia: Amplified Poetry and Songs by Teresia Teaiwa and Sia Figiel. She has performed in Santa Cruz, California; Suva, Fiji; Honolulu; Niue; Guam; Auckland, New Zealand; Wellington; New York City; at the 11th International Festival of Poetry in Medellin, Colombia; and some of her poetry has featured on BBC, Australian Broadcasting Commission, and Radio New Zealand International radio programmes.

NOTE: In the photo, Teresia wearing a tibuta (pronounced see-boo-tah) which is the national dress for women from Kiribati…note that Kiribati is pronounced (Key-ree-BASS-ee). It was taken in Papeete, French Polynesia during a Salon du Livre there in 2006.

Interview carried out by email by Jack Little for The Ofi Press issue 36.

1. What aspects of your identity most impact upon your poetry?

 My Pacific Island ancestry, my upbringing in Fiji, my travels and education, my political beliefs and questions, and always, my experiences as a woman, probably leave the deepest imprints on my creative writing.


2. To what extent is "connection" important to your poetry and your life?

It's incredibly important. I think when you have a complicated heritage, that involves quite radically different cultures--my mother is African American from Washington, DC and my father is Banaban and I-Kiribati from Fiji; my mother was third generation university educated in her family, my father was the first Banaban to earn a university degree…and then you yourself read, travel, discover the world…you can't help but want to connect the dots. 

And in this part of the world, the ocean is our greatest connector. One of my mentors, the late Epeli Hau'ofa, helped transform the way Pacific intellectuals and leaders see the Pacific--rather than seeing ourselves as small, poor cultures isolated in a wide ocean, Epeli exhorted us to see how the ocean connects us, and makes us large, rich cultures! 

I've never thought about "connection" as an explicit theme in my poetry, but the very act of writing is about trying to connect words to meaning, whether you have a wider audience in mind or not. My work as an educator is certainly all about "connection"--connecting students to ideas, opportunities, communities, movements. It's a great privilege, being a connector! :)  


3. Please tell us about Kiribati culture and how this impacts upon your work.

As with many other countries, it becomes difficult to describe a national culture when you are aware of local peculiarities. Kiribati is constituted by three major island chains, the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands. The Gilbert Islands are made up of sixteen atolls, and are the most populous; the societies that have formed on each over time have developed unique characteristics. I have ancestry on Tabiteuea, the largest atoll, and we're known to be jealous lovers and capable of fierce violence. Further north, the people of Maiana are described as great teasers. And so on.

From my experience and observations, Kiribati culture can be expressed in both extremely intense and supremely practical terms--I guess you'd need both qualities to be the kind of people that could survive on and around those atolls for a couple millennia. If someone described my poetry as both intense and practical, I'd take that as a compliment. Not intensely practical--but intense and practical in turns.

Because I grew up in Fiji and lived away from my father's family and community, I feel simultaneously at home and displaced in relation to Kiribati language and culture. That's been quite useful in my writing because I do not take anything about my Kiribati heritage for granted. There are some works which engage Kiribati culture in an obvious way--poems like "Tang/ira", "Te Onauti"  and the title poem of my first collection Searching for Nei Nim'anoa . I self-published a small collection of poems in "Broken Gilbertese" in the early 2000s, that allowed me to express myself in a mix of English and Kiribati, and that was great fun. A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of three 'reversible' haiku inspired by Nei Nim'anoa again--she is the ancestor figure who taught the people of Kiribati to navigate by the stars. With the "Nim'anoa reversible" poems I was trying to demonstrate the principles of reduce, reuse, recycle, since the poems were written as a meditation on climate change and the ways that it could dramatically shape the future for Kiribati. I've also recently completed three poems to be included in the catalogue for NZ-based sculptor of Kiribati descent, Chris Charteris' exhibition of new work titled, "Tungaru: The Kiribati Project", which will be featured at the Mangere Arts Centre and Auckland Museum this July (2014). It's so exciting to be able to riff off another contemporary artist in New Zealand who has Kiribati ancestry.

…I find myself often reflecting on Kiribati words, legends, wisdom, all the little and big things I've learned from family members, friends and a few mentors …and asking questions that fluent speakers might never pause to consider. 


4. How did poetry become an important part of your life?

My poetry origin story takes me back to the first year of high school. All it takes is one good teacher, with a heart and an imagination, aye? This was 1981, in Suva, Fiji. Sr. Frances Kelly was our English teacher, and she walked into class one day with a cassette player and asked us to close our eyes while she played an instrumental piece by Paul McCartney titled "Waterfalls". When the music ended she asked us to open our eyes and write whatever came to mind. I wrote three poems. Sr. Frances collected our responses to the music, and when she returned them to us at our next class, her simple comment on my poems was that I should keep writing. That initial encouragement, followed by my mother's support and advice, the thrill of seeing my words in print in my school magazine and then my university periodicals and annuals, the satisfaction of crafting these word objects, and finding other poets whose words inspire me, has kept me connected to poetry ever since.


5. Do you think big prizes are good for poetry? 

I think it's great that there are still individual philanthropists, corporations and governments that think that exceptional poetry is worth recognizing and rewarding, and have enough altruism in them to put money behind poetry. If prizes help in the marketing and publicity or promotion for a book and author, that's great, too--more book sales means more readers, which can only ever be a good thing! But I do not think that prizes provide an objective measure of the quality and significance of a particular poem or collection of poetry. The real prizes for poetry are reflected in whether your poetry is read, whether it resonates, how it is cited, quoted, reproduced, or even fuzzily remembered. I remember a friend of mine telling me that his father had read Searching for Nei Nim'anoa, and told my friend that he liked a particular poem of mine in that collection. I could not stop smiling for days--it felt like I had been awarded the most prestigious prize in the world!


6. Is poetry "useful"?

It's certainly useful to me as a university teacher. Poetry is a form of communication that can introduce students to 'facts'  in a way that fires up their imaginations and connects them to issues emotionally. If you assign a student a poem, they're more likely to read it than if you assign them a 25-page article! :) Poetry has been so useful to me in my teaching. And because of its economy, poetry can also be useful in more broad-based campaigns for education and awareness around social and political issues. A friend of mine was traveling to Germany to lobby against investments in mining and other extractive industries because of their impacts on the environment and communities, and she asked me to recommend some poetry that could address the brutal effects of mining in our region. (For most of the twentieth century, my ancestral homeland of Banaba was mined for phosphate, and our people were relocated to Fiji in order to allow the mining company unfettered access to our lands…so I'm particularly sympathetic to efforts to raise awareness about the negative impacts of mining on communities.) Anyway, I recommended a couple of poems by another friend of mine, and when these were read out in an open forum in Germany, they allowed people far, far away from the Pacific to understand the threats we are facing, and the injustice of it all, and to develop a sense, however fleetingly, of what this might taste or smell like. Poetry is able to recruit allies for Pacific struggles from far away places.


7. Do you have any rituals in your creative process?

I try to follow basic principles of "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. Morning Pages have been an important part of my creative process since 2009. While I was a teenager I understood that writing poetry was a discipline. But once I started teaching at university, I started to rely more on inspiration rather than practice and craft when it came to writing poetry. The process of migrating to New Zealand actually took a toll on my writing voice, and for several years I felt dislocated and disoriented. Writing within confined structures and with specific techniques--haiku, found poems, etc. has helped. But I'm not consistent enough to have rituals to follow. 


8. What are your writing plans for the near future?

I would like to publish one or two more collections soon--whether these are in print, or in audio format, as my last two major releases have been (see Terenesia: Amplified Poetry and Songs by Teresia Teaiwa and Sia Figiel and I can see Fiji: poetry and sound, Teresia Teaiwa featuring Des Mallon, sound design by Hinemoana Baker )…I'm not sure yet. But it's been a few years since my last major release, so I think I'm ready to pull a few threads together…and connect some more dots! :)