New Zealand Poet Laureate, Dr Selina Tusitala-Marsh

Selina Tusitala-Marsh has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry. She was the Commonwealth Poet in 2016 and the New Zealand Poet Laureate from 2017-2019. Selina won The Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award (2020) and was judged the supreme winner at the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Her book ‘Mophead’ also won the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, where she teaches English and creative writing. Dr Selina Tusitala-Marsh talks to LEANNE COMER about becoming a poet, beating writer’s block and the importance of finding an authentic voice.

Q: When did you first know that you wanted to write?

A: When I was eleven, we had a poet come and visit our school, a really well-known poet named Sam Hunt. I’m eleven, at intermediate, I kind of stick out because I’ve got big hair and I get teased about it. And he came into the school and he had wild hair and he had these wild words that went with his hair.

And he memorized his poetry so it wasn’t staid and boring and dead on the page as we’d previously experienced poetry to be. He embodied it and performed it and he was the poem. He was a walking, talking, breathing poem. And it was at that point that I thought, “Could I do that?”

Q: Why do you enjoy writing poetry?

A: It gave me a voice and it gave me a standing place among my peers to be able to rehearse and recite, because I did a lot of poems by memory. Poetry gave me a command and a confidence that I didn’t feel like I had before. Poetry became a very strong, what Maori call turangawaewae, strong standing place, and it enabled me to set down my roots in my own unique way.

Q: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

A: Absolutely! In 2016, when I became the Commonwealth Poet, I was commissioned to write and perform a poem for Her Majesty. I plummeted into writer’s block then because I began composing and was really dissatisfied with the forced story that was coming out.

But writer’s block isn’t an excuse to sit on your hands and so I just began reading. I researched around what Her Majesty had been doing of late, I researched around Westminster Abbey, the site of the performance, and who’d been coronated and knighted there. I just started getting inspiration, feeding my mind with facts and stories.

And I mind map a lot, I draw a lot, so it felt like I was still working even though not one line had been written that I was happy with.

Poetry Course at NZ Writers College

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest writing achievement?

A: I think that the “Unity” poem for Her Majesty was significant. I don’t think it’s the most important poem but it’s significant on multiple levels for my various communities around Oceania to feel represented in that space.

Q: What is the best advice about writing that you’ve ever received?

A: It might relate to the best advice about being Poet Laureate that I ever received. Peter Ireland – he’s the kaitiaki or the steward of all the Poets Laureate – said, “Well, you’re the Poet Laureate, Selina. You do you. That’s why you’re the Poet Laureate.”

And I think that is the ongoing challenge – for you to do you and to weed out the other imposter voices and the writerly voice that you think you should adopt when you put something on paper. At the same time, you still need to be open to being inspired and creatively fed by the world of voices and writing out there.

Read more about Selina’s writing here.

About the Author

Leanne Comer, writer, New Zealand

Born and raised in Australia, Leanne Comer has lived in Auckland, New Zealand since 1992. She is a citizen of both countries. Leanne works as a secondary school English teacher and is currently completing the Freelance Journalism for Magazines and Webzines course. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing and travelling.

Photograph of Dr Selina Tusitala-Marsh by Hayley Theyers