Tusiata Avia is a poet, performer and children’s writer. She has published two books of poetry, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004) and Bloodclot (2009), and two children’s books, The Song and Mele and the fofo (2001). Tusiata is well known for her dynamic performance poetry and has a one-woman poetry theatre show – also called Wild Dogs Under My Skirt – which has toured in Austria, Germany, Hawai’i, New Zealand, Australia, American Samoa, Bali and Russia. She has held a number of writing residencies, including the Fulbright Pacific Writers residency at the University of Hawai’i. At present she lives in New Zealand with her four-year-old daughter, Sepela.
SJF:In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?
TA: I have always loved international festivals for this reason - the coming together of poets from different places. Many of us tend to operate in a fairly solo way, so the opportunity to be part of this community of poets is something very special. Poetry Parnassus takes this to a different level, to have so many poets from so many countries will be very exciting indeed. Connections are made, friendships are forged and one would have to be made of stone not to be inspired.
SJF: Could you describe your poetry, though I know this is difficult if not terribly reductive, in reference to what you think poetry should, and can, achieve as an artistic medium?
TA: I'm known as a Pacific Island poet, because I write in about the Pacific and of course because I am a Pacific Islander. I also often write poems set in other 'exotic' places in the world. But that is really only a vehicle for much more universal themes that I think many artists explore. I write about the human condition, about the place of the child, the place of the immigrant, the place of the outsider. I write about love and violence, justice and injustice. All those things that human beings struggle with. Most of my work tends to shot through with a dark humour.
One aspect of my poetry that I've always be passionate about is it's ability to reach people. While I write for the page, a certain amount of my work suits the stage very well. I am known (in New Zealand particularly) for my performance poetry - I have a one woman show called ' Wild Dogs Under My Skirt' which fuses poetry and theatre. In this way poetry reaches a wider audience - and often an audience that would not normally open a book of poetry - than it does on the page.
Poetry can be life changing, it can reach into the soul, past the protective barriers we all erect, and touch something in us. It can move one to tears, it can trigger a spark of recognition - a feeling of being seen and understood, it can light a fire of inspiration, it can stir one to action. The moments my poetry has done any of these things and I have been there to witness it have been some of the most precious of my life.
SJF: You write children's stories as well as poetry. How important is it to your work to write for younger audiences?
TA:I've written a couple of children's books and spend a lot of time in schools and running workshops for teenagers. Children and young people tend to have their insides a closer to their outsides, which makes them great to work with. Their creative natures are often less hardened than adults are.. Even when I write poetry for adults, children have a regular presence.
SJF: Is the Samoan poetry tradition an oral tradition? How much does it need to be supported and preserved in the present day?
TA: Samoan poetry has a very long oral tradition and survives particularly in ceremonial speech-making and song. Luckily because of the importance of ceremony in Samoan culture this poetry is preserved. Like many oral cultures however western culture does has an erosive influence as people move away from the islands. As long as the ceremonial nature of Samoan culture in which the poetry is embedded survives so will the traditional poetry. I am cheered to see even as people do move to the west - New Zealand, Australia and the States, largely those ceremonies continue to be practiced. It is the passing on of this culture to the next generations that will prove crucial. Personally, I feel as if I have absorbed (quite unconsciously and often from a distance) this oral tradition. It has found it's way into a more modern form and style in my work.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus is one of the largest poetry events to ever take place, over one whole week with over two hundred poets in attendance. The nature of its design means, to a certain extent, you are a representative of your nation and its poetic culture. How do you feel about that idea?
TA: Excited, honoured, a little intimidated. How do I represent Samoa and it's poet culture well? Like many Samoans I live in New Zealand - which has a larger population of Samoans than Samoa itself - so I have a different experience to being brought up in the islands. I suppose in answer to my first question: I can only be the Samoan I am - be true to that which is in my heart, which is where the poetry lives.
SJF: And what are your feelings about reading before an audience in London and visiting the city in general?
TA: I know London quite well - as I've lived there for a few years - and I love it! My favourite aspect of London is it's multicultural character - I love than you can find the whole world there. I'm very excited to come back and read for an international London audience.
SJF:The parnassian ideal that really centres Poetry Parnassus reaches back to the Poetry International festival held in London in 1967 which sought to address notions of free speech, community and peace through the artform of poetry. Do you believe this tradition needs to be maintained in 2012?
TA: Absolutely! I believe this tradition must be maintained to the death! We are enormously priveledged to be able to count these things as our rights and keep in mind our sister and brother poets who are not afforded these things by their governments.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.