Glenn Colquhoun: 'It's well past time Pākeha sung to Māori'

From Saturday Morning, 9:10 am on 27 April 2024
New Zealand poet and doctor Glenn Colquhoun talks to Susie Ferguson about Māori oral poetry and the songs he could finally "take to the marae".

New Zealand poet and doctor Glenn Colquhoun talks to Susie Ferguson about Māori oral poetry and the songs he could finally "take to the marae". Photo: Melanie Phipps

New Zealand poet and doctor Glenn Colquhoun has released two new books of poetry in te reo Māori - Ngā Wāhine E Toru/Three Women and Myths and Legends of the Ancient Pākehā - both accompanied by soundtracks.

In 2004, he was awarded Victoria University of Wellington's Prize in Modern Letters and a few years ago started his own imprint, Old King Press.

He tells Susie Ferguson about the legacy of Māori oral poetry and the long process of writing songs he could finally "take to the marae".

The power of Māori poetry in song form

As a young man on a marae in Northland, he'd hear people arrive at night to farewell a deceased person at a tangi.

"This old guy or this old kuia would shuffle forward and sing literally to the dead, and not in a polished way... they would have worked the shift before, driven up at night.

"I just remember so many experiences of waking up at two and three o'clock in the morning to somebody singing something. It was the poet in me that listened. I was like, 'Oh my God, what are they singing?'

"There was something incredibly powerful about the sound and the sound quality. And it just drew me in. I started learning and exploring and talking to people from that point forward.

"I was like, 'Heck, I've done a BA in English. I'm already an established poet. Nobody told me about this canon of poetry.' Even now, I've never been to a festival and seen Māori poetry showcased.

"As a New Zealand poet, it behoves me to be able to have some understanding of this form. That took me back, as Māori have always done, to my own culture, and to say, 'Well, how do I access the power of this poem?'

"It's taken me the rest of my life to come up with the songs that I can take to the marae.

"If everyone's sad it needs to be funny, if everyone's laughing it needs to be sad... These are songs for me to take to the marae and it's well past time Pākeha sung to Māori.

"We bring tellings and tellings off and telling us how it's going to be and power structures, and we have never come in and just sung. There's something disarming... about singing. Singing is not a solution - but sometimes [it is] a better answer to a better question."

The relationship between poetry and song

"For tens of thousands of years, the poem was... a sung form. And it was only technology a couple of thousand years ago - with writing - that caused them to be written down.

"When you write a poem down, it becomes more cognitive. You read the poem, you can study the poem. And poems increasingly started to have more of the conceit in them, the coiled idea, which is beautiful, that's how I came to poetry... it also made them brainy and remote and academic, increasingly.

"[Over time] we forgot the two prime urges: the cry and the itch. This is why we utter, why we speak: 'Am I alone?' It reminded me that's where the poem came from, not from being clever.

"Cadence, human voice, carries so much of the meaning of the poem. So I overwrote a lot of these poems, and then when I started to sing them I realised, 'Well, that's too complex.' Because you didn't need so much colour; the colour is in the singing.

"When you perform a haka or sing a mōteatea, it's more powerful than me reading a poem. I realised we had our own song forms."

The three women honoured in Ngā Wāhine E Toru/Three Women

Colquhoun pays tribute to his daughter, his mother and his ex-partner Libby in these poems.

He started writing them when Libby was pregnant with their daughter Olive, who turns 21 this year.

"Olive helped me with the third - a lot of translations I would run them by her. She'd been to kura her whole life and her te reo Māori is much better than mine. That was a lovely experience: being corrected by my child over and over again.

"When I started to write the poems for Libby, we were really in that space where we didn't know if we would be together or not.

"So much Māori poetry is the blues and sad-ass love poetry. Lament is at the heart of Māori poetry. And as I wrote those I never knew whether they would have a happy ending or not. So that ambiguity, I think, was the perfect space [to write from]. Of all the poems in Three Women, it's the poems I wrote to Libby that best access a Māori sensibility.

"Sometimes I see myself lapsing into Pākeha ways of thinking when I'm writing the poems... but the poems for Libby, the fact that they were written in the heat of battle, I think, kept them [rooted in a Māori sensibility].

"I started [writing the poems] in English and translated them into te reo three times because each time I wanted to loosen the translation so that it sung more in te reo rather than become just a literal translation … then I ran them past first-language speakers to make sure they were sweet in te reo and not flat, which meant putting some poetry back into them after that process."

The question of cultural appropriation

Colquhoun is well aware that some people may wonder whether it's appropriate for him to write poetry in te reo Māori as a Pākeha man.

"Māori have been powerful in my life and in some ways I've been enculturated by them. I've learned so much in medicine [too] from Māori [people].

"I know deep in my own heart that they come out of a poet's love for poetry and also a desire to go back to my own world, my Pākeha world, and say, 'We also sing, why aren't we singing? And also why aren't we talking about Māori poetry? Why are we not doing this because there are so many enormously qualified people to talk about that? Why aren't they talking about it at a poetry festival? Why aren't we teaching examples of Māori poetry in schools?' 

"You can teach allusion, metaphor and rhythmic use of language brilliantly by accessing Māori poetry.

"These are not other people's stories, they're my stories. And I made sure to surround myself with people who are experts in te reo and experts in these art forms.

"I think [my writing] comes from an authentic response to the Māori world, rather than me going and pinching [ideas]. Also, the work is not 'for sale' ...the sung forms are all free and downloadable or streamable. I managed to get everyone who worked on it paid, I didn't take the work for granted."

His recent open letter to politician David Seymour (published in The Listener)

Colquhoun wants to see the ACT leader pay more visits to Northland, where Seymour grew up.

"I just think if he did, it would be great. Because the relationship between the cultures, in my experience, you can't really legislate it. You have to have relationships with each other and fall in love with each other.

"I think lots of New Zealanders just get on and do that and have authentic relationships. Then we're careful and tender how we say things. And I want him to be careful and tender how he says things. You can have your thoughts but have some understanding of how another body of people is going to receive that.

"It makes me sad that we're [at risk of undoing] some things that we've done well in the past - and it makes me even sadder that politics can appeal to the lowest common denominator in us to get votes.

"In some ways I'm even more mad at National, because... they have accepted… crap, really, to be in government with people who don't have an understanding of Māori.

"That p**ses me off even more - people who do know better. Ignorance you can meet with relationship and kindness but man, when you know and you still bulls**t... that p**ses me off."