How does a poet laureate celebrate their birthday? If you’re Aotearoa’s Poet Laureate Chris Tse, you mark the occasion with a gathering of fellow poets – and by writing a new poem that references your love of Celine Dion.
Tse, who was named the country’s 13th poet laureate in 2022, celebrates his birthday today. He’s invited a bunch of fellow poets to help him mark the occasion at a Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival event.
That might not sound like a traditional birthday, but there will be cake, Tse tells Jim Mora.
“Even though I'm not a big fan of birthday cake, I know I should never deprive people of birthday cake,” he says.
“I actually shy away from being the centre of attention. So this is going to be pushing me out of my comfort zone a bit. But I'm really looking forward to to seeing and hearing what everyone comes up with.”
Tse has published three critically-acclaimed full length poetry collections and has appeared at literary festivals around the globe. He says he started writing poems as “an angsty teenager” growing up in Lower Hutt.
“It was a way of unpacking and articulating these feelings and these worries that I had as a teenager and you know, to some extent, that's kind of still why I use poetry,” he says.
“For me poetry has always been my tool for understanding who I am as a person, understanding the world around me and how the two interact. For me a big part of why I write poetry is to bridge those gaps between readers, between worlds.”
For his birthday, Tse has written a poem that references his once-secret love for Canadian singer Celine Dion. ‘It wasn’t a phase, Mum—I still listen to Celine Dion’ is inspired by Tse thinking about what his parents were doing when they were his age.
“I'm at that age now where that nostalgia for the 90s and the noughties, those years where I was a teenager and a young adult, they provide a lot of comfort for me. And so it's really lovely to be able to dip back into that music that sort of made me who I am.
“Back then, you know, it was a bit of a secret that I liked Celine Dion. And it was something I didn't really tell my friends about. But you know, now it's like, let's not be ashamed of that.”
‘It wasn’t a phase, Mum—I still listen to Celine Dion’
It wasn’t a phase, Mum—I still listen to Celine Dion
I’m almost the same age you were when
I asked you to bring back a copy of Falling Into You
from one of your long weekends in Melbourne.
I could’ve asked for a boomerang but I didn’t
because I was………very gay. I thrashed that album,
dubbed a copy for the car, and belted its songs
in the shower until they became hymns of
steam and soap. At 41, you were a mother of two
teenage boys and a small business owner.
At 41, I am a childless poet with stacks of CDs
I can’t play anymore. These days my fingers
search soju-sticky karaoke catalogues for Celine’s
deep cuts while time plays its circular tricks on me in
darkened rooms of déjà-vu. Everything comes back
to trend; everything is in fashion again to remind us
how many times we have danced around the sun.
I’ve lost count of how many parties I’ve passed through
like Marty McFly desperate for home, dazed and careless,
my youth trickling away in friends-of-friends’ flats
thick with smoke and bass. I sought reprieve in kitchens,
where everyone bluffed their way through conversations
that felt epiphanous in the moment, their bravado
on full display for anyone who might meet them
vibe to vibe. Remember that night R punched a
concrete wall just because someone told him to?
The party inside carried on despite his cries of pain.
Someone put on a dance remix of ‘My Heart Will Go On’
as a joke, but the whole house shook with the drunken
conviction of thirty theatre students. Nowadays I walk
past that same house with students crouched outside
passing a precious joint between them. The walls
talk to those who have spoken to them. The years
are always waiting for someone to hit ‘play’ again.