New Zealand poet Tayi Tibble debuted with 2022’s Poukahangatus, whose “rollicking, indignant, and invigorating narratives contend with history and navigate what it means to be millennial, female, and of Māori descent,” according to PW’s starred review. Ahead of the release of her second collection, Rangikura (Knopf, Apr.), Tibble spoke with PW about her Polynesian roots and how poetry is a source of catharsis.
How has your Māori background influenced you as a writer?
First and foremost, my worldview is informed by my heritage and culture; our term for this is te ao Māori. There are all these ways in which we view the world that I apply in my poetry. In Rangikura, there are a lot of deities, atua, present. I feel like they pop up and ask for veneration, and poetry is my way of honoring them. In my work there’s a certain cadence that’s informed by our traditional waiata and mōteatea, our songs and poetry. In Rangikura, you hear a lot of internal rhyme and strong rhythm.
You convey a defiant persona in this collection. Is writing a conduit for your inner rebel?
I like writing because you get to have the last word, which I don’t always have in real life. It’s the space where I can express myself; I’m on the reserved side in person. My poems talk a lot about colonization, and the response to that is to rebel against it. It’s a matter of the language matching the content. When I’m speaking to these power structures, the tone is rebellious, has anger, and all these feelings that you feel in the face of colonial oppression.
In the poem “Takakino,” which is the Māori word for destruction, you describe a police encounter that felt enjoyably “fictional.” What does that mean?
That poem is dictating a silly night out between two young characters, young hine, and that line speaks to the cliché of trying to escape or feel alive. It refers to the pain the narrators are feeling in the face of colonization; that destruction is why there’s a lot of fire or heat imagery in this collection. It’s this idea of going through the fire. In our culture, we have rāhui ways of protecting or nurturing the environment. A lot of that is through fire, like controlled burnings, and this idea that fire is destructive but also cleansing.
How does self-deprecating humor figure into your work?
It’s got to do with my culture and being an urban Māori. Especially in Polynesian culture, there’s a lot of mocking each other, and it’s quick-witted. Traditionally in our language, it’s the same with our rangatira, our chiefs, and how our elders speak to us in metaphors, always trying to one-up or have the punch line. It’s the culture—just roasting each other. You have to grow up being self-deprecating because, if you’re not, someone else is going to deprecate you. When you’re going through the world as a Polynesian woman, a wahine Māori, and writing about oppression and colonization, you have to have a sense of humor.