As students prepare to head home for the inter-semester break, Craccum reviews Nathan Joe’s Homecoming Poems and talks with Nathan himself on what homecoming means.
Through three poems, Nathan Joe: Homecoming Poems traverses the complex and oftentimes painful feelings that comes with home, what it means to leave it—and what it means to return. 13 and a half minutes is all it takes for Nathan Joe to raze, ruminate, and shakily reconcile. The three acts, three poetic works, each focus on Joe’s complex feelings and experiences in relation to his position, both physical and social, in this world. Each are painfully relatable—Joe withholds nothing from us. With biting honesty, the tensions between his queer and Chinese-New Zealand identity, his Christchurch roots and the escape he found in Auckland, are laid bare. Homecoming Poems is for those who were ever made to feel out of place growing up in New Zealand.
The first poem, ‘Seven definitive answers to seven questions I have no time for’, comes out swinging from the start. It bites back at the assumptions and prejudices Joe’s faced daily as a queer Chinese-New Zealand man drawn from his personal experiences. ‘Seven definitive answers’ is the broadest of the poems that touches on sensitive topics like racial identity politics and the continued colonisation of New Zealand. But it connects with the audience through Joe’s intensity. Stereotypes around Asian bodies, playing the race card, and our guilty attraction to white people are raised with such authenticity and anger that the audience doesn’t dare look away. “Yes, I’m allowed to say chink”, Joe fires “no, you’re absolutely not”. The rage in his words is palpable and powerful.
In the second poem, ‘The longest car ride ever endured’, comes a solemn meditation that smolders at the edges. Joe laments on moving away and the trials that come with queer identity in an act of intimate introspection that car rides always provoke. Head pressed against shuddering car door, passing lights flickering, loaded questions and heavy pauses—Joe conjures up emotions that are painfully familiar. In his own words, “The longest car ride ever endured’ is the “centerpiece to the whole thing, that the rest of the film hinges on”—but it never feels like we’ve reached an emotional climax. There’s an unresolved messiness to the second act that’s satisfying in its own way. It splices between memories with a calculated “jump-cut”: schoolyard days of queer innocence, parties and piss-ups and transient conversations, driving with his dad from Christchurch to Auckland for university. It captures that lingering turmoil one feels long after home is far behind you. This is the most emotionally tolling part of the film, and you can see it in every loaded line Joe delivers.
‘Call me, Ōtautahi’, the third act, is a beautiful not-quite ending. Joe stands tall in place in flowing garbs resembling a mountain in one-way conversation with his hometown. He’s proud, defiant, and vulnerable all at once. Immediately, you relate to this show of bravado we all try to put on from the big smoke back to our little towns. The act of “homecoming”, particularly for queer and ethnic folk, makes difficult feelings bubble to the surface—and Joe leans into that discomfort. The cavalier attitude and witty wordplay of Joe’s poetry hits hard for anyone who stuck out growing up. “I guess I’m a slut for Stockholm syndrome” Joe quips cheekily, and it’s the truth. It’s a very real characterisation of the person you become trying to endure your small town and all it contains, and a near-perfect articulation of that not-quite-love-not-quite-hate relationship we have with our hometowns.
As expected of three poems in a short film format, Homecoming Poems is filled with unresolved tension. It plays with that lack of conclusion through jarring scene changes and open-ended dialogue, with the frictions of previous acts left lingering. It’s refreshing to see two interesting creative formats, poetry and short film, used together in a way that adds to the film’s exploration of conflicted, complex, and contradictory feelings. For this process, Joe remarked that having the right collaborators was key in making poetry work on screen that didn’t just reduce the film to a live poetry recording. chatting about the psychological landscape of the whole film, as well as the individual pieces. “We spent a lot of time just chatting about the psychological landscape of the whole film, as well as the individual pieces”, Joe explained. “There was a lot of back and forth around how much (or how little) the pieces needed visually.” And this amount of thought and care into every aspect of production really shows. There could’ve been a risk for the messiness to become just a mess, but director Nahyeon Lee strikes the balance well.
It is almost hard to believe that this whole film is set in a studio. Especially in the second poem, ‘The longest car ride ever endured’, the atmosphere the lighting creates is almost identical to real life. Visually, the film is stunning. The noir-esque cinematography and contrasting lighting of the short adds to the more sombre undertone of Joe’s poems. In recreating the tender and intimate moments of young infatuations, cheeky camerawork of hiding the lens behind soft red blinds makes you feel like you’re intruding. The shifting focus evokes the hazy environment of a drunken night out. Themes of nostalgia, hope and self-reflection all shine through beautifully in the details.
“Speaking his truth” is too tame a description and doesn’t do Homecoming Poems justice. Those returning home (especially us who have found freedom away from our hometowns) will resonate with seeing familiar feelings of being caught in between identities and places put to plainly on screen. “‘The homecoming’ and ‘the return’ are such universal experiences.” Joe wanted us to know, “most of us will go through this in our adult lives. It’s not easy. It brings up a lot.” But at the same, Homecoming Poems offers us something other than regret. We’re left hanging with Joe’s last word, “hope”, and a sense of open-ended possibility.
Q and A with Nathan Joe
What was the creative process like combining two really interesting creative formats, poetry and short film ?
Having the right collaborators was of utmost importance for the process in bringing poetry into a cinematic landscape. Ankita Singh (one of the producers) and I set out to really interrogate how poetry might work on screen from the earliest stages. How can it be more than just filming someone performing poetry?
Then bringing on Nahyeon Lee (the director) who really understood the sort of reference points I’m interested in. We really vibe in terms of our love of film and the sorts of things we are able to discuss. And we spent a lot of time just chatting about the psychological landscape of the whole film, as well as the individual pieces. There was a lot of back and forth around how much (or how little) the pieces needed visually.
I also suggested (or encouraged) getting costume designer Steven Park on board as another collaborator. He’s a dear friend I’ve wanted to work with properly for a while. So that was more of a case of creative matchmaking.
Ultimately Nahyeon was in charge of the vision. And I just had to show up and perform the poems.
How were you able to nail articulating that complex relationship a lot people (particular queer and BIPOC) have with their hometowns?
That came down to the curatorial aspect of putting three poems together. Narrative and structure is really important to me. I’m an absolute ho for structure.
What was the effect of putting these three particular poems together? And why these three poems? I think the second poem (‘The longest car ride ever endured’) is the literal centrepiece to the whole thing, that the rest of the film hinges on.
I’m finding the question difficult to answer directly, but…
I suppose the question implies I have nailed the complex relationship between people and hometowns. I’m not entirely sure I have, but I appreciate that.
I think the HOW is in simply being as honest and reflective as possible about including the whole plethora of memories and experiences that flashback. To not shy away from those thoughts and feelings. To relish in their messiness.
What do you want Homecoming Poems to mean to watchers, especially queer BIPOC audiences who face going home to small towns after a while in the big cities?
That “the homecoming” and “the return” are such universal experiences. That most of us will go through this in our adult lives. That it’s not easy. That it brings up a lot. Returning to my hometown Christchurch BROUGHT UP A LOT. There are things you thought you ran away from or thought you got over that you will have to confront. You will feel conflicted and complex, contradictory things. But it’s gonna be okay. You will have a chance to reflect, I hope, and feel full of possibilities for the future rather than regret for the past. These old scars will heal.
Commissioned by Going West Writers Festival with the support of Waitākere Ranges Local Board, Auckland Council, and Creative New Zealand. Nathan Joe: Homecoming Poems is available to watch On Demand at https://www.vidzing.tv/going-west/429f85d6-0d91-47c8-9023-588081345099?fbclid=IwAR0pkH3QkoaOnfz37CTFpf7i4BYBuq963EYKj6qOIaDMK8kmkYKyXKRFl_k