On Tūnui I Comet, a new poetry collection
Craccum alumnus Robert Sullivan takes us on a poetic journey. Mixing Te Reo Māori and traditional aspects of English poetry, Tūnui I Comet is the realisation of more than a decade’s worth of work. Robert Sullivan displays the grace, skill, and humour of a modern Māori wordsmith. The collection exists at the intersections of the past and present. It is both ancient and modern and speaks to the meditative Māori.
From Craccum to the world, Robert Sullivan joins us to talk about Tūnui I Comet.
Tell us about the poetry collection.
It’s based on my travels through Aotearoa and especially my shared whakapapa of Ngāpuhi, Kāi Tahu, Irish, and English ancestors. I’ve deliberately interwoven whakapapa as a theme to bring in the complexity of perspectives that a person has who happens to identify as both Māori and Pākehā, and also to wriggle out of stereotypical representations associated with Māori by non-Māori.
This collection took over ten years to bring together. Why?
Well, I’d been working on other things—a PhD on indigenous poetry, for instance, and life! I had been bringing poetry collections out every three years so I felt that it was time to be tau (to settle), to have a rest from that, and do other stuff. I’m so glad I did.
How long did each poem take to write?
Well, some were written quickly, and some took years. It’s what each poem needed, the kind of thinking and energy, and the kind of life that the poems needed—I had a colleague at the University of Hawaii who would ask her creative writing students to ask their poems ‘what do you need to heal?’ I get it. Each poem has a life of its own and it has the potential to communicate something of the spirit, the emotion, and the moment or string of moments, like a person who communicates with their being, the poem communicates through a being’s being. In that latter sense, I’m not as conscious a maker of poems as my former colleague. For me it is a feeling that the poem is finished, rather than a dialogue with it.
So, tell us again what it’s about.
If it’s okay, I’ll share about a couple of poems. The first is ‘Rock Art’ which is about a trip I took inland from Oamaru to Omarama, up the Waitaki Valley heading toward Aoraki. It’s on the Alps to Ocean cycle trail. Along the way is some taonga from our Kāi Tahu tupuna, ochre-coloured images of sailing ships, waka, taniwhā, and fauna. Quite fragile, precious art going back centuries. Back in the carpark, next to a sign saying ‘Māori Rock Drawings’, I overheard a guy in a large group of cyclists ask loudly, laughing at his own joke, ‘What makes the pigeons Māori?’ It really almost ruined my trip. I drove away and almost turned around to say something to him. In the end some lenticular clouds got my attention and they distracted me from his racist micro-behaviour. So, I wrote the poem as witness instead of the u-turn.
In other poems I pay homage to Keri Hulme who wrote the awesome sequence ‘Moeraki Conversations’. Hulme gave voice to the ocean and land, and the creatures and tupuna in the old kaik there. I love her poetry.
Why the title Tūnui | Comet?
My tupuna, Papahurihia, was the founder of the first Māori prophetic movement. He had the vision of the comet which I also associate with our iwi, Ngāpuhi. For a long time this collection was called ‘Long Light’ as it riffs off the name Aotearoa (world of the long twilight), but then I realised that a comet was a kind of long light and the tupuna connection was nice because it meant my tupuna was lighting up the poems in this book.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Yeah, Craccum was the first place I got my poems published. I edited the poetry page for a year—it was so much fun, and I met heaps of poets on campus. I hope you enjoy your time there. Mauri ora!