Q&A with Tayi Tibble

Craig Santos Perez

Two of Tayi Tibble’s poems were featured in Issue 123, our Poetry issue. For the following week, we’re making this interview with Tibble accessible for all readers before it will be available exclusively for subscribers via ZYZZYVA Studio. You can also read Tibble’s poems by ordering a copy of Issue 123.

Tayi Tibble, whose first book of poems, Poūkahangatus, was published by Knopf this year, is an exciting and essential voice of the next generation of Pacific Islander authors. Of indigenous Māori descent, Tibble grew up in Porirua, north of Wellington in Aotearoa (New Zealand), where Poūkahangatus was first published by Victoria University Press in 2018. (Her poetry also appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 123.)

The concept of whakapapa—the Māori term for genealogy—is an important part of her collection. More than a simple list of names, whakapapa is a core element of mātauranga Māori, or traditional Māori knowledge. It articulates the living kinship between ancestral spirits, the environment, more-than-human beings, and even the future. Tibble’s poetry embodies and explores the many layers of whakapapa, especially in relation to the experiences of Māori women. The collection’s title speaks to this theme: Poūkahangatus is Tibble’s Māori transliteration of “Pocahontas.” While the well-known Native American figure is not directly related to Tibble, she weaves her into book’s poetic whakapapa themes of indigenous identity, womanhood, sex, representation, colonialism, language, and power.

While I was familiar with Tibble’s wonderful poetry and have taught her work in my Pacific Islander literature courses at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa, this was the first time I had the chance to interview her about her work. This interview was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity and length.

CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ: Genealogy and geography are essential coordinates in Pacific cultures and literature. Could you share with us who you are and where you come from? Additionally, how does place and kinship/relations shape your poetry and poetics?

TAYI TIBBLE: I come from the mountains Hikurangi and Whetumatarau on the east coast/east cape of Aotearoa, New Zealand. It’s very isolated, but beautiful, with wide beaches meeting the mighty Pacific Ocean. My rivers are Waiapu and Awatere. When the great Polynesian demigod Maui fished up the north island of New Zealand, Hikurangi was the first place to emerge from the water.

 I also descend from Maui’s canoe, Nukutaimemeha, which rests atop of Hikurangi, as well as the voyaging waka Horouta. My tribes are Ngati Porou and Te Whanau a Apanui, but Te Whanganui a Tara, or Wellington—the capital city—is also my home and has been for four generations. I grew up half an hour north of the city center, in a place called Porirua, home to the tribe Ngati Toa, and a predominantly Polynesian population, who migrated here from various Pacific islands to take up work and education. I grew up in the lap of my great-grandmother, who would tell me stories of our ancestors and that shaped me as a person and as a writer. When I write, just as I live, I am in conversation with all my ancestors past and present, and this includes the land, the mountains, the rivers and Papatuanuku herself.

CSP: Did your education at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Te Herenga Waka University (Victoria University of Wellington) shape your work, too? Was Poūkahangatus conceived or written during this time? Which authors inspired you?

TT: Yes, I wrote Poūkahangatus as my thesis while studying toward an MFA at the IIML. My time there shaped my writing, undeniably. I have been writing since I can remember, but before my studies I was in a rut of writing very vague and thin poems that were pretty void of blood or purpose. I learnt so much over that time, like the importance of being generous to your readers, using specific details, etc.

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Very early on in the program, I wrote the title essay, Poūkahangatus, which was the first time I had ever really written about my culture, or via the lens of my culture. The response I got to that piece was super enthusiastic. I was told this was the direction I should be writing toward, and so began the exploration of themes Poūkahangatus is preoccupied with; power, whakapapa, and colonization. I was also shaped just by the opportunity to dedicate a year solely to writing, and to be surrounded by people who were dedicated to writing. I was particularly influenced by my classmates essa may ranapiri and Sam Duckor Jones, both who are both incredible LGBT poets as well as my supervisor Louise Wallace and convenor Chris Price. The texts I was reading at that time, and became sacred to me, include Teaching My Mother to Give Birth by Warsan Shire, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Fale Aitu by Tusiata Avia.

At the end of that year of writing, I was awarded the prestigious Adam Foundation Prize for best manuscript and that kind of put me on the fast track to publishing, and was really encouraging.

CSP: How did you land on Poūkahangatus as the title for the book? What connections do you see between the representation of Māori culture and Native American culture with the reference to Pocahontas?

TT: For a while the manuscript had another title but it always felt like a placeholder. The poet Hinemoana Baker read my manuscript and pointed out that Poūkahangatus was the real title, and when that was pointed out, it felt true.

As for the connections between the representation of Maori and Native American culture, we both struggle with colonization in many forms, one of which being the silencing of indigenous voices and having our stories taken from us and told by our oppressors in order to rewrite history, create propaganda for the colonial agenda, and uphold white supremacy.

Disney’s Pocahontas is such a blatant, neat, and horrific example of this. It’s a film aimed at children, and for my generation, it was probably the first time (and damn near only time) we were exposed to indigenous culture in the mainstream media and mostly it was a lie.

I mention in the poem learning that Pocahontas was a real figure. She went to England and got a disease and died—which is disturbing as it is—but the subtext behind this is the omission that Pocahontas was actually a little girl, not even a teenager, named Matoaka or Amonute and not this—let’s be real—sexy, full-lipped, self -assured adult as depicted in the film. The film sets up Pocahontas to be a “good” Native, grateful for the white man, and that’s intentional—to comfort white guilt and uphold the idea of a white savior. We have struggled with this kind of characterization in Aotearoa, too; the idea of a “noble savage.” Because of this film, someone’s real ancestor is distorted and obscured; her life appropriated and used for profit.

In a way, using the figure of Pocahontas as someone of Maori descent, not Native American, is a misappropriation in itself. It’s not my history or whakapapa to grapple with, really, but as child, when all the other princesses I was exposed to were white, blonde, and unlike me, I identified with her because she was the closest I had come to seeing a representation of myself and the women I was raised by. And I loved her. I thought she was so strong, compassionate, wise, and beautiful and still do, to an extent, despite knowing what I know now. She was important to me, and writing this poem was to acknowledge the desperation I felt even as a small child to be recognized and seen, coupled with a too-early understanding that I wasn’t. So this poem, as well as the book, is really an interrogation of representation and an interrogation of self, the complication of forming an identity born of many tensions.

CSP: You describe “Poūkahangatus” as an essay, and there are several other pieces in your book that are similarly written in prose. How would you describe your interest in poetic essays? Were there prose poems that inspired you?

TT: I guess I like how generous the density of a prose poem can be. Generally, poetry is being as impactful and intentional as possible with brevity and precision. But I used to struggle with writing poems that were so brief they were dehydrated of any meaning, super dry and brittle, and made little sense to anyone but me. Writing prose poems was a way to practice writing in a way that was more generous to a reader; long lines, complete sentences, the way the form creates the expectation of there being a narrative drive or a story.

The lyric essay was something I was drawn to because I found having a short thesis and then writing at it from as many different angles as possible was super generative, and encouraged me to write associatively, making leaps and connections that surprised me and in turn would surprise the reader. I also like the challenge of having these dense blocks of text but still wanting to apply poetic sensibilities— can I still make the lines sound like music without the drama of line breaks, etc.? I was reading Citizen at the time, and that was informative in terms of both the style and the content.

CSP: Yes, one powerful aspect of your work is how you utilize both prose and the lyric to talk about the complications of identity from many different angles and voices. In addition to cultural identity, you profoundly explore the theme of gender, especially girlhood, womanhood, and coming of age as a wahine. How do you explore this primary theme in your work? Is there was a particular poem or influence you want to highlight and honor?

TT: Even my conception of gender is influenced by my whakapapa, and I think the primary way I explore gender in this collection is by inhabiting the perspective of four generations of women: women of my own, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my great-grandmother’s times, imagining what their lives would have been like, what were they interested in, and what pressures or expectations were placed on them in their context.

There is a poem from the perspective of a woman losing her love during World War II, for example. There is a poem about a girl projecting her flower child fantasies on a coastie boy during the hippie era. In another poem, a couple pride themselves on being “modern” and “equal” while the male figure lacks the necessary feminine attentiveness to complete household chores properly, and the woman still spends her time picking up after him.

Many of the poems cast women alongside men, and I guess I’m sort of fascinated by the dynamics between men and women, or more so how the feminine exists in relation to the masculine. Mana tane and mana wahine are supposed to coexist harmoniously, bringing balance and completion to each other, but I’ve rarely seen that or experienced it living in a patriarchal Western society, if I’m being honest. The masculine in this collection is sometimes a threat or a problem to the feminine, but it’s feminist in the sense that it’s really about mana wahine; strong wahine toa, who are wives and partners but can still, when we need to, tap into the rage and power we inherit from Hinenuitepo, the Goddess of Death; who will always protest their mistreatment—even if it’s just rolling their eyes in the kitchen in place of a haka—and know we are both gardeners and warriors, nurturing and destructive.

CSP: With the U.S. publication of your book by Knopf, what do you hope American audiences learn from your work about Māori culture and life in Aotearoa?

TT: I hope the collection might inspire American readers to reflect on their own colonial legacy, the land they live on and who the land belongs to.

I’d also be quite thrilled if the collection helps to make a connection between our indigenous cultures. Before European contact, the Pacific Ocean, Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, was a highway for our people. We would travel back and forth exchanging goods and knowledge, so if anything I am just happy to be a part of this exchange again, connecting over oceans.

CSP: Your second book of poems, Rangikura, was recently published in Aotearoa as well. How does it relate to or depart from Poūkahangatus? And to conclude, what are you working on next?

TT: Rangikura is similar to Poūkahangatus as themes of family and colonization are present again, only I think in Rangikura the perspective is more singular, the parameters narrower, and the intensity turned up. It has an undercurrent of climate change urgency, and if I had to give it a thesis I would say it explores the connection between the desecration of indigenous women and the desecration of the earth. It’s more grown up and womanly than Poūkahangatus, which has a bit of little girl bravado. Whereas Poūkahangatus has a sense of searching for connection, Rangikura is sure of itself—instead of searching for ancestors, it knows how to summon them at whim.

I love it and I’m super excited to share her with American audiences soon as well. I’m also working on a third collection, though she is just starting to reveal herself to me.

Craig Santos Perez has received the Pen Center USA/Poetry Society of America Literary Prize, the American Book Award, and the Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, among many honors. He is a Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa, where he teaches creative writing, eco-poetry, and Pacific literature. His monograph, Navigating Chamoru Poetry: Indigeneity, Aesthetics, and Decolonization, was published this year by the Critical Issues of Indigenous Studies series at the University of Arizona Press.

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