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Tse books his spot for the festival

New Zealand Poet Laureate Chris Tse spoke to reporter FLYNN NICHOLLS about the state of contemporary poetry and this weekend’s Featherston Booktown Festival.

It’s a busy life for a Poet Laureate, but Chris Tse said he’s looking forward to coming over the hill for another Featherston Booktown Festival this weekend.

“It’s a great festival for such a small town,” he said.

“It’s amazing to see people in Featherston get fully behind it and make such a big deal out of it for the weekend.”

Tse will be performing poetry on Saturday night and speaking on a panel titled ‘Celebrating Queer Stories’ on Sunday morning alongside playwright and fiction writer Victor Roger, and art historian, biographer, and non-fiction writer Joanne Drayton.

The poet laureate said he wants the panel to focus on how to counter the many stereotypes and cliches by “celebrating, uplifting and shining a spotlight” on queer stories that mostly fall outside the mainstream.

“Queerness is radical, and it’s pushing against boundaries that have been arbitrarily set up in society,” he said.

He is motivated to write about “queer and person-of-colour joy”, Tse said.

“As a writer from both camps, I wasn’t tricked, but foolishly I thought that I had to write about trauma to get somewhere, which in the past has been beneficial in some respects.

“But now I feel we need to shine a spotlight on joy in those communities because that can have just as positive an effect on people struggling with their sexuality or trying to understand who they are.

“Joy is quite a radical thing to write about when most people only hear sad or tragic stories about queer people and people of colour.”

Tse said he will try and bring some of that joy into his late-night poetry session.

“I don’t want to leave everyone feeling depressed and sad before they go to bed on Saturday night.

“My performance will come after two other very thought-provoking sessions, so I want it to feel intimate and cosy, like an after-dinner drink.”

As editor of the forthcoming Best New Zealand Poems 2023, Tse is reading every single poem published in the year, which he said is “a mammoth task”.

“I’m only five months into it, and I’ve already read hundreds of poems, and it will only increase from here.

“It does take away time from my writing practice, but it’s also inspiring – it prompts me and inspires me to want to write more and to write better.

“If you’re inspired to that extent, it makes you a better writer and poet.”

Tse said he is always looking out for poems to include on his long list for the anthology and will keep his ears open at Booktown, so if he likes a poem, he can ask the poet whether it’s been published this year.

“A lot of great poetry isn’t published – like spoken word poets and performance poetry, slam poetry, that work does just exist in the live setting, which is a shame because there’s some great stuff in that space,” he said.

With new poetry journals coming out online and in print, Tse said the New Zealand poetry scene is “very, very healthy.”

Poetry has gone from “strength to strength” over the past few years, with a growing readership, and more people writing and publishing.

Tse said an increasing diversity of voices has changed the landscape and brought in a lot of readers who see themselves reflected in the poetry.

“People are trying poetry in all its different forms, not just reading poetry in a book or a journal,” he said.

“They’re going to events, and to readings and slams, and all these other events that mix poetry with other art forms and make it different and unusual, and that’s changing people’s perceptions about what poetry can be and what it can do.

“It makes me feel like most of my job as Poet Laureate is done for me because I don’t have to work as hard to push poetry to get people’s attention, so I have lots of faith in where poetry is going.”

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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