by Eva Whitney, March 22, 2023
Indigenous poets Michael Wasson and Alice Te Punga Somerville came together virtually on March 8, 2023 for a reading of their work, followed by a conversation with Arts Research Center director Beth Piatote (event info here). The full recording of the event is available for viewing on ARC’s YouTube channel, here.
What does it mean to be a diasporic Indigenous writer? Is there such a category as trans-pacific Indigenous writing? How does an Indigenous poet write while living apart from their homeland? On March 8, poets Michael Wasson & Alice Te Punga Somerville came together virtually with Arts Research Center director Beth Piatote to address these questions through readings of their work and a Q&A. Although Wasson tuned in from Japan, Te Punga Somerville from Vancouver, and Piatote from Berkeley, the speakers created an intimate setting through their poetry and discussion, making us all feel physically together. The poets were in direct conversation with each other through their work, exploring their Indigenous identities and languages in harrowing, humorous, and deeply personal ways.
Alice Te Punga Somerville is a Māori scholar, poet, and irredentist currently teaching in the English Department at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Taranaki, New Zealand, she works to center Indigenous expansiveness and decenter colonialism in her research, teaching, and writing. She read from her first book of poetry, Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised, published in 2022 by the Auckland University Press. The collection is divided into four sections, mapping a journey from Reo (“language”) through Aroha (“love”).
Te Punga Somerville’s poetry deftly handles layered issues in quiet, lighthearted ways that still manage to retain poignancy. In her opening poem, “Anchor,” she addresses her nephew whom they endeavored to raise with Māori as his first language: “You were our baby in the manger / the one whose tongue would save us all.” We can feel her ache and her regret, wrapped up in her nephew: “picking up shame from where it has pooled around our feet.” Te Punga Somerville wrestles with identity in the poem “Anchor,” bringing us into a world where Native tongues are nearly obsolete and the efforts to revive them feel forced. As she articulates in this work, however, sorrow is paired with hope; she toes the line between “reading as medicine and reading as punishment.”
Te Punga Somerville’s conversational tone contrasts the weight of her message; she tells a story in its most pertinent details. In “worst place to be a pilot” we follow a couple watching a British television program in which pilots fly over what they call “Indonesia,” treating it as an obstacle course. The poem provides us with bare images that reveal all: “‘we are the people bringing them to freedom’ / says a 38-year-old with a well-ironed shirt: / ‘it’s like the glory days; it’s like catch me if you can.’” The characters come alive in only a few descriptors—the “polynesian woman” and “her melanesian husband snoring gently beside her” feel greatly removed from the 38-year-old and yet are subjected to his delusion. At the end of the poem, Te Punga Somerville carefully spaces the words “renamed” and “islands” from each other on the page, marooning them while at the same time underlining the couple’s closeness—despite being originally from distant islands.
Similarly, a sense of closeness arose between the two readers. As Wasson began to read, the same poignancy of Te Punga Somerville’s reading was preserved in his words. Their styles, although distinct from one another, were in dialogue. The project of preserving Indigenous language is central to their work. As Wasson said, he felt Nimipuutímt had the ability to “break free on the page,” while Te Punga Somerville turned to her Māori language as a way to articulate her ancestry.
This was Wasson’s first time reading from his 2022 collection, Swallowed Light, published by Copper Canyon. Wasson is Nimíipuu and from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. He is a recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship, a Native Arts & Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellowship in Literature, and the Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry, among many other honors, and he now resides in Japan where he continues his writing practice.
Wasson began his reading with a dedication to Indigenous artists: “you and the languages and the worlds that make you are ever possible and limitlessly gorgeous.” The poems that followed embodied this message, rich with images unrestricted in their possibilities, language abounding in both beauty and starkness, and stories deconstructed and rewoven into new forms. Wasson’s work accounts for a multitude of voices, temporalities, and images that coalesce in poems that hum with energy.
The first poem Wasson read, “Ezekiel 37:3,” begins with a question to God: “Do you not / remember me?” The images that follow are bodily, visceral, and yet light: the “oiled stroke of forest smears the hills / days before the fire comes” and “hummingbird lifting the end / of every sunlit petal left” sit next to the “swabbed bullet” and “jawbones desperate to swallow.” Contrast is the backbone of this poem, weaving Nimipuutímt in with English, Indigenous faith with Biblical faith and the body with the incorporeal. Wasson reimagines the titular Biblical story in which Ezekial visits the valley of dry bones and is told by God that through his will he can resurrect the dead bodies, breathing breath back into them. “Ezekiel 37:3” maps Indigenous experience onto the Biblical story: “Here / is where our graves echo / a nation & this nation / is yours / alone, my lord.” The old parable is reconstructed through a contemporary lens where Indigenous groups, much like the Israelites, are driven out of their homeland. The body, in “Ezekiel 37:3,” becomes a site of resurrection and destruction: “half of my skeleton / awaits your flesh—the forgotten half of me / to bloom back.” This “blooming back” emerges out of mourning, an urge to preserve Indigenous identity, as well as Indigenous language, in the face of annihilation.
Wasson’s tone, solemn and strong, let each word feel important. As he moved through Swallowed Light, the body continued to appear as a symbol of history, language, memory, or a marker of place. In “Untitled,” the “body carves out its own / season to lie down in,” and in “You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now” the breath of “Ezekiel 37:3” reappears: “tell me every story / about the directions / you found in your / own lungs—about / breathing to find / your way home.” Each of Wasson’s poems, although distinct, share the same substance; hearing him reading aloud from Swallowed Light, it was clear that each piece fits together in a story about mourning, Indigenous identity, resistance, and rebirth.
Te Punga Somerville and Wasson, although stylistically different, write poetry with the same sense of gravity. After their readings, the poets, along with Director Piatote discussed the role of Indigenous language in their works, as well as the experience of being diasporic writers. Te Punga Somerville, who wasn’t raised speaking the Māori language, expressed her desire to “decolonize” her relationship to it, incorporating what she knows of it into her teaching, writing, and work as a means of helping others become better speakers of the language. For Wasson, Nimipuutímt carries the power to “rearticulate our senses.” Even virtually, I felt the profundity of Te Punga Somerville’s and Wasson’s works. To use Swallowed Light’s language, their poems “bloom back” what has been tragically stripped away.
Bio: Eva Whitney is an undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying comparative literature. Born and raised in San Francisco, she attended Ruth Asawa School of the Arts for creative writing and has been immersed in the city’s art scene her entire life. She has led poetry workshops at 826 Valencia, been a gallery assistant, and currently runs a creative writing publication through the Comparative Literature Department at UC Berkeley as well as works as ARC’s communications assistant. Her work has been featured in NYU’s brio Literary Journal and BAMPFA’s Student Committee Film Festival.