The Amazing and Beautiful Poet Dr Karlo Mila

Dr Karlo Mila (Mila-Schaaf) is of Tongan (Kolofo’ou, Ofu), Samoan and European descent.  She lives in Newtown with her husband and two sons.  She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Otago Campus based at Wellington Hospital.  Born in New Zealand, Karlo grew up in Palmerston North, went to school and worked in Tonga, and spent ten years in Auckland before relocating to Wellington.  She has always been interested in the cultural experiences of the New Zealand-born Pasifika population which eventually led to a PhD in Sociology focused in this area.  Prior to an academic career, Karlo worked as a Trade Union Organiser and as the Manager, Pacific Health Research at the HRC (2001-2004).

Karlo’s first collection of poems Dream Fish Floating won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Her poetry work has been published in several anthologies, including Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English. She has had poems selected for Best New Zealand Poems in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Karlo collaborated with German-born artist Delicia Sampero in 2008 to produce A Well Written Body, a combination of text and image.

A former fortnightly Op-Ed columnist for the Dominion-Post, Karlo believes in the power of voice and of narrating your own stories, rather than being “storied by” the dominant social narratives. I am deeply honoured that she kindly set time aside for this interview. She is an amazing woman whom I admire for her work. I have also had the pleasure in meeting her on a few occasions where we have shared stories and laughter. Enjoy the interview! (Please note: MP = Maryanne Pale and KM = Karlo Mila).

MP:        Thank you so much Karlo for your time. I truly appreciate it. You are of Tongan, Samoan and European descent please explain how these diverse ethnic heritages influence and/or inform your writing?

KM:        Being of multiple ethnic heritages is a double-edged sword.  There are both positives and negatives involved.  One of the negatives is never really feeling like you fit in properly, you are either more or less than what you are supposed to be.  This can be a really lonely place to be.  Having said that, you are connected through blood and community to a diverse range of people and you learn multiple ways of being in the world.  As I get older, the cultural differences within my own family become more and more marked and I see how people see the same set of circumstances very differently, how they know the world in different ways.  I cannot imagine being any other way now.

Despite being parts of this and that, the challenge is to be a ‘whole’ person who is able to move between cultural spaces and places and connect meaningfully.  I think to some degree, I have spent my whole life trying to work out where I belong, what it means to be Tongan, how I am influenced by my Samoan heritage as well.  What it means to be Palangi?  These meanings unfold and are part of my experience of being human at this turn of the century.  I have a poem about an ancestor, Mary Stowers who was also of mixed heritage, and I reflect that it probably meant something different for her.  In an increasingly globalised world, being of more than one ethnic background is increasingly common and what it means to people will continue to evolve.  My poem “There are no words for us, there is no language” is probably my favourite resolution of this quandary… we “widen the palate of the world”.

I grew up in an environment filled with “mixed race” kids and we all looked alike.  Most of that mixing was Maori and Pakeha, I grew up in Highbury in Palmerston North.  We were probably the only Tongans at our school.  Growing up in New Zealand in the seventies and the eighties was a time when racism was still reasonably overt, but you also didn’t let it get in the way of a good time.  I grew up strong on my Dad’s migrant dreams of believing in myself and that one day, if I worked hard enough at school, I could be anything I wanted to be.  My Mother spent a lot of time taking me to the library and working with me, reading and writing and learning at home, so that I could excel.  From a fairly early age, I was celebrated for being a high achieving “brown girl” from the wrong side of town, who was going to go “somewhere” one day.

In some ways, despite many challenges and setbacks, self-esteem issues and my parent’s separating, in some ways I would not accept anything less than a good outcome for myself.  I had to believe in my own weird story, write it, when I could not find it already mapped anywhere.  Dare to write the poems that outlined the contours of my journey, because it was not in any textbooks at that point.  In answer to your question, everything goes into my poems.

MP:        Wow! Beautifully described. Your courage, dream, determination and resilience is moving. I am deeply encouraged by your answer. You are a mother of two, how has motherhood influenced your writing?

KM:        A fellow writer, Grace Taylor, posted on facebook recently that being away from your children (to perform and write etc) is a special kind of ache.  I completely relate to that.  I was pregnant with Nikolas when Dream Fish Floating was launched and Karlos was still in nappies.  In the full flush of the success of that first book, I was struggling with being a new Mother to small boys only 15 months apart.  I was off performing in Australia or talking at Literary Festivals and they were only tiny wee things.  David and my family always made sure that I could travel and looked after the boys for me, so they have always had to share Mummy with poetry.  That’s tough I guess, especially when I was doing a PhD at the same time.  When you are a Mother, choices about what gets sacrificed is always hard.  Sometimes it is quality time with my boys, sometimes it is poetry itself.  Poetry is small enough to sneak in the small of your quiet times and sometimes it demands itself to be written.  Other times months and months will go and you are too exhausted, too un-creative, and life feels too literal to be doing anything poetic.  I have written poems about both boys, but I am mindful too of their privacy.  So it’s a balance.

MP:        What a busy schedule! Amazing! Your first collection of poetry Dream Fish Floating won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards please explain who had inspired you publish your poetry work?

KM:        I owe being published to Albert Wendt who encouraged me.  My first manuscript was rejected and I was not courageous enough to resubmit it all over the place, but Albert talked to Huia Publishers and they actually rang me and asked for material.  I realise that this doesn’t happen to everyone.  I sent them my poetry and luckily for me, they liked it.  End of story.  I am not one who is confident about sending poems to literary magazines for rejection.  I admire those who do it, but I don’t have the time or the stamina.  I was gobsmacked when I won the award.

MP:        You’re so humble about it! It’s a fantastic collection indeed. In the report for the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, the judges commented on Dream Fish Floating saying: ‘Karlo Mila writes with flair, energy and passion, creating a direct, accessible poetry. This multi-cultural, lyrical voice is one the judges expect to hear a lot more of.’ How would you describe the collection Dream Fish Floating?

KM:        Dream Fish Floating is just my inner thoughts about pretty much everything I was paying attention to in my early twenties.  Some of it reaches back to my teenage years.  I walked many worlds and there is a little tribute to many of these landscapes.  I connected with many people and many poems are odes to the politics of relationships, mapped desire or imaginary rendezvous.  I was lucky because I was not that inhibited at the time.  So it was just my truth, mediated via fiction.

MP:        I have a copy of Dream Fish Floating and I love it. When did you start sharing your poetry work with others?

KM:        Oh that’s great! Thank you! Well, not until I did Albert Wendt’s creative writing class.  We had to share our work.  This was painful for me at first, because I had always written things that were personal and private.  The harsh light of day and scrutiny by others was a shock at first.  But there is a joy that comes with sharing too.

MP:        That’s awesome to hear. So, who were the poets and/or writers that you were drawn to prior to your first publication?

KM:        In New Zealand, Roma Potiki, Rawiri Habib, Apirana Taylor and the work of my English teacher, Linda Burgess was quite defining.  Internationally, I remember being introduced to Liz Lochhead and Roger McGough’s poems and they made quite an impact on me, but nobody more so than Alice Walker.  She was my poetry-mother in a sense.  Her work was beyond influential.  Later I discovered Audre Lorde and the Pacific sister writers, Konai Helu-Thaman and Moemoe Von Reiche and of course Albert.  That was the beginning of the end for me; my fate was irreversibly intertwined with poetry.  Other influences have been most obviously Alice Walker, who taught me to: “write what you see as clearly as you can”.  Glenn Colquhoun became quite influential regarding the craft of poetry when he edited my second book of poetry, but that was less about what I saw and wrote and more about how I self-edited.  I really like his poetry too.  I love reading poetry and I seem to like it more than I used to.  Lots of poetry used to leave me really cold, or feeling bored by it.  When it moves me, that’s different… When it teaches me to see something I did not see before, that’s a small miracle.

MP:          Wow! I need to check out the works of some of those poets. What is it about other people’s poetry that moves you?

KM:        Well, poetry either moves you or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t, it doesn’t and to me then, it is not a good poem.  It’s hard for me to describe what it is that makes a good poem in my view, but if it resonates and makes something inside you swell with recognition and appreciation, then it is doing its job.  Poetry that is very clever but doesn’t make you feel anything is not my thing.

MP:        Absolutely! For your second book,  A Well Written Body, you collaborated with German-born artist Delicia Sampero and you have described it as a ‘multidimensional conversation of images and imaginings between two women, crossing art forms and cultures’. What was that like working alongside another artist?

KM:        It was a lovely thing to do.  It was such a rich collaboration.  I’d love to do it again, perhaps when I have more time to attend to a collaboration.  Because it seemed to happen in the middle of multiple things, kids, PhD, contract work, life… Poetry is so solitary in many ways and to collaborate was a joy.  I’d recommend it to anyone.

MP:        That would have been an exciting time for you both. What do you want people to get out of your poetry work?

KM:        I don’t know.  I really hoped that there would be girls (and guys) who were like me and never saw any of their lives in the library.  Now things have changed, but I hoped that they might see a line or two in my poems whereby they recognised a line or two from their lives.  That would be enough.

Sometimes, when I write poems for particular people and sometimes when I write a poem for an event.  To be honest, often I am trying to get rid of that audience, zone them out of head, so I can get to what is most true for me, and not feel inhibited by thinking about people I know reading it.

MP:        Absolutely. Thanks for sharing that. What you’ve just said reminds of a previous interview that you had where you mentioned that ‘we must not be frightened of telling our stories because they are our stories to tell’. What do you think sets Pacific writers apart from those of other ethnicities?

KM:        That we are barely in print; that we are constantly fed a diet of other peoples’ stories and experiences.  I definitely don’t want to be a Tongan character that Charlotte Grimshaw made up.  The thought frightens me.  We must be the protagonists wrought by our own pens, not shadows in other people’s stories.

MP:        I agree with you! You are well loved in the Tongan community. You were selected to represent Tonga in the Cultural Olympiad London 2012 and you will be featured in the Matala festival this Friday night at the Mangere Arts Centre. How do you feel about all this?

KM:        Attending the Cultural Olympiad in London this year was an honour.  It was incredible.  It will go down as one of my all-time most amazing life experiences and I had the support of many wonderful family members, friends, colleagues and the community at large for which I am grateful for.

With regards to the Tongan Poetry Night, I am looking forward to reading with other Tongan poets and hearing a new generation of voices speak out.  Tongans are incredibly talented in the area of poetry and we have a long legacy of poetry in our culture.  I love seeing how this plays out in the generations to come.

MP:        Fantastic! You are a lovely role model for Tongan women and young girls! What keeps you connected to the Tongan community?

KM:    Well, my own family and my husband’s family too.  My friends and acquaintances, I mean it is all about people and connections.  It has been hard living away from Auckland for so long, because I miss the Tongan community there so much.  A lot of my connections have been made through work, through the health sector and research sector, through being an active part of the Tongan Advisory Council for quite a while, through organising community events and participating, as you do.  It’s been one of the toughest things about being away from Auckland, is feeling those connections grow cold with absence.  One of the good things is that they warm up again when you reconnect.

MP:        Thank you for sharing that and we hope that you and your family move back to Auckland soon lol! I see that you are also interested in other areas of the arts, can you see yourself exploring other avenues of creativity in the near future?

KM:        There was the facebook picture doing the rounds that said “earth” without “art” is just “eh”.  I totally agree.  The “arts” is one of the best things about being human.  I am a big fan of beauty and a big fan of critical thinking.  Art tends to be one or the other.  If it doesn’t blow your mind it will blow your aesthetic sensibility.  What’s not to adore.  And yes, I’d love to explore other dimensions of the creative.

MP:        How exciting! New things on the horizon yay! Throughout this poetry journey, what would be your best moment or best experience be?

KM:        Ooh, that’s hard.  Reading in London was amazing, reading in Suva, Fiji, was another highlight.  It was awesome to read in the Pacific.  I did a reading at a school in Lower Hutt once and there were heaps of Tongan kids.  I could hear them sussing my accent and confirming that my lea fakatonga was ok.  They asked me if I had any Tongan Methodist poems and I was like, “Yeah, I do.”  And they were so excited!  That was definitely a highlight that I will hold with me for a long time.  Reading at my old schools is always special.

MP:        Amazing! You’re Mother, a poet, a writer and you are currently a post-doc research fellow at the University of Otago. Please explain what it is that you are currently working on?

KM:        Thanks for asking hehe! I am developing a mental health intervention targeted at our Pacific young people which draws on cultural metaphors, proverbs and myths, breathes new life into these and improves access to them, sort of like developing discursive resources so that we can tell better stories about ourselves.  It is a sort of narrative therapy that encourages and enables indigenous ways of knowing to flourish and frame our lived experiences.  I am passionate about it.  It is for those of us who aren’t necessarily fluent in our languages, what Courtney Meredith calls “Urbanesia”.  It involves creating visual resources and I have returned to proto-Polynesian “generative words” that are widely shared among multiple Polynesian languages so that they are inclusive and have great reach, resonating amongst many Oceanic cultures.  It’s been a massive undertaking but I am slowly getting there.

MP:        And you will! Your research sounds fascinating and it will be of great contribution of new knowledge within the research realm. What is your current creative writing project now?

KM:        Well, the post-doc is taking all my creative energy right now.  But luckily it is really creative, involving reading old mythological stories and trying to breathe new life into them for contemporary contexts.  Similarly, the proverb collecting, the acts of translation, the re-imbuing meaning into old words, all of this feels super-creative and there’s not much space for my own little bits of writing right now.  But I know it will come.  What I’m reading and mulling over are the building blocks of something integral, and it is inevitable that it will inform my work.  For some time now I have been trying to write a novel but I’ve been failing at it.  We will see if it appears out of the work that I am doing because it is very related but in a deeply personal way, whereas the post-doc work is less personal and more about collective stories.

MP:        You’re amazing. Your creativity is not restricted to your poetry but it flows into your post-doc research. You lead a very busy lifestyle! What do you enjoy doing during your downtime?

KM:        Yoga has kept me balanced and sane this year.  Facebook is definitely my modality of wind-down choice.  I would like more time, more space.  The kids keep me grounded and I am protective of family life and expect a reasonably high quality of family-focused energies and activities.  Whenever I get out of whack, I get really out of whack, so trying to keep reasonably balanced is a constant focus.

MP:        You do yoga? How awesome! That sounds like the perfect way to enjoy downtime. What are your hopes for the future in terms of the direction you would like to take your writing?

KM:        I do dream of having the time and space to write the novel and living in conditions where the poetry just flows, because there is time and space for it.  It is a pressured life, filled with responsibilities and commitments.  Sometimes it sucks being an adult.  I’d prefer to be a poet.

MP:        Thanks so much Karlo for your time. I truly appreciate it. I have one final question for you. What would your advice be to aspiring poets who are hoping to publish their work one day?

KM:        Can you tell from my own story of getting published that I’m not good at giving advice about getting published?  Lol! Take all opportunities.  Read everywhere.  Try and share your work, online, on facebook, send it to people, put it out there.  At the end of the day, I see a few hustlers out there who are self-promotional beyond what I’d ever be comfortable with, but hustle will only get you so far, the poems themselves will have to stand up to all kinds of scrutiny.  The literary scene (and those who are in charge of it), are often representative of the last posh bastion of Eurocentrism here, still nostalgic for Great Britain as the penultimate of real culture.  It is these people that you will have to contend with as well, who have no idea and do not care about your communities and how they might have never seen themselves in text.  They will say things to you, as publishing and powerful editing people, “What is wrong with Maori poets?  Why are they not getting published?”  No crap.   They have no commitment to diversity on the page and they will have one standard for judging the worth of a poem and it will be their standard.  This is the reality of it.  There are multiple ways to self-publish now and the publishing industry appears to be falling to bits.  Just don’t stop, keep going, believe in your voice, do the work, make the connections, and get it out there.

MP:        That is wonderful advice Karlo! It’s very encouraging and empowering! Thank you so much! Is there anything else that you would like to add?

KM:        No.  Thanks Maryanne for this opportunity and for asking the questions. It is all my honour. Much love to you xox

Once again, thank you so much Dr Karlo Mila for the time that you have provided. Your insight into your world of poetry is much appreciated. It is truly an honour to have you on this blog. Mālō ‘aupito! ‘Ofa lahi atu xox


  1. I really enjoyed reading this and I look forward to hopefully having the opportunity to meet Dr Karlo Mila in person. It blows my mind all the things she has been able to accomplish while also balancing motherhood – wow.

    1. Hi Lani,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m so happy to read that you’ve enjoyed this interview with Karlo. Both you and Karlo are amazing women! I am sure that you two will meet soon. I truly appreciate your visit. Have a fab weekend.
      God bless xox

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