Hinemoana Baker has published, produced and performed as a singer songwriter and poet since the early 1990’s in New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia and the USA. She lives in Kapiti, on the beautiful southwest coast of Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island and she freelances as a writer, musician, producer and teacher of creative writing.
Lyrical poetry, folk-based acoustic music, spoken word and sonic experimentation are her forte. Her work as an editor has included the anthology ‘Kaupapa: New Zealand Poets, World Issues’ (2007) and ‘4th Floor‘, the annual online literary journal of Whitireia Polytechnic. Hinemoana was Arts Queensland Poet in Residence in 2009 and writer in residence with the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa in 2010. In February 2012, she returned to the the US, to read and perform in New York City as part of the Phantom Billstickers Poetry on Posters launch.
‘Each poem is not an exercise in what words can do but is a carefully crafted lyric that sings small parts of the world into shimmering life.’
(Paula Green, New Zealand Herald)
Hinemoana’s first book of poetry, ‘mātuhi | needle‘, was co-published in New Zealand and the US in 2004. Actor, writer and artist Viggo Mortensen‘s publishing house Perceval Press co-published the book, which features the paintings of Ngāi Tahu artist Jenny Rendall. Hinemoana’s first album, ‘puāwai’ (Jayrem Records, 2004) was a finalist for the NZ Music Awards and the APRA Silver Scrolls Māori Language award. Her second collection of poetry, ‘kōiwi kōiwi | bone bone’ (Victoria University Press), was launched in Wellington in 2010. She co-edited the anthology ‘Kaupapa: New Zealand Poets, World Issues’ in 2007, and has released four more CDs of music and poetry.
Furthermore, Hinemoana is a graduate of the prestigious Master of Arts programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, Wellington. In 2012, I had the pleasure in meeting Hinemoana for the first time at a live poetry reading which was hosted at the Mangere Arts Centre. Her works are inspiring and she is a poet that I greatly admire. It is with honour that I share Hinemoana’s special guest write up for my blog. She takes us back to where the creative writing process began for her and how her local, national and international reputation as a respected poet developed as a result. Without further adieu, I present He Ara Kupu: Walking with Words by Hinemoana Baker.
Many thanks Hinemoana for the time you have taken to share your journey. I am deeply grateful and honoured. You are a true inspiration. ‘Ofa lahi atu xox
HE ARA KUPU: WALKING WITH WORDS
(Written by Hinemoana Baker for Maryanne Pale)
I loved Dr Suess as a child. The message and rhymes of ‘Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?’ have stayed with me – I think I can probably still recite that entire book. ‘And suppose, just suppose, you were poor Herbie Hart…who has taken his thromdimbulator apart…’. The slim, green, paperback ‘Milliganimals’ by Spike Milligan was similarly beloved:
‘A lion is fierce
His teeth can pierce
The skin of a postman’s knee.
It serves him right
That, because of his bite,
He gets no letters you see.’
I loved the zaniness of these poems, the humour, and the fact that both writers created entirely new words whenever it suited them. When I was nine I discovered Witi Ihimaera. My koro had died not long beforehand, and it was hell trying not to burst into tears as Mrs Hollister read ‘Tangi’ out loud to the whole class at St Joseph’s Primary School. But I think my real, grown-up journey with words, and poetry in particular, probably began at secondary school, with the short walk from my Economics classroom (I never once got beyond 50% for an exam) to my English class, and my wonderful teacher Janet Hart. I was 14 years old, in Nelson, having moved there with my mother from Whakatane when my parents divorced. It took a lot for me to settle in to this big, new city, and Waimea College seemed like a city of its own compared to the much smaller high school I was used to.
My English class was an oasis of inspiration and intellectual stimulation. It was the only time I can remember being invited to write my own poetry on school time. Mrs Hart would give us exercises to start us off. Once, I remember, she gave us the amazing poem ‘Advice to a Discarded Lover’ by Fleur Adcock. We had to use the poem as a template, but swap out all the verbs and nouns for our own. She encouraged us to try and capture the tension of the original poem in our own – the sense of having felt passionately one way about something or someone, and now feeling entirely the opposite. My poem ended up being about how terrible I had felt when I kicked my cat once because it annoyed me. When I read it now, I can see it has more resonance than that, given that it was written by a young girl who was used to living with daily violence from a father who would beat the crap out of her in a rage, then come and apologise a few hours later.
So early on, I guess, I connected writing to a sense of being heard, and being healed. I was fortunate enough to encounter a couple of English lecturers at University who didn’t laugh at my early efforts, and actually gave me good advice. I remember one saying, ‘You know, sometimes when something big happens to you, the most effective way of expressing it is to understate it.’ Another said: ‘Either the cliff-face is steep or sloping, it can’t really be both.’ It was a thrill to have that level of attention and engagement with people who really knew what they were talking about.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved the workshop model as a way of learning and teaching creative writing. I know it’s not everybody’s favourite, but I have always valued getting critique from my peers and mentors this way. I do think there could be a bit more focus on how to give feedback, though. Saying ‘I really like your poem because it reminds me of my gran’ or ‘You’re so clever, I’m in awe!’ or ‘Your poem reads like it was phoned in, no passion’ – these are all things I’ve heard or read in workshop settings, but none of them is very useful. Being able to identify a problem area and explain clearly why it doesn’t work for you is a real skill, and I think as teachers we could give people more coaching and support on how to usefully critique each other in workshop environments.
The most important event in my writing journey would have to be the day I got into Bill Manhire’s undergrad paper, ENGL 252 I think it was called. I later did the MA with him at Vic, too, at the Institute of Modern Letters, but it was actually that early course that really sowed the seeds, as they say. Bill gave us exercises and encouraged us to write in all genres. I wrote my first short story for adults and I was thrilled when it was published in SPORT, one of our most prestigious literary magazines. The story’s called ‘Hiruhārama’, and it’s about two young girls living with an abusive boarder. The story was born from an exercise Bill gave us. We had to create a piece of writing which included five elements: The Oxford Picture Dictionary of Saints, a weta, someone wearing something that doesn’t belong to them, someone claiming to be descended from Captain Cook and a birdcage with something in it (not a bird and not a weta). It was bloody hard, but in the end I think my piece is way better because of these ‘rules’. They pushed me into parts of my story-telling self that I otherwise wouldn’t have explored.
At the time I was doing these things I was also finishing a double major BA degree in Māori and Women’s Studies, as well as a diploma in Māoritanga, and working a few different jobs to supplement my allowance. I had just come back from living in the UK and Zimbabwe for a few years. In Harare I was fortunate to meet and get to know my very first famous writer, Norma Kitson, a Jewish woman from Durban. Norma’s husband David had been imprisoned for 20 years (at the same trials as Mandela) for his activities with the ANC. Norma and her children were the founding members of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, whose famous protests saw many of their members sleeping for weeks on end outside the South African embassy in London. Meeting and knowing Norma and David and their family were one of the most life-changing things that ever happened to me and my writing. As soon as I returned to Aotearoa, I wanted to find out more about my Māori heritage and the history of colonisation in this country. I continue to be energised, moved, nourished and galvanised by our beautiful Māori language. I would love to spend more years of my life at some stage advancing my knowledge of te reo me ōna tikanga. At the moment I don’t feel so confident to compose or write in Māori. I have enormous respect and aroha for those teachers of the language who understand our struggles as second-language learners. There can be a lot of pain and shame involved in reconnecting with a part of your whakapapa you should never have been separated from in the first place. Kia kaha koutou ngā kaiako me ngā kaiwhaako toa o te motu!
In the late 1990s, after a stint writing for theatre (thank you Taki Rua!) and a few short films for artist Lisa Reihana, poetry became my first love. I ended up performing it as well as publishing it, probably because I was on stages anyway doing my music. My favourite tour was with a wonderful sound engineer and photographer, Andrew Dalziel, all over the North and South Islands in 2005. We had about a dozen flatscreens to show his beautiful photographs during the show. I had my guitar, as usual, but I also had a scuba tank and regulator, various taonga pūoro, and a looping pedal that I used to create atmospheres behind the poems and songs. I’ve always been a bit of a sound geek, and love working in radio when I get the chance. It was fantastic having someone mix all those sounds live and fresh each night. Next time I do something like that I’ll do a lot of the show in the dark, I reckon. Focus the attention on the sounds even more.
Since then I’ve performed and read in Australia, Indonesia, the US, Germany and Austria. A highlight was a reading in New York in 2012, conceived and sponsored by the wonderful street media company Phantom Billstickers. Jim Wilson and his team are poetry lovers and regularly do big print-runs of US and NZ poems which they then paste up all over the world. Literally. For free. I would never have predicted how my poetry would open doors globally.
Nowadays I’ve cut back on the performing and am having a year or two focussing on being at home. The travelling wasn’t so good for my mental health, and my writing suffered, too. I’m managing about a poem a fortnight, in amongst efforts to earn money (teaching, editing and counselling) and keep our young border collie suitably exercised. A consistent inspiration is my parter, Christine White, a musician and sound artist whose courage and talent I had admired long before we got together. My writing group still meets once a week on Skype, and I still get so excited to read their work, and to have them read mine.
Many thanks, Maryanne, for inviting me to contribute. Kia kaha tātou te hunga whakairo i te kupu! Love and strength to our creative writing whānau.
Hinemoana Baker’s reading at launch of her book “Kōiwi Kōiwi”.
Stay connected with Hinemoana Baker:
Official Website: www.hinemoana.co.nz