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Māori poet Tayi Tibble draws on guidance of Polynesian ancestors in 'Rangikura'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: There is a new original voice in the world of poetry.

Indigenous New Zealander Tayi Tibble's poems about what it means to be a young Maori woman have resonated with audiences far beyond her home in the Pacific.

Jeffrey Brown met up with the acclaimed poet New York City as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Tayi Tibble, Poet: My ancestors ride with me. They twerk on the roof of the Uber as I'm pulling up late to the party. They gas me full tank and yas me in the mirror.

Jeffrey Brown: Indigenous ancestors, mascara wands and glitter, all part of the world and work of Tayi Tibble, a proud member of New Zealand's Native Maori community.

Tayi Tibble: My ancestors ride with me. Don't tell me what they would do. I know them better than you.

And I think it's really important, and it's kind of like my ancestral given duty to remember and learn our old stories and bring them forward. But at the same time, I need to be telling new stories for our future generations and also for our ancestors too. I'm sure they like to hear what we're getting up to.

Jeffrey Brown: The 28-year-old's poetry is deeply rooted in her Maori identity, but also her experience as a young woman navigating friendship, sex, contemporary life.

Tayi Tibble: I draw a lot on our traditional narratives and stories, but, at the same time, I grew up in the era of Kim Kardashian, and I'm really wanting to express this indigenous identity that is multifaceted and modern.

Jeffrey Brown: One way you do that is through language, mixing in words.

Tayi Tibble: I like to use our indigenous language in my poetry. I like to have layers of them on the page, and I like to feel like everything is at my disposal.

Jeffrey Brown: Tibble's perspective has resonated with readers and critics at home and further afield.

Her first book, "Poukahangatus," won New Zealand's highest award for a debut poetry collection. She's the first ever Maori poet to have work published in "The New Yorker." And in 2021, she landed publishing deals here and in the U.K.

Tayi Tibble: It's really exciting, honestly.

Jeffrey Brown: We met Tibble at Poets House in Manhattan before the final stop of a whirlwind book tour for the U.S. release of her second collection, "Rangikura," which means red sky.

Tayi Tibble: Thank you guys so much.

When I wrote these poems, I had no idea that they were going to be able to travel and allow me to travel and connect with people far from where I'm from. So, anything from this is just extraordinary for me.

Jeffrey Brown: She's a member of two tribes with traditional homelands on the eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island. But she grew up farther south in Porirua, a city with a large Maori and Pacific Islander population on the outskirts of Wellington, the nation's capital.

Tayi Tibble: Me and my family have been in Wellington, the capital city, for about four generations. So, for four generations, we haven't been on our lands. And our lands are so important to us as indigenous people and who we are.

Jeffrey Brown: Her family's story isn't unusual. During and after World War II, many Maori moved from their tribal lands in the countryside into urban centers to find paid work.

Narrator: The old ways of a simple rural life with the farm feeding the family are passing.

Jeffrey Brown: Between 1936 and 1986, the Maori population radically flipped from 83 percent rural to the same proportion living in cities.

But with little government support and a worsening economy in the 1970s and early '80s, many struggled with poverty and social problems.

Tayi Tibble: I wonder how it feels to be tethered somewhere by a sense of home, to be buried in your urupa, and to find that, when you die, you have been waiting for yourself this whole time all along.

Jeffrey Brown: Writing about her identity and this history of displacement, Tibble says, helped her reframe what she initially felt was a story of disconnection.

Tayi Tibble: Yes, it was colonization that definitely forced a lot of Maori to leave the traditional ways. I used to kind of think it was a sad story, but now I feel like that urban Maori identity or urban indigenous identity is just, like, as valid as a traditional one.

Jeffrey Brown: If I ask you who you are, do you say, "I am a New Zealander or a Maori" or both?

Tayi Tibble: I would say I'm Maori, and then I would say I'm Pacifica or Polynesian, or Tangata o le Moana, people of the Pacific Ocean.

Jeffrey Brown: Tibble draws parallels between the long voyages her Polynesian forefathers took across the Pacific in canoes and her own travels far from home.

It's not the Pacific Ocean, but you're by water. Water is important to you?

Tayi Tibble: Water definitely serves a connector between islands, between places, but also between different histories and time.

Jeffrey Brown: And, she says, between herself and other acclaimed indigenous writers she's connected with while in the U.S., like Tommy Orange and Sasha LaPointe.

Tayi Tibble: I just feel like I'm picking up on an ancestral tradition, which was to go and share our knowledge and then to gain new knowledge and return home with new stories to share.

Jeffrey Brown: Stories Tayi Tibble says she will continue to tell through her poetry.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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