Cool, frank and sometimes angry, the New Zealand winner wants to make poetry pop | Culture



Taylor Swift fan, glam-rock fashion lover, Chris Tse is not your typical Poet Laureate.

At 39, he is the youngest New Zealander to hold the title. When Tse reads the list of great poets who have received this honor and spots his own name at the bottom, he feels “a little sick”.

As if that weren’t enough, Tse is – as he puts it – “the first Asian poet laureate and the first openly queer”.

But after years of forging his own path in a literary scene where he often felt remarkable, Tse’s appointment as New Zealand’s next chief poetry advocate suggests that the broadening of poetry’s appeal and relevance calls for something beyond the typical.

“A big part of what I want to do is show people that poetry exists in so many different forms, not just on the page,” Tse said. “It’s not just what people read in school, or what they’ve been asked to break down into its component parts.”

Dotted with pop culture references, Tse’s work explores race and sexuality in a frank, cool and irreverently funny way – even when seething with barely suppressed rage – and he is untroubled by restraints. genre or medium. In a next public conference, Tse will deconstruct Taylor Swift’s new album a few days after its release. He has already worked on an opera and hopes being Poet Laureate will involve fashion collaborations.

“I was tired of being the nice Chinese writer”

Announcing Tse’s selection, Rachel Esson, National Librarian of New Zealand, described Tse as “a poet leading a generational and cultural shift in the reach and appreciation of poetry in Aotearoa”.

The recognition seems a far cry from the years when Tse feared he would never be seen as anything other than an “Asian writer.” References to his identity, and particularly his Chinese heritage, always bubble to the surface. Tse’s desire to explore it in his work clashes with his frustration at constantly being asked to talk about it in other people’s terms.

“It took me a long time to get to the point where I think I was able to balance the two,” Tse says. “But at first I was expected to write about my ethnicity in a certain, non-threatening and approachable way.”

During the formative years of her career, being one of the few Asian faces on the New Zealand literary scene sometimes generated opportunities for Tse, but it usually involved talking about being Asian.

“It’s a really strange and arcane thing to deal with internally,” he says. “I’m proud of my many identities, but being commodified because of them can make you feel really shitty.”

Tse writes of his typical writers festival experience in a poem:


My question is in two parts. Aren’t you racist yourself calling me racist? And what will you write about when you run out of otherness?

Tse now suggests that event organizers remove the audience Q&A portion of sessions altogether. While he describes himself as non-confrontational, his writing on issues of race sharpened as his exasperation grew.

“I was getting tired of being the nice Chinese writer,” he says. “I think the evolution of how I talked about it and how comfortable I am now with not being afraid of the hard stuff is what made me who I am.”

“I just wanted to be able to write freely, not have those weird winks and nudges.”

In his feature debut, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Tse told the little-known true story of Cantonese gold miner Joe Kum Yung, who in 1905 Wellington was murdered by a white man who “went to looking for a Chinese. ”.

The tale of a shameful episode in New Zealand’s past took on devastating new meaning after the white supremacist terror attack on two Christchurch mosques in 2019, five years after the book was published. Reciting it at an event a week after the massacre was “the hardest reading I have ever done,” Tse says.

This sentiment planted the seeds for his latest book, Super Model Minority, in which he writes:

Why am I bothered by my anger when others exercise theirs so freely?

A desire to be candid about himself and the world around him also prompted Tse to explore his sexuality in his cheeky and scintillating second collection, He’s So Masc – which surprised him, given that he had conceived as a book on music. But his sexuality was another topic he was tired of avoiding.

“I just wanted to be able to write freely, not have those weird winks and nudges,” says Tse, who was then gay in his personal life but still feared mentioning his male partner during public engagements ( he sometimes wore sequins to the readings to give a hint).

“I remember being at the book launch and thinking ‘Oh my God, what have I done? “, Tse said. “But at that time, I felt safe enough to write about it and spread it to the world in this way, even if it was terrifying.

“They didn’t know what a Poet Laureate was”

The way Tse stood out in his early days on the literary scene was at odds with his upbringing in Lower Hutt, a multicultural town northeast of Wellington.

“It was like, ‘Are you Chinese? So what?’” Tse says of her school years.

The family has lived in the area since Tse’s great-grandfather came from China more than a century ago; his parents ran a Chinese grocery store and a kiosk in a mall food court.

“It was kind of our life – at home, at school, helping in the store, at home, at school,” Tse says. “There were times when I didn’t like it, but it was also very good for me.”

His parents knew their son was creative; Tse took acting lessons, sang in a choir and played the violin. But they urged him to consider a back-up — specifically, a business degree.

By then, however, Tse had discovered and fallen in love with poetry, after her high school friends began bringing “terrible and nerve-wracking” poems about their crushes to read to each other at lunchtime. Upon learning that he could take poetry workshops at Victoria University of Wellington as part of an English and film degree, Tse rushed to apply.

He remembers thinking, “I should probably read poetry.

In high school English classes, Tse had studied “two or three poems a year”, just enough to prepare for essays and exams. Now he picked up his first volumes of New Zealand poetry and was fascinated by the various possibilities of form.

A master’s degree in creative writing followed. After the publication of Tse’s three complete books, a co-edited anthology and a number of national awards, his parents remain puzzled but supportive, he says.

“They didn’t know what a Poet Laureate was. I bent over backwards to find Cantonese so I could tell my dad without having to explain it, but it was still crickets.

Genuine excitement arose when her parents learned that the accolade was significant enough for Tse to be interviewed on television.

But he took their advice on a side job to heart. Tse speaks to the Guardian at a Wellington cafe in the office building where he works as a civil servant; a view of the National Library of New Zealand – the institution that nominates the Poet Laureate – across the street perfectly encapsulates the pragmatic considerations of even New Zealand’s most important poet.

During his two-year tenure, Tse will remain in his part-time communications job.

The role in New Zealand is a free mandate to champion local poetry; no verse about the rise of a king or the coming of spring is required. Tse feels on safer ground with promoting the work of others – something he has done throughout his career – than the inevitable attention brought to him.

“I want to bring attention to all the stuff that’s going on in New Zealand, like the slam scene and all the different little newspapers.

“People literally staple things together or sew things together in their living room? That’s where the cool stuff happens.

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