Poets Onehou Strickland and Zechariah Soakai on the Great War and the Māori and Pasifika soldiers who fought for an empire far from home.
During the Great War, hundreds of Pasifika men - mainly from the Cook Islands and Niue - were sent to fight in Europe for the British Empire. Some did not survive the training in New Zealand - falling ill with diseases like pneumonia and typhoid. Some did not survive the journey to the northern hemisphere. Others did, but never returned home.
To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele - a brutal battle in Belgium, which saw hundreds of thousands of lives lost - The Auckland War Memorial Museum has opened a new gallery, Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War.
The gallery features a series of short films of spoken-word poetry that highlight the historical context of local areas in Auckland with a connection to World War One. Filmed on location, the pieces are a contemporary reflection on the young poets’ thoughts and feelings relating to the war today, especially reflecting on the Māori and Pacific experience.
Starling editor Louise Wallace caught up with two of the featured poets, Onehou Strickland and Zechariah Soakai, to coincide with the opening of the new gallery this week.
Louise Wallace: Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War is the Auckland War Memorial's first space aimed at educating young people about World War One. What relevance do you think the World War One experience holds for young people today?
Zechariah Soakai: The topic of war and its connection to our young people is a funny one. I think if I’m being brutally honest, I don’t like to remember, re-enact or glorify war. I am staunchly anti-war. But I do think World War One holds relevance for our young people today in the sense that if we are not aware of the conditions from which this traumatic experience occurred, then we won’t be able to prevent it.
Onehou Strickland: World War One seems like an event that was far from New Zealand shores therefore far from relevance. But just because the battles were oceans away, it does not mean that the spirit of war did not exist on homelands. Lands like the Waterfront and Auckland Domain, many spots that young people visit on a daily, held the feet of readied men about to cross into war-torn earth and forbidden boundaries. The world we live in is only for rent. We inherited this earth from all of those who came before us. Some of who literally went to war so that the future of their families and friends would be more secure. If you're a young person who wants your footsteps in this world to benefit those of the future, then I implore you to think of those who came before you and who cared about you and your future so much that they gave their lives in battle, so that the footsteps they left behind meant your freedom.
What aspects of the Māori and Pacific experience of World War One resonated with you the most strongly when approaching your piece?
ZS: Researching the Māori and Pacific involvement was eye-opening. Firstly, I didn’t know that Pacific peoples participated in World War One and World War Two to begin with, and I also didn’t know the conditions from which they were conscripted into this war for a British empire, that quite frankly did not concern them in any tangible way. However, what resonated strongly for me was just that these Pacific soldiers voluntarily gave themselves for World War One, in the hope of proving themselves worthy. And while that’s very valiant, when they came to New Zealand to train a lot of them fell ill from pneumonia, typhoid and a few other diseases. And actually what ends up happening is that you get this heavy narrative of shame and guilt for being perceived as weak, because the Pacific soldiers were not even able to get to the battle. They got taken out in the training process. So yeah that was mind-blowing and something I had to respect and give honour back to.
OS: There were certain aspects of injustice that hurt me, which for that reason are hard to forget. Things like the fact that for ‘administrative ease’ New Zealand tried to group the Cook Island and Niuean soldiers as one nation. It’s pretty cheeky to suggest diminishing one's identity just so that your forms are easier to deal with. Also the challenge of merely adapting to the New Zealand climate let alone a war across the world, is something you don't consider until you truly think about it. New Zealand winters already suck hard enough, imagine coming from the tropics of the islands and being put out in the elements of Europe in winter. So many Island soldiers died of illness and pneumonia, slowly, from the inside. I see these aspects in both their admiration and in their despair, and I remember them not just because they’re hard to forget, but because they deserve to be kept alive in memory.
Can you talk a bit about how you wrote your poem? What was your process? Were there any challenges?
OS: These are the most important pieces I have ever done to date. Usually I’m writing pieces for myself, in my own voice, and when people don't agree then I don’t really care, and they can go sit on a kina haha. This time however, I was representing whole contingents of fallen soldiers, as well as their memory, family, and the spirit of the landmarks we speak of, as well as the Museum. The last thing I wanted to do was dishonour any of these parties with what I said. My process involved a lot of writing and scribbling out and re-writing, then hating what I wrote. A little bit of crying haha. It took me a while to finally get my pieces down as something I was happy with.
ZS: I wrote this poem in the timeframe of about two weeks. The process was really full on, not only in the time restrictions but the heaviness of the content I was working with. There was this temptation to be sucked into all the grief that I think is saturated within this type of material. And I don’t think that’s specific to the Pacific experience of World War One, but just war in general. And I suppose, because I don’t have any experience or family who were in World War One (or any war for that matter), this whole notion of war is very foreign but very real, if that makes sense? So my process was a balance between holding the mana/integrity to tell this narrative unapologetically, but also about self-preservation and not being sucked into the immense sadness of it all. On top of that, I quickly discovered that proportionately a lot of the Pacific soldiers who fought in the war were Cook Islanders and Niueans. I’m of Samoan and Tongan descent but I knew that I would be doing a massive disservice to not reference or bring light to the Cook Island and Niuean experience specifically. So yeah, that was another challenge. How does one honour cultures and peoples that they are not a part of, while also not appropriating their cultural trauma? I really hope I treaded that line with care!
Onehou, your poem focuses on the experiences of Māori and Pacific soldiers at the Narrow Neck training camp on Auckland's North Shore. Watching your short film I was struck by the way the sound of the waves provided a sort of soundtrack to your reading, lifting all the strong oceanic imagery that is present in your poem even further. It would have been easy to focus on the physicality of training and life in the camp. How did the ocean come to be so central to the story you wanted to tell?
OS: Good question, thanks for noticing! Narrow Neck was the piece I felt closest to while writing, perhaps because of the ocean or the fact that it is where the Māori and Pacific soldiers were trained. Māori and Pacific people, no matter how distant their home shores, all come from Te Moana nui. It is so central to the livelihood of the islands. When I visited Narrow Neck for this piece, I stood at the shoreline, just as in the film, and imagined what it must have been like to stand there with your family and island so many miles away, yet still being connected by the stretched-out arms of one ocean. There is also a photo from the Narrow Neck military camp of some of the boys swimming in the water, smiling, playing, laughing. They look so happy. I was drawn to the ocean the moment I stood on Narrow Neck beach and I was immediately drawn to that photo of the boys in the ocean. I took that as my answer for where I would ‘stand’ with this piece.
Zechariah, I was really interested in your use of the physical body in your poem. Your poem is about O'Neill's Point Cemetery, where many Māori and Pacific servicemen were buried. Naturally, bones appear as a motif, except that you push that image further, carrying it through to personal and present-day relevance in lines like "This is how my spine remembers all the broken vertebrae that brought me here". Can you speak a little to this anchoring imagery of bones? Was this something you set out to use from the very beginning, or did this develop during the writing process?
ZS: Primarily through the writing and researching of the poem, I was thinking about the body and trauma. And that made me realise very quickly that this poem had to be very visceral. I wanted this so that I could bring to the forefront this historical narrative and situate it in the here and now. And so what remains when one passes? It’s one’s bones. I was struck by this notion that these bones that do not genealogically belong in Aotearoa were buried here anyway. Not returned to the family. This body that was going to voluntarily give itself up for war in the name of empire did not go as far as it had charted, and instead fell ill. But these bones and their memory were not returned to the land from which they came. And I really wish they were.
Was there anything that emerged during the writing of your poem that you were surprised by?
OS: I usually write with a rhythm in mind. Rhythm I've now realised has usually come before wordplay in my poetry. It's actually a surprise to realise that now haha. So this time I wrote with lyrics and history on my mind first and it sounds so different to anything I have ever done before. It was surprise to hear my voice in such a different light. Also the stuff I learnt while doing this piece was a surprise. I reckon I learnt a school year's worth of stuff in two weeks at the Museum.
What do you think poetry can achieve when it comes to addressing politics or history? What is its purpose, as you see it?
OS: Vanessa Crofskey, who is a fellow poet that's part of the exhibition, summed it up quite nicely the other day. You don't just learn from it, poetry gives you the opportunity to express your own opinion on such matters. You don't have to just sit and be told what something is. You can decide for yourself how you feel about certain events and issues, and by deciding how these things make you feel, you are more open to remembering them, and on top of that learning more about yourself and what is important to you personally. If our youth were given the opportunity to express their own opinions on things they learn in school, well, I’m sure it wouldn't hurt.
ZS: Poetry, I think, is the heartspeak. It’s the “WHY DO WE CARE?” History will give you (or at least try to) an objective account of what has happened, and politics will try to solve things by looking at the personal and the global through the lens of power and control. Both these lenses are quite serious and give us a lot to consider. And I think poetry’s potency is found in its ability to make something beautiful and memorable, not as a means of control or to commemorate something, but simply just to make you care.
Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War is the Museum’s first dedicated war memorial space aimed at educating young people about the War and contemplating why 100 years on, it’s still relevant. The interactive gallery is a public learning resource aligned with the school curriculum, aiming to make this significant event in New Zealand history relevant for young people today.
There are short films, artworks and illustrations, alongside an aerial reconnaissance table which allows visitors to gets hands-on and undertake a mission piloting planes above the trenches. A virtual reality head-set gets visitors up close to a 3D rendered artillery gun. Collectible content enables students and visitors to explore pivotal WWI events through letters, photographs, and diaries in greater depth online, back in school or at home.
For more information, go to aucklandmuseum.com