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Where poetry and activism collide

Friday 17th October 2014

Marina Alefosio draws in a long breathe before the microphone. “Is it love?” she asks her audience. “Is it love, is it love, is it love, or it is poetry?”

Her fellow poets cluster at the back of the stage, perched on slightly too few seats. The effect is something like a lounge room; something like a family.

One poet exhales a long “mmmm,” in assent. Fingers are clicking throughout the audience.

Alefosio is opening the South Auckland Poets Collective’s A Tale of Three Cities. The show, held this month at the Mangere Arts Centre, was a collaborative effort, with poets from Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch performing. It was part of the weeklong LOUDER festival, a national event to raise awareness and funds for the anti-trafficking work of Hagar International.

South Auckland Poets Collective, or SAPC, has a growing reach. They run workshops with over 40 community groups nationwide, including schools, universities and youth detention centres. From their humble beginnings at Youthline in 2008, the members of the collective have arguably become the country’s best-known and most active performers and facilitators. 

Are we getting too preachy? But what you’re hearing is everyone’s truth, and I don’t want to take away from that.

Three of SAPC’s protégés are in the “Three Cities” audience. With the encouragement of their poetic idols, they’ve formed their own collective named ASO: Adolescents Speak Out. SAPC’s audience is predominantly young, and many more identify themselves as poets. “It’s like a religion,” says Roimata Prendergrast, a soft-spoken teen, who has performed alongside the collective in a previous show. “It’s a comfort. It’s everything to me.”  

Though she’s referring to the cult of spoken word itself, there is an element of SAPC’s message that verges on the fundamental. The poets’ work is laden with religious rhetoric.

“To be honest,” says collective member Dietrich Soakai, “the religious aspect has been something I’ve worried about. Are we getting too preachy? But what you’re hearing is everyone’s truth, and I don’t want to take away from that.”

Recent years have seen huge growth in the popularity of spoken word poetry. There was HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and spoken-word features on MTV. Poetry has been the star of TED Talks and “slams” – competitive poetry performances – are now held at a number of major literary festivals. The crowds (in their hundreds) that SAPC can pull have seen poetry before: they’ve studied it at school; they’ve seen poems go viral on Upworthy.  

As the South Auckland Poets move forward with an art form firm in its stride, the difference between self-expression and social activism may need to be reconsidered. Is the personal truth that Dietrich speaks of enough to actively engage with issues as complex as human trafficking?   

As artists we can’t do surgery. We can’t rescue people falling off cliffs. Our job is to create this awareness and give and receive knowledge. 

Donna Skoludek has travelled from Hamilton to perform with the collective. She offers an emotional piece about the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. Her work oscillates between addressing her own daughters, and the mothers of the missing girls. She hopes she can remind her audience that “the fact that these things have faded from the news doesn’t mean they’re not happening anymore”.     

Audience member Jahra Rager, herself a performer and activist, is critical. “The poems that related to the charity were great. I connected emotionally. But it felt like two separate things in the same building.”

Skoludek’s poem is one example. It’s well-written and elegantly performed, but seems to be grasping for a thematic connection that other poets don’t even attempt to seek.

Is it enough? To raise some awareness, and donate some funds? Does poetry really have the power to change anything?

“Awareness instigates change,” says Rager. “As artists we can’t do surgery. We can’t rescue people falling off cliffs. Our job is to create this awareness and give and receive knowledge. We have to influence the people who hold the power. That’s when change happens.”

What is clear is that The South Auckland Poets Collective knows its audience. There are tears, cheers and incessant finger snaps, often arising from the night’s most controversial moments: a young man’s reflection on a younger woman’s abortion, a dark piece about incestuous pedophilia and Daisy Lavea-Timeo boldly declaring her family’s struggle with obesity.

Some pieces shine linguistically; others are more adept at serving the spirit of the night. But every poet must be commended for their professionalism, and their bravery. What they offer is a dialogue, in which their community’s voice is asked for, and heard.  

“Our journey has always been clear,” says Soakai. “We have a heart for young people and for community. We’re trying to make the medium famous. It brings people together.”

And Hagar International’s executive director, Don Lord, is clearly satisfied. He considers the medium of spoken word the perfect vehicle for awareness and fundraising around his cause. “It’s creative people helping others in their creative arts journey,” he says, referencing the art therapy programmes run by Hagar, to help people who have been trafficked to heal.

We have a heart for young people and for community. We’re trying to make the medium famous. It brings people together.

When he takes to the microphone to share his organisation’s story and gratitude, he speaks directly to the poets: “What you’re doing with your words is you’re forming a different future.” Many of the poets appear to wipe tears from their eyes.     

Though Hagar’s work is the premise of the night, the event’s beating heart is South Auckland. From Onehou Strickland we learn about “Miss Southside,” who “speaks the world at 17 within a 17km radius.” Alefosio references home as “a starting point to a constellation that doesn’t owe you the sky yet.”

The poets from across the country are excited and grateful to be part of a crew that represents an area misconstrued by prime time TV. Many members of the collective, and the audience, could be seen as some of South Auckland’s pessimistic statistics. Yet they have come together in the name of literature.  

In personalising the politicised narratives to which they speak, the South Auckland Poets Collective offers a window into a number of conversations. They offer something a little more colloquial, a little more dangerous and a little more practical than hope. 

They know it’s not enough. “We need to have some kind of solution,” says collective member Luti Richards, “to draw out their story and point them in the right direction. Otherwise they’re just pouring their guts out and there’s nothing to fill them. I’m hoping that good mentoring and programmes based on good principals will help to give the young people something back.”

It is easy to believe, in the collective’s presence, that an empowered community is capable of instigating change. The mentors are here, and they’re not afraid to expose their vulnerabilities.

This show, six years after the collective’s inception, is a step towards something bigger for the group. It’s a step that, with their combined talent and professionalism, they seem ready for. “It’s an honour to be held accountable,” says Alefosio.

But it’s the audience that best summarises the collective’s reach. “They’re making it okay,” says student Ta’afi Vareta. “It’s good to express yourself, you know? It’s like, the things I want to talk about, I can talk about them now. I know I’m not the best writer or anything, but I stopped failing English when I got into poetry. I come to these shows and I see men talking about feelings and even crying.” He shrugs. “I’m not scared of being real anymore.” 

Words by Kirsti Whalen, video by Sean Atavenitia and Jasmyn Paul.

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from NZ On Air.

Kirsti Whalen is an ex-Melburnian, ex-castle-dwelling, ex-camel-farming writer based in Auckland. She also works in disability advocacy and support.
Jasmyn Paul is a visual artist, freelance photographer and and videographer based in Auckland. If she isn't with her family you can probably find her frolicking around in nature searching for the next adventure.
Sean Atavenitia is an Auckland-based artist with work focused primarily in photography, design and lens-based media.