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Poet Hinemoana Baker: “Absurdity is a real lifesaver”

Ahead of her appearance at ILB, the mould-breaking writer talks us through her new book, the Kiwi-Berlin connection and why Germans should stop doing the haka.

Image for Poet Hinemoana Baker: “Absurdity is a real lifesaver”

Ahead of her reading at ILB, the mould-breaking poet talks us through her new book, the Kiwi-Berlin connection and why Germans should stop doing the haka. Photo: Ashley Clarke

Hinemoana Baker is one of today’s most exciting New Zealand poets. The Berlin-based author, whose parents have mixed Māori and Pākehā (white settler) ancestry, released her first full-length work in 2004 and has been publishing and performing her poetry ever since. She moved to Berlin in 2015. Earlier this year, her brilliant new collection Funkhaus (Victoria University Press) [available via eBook here] was shortlisted for the most prestigious Kiwi literary prize, the Ockhams. We met Hinemoana at a café on Frankfurter Allee to discuss her work and her upcoming appearance at the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin.

Congrats on the success of your book. How does the acknowledgement feel?

It’s still kind of surreal. So much about this year and a half has been surreal, and this is just one of those things. I’ve won residencies and things, but I don’t often get nominated for awards. I think I just don’t comfortably fit in existing categories. I’m a Māori writer, but I’m also very open about being mixed-ethnicity. And I’m a queer writer, but I don’t write overtly queer stuff. I write poetry, and poetry’s not really big in New Zealand. Rugby is huge – but not so much poetry. Still, we do have shit-hot poets, and I’m glad to be from there.

Was it nice to finally get some institutional validation from home?

It was a mood boost for me as a writer. But it was strangely mixed, too, because of the whole corona crisis. There’s just been a feeling that there’s this huge gulf between me and home at the moment, with all the borders closed. It’s a very strange feeling to be in contact with New Zealand at all, let alone on that kind of literary stage.

You say corona’s made you feel distant from New Zealand, even caught between places. Is that something language, poetic language, can help – reconciling, bringing together disparate parts?

Yes. There’s a feeling I get from writing that’s almost indescribable – and it’s a rare feeling, for me, because I’m not very prolific. I’m only really happy in that very small moment after having written. That concept of language bringing together dislocated places and people is really fitting.

I’m only really happy in that very small moment after having written.

I was really nourished by the reviews that I got for this book from Māori women who… well, Māori history with pandemics is not good, full stop, and Māori health is not good, full stop, and women are overrepresented in the statistics in an unfortunate way. I think of my work as a kind of healing, so reading those positive reviews was extraordinarily comforting in those dark pandemic days.

One of the most stunning lines in Funkhaus goes: “Language is a flute, a lily, / a chair overbalancing, // a church we teeter on the threshold of.” What drew you to those images?

It’s me giving myself permission to experiment, to use language in ways that aren’t polemic. I’m allowing myself to be lyrical. There are a lot of amazing Indigenous poets who write poems with overt politics in them, poems that make you want to shout and do stuff about injustice.

For me, I’m an extremely political person, but I usually fail when I try to put that on the page. So I’ve had to accept that I’m a lyric poet, a poet who’s more interested in accidents, the surreal, language in general. And sound. In those lines, I’m allowing myself to really tip over into that.

There’s humour, too, in your work. Is that another thing you allow yourself?

I’ve needed to have a lot of humour around me, all my life – but particularly during this period. Absurdity is a real lifesaver. And it makes its way onto the page because it makes its way into everyday life. My thesis from my master’s in creative writing had just a whole page of really bad dad jokes lined up in columns. I think it’s some of my best work (but my professors not so much!). Sometimes I throw them into my performances.

How is it to be a Kiwi in Germany? They aren’t two cultures we often think of as interacting much…

Yeah, but Berlin is becoming more a part of the discourse. And there’s actually quite a large German population in New Zealand, and a history of colonists and explorers. Then of course there’s the fact that some German people seem to be inordinately fascinated by the Māori haka [a traditional ceremonial dance].

Oh no, Germans are trying to do the haka now?

There are still quite a few practitioners teaching a thing that they call the haka, which is of course not a haka. And it shows up in uncomfortable places: in these New Masculinity workshops, which tend to have problematic links to Jordan Peterson types and the far right, but also at a couple of Querdenker protests.

In some ways I can understand that if you only have a surface-level understanding of the haka – if you just see it as some war dance – then it might feel appropriate to bust it out at some event like that, in front of your so-called enemy. But it’s just not the thing to do if you’re not Māori, in so many ways.

At the ILB this month, you’ll be at a poetry night dedicated to Indigenous voices. What do you think is the value of bringing together Indigenous poets from all over the world?

For me, events like these are all about complicating the narrative and complicating the stereotypes. The more real Indigenous people you meet, the more different identities and backgrounds you encounter, the more difficult it becomes to see us just as some two-dimensional war dance or a romantic exotic maiden. Anything that helps to dismantle those stereotypes is valuable.