Finding and forging his voice by Madelaine Empson
Born and raised in Lower Hutt, Chris Tse is a highly acclaimed and accomplished author of poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction. He has published three full-length poetry collections with Auckland University Press – How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (2014), HE’S SO MASC (2018), and Super Model Minority (2022) – and is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2022 to 2024. Te Pouhuaki National Librarian Rachel Esson described his appointment last year as recognition of “a poet leading a generational and cultural shift in the reach and appreciation of poetry in Aotearoa”.
Whether he’s reading his own work, emceeing an open-mic poetry night, or judging a slam competition, Tse is always out and about on Greater Wellington’s vibrant poetry scene. Next up, you can catch him leading a workshop and doing a poetry reading at Carterton Events Centre on the 18th of February. In the meantime, read on to find out more about a writer that Auckland University Press director Sam Elworthy says “brings open eyes and an open heart, a fresh voice and a cutting wit”.
When did you first take a crack at writing?
I started writing song lyrics at quite a young age because I wanted to be a musician slash popstar. Then when I was about 15, I started writing poetry because my friends were doing it, and they were bringing it to school and sharing it amongst themselves at lunchtime. It was really clichéd teen angst sort of stuff, but looking back on some of it, I can see some echoes with what I ended up writing in my twenties, in my thirties with my first few books, just from a slightly different perspective and without life experience behind it. There were certain things that were on my mind then that I’ve carried with me.
What were those things?
Identity. Fitting into the world, those big questions. It eventuated that they were questions about gender and sexuality and race later on. But I could see that the anxiety about who I am and who I was going to be was definitely there.
How did getting more life experience impact your writing?
I was very reluctant to write about being Chinese, or Asian, when I first started writing at university [Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka]. Looking back on it now, I realise that was just ridiculous, but there were a number of reasons why. One, I thought it was too obvious. Two, because there was nothing published that spoke from that experience, no one like me who was writing poetry, I didn’t think there was any interest in it. Of course, I know now [that wasn’t the case]. And then there was a hesitation writing about being queer, because I still hadn’t come to terms with it myself. I buried it under a lot of metaphor or imagery in my writing, because it was too scary to actually say out loud. As I became more comfortable with that part of myself, more public with that part of myself, it felt like a no-brainer to write about it as well.
Does that mean your writing naturally became less layered and less metaphorical, or do you still utilise those techniques?
A lot of my writing now is very personal and frank. My second book was quite different to my first one, which was about a historical hate crime and didn’t include any of my own experience in it. Then making that huge jump to a very personal book about coming out and racism and my experience with it was very scary. I wasn’t quite sure how people were going to respond to it. Thankfully they loved it [nervous laughter]. It is quite confronting to put that sort of work out there and know that people are reading it and interpreting it in their own ways – sometimes not in the ways you intended. But it’s opened new doors for me and helped me to form connections and find readers who hadn’t seen that sort of experience portrayed on the page before.
I’m fully aware that being the first queer Asian Poet Laureate is going to get a lot of attention and connect and resonate with a lot of people, because there has been such a lack of representation in our literature.
Congratulations on such a prestigious appointment. For our readers who aren’t sure, can you tell me what a Poet Laureate does?
Promote and advocate for poetry, raise the profile of poetry and encourage others to read it in New Zealand, appear at events, and write poetry to mark significant events. There’s a lot of mana attached to the role, and I just hope that in the next two years I get to make a little bit of a difference in how poetry is perceived in New Zealand. I’m really excited about the opportunity that this is going to bring.
You must encounter so many different kinds of poetry every day. What form do you prefer to read and write?
For the longest time, I thought that being a good poet was being able to mimic other poets. I’ve come to realise that’s not necessarily the case; you have to forge and find your own voice and learn to be comfortable with how you write. I write in different modes – I take on some pretty heavy topics, but I also love a good joke. I write silly poems that have pop culture references because I’m a multi-faceted person and these are all my different interests. It’s freeing to be able to express all these different parts of myself in poetry in whatever way feels right rather than sticking to one form, one tone, one voice.
What do you think words can do that no other artform can?
When I was growing up, I was really into music and filmmaking, and I dabbled in acting and theatre when I was at university and after that. I realised that what joins all those things together is words. I love the storytelling power of words. As a writer, you can use words as a tool to tell a story but also to experiment and play. As a poet, that’s what I’m interested in – poetry pushes you, challenges you, to get your message across in a more interesting, unique way.
What words inspire you most?
When I was starting to accept and embrace writing about myself, something that Dame Gaylene Preston said about the need for us to tell our own stories resonated with me. That’s the guiding principle to my writing. If I don’t tell my story, no one else is going to. I’m really excited that since I’ve started writing, to present day, the number of Asian New Zealand writers has grown. But we are all bringing a different perspective to the Asian New Zealand experience – it’s not homogenous, it’s not the same thing. Everyone is telling their own stories, and that’s why I seek out other local poetry and writing. Because reading it, understanding it, is all part of figuring out who you are. How you fit into the community, the country, the world.