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  • Pippi Jean

Pissing your Pants… Extravagantly… In a Supermarket Aisle… at Age 14

Words by Pippi Jean (she/her)


Imagine the feeling of pissing your pants. In public. Seriously, okay, I know you’ve just picked up  Salient between classes, this is not what you signed up for, and you just want a spot of light relief. Well, I’m giving you some. Go on. Relieve yourself. Imagine it. 


Cool. Now we’re here in this horrible, metaphysical space together, I need you to give me some advice! I have a problem. As a person who publishes poetry (help), I have a physical reaction whenever somebody calls me a ‘poet’. Ew. It feels exactly like this. Like piss. If you’re an artist, does sharing your art ever feel like this? Like, if you’re a filmmaker and you show your movie on the big screen, is it ever embarrassing? Probably not. Is it a poetry thing? This is a cry for help. I interviewed four poet-bros to get some answers.


When did you first start writing poetry?


“I like to joke that I first started writing when I was bored in maths class as a 9-year-old,” Cadence Chung says, “but I only seriously got into poetry in intermediate school.” Cadence is a child prodigy, having published their debut chapbook anomalia with Tender Press during their first year of uni, panelled at the Auckland Writers’ Festival in their second, and wrote, composed, and directed hit teen musical In Blind Faith long before that.

Aroha Witinitara (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa) is a second-year Communications student at VUW, with previous publications in Salient, The Post, and Wairarapa News. They tell me a little bit about how they started off writing news in the Wairarapa, saying, “Writing [news] was a good way to claim space where younger people often get ‘drowned out’. I didn’t really get into poetry until I got to university, in Anna Jackson’s class.

“When I was 5 years old,I wanted to be a pop star. Then I realised… I couldn’t sing very well,” says Amelia Kirkness. Originally from Ōtautahi, Amelia is a sword lesbian studying English Literature and Media Studies at VUW. She’s had poetry published in Starling, Catalyst, and The Spinoff. “Then I wanted to be a fashion designer. But I couldn’t draw,” she shrugs. “When I was 8, I was like, ‘Okay, I want to be an author. I like books’.” Amelia wrote mostly fiction until discovering poetry in high school, and with it, Ōtautahi’s vibrant open mic and slam scene. 


Zia Ravenscroft has a similar story. “I used to write short stories, and I’d start novels, but I’d never finish them,” he says. “Honestly, I started writing poetry out of convenience […] in Year 13.” Zia is a second-year Theatre and English student at VUW with poetry published in Starling, Overcom, Takahē, and elsewhere. His interview is a series of voice memos sent straight from Feilding, his hometown, and the obvious first choice for a place to raise “gods’ favourite boy-toy”. 


Did you know poetry is cringe?

In the first poem in her collection Write a Book, New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird describes writing, reading, and sharing your own poetry as cringe: “to be fourteen / and wet yourself extravagantly / at a supermarket checkout / as urine cascades down your black lace stocking.” I agree with this. 

“Would I do a poetry reading back at home?” Aroha stops to think. “I don’t know. I don’t think I would.” Aroha explains how the cringe culture around poetry can be warranted. They feel they only ‘could’ read poetry when they went to university, and in Wellington particularly. Wellington is a special place for poets and literary communities. It can be easy to assume written poetry is academic, dense, and pretentious, but I find living here helps me to question those assumptions.

“No one had ever explained to me how poetry works,” Aroha says, “and it is quite complicated, unfortunately. You have to be able to sit down with a poem […] and think about it quite a bit.” Poetry shouldn’t all be taught as Wordsworth or Shakespeare, but often, that’s what people are exposed to in schools, which creates a lot of misunderstanding.

“It depends on who your English teachers are,” Amelia says. “I mean, I had some good ones, but I feel like how poetry is taught sometimes, there can be a sense of cosplaying as being deep and intellectual.” Her first introduction to poetry was through nursery rhymes, which didn’t grab her. The interest only resurfaced in high school. When she started reading modern New Zealand poets—like Hera Lindsay-Bird, Freya Daly-Sadgrove, and Tayi Tibble—poetry seemed relevant to her. 

“I think as creators we have a tendency to be very humble about our work, and sort of look down on it,” Zia says. “I think if you spend so long writing, you get to a point where all you can see is its faults.” Maybe it's quintessential Kiwi tall poppy syndrome. I used to get embarrassed when people shouted at me from the sidelines in a hockey game. That’s sport. Which is cool. And literal. And fast. What is it like when you’re in the limelight sharing all your slow, messy, metaphysical inside thoughts? One million times worse. 


“You cringe,” Zia admits, “but then you show your poem to a friend, and you’re like ‘Aw, I don’t know if I like this, I think it sucks.’ And they go, ‘What do you mean? This is the most beautiful poem I’ve ever read!’” His voice memo crackles with excitement. He’s talked a lot about what he gets from reading other people’s poems—like Richard Siken’s ‘Crush’—which is a “totally original feeling”. So for him, the meaning of sharing art outweighs any cringe. “I really feel there’s a freedom, [and] liberation in poetry.”


Why do you write poetry? 


A few weeks ago, I attended a GOOD BOOKS writers’ talk by Jenny Borndholdt and Frances Samuel. When asked about her writing process, Frances talked about “knowing things were going to be important”. She worked as a curator for Te Papa, which inspired her new chapbook Museum. Often, objects or facts—my fave: that “humpback whales whisper underwater to warn their young of danger”—had a certain “glow” for her. 


I tell Amelia about this. She agrees the ‘glow’ is totally a thing—writers can tell what parts of their life will shine on the page. “A couple weekends ago, my friends and I were in town, the bar was about to close, and two of our friends were dancing together on the dance floor. [They were] just spinning each other. It was totally deserted, except for them. And I was like, oh…” Her voice changes. “This is a moment that needs to last forever.” 


The habit of capturing moments is not something specific to poetry at all. You know, maybe I just need to get out and cop somebody’s granddad’s ‘untested idk if it works’ free film camera from Facebook Marketplace. But I’m reminded of a line of Cadence’s poetry: “I may / write a thousand sonnets and forget the lovers, / but still have all these words on my hands.” 


Writing poems helps me remember things exactly how I experienced them, way after they’ve happened. It’s like drinking a special milk-mud-grass potion that transports you back to that place and time. In the words of Rebecca Shaw and Freya-Daly-Sadgrove, “poetry is language at its most potent, it’s like, concentrated, it’s like the linguistic equivalent of blood-doping, and similarly frowned upon.”

Why do you publish poetry?


You don’t have to publish your work, Amelia says. But you do have to “take yourself seriously”. She touches on defences I also find myself making, like, ‘I guess I write poems sometimes!’ and ‘yeah, I write poetry, I know, it's cringe’. Even though writing (and sharing) poetry can be embarrassing, she says we have to realise cringe culture is cancelled and just own that we’re a “fucking person making art”. 


“I think particularly when you’re a young woman who is an artist, it can be tempting to kind of trivialise yourself and your work,”  says Amelia. “But you have to be like, ‘I am worthy of respect for doing this’ […] and putting work out into the world is a hugely scary and brave thing to do.”


Aroha says, “I would strongly encourage anybody with any sort of minority representation to try writing poetry. I think it's a really powerful way to do the whole taking up space thing. There's an element of therapy, even if you don't show anybody, [just through] getting your experience out on the page. And I think, historically, minorities have been told not to do not to take up space, not to complain. […] It's so it’s just legitimising to have this piece of paper with your sorrow or happiness or just plain experience existing physically in the world. Being there when it's been told not to be. We should all just be.”


Ok awesome, is there a conclusion? 

Thank you, omniscient formatter. Yes, there is. I feel super empowered after reading all this stuff about poetry. But what if next time I have a cool experience feeling good feelings in the world and I write it down, I end up reading it out to someone and it feels like piss again? What if I mess up how I say something? What does my art actually give to anyone else?


These are the questions that stop me from writing, sharing, and even talking to my friends about poetry. But when I do talk, I realise it’s not useful to embarrass yourself about your art. No matter the form, style, or platform, you’re putting yourself out there and entering into a personal conversation with the world. This is a big and brave and pretentious and cringe and scary and messy and good thing.

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