On a chilly Friday evening, a snugly dressed crowd approaches the Great Hall at the Christchurch Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora. The hall is warm, with magnificent stone arches and stained glass windows rising above us.
People shed their coats and find seats. By six o'clock the seats are full, and staff have brought out felt flags, with the letters W, O, R, and D stitched onto each one. Audrey Baldwin, WORD programmer at large, takes the stage starting the proceedings.
We are preparing for a night of poetry, thinking about accepted history versus our unruly memories of local places. Split into four groups of twelve, each group picks a guide holding a felt flag. I find my Aunty Zoe and Cousin Lucia in the crowd, and we decide the W flag speaks to us. Julie introduces herself as the guide for our walking tour. She was a student here when the Arts Centre was still Canterbury College. She tells us stories of taking terrifying exams in the great hall and how you can what bricks were replaced in the repairs because they are so much cleaner than the rest.
We put our coats back on and head into the cold to see our first poet of the night. We reach the Rutherford Foyer where Claudia Jardine descends the stairs dramatically. I can tell everyone is eager to hear some poetry. Her first poem she describes as a collage poem, which she wrote while on residency at the Arts Centre. It’s beautiful and humorous. One part talks about her sister's 14th birthday party, a trip to the Arthouse cinema. This young party ruined this trip for all the other cinemagoers by asking “Why are all their pants so high? / We need answers!”
Our next stop was the old Girls High building. There in the narrow, low-ceilinged corridor, we found our poet - Frankie McMillan. I’m not familiar with Frankie’s work so I’m eager to hear what’s in store for us. Needless to say, I was impressed. Her first poem recalled her expulsion from Girls High while it had been on this very campus. Her uniform cap had flown onto a car as she cycled to school. One thing led to another she did not make it to her lecture on the Corn Laws. Instead, she was seen climbing into the driver of the car's room through a fire escape, still dressed in her uniform, school cap in her mouth. After this poem, she read another about corridors and explained this as her choice of location. She said corridors are transitional spaces, sites of confusion - often home to miscreants and outsiders. I felt a deep resonance with this, it’s given me much food for thought.
Moving on, we walk to the part of the Arts Centre I’m most familiar with - Absolution, Tattoo, Piercing, and Gallery. Rounding the corner in the tattoo area, Nathan Joe, our next poet is waiting. I wasn’t able to see his event DIRTY PASSPORTS last night, so I’m excited to see him today. He starts his poem and I understand the connection now. It’s a saga - the story of each of his tattoos with his life, career and emotions expertly woven in. He moves around the room as if onstage, and lifts his shirt to show each tattoo as its story comes to a conclusion. I feel tears in my eyes when he recounts getting a fragment of Sappho tattooed on his ribs. “Someone will remember us / I say / even in another time”, My favourite verse by Sappho. He recalled the needle on his skin felt like “the sharp pain of queer desire.” I feel like I need to reach out but I can’t. As we leave, many in our group stop and thank him for sharing such an intimate performance.
Our group piles into the main foyer, looking up at the stairs and railings spreading out like a stage. Isla Huia (Te Āti Haunui a-Pāpārangi, Uenuku) descends the stairs, wearing all black with a large Pounamu around her neck. With this poet, I know what to expect. I grew up with her, wrote with her and performed with her. And I never ever get tired of her poetry. She is my outstanding cousin who has just published her debut collection, Talia. She reads one of my favourite poems of hers - God-Ly. It’s about the monument in the cathedral square, a relaxed-looking man on a pedestal staring the cathedral in the eye. I never really noticed it or even knew who he was, or why he was there. Now whenever I visit the square, I recognize him- and my feelings towards this city. When I look up at him the line that resounds in my head is - “let me see the sky/ your stomach takes up”. I feel like this poem really encapsulated the idea of the event, how buildings and places store memories for each person, and how those can be vastly different from each other.
On the walk back to the hall I have a lot to mull over. It is still cold but I have taken in so much I barely notice it. Walking through the old stone buildings in the dark, I feel like I am somewhere I’ve never been before. I think I would have been a bit nervous if my aunt and cousin hadn’t been there. Only after we return to the Hall I realise how cold it was outside. Atmospheric Taonga pūoro music plays through the speakers, and the instruments are laid carefully on the stage. We all wait in anticipation for the final act.
Barefoot and composed Ariana Tikao (Kāi Tahu) arrives centre stage. Picking up a Taonga pūoro, she plays music that sends chills through my body. It sounds like birdsong, water, trees, stars and home all at once. I want to sleep, cry, and I want it to never end. After a minute, she puts down the instrument and starts the first part of her poem. A tale of whanau, artists, and travellers. She tells us of the people whose footsteps wore down the steps of these buildings and those who were notably absent. In between each verse, she picks up a different Taonga pūoro, playing a hypnotic tune. The audience is entranced. I know this is a performance to remember.
Now that the night is wrapping up, Audrey returns to the stage and thanks everyone for coming. The audience has a buzz about them now. Ready to queue for mulled wine and discuss their experiences, thoughts and memories. When we are released from our seats, the poets end up with a small huddle around them. Eventually, the smell of mulled wine pulls people away and they gather with friends and family, or leave into the cold evening.
I have a lot to think about. Firstly I’m putting a hold on Claudia Jardine’s and Frankie McMillan’s books when I get home. Secondly, I’m trying to work out how my Aunty knows Ariana Tikao because MAJOR CELEBRITY ALERT. I’ve been listening to her CDs my whole life and now that she’s right here I’m feeling very shy. (Turns out they worked at UC at the same time but Ariana left before I had the courage to say hi).
I leave the evening with lots of feelings and a new understanding of the city. I feel like I’ve had not only a glimpse into the past but into intimate parts of other people's lives. A truly wonderful night of unruly poetry.