Grace Iwashita-Taylor, mother, poet and theatre-maker says her next body of work will focus on poetry as medicine. “It’s only in the last year that I’ve realised decolonising has had its time, we’re now in the stage of indigenising,” she says. The feminine force behind establishing South Auckland Poets Collective [SAPC], a group focussed on poetry as a tool for social change. Beginning in 2008, she and two other men started holding space for people from South Auckland wanting to get into it. Held at the Otahuhu Community Center in a time when there was no GPS, finding my way from Auckland central to the centre was by sheer will to be a part of what this woman was creating.
Having just met at the Auckland Writers Festival, the impact she’d have on me would be life-changing. At the contest, the pub was packed. Standing solo on stage, lit by a spotlight and nothing else; Grace delivered her poem about being an Afakasi woman who was born and bred in South Auckland.
Embodying a strength that, for me, was rare and before her time. At 25, she had found it, that mana that holds you with conviction, while a room full of people you can’t see, watch you express your truth.
Rapper, King Kapisi was a judge that night. Grace won the competition, followed by Dominic Hoey and me. Back then, there was Def Jam poetry on YouTube, but no solid outlet for slam-style poetry, yet. Just over a decade later, Grace has released two books, directed four plays and written one. In 2021 she plans to venture into digital storytelling; something she has already started.
The movement was lead by a group of Māori women, and inspired Grace to write a conjuring of strength for those disheartened by the power of major corporations upon indigenous land. “The sound of resistance is a woman’s voice because she is well trained in the art of resilience,” she echoes through the video. Her son Darae turns 11 this year and in the interview below we talk about the strength and grit required to be a working mama, daughter to a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and a working creative in one of the most expensive cities in the world:
S: As the gift of you sharing your guts, there’s no hiding with the content and style you perform…
G: It’s part of my mahi to share that energy. I’m not the best writer, poet or performer but vulnerability…I am my name.. that’s my strength as a creative. It has taken me some time and skill to understand the strength in that, and be able to be open, and from the gut, but to also keep myself safe. People, in general, are learning how to receive art and pay and give it what it’s worth. I decided for myself, that I really do believe that my words can change shit. Anything I share with anyone whether it’s one-on-one or whatever, it doesn’t have to have a resolution or a pretty ending but it has to be life-giving.
S: Can you explain life giving more?
G: I’m focussed on poetry, that’s medicine, some medicines are temporary, some are bitter for a bit and then it helps you, but that’s where I’m focussed now.
S: What was happening in your world when you wrote your poem the Metrics of Love?
G: I guess it’s kind of what’s been going on in my world for a while and that is, I think I’ve inherited my mum’s [work ethic]. It’s that being a working mum, doing a full-time job at home, a full-time job in the workplace, full-time everything in all the roles of your life. It was about how I’ve seen the impact that’s had on my mum, having that many women within herself for so many years. I do think that’s contributed to her dementia, or at least the fast progression of it. I don’t want to work myself to the bone. I want to be able to be gentle on myself because I can be hard on myself. I think that’s a thing a lot of working mum’s have and I think every household goes through it to some degree.
S: Where is your mum now?
G: Mum has been in a care home since March 2018. She started in a normal care home then she had to move into dementia-specific care in November 2018. We had to sell her house because we ran out of money for the fees which are $7100 a month. We sold the house to pay off the mortgage, which we’d already borrowed money against to pay off her care; it was during a time that was shitty to sell so we sold for $100,000 less than it was worth… Auckland market..
S: How long did your mum own that house
G: 42 years, with my dad too. That was our family home so mum and dad split when I was 18 and mum took over the mortgage.
S: How many jobs at once do you remember her doing?
S: For how long?
G: For like 10 years. Regardless of those 10 years, mum’s worked 14-hour shifts, six days a week like, forever.
S: Whether we’re rugby mums or ballet mums, we’re all taking care of our communities with the same intention across the board hey…
G: The hardest thing for me, is when the fight against the oppressor or ‘them’ spills out and explodes within our own community, and that lateral shit between women and women is so ugly and so painful to watch.
S: It definitely has shut me down and my voice at times …
G: And when it comes from a sister, is a whole other level of hurt.
S: But yeah, women have to stand by women especially when we’re such a minority to start with…
G: And the fight is not just for one woman or one group to do. It’s everyone like we’re all part of an ecology and every ecology has different atoms, cells and organisms and all that. We all have our part to play for something to change. For some people that takes a laying down of ego because the ego does not serve change. Look at history, when did ego ever serve anything good?
I’m in this program this year called Mum Moana, last weekend we did a retreat and the sub-theme of it was love. Regarding love as the ultimate level of leadership, and just the idea of that, within the world that we sit in… Can you imagine walking into a corporate space and being like, ‘ah love’…Like what the fuck! [Laughs].
S: So your practice, you do your day job and then your creative work on the side or, how does that work for you?
G: At the moment I have a full time 9-5. I’m working for a government agency but within a public policy team. I have that job to pay the bills. This particular job contributes directly to my Pasifika community. .. I can only last so long in those spaces.. though I don’t work full-time as an artist, I still maintain the same level of a full-time artist’s career with my day job because I love to do it.
S: In the past decade, what have you learned about yourself as a creative and a mama, because that hustle only comes from sheer will right?
G: Totally. I think the biggest impact has been becoming aware of my energy as a currency. When I first started in my arts career I’d say yes to everything and I would just run myself fucken ragged. Now I know my worth as an artist. I’m very clear about my boundaries so I’m not going to say yes to a creative project just for the moment or just because who is involved. It has to align with my own values and my own kaupapa. Anything that I do outside of my family home, even if it’s hanging out with my friends, I’m compensating time away from my family and my son.
S: It takes a minute to learn that though eh?
G: For sure! But I say no to more things now than I do yes because I am ruthless with my rules…I remember one time [it began to change] it was a Saturday and I turned up to run a workshop, then I realised, I had scheduled my day as such, that I had to be in two different places at once and the third thing was only five minutes [travel time] to get to the next thing, and I was having quite a moment cause I [stopped] and thought, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You are one human being – like that’s physically impossible’. Haha, like who do you think you are?!? [Other times it hits] when a child notices your absence and you notice that you’re spending more time trying to help other people. Suddenly you turn around and you’re like, ‘oh shit, my kid’s got some shit going on’.
S: I guess from mama to mama, I think it’s an important message to share with other women, to know like don’t worry, these balancing acts are a part of establishing yourself as a practitioner or a contractor, or whatever it is people are doing when they get that pang of, I shouldn’t be here, I need to be at home.
G: Yeah totally and it’s not like you’re going to perform at a gig or whatever, it’s not just that time away. It’s the prep-time that goes into it beforehand.
S: When you introduce yourself these days, do you say you’re a poet first or…
G: I say I’m a mother first. Then I’m a poet and a theatre maker.
S: I remember meeting Jahra Rager out of that scene you created, does that legacy ever hit you?
G: Not really, it does in moments where I sit at an event and I see poets that I taught way back are now running events or they’re the ones mentoring these up and coming ones, and to be honest I do have moments and I feel really proud of that. Especially other poets from SAPC, and where they’ve got to now…Sometimes I think man, you guys need to learn your genealogy of where these platforms came from…
S: I feel that…
G: We’re at a stage now of collective awareness and there are people that are doing so much mahi, not even visible mahi. I mean behind the scenes, to create these platforms that don’t even get acknowledged. My manager, she’s one of those people. She does so much fighting behind doors that people don’t even know about, and people get opportunities out of it. She’s not doing it for the applause she’s doing it because it needs to be done. I do think there’s a need for those that are just understanding what’s going on and wanting to affect change to track themselves back because there have been people before you that have had the machete and have been putting shit down to make something.
S: And this generation right now, it’s not the end of the mahi, they’ve got their part to play and the next generation will have their part to play.
G: Something I think that’s important for this generation currently, it’s really important to find a way to not focus on the struggle too much. When you focus on the struggle you’re giving it power, so you’re being counterproductive. It’s only in the last year I’ve realised decolonising has had its time, we’re now in the stage of indigenising. When you say decolonising, you’re actually still placing the oppressor at the centre, we’re implying that we have to push away from something. When actually, we’re the centre and that’s where the buck stops. It’s about holding your ground and it’s not about them anymore, it’s not about them because the expertise is here with us.
S: People are only just recognising that and it’s painful to realise why that happened but also fucking exciting that it is…
S: As a busy mama doing your 9-5 and everything you’re juggling, what to do you do to come back to your middle?
G: 100% I am not equalized when I haven’t done something creative for the week, if not daily if I can, and it can be the smallest thing and the most simplest. I have certain rituals I’ve developed over the last year, especially after getting extreme anxiety where I stopped performing and everything. .. it’s manifested into health anxiety, it’s some really fucked up shit. In terms of that stuff, I engage with mirirmiri and houora practices. Activating my sense of smell, so essential oils are big for me, rongoa that has good smells, well, all rongoa has good smell. But that’s what brings it home for me. The biggest thing now though is having fun.
When you have financial problems, and last year especially, losing our house, having so many bills and all this shit; being able to have fun was really fucking hard, being able to smile and laugh was hard, so now, that’s what I focus on. When I’m getting stressed out, I need to have some crazy, silly, stupid fun.
S: Sometimes do you get that whole mum, creative imposter syndrome thing…
G: I did have one time where I felt like I had imposter syndrome. I was writing and performing a lot of ‘I’m an empowered woman’ stuff and yet my ex was cheating on me, my relationship was falling apart, my whole personal life was shitting itself and here I was being like ‘I’m an empowered woman’… but really I’m going to my car after a performance and crying my fucking eyes out and being a mess. I feel like there’s so much risk in the glorification of pain and trauma and even a glorification of healing is not safe either. I had a moment in Hawaii in 2018 where I realised, I love the poetry I have in Full Broken Bloom and I’m proud of that. It’s good writing and it helped me, but when I was performing these poems I was like, fuck this is constantly repeating the healing I’ve supposedly gone through, but if I’ve gone through it then why am I performing it? I literally wanted to burn all my books and I didn’t want to share any of that poetry anymore. I was like if you’ve done the healing… That’s the thing, trauma can be toxic when it’s repeated, but then healing can too sis.
S: That’s powerful …
G: If people applaud you and pay for you to perform it and pay for the books and they applaud you for the healing and it’s like well, then have you healed?
Have you though?