Regional | Captain Cook

Poetic anger or racism in reverse? The controversy over a Captain Cook poem

Photo: Peter Meecham / Stuff

By Philip Matthews, Stuff

ANALYSIS: Now we know for a fact that very few people read poetry in New Zealand, or even pay much attention to the literary world that sustains it.

Among other things, the controversy over Christchurch poet Tusiata Avia’s​ poem 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand has taught us that.

The controversy began in February when Stuff ran a feature about the Auckland Arts Festival show The Savage Coloniser, based on Avia's poetry book of the same name. The story came with a video of Avia reading her provocative poem about Cook.

The poem imagines a scenario in which a group of brown girls plan to take violent revenge on Captain Cook or white men like him “who might be thieves or rapists or kidnappers or murderers”.

The story ran five days after the anniversary of Cook’s death, but that was coincidental, even though Valentine’s Day is marked across the Pacific as the day when Cook was killed on a beach in Hawaii in 1779. Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi​ tweeted that message on February 14.

The Avia controversy shows that timing is everything. A media platform also helps.

The poem was not new. The Savage Coloniser Book was published in 2020. Reviews in the literary journal Landfall, on the Academy of New Zealand Literature website and even on Stuff all quoted from the confrontational Cook poem but no-one complained.

The book went on to win the Mary and Peter Biggs​ Award for Poetry at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards​ in 2021. That is New Zealand poetry’s highest honour, but again there was no controversy.

“In a year of outstanding poetry publications that respond to Covid, Black Lives Matter, the Christchurch Massacre, and ongoing violence against women, Avia expresses the outrage shared by many, while maintaining faith that love helps the healing process,” the judges said.

Tusiata Avia won New Zealand’s top poetry prize for The Savage Coloniser Book.  Peter Meecham / Supplied

What changed between 2020 and 2023? One obvious point is that it’s probably easier to be offended by hearing and seeing a poem rather than going to the trouble of reading it. But there is also an entire alternative media ecosystem around being offended and making sure others know about it.

Following the Stuff article, the Avia poem was condemned and circulated as racist hate speech by right-wing YouTuber Lee Williams​ and Platform host Sean Plunket​. Plunket in particular seemed to take its alleged anti-white rhetoric personally.

Then ACT leader David Seymour​ and NZ First leader Winston Peters​ joined in.

The critics focused on two points. One was about the public funding of art. The second was based on a claim that an anti-racist poem can itself be racist.

First, the funding. “It’s we who must pay,” Plunket said in the closing line of a poem he wrote in response to Avia’s poem. An argument that publicly-funded art must serve the national interest, and should be positive rather than critical, is one way free speech advocates such as Plunket try to get around the contradictions of their position.

But do we really expect a publicly-funded artist to produce pretty postcards of their home country rather than illuminate economic or social tensions? That’s a view of art you find in totalitarian states.

Nor is a poem a manifesto or a political programme. Had Avia wanted to inspire an army of brown girls to rise up and kill white men, writing a poem is not how she would have gone about it.

ACT asked how the poem was any different from the kind of hatred that led to the Christchurch shootings. As the horror of the mosque attacks is another subject Avia covers, ACT’s comments were not just ironic but crass and insensitive.

Avia responded that ACT didn’t know how to read poetry and said they should look at a guide by Spinoff books editor Claire Mabey​ before making “uninformed, uneducated claims”.

“This poem is clever because it’s simple on the surface with layers underneath: stretching a long way back, pinging with the now, and resonating with the future,” Mabey wrote. “There’s humour, yes, but there’s the enormous weight of history.”

Or as former NZ Poet Laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh​ wrote in her review, “The Savage Coloniser Book poetically documents our wounds, and by doing this provides poetic catharsis.”

The current NZ Poet Laureate, Chris Tse​, also stepped up and did what a poet laureate should, which is to defend the integrity of the art form.

“If you stop to reflect on where the poem has come from and the historic power imbalance it’s addressing, you’ll see why it’s so angry,” Tse said on Twitter. “You’ll get to see the world through someone else’s experience of it. It’s not pretty, but you might learn something.”

NZ Poet Laureate Chris Tse says the poem can help us see the world through another’s experience of it. Marcelo Duque Cesar / Stuff

But the literal-minded opponents did not want to hear about layers and catharsis. They only wanted to call it racist.

ACT called the poem “blatant racism” and urged the Government to cancel the $107,280 funding for the arts festival show. Free Speech Union council members Ani O’Brien​ and Dane Giraud​ also called the poem racist. Platform journalist Graham Adams​ wrote it was now “open season on white men”.

Kiwiblog’s David Farrar​ asked his readers what they would think of a poem in which a car full of white girls hunted brown men. If you published that, he wrote, you would get 5000 complaints to the police and the Human Rights Commission.

“But when you swap it around so it is brown girls looking to kill white men, then you get $100,000 of taxpayer money for your hate speech,” Farrar wrote.

Does it make sense to swap it around, though? Is it really that simple?

Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki says that to call the poem reverse racism misses the meaning of racism.  Christel Yardley / Stuff

Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki​, Associate Professor in Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato, says that to call the poem reverse racism misses the meaning of racism, which is “a classification system based on skin colour used to give power and privilege to those who believe in their own superiority.

“A racist system is also used to deny privileges or advantages to those seen as inferior and undeserving,” Waitoki says. “Cook travelled the Pacific on a military expedition backed by a colonial power. That same power continues to operate and affect the people Avia is defending. Her poem clearly says that she will guard women from modern-day predators who act like Cook and his men.”

An important detail when reading the poem is knowing that Cook was killed in self-defence after he and his men kidnapped high chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu for stealing a boat.

“When she says that they will fight back she is resisting a system of racism and violence that has allowed abuses to happen,” Waitoki says. “There is ample evidence of colonial violence and state-sanctioned abuses towards Pacific peoples – the Dawn Raids, the colonisation of the Pacific, and ongoing racism and classism at our borders.”

As for the backlash from Pākehā critics, “a common response for white New Zealanders/Pākehā when confronted with material that is perceived as racist is to dig in and defend their innocence,” Waitoki says.

She sees the controversy as an example of white fragility in which Avia is blamed for hurting someone’s feelings and the story is centred on their angry or hurt feelings.

“Cook gets a free pass in this story,” Waitoki says. “The impact of Cook’s legacy is not a feel-good story for Māori and Pacific peoples. It is a story of genocide and intergenerational trauma. The poem is strongly worded and is powerfully spoken, yet no attention is paid to the truth of what Tusiata is saying.

We Call Them Pirates Out Here, by Daniel Boyd, 2006. In the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia. Source / Supplied

“Rather she is accused of reverse racism. Calling her racist is another defensive device – she is blamed for doing the thing that she is highlighting as a problem. Although she is an award-winning poet, she is silenced for being a powerful truth-teller.”

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said in a statement on Friday that Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission had received multiple complaints about the poem.

"I acknowledge the poem contains strong and confronting language, and that this has caused offence to some people who may consider it to be racist," Foon said.

"I personally do not agree with the tone of the piece, the words used and the imagery it evokes."

He said that many of the complaints and queries consider that the poem amounts to inciting racial disharmony, but the threshold to meet that definition is very high.

He struck a balance between both sides. "I empathise with those who have felt offended and are hurt by this work, and I feel for those who have been, and continually are, impacted by the trauma of colonisation."

There is also every possibility that Plunket, Seymour and the others are not actually as offended as they claim but are craving attention in a crowded media and political marketplace.

Finally, Avia’s poem could be seen in a wider context, as one of many responses to the legacy of Cook and not just in New Zealand.

Indigenous artist Daniel Boyd​ painted Cook and other explorers as pirates with eye patches. In a painting of Joseph Banks​, the artist’s own decapitated head is in a jar at Banks’ feet, as a reference to the fate of Pemulwuy​, an Aboriginal man who was killed after leading a guerrilla war against the British colonists.

In an interview with the Guardian, Boyd talked about overcoming the suppression of his cultural inheritance. Both his parents were part of Australia’s stolen generations.

There are bound to be parallels with Avia’s own experience. She told Stuff in 2021 about the early suppression of her talent. “I just got the message from everywhere that brown girls like me didn’t go on to become writers, so I shut it down.”

Waitoki concludes that, yes, the words are strong, but so too is the obvious pain and anger the poem radiates.

“She has also stepped outside the box that brown women are put into. She is expected to know her place and not use poetry to highlight that our society was built on a legacy of racialised violence that continues today.

“The conversations following her poem were to ask if she is racist – the question should be, how are we going to deal with the racism in our society?”