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Cool, candid and sometimes angry, New Zealand’s laureate wants to make poetry pop

Chris Tse touches his dark sunglasses while wearing a striking jacket
Chris Tse, New Zealand’s new poet laureate, fell in love with poetry after his high school friends started bringing ‘terrible, angsty’ poems about their crushes to read to each other at lunchtime. Photograph: Supplied

Fan of Taylor Swift, lover of glam-rock fashion – Chris Tse isn’t your typical poet laureate.

At 39, he is the youngest New Zealander to hold the title. When Tse reads the list of poetry greats who have received the honour and spies his own name at the bottom, he feels “a little bit ill”.

If that wasn’t enough pressure, Tse is – as he puts it – “the first Asian poet laureate and the first openly queer one”.

But after years of forging his own path in a literary scene where he often felt conspicuous, Tse’s appointment as the next chief advocate for New Zealand poetry suggests that broadening poetry’s appeal and relevance calls for something beyond the typical.

“A big part of what I want to do is to show people that poetry exists in so many different forms, not just on the page,” Tse said. “It’s not just what people read at school, or what they were asked to break down into its component parts.”

Peppered with pop culture references, Tse’s work explores race and sexuality in a way that’s candid, cool and irreverently funny – even when bubbling with barely suppressed rage – and he isn’t troubled by constraints of genre or medium. In an upcoming public lecture, Tse will deconstruct Taylor Swift’s new album days after its release. He previously worked on an opera and hopes that being poet laureate will involve fashion collaborations.

‘I was tired of being the nice Chinese writer’

Announcing Tse’s selection, Rachel Esson, New Zealand’s national librarian, described Tse as “a poet leading a generational and cultural shift in the reach and appreciation of poetry in Aotearoa”.

The recognition feels a long way from the years when Tse worried he’d never be seen as anything other than an “Asian writer”. References to his identity, and particularly to his Chinese heritage, always bubble close to the surface. Tse’s desire to explore it in his work wrestles with his frustration at constantly being asked to talk about it on other people’s terms.

“It has taken me a long time to get to that point where I think I’ve been able to balance the two,” Tse says. “But early on, I was expected to write about my ethnicity in a certain way that’s non-threatening and accessible.”

During the formative years of his career, being one of the few Asian faces in the New Zealand literary scene generated opportunities for Tse at times, but they usually involved talking about being Asian.

“It’s a really weird, murky thing to engage with internally,” he says. “I’m proud of my many identities, but then to be seen as a commodity because of them can make you feel really shitty.”

Tse writes of his typical writers’ festival experience in one poem:

QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE #2:

My question is in two parts. Aren’t you being racist yourself by calling me a racist? And what will you write about when you run out of otherness?

Tse now suggests to event organisers that they discard the audience question-and-answer portion of sessions altogether. While he describes himself as non-confrontational, his writing about matters of race sharpened as his exasperation grew.

“I was getting very tired of just being the nice Chinese writer,” he says. “I think the evolution of how I’ve talked about it and how comfortable I am now in not shying away from the difficult stuff is what has made me the way I am.”

Chris Tse seated in a loungeroom with fireplace and potplants in the background
‘I wanted to just be able to write freely, to not have those weird winks and nudges.’ Photograph: Supplied

In his first full-length collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Tse told the little-known true story of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, who in 1905 Wellington was murdered by a white man who “went hunting for a Chinaman”.

The account of a shameful episode from New Zealand’s past held devastating new meaning after the white supremacist terror attack on two Christchurch mosques in 2019, five years after the book was published. Reciting from it at an event a week after the massacre was “the hardest reading I’ve ever done”, Tse says.

That feeling planted the seeds of his latest book, Super Model Minority, in which he writes:

Why am I embarrassed about my anger while others wield theirs so freely?

A desire for candour about himself and the world around him also prompted Tse to explore his sexuality in his cheeky, glittering second collection, He’s So Masc – which came as a surprise to him, given he intended it as a book about music. But his sexuality was another topic he was tired of avoiding.

“I wanted to just be able to write freely, to not have those weird winks and nudges,” says Tse, who by then was out as gay in his personal life but still worried about mentioning his male partner at public engagements (he sometimes wore sequins at readings to give a hint).

“I remember being at the book launch and thinking ‘Oh God, what have I done?’,” Tse says. “But at that point it felt safe enough for me to write about it and put it out in the world in that way, even though it was terrifying.”

‘They didn’t know what a poet laureate was’

The way Tse stood out during his early days in the literary scene was at odds with his upbringing in Lower Hutt, a multicultural city north-east of Wellington.

“It was like, ‘You’re Chinese? So what?’,” Tse says of his school years.

The family has lived in the area since Tse’s great-grandfather came from China more than a century ago; his parents ran a Chinese grocer and a kiosk in a shopping mall food court.

“That was kind of our life – home, school, help out at the shop, home, school,” Tse says. “There were times when I resented that, but it was also really good for me.”

His parents knew their son was creative; Tse took acting lessons, sang in a choir and played the violin. But they urged him to consider a back-up – specifically, a commerce degree.

By then, however, Tse had discovered and fallen in love with poetry, after his high school friends had started bringing “terrible, angsty” poems about their crushes to read to each other at lunchtime. Upon learning that he could take poetry workshops at Victoria University in Wellington as part of an English and film degree, Tse rushed to apply.

He remembers thinking: “I should probably read some poetry.”

In high school English classes, Tse had studied “two or three poems a year”, just enough to be prepared for essays and exams. Now, he picked up his first volumes of New Zealand poetry and was spellbound by the form’s different possibilities.

A Master’s degree in creative writing followed. After the publication of Tse’s three full-length books, a co-edited anthology and a number of national awards, his parents remain bemused but supportive, he says.

“They didn’t know what a poet laureate was. I went out of my way to find the Cantonese for it so I could tell my dad without having to explain it, but it was still crickets.”

Real excitement dawned when his parents learned the accolade was important enough for Tse to be interviewed on TV.

But he took their advice about a back-up career to heart. Tse speaks to the Guardian at a Wellington cafe in the office building where he works as a public servant; a view of New Zealand’s national library – the institution that appoints the poet laureate – across the street is a neat encapsulation of the pragmatic considerations for a poet, even New Zealand’s leading one.

During his two-year tenure, Tse will remain in his communications job part-time.

The role in New Zealand is a free-ranging warrant to advocate for local poetry; no verses on the accession of a royal or the coming of spring are required. Tse feels on safer ground with promoting others’ work – something he has done throughout his career – than the inevitable attention on him.

“I want to push the focus and the attention on to everything else that’s happening in New Zealand, like the slam scene and all the different little journals.

“People literally stapling things together or sewing things together in their lounge? That’s where the cool stuff’s happening.”

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