The shortlist for the prestigious Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry, which carries prize money worth $10,000, was made public this morning. Our poetry editor Chris Tse is ecstatic.
Here’s a sobering statistic: since 2001, only two non-Pākehā poets have won the poetry category at the book awards – David Eggleton (who is of Rotuman, Tongan and Palagi ancestry) in 2016 and Hone Tuwhare in 2002. This year, one of four outstanding shortlisted poets will join them. Tusiata Avia. Hinemoana Baker. Mohamed Hassan. Nina Mingya Powles. Whoever wins will make history. Don’t mind me while I cry tears of joy, but this means the world to me and all the aspiring writers who have struggled to see themselves represented in our national literature. A win at the book awards won’t change things overnight, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.
This year’s four shortlisted poets are writing and publishing at a time when the topics of race and diversity are triggering for those who cry “wokesters!” at anything that questions the status quo. In these books, the personal doesn’t just rub up against the political – the two are so inextricably intertwined there is no room for compromise or coded messages. “Just look at what we fucking well have,” writes Baker. “Look at what we have now the leash the booming / groan.” Yet even when dealing with anger or frustration, these poems still make room for hope and humour. Hassan takes a light-hearted look at being “randomly” selected at Customs for additional searching, and Avia’s wicked humour amplifies the savage barbs aimed at James Cook and politicians.