An interview with wayfinding poetess Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i

MICHAEL DOM

MY GRANDFATHER IS A CANOE was published in July of this year and is the first solo book by Samoan wayfinding poetess Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i, published under Flying Geese Pro. Felolini’s very first appearance as a poet in print was in ‘Fika – a fictional body of new writing by First Draft Pasefika writers’ (2008), along with a group of Pacific Island writers under the banner of Pacific Arts Creative New Zealand. Her poems also featured in ‘dried grass over rough-cut logs’, by this author in 2020, published by late PNG poet and essayist Francis Nii.

Faumuina is her chief name, signifying a ‘high chief’ in the Samoan tradition. Tafuna’i is the surname of her late husband. She lives in Christchurch New Zealand with her son Oliver.

Faumuina is a waka sailor who adheres to the traditional knowledge and skill of Wayfinding under the tutelage of navigator Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr from Aotearoa (New Zealand). From many guiding conversations with and by voyaging on the ocean on traditional sailing canoes, Faumuina created a dynamic wayfinding model that has become the lens for all the design work for her company, Flying Geese Pro.  She created the model to design better aid and development programmes because she saw that the models used in the Pacific were outdated and biased against our cultural values and ways of being. Faumuina has now developed Wayfinding models for business, strategic planning, and suicide prevention. It was this model that led her to become an Edmund Hillary Fellow. Through this Fellowship, she is able to collaborate with other innovators and entrepreneurs. 

A journalist and media worker in the development arena, Faumuina has recited her poems on many occasions, including ‘I see you’ which was written and presented in Goroka. In 2014 two of her poems, namely ‘I see you’ and ‘Mary and the Fe’e’, were featured on Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude blog. The first poem had a PNG story to go with it, and provided more reason for this poem to be a personal favourite. Now I am very glad to see the poem included in her recent published collection (Also below). Here is the story related to me by Faumuina in December 2014.

“When I was at UOG, there was a point where four women were on stage – Mama Daisy and three academics, with one being an anthropologist who had worked with Mama Daisy and Bena for 20 years. A comment from one of the audience members (a PNG academic based in Moresby) said “I see three women on stage” and proceeded to compliment them about their work. She did not “see” Mama Daisy. I felt for Mama Daisy, and thought of my own mother so afterwards I interviewed her and wrote my poem, which I performed at the end of my presentation. Ladies from Bena gave me bilum as a thank you and we all became fast friends. So far, the poem is unpublished.”

The cover of the book features a waka sailing into the sunset on the blue velvet blanket of moana

After receiving gifted copies of the book by post earlier this month, I sent Faumuina six interview questions for her to provide us with some insight into poetry, writing and her approach to this skill and art that we enjoy, and the creative products that we cherish.

How does it feel now to have published your own book and what have been some of the reactions you have had from your readers? It feels amazing. It feels like destiny fulfilled, especially in what my late mother would have wanted for me. In terms of reactions from my readers, they have been really affirming. Some have wept and laughed with the poems. A friend had his son read poems out loud at the breakfast table. A former NZ Prime Minister emailed me saying it gave her insight into the world of voyaging and who I am. Other people have talked to me about the poems I wrote about the loss of our loved ones, and how it put words to feelings they felt but could not express. A client told me she had read the poem I wrote for my son to her network because it was a powerful expression of what it means to be a parent. One of the reactions that I’ve also had within my immediate family is to have my nieces and nephews look at the book and understand what is possible for them to achieve. That has real meaning for me.

There’s a description about the books’ creation, which will be part of our article on your work, but I want to hear about your process, why and how you do what you do. You started writing poems as a teen but really got into poetry later in youth. Tell us about your approach to writing poems and why poetry is important to you.

My poems often come to me in a waterfall of words. Sometimes I’m woken by a poem and I have to turn on the light and write it down. What I find is that I’ve been thinking about this poem for days, weeks sometimes, maybe even years. What my mind has done is assembled all these words together. I do very little editing. I also write poems as gifts dedicated to friends, family, people I’ve met.  They are often a reflection of our relationship. A keepsake.

My approach to writing poetry; I try not to be preachy though I do want to release what is deep within me and hope there’s some resonance in the audience. That said, I don’t think you should write for the audience. I think that it’s important for the craft to be sincerely yourself and write for yourself. Poetry is important to me because it helps me better understand who I am. It also heals me. It helps me let go of negative stuff that is holding me back and celebrate the good stuff. Also, I write when I’m pissed off at people and events – so it’s a great pressure valve.

To me words are like paint, and I get to paint poetic landscapes, cartoons, portraits and abstract ideas. Poetry has also given me a place to put pain. The greatest pain I’ve ever felt was in the loss of my husband. Poetry gave me a place to put that pain and help me grieve. It also gave me a chance to document all my experiences good and bad such as the poem of me stumbling around in a police cell. I don’t want to deny parts of myself that are less shiny. Through poetry I get to embrace the challenge and complexity of being me.

You name Tusiata Avia and Konai Helu Thaman as influences on you taking up poetry as a mode of expressing yourself. Are there particular poets, poems or elements of poetry that attract your interest as a creative person?
Tusiata and Konai opened the door for me and showed me that poetry could have Pacifica accents and rhythms, it could be about Pacifica lives, of hibiscus, of island lovers, and wild dogs. Before that I only found Pacific stories in academic texts and history books. Another poet who has influenced me is Michael Dom, whose passion and candour has helped me understand and embrace my poetry. He can be a blunt bugger but he’s honest, and I prefer blunt over polite and indifferent. Being Samoan and growing up in New Zealand, I have had the greatest pleasure in hearing Samoan and Maori orators use poetry in their speeches. In that respect, my father, Mau’u Lopeti, was my first influential poet.

One of the elements I enjoy about poetry is the efficiency of it. That with only a few words much can be expressed.

As a communications and media professional you have travelled globally and had the opportunity to mix with creative people of different cultures. How relevant is poetry today and what has been your experience when sharing your poems?
In my work, I often have opportunities to speak in front of large audiences. But often I am not given very long to speak about complex topics. So, I started writing and reciting poetry for these fora. When I recite a poem, that poem is authentic, it’s real, it’s not part of some marketing spiel. I also try to incorporate local languages in these poems. These poems then become a point of connection for the audience and for me. One thing I notice is that people remember me and remember the poem, which is a pretty great thing when you are trying to make an impression.

You are familiar with some PNG writing through the Crocodile Prize and PNG Attitude. What comments can you make about writing you've read in each of the three major genres, fiction, essay and poem?
Two things I note in the writings I've read from The Crocodile Prize and PNG Attitude are earnestness and tenacity. PNG writers have taken on the mantle of holding the government accountable, holding community leadership accountable. Through poetry, through essays and fictional works, writers are holding up a mirror to life in Papua New Guinea. I think these are incredibly important responsibilities in the literary sector. I also have read some of the best descriptions of the natural world in PNG poems.  Another aspect in the sector I am a bit envious of is unshackled freedom of who gets to publish. In New Zealand, publishing is still dominated by mainstream publishing businesses. The result of that is that sometimes they may look at someone like me, a Samoan female poet and say, oh we have enough of those. So, we can be left on the other side of the gate and what I like is that within Papua New Guinea, there is no gate. That's freaking awesome.

What are three points of advice you would give someone wanting to write a poem or poetry and become a poet?

My three pointers;

  1. The poem must be independent of the poet. It is its own offering and the quality of it is all contained within the poem. And so, in some ways you know, awards be damned. Acclaim be damned. It’s really about the poem.
  2. Write for writing’s sake. Figure out what’s your best time, your best environment to write. Writing is a creative pursuit, a pursuit that requires practice. And so, I would say just write, and remember the joy of writing. Hold on to that joy.
  3. Write about what you know, what you have lived, what you have observed.
I see you
 
For Mama Daisy Meko Samuel

I see you mother with no husband
I see your born son
I see your grown son
 
I see you provider 
I see you humble
I see you kiss goodbye
 
I see you in Berlin
I see you adopt a daughter
I see her a new sister
 
I see you destroyed
I see you rebuild
I see you guardian
 
I see you Bena 
I see you Napamogona 
I see you Mama Daisy
 
I see my late husband
I see me and us
You are my eyes

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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