PhD research brings to life the words of seven wāhine poets

By Aroha Mane

Jim Peters and Robin Peters celebrate her graduation



Robin Peters (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua) graduated as a doctor of philosophy from Auckland University at the weekend and spoke about the challenges that wāhine Māori overcame in creating poetry 50 years ago.

Peters' research, Papatūānuku’s Progeny profiles the lives and works of seven Māori wahine poets, Vernice Wineera, Evelyn Putuawa Nathan, Trixie Te Arama Menzies, Arapera Kaa Blank, Bub Bridger, Toi Te Rito Maihi and Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm.

“It’s a study of their poetry, it’s a study of their histories, it's a study of how mana wahine who could not get published in mainstream actually formed their own publishing companies.”

Peters aims to revive the whakāro of wāhine Māori poets through her research and spoke about the importance of Māori poet, Arapera Kaa Blanc.

“She wrote about Rangitukia. We are inheritors of interwoven dreams whose paua simmering music forever echos in the wind.”

As a teacher across schools in Northland and Auckland, Peters noticed a lack of resources in Māori literature.

“Within our curriculum, there was very little Māori literature and so what would our children relate to, if they could not see themselves in books.”

Writer Piripi Evans from Ngāti Mutunga and Kai Tahu says her work has the ability to influence future generations.

“She’s really highlighted the importance and significance of their work as an inspiration for younger Māori women poets. I think Robin’s work should be published for the whole world to see.

Peters hopes poems of the past and future will become widely available in New Zealand schools.

Her thesis abstract reads: 

The primary aim of this thesis is to investigate and archive the lives and poetry of the first Māori women poets who published in English. These seven foremothers of poetry, Papatūānuku’s Progeny, are taonga (treasures) and emerged from the late 1970s. They are Vernice Wineera (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Raukawa), Evelyn Rosella Patuawa Nathan (Te Roroa, Ngāti Whatua, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Torehina, Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Maniapoto), Trixie Te Arama Menzies (Tainui, Ngāti Hei, Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Maru), Arapera Hineira Kaa Blank (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongowhakata, Aitanga-a-Mahaki), Bub (Noeline Edith) Bridger (Ngāti Kahungunu), Toi Anne Te Rito Maihi (Ngāti Ipu, Ngāti Te Apa o Kahungunu, Ngāti Hao o Te Taitokerau) and Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm (Taranaki, Whakatohea, Te Atiawa, Pakakohe).

The foundational mythic story in Aotearoa concerns that of Papatūānuku, Earth mother. She frames the central lines of enquiry in this study in order to position this thesis within a Māori world view and engage with these indigenous poets appropriately by drawing upon indigenous epistemologies. The principle of whakapapa (genealogy) is derived from Papatūānuku and is often described as layers.

This thesis peels back layers of personal and social histories to reveal first Māori women’s poetic voices that have, until now, largely been obscured and ignored by a predominantly Pākehā mainstream literary canon. This thesis forms and establishes lost connections and relationships between these Māori poets, Māori readers and the wider literary community. It weaves these voices into a more visible literary kete (basket) for ongoing research into Māori women poets writing in English.

The poet-based chapters consist of biographical information, interviews and an analysis of select poems that provide central pathways into each poet’s oeuvre. Each chapter seeks answers for their relative lack of publication within the main literary landscape of New Zealand and outlines the ways in which these foremothers found agency and supported each other in order to publish their work.

Drawing upon Kaupapa Māori methodology, the central form of investigation in this thesis is kanohi ki te kanohi or face to face engagement with the foremothers or their families where possible. These interviews gather and recuperate these poetic voices, often known to their families but seldom beyond a whanau (family) context. These interviews form a living archival component and are central to the thesis proper. This thesis has aided in the recognition of Papatūānuku’s Progeny, who themselves keep giving birth as this thesis sheds light on previously unknown work.

Two significant discoveries in this thesis include: Toi Te Rito Maihi’s previously unpublished poems and a private manuscript of poems by Evelyn Patuawa Nathan.