Hinemoana Baker set for Berlin writer's residency

Poet Hinemoana Baker.
David White

Poet Hinemoana Baker.

Eight-year-old Hinemoana Baker sat cross-legged in her standard 2 class listening intently to her teacher read the class a short story. It was Witi Ihimaera's Tangi and it would change her forever.

She had just been to her uncle's tangi and on hearing Ihimaera's story, she felt so moved she couldn't believe everyone in the class wasn't having the same reaction.

"It was the first time I had ever had that experience of trying not to cry in front of other people. I have never forgotten it.

"I was shocked that words could make me feel that way. I remember feeling like I wanted to run away from those words because they were too strong."

Words have been her constant companion ever since in the form of poetry, prose and music.

Having spent the better part of a year writing a book, Baker is to return to her first love – poetry – as she takes up the prestigious Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency.

The Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency alternates with the biennial Berlin Visual Artists' Residency. The 11-month residency offers a stipend of $40,000 and the use of the Creative New Zealand apartment in the heart of Berlin.

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Previous recipients include Commonwealth Writers' Prize and Booker short-lister Lloyd Jones, Sir James McNeish, Kate Camp, Ian Wedde, Sarah Quigley, Tina Shaw, Kapka Kassabova, Philip Temple and Tim Corballis.

MAPPING THE INTERIOR

Cosied up with a bowl of porridge in the Island Bay, Wellington home she is house-sitting, Baker considers her impending European adventure.

Learning  German is the first task on the check list.

She's interested in language and words, and what they can do to your feelings.

"I'm such a geek about language.

"I love the way language is a code for mapping the interior of a person. Learning the language of another culture, of another nation – I feel I get a sense of bridging a possible cultural divide.

"If I was to say what my abiding obsession is on a political and philosophical level it would be anti-racism, so learning a language of another bunch of people feels like an excellent step towards that."

Baker has a connection to Germany: her mother's ancestors came to New Zealand in the late 1800s from Bavaria. Like so many other settlers from Europe, they arrived with the promise of land in Nelson that never eventuated, she says.

"My mother told me stories when I was a girl about my ancestors. They were tales of massive odysseys of a pioneering nature.

"One story was about a young girl. She was a goatherd and a yodeller who never married. That was very inspiring for a young queer girl [like me] growing up in Nelson. I thought, 'yeah, she sounds like an independent awesome lesbian goatherd'.

Baker intends to look up her ancestors when she gets to Germany and perhaps write their stories into her poetry.

She visited the village of Oberammergau, where they hail from, about  20 years ago . It was like something out of a picture book, a fairy tale, she says.

"The landscape is so different to here where it's so volatile. In Europe there are just layers and layers of human habitation that have worn it down in ways that are quite picturesque and gentle."

ROUGH ROAD TO TRAVEL

She is also trying to finish the book she started writing last year as Writer in Residence at Victoria University.

One aspect deals with her father's traumatic experiences at Sunnybank children's home, a Catholic institution that took in mostly troubled boys.                                  

The second is Baker's own experience trying, unsuccessfully, to have a child. Because she was in a same-sex relationship, that meant organising donors. With one miscarriage and many disappointments, it was a rough road to travel, she says.

"It's interesting to be writing about it from this perspective because the madness seems a lot more obvious now than it did at the time. It's also a lot clearer to me just how obsessing that process was in my life. Everything was driven by it, from my thoughts to my actions, whether I could accept a gig because it would depend on whether it was at a time of insemination."

At the time, she kept fertility journals with every detail about her life in minute detail – from her physical state, down to what she ate, how she slept, what she dreamed about.

"Everything was subservient to it, including my well-being. In the end, after four years, I realised this was no longer a responsible way to construct my life. I take my hat off to women who don't stop and keep on trying because it's a very hard thing to let go of. Now it feels like a huge relief not to have to do that stuff any more. I do keep saying the next book I write will be a book of jokes or recipes – it won't – but it was heavy stuff."

Baker says she has an impulse to heal things through publication. There's a fine line between what she was writing and some kind of bad reality TV show, she says.

"What intervenes, hopefully, is art."

She'll be focusing on her poetry during her time in Berlin. It feels good to flex that muscle again, she says.

While the form and style will be familiar, there'll be enough 'strangeness' in her surrounds to be stimulating, she says.

That strangeness is both appealing and a little daunting for Baker, who has a serious anxiety disorder which she has suffered from since her teenage years.

"In any situation, I am always balancing my excitement with my worry."

Her way of dealing with that is to set herself up with tools to help see her through, one of which is to find someone willing to let her walk their dog.

"I got a dog largely because of my mental health. I wanted a dog who would walk me every day. So I got a  border collie I now share with my ex-partner. But I can't take him so I'm looking for someone in Berlin to help me out.

"Dog walking, swimming, Pilates and yoga give me breath and space and oxygen and distraction from my own thoughts."

She has also produced four CDs of music and poetry. But anxiety made performing solo less attractive. She became "unworkably nervous" when it came to standing up there on the stage on her own. But she does miss it.

"In my time as a singer I've noticed that I seem to have the kind of voice that whenever I do a gig someone will cry and sometimes that's not me. Without being too much of a hippie, I feel there are gifts that you're given, unique talents that are there not just for you but for other people and that's how I feel about my singing."

SLOWING THE PACE

All artistic endeavours aside, Baker is looking forward to just being in Berlin.

She likes the pace there. For a big city, people walk at half our pace, she says.

"That's the way I want to be. I want to slow down. I look at people who move slowly and think deeply and work in a very thoughtful way with a lot of envy. Like I want to be them when I grow up.

"There are a few barriers between me and that state, largely to do with my own self-doubt. I don't think I am ever going to feel really achieved as an artist – like yeah, I know what I'm doing now. But I keep feeling like I want to strive for that. I guess that's what keeps me going.

"I often feel off balance, stumbling forward onto the next stage of my life, but it's working out OK."

OK is a bit of an understatement. She has had a particularly good run of late.

She was Arts Queensland Poet in Residence in 2009, writer in residence with the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa in 2010. She was Victoria University's 2014 writer in residence at the International Institute of Modern Letters and her third book, waha " mouth, was published in August 2014.

She received more than $17,000 in crowd funding through Boosted, supported by the Arts Foundation, so that she could continue work on her current writing project in the early part of this year.

Baker, who also teaches creative writing at Victoria University's Institute of Modern Letters, says it was hugely affirming as an artist to get such a boost of confidence from family, friends and complete strangers who donated to her cause.

EARLY YEARS

Hinemoana Baker, 47, spent her early years in Whakatane before moving with her family – her mother is Pakeha, her father is Maori – to Nelson.

Her first book, about a shipwreck, was penned at the age of 8.

She was "transported by poetry", particularly as a teenager, spending hours swooning over the writings of Leonard Cohen and music by Kate Bush.

A year spent living in Zimbabwe at the age of 21 was to be a defining time in her life.

While there she met some significant people involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

"They gave me a big fat lesson in global politics from a communist, Stalinist perspective with a bit of Marxism thrown in there. They taught me about the concept of imperialism and colonisation and militarism and racism all together.

"I am so grateful for that information and education because it seems like that's the only way that it's possible to think about somewhere like the African continent but also incredibly applicable to New Zealand and Northern Ireland and the world in general.

"I wouldn't say I am a devout believer in any political paradigm anymore. I feel it's more important to keep asking questions than to feel comfortable that you have all the answers. I feel that way, not just about politics, but in poetry as well.

"It was certainly an amazing crucible on which my political and artistic temperament was forged."

Baker came back and did a degree in Maori and in women's studies at Victoria University.

"I learned my language and gained a lot of my knowledge of tikanga then because I wasn't really brought up with a lot of that.

"That time in Harare politicised me. I'll always have a fire in me from that experience. What that fire has burned down to now a very strong sense of a couple of things that I am incredibly committed to: the mental health of queer youth and anti racism."

Baker, who is bisexual, discovered her own sexuality at the age of 14. Her first love was a woman.

"I always knew that was not the way everybody was. I never felt ashamed. I know that's not the case for everybody."

Baker is currently in a relationship but will be going solo to Berlin.

It'll just be her and her beloved words and perhaps a faithful hund to walk around the city on a lead, at a slow pace, thinking deeply.

 - Stuff

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