an interview with essa may ranapiri
by Jackson Nieuwland
How do you identify yourself?
Identity is always a tricky thing, I feel like the words we have for identity are kind of like these tights that we hop into each day. Sometimes they fit really well, sometimes not so well, at some point they start to rip. They start to tear so you have to find new ones. So what I’m saying is, I’m always a little bit restless inside conceptions of my identity, I think that is something a lot of people search for. That consistency in identity and I know I’m a lot closer than before and that gives me some relief. To answer the question directly (sorry I went off on a tangent), I would consider myself a queer Māori person, takatāpui trans nonbinary. I’m mostly attracted to femme people and would consider myself bisexual.
When did you start questioning your identity? Do you think it’s something that will ever become settled or do you see yourself always continuing to explore and discover new aspects of it?
I think there were little things throughout my childhood where I felt weird about ‘being a boy’. I was very caught up in the essentialised narratives around gender. Gender was a biotruth to me so I had to be a boy. I think it was very late (my second year of uni) that I started questioning my gender. It was still across binary dimensions, I started wearing dresses and things, a part of me was like I’m not a man, I’m a woman! I think it took a year or so to realise that I was nonbinary after the initial questioning, and I didn’t come out for another two or so years. (This timeline is very rough.)
I think I will continue questioning my identity for as long as I live, which does make being nonbinary rather difficult as the whole world is constantly questioning it.
How has coming to terms with your identity affected your writing?
I think it’s pushed me towards experimentation. To draw lines through expectations and refuse established meaning. It pushed me to write weirder; to create work that has a fraught relationship to clear meaning feels the best way to represent myself. A lot of this is in stream of consciousness, fragmentation, and playing with space on the page and, more recently, work that talks to itself as it is being written.
What about in the other direction? Has your writing had an impact on how you think about your identity?
I think it’s probably had great impact, more than I can really know, since it is a thing I spend a lot of my time doing.
Due to writing, I care a lot more about connotations and how language can guide us into thinking in certain ways. Boy and girl and he and him and male and female all have these huge connotative loads that I felt dragged me down more than liberated me. I am so happy that others can find themselves in these paradigms but they are not for me. I think the more I write, the more I feel confirmed in who I am. It works as a feedback loop because I am often not thinking about the intent of my work as I write it, and thus learn more about myself through the writing. I’m constantly scribbling up a kind of mirror image with which to discover more of myself.
I’ve seen you quote the Cody-Rose Clevidence line ‘Queerness necessitates a radicalized language’ a few times. What does that statement mean to you?
It means so many things. It means to undermine normative ideas about identity and challenge assumed structures of power. It means to decolonise the mind. It means that the language we have now needs to change to suit us as people and not the other way around. It means that we need to resist capitalism and other dehumanising systems that hurt us every day. It means to write without apology, without appeal to simple straight forward meaning, but to let the collapsing paradoxes of human perception just fucking have at it on the page.
Can you tell us a bit about your process? How do you go about radicalising your language?
It’s different every time or at least I try and make my process varied, a common thread is that I write on a word processor on my laptop. I used to open a new document each time I started a new piece – that got too messy on my computer so I have three or four documents for everything now. I used to be able to write in any setting, but now I mostly prefer at home by myself when I write.
One way I radicalise my language is by using apps that scramble syntax and then building poems from there; other times I just write from the gut or with a particular politics in mind. For me the best poetry comes from things that I don’t think about too much beforehand, the language constructs itself in a way. I hardly ever write with any scheme or structure and I try to leave as much of the mess of the making of the poem in the poem itself, in that sense it is always acknowledging its own constructed nature; ‘Look at me,’ it says, ‘I am a thing made of words.’ I guess one large aspect I push in my poetry is not ignoring the physical reality of the body, of letting things bleed and fuck and fight and piss and shit, let the body be itself rather than this gendered box waiting for the ground to swallow it up. I frequently use constructed pronouns to undermine gendered assumptions, xe/xir/xem, as one example or slip between he and her when referring to the same subject to blur identity or speak of/to new identities. I also use the page in ways that radicalise how the words are read. When a poem is spread out on the whole space of the page you can no longer ignore the white underneath. I’m not really saying this will push people to question the systems we live in, but I would hope my poetry challenges people to question things, maybe in its bodily force, in its syntactical confusion or formal experimentation. That is the hope at least.
As a reader what are some specific books or writers who have pushed you to question the systems we live in?
I would say Cody-Rose Clevidence’s BEAST FEAST collection of poetry first made me aware of the systems of language that sustain power dynamics. Other poets, Robert Sullivan especially with Star Waka, Harry Josephine Giles with Tonguit, Vaughan Rapatahana with his collection entitled Atonement. Puna Wai Kōrero, an anthology of Māori Poetry in English, has been crucial in this as it has introduced me to so many great indigenous poets who are challenging colonisation in their work, such as Tru Paraha, Alice Te Punga Somerville and Hinemoana Baker. Also super important but not-poetry books that first woke me up in a sense are Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread a book on the philosophy of Anarchism, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto.
Speaking of reading, your Twitter thread of New Zealand poems is an amazing resource. Can you tell us a bit about it? Why you started it? How you chose the poems?
So I started this thread a few months ago where I would post a poem a day by New Zealand poets (this has since stretched to include Pacific poets as well, I also do not post once a day anymore).
There are a few reasons I started the thread: first, I wanted to celebrate New Zealand poetry especially from poets still living to kind of give someone a glimpse into all that we have to offer. Secondly, I wanted to force myself to read more New Zealand poets, a lot of the poetry I read is from America, so I wanted to stretch out a bit. Thirdly, Twitter can be a toxic space for trans people (for anyone really) and I wanted to stop engaging with some really shitty people on the platform, so this thread was a way to turn my focus away from internet assholes and to poetry.
And how I choose each poem, I guess it’s just if the poem speaks to me; the poem should also be short or it won’t fit in one or two photos. Occasionally I’ve used what I’ve shared as publicity for specific journals like Starling for example. I also try to not post a poem from the same writer twice. So what I post is usually one of my favourite short pieces from the poet, so there have been some internal struggles where I spend an hour or so agonising over what piece I’m going to include haha.
I think I’m also hinting at the world like ‘Hey I would love to make an anthology of contemporary New Zealand poets sometime look at this thread’ *wink*.
You did make a great zine of poetry by LGBTQIA+ New Zealanders recently. What was that process like?
Collaboration in art and writing is something that is really important to me, so it was a really nice experience putting it together! I basically just advertised the idea on social media and got a lot of really great submissions. It was wonderful to hear back from a lot of people afterwards who were stoked with how everything turned out. It was something I stressed about whether I was doing justice to everyone’s work in regards to formatting and everything. There was a lot of messaging people so I wasn’t like some faceless person taking people’s work, it was really important to me to try and make proper connections. The zine is called Queer the Pitch and there are pdf copies available for free from my website.
Finally, what are you working on at the moment? Do you have any projects on the horizon that we should be looking out for?
I’m currently working on a long sequence of poems called The Hundred Heads of the Hydra, which is a kind of exploration of all things Hydra and Hydra-related, from Marvel Comics to colonisation to the mythical multi-headed beast itself and its mother Echidna.
I’m also super excited to be putting together collaborative work with some close friends; a poetry collection with the writer Rebecca Hawkes that is about nature and decay and sci-fi stuff, a biologist lonely in the cthulucene, and a collection with writers Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor and Loren Thomas that deals with folklore, omens and proverbs and how these narratives inform our beliefs and worldviews. You can see some of these collaborative pieces in Issue Six of Starling.
Collaboration is something I want to see more of in writing circles since we’re social creatures we should be doing more art that represents a social exchange.
And lastly I have my first poetry book coming out from VUP in 2019, which I’m excited for people to read, so keep an eye out for that!