Contemporary Maori poetry in English has found its poetically most versatile spokesman in Robert Sullivan whose poems manifest their close affinity to patterns of an oral tradition. Listening to his enunciation, we come across a speaker whose own individuality is often concealed, and instead a communal voice is foregrounded. Comparing its moods and tones with those of poets of the 1960s, Sullivan’s poetry has moved as much away from their often nostalgic and chagrined recall of the past, as it professes a distanced attitude to the rebelliousness and anger of much Maori poetry of the 1970s and 1980s.
At the most, his stance is one of a controlled anger that insists on the continuing validity of the community’s heritage. It invokes the acknowledgement of the vitalizing force of the community’s cultural memory, including Maori legends and myths, as much as the experience of colonization and marginalization. On the one hand, when recalling and naming legendary navigators and explorers like Kupe ('Waka 70'), mythological figures like Tane, the God of forests ('Waka 94'), or the ancestors’ historical journeys across the Ocean of Kiwa ('Waka 62'), Sullivan’s politico-cultural commitment merges with that of his community to create a highly effective blend of emotion and poetically rendered ideas.
On the other hand, these excursions into the remote or more recent past ('Waka 78') are complemented by imagining a future resurrection of the past “in the blood of the men and women” who relate to the “time of Kupe and before” ('Waka 99'); or by contrast, a future of space travel and the colonization of planets “picking up the tools our culture has given us”. It is a world mapped equally by its advanced technology and, metaphorically, of offering total “release from gravity”('Waka 46').
Humour and wit subtly displayed here – and satirically entertaining in 'London Waka' – find their way again and again into Sullivan’s poetry, as does a more personal note in poems reminiscing his family and its whakapapa or genealogical roots of Irish, Scottish and Maori descent, especially in his first two poetry collections, Jazz Waiata (1990) and Piki Ake! (1993). Here, poems touch more often on the author’s self, his cultural and political views, but nowhere do they resort to the excruciating quest for personal identity we frequently encounter in the writing-back of marginalized people. Sullivan’s strong belief in the strength of his Maori heritage translates into powerful poetry and a sovereign command of the medium that ranges from a narrative style close to prose to epigrammatic brevity and poetic succinctness. As the title of his Voice Carried My Family (2005) intimates, Sullivan, reading examples from Star Waka (1999), his perhaps most accomplished collection referred to by him as “one hundred poems, and 2001 lines”, impressively mediates his unshakeable yet reflected rootedness in his community by voicing its living memories, beliefs and hopes in a nuanced Maori-accented, balanced and quietly joyful delivery.
1991 PEN Award for Best First Book of Poetry
1998 Literary Fellowship University of Auckland
2001 Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawaii Manoa
2003 New Zealand Post Children's Book Award for Book of the Year
2004 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Reference and Anthology
2011 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry (finalist)