This National Poetry Day, we're thrilled to be able to share an interview with Ruby Solly, author of the extraordinary and powerful Tōku Pāpā which was published earlier this year. A debut poetry collection that is full of movement and reflection.
Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a Wellington-based writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport.
In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds.
We chatted to Ruby about her diverse body of work, how music influences her poetry and what she loves best about living in Pōneke.
What is your day job?
This is a weirdly tricky question! I'm currently working on a PhD at Massey University so that takes up a lot of my time. But I work as a music therapist one day a week and then at wānanga across the year, and I write, compose and perform as a cellist and taonga pūoro practitioner. It all seems to add up to a normal-ish job.
What is your connection to Vic Books?
I used to love having some reprieve from the University when I was temporarily a Vic student and spending time there. Last time I had to go up to Vic it was awesome to see my book on the Top 20 shelf! It's such a beautifully laid out store, at both campuses.
Melissa, who reviewed your book for our slot on RadioActive.fm, said your poetry collection Tōku Pāpā at once felt so personal and also so highly relatable and familiar, how do you feel about that statement?
Aw, kia ora Melissa, that was such a lovely review. I think this says so much about hour cultures intersect. We all have parents, but our relationships with them while similar in some ways are very different in others because of our cultural, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds amongst other things. It's beautiful people seeing that it's not just what we have in common that helps us relate and connect, but what's different between us as well.
You are a poet and musician, how do you think both of your disciplines inter-connect? Do you think they do more so when you are working with taonga pūoro?
I think over time music and pūoro have become more and more integrated in my head as I've learnt more about where I fit intersectionality within each of those spaces. As for poetry, I think poetry is kind of about saying as much as you can with as little as you can (while still getting away with it) taonga pūoro is much like that too and was referred to by some as "sung poetry". It's what you put in rather than what comes out in a lot of ways.
You are very active and vocal on social media. How do you feel social media is helping young poets, in particular Māori and Pasifika poets share their voices?
This is interesting! I don't think I'm that active, mind you my partner would disagree. I think the fact that anyone can publish anything, anywhere, is both a blessing and a curse. But the good side of it is that those people are held accountable for their actions no matter what side they're on. Social media and publishing has really, really hurt me over the years. I get a lot of racism, and cold calling on Māori issues. But there's a great community of Māori and Pasifika writers, academics, and activists online and if something's out of line, they've all got your back. I've never seen anything like the loyalty that Māori and Pasifika have towards people in our communities who are being unfairly treated.
When you type into Google "why is poetry so ..." the next words that come up are either “powerful” and “important”, or “boring” and “hard to understand”. Why do you think opinions about poetry are so divided?
I think that poetry has changed so much over time, like everything really. Most poetry that we read now is free form but it used to be an idiom with very strict forms, kind of like making what you want to say inside of a puzzle. I think that's what people think of with the "boring and hard to understand", even though those things when done well can be incredible. Important wise, poems are beautiful complete moments that can change how you think in minutes! They can be about anything! And in these days, they're forms for expression with no rules, only guidelines and a rich history to take into account.
Tell us about a project of yours that stands out.
I'm a classic kiwi who enjoys tall poppying myself regularly. I'm really proud of my book. It was a mihi to my parents and my tūpuna for raising me in some pretty average circumstances that they somehow managed to turn into what was a complex but fulfilling and loving childhood. I think that was what I wanted to do before have a succesful or stand out work, at the book launch my Dad spoke about me and how much we loved each other and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. That moment will always stand out to me.
What are your favourite things about Wellington?
I like that I can walk five minutes one way to get an award winning coffee, and five minutes the other way to a nature reserve where I can pure in a stream known to my ancestors about 600 years ago. It's wild!
I also love and hate how everywhere you go you see someone you know.
What are you reading at the moment? What do you like about it?
I'm a shocker and always have five or six things on the go. I recently finished Red at the Bone by Jaqueline Woodson which is an incredible story of intergenerational wealth, trauma, and knowledge set in New York in an African American family. I love books that travel back in time or give glimpses of future happenings in the past.
Some quick-fire reading recs please
Navigating by the Stars by Witi Ihimaera
Assembly by Natasha Brown
RED by Chase Berggrun
Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly
Which literary character do you most identify with and why?
As a child Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird was probably the first character I ever strongly connected with in terms of her curiosity with the world and the connection she has with her father. In my adult life I got that same feeling from Kerrewin in The Bone People who had a strong Kāi Tahu identity... and is a massive introvert.
Hardback or Paperback?
I love books in all forms!
At Vic Books a Ca-phe-da! Other cafes a mocha. At home, black with honey.
Profile picture of Ruby Solly by Ebony Lamb