Representing Tonga at Poetry Parnassus, London: A Memoir of a Cultural Olympiad Event

26 Jun 2012 – 1 Jul 2012


Malo e lelei,

My name is Karlo Mila and I am a poet.  In June 2012, I was invited to represent Tonga at the largest poetry festival ever staged.  This was to be held in London, during the lead-up to the Olympics and all competing Olympic nations were represented.  However, a few months before the Festival I was told that there was no representative for Tonga.  There was an online voting system and the most popular voted poet was chosen.  In many ways this probably affected the outcome.  Obviously Konai Helu-Thaman is the most beloved Tongan poet.  However, I suppose because the vote was done through the internet, the vote was limited to those who could easily vote online.  When I received an email closer to the time to say that I had been selected to represent Tonga, I was quite shocked.  A poetry friend of mine, Selina Tusitala Marsh was going to represent Tuvalu and another poet that I knew, Tusiata Avia, was representing Samoa.  I heard that they were going to London.  And yet to my disappointment, the organisers contacted me to say that I would not be going.  Instead, someone would read my poem for me in London and Tonga would not be represented in person.


I have never been overseas to London before, I have never travelled past Australia, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands.  So I was disappointed and disappointed that Tonga would have no representative.  I learned that Teresia Teiawa, also living in Wellington, was representing Kiribati and Audrey Brown-Pereira would represent the Cook Islands.  They were all going.

I decided to be bold and asked the organisers if I could find the fare, would they let me come.  They emailed very kindly to say, yes, and they would pay for catering and accommodation.  Now I had to find the money.  I contacted some organisations that supported authors but the deadline was so tight, all they could do was suggest trying to raise the funds myself.  I had not had a chance to save up and I thought my chances were very slim.  I posted it about it all on Facebook, where I regularly share my thoughts.  One of my friends, Tai Richards, who is from the Cook Islands encouraged me to start up a fundraising page on Facebook, but I said that I was “too shy”.  Tai offered to make a Facebook fundraiser page for me and he did this.  Family, friends in NZ and Tonga, fellow-writers and Facebook friends, were quickly contacted and I was amazed at the generosity.  Within a week and a half the fare for the flights had been donated.

This was such a special thing to happen.  I think, on hindsight, it was better than receiving money from Creative New Zealand or some funding authority.  I received donations from all sorts of people, from friends, from people who didn’t know me, from my family, from the Tongan community, from people who’d read my poetry.  It was such a wide range of people who wanted me to go or who wanted Tonga represented.  The smallest donation was $5 and the largest $500.  Many people I knew, many of them my Facebook friends, donated $100.  It was incredible.  In less than two weeks I’d raised over $4500.  It was enough.  I was off to the largest poetry festival ever staged in the UK.  I was going to the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus, which would bring together poets from all around the world.

Before I tell you about that experience, I ought to begin by telling you a little bit about my background.

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I was born in 1974 to a Tongan father, Maka ‘Ulu’ave (Mila) and a Palangi Mother, Lynda Hunt.  My father changed his name to Mila when he arrived in New Zealand.  My name is Karlo Mila because I am named after Kalo Holani who had a child with Semisi Mila many generations ago.  Because my Mother is a Palangi, she spelled the name “Karlo”.  I was named Kalo Estelle by my father’s Great-Aunt Bella Ledger who came to Rotorua from Tonga many years ago.  Much of my family settled in Rotorua, including Jimmy and Sio ‘Ulu’ave, my Father’s Uncles.  My Father came to Rotorua to learn the trade of painting and wallpaper hanging from his Uncles who ran businesses there.  He worked hard to put his sister, Tupou ‘Ulu’ave, through university at Massey in Palmerston North and this is where he met my Mother.  Tupou boarded with my Nana, Alice Hunt.  They married and had two children, myself and my sister Alice.  We grew up in Palmerston North.  In 1989, I attended Tonga High School for six months.  Later in 1996, after my first degree, I returned to Tonga and taught briefly at Halafo’ou National Form Seven School.

When I returned to New Zealand, I completed my Master’s degree in Social Work at Massey University and I took a creative writing paper taught by Albert Wendt at University of Auckland.  I began to write and perform poetry in the public eye.  I worked as a Union Organiser for the Service and Food Worker’s Union and then as the Manager, Pacific Health at the Health Research Council of New Zealand.  It was working there that I met my husband, David Schaaf, who was finishing his doctorate in Public Health.  We now have two children, Karlos and Nikolas, aged 7 and 8.  And now I have completed my doctorate too.

In 2005, I published my first poetry book, Dream Fish Floating, published by Huia Publishers.  This won the Jessie MacKay Best First Book of Poetry in 2006 in the New Zealand literary awards.  In 2008, I had my second book published, called: “A Well Written Body” which focuses a lot on Tonga.

I was elated to be chosen to go to Poetry Parnassus to represent Tonga and I was a little scared too.  I asked my Aunty Tina (Rossiter, nee ‘Ulu’ave) to make me some puletaha using some hand-printed fabric that I had bought at Langafonua when we came to Tonga in January 2012.  In Tonga, we live on Hala Tu’i or Hala Paini as it is sometimes called.  So I am a “town girl” and very familiar with loto-kolo and how to get around there.  However, my Grandmother, Makelesi ‘Ulu’ave, was the daughter of Taulepa from Ofu, which is small but very beautiful, as Vava’u often is.  I have been to Ofu quite a few times now but my Father has built a little house in town behind the Tungi Arcade (now Tungi Colonade) and we always stay there.

It is a long way from Tonga to Wellington, where I live with David and my family now.  But it is even further to London and especially when you have never been there before.  I was very excited and honoured to represent Tonga.  And I was nervous about it too.  One of the things that comforted me was that I would be meeting family over there.  I was going to be hosted by Wendy Rawlins, my Aunt, and Jean Rawlins, my Grandmother.  The first thing they did was drive me out to the Cotswalds, and to Oxford so that I could see some English countryside and sights.  It was very beautiful and it was amazing to be there in person and to be able to reach out and touch it, experience it and enjoy it.

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I was very lucky to be shown around by family.  I was also very lucky to have an artist friend who had an exhibition in Paris and I caught the Eurostar to go over and see her. Tracey Tawhiao and George Nuku are internationally acclaimed Maori artists.  Seeing their show in Paris and staying with Tracey in the artist’s loft was an incredible experience.  While London had 678been exciting, it was quite familiar and culturally similar in many ways to New Zealand.  However, Paris was an assault on the senses.  The foreign language, the culturally diverse population, the architecture, the art… It was all such a heady mix.  Paris took me beyond my comfort zone instantly and transcended all that I was familiar with.  The jetlag probably didn’t help and Tracey and I spent one day at a Parisian spa.  It was a very old, beautiful Turkish Bathhouse on the outskirts of Paris.  I had never been to one before.  Another new experience: Paris was a whirl of baguettes, Metro, art, wine, and of course ‘Madeline’.  I’d read the Madeline books when I was a child.  It was such an elegant and enthralling city and to spend the time with creative artists from Aotearoa was wonderful.

As soon as I returned to London, I met the other poets who were part of Poetry Parnassus.  Here in this photograph was the poet from the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands and Nepal.  We were all writing our poems in the special book which held a poem from each poet from every country that was participating.

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At the same time as meeting poets from all over the world, I managed to visit Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.  I had a chance to see Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Monet’s water lilies, Gaugain and Matisse, and a room of Degas.  Growing up I had only ever seen these as small reproductions in cheap books – to see the gilded framed originals, looking very fresh hundreds of years later left me wide eyed and so impressed.

On June 26th we had the Pacifica Poetry session on at the Spirit Level.  I was very excited to be with my friends and colleagues from the Pacific.  I had my kiekie ready, and my dress sewed by my Aunty Tina from handprinted Tongan fabric from Langafonua.  It was a wonderful night, a glorious night, dominated mostly by fabulous women (Craig Santos Perez from Guam being the only exception!)  The only negative aspect was the small size of the room.  People had to be turned away unfortunately, the room was jammed full of people.  It was a huge success of an evening and I was so honoured to read among my peers from the Pacific.

My poem “Oceania” for Epeli Hau’ofa was the poem that they chose.  Here is a copy of it that was painted and stenciled on the wall outside of the Southbank Centre.

km 10 (2)We read poetry at more events.  This was interspersed with a whirlwind tour of London: The Tate, The British Museum (I saw the Moai from Easter Island and the mummies), The Natural History Museum (dinosaurs), and the Victoria and Albert which was the most sumptuous museum of all… constantly amazing as you walk through each door and cannot possibly imagine more treasures – but there are moe around each corner.  Here is a photo of me outside Buckingham Palace bumping into a Tahitian woman, Dr Diane Mara, all the way from New Zealand!  I was with Dr Brandy Nalani from Hawai’i, a fine poet!

We happened to be there when the Queen arrived back from Ireland and it was a fine affair, with an impressive motorcade.  She had just come back from Ireland after shaking the hand of an IRA leader.  It was in the news a lot while I was there.  She arrived in a large motorcade and the people ran and flocked to the streets to wave at her car.  I couldn’t help but think of Tongan Monarchs who must have visited the Palace.  One can’t help but feel a bit daunted by all of its grandeur.

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km12 (2)While I was in London, I visited SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies at London School of Economics) where I was kindly given a tour of the Pacific archives by Dr Martin Daly, a scholar who has specialised in Tonga.  The behind the scenes tour was lovely and I made copies of some of the John Thomas journals.  He was an early missionary who wrote about Tonga.  This was to inform my postdoctoral research.

I was able to do many more lovely things while in London, including visit the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show with my relatives, Jean and Wendy.  I was able to see and do all sorts of things that once I had only dreamed of.  I was able to represent Tonga, to live and breathe poetry for days on end, make new friends, and visit old ones.

I was so proud to have been selected to represent Tonga.  In addition, I was so proud of the Pacific region.  Even though we are small in population, the Pacific region held its own when it came to poetic performance.  Here is the group after reading together.

km 13 pacific poets (2)It was a trip of a lifetime.  Hearing other poets perform was incredible and meeting people from all around the world was such a privilege.  I learned so much about the world and many countries that I knew little about.  Each of them incisively gave you an insight into their lives and the life of their country through the well-crafted words that they spoke into poetry.  In some ways I realized how little I know of the world.  In this photo, I am standing with the poets from Nepal and Israel.

Finally, I thank everyone who collectively gave me that opportunity.  Below is a link showing me reading the poem that Poetry Parnassus selected for their global anthology.   Malo ‘aupito,to everyone who made it possible for me to be there.  I am humbled and grateful for the support, the opportunity and the unparalleled honour.  I will never forget it.

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‘Ofa atu, Karlo Mila

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