Written by Angela Barnett
Gandhi was boarding a train one day in India when a journalist asked him, ‘Gandhi, what is your message to the world?’ Gandhi looked at the journalist and simply said ‘My life. My life is my message.’ Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh is following the same tenet. Her life is her message. And her life is poetry.
As current Poet Laureate, scholar, awardwinning author, teacher, and the first person of Pacific Island descent to get a PhD in English, Selina inspires poetry wherever she goes: in schools, businesses, and the community. She believes poetry can offer people something nothing else can - to find your unique voice.
Selina, of Samoan, Tuvaluan, Scottish and French descent, often felt invisible and silent when she was young. “I didn’t know where I belonged. I was too tall, too much hair, too brown. Poetry gave me visibility and a voice.”
Her first book of poems, Fast Talking PI, won the New Zealand Post Best First Book of Poetry award in 2010.
She completed the Leadership NZ Programme in the same year and says she had an epiphany in the first retreat “I was a minority on several levels in a workplace… I was brown, female, loud… but by fighting stereotypes about others I had become combative in my thinking. The Programme allowed me to reconnect with the humanity in others that supersedes race, class or gender, through resurrecting the lost art of deep connection; truly a gift that keeps on giving beyond the workplace.” She says she thought she knew herself and her capabilities but the Programme proved her “wonderfully wrong!”
Last year Selina was invited to perform at Westminster Abbey in front of Kofi Annan, British PM David Cameron, 3000 dignitaries and Her Majesty The Queen herself. Representing 52 Commonwealth countries, her poem, ‘Unity’, spoke of humanity, alliances, allegiances, histories and most of all connection.
Jo Brosnahan, founder of Leadership NZ was the first person to tell Selina she was a leader. “She always encouraged me to the nth degree to embrace creativity in the leadership sector.” After the Programme, Selina went on to design and facilitate a poetry and leadership programme for the Institute of Education, working with Pacific leaders in the corporate sector. “That was amazing,” she says. “Basically I took them through a journey where they could produce their own [identifying] poem – so they didn’t leave their culture at the door in their corporate environment.”
To her, the Leadership NZ Programme enabled her “to experience different people, different paradigms.” And allowed her to be more comfortable and confident standing firmly in her own unique leadership style “which passionately embraces creativity in poetry and a compassion for marginalised communities.”
Selina is dedicated to widening educational possibilities for Pacific peoples everywhere. This year she’s working with Pacific Island leaders across different corporate sectors. “I’m not so great on how corporates manage but I’m excellent on how to bring out your own creativity so you can infuse your corporate place with your own unique cultural contribution.“
Being awarded the Poet Laureate was recognition for Selina from the broader community that she’s “doing OK”. And “reaching people.” Wherever she goes she takes the Tokotoko, carved orator’s stick. “The Tokotoko’s a talking stick, not just a walking stick, that is to be touched. I want everyone to imbue it with their energy.”
Leadership, according to Selina “is a poem able to hold aroha, creativity, vision and bravery in the beauty of its palmed lines.”
Words from a true leader, living out her message.