“Unsettled bones / spirits forever finding home.” Zechariah Fa’aumu David Soakai sits on a concrete grave reciting lines from his poem directly to camera. The breeze flutters the Cook Islands and New Zealand flags over his shoulder.
This is O’Neill’s Point Cemetery, the final resting place of Private Vilipate. A son of Niue, Vilipate was one of many Pacific soldiers who never made it to WWI’s frontline. Instead he died of pneumonia, exposed to a foreign illness miles from battle.
“It wasn’t the war that took you, it was the war on a body broken.”
Zechariah and three other young Kiwi poets—Onehou Strickland, Vanessa Crofskey and Sheldon Rua—were commissioned by Auckland Museum's He Pou Kanohi WW1 Gallery to delve into the stories of Māori and Pacific soldiers during WWI for a series of spoken word.
Filming the project took the poets to cemeteries, beaches, parks, train stations and Avondale racecourse—everyday places for Aucklanders that have immense war time significance.
It also took them to places within themselves, deep places they hadn’t explored before.
Zech is in no hurry to return to this space or the topic of war anytime soon, as he says it hit him quite profoundly—instead it would be something he would be open to revisiting “much later” on in his life.
“It challenged me as an artist to project myself beyond what I would normally write about,” he told VICE NZ.
We spoke to all the poets about the challenges and rewards of writing about war.
Zechariah Fa’aumu David Soakai
“I ask you this, if you see two people fight on the street, do you get involved because one of them asked you to?”
VICE: Hi Zechariah. Can you tell us how you found working on this project?
Zechariah: It was very very challenging, it was eye opening but also really interesting for me to realise within myself that as I was researching this, it was a process of grieving about something I could never know about or isn’t necessarily my own narrative.
I was given this angle about Niuean and Cook Island participations in WWI – yes I’m from the Pacific but I’m from Samoa and Tonga, so for me it was a personal challenge to carve out the story as best as I can, but be very clear that this isn’t necessarily my narrative that carries it over the finish line. I think as I was researching, I wanted it to bring awareness and actually bring the communities in this poem, that this narrative is about, to bring them closer and to the forefront and not so much have me and the physical present, in this present time and space. It was a really hard and interesting space.
Is war/history something you would write about in the future?
War is such a big concept, it’s such an interesting thing to be a young person where most of us have the fortuner of not having lived experience of a World War or the Vietnam War, so I would be careful about coming back into the kind of space I was in where I was very conscious about appropriating other people’s trauma.
Did you find anything particularly surprising?
I didn’t feel angry which I found surprising... I think I remember feeling a lot of sadness actually, I remember having maybe a three hour conversation on the floor of my brother’s bedroom, because I just kind of needed to explode verbally and kind of talk to somebody about all these things I had found out.
“Rebirthing and healing the men who did not die but there is shrapnel left no pliers or prayer could extract.”
What did you learn from taking part in this project?
Onehou: History always sort of bored me, I didn’t really care much for history in school. You learn about it from the perspective of the teacher who is trying to teach 20, 30, 40 kids all at once so everything they’re teaching is very generic, well-oiled and engineered ... whereas learning this way was more personal and more poetic and resonated more.
Did you go and visit the places in your poem during the writing process?
Looking at the cricket field at the Domain, that was where all the soldiers stood, when given their blessing, before they went off and I didn’t know that, all those years at Christmas in the Park and being young and foolish in the domain without even realising or thinking about how many people had stood here before us and why they stood here, what their purpose was, and here I am now in that moment. Going back to those locations was very real.
What topics do you explore normally?
I’m now starting to explore different ways of poetry, looking at chant poetry, like waiata and war chants, haka and how all the different haka have poetic beginnings.
“I’d rather sing of precious hearts stolen than talk of every life that was taken.”
What do you hope the project achieves?
Vanessa: I really hope it helps young people form their own opinions... I came into the project not liking war at all, and at odds with that, and I’m really grateful that I did the project because my opinions changes slightly.
How did your opinions change?
It’s important to know the subject and understand it before you come to an opinion. I guess in the beginning, and I think I still am, quite anti-war, and I don’t really believe in conflict and I don’t really think it solves anything, but through the act of writing I was really trying to feel how they were feeling.
It made me understand that an act of war not just on a theoretical level but on an emotional level and in a historical sense, it’s about families and we have to honour those experiences.
How do you think war affects us today?
I think whether we want to admit it or not, it’s all around us in ways we can choose to be aware of or we can choose to not be aware of. In Aotearoa, it’s really easy to disengage from these kind of conversations because we are somewhat an isolated nation so it’s really easy to say this doesn’t affect us.
How did you feel about the final product?
I am happy with what I wrote. But I had a really bad haircut the day before we filmed and now all I can think about is how that haircut is going to be institutionalised.
“Isn’t ironic that Māori had to fight, in order to fight?”
What did you learn from the project?
Sheldon: I really don’t like war.
Did your opinions change?
I still feel strongly about war, particularly Māori and Pasifika in war. Our people have come from warrior backgrounds but this is something I don’t really agree with in this point in time. Māori and Pasifika weren’t allowed to enlist in the war – that was a big thing for me.
Why do you think this topic resonated with you?
I think because had I been alive in 1915, that most definitely would’ve been me in the same position and I think I would have no clue what that would feel like. It resonated so much, my age, younger than me, older than me, this was their reality, like I’m fortunate enough to live the life I live right now and not through that right now.