Talanoa: Derek Cleland

Derek Cleland is the Literary Arts and Film Assistant at the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies (OCACPS) at the University of the South Pacific. Derek joined the Oceania Centre in March this year, having spent the last 4 years in Fiji as an Australian volunteer working in the area of Culture and Heritage.

“Derek brings with him the promise of new and innovative ideas to Spokenword initiatives in Suva”.~ Cresentia Frances Koya

I talanoa with Derek about his role at the Oceania Centre, the new spoken words series Blood In The Kava Bowl and other projects and collaborations he is working on.

Tell us a bit about your background and your role as Literary Arts and Film Assistant at the OCACPS.
My background. Yes. Good question. Perhaps varied and unsettled summarises it.  I grew up within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean in Sydney, Australia and at different times have dabbled in biology, conservation, economics, IT, health, communications, bar work, fruit picking, delivery driving, and a few other things along the way.  Lots of travelling and talking to all sorts of random people in all sorts of random locations.

Then in 2006 I got a call from my old university professor asking me if I’d ever thought of working in Fiji.  At that stage Fiji, and most of the Pacific Islands, were a hazy notion of a paradise over the horizon, on the other end of the waves I grew up bodysurfing as a kid.  But I did know that Fiji involved the tropics and islands, two of my favourite things, and so after 2 seconds of careful consideration I was agreeing that a job in Fiji would be the perfect thing.

Ten months after that I was arriving in Suva to start a ‘dream job’ at the Fiji Department of Culture and Heritage.  Straight away I felt at home in Suva – the people, the lifestyle, the kava, the humour, the palms, the rain, the humidity, the buses, the coconuts, the harbour glowing seven shades of blue and the bright white of the reef at low tide.  And the job turned out to be a dream. I was working with Adi Meretui Ratunabuabua (Mere), one of the best connected people in the Pacific, on just about everything that had anything to do with culture and heritage in Fiji and also a fair bit at the Regional level as well.  Through Mere I got to meet many of the people driving the cultural sector in the Pacific, as well as being able to get involved in many amazing projects.  It was a real eye-opener for someone from outside the region and the best introduction to the Pacific anyone could have.

Somewhere along the way I started working with the Fiji Arts Council and the then Director, Letila Mitchell, helping out at arts events and with some arts administration.  After a trip to Pagopago, American Samoa with the Pacific Arts Alliance to support an Artists Forum they were holding at the Festival of Pacific Arts I found myself being volunteered by (Cresentia) Frances Koya to read poetry at a Poetry Reading in TRAPS Bar, Suva.  Now, it was implied that everyone would be reading their own poetry, so in a mad panic I sat down and wrote three pieces, which was quite amazing as I had never written poetry, or even shown an interest in poetry before, and certainly not thought about getting up in front of a crowd to read!  Of course, it turned out that people were reading poems written by other people, so there was no need to panic, however, the response to my poems was good and people encouraged me to keep on writing, so I did, and found that I really enjoyed the process and the freedom to express that it gave me.  I also found that people responded to the messages in my poems and that this was a whole new way of reaching people on issues that I thought were important.

After a stint working at the National Trust of Fiji and a few poetry readings, poetry slams and many poems later I was trying to work out how to stay in Fiji after my then work visa expired and also how to spend more time writing and performing poetry.  I also had become increasingly convinced that spoken word art forms provide a powerful way for Pacific people to speak to each other, as well as to the rest of the world, about issues of importance.  There is a long history of spoken word in the Pacific which means that people not only know how to speak, but also how to listen.  The Suva poetry audience is the best audience I’ve ever come across.  With Poetry Slams growing in popularity around the world, spoken word is starting to get serious recognition as an art form and as a method of communication.  Many international arts and music festivals now have a poetry slam or some other form of spoken word component, which means funding, which translates to recognition, because lets face it, where money leads, recognition follows.

So when the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies decided to create a position in the Literary Arts and Film I felt that this was a great match of my experiences, ideas and passion with their function as a centre for the development of contemporary Pacific arts.  As a new position at the Centre, I think we are all still working on exactly how things will work out, but I see my role as one of helping Pacific artists to find their own voices by creating the spaces where people can develop as artists and can develop a Pacific spoken word art-form, whatever that may end up sounding and looking like.

In April the Oceania Centre launched its Blood In The Kava Bowl spoken word series.  Tell us more about that.
The Blood In The Kava Bowl series is creating a new type of ‘Pacific’ performance space.  The title comes from the poem of the same name by the late Professor Epeli Hau’ofa, the founding Director of the Oceania Centre.  The concept is based on the Fijian sigidrigi, where people sit around the kava bowl relaxing at the end of the day, drinking kava and entertaining each other with music, songs, stories and conversation.

Audience at  Blood in the Kava series at the Oceania Centre.  June, 2011.

So, every month we put the mats down on the stage of the Oceania Centre, mix the kava, have a band sitting on the mat and then as people arrive they also sit on the mat, everyone together, without rank or title.  The kava goes around, the band plays and whenever someone feels like sharing something they can. It might be a song, a poem, some music, a story, whatever they feel like.  They can also use whatever language they like.  Far too many of our performance spaces in the Pacific force people to use English, which for many people is not a language they are completely comfortable expressing themselves in.  So we are creating an inclusive performance space, where performers and audience are one and the same, and we are also providing artists with a regular opportunity to practice and develop their performance and writing.  You can bring something you are working on to get some feedback and see what works and what doesn’t, or bring a polished final performance to blow people away, hammer home a message, or build your reputation.  It is a highly versatile space that can adapt to whatever people want to do, and of course most of the people are there just to enjoy the performances and the kava and that in itself is a form of performance.

Vilsoni Hereniko, Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies at Blood in the Kava series, April 2011.

What advice would you have for young Pacific poets and writers?
Find your own voice.  There will be a lot of people telling you that you have to do things this way, or that way, but the reality is that there are many ways of expressing yourself, of writing and of performing. This goes for all art forms I think. It is the unique, the different voice that catches peoples’ attention.

Don’t be afraid to break the rules.  For me this is what poetry is all about.  Not being constrained by the rules of grammar, breaking rhyme schemes, delivering the unexpected.  But sometimes you need to know what the rules are first, in order to know how and when to break them for the best effect.

Keep experimenting. Try different things and see what works, also see what doesn’t.  Don’t be afraid to use Pacific languages if you are more comfortable with them and also look to your traditional spoken word art forms for tools and techniques that can help you develop your own unique voice.

Be open to opportunities even if you can’t immediately see where they will take you.  One door opens to another door and then another, not everything has to pay off straight away.

And lastly, don’t be afraid to put strong messages into your writing and performance.  If you believe in something then write about it and once you have written about it find an audience to share it with.  If you don’t believe in anything then why are you bothering to write and why do you think anyone else will be interested? Keep it real!

Susan Kotoisuva-Sela, Ann Tarte, Cresentia Frances Koya, Derek Cleland and Teweiariki Teaero at the Oceania Centre during the Blood in the Kava series. May, 2011. 

What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?
So many dreams and so many possibilities.

Recently I have been working with musicians, combining music with the spoken word and I’d love to take this further because there is so much potential for the music and words to reinforce each other.  I’d also like to start working with dancers interpreting poems and also writing words to go with dances.  When combining spoken word with both music and dance I see it as an open process. It isn’t just about matching something someone has written with some already prepared music or dance.  It is about us all working together to create something new in a truly collaborative process.  I’d love this to eventually become a full music, dance and spoken word stage production, delivering strong Pacific messages across the region, as well as outside the region.

Dave Lavaki (aka Mr Grin) performing at Blood in the Kava, June 2011

I’d also love to see more Pacific writers/spoken word performers getting national, regional and international recognition and taking their messages out to wider audiences.  So many Pacific people have important things to say and yet are being largely ignored, not only by the rest of the world, but also by their own people.  So it is a dream of mine to regularly have a diverse cross-section of people from the Pacific Islands raising their own voices and issues at international festivals, international conferences and through the international media.

Derek with the Oceania Centre Writing Group

What are you currently working on?
We are still refining the Blood In The Kava Bowl series, so I am thinking and tinkering with it.  Working on how to keep it fresh for both performers and audiences, making sure it acts as a space for artist and art-form development, while also delivering those super performances that let audiences know that they have witnessed something truly special and will keep them coming back for more.  As part of this I am working on how we can develop both spoken word artists and the spoken word art form at the Oceania Centre through both formal and non-formal methods.  This includes using video as a tool for artist feedback and development and also for increasing the audience of Pacific spoken word artists by creating video clips and distributing them on the internet.  The internet has a lot of potential that we are only now starting to make use of.

On a more personal level, I am planning a concert with the Davui String Ensemble for later in July, which continues a music and poetry collaboration that we started last year. Words and strings is a very special combination!  Another collaboration in the pipeline is with a US-based visual artist, Mary-Jane Connor, where I am writing some words to go with some of her artworks.

Derek performing with Davui String Ensemble

And always thinking about how we can create new spaces, and different spaces.  Spaces that will suit different writers, readers and performers, act as a platform for different messages and reach wider audiences.

Vinaka Derek! Looking forward to more spoken words events at the Oceania Centre.

Interview conducted via email between 2-21 June, 2011.


Derek performing at Wasawasa Festival Poetry Slam Dec 2008. Photograph by Hugh Fasher.

Blood in the Kava series and Oceania Centre Writing Group, 2011. Photographs by Ann Tarte.

Derek performing with Davui String Ensemble, 2010. Photograph by Maria Ronna Luna Pastorizo-Sekiguchi.

Further Reading:
Spokenword movements in the Pacific Islands by Cresentia Frances Koya

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