Chris Tse, New Zealand's current Poet Laureate. Photo by Nicola Edmonds.

Q&A: Chris Tse, Poet Laureate


Chris Tse is New Zealand’s Poet Laureate, appointed for a three-year tenure by the National Library of New Zealand to promote and advocate for poetry. He has worked as an editor and short story writer and has published three collections of poetry. 

How did you first start writing poetry?

It was FOMO (fear of missing out) that got me on the poetry train. Some of my friends at school were writing poetry and sharing it at lunchtime. I thought ‘I should start writing poetry so I can be part of this conversation.’ Then I learned that you could take poetry workshops at Victoria University of Wellington. I made it a goal to get into those workshops, and I did. When I got into the master's class of the Institute of Modern Letters, I was like – ‘right, I guess I'm sticking with this poetry thing.’

Tell us about the process of becoming the Poet Laureate?

Anyone in New Zealand can nominate a person to be Poet Laureate. They gather public nominations, and they also reach out to librarians, booksellers and anyone closely connected with the world of New Zealand writing to put names forward. It's run by the National Library. There's an advisory panel and the National Librarian makes the final call.

I knew that there was a bit of a campaign to get me nominated, but I stayed away from that as I didn't want it to seem as if I was trying to manipulate the process. The National Librarian gave me a call the week before it was announced to offer me the role. It was very surprising.

Chris Tse alley INP

Chris Tse, Poet Laureate. Photo by Nicola Edmonds.

Why was it surprising?

I'm the youngest person to be appointed and I didn't think I would be in with a chance. Poet Laureate has typically gone to people who are further along in their careers. But the National Librarian said that they wanted to change how the role is perceived, to reflect the readership of poetry and inspire a different demographic of people to read and write poetry. That's been in the back of my mind: how can I use the role to change perceptions of poetry to make it more visible to different groups of people.

Have you noticed a shift in how poetry is written and received in New Zealand?

When I was first studying poetry there were a lot of young people in my classes, but there weren't as many avenues for them to publish their work as there are now. there's been a major shift in the last five to ten years in the makeup of who's getting published. We’re getting a lot more with people of Māori and Pasifika backgrounds, Asian backgrounds, queer backgrounds, and that’s been really exciting.

The phrase ‘dead white men’ gets thrown around, because that's what a lot of people were taught. But it's great to see teachers bringing new poets into their classrooms, and university lecturers incorporating a lot more contemporary New Zealand material. It's great to be a part of that change.

What makes a good poem?

Poetry, and any sort of creative art, is very subjective. I’m currently editing the New Zealand Best Poems collection. I'm the only person doing it this year which is a bit freeing, because it's basically my own taste, right? As long as I pick 25 poems that I can stand behind and explain why I picked them, that's the job done.

I've had conversations with many people about how they're scarred for life from the way they were introduced to poetry at school, as a puzzle of something they had to break down to understand.

Some of the best poetry I've read doesn't require that kind of analysis to enjoy it. It just changes something in me and makes me see the world in a different way. If a poem does even one of those things, I think it's already on the way to becoming a great poem.

What is your creative process like when writing?

My typical process is to just collect words, lines, phrases, ideas as they come. I chuck them into the Notes app on my phone or write them down in a journal. Every now and then I sit down and have a look at what I've got. That is often the springboard.

In the past year I’ve been approached or commissioned to write poems. I have to come at those differently and do a brainstorm. What would I say about it? What are my feelings about it? It might require research and reading as well.

Chris Tse shop INP

Chris Tse was appointed for a three-year tenure by the National Library of New Zealand to promote and advocate for poetry. Photo by Nicola Edmonds.

What are some of the highlights of being Poet Laureate so far?

It's all been a massive highlight! But the absolute peak was the inauguration ceremony in Hawke's Bay at the end of April last year. That's when I was presented my tokotoko (ceremonial walking stick) at Matahiwi Marae.

It was a beautiful ceremony, and then later that night I invited poets to read. It was a whole weekend of celebrating poetry with friends, family and people from the community, and it was just the most wonderful occasion. That event reinforced the mana of the role and how much of a privilege it is to walk in the footsteps of some of our greatest poets.

What were some of the challenges you anticipated when taking on the role?

I was worried that I'd have to fight for attention to get people interested, but as it's turned out everyone's been like, 'wow, what's the Poet Laureate? What is he up to? What can we get him involved in?'

It shows that, despite it being sometimes confusing or something that people don't necessarily gravitate towards on a daily basis, poetry is recognised as an important part of our cultural makeup and part of our art sector; poetry has the ability to articulate things that we otherwise can't or don't want to talk about. It's a powerful medium for change and for influence and starting those difficult conversations.

Have you been approached by any readers or fans since becoming Poet Laureate?

I did the schools programme at the Auckland Writers Festival last year: two days of sessions for students from around the city. I had students come up to me in tears telling me it was important to them that I was Poet Laureate and how much my work meant to them.

As much as I am self-deprecating and try to minimize my achievements, I do accept that me being Poet Laureate and being visible is actually important for a particular group of people who have never had that presence in the arts or media.

What’s next for Chris Tse, Poet Laureate?

I've got several invitations to do festivals and events, and I'm hoping that I can get a few more school workshops in while I'm still Poet Laureate. But a lot of that work will continue after I step down. I'm also going to start seriously working on my next book.


Story by Emily Draper for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Emily Draper is the Deputy Editor of AA Directions Magazine.

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