Dark Sparring Goes for the Knock-Out – book review and interview with Selina Tusitala-Marsh

Dark Sparring is Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh’s second book of cv_dark_sparringpoetry, after her début, Fast Talking P.I.. Selina teaches Pasifika Literature (Pasifakature?) and Creative Writing at the University of Auckland.

‘Poetry is a coping mechanism for me, as much as an expression of high ideals,’ Selina says. She wrote to cope with her mum’s long battle with breast cancer, right from the diagnosis. ‘Mum very rarely saw me without a pen and piece of paper in my hand.’ Her Mum was exuberant and defiantly true to herself – she used part of her divorce settlement to get a burnt orange sports car. She always supported Selina to be strong and take her own path, too.

A week after the funeral, Selina took the kids to school, then climbed back under the covers. Beep, beep, a txt from a kickboxing friend asking, ‘Still coming?’ ‘I’m a poet, I can’t be a a kickboxer!’, Selina remembers thinking. But she got out of bed, and her comfort zone, and hasn’t looked back. Being in the Muay Thai ring has been ‘a fascinating introduction to my own body, other people’s, to moving in a completely different way.’

Kickboxing has connected Selina with ‘a new language’ of physical expression, that’s perhaps lacking in Palagi culture. At the Funeral, Selina and her sister were pulled up to perform a Fatele, a Tuvaluan funeral rite:
Men and women formed separate lines and began to move unhurriedly yet with purpose around the coffin, feet stamping out an old rhythm while hands, arms, shoulders and heads swayed, tilting right then left. Song filled our lounge. They mimed for my sister and I to mimic the movements and sounds. The tide of the escalating rhythm pulled our bodies into a faster pace, and with it, our blood and the intensity of emotion began to rise until, as a collective, we reached a crescendo. Until Mum’s spirit could then fly, in peace, out the north facing window.
Selina felt a release of ‘emotion, spirit, and a shift under the dead weight of our grief.’ Kickboxing stirred similar emotional currents. ‘You can’t over-think, you must rely on the body’s instinct to dance/fight/grapple with your partner.’

In Dark Sparring, agile, elegant words are hard-hitting. A Formal Dinner makes you smile at the Funeral’s catering – ‘food overflowing from every orifice’. But this feast is juxtaposed with dwindling family dinners, from which the ‘table setter’ is absent. First Spar details the personal battles of Rosie, Sophie, Chloe, Nita (her sparring partners), before Ana faces grief at the funeral. Floating Ribs breaks the body down into vulnerable targets, like disease does. Selina fights foes other than her grief – cultural identity, gender politics, and other power struggles.

Selina signs copies with ‘may your dark sparrings be numerous and victorious.’ Lovers & fighters alike will appreciate Dark Sparrings’ strength, beauty and heart.

This 100-page volume is published by the Auckland University Press. It includes a CD of Selina performing over twelve rounds of poetry, set to music.

by Drus Dryden

Dark Sparring
by Selina Tusitala-Marsh
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869407865

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