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a conversation with jessica hansell

the long game doesn't scare me at all


Jessica Hansell has a creative repertoire as long as your arm. She is a poet, the creator of the cult comic series Aroha Bridge and along with the likes of Oscar Kightley and Madeleine Sami, is part of Taika Waititi’s scriptwriting collective, Piki Films. 

Also known as Coco Solid, Hansell is an acclaimed musician, and her most recent single ‘Slow Torture’ featuring Disasteradio can be found here. She is of Māori (Ngāpuhi), Samoan and German descent.

For more see cocosolid.com.

You’re a musician, zine-maker, artist, actor and scriptwriter – plus other things we’ve probably left off the list!  When and how did writing poetry become part of your arsenal?

I guess poetry permeates everything and anything I enjoy, which is a bit cornball trite but there it is. It is not my first love, because I don’t think like that... it simply sits inside everything else I do like an organ and it’s just a way to stay sane. Robert Graves said ‘there’s no money in poetry but then there’s no poetry in money either,’ and I find that tension pretty true and hilarious. And I don’t really know who Robert Graves is so I mustn’t do it for the intellectual prestige either.

I wrote poems and stories as a kid and I arrived at it formally having found my voice in punk and rap. Rap might be the most accountable form of poetry there is, it’s the most accessible whether people like it or not. The work of Saul Williams is how I realised I was a hybrid actually, that it was possible and I could do both on my own terms. I did the painful only Polynesian in the postgraduate writing class routine, which gave me a thick skin and Babylonian awareness if nothing else. It made me overanalyse my voice and get too goth and serious about what poetry even is. Does anyone even know? You try and measure up to some kind of puritan ideal that isn’t even yours and academia can be especially body-snatching in that way. The problems are rooted in class, race, gender assumptions which dog literature here. I’ve got my allergies and preferences like anyone else, but there isn’t an ‘essential canon of poetry’ cos anyone who loves language can and should do it. Poetry is supposed to be medicine and cosmic currency between two sources, it’s ancient sacred and it’s vapid meta simultaneously, and it’s available where there is text or voice. You can safely say I no longer think it’s a freemason’s ring best kept in a safe like I once did.

How do you know which medium is the best way to convey an idea or tell a particular story? How do you choose between a comic, a poem, or a song – is it an instinct, or something that can be learned?

Don’t tell anyone but I have no idea. It just somehow gets underway. Everything about me is mixed, bridged and on the cusp so I never felt like I had to choose a calling or one medium. These days the long game doesn’t scare me at all. I think that might be something I learnt from my activism, ‘ka whawhai tonu mātou’: a struggle without end. I wait for an idea to be born in its own time and am open to whatever medium or process it takes. But the opposite still happens too. A very specific concept might clothesline me like a wrestler and the blueprint is in my mind and I have to execute it immediately. It depends cos you meet other artists too who help you decide who you need to be. I tend to get ‘art married’ a lot, I have a lot of great creative partnerships. If I am building with someone who can read me and extract new lengths from me, then it doesn’t really matter what we make. It could be really good nachos, I don’t even care. As long as it’s a valuable experience and it takes someone beyond where they were, then it’s valid art.

What subjects or themes interested you when you were first beginning to write? Are they the same things you’re still thinking about today, or has that changed over time?

Like me the work definitely has trackable phases and eras, I can literally see and hear my coming of age which is buzzy. Narratives obviously orbit around my world view, the transience of my political truths. And then narratives can simply be my fantasies, which aren’t grounded at all. I am happiest when these two are forced together. It’s probably why all my work is taking an animated and post-colonial science fiction turn. You can’t get more dystopian than earth at the moment and conversely there is nothing more surrealist than being blunt and telling the truth these days. I like smuggling, people having harmless fun and then later in the tub realising they got got. And I just like throwing shade at assumed normality. I’ve always been that way as a storyteller. I resent it sometimes but I’m an excellent double agent.

Pretty early on you became part of the zine community – what did this add to your development as a writer?  What advice do you have for young writers/artists thinking of making their own zine?

I love self-publishing and people making their own media. Zines force me to draw, step away from the comfort zone of my words and be an artist, deal with ephemera and the physical. I can hate on it because it’s harder than dropping an online thought or image and everyone saying they love you 4 minutes later. But it’s important, the physical shards of ourselves we gift to others will become sacred as we engage less in person. Zines are way more multicultural now in New Zealand than even a decade ago, which I love. And the scene has way more cool LGBT voices too. Women basically run it in Aotearoa, which I think is a big deal. I’m proudest of my work in South Auckland and at Fresh Gallery Otara during Ema Tavola and Nicole Lim’s reign as curators. We were getting more Polynesian voices up in the comfortable (dare I say twee) city zine conversations. Getting more ‘bad feminists’ and less opacity in those spaces is sooo much fun. I haven’t put out a zine in a couple of years so I shouldn’t give any young zine makers advice! Just keep it real and bask in the fact that perfection has no place in zines? The chaotic explosive amateurs will inherit the DIY earth? My friend Riki Taniwha used to say ‘if you’re wondering if something is good enough to be a zine, then congratulations you got the job’.

What poets or writers were most meaningful to you as a young writer and developing artist?

I am a serendipitous reader and pop cultural absorber in general. My input is completely random and relies heavily on the people I meet, what they share with me and introduce me to. I am lazy in pursuing, remembering or mindfully curating what I encounter. For someone who reads shitloads and moves her way through a nightmare glut of stuff, I can’t even tell you what it is. Funky aunty self-help books? Race theory in science fiction think pieces? Scripts from terrible forensic drama shows? Poetry-wise all the best writers and performances I follow are on twitter, I think that’s where my most inspiring communities are – in the dark web. Some of my peers at the International Institute of Modern Letters gave me much-lacking editorial knife skills with my prose and poetry, I’m grateful for that. And obviously rap is crucial for me. I became friends with the writer Teju Cole and I was so nervous when I first met him cos I looked up to him so much. But I had a few beers and muffled something about Jay Electronica being the greatest poet of all time and was so elated when Cole gushed about him too. It showed me that ‘literature’ is what you make it. So not to get all ‘outside of the box’ on it but the poetry I love is not necessarily in books. For instance there is the Korean poetry collective Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, an exclusively digital project with images and music. Now that stuff totally changed my life.

Words and images often share space in your work. What is it about the combination of the two that works for you? And are there any common pitfalls you see as being associated with that?

To me, this is so natural. It is second-nature to combine. I have tried to explain and intellectually justify this in so many contexts, especially when I’m with people who passionately focus on one thing and give me the multi-disciplinary guilts. But the truth is words and pictures together make me happy inside. The only pitfall is that people who are serious about one medium tend to imply you are a diluting hack harlot. They may have a point but what can I do. I like it.

Humour is also a big part of your poetry. Is that something you intentionally set out to do? And what do you think it allows or offers a poet?

To be honest being known for my humour blindsided me this year, it came out of nowhere. My friend once said I am funny when people think I’m going to be a buzzkill and I'm a buzzkill when it’s assumed I’m going to say something funny, and I guess poetry (aside from the dark art of limericks) is the last place many people would look for abstracted comic relief. So yeah, basically I’m a troll. Outside of writing the cartoon series, which is a blatant sitcom, I still get surprised when people cite my sense of humour in my work. I remember watching all these comedy docos from the ’70s and thinking ‘man, you have to be pretty mentally unwell to be considered a funny person huh!’ and the following day Radio New Zealand asked me to talk on their comedy hour, so that was a confronting compliment. I do think life is a cosmic joke so maybe that comes through in my poetry and writing.... suddenly I’m a ‘dark humourist’ where before I was a ‘moody bitch’ but I’m not complaining. My reputation needs all the semantic help it can get.

How do you deal with things like self-doubt or rejection when it comes to your own creative work?

I am really proud of the way I process creative rejection. It makes me more determined to level up or assess whether I’m on the wrong path. I know rejection makes you a better artist and I’ve won a few humble pie eating contests, so I work hard to stay philosophical and unentitled. Having said this, I have a mafia boss memory and resolve when it comes to my ideas – I admit it. Plus it’s sooo easy for a woman to cave in on her dreams cos the world was built to trip us up. So I ain’t giving anyone that satisfaction. I always catch my fish just not always on schedule and maybe not the species I planned.

Self-doubt is the opposite. My anxiety and clownish self-esteem has been known to take me to illogical self-deprecating places that you wouldn’t dream of.  But it’s because I really care about what people will get from me, I want to alchemise or elicit strong reactions whenever I have any floor, I don’t want to pontificate and waste the space. I’m getting heaps better at respecting my weird procrastinating, 30 days screaming 3 days creating before a deadline ‘process’. Cos at the end of the day it’s always cool and I wonder what I was being so ridiculous about. I call it being a Bleak Diva.

As part of Taika Waititi’s film-making collective, Piki, you’ve been working on your first film script. How is that going? Can you tell us more about the project?

Working with the Piki collective is awesome. I am working on a sci fi comedy script about urban Māori and mental health. Helping the others develop their scripts has been amazing too. Taika is probably going to go down as one of the biggest storytellers of my generation and the fact that he is fighting for other Māori and PI writers to level up is such a cool kaupapa to me. Essentially Piki is a bunch of mongrel kids who are really bad at growing up, telling each other stories and filling in the gaps. It’ll be my first feature film so I’m trying not to think about it and just enjoy the experience.

You’ve been a big advocate and champion for greater visibility of writers of colour, especially women of colour.  Who are the writers in this area whose work you’ve been enjoying recently – from New Zealand or otherwise? And what advice would you give to young Māori, Pasifika and other writers of colour, who are just starting to put their voice out there?

I thought long and hard about this and began the traditional name-check. I could drop 200 names without breaking a sweat, the people I advocate are actually everywhere. But then I realised that’s not always my responsibility. And shout-outs are not sustainable when to me we need to be having a different conversation and it applies to all mediums.

The responsibility actually belongs to the people who choose to create and perform within an all-white or all-male environment, especially both. They need to do some research, leave their caves of cultural comfort and act. And they need to be pushed about it. They need to be asked who their favourite POC, Māori, Pacific writers are, who their favourite women, queer and transgender artists are to work with – not us – cos we’re good. We’re already in those worlds working our asses off. That’s like asking Prince or Beyoncé who their favourite beautiful black female musician is, how can they objectively choose when it’s their way of life or they are of it. I am vocal about our visibility but the multicultural sherpa routine is not for me. I find there is a ‘if you don’t grandstand or tell me constantly, how will I ever learn’ expectation which almost blames you for your own exclusion. I don’t know man, maybe use the internet? Actively diversify your scene? This country is small enough for people to find our work now if they make the effort. And those lacking the motivation need to ask themselves: if we only have Pākehā people or only men in our performances, workshops, festivals, publishing offices, anthologies and art talks – what kind of literary discourse are we having? Cos it can’t be very accurate. Drafting token writers to spice things up (we know when this is happening by the way) is not going to save us either. Step out into the writing scene, go into new forums, speak to all ages and look around you. Writers who are on the social fringes should remember we are secretly everywhere and let’s be real, we are among the ones making literature exciting again. So investing in us isn’t about quotas or generosity – it’s common sense. History is simply a bunch of stories that were allowed to be told.