Nafanua Purcell Kersel (Writing for the Page, 2022)

The MA workshop, by nature, comes with potential conflict but...each time my work was shared, I was humbled by the kindness and perspectives of others.

Image of Nafanua Purcell Kersel (Photographer credit: Florence Charvin))
Poet and MA in Creative Writing graduate Nafanua Purcell Kersel (Aleipata, Falealupo, Satupa’itea, Tuaefu). Image by Florence Charvin.

Nafanua writes: 'Of course, I knew that this MA was well taught and highly regarded but one of the main reasons that I applied for it was because it's designed to be completed within a year. This gave my partner and I and our three children a fairly short, defined term to adjust our life around as I made the weekly commute from Te Matau-a-Māui. The timeframe also suited my way of learning and creating. I knew enough about myself to know that I would work best if I could dive in, focus my whole year around it, and then be done. These were the practical expectations I held as I set about patching together a year of writing within our full family life. I also expected to be challenged, to improve in my craft and to support others to do so in theirs. What would be fairly new to me was the intensity of the mahi and workshop dynamics.

'My only prior experience of the workshop model was through Victor Rodger's Māori and Pasifika Creative Writing Workshop. That had been a special, safe and joyful space shared with writers who are now lifelong friends. It set a high bar for connection, elevated my work, helped me to understand my creative dynamic and positively fortified my view on the purpose of writing, and myself as a writer. In fact, I wouldn't have thought to apply for the MA without this paper.

'When I started in the Writing for the Page (Poetry and Nonfiction) workshop, I kept reminding myself that the MA, though an extraordinary experience, would have to be extra-extraordinary to live up to that summer workshop. Spoiler, it did. I now know that each experience was unique for many reasons, and wonderful in its own way. In terms of group dynamics and potential, I think every workshop cohort will be unique (for obvious reasons) and I found the MA workshop an interesting, sometimes strained but open environment to build relationships.

'As a group of people, we're there to do the mahi, but we're not like workmates because we know too much about each other's inner clockwork. We're not quite like family, because while we support one another, it's with singular focus on our individual mahi. So—not workmates, not family and in some cases, not even friends. I can't deny though, the potential for deep connection that comes with being in a shared experience, with people who share a love for language as well as sharing work, vulnerabilities, timeframes and pressures. To be honest, this felt similar to my relationship with my own writing—it's from me but not always of me, it's something I love but don't always enjoy, and always better in the company of others.

'The sheer number of hours spent in each other’s company and in deep contemplation of our writing added up to a significant and unforgettable year of life. Within that, the experience of opening my creative process to others was tough, it felt like heading out during a storm—it went against my inner urge for comfort but was necessary in order to get to where I've always wanted to go. If I ever saw lightning, or disappointment in someone's attitude, critique or misunderstanding, I tried my best to let that sit with them and not with the work that we were all there to do. Not always easy.

'Frankly, not everyone will take or even appreciate the myriad opportunities for growth and compassion presented in the MA workshop scenario, but that's ok—it's rough, a bit yuck, maybe a lot shady, but in the end, it's ok. The MA workshop, by nature comes with potential conflict but I know that each time my work was shared, I was humbled by the kindness and perspectives of others. Each time I read and commented on another writer's work, I was sustained by their talent and vision and found myself so invested in the work, struck by how much I wanted it to succeed. We are all witnesses in the workshop room, and the work/shop becomes part of our life as we read and process—on the train, in bed, at the dining table, in the car between kids' footy matches.

'I don't think I expected to become so connected with the others in my workshop but now can't imagine how I would have turned up to the page, and to the workshop room without them. I also developed a respectful connection with my convenor Chris Price, whom I admire so much, and my supervisor James Brown, whom I trust and will be a superfan of, always. The year was a full-on but, in the end, we're spending a year writing and how incredibly lucky is that? It wasn't always fun, but I am the best writer I've ever been, and have the most amazing writer friends. Even now, I don't know if I'd admit to being a master, but I definitely levelled up to my most masterful self.'

Bio: Nafanua Purcell Kersel (Aleipata, Falealupo, Satupa’itea, Tuaefu) was born in Sāmoa, raised in Te Whanganui-a-Tara and is now based in Te Matau-a-Māui. She was a recipient of a CLNZ Creative Writing Scholarship and was awarded the 2022 IIML Biggs Family Prize in Poetry for her collection Black Sugarcane. She has performed or facilitated at writers and arts festivals around the motu and is working towards publication of her collection as well as translating her poetry into gagana Sāmoa.

Nafanua's poetry has been adapted into dance and theatre and published in anthologies and journals including Ōrongohau|Best New Zealand Poems, Landfall 245, and Turbine|Kapohau (co-editor).