FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
NATALIE LINH BOLDERSTON: During my second year at university, I took a creative writing class with Deryn Rees-Jones. I hadn’t written seriously before, and I just wanted to see what I could produce. In my previous education, a lot of emphasis had been placed on the canon – specifically the white, male, British canon. This didn’t resonate with me, and I found it hard to situate myself in that landscape.
Early on in the course, Deryn introduced us to work by Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe. I felt an immediate connection to both poets: I loved the vibrancy of their images, their use of myth and narrative, and their explorations of family and cultural heritage. I had always wanted to explore similar themes, but up until then I hadn’t found the right language or medium to do so. Suddenly, poetry seemed like the natural way. As a young woman of colour, it meant so much to me to have two modern female poets of colour to look up to – and to know that there were so many more to discover.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
NLB: I write primarily to honour my mother and the memories she passed down to me. I first felt like a poet when I showed her my work and she was moved by it. I think even those early poems showed her just how much I had held on to over the years. It was interesting for us both to see how I’d digested and re-interpreted everything she’d told me.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
NLB: It’s a huge honour! I wrote ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ – and many other poems – as a means of preserving and celebrating my family’s extraordinary stories, so it means a lot to me that there are others who are willing to listen to and engage with them.
FP: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
NLB: I started writing ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ while on a poetry course led by Mary Jean Chan on testimony and bearing witness. I was already thinking a lot about piecing together personal histories and inherited memories, and these thoughts intensified while on that course.
Although I’m not a Vietnamese speaker, I’ve grown up around the language and have always loved how tone and diacritical marks completely change the sense of a word. I chose to write about this using my middle name because it’s part of my identity – the only part of my name that acknowledges my Vietnamese heritage. However, it is often left out, misspelled, or anglicised. Therefore, I wanted to re-centre it while also centring the culture and history of the country where it comes from.
Writing about diacritics was also a political choice. In a climate where English is often treated as the superior language and many people are made to suffer for using their native languages, I wanted to resist these racist attitudes by centring and celebrating the beauty and uniqueness of Vietnamese.
‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ isn’t part of a sequence, but its themes are very much ‘in conversation’ with my wider body of work. I think of everything I write as a sort of fragmented arc: narrative threads that tentatively meet when read side by side.
A lot of my older poems are in my pamphlet, The Protection of Ghosts (V. Press, 2019). A mix of my old and new work can be accessed online via the Poetry Society, harana, Wildcourt, wildness, The Willowherb Review, bath magg and the Bedtime Stories for the End of the World podcast.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
NLB: Romalyn Ante is a must-read for everyone: her poems teach us a lot about tenderness, empathy and courage, and are full of vibrant, multi-sensory images. I’ve learned so much from her. I also experience Ocean Vuong’s poetry very intensely. I love the beautiful ways in which memories – first-hand and inherited – are preserved and re-interpreted in his work. I’ve heard him speak of this as an ‘artistic collaboration with fact’, which is a precept I carry with me as a writer. I deeply admire Warsan Shire for the multivocal feel of her work, and the way she bears witness to trauma and survival with such directness and resonance. I also love Jihyun Yun’s powerful evocations of girlhood, hunger and intergenerational relationships – her work feels so deft and close to the body.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
NLB: I am working on my debut full-length collection, which is heavily informed by my family’s experiences as Vietnamese-Chinese refugees living in the UK. In my poems, I aim to celebrate the women in my family as protectors, survivors, and healers. In my collection, I hope to position their stories alongside Vietnamese and Chinese myths about warrior-women, mothers, daughters, and goddesses to create a dialogue across centuries and a sense of empowering matrilineage.
I’ve also been working on a memoir-essay about hungry ghosts and how they link with my personal memories and family history. I’m planning to return to this form in the future.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
NLB: Keep reading contemporary poetry until you find the poets and styles that ‘speak’ to you and make you want to write. The poetry world can feel very inaccessible and overwhelming, especially at first. However, there are lots of beautiful and innovative journals that are online and free to read. These include amberflora, bath magg, Frontier Poetry, harana, Glass Poetry, The Margins (run by Asian American Writers’ Workshop), The Offing, The Willowherb Review, wildness, and Young Poets’ Network. Young Poets’ Network also has a lot of free prompts and resources. I think that all of these spaces would be inspiring for poets at any stage in their career.