FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
STEPHANIE SY-QUIA: So far, writing poetry is inextricable from writing Amnion – it took me nine years and I started it when I was fifteen. I began writing it in prose, small fragmented chunks which I didn’t know how to arrange. Then, a few years in, I started putting line breaks in and suddenly it felt as if the text sighed in relief, and I remember a very clear thought of ‘Ah, this is what you wanted to be all along!’
I think I turned to poetry because I was looking for a certain quality of weightedness. The way poetry can be arranged on the page commands a certain kind – and pace – of attention. I wanted that reverence for my family history, which contains many pains and fractures, and which I wanted to piece together in a way that would do it justice. When I began writing Amnion, I was also at a cathedral school, and steeped in the cadences of the King James Bible. From there, I would go home and listen to my family members tell the same stories I’d heard them tell many times before, and I paid attention to where the emphasis fell every time, the way these anecdotes developed their own prosody and aural footholds. I wanted to replicate all of that in Amnion: the rhythms of the text or story held in high esteem, of myths, of founding fictions. So many of the texts which really inspired me I also encountered in translation, at several removes from the dead language in which they were originally written: the Odyssey, the epic of Gilgamesh, Old English poems, Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho. So many of these texts are also badly damaged, and their translations not only walk the line between clarity and ornament, they sometimes (in the case of a damaged or partial text), have a halting quality, an uncertainty, a knowledge of things having been lost over time, which I find more interesting than a self-assured poetic speaker.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
SS-Q: I didn’t feel I was a poet until my book was published! I didn’t take the traditional route of writing poems and having them accepted for publication in magazines, nor did I produce any pamphlets before Amnion was acquired by Granta. One of the reasons Amnion took me such a long time was that I didn’t take it – or myself – seriously until relatively late in the whole process. It was just a word doc that I tinkered with late at night, at three month intervals, or something I sifted out of the compost heap of my notebooks. The process of seeing myself as a poet is ongoing, I would say.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
SS-Q: It is such a huge honour and I am so excited to see who else is on the shortlist. We have had such an exciting string of years in Anglophone poetry, and the prizes have awarded people whose work I deeply admire.
FP: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
SS-Q: Amnion began with two things. The first was my frustration at the question ‘Where are you from?’ which was something that began to be asked me a lot at boarding school in England. I arrived there aged fourteen, having previously lived in France. It was a very isolating experience – I was unprepared for the culture shock and the workings of the British class system. ‘Where are you from?’ was a very difficult question for me to answer: in that environment, I didn’t feel British, even though the UK is the country to which I hold a passport; and I had no legitimate claim to being French, because I had no passport for it and I wasn’t born there.
The second was the prompt of my English language GCSE exam, which was something along the lines of ‘write about a childhood experience which you feel was important to you’. I wrote about the death of my grandfather, who had been a Catholic priest, and as I wrote I realised that my family history – on both sides – is quite interesting, and it further complicated any answer I might have to the question of where I come from. Amnion is therefore my attempt to wrestle with the metrics for provenance and belonging: I think it more interesting to ask what and who we come from. The early passages of the book are very precious to me, because they represent the oldest material: there are phrases in there which date from my teens, and I like to think that their continued inclusion in the text is a kind of loyalty to former selves. The first three sections were written fairly piecemeal over many years, with many rearrangements and insertions along the way, and the final section was written almost all in one go, very late in the process. I suppose that last part gave me a big rush, because it was when I felt at my most ‘writerly’: until then I’d felt as if I was trying to piece something together from tiny shards.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SS-Q: I love Anne Carson and Arundhati Roy (who is not, I realise, a poet) for their whacky senses of metaphor; Maggie Nelson for how she pole-vaults between registers; Eduardo Galeano for his books which arrange long sequences of often seemingly unrelated anecdotes; all of Michael Ondaatje’s writing for very similar reasons: how he ennobles even the tiniest detail, the gentleness of his writing; Layli Long Soldier for her magnificent rebuttals to the utterances of the state. All of them operate in such a way that their writing percolates through the minds of their readers over many years, a process which for me is ongoing, and joyous. Again, also not poets, but Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, for their nose for the metanarrative.
But I also think it’s important to think of influence in a more lateral, broad way: I love, for instance, the work of photographers Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, their ability to give vegetables a sense monumental scale; or how Lucien Clergue can turn a nude into something strange and playful. I can find tiny moments of cinema incredibly inspiring, and in my view some of the highest praise Amnion has received is that it contains moments of a very cinematic quality. I think cinema has an amazing capacity to ennoble, to lend a magnitude to the small, the quiet, the brief. I love that and that’s what I hoped to do too.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
SS-Q: My family’s reaction to Amnion has been interesting to observe and has thrown up questions and conversations which continue to fascinate and inspire me. I imagine I will be writing in dialogue with Amnion for some time yet.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SS-Q: Be omnivorous: don’t just look to other poets or writers. Look broadly for other sources of influence and don’t be a snob. Never let anyone embarrass you about what you find interesting or inspiring, and never embarrass anyone else about it! Also: find out what it is that you do for rest and play. Don’t be afraid to let the fields of the mind lie fallow.