FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
NINA MINGYA POWLES: I think I can pinpoint a moment. I was in my fourth year of studying English at university in Wellington, New Zealand, and one of my lecturers, the wonderful poet Anna Jackson, introduced me to contemporary poets such as Anne Carson, Louise Glück, Mary Ruefle and Helen Rickerby. We read Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’ in class one day and I was spellbound. Before this I’d always found poetry impossible, obscure, difficult. But after that class I rushed to the bookshop in town to see if they had any Anne Carson. They did – a volume of If Not, Winter, Carson’s translations of Sappho. I read it all in one sitting and after that I think my life was changed. The blank space on the page surrounding these fragments seemed to crackle and shimmer with energy. The possibilities of what ‘poetry’ could mean had suddenly been blown apart, opened wide for me.
FAF: 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.
NMP: I didn’t take writing very seriously until I got accepted into the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington. I got a scholarship for the fees which made it possible to convince my parents it wasn’t a totally foolish idea. It was a year of reading as much as writing; having studied mostly Victorian and twentieth-century poets during my English degree, I set out to educate myself as much as possible on contemporary poetry, especially New Zealand women poets. For a long time I felt like I was only really ‘playing the role’ of poet, and not a real poet, until I started to discover writers with similarly multicultural, multilingual, diasporic backgrounds – like Alison Wong, Ocean Vuong and Sarah Howe.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
NMP: As a writer at the beginning of my career, being shortlisted means so much to me. I am still a bit shocked. I never imagined that these poems that I wrote in my small dorm room when I was a language student in Shanghai would receive such recognition, or reach so many people. It also means a great deal to independent publishers like mine, Nine Arches Press, who work tirelessly to support new poets and keep poetry alive.
FAF: 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?
NMP: Magnolia, 木蘭 is a title that contains layers, which will be obvious to any Chinese speakers: ‘Mùlán’ (木蘭) means ‘magnolia’, which is also the official flower of the city of Shanghai, where most of these poems were written. I spent a year and a half there studying Mandarin. Shanghai is one of several places in the world that I call home, so I always knew that one day I would have to write a ‘Shanghai book’ but I didn’t know what form it would take. The end result is partly a collection of love letters to Shanghai, but it’s also about loneliness, and about trying to retrace your steps back towards a language you’ve lost. It didn’t occur to me at the time when I was writing the poems, but this is a common experience for many.
In 2018 I moved to London and I had this messy pile of dream-fragments, poems and essay-poems that I’d begun writing in Shanghai. I set to work finishing the drafts and started to see some kind of collection taking shape.
‘Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’ is both the first poem in the book and the oldest poem in the book. It’s special to me because unlike almost everything else I’ve written it hasn’t changed very much from the first draft, which came out all at once. At the time, I was part of a poetry group who ran open-mic nights at bars around Shanghai. The first time I shared this poem was at a weird craft beer bar on the ground floor of a big luxury fashion mall. Writing ‘Girl warrior’ gave me a a starting point from which I could start to explore things like language, dialect, and being mixed, through the medium of poetry.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
NMP: I’m drawn to poets who treat the boundaries of genre as fluid and permeable, like Bhanu Kapil, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine and Layli Long Soldier. Quite often, in their work, something within the line of the poem slips, gives way, and we are pulled suddenly into a different field of language. Also, Amy Key’s poems have this glittering texture that is somehow both dreamlike and very sharp at the same time – the way she uses language has had a profound effect on me. I make my own books and zines, so I’m very much influenced by experimental, interdisciplinary poets whose work crosses over into book art, like Nancy Campbell and Don Mee Choi.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
NMP: I’m working on a collection of essays, a sort of nature memoir written in fragments, to be published by Canongate in 2021. It’s about bodies of water, migration, food, and being mixed-race. But, writing doesn’t come very easily during lockdown. Instead I’ve been writing small things that my currently very short attention span can handle (gardening plans, future poem titles, a dream diary). I currently have a folder full of unfinished poems about things like arctic foxes, burnt forests, periods, and recurring dreams, so maybe something will come out of that.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
NMP: Read as deeply and as widely as you can, but don’t torture yourself trying to read a poetry book that just doesn’t chime with you – life is too short for that. If you feel something shift within your body or in the air around you shortly after (or during) the reading of a poem, this means you have understood the poem.