Photo Credit: Sophie Davidson
If you were to map your poetry reading history, what books would act as key co-ordinates?
My poetry reading history – by which I mean paying attention to poetry and seeking it out on my own terms – begins with Anne Carson, whose long poem “The Glass Essay” was introduced to me by Anna Jackson in my final undergraduate year of uni. Her translations of Sappho in If Not, Winter and her shadowy, hybrid work Nox suddenly split open for me the limits of what poetry could mean. That’s when I began to feel at home in poetry, maybe because I’ve always been drawn to things that can’t be explained.
Very quickly in my literature degree I realised that the ‘Western literary canon’ we studied was the product of a violent colonial legacy. Instead I felt a pull towards the fringes of contemporary poetry, where I found poets doing extraordinary things with poetic form and linguistic boundaries, especially in The Time of the Giants by Anne Kennedy, The Same as Yes by Joan Fleming, and Lost And Gone Away by Lynn Jenner.
But it wasn’t until I discovered Cup by Alison Wong during my MA year that I recognised something of my own childhood and background in New Zealand poetry. Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe, published in 2016, was the first poetry book I ever read by someone half-Chinese like me. Ever since, I’ve been building my own poetry canon made up of works that negotiate displacement, loss, diaspora, living between cultures, and the ongoing damage caused by European colonisation. Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, and Poukahangatus by Tayi Tibble are all books that I would like to carry around me at all times like talismans to keep me safe.
What do you want your poems to do?
I want a poems that are spells for curing homesickness, I want poems that are notebooks and witness accounts and dream diaries, I want poems that create a noticeable shift in the temperature of the air and transport you to your grandma’s kitchen.
Which poem in your selection particularly falls into place. Why?
I knew that when I saw a kōwhai tree in full bloom in a garden in north London, close to where I was working at the time, I would need to write about it because it was the only thing I could do. It was spring and in spring I tend to feel really melodramatic about things. I don’t think the poem is melodramatic, though; I think it ended up somehow capturing what I was feeling, in fragments: both very far away and very close to home at exactly the same moment.
There is no blueprint for writing poems. What might act as a poem trigger for you?
Recent poem triggers: silken tofu, being near the sea, tracking sunlight across my tiny garden in order to figure out where particular plants will grow, a house on fire by the side of the motorway, chocolate ice cream, dreams about whales, Chinese supermarkets, reading, reading.
If you were reviewing your entry poems, what three words would characterise their allure?
(This is too difficult and I wish I could ask someone else). Dreamlike, downpour, heatwave.
You are going to read together at the Auckland Writers Festival. If you could pick a dream team of poets to read – who would we see?
It would have to be a few American and British poets who I’ve discovered only since moving to London, because I want them and their work to travel as widely as possible. But I wouldn’t want to read alongside them because then I would be too nervous / too in awe / tearful to listen properly. Ocean Vuong – because sometimes at poetry readings he bursts into song. Also Tracy K. Smith, Raymond Antrobus, Bhanu Kapil, and Rachel Long.
Nina Mingya Powles is of Pākehā and Malaysian-Chinese heritage and was born in Wellington. She is the author of field notes on a downpour (2018), Luminescent (2017) and Girls of the Drift (2014). She is poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a new poetry press. Her prose debut, a food memoir, will be published by The Emma Press in 2019.
You can hear Nina read ‘Mid-Autumn Moon Festival 2016’ here