Tag Archives: Nina Powles

Poetry Shelf reviews Nina Powles’s Luminescent – Every poem is a jewel of a thing

 

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Luminescent, Nina Powles, Seraph Press, 2017

 

Nina Powles’s debut poetry collection, Luminescent, is a set of five slender chapbooks in a night-sky sleeve. Each book is like a constellation, with a particular woman, its luminosity. (Auto)biography of Ghost catches a ghost who was said to haunted Queen Margaret College’s bell tower where she fell to her death; Sunflowers becomes a conversation and an homage to Katherine Mansfield; Whale Fall imagines the world of Betty Guard, perhaps the first Pākehā woman to have lived in the South Island; Her and the Flames draws upon Phyllis Porter who died at 19 when her costume caught alight in a theatrical performance; The Glowing Space Between the Stars turns to Beatrice Tinsley, a New Zealand cosmologist. There are notes in the back of each booklet that background each woman.

 

I love the way the poems talk to each other within each booklet and between booklets.

 

The poetry extends itself in imaginings, yet grounds itself in the light of an autobiographical presence and research. Motifs such as dust, moths, ghosts and dreams are like connecting lacework that render a sense of ethereal wholeness to the set. The poems accumulate exquisitely textured voice; confident and idiosyncratic, searching and still, melodic and spare, intricate and warm. Every poem is a jewel of a thing.

 

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Sunflowers takes several Mansfield experiences as starting points for poems: she burnt all her letters and journals when she was in her early turbulent twenties; she wrote about a writing epiphany after seeing a Van Gogh painting for the first time; she recorded a dream after her brother’s death. In an early chapbook, Girls of the Drift, Nina put New Zealand poets, Jessie Mackay and Blanch Baughan together in poetry. The poems offered surprising pathways into our first women poets in print alongside a young contemporary poet forging her own poetic trails. With the Mansfield poems, I feel like I am sitting in a room in the South of France, and each poem resembles an aperture in the wall that pulls me into a Mansfield dreaming.

‘Fever dream’ is without punctuation, a slim short-lined poem that sizzles with ‘s’ alliterations that cut into the feverish night. In the midst of the hissing heat (stinging scorching nerves skin simmers inside struck bones sky she rising), two words cut into the fevered skin (teeth cracking). The poem is visually alert with its storm inflected sky. What stamps the poem indelibly is the final image:

 

bones cracking under

a New Zealand sky

and she is the wave

rising to meet it

 

‘She’ is Mansfield, and in that wave of fevered self, I am hooked into Mansfield musings.

The poems tap nostalgia, calling upon the senses to electrify the page. ‘Silver dream’ is set in a London garden in 1915, where Katherine bites into the pear her brother hands her:

It tastes like jam sandwiches

and sunshine on her mother’s hair.

 

After physical details that light the scene, the poem shifts to dream again, to the ghost-like vein that runs through all the poems, and it’s a surprising nudge. The pear leads us to ‘where everything is silver/ and he is alive again’, and the idyllic setting shifts. We are also lead to the collection’s title, as the whole poem glows with ache and loss in subtle overlaps:

 

Later she plants a pear tree

in one of her stories,

 

makes it glow in the window,

makes it touch the moon.

 

Several booklets feature erasure poems, where blocks of ghostly grey enable certain words to shine out as a poem. That we can see the journal entry in ‘Lucid dream’, through the grey veil, adds to the dream-like state of shiver and float. I pictured the whole journal translated into grey-veil poems. The lines that lift up feel so apt: ‘Time/ was shaken/ out of me.’ The final word, ‘violet’, pulls back to sweet-scented earth, to that nostalgic hunt for elsewhere places and elsewhere memories.

 

I love this set of poetry booklets, because we still need light shining on the shadows to recover the women who did extraordinary things, or everyday things, so they form a constellation, a suite of coordinates that might shift our contemporary means of navigation.

 

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The Glowing Space Between Stars again links to the collection’s title, and underlines the idea that poetry can light up things, experiences, relations, ideas, feelings, memory. Beatrice, the cosmologist, shows how the space between things is the domain of curiosity. And for me, that feeds back into the way poetry is also curious about the gaps between. When you enter the poem gap, you enter a luminous field that so often surprises or delights or upturns.

Nina lists things in Beatrice’s childhood room; out of these things grew the adult curiosity (did anyone do this for Einstein or Newton?). She imagines the girl at 16:

 

then rushing home immediately

to write down what she’s seen,

noting especially

the glowing space between stars,

how it seems to have changed

since the night before.

 

Nina is making poems and she is making biographies, the one coming out of the other, and it is as though she is not tied to the rules of one or the rules of the other but can imagine and detour and intrude. In ‘Minutes’, the poet moves behind the galaxy facts, and the ongoing discoveries, to reveal the hiding narratives, the domestic underlay:

 

The light emitted by distant galaxies

takes billions of years to reach us.

It comes from a far younger universe,

somewhere where no one ever worried

about ironing their husband’s shirts

or arranging after-school childcare

because there were no ironing boards

and no children and no husbands

 

Five glowing booklets of poems that shine beyond the individual poems to gather a necessary and inventive, a lyrical and seismic, view of five very different women. I love this collection with its feminist energy, its poetic agility and its warm heart.

 

This, too, was the perfect time

to measure things in infinities.

 

from ‘Red (ii)’

 

Nina Powles, half Malasian-Chinese and half Pākehā, is from Wellington where she graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University. There, she won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry for Luminescent’s first draft. She writes poetry, non-fiction and makes poetry zines. Her chapbook, Girls of the Drift, was published by Seraph Press in 2014.

 

Seraph Press page

Nina Powles web page

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Nina Powles on hunger, food and poetry with @LyndaChanwaiEar on National Radio

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“You must be hungry girls,” he said. We were in Shanghai, 14 or 15, eating dumplings. We absolutely were hungry girls, I don’t just mean food. We were hungry for everything, in every sense of the word.”  – Nina Powles.

“Love is a bowl of noodles. Eating noodles reminds me of being at home, and also being very, very far away from home.” Nina Powles, Mooncake poetry zine, Shanghai, 2016.

“The first character of my mother’s name, Wen, is made of rain and language.  According to my dictionary, together they mean “multi-coloured clouds” or “cloud tints.” There are so many things I am trying to hold together. I write them down each day to stop them from slipping. Mouthfuls of rain, the blue undersides of clouds, her hydrangeas in the dark.”  Nina Powles, Field Notes On A Downpour, zine, Shanghai 2016.

 

I heard this  conversation replayed at 5 am this morning and it is terrific!

Coincidentally, I am about to post Nina’s contribution to the Autumn Season.

 

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Congratulations to Nina Powles, winner of Biggs Poetry Prize

Poetry Shelf is delighted to share this news!

Biggs Poetry Prize winner announced

18 December 2015

Collection of poetic biographies wins the Biggs Family Prize

Image of Nina Powles: 2015 winner of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. (Photographer: Caitlin Salter)

 

A collection of five poetic biographies of famous and lesser-known historical New Zealand women has been awarded the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry.

Written by Nina Powles as part of her 2015 Master of Arts (MA) in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), the book-length folio, titled Luminescent, has been described by Wellington poet Jenny Bornholdt as ‘engaging and colourful and alive to all kinds of possibilities’.

Although she started writing poems less than two years ago, Nina is already the author of a chapbook, Girls of the Drift, published by Seraph Press in 2014, from which a poem was selected for the 2014 edition of Best New Zealand Poems.

Nina, who went straight onto the MA after completing an honours degree in English Literature and Chinese at Victoria, says the opportunity to study at Master’s level has been a significant boost for her writing.

‘The MA programme gave me the tools and the confidence to call myself a ‘writer’ for the first time. More importantly, it gave me a community.’

 

For rest of article see here.

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Nina Powles makes her picks

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Having just finished my MA in poetry, this year has been not just one of writing but of reading poetry hungrily and intensely.

One of the joys of getting to know 10 other writers so closely was the huge number of new writers I discovered thanks to them. Two books I might otherwise never have come across were the challenging but sonically beautiful The Dream of the Unified Field by American poet Jorie Graham, and Claudia Rankine’s powerful and experimental Citizen.

Thanks to one of our visiting writers Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser, I read The Deep by Canadian writer Mary Swan. The Deep is a dreamlike novella set during WWI and I think it changed my life in 71 pages.

 

It was also an amazing year for new New Zealand poetry. I enjoyed falling into the spiky and surreal world of Miss Dust by Johanna Aitchison. And every single one of Joan Fleming’s Failed Love Poems made me feel breathless and lightheaded, a bit like being struck repeatedly by tiny bolts of lightning. From ‘Heathcliff’:

we know where to find the black tips / exquisite / of a soft tearaway / of what flew / and sang / we know the other is / best heard / in atmospheres / of howling

 

LEFT, edited by Wellington writer Jackson Nieuwland, is a book more people should know about. It’s heavy and enormous and full of fresh and startling art, fiction and poetry in glossy full-colour by New Zealand and American writers, including two of my favourite young poets Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle and Hera Lindsay Bird. From ‘Pain Imperatives’ by Hera Lindsay Bird:

You have to think ‘love has radicalized me’ and walk around like Helen of Troy

You have to walk around until the ships burn off

 

This year I also discovered the possibilities of the long-form poem, especially in Sarah Jane Barnett’s new book WORK, Alice Oswald’s Memoriam, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I’d read Autobiography of Red before but this year it suddenly became important to me in a new and startling way. For months I carried it around with me, knowing I could open it on any page and it would floor me:

 

Herakles switched on the ignition and they jumped forward onto the back of the night.

Not touching

but joined in astonishment as two cuts lie parallel in the same flesh.

 

Nina Powles

 

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Nina Powles on Katherine Mansfield’s newly-discovered poems

This from Nina Powles:

 

“Up and up beat her wings”

Lecture by Dr Gerri Kimber on her discovery of new poems by Katherine Mansfield, 5/8/15 at the City Gallery, Wellington

 

In 1999, a folder of papers was bequeathed to the Newberry Library in Chicago. It contained two letters to publishers sent in 1910 and 1911, typescripts of 35 poems, and a calling card embossed with a Chelsea address and the name KATHARINA MANSFIELD printed in a striking modern font.

The folder, labelled The Earth’s Child and other poems, had always been there. But no one had ever opened it; or if they had, no one realised what they’d seen.

Renowned Mansfield scholar and editor of the new Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield published by Edinburgh University Press, Dr Gerri Kimber, made this discovery in June this year. Currently in Wellington undertaking research at the Alexander Turnbull Library, she flicked through pictures of the folder’s contents at a lecture at the City Gallery.

Kimber believes Mansfield must have written the poems during or soon after Mansfield’s time in Bavaria, where she was sent by her mother, in 1909-1910. Almost all the poems are untitled except for a number, clearly intended to be read as a sequence. As a poet, this detail leaps out at me; it seems to show careful consideration for how the poems are meant to operate not just on their own but together, and the specific effect of this on the reader.

Mansfield is not best known for her poetry. The poems we knew of up until now are often more interesting from a biographical perspective, or read in relation to her fiction. Kimber doesn’t pretend otherwise: “I make no claims for the quality of her poetry.” But she does believe that throughout the published poems there are “flashes of brilliance.” However, throughout this sequence of poems all written in 1910, “these flashes of brilliance are everywhere—almost in every poem.”

The new poems aren’t yet available anywhere until next year, when they will be included in Volume 4 of the Collected Works. So we can only take Kimber’s word for it.

But as she flicks rapidly through photos of the typescripts, I read them as fast as I can. Words and phrases flare up at me, and I scribble them down at hectic speed: “the leaves smother closely” (poem 1), “trembling and burning ghosts” (poem 3), “her body was fashioned out of moonlight” (poem 7), “the foam that breaks over the world’s edge” (poem 23). The final poem Kimber shows us is strangely titled “To KM”. It describes herself in the third person—“she is a bird”—and although I could only read it once very fast, it seemed like an eerie premonition of Mansfield’s looming illness and death. It ends:

 

“A moment – a moment … I die.”

Up and up beat her wings.

 

These poems are from a period in her life from which Mansfield destroyed every scrap of written evidence that she could get her hands on. These were the years 1909-1911, when she just convinced her father Harold Beauchamp to let her return to London to try and establish herself as a writer. These years of her early twenties, the same age I am now, were her years of drugs, sex and (it seems) poetry. Her health never fully recovered.

So how and why did this folder of poems survive? Maybe it survived by accident, and if she knew we had it now, she’d be furious and burn it. Or maybe a more likely explanation is that she kept them not for their sentimental value but their literary value. Although they never got published, maybe she wasn’t disheartened. Maybe she still saw life in them.

What’s more interesting than the quality of the poems is the revelation that at this time, when she was just 22, Mansfield clearly saw herself as a poet. To some degree she always did; she continued writing poetry throughout her life. She’s not remembered as an exceptionally brilliant poet, but as I watch the typescripts flicker past on the screen in front of me, I can’t help but wonder whether maybe, if she hadn’t died so young, she might have become one.

Nina Powles, August 2015