Tag Archives: Nina Powles

Better off Read: Pip Adam talks with Nina Powles





Episode 51: Pip Adam talks to Nina Powles about her new work LUMINESCENT

Listen here.

‘In this episode I spoke with one of my favourite Wellington poets Nina Powles. I first spent time with Nina around Helen Rickerby’s table where a group of us were hand-binding copies of her first collection Girls of the Drift.

Nina is an outstanding poet, non-fiction writer and zinemaker. She is half Malaysian-Chinese, half Pākehā. Nina has an MA in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington and won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry for the first draft of Luminescent. She is the author of the chapbook Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014) and several poetry zines.

Nina’s new work Luminescent is an extraordinary work.’


Paula: I love this collection so much. Here is my review.



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



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.




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.




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

Nina Powles on Vona Groarke in conversation with Cliff Fell at the City Gallery ‘I’m interested in words being placed on top of other words; words landing on top of their own shadow’


Vona Groarke in conversation with Cliff Fell at the City Gallery,

Wellington. 21 May, 2015



the lit window summons the dark

as if from one frame of mind to another,


as if from one future to a future opposite

runs a tripwire of desire.


— Vona Groarke, ‘The Courtyards of Vilhelm Hammershøi’, from X



In the dimly lit auditorium, attended by a good crowd for a rainy Thursday afternoon, Groarke begins by reading from a sequence of poems about her garden, from her latest collection, X. She acknowledges the difficulty in writing about one’s garden—so many people have done it before. But this didn’t daunt her. She talks about putting aside how certain subjects have been written about in the past, and seeing how you can make it grow in your own small patch.

Her poems—and the things she says when she talks about her poems—keep coming back to the idea of ‘negotiating the territory between an object’s physical reality and its metaphorical resonance.’ A murmur ripples through the audience. These are exactly the moments in her poems that catch me—the way we’re suddenly shown two layers of reality at once, in so few words.

When asked about the characteristics of Irish poetry, Groarke smiles and says there might be things that can be identified as Irish inside poems, ‘but all these things don’t necessarily add up to an Irish poem’. Her answer reminds me of things people often say about New Zealand poetry and the impossibility of defining what ‘a New Zealand poem’ is.

She reads one of her ekphrastic poems, ‘La Route’, about a painting by André Derain. It reads ‘your footprints in the dust / fall upon footprints in the dust’. She comes back to this particular image later in the conversation: ‘I’m interested in words being placed on top of other words; words landing on top of their own shadow.’ Reading the poem on the page certainly has this effect, but hearing it aloud is another thing—hearing the words land on top of their echo.

Vona-Groarke  Vona-Groarke  Vona-Groarke  Vona-Groarke   Vona-Groarke

Groarke has many poems about paintings, including a haunting sequence in X about the work of Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi who paints empty rooms with mere traces of human presence left inside them. Looking at a painting sometimes triggers a poem, she says, but not always. When asked about where she finds inspiration, she says there’s no single place; they can come from anywhere. ‘You don’t get better or faster at writing poems. You get better at learning to recognise when something has happened that might result in a poem.’ I sense a murmur of agreement around me. ‘That unpredictability, that not knowing when or where a poem will spring from,’ she says, ‘that keeps me writing.’

As the conversation drew to its end, Groarke read the opening passage of her translation of EibhlÍn Dubh NÍ Chonnaill’s ‘Lament for Art O’Leary,’ a poem extemporised in the Irish keening tradition and considered one of the greatest 18th century Irish poems. She finished with two poems about her daughter. One – an account of a visit to Haworth – focused on an exhibit of Charlotte Bronte’s underwear. As Groake asked of the audience, why would anyone want to exhibit someone else’s underwear, let alone Charlotte Bronte’s? Why, indeed?


Irish poet, Vona Groarke, has published six collections with Gallery Press. Her poems have  appeared in the following places: Yale Review, The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Guardian, The Times and Poetry Review. Vona currently edits Poetry Ireland Review and teaches poetry in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Vona was judge of the Sarah Broom Poetry Award in 2015 and appeared at the Award session at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.

Nina Powles lives in Wellington and is studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. Her debut chapbook Girls of the Drift was published by Seraph Press in 2014, from which a poem was selected by Vincent O’Sullivan for Best New Zealand Poems 2014. Her non-fiction writing, ranging from book reviews to essays about whales, has appeared in Salient and Turbine.

Girls-of-the-Drift-cover-web Nina

Poem Friday: Nina Powles’ ‘Josephine’ — This is a poem of curvature and overlap




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Author bio:  Nina Powles studied English literature and Chinese at Victoria University, where she is now studying towards her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her poetry and non-fiction has appeared in Salient, Turbine and Sweet Mammalian. Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press 2014) is her debut poetry collection. She will spend the upcoming year working on a new collection of biographical poems.


Author note: ‘Josephine’ is one of a pair of poems that I wrote in response to my favourite short story by Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’. The two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, have only ever known a life of duty and obedience to their father, until he dies, and then the world begins to open itself up to them in a series of small moments of colour and brightness. In my reading and writing, I always find myself thinking about people and places stuck in the in-between, caught in phases of transition. So I think I wanted this poem to sit on the verge of brightness. I wanted to crawl into the dark bedroom where Josephine feels trapped—and maybe start to show her the way out.


Note by Paula: I read this poem out of context, without linking it to Katherine Mansfield’s story, and I was struck by the luminous detail that sets the poem in marvellous shifting lights. The adjectives pulsate (‘the dark shell’).  I love the jarring counterpoint of expectation and discovery in the opening lines. I love the way the beginning and end take hold of each other in that sticky, candied link. This is a poem of curvature and overlap. Time folds in on itself as it does like rock striking rock to produce a spark of elsewhere. So the marmalade leads you to the core of the poem and core of memory with its emotional kick. And the image of the hand (‘thin like spindly bones in a/ small purse’) with its little potent bite,  again leads to small child and old father. Poems can reach you in small, perfectly formed packages such as this, and the joy is in the alluring rustle of tissue paper. This detail shining through here, that discovery shining through there. I use the word, ‘rustle,’ as this is a poem of sweetly composed music; there is the rustle of vowels and consonants that lifts beyond meaning, beyond feeling and then adds to each. I read Nina’s note after I wrote this and smiled at the notion of ‘small moments of brightness.’


Seraph Press page here