Nina Powles is a young female poet from Wellington, New Zealand. Her first book of poetry, Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press 2014), was published while she was studying as an undergraduate at Victoria University. The following year, she completed an MA in creative writing at the IIML. Nina writes beautifully on women’s experiences in New Zealand, taking inspiration from historical figures—often, from the perspectives of people whose lives became, over time, anecdotal to others: to men, to buildings, to ghosts. She has already been recognized in the Best New Zealand Poems 2014 anthology, selected by Vincent O’Sullivan, and with the Biggs Prize for Poetry in 2015.
Nina is a natural storyteller. She transmits a part of herself into the heads and hearts of her subjects. Her approach to writing about other women—historical figures who have become over time (and the patriarchy) at least in some ways ‘secondary’ to someone or something else—feels bound to their emotions, their souls, and their lives. It is a kind of intimacy with them, when she writes of cosmologist and astrologer Beatrice Tinsley in Red (IV): “A dark mole on the inner curve of her left knee./ A small, cool star./ A galaxy near the end of its life cycle, its gas clouds no longer collapsing to form stars./ A drop of blood on the bathmat.”
This year, Nina is living and studying in Shanghai. She has been writing a food blog during her travels. In the same way that Nina’s poetry feels intimate with its subjects, so does her blog. It isn’t your standard, curated high-gloss travel blog, but rather something a lot more real. It’s a space for Nina to contemplate her heritage, her experiences, and her current position in the world as connected to her personal interest in dumplings, buns, and snacks. When considering a simple noodle dish tossed with oil, soy sauce, and spring onions, Nina writes, “With each bite I feel increasingly powerful and glorious,” and “Girl’s gotta get her bànmiàn.”
Nina’s age, gender, and ethnicity as a Kiwi writer feels important—not as a person with some kind of abstract ‘potential for growth,’ a label so many young writers are given, but as a woman already conscious of herself and grounded in her voice. Already, I am in such awe of her. As it happens with everyone, Nina’s style and focus will undoubtedly change over time, and I can’t wait to see what she does, and where she goes next.
Caro DeCarlo: Where did your interest in writing come from?
Nina Powles: The first thing I ever wrote was Harry Potter fan-fiction. I suspect the same might be true for many other writers around my age, except they’d rather keep it a secret. It was a twelve-chapter series with a female protagonist who was basically me. Harry was a minor character. It’s probably still on the internet somewhere, which is both horrifying and weirdly comforting.
When I write I’m also trying to reclaim something that adulthood tried to stamp out of me.
So my need to write came directly as a result of reading and from living almost totally inside my own head. Not much has changed, although I’ve since discovered (and am still discovering) lots of other reasons why I write. But it all started with my inability to stop imagining things.
I think that at some point in growing up—somewhere around our early teenage years, which is also when our imaginations run the wildest—it becomes no longer acceptable to live inside our own heads. A few weeks ago I went to a reading by a Hong Kong fiction writer called Dorothy Tse and she said something like “writing is a way of going back to childhood.” Her stories are very surreal in a way that my poems aren’t, but I think that when I write I’m also trying to reclaim something that adulthood tried to stamp out of me.
CD: When did you first start thinking about & generating the writing that appears in Girls of the Drift?
NP: I was around 17 when I started to feel frustrated at the lack of women’s history and books by women taught at school (and I went to an all-girls’ school). This coincided with me learning what the word “feminism” meant for the first time—and not from any of my teachers or peers, but from hours spent on Tumblr. So I think, in a way, I had been thinking about the concept of Girls of the Drift for a long time, but just hadn’t found an outlet for what I wanted to say. That’s why the process of writing the poems was so quick; once I found my outlet, thanks to a university assignment that required us to hand in a portfolio of original poetry, the poems started coming and wouldn’t stop.
The actual girls of Girls of the Drift were planted in my mind when I rediscovered the short stories of Katherine Mansfield in my final year of uni. Mansfield is a very famous New Zealand writer and her ghost kind of looms annoyingly over New Zealand literary history. At least, that’s the sense I get from the way people talk about her. It was deeply uncool to read her at high school so I never did, until a couple of years ago when I read her Collected Stories and they blew my mind. They are full of strange, shadowy female characters and explore complex relationships between women. And they are beautiful, so full of light and colour.
CD: What was the process like getting your book published through Seraph Press?
NP: When I think of how Girls of the Drift came to be, I feel really grateful and lucky to be surrounded by so many kind, experienced, fiercely talented women writers and publishers. When my lecturer Anna Jackson (herself a poet) read my work, she suggested I send it to Helen Rickerby, the managing editor of Seraph Press. We met up for coffee and talked about feminism and Anne Carson and she said she’d like to publish my manuscript as a chapbook. This might have been when I first found out that chapbooks were an actual thing.
I wish authors would talk more about how their book covers came to be, so I’m going to talk about mine.
I had no idea what to expect. I had only a vague impression of the New Zealand poetry scene as something that went on silently and secretly, inaccessible to wide-eyed newcomers like me. I was nervous the first time Helen said we should “go through” my manuscript. But the editing process was relatively quick, incredibly fun, and totally chill. We spent most of the time laughing and eating cake.
I wish authors would talk more about how their book covers came to be, so I’m going to talk about mine. The design of the book was really important to me and I knew from Seraph Press’s catalogue of beautiful publications that this was important to Helen too. I knew I wanted some kind of animal on the cover; we both knew the overall look and feel of the chapbook should reflect something of the poems themselves: a little otherworldly, a little bit radical. In the end Helen came up with the owls while I picked the fuchsia pink color.
My favorite part of the process was the actual making of the book. We gathered together a small army of people to fold and sew them all at Helen’s dining room table. So the finished product is more than just a book. It’s a beautiful physical object, put together by many hands.
CD: What are you working on now?
NP: Right now I’m floating in this weird in-between space where I’m not writing towards any specific project, but also feeling like I need to be writing as much as humanly possible. I do have this idea that one day I will probably write a book about being half-Chinese, about living in Shanghai, about being a woman, about home. So the stuff I’m writing now—mostly unfinished things: scraps of poems, half-written essays, vignettes—might be material for this book I will one day write. I started out as a poet not writing about myself, so now I basically only write about myself.
CD: You recently started making (very beautiful!) poetry zines. What are your thoughts on self-publishing? Do you think you would ever self publish a longer collection of writing?
NP: Before I knew about zines, I thought all self-publishing was old guys in their basements writing self-help e-books. But then you have young people creating radical, chaotic zines full of their own art and their own words. This is truly wonderful, especially for poetry because I think lots of people are scared of attempting to read/write poetry thanks to how it’s taught in high school. They think it’s hard and obscure and there are too many rules. I feel this way sometimes too. But with zines there are no rules. There’s no one deciding whose work makes it into print and whose doesn’t. So suddenly there can be this explosion of new voices and new forms that no one else in mainstream publishing has been brave enough to even think of yet, let alone put out into the world.
I think lots of people are scared of attempting to read/write poetry thanks to how it’s taught in high school.
Zinemaking is where poetry and visual art/design/illustration intersect, which makes total sense to me because I’ve always seen poetry and visual art as two parts of a whole. It’s a really exciting, creative environment that makes you brave enough to try new things. When I talk about poetry zines I get so excited I get goosebumps.
I started making poetry zines last year, halfway through my MA. I was fed up with being stuck inside the world of my manuscript. I needed a break, needed to make something with my hands. My zines are short — around 12 pages long –which means I can come up with small concepts and put them out into the world quickly. I’m an impatient writer; I usually think poems are finished before they are. But I like that about zines. They’re imperfect, messy, and more beautiful because of it. I could see myself producing a longer work in a non-traditional book format in the future, maybe not even a book but some other strange handmade object.
CD: Since writing Girls of the Drift, you spent a year getting an MA in creative writing. How did that specific writing community influence your own writing?
NP: How did it not? It’s only since it’s over that I can see how that year turned me into a better, braver writer (and human being in general). Being surrounded by other people who were just as overwhelmed and terrified and excited, having deadlines, reading constantly, having a group of generous and intelligent readers of my work, getting to meet visiting writers––all of this widened my view of what poetry can be, and gave me the confidence to actually call myself a writer for the first time in my life.
Lots of people do it these days, but getting an MA or MFA is not the only way to become a writer. I know a lot of brilliant writers who have never done a workshop. But I do think it’s a good thing to break down that stereotype of writing being a lonely, desolate profession. I just wish these writing programmes could be more accessible to absolutely everyone, not just people like me who are privileged enough to be able to make that choice.
Lots of people do it these days, but getting an MA or MFA is not the only way to become a writer.
CD: This year, you made a big move to Shanghai. How important do you feel location is for creativity? Have you found your writing style or habits have changed much since moving abroad?
NP: Since moving to Shanghai my life has changed hugely. I’ve gone from living in a small city surrounded by lots of people I love to living in a huge city alone. Adjusting to the change has meant that many days I don’t have the time or emotional energy to write. And then I feel that acute anxiety that I’m not writing enough, not recording enough about the experience of living here at this time in my life, and if I don’t write enough about it then one day I’ll blink and it’ll all have been a dream. So now, for the first time in my whole life, I keep a journal.
I think it’s not so much location that affects creative output but other circumstances like time, energy, emotional and physical health. On bad days, when homesickness is at its worst, I find it impossible to write. I need emotional clarity and stability. One thing that’s helped me adjust to living alone is feeling secure in the knowledge that in order to do what I love most, I need nothing but my own hands, my eyes, my brain.
I think it’s not so much location that affects creative output but other circumstances like time, energy, emotional and physical health.
CD: What’s a typical day like for you, if there is one? What’s an ideal day?
NP: I’ve lived in Shanghai for four months now but I’m still figuring this out. My typical day starts with an excellent breakfast (most people need coffee, I need breakfast), going to Chinese class for most of the day, finding a spot to do homework under the trees outside or at a café if it’s raining (which at the moment is every day), then biking home. My ideal day in Shanghai would be filled with all the things that I’ve learnt make me feel calm and strong when everything starts to overwhelm me: walking around the city, riding my bike at night, eating good food with friends, writing, creating.
6 / THE GHOST AT THE SCHOOL DANCE
(the flowers on the bannisters glow like they have moons inside them) (I reach for one but my fingers clutch at air) (pink-and-blue lights blink above) (me) (I am here) (in a crowd of girls with glitter falling from their eyelashes) (onto their cheeks) (girls ignoring boys gaping at them in the dark) (girls so close) (if I had skin) (there would be goosebumps) (and when I raise my arms) (to mirror them) (my hands look almost real) (in the rippling light) (and do they remember?) (do they remember all the times they asked me?) (to say my name?) (to make a sound?) (and all those times I answered back) (causing them to run away?) (now here I am) (dancing in the shifting air) (in my white dress that only I can see) (flaming)
More of Nina’s creative work can be found on her website. Her interests include whales, zines, and her dog Toby. Her poetry appears in Starling, Turbine, Sweet Mammalian, and Best New Zealand Poems 2014. Another recent and wonderful interview with Nina appears on Speaking of Marvels. She tweets @ninamingya.