a conversation with five writers
A KIND OF IMAGINARY COLLECTIVE
Claudia Jardine is a postgraduate student at Victoria University and preferably a poet, whose work has also been published in Salient and The Spinoff. Sharon Lam is an architectural graduate and writer. Nina Powles is a writer and zinemaker from Wellington, currently living in London, and her debut poetry collection Luminescent was published by Seraph Press in 2017. Tayi Tibble completed her MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2017, where she was the recipient of the Adam Foundation Prize, and her work has also been published in Landfall, Sweet Mammalian and Turbine. Sophie van Waardenberg is completing her BA (Hons) in English and History at the University of Auckland, and has been published in Takahē, Signals, and The Spinoff.
We caught up with these five writers who were published in Issue One of Starling.
Who or what were some of the early influences on your writing?
Tayi Tibble: Carol Ann Duffy was my first major influence and entry into poetry. My mum had these two beautiful younger sisters, Ebony and Millie who were teenagers when I was 11 or 12 and I thought they were so cool. They really affected me growing up. Ebony had this cool bedroom which she painted teal and called it ‘The Mod Room’ and she and her friends had drawn all over this one wall, and somebody had written Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘Valentine’ in vivid and when I read it, the only apt word to describe how I felt was shook. It’s an earthquake of a poem. I memorized it on the spot and it’s my favourite poem to this day. Another early influence was Apirana Taylor. We learnt his poem ‘Sad Joke on the Marae’ in intermediate and I remember that being so emotional. It was both the first time I had read a poem that spoke to ideas of dislocation and navigating one’s own Māoridom, and the first time I realised that just a handful of words can be incredibly powerful. Lana Del Rey was also an early influence when I started writing poetry profusely at sixteen. Even though she was a singer, she referred to herself as a writer and a poet first and this made me feel very validated and serious about my lush baby antics. What she really did was give me permission to create vulnerable, feminine narratives and not be embarrassed about them, which was important because I think young females are often made to feel silly or embarrassed about the way they feel or the things they love.
Sophie van Waardenberg: Strangely, I think the seed of my love of poetry came from Lemony Snicket – specifically, from reading ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne in one of the books, and finding it, at age twelve, delicious, and wanting to write something so delicious. Obviously I haven’t adopted such lavish rhyme schemes, and I don’t think the poem would have such an impact on me if I were to read it now for the first time. But I think, because of it, I’m always trying for something lush in everything I write.
Sharon Lam: Paul Jennings was the first writer I remember reading who made me go oooh I wish I could write like that. I think a lot of my ‘creative writing’ in primary school and high school were really bad rip-offs of his stories. I’m probably still doing that now but I hope I’ve gotten a bit better at hiding it.
Nina Powles: It was only through reading that writing became possible for me. I didn’t get into poetry until my last year of uni, when I was introduced to contemporary poets like Anne Carson and Mary Ruefle. Through them and also contemporary New Zealand poets such as Joan Fleming, Alison Wong and Helen Heath, I realised that poetry was a living, breathing thing, and something that I could try too. I started reading as much poetry as I could, trying to make up for all the gaps left by an English Literature degree that mostly focused on dead white poets. I suddenly discovered a kind of imaginary collective of literary sisters and foremothers, all of whom have influenced me in some way: as well as the five I’ve already named, there’s Annie Dillard, Maggie Nelson, Safia Elhillo, Amy Key, Jenny Zhang and Franny Choi.
Claudia Jardine: When I was in high school I found the poet Megan Falley on Tumblr. There is a video on YouTube of her reading a poem called ‘Fat Girl’. It suddenly felt as if there might be a productive way to air out the confusing feelings that come with growing up. I went to a series of slam poetry workshops hosted by Tusiata Avia and Grace Taylor and quickly discarded a lot of the restrictions around writing that school had instilled in me. I could swear, I could talk about sex, and I could tell the sexists to fuck off.
It’s been two years since you were published in the first issue of Starling. We still remember the buzz of how it felt to see all of your work collected together in this way. What was the experience like for you?
Sophie: I remember feeling so excited to be published alongside people who were at similar points in their lives and their writing careers as I was. We were all sort of in that in-between place – not children, but still fledglings. And while it was exciting to be published in such a mix, it was more exciting to read everyone’s work and realise how we were all playing with language in different ways.
Nina: Starling was one of the first journals to publish my poems. It felt extra special because Starling is dedicated to supporting young writers, which means it’s a safe space that celebrates experimentation, newness, inexperience, rule-breaking and wildness. Issue One (and every issue since) uncovered a new community of young writers like me. I’m pretty sure a bunch of us are Twitter friends now. We support each other and read and share each other’s work online; I am always looking out for new work by Emma Shi, Sophie van Waardenberg, Rebecca Hawkes, essa ranapiri, Alex Hollis, Sharon Lam and many more. Starling made it known that what we’re creating is important and that our voices are worth listening to.
Tayi: When I got the yes from Starling, it was extra special because it was like my first step in becoming a proper writer! The opportunities I received thereafter because of Starling really sustained me, especially during that first year when I wasn’t widely published or up to much but despo as to be a writer doing writerly things.
Sharon: Honestly it all felt like a fluke! Especially with the first issue’s poems which I didn’t really ‘write’ entirely myself (my co-author was a computer algorithm). So when I read everyone else’s work with all their energy and self, my imposter sirens were going weewoo weewoo. But the reading experience at the launch helped to mitigate that a lot, I felt flattered and excited to be part of such a new sort of collection.
Sophie, your work seems really grounded in a deep love of language. Would you say there are particular areas that your ideas tend to come from, and how do you keep improving your work?
I think writing is such a luxury because I get to make something wrong. I get to say, here, look at this wrong thing, this dissonant adjective, this questionable collective noun, and look at how funny or joyous or sad it sounds! I get to make new and often stupid colours in poetry or creative prose that I don’t get to do so much when I am writing a squarely structured essay about modernist poetry. And I think I write best when I have been listening properly, collecting someone else’s (or my own) overabundant adverbs and anxious run-on sentences in the face of scary things. If my writing has truth in it, it comes from that kind of detail. I think one of the reasons for my preoccupation with voice is that, growing up, I read and listened to music as much as stories. You can only make music well if you hold onto the detail of the line, the dip and fall and articulation. The same with language.
Claudia, you’re a musician as well as a writer, and music often makes its presence felt in your writing – the matching of pop singers with the classical poems of Sulpicia, or the music references threaded through ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’. How do you approach writing about music (bearing in mind the oft-attributed line that to do so ‘is like dancing about architecture’)?
Music is always there, isn’t it? I try to keep it simple, because music is so often doused with metaphors and similes in text, and we all hear it so differently. I am good at picking out song references, so in the Sulpicia poems I used the lyrics that I found to anchor the tone of the poem. What is often difficult is figuring out which ideas to use for songs and which to use for poems, not to say that they can’t be both.
Sharon, humour is often a key component of your poetry, such as running into Ewan McGregor at the local swimming pool. How do you see humour working in your poems?
When I try to write it often reads back like a not very funny standup routine, which seems to be my default state, so I guess the humour that’s in the poems is a remainder of that.
Tayi, in the poems that you published in issues one and two of Starling you were working in a very compact form – those poems seem like perfectly formed miniatures. In recent writing that you’ve published you’ve often moved to longer, more expansive poems – how did you make this shift, and what are the advantages to these different forms?
The shift was made consciously as an exercise to expand my craft. There was a time when I thought I was not capable of writing anything long form and I convinced myself I disliked long poems/sequences anyway. I was quite convinced that good poetry was concise and concentrated – the most meaning packed into the smallest amount of words. I still think that is a valid statement, and I still love tight ‘perfect’ little poems, but the flip side of this conviction was that I was writing a lot of poems that weren’t successful, and they were failing because they weren’t generous to the reader. I was writing a lot of poems that were just fragments, poems boiled down to a concentrated nothingness – they basically evaporated off the page. I discovered that writing in a longer form provided the opportunity to be more exploratory and expansive. I think the change also came with developing the confidence to write longer poems, and the skill and stamina to keep them just as engaging as something petite and concise.
Claudia and Sophie, we’ve seen a variety of different forms from you in the work that you’ve published in Starling – you’ve published poems, a prose essay and translations. How do you find it moving between these forms – what are the attractions and challenges of each?
Claudia: Often the translations grow out of the homework from my university papers, so in that sense I’m just trying to be resourceful. Once a translation is out of the classroom, however, I can have a bit more fun with it, maybe twist the form a little. Sometimes I do feel that Classics has become cliché, so the challenge is trying to make it new, to think about it from a different perspective. I like to approach translating as if the piece is full of secrets. Writing prose is always challenging because I stop so often and think, ‘wait, who would really care about this?’ And so, I always find myself revising and paring down. I tend to write poems in one sitting, show them to a couple of people, read them aloud, and then revise. I like messing around with forms because I find a few guidelines can be helpful when it comes to streamlining ideas, but those guidelines are not necessarily The Boss.
Sophie: I feel freer with poetry, and so I usually gravitate towards it. When I end up writing prose, it has probably begun in some kind of poetic form – a line that has gotten stuck, or a poem that needs to be the opening sentence of a paragraph. Poetry feels like a safe place to start, because it can be very small. It can care for details that might get lost if I start with an essay in mind. The prose essay in Issue Three exists because Paula Morris made me write one for a class – but I’d like to write more of them, and to get better at storytelling in a longer, somewhat more solid form. With all its freedom, poetry is sometimes too generous in allowing me to fragment my way out of confronting certain realities. I know, with more patience, I could tell the truth of some stories better in prose.
Nina, you have both contributed to zines and created your own. What do you love about the form, and are there any online resources you can recommend for young writers who might be interested in creating their own but aren’t sure how to begin?
A zine can be about anything and anyone can make one. Putting your own creative work out into the world is a terrifying thing, but with zines there are no rules – you have full ownership. You could make a zine for yourself and your friends, or for no one, or to sell at a zine fair. I like making poetry zines because the idea of them breaks down the notion that reading and writing poetry is only for a few very talented people. A poetry zine can be chaotic, imperfect, unfinished or beautifully weird, whether handmade or mass-produced. I got into zine-making through free workshops run by the Wellington City Library. We Make Zines is a fantastic online community of zine-makers and readers with loads of resources, and this cool e-zine shows you how to make your first zine.
Sharon and Tayi, last year you completed your MA at the IIML where you worked respectively on your first novel and a manuscript of poems. How was the year, and how did your writing developed over the course of the MA?
Sharon: My writing developed heaps!! Since I’d mainly been writing articles for university/architectural magazines it was the first time since Year 11 English (if that counts) I focused on fiction, so I learnt a LOT – I no longer use five adverbs in every single sentence, which is great.
Tayi: The year was amazing. I won the Adam Foundation Prize for best manuscript, so that was kind of like the best possible outcome I could have imagined after a very intense but magical year. It was hard and it made you feel stupid and crazy every second week, but every alternate week it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege. On multiple occasions I would be in the workroom being casual and then all of a sudden nearly cry, because I felt so overwhelmed with good fortune to be sitting there and getting to do this thing that we were doing. It was just so fun getting to hang out with other literary types and talk and gossip and complain seriously about writing and literature for a whole year. And my writing developed so much during the course. Early on I got an email from my course convener Chris Price who said essentially that this course was less about strengthening your voice and more about extending what you could do. So I took that very seriously and tried hard and conscientiously to push myself and extend my craft. I learnt quickly to listen to criticism with humility, to trust the intelligence and generosity of my classmates and to have faith in the work and my skill as a writer. I think in the end it was developing this willingness to experiment, and in return learning to be okay with writing some dodgy embarrassing poems in the process, that resulted in a successful year.
Nina, last year you published your first book, a collection of poems called Luminescent, through Seraph Press – congratulations! Can you talk a bit about the practical side of publishing a book and how that journey started?
Luminescent began as my folio project for my MA at the IIML. I’m the sort of person who can’t get anything done without a deadline and someone telling me to do it. I went into the course aiming to finish my first book-length work – a goal that only felt remotely possible thanks to finding a small community of writers who supported and believed in me and helped me publish my chapbook Girls of the Drift, which was published by Seraph Press in 2014. What I wrote during the course was different to what I’d imagined. It wasn’t a conventional, cohesive poetry manuscript. When I finally gathered the courage to send it to some publishers, they weren’t sure what to make of it. I was disappointed because I had this fixed idea that Luminescent would be my first full-length book. I eventually realised that Luminescent could actually be something else, something more interesting and strange than an ordinary book of poems. That’s when I said to Helen Rickerby of Seraph Press: do you think we could make it into something weird and beautiful? And she said we should try. Publishing a book is a combined effort. I’m grateful to Helen and to all other fearless small presses who believe in poetry and are willing to take risks. The object we made is more beautiful than I could have imagined.
Do you have any practical tips for young writers wanting to submit their work to journals?
Sharon: Don’t be afraid of rejection, accept rejection. Ask rejection out and be rejected. Then recognise that deciding to put your work out there and attaching that .docx file to some faceless email address is its own active gesture that deserves credit.
Nina: A rejection doesn’t mean the work you submitted was bad; it means it wasn’t right for that journal at that particular time. Keep it, work on it, send it somewhere else. If you don’t see the work you want to see more of in the world being published, or if you don’t see the kind of voices you want to hear from being published in any journals, start your own.
Sophie: When you’re young and just starting, it can be tempting to submit absolutely everything you’ve written to a journal in the faint hope that the editors will pick even one thing they like. I spent a long time doing this, and now I am allowed to say that you should probably not do this. Respect your own writing, and only submit pieces you’re truly happy with – so if something is selected, you are also truly happy to have it published.
Claudia: Make sure you have the submission deadline in your diary, and submit. To be even more practical, give yourself thirty minutes every day for a week before the deadline to read over your work, read it aloud, proofread, and read it to others. Treat it like a recital.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for young writers wanting to find a space for themselves to be read and heard? Is there anything that could be done to make this easier?
Claudia: I think this starts in schools. I was fortunate enough to go to a school where the English department supported the students who showed an interest in poetry and supported the teachers who wanted to start a poetry club. We would meet weekly and read our own work and other poems aloud. Our school had the resources to let this happen. So, perhaps for the schools who don’t have such resources, maybe a government-supported initiative could make a difference. All it took was a classroom and a free teacher for one lunchtime per week, and then we had something to write for and look forward to. To young writers in schools, hassle your favourite English teacher and get something going! To young writers out of school, get organised and gather some like-minded mates and find a café or a park. By listening to each other and supporting each other, you make great steps.
Sophie: When you look around, there doesn’t seem a huge lot in the way of encouragement or help for young writers, unless you get very lucky. I know that the NZSA has a wonderful mentorship programme for young writers, and it would be amazing if there were more programmes like that. That’s another thing – the idea of New Zealand writing, as it’s taught in schools, could really be something alive and exciting. Janet Frame is excellent, and she certainly influenced my writing – but when you’re young, it’s perhaps harder to imagine yourself writing alongside people like her and Frank Sargeson than reading someone who’s around your age, who lives in the same moment as you do, and writing in conversation with them. I’m not suggesting we ignore our literary history, but I think that the richness of young writing could grow from school students reading work in journals like Starling and knowing that their own voices are worth hearing in the same way.
Nina: One of the biggest challenges is this: how do you make it work? How can you be a creative writer and also pay rent and be financially independent? How do you devote enough time to your craft to become a better writer when you also have to work part-time and study full-time? These are all questions I don’t really know how to answer, only that I’m determined to make it work. Being a writer should be a viable career choice, not a fantasy that only a privileged few can access. It shouldn’t be unusual to come across a journal in New Zealand that pays contributors. Young writers should be taken seriously, and the work they create should be recognised as just that: work.
Tayi: I think a challenge for young writers is getting their work taken seriously, especially in this kind of atmosphere where anything a twenty-something likes and writes can be written off as millennial drivel. At times I have found being a ‘young writer’ more restrictive and irritating than being a ‘Māori writer’ or a ‘female writer’ for example. I think when you are young, people tend to view you weirdly as this little mass of ‘potential’ which kind of places your value in the future and can detract from the things you are achieving now, and that can make you feel pretty invisible. What helped me gain some visibility and connections was having a bit of community – friends and collectives who included me in performances and publications. People like Faith Wilson, Hera Lindsay Bird and Hana Pera Aoake, who reached out to me and have supported me by sharing their platforms. My experience has all been pretty organic and the more opportunities you have to get out there and read and reach people, the more opportunities you end up stumbling across. So really it was kindness that helped me get my work out there in the beginning and I think the best way to foster more kindness is to be kind yourself and look out for other people.
Sharon: Personally, not feeling invited or included feels very challenging. I’d say public reading events have gone the furthest in changing this for myself – seeing real people be physically present in the interest of young writers is very encouraging. But I also know I’d find it daunting going to such events if I didn’t know anyone involved. So stuff like LitCrawl is great – an event that’s 1) highly publicised, 2) in low-key, usually all-ages and familiar venues i.e. shops and cafes rather than upstairs white-cubes 3) is free or koha, which all help to lessen exclusivity. I also think online spaces have really helped with accessibility, so it would be great to see print-only publications (which almost always cost $$) offer free online versions as well, even if it’s only past issues.
What is one thing you’re excited about in your own writing life or the greater New Zealand writing community for 2018? And what will you be working on next?
Tayi: I’m considering publishing my first book of poetry so there will be nothing more exciting in the literary community ever after that! I am also looking forward to Annaleese Jochems winning an Ockham for her book Baby, and I always look forward to Litcrawl.
Claudia: I am amassing my poems and putting them into a folder in my computer, which I will try to turn into a book. Goodness knows when that is going to happen, but I’m excited for it nonetheless. I’m excited to be tackling another year of Ancient Greek and all its participles. And I will be working on more poems about BBC’s Blue Planet II (for me, a very inspirational piece of television). The greater New Zealand writing community can get back to me when it starts to take a more level-headed approach to critiquing the works of young women.
Sophie: This year will be my honours year, so I imagine I’ll be spending more time attempting to study than doing anything else. But I’m excited to see how my study informs my writing, as it always seems to do. I’m also excited to be coming down to Wellington for the Writers & Readers Week in March, and for the Starling event I’ll be reading in there. As a very quiet footnote, I’d like to start getting some kind of a collection together too.
Nina: I’m excited to find out what the effect of a new city (London) will have on my writing. I’m working on a book about Shanghai (where I partly grew up) and also a book about food, which might end up being the same book. I’m also excited to see more from NZ literary collectives Food Court and Fresh ’n Fruity, another Starling, another Sweet Mammalian, and (hopefully) more new journals and new zines and new small publishers determined to do their own thing.
Sharon: In the NZ community I’m really excited for people to have finished reading the books people were hot for last year so that I can finally get them out of the library. Next I will be working on working up the courage to read my examiner reports, as well as working on a series of shorter pieces sometimes called ‘cover letters', inspired by my unemployment. Maybe also a short story about a sixteen-year-old who just by pure chance has never seen the moon.