“…that’s what all ‘established literary communities’ need—to be shaken up by new voices, constantly.”
Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Some of my favourite chapbooks by New Zealand poets are Bound: An Ode to Falling in Love by Jackson Nieuwland and Carolyn DeCarlo (Compound Press), Scarab by Vivienne Plumb (Seraph Press) and, outside of New Zealand, Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout (New Directions), which perhaps isn’t intended as a traditional “chapbook,” but it has the same kind of feel.
Another, more chaotic kind of poetry publishing format that influences my work is zines. I also make poetry zines of my own.
What’s your chapbook about?
Girls of the Drift is about real and imagined women from New Zealand history. The poems are separate, but I think the title, Girls of the Drift, connects them together. I’m interested in the idea of what it means to be adrift, in constant movement, caught in the in-between. Many women in the poems are caught in ‘drifts’ of one kind or another: physical, emotional, metaphorical.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The first poem I wrote in the chapbook, “Pencarrow Lighthouse,” also happens to be the first proper poem I ever wrote—the first time I was conscious that this is a poem. It’s about New Zealand’s first and only female lighthouse keeper, Mary Bennett, who took over as keeper of Pencarrow Lighthouse in Wellington after her husband’s death in 1855. You can read more about her here.
It never occurred to me then that it would become part of a book. But I started to look for more stories about women like Mary Bennett—women you never learned about in school (not that we learned about many women at all). I’m helplessly attracted to the mysterious and the unknown. I started to imagine a recurring pattern: poems that illuminate small moments from women’s lives.
What are you working on now?
I just finished my MA in Creative Writing last year, and during the year I realised that Girls of the Drift only scratched the surface of what I’m really interested in, of what I really want to write. For my MA, I wrote a collection of poems on similar themes but using very different poetic forms. It’s a series of poetic biographies about five women (including the writer Katherine Mansfield, the scientist Beatrice Tinsley, and a fictional ghost). It’s not conventional poetic biography. There are images, erasures, collages interspersed between the poems. It’s also about me—how I see myself in relation to them, how our worlds interact. I hope it might become my first full-length book.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I feel barely qualified to give advice! But here’s something writers I admire have told me, that I should really do more often: write as often and as regularly as you can, not in any polished way, but in notebooks or scrap paper or in the Notes app on your iPhone. Write down stuff you just happen to notice. Write down things you find beautiful even (or especially) if you aren’t sure why.
But I think the most important thing is: read! Read widely and hungrily. Read outside your comfort zone. I think sometimes I can tell when I’m reading something written by a writer who isn’t also a reader.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
I had no idea chapbooks even existed when my lecturer, Anna Jackson (also a poet), said she could imagine the poems I’d written being published in that form. If I’d known about them sooner—that small publishers actually put together these beautiful handmade books made up of only ten or fifteen poems, so much smaller and less scary than a full-length book—I’d probably have had the confidence to start writing poetry sooner, and start getting to know other writers. The same goes for poetry zines, which are wonderfully anarchic, chaotic, and imperfect.
If you’re thinking about writing a chapbook, I think it helps to have a unifying theme, setting, or narrative thread that holds the poems together. Chapbooks are short, and I think this makes them ideal for series or sequences of poems. Of course, there are exceptions! Not all collections are neatly coherent or sequential, and nor should they be. But with chapbooks you have so little space—and I think that’s a good thing. The shorter and more focused, the better.
Other than that, read chapbooks! Connect with other writers and publishers of chapbooks (on Twitter, if you’re shy like me). Go to book launches and poetry readings. Hover around the snacks table if you don’t know anyone. You can be sure there’ll be other people hovering.
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
Since finishing my MA in poetry I’ve been reading nothing but novels. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed fiction! The two best books I read this summer were Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (which left me shaken) and Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (a strange, beautiful, almost-verse novel).
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
It can. Poems that might not fit in a longer collection might belong in a chapbook. Chapbooks are often handmade and totally unique, which can give them license to be more strange, more difficult, more ridiculous, therefore more striking.
Also the short length and small print run makes chapbooks a viable way for new poets to get their work in print. That’s what happened for me. For a young writer just getting started, chapbooks feel more possible than a “Poetry Collection.” And let’s be real—they’re much more fun.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
TEN? Okay, Anne Carson, Mary Ruefle, Jorie Graham, Claudia Rankine, Emily Dickinson, Joan Fleming, Anne Kennedy, Hera Lindsay Bird, e e cummings, Shakespeare.
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?
No. I didn’t even know what chapbooks were. But once I had written two or three poems, I did start seeing how these themes and pattern might extend to a small collection of ten or twelve poems. But I had no idea they might form their own book, or even be seen by anyone else but me. That happened by accident.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
The last poem, “The Grief Collector,” which is the most experimental. It borrows its form (if you can call it that—maybe “aesthetic” is more accurate) of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho in If Not, Winter, in which she indicates the gaps and half-finished lines of the crumbling Sapphic fragments with empty square brackets. Some “poems” are just one or two lines of text followed by these empty brackets—all this concrete emptiness. She makes absence visible.
I had the gall to wonder what would happen if I transposed the form into an entirely different poem, one where I choose where to place the gaps. The result is a kind of erasure poem. This was my first attempt at something weird and different, something really unconventionally poetic. And now, a year after Girls of the Drift, I’m a little obsessed with unconventional poetics.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
All kinds, but especially (at the moment) short stories. The shorter length, the way all images and descriptions must count more, and what they leave you with at the end—all these things make me think of the short stories as kinds of poems. I feel this way about Katherine Mansfield and Alice Munro, especially.
They aren’t a kind of writing, but films also help me write poetry. Some films seem to me more like poems than anything else, because of the way all your senses are engaged. And the way some films present images—you don’t always know what’s going on, you don’t know why the last shot was followed by the next, all you know is that it’s beautiful and it’s making you feel something physically, deep in your bones, and you can never articulate the feeling at first. That’s like a poem to me.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
I was taking an Honours class in Modern Poetry, and I started writing the poems in Girls of the Drift right after discovering Anne Carson for the first time. We read “The Glass Essay,” which is one of my favourite poems of all time, and then I went out and bought two of her books. I studied undergrad English, so poetry wasn’t new to me, but Carson is probably the first contemporary poet I connected with. I know lots of poets who’ve also had this moment: the first time they realised poetry doesn’t actually have to be like the stuff they teach you about at school, and it doesn’t have to be dry and difficult. It would be cool if the way we’re taught about poetry let us realise this sooner.
At the time, I was also writing a thesis on the female characters in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. Several of my poems are based on characters in those stories: “Leila,” “Josephine,” “Constantia,” “Volcanology.”
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
I don’t really write with an audience in mind. That sounds too scary; I wouldn’t be able to write anything real, I’d just be pretending all the time. I guess when we write, even if we don’t have an audience in mind, we probably imagine we are writing to people much like ourselves. This is the safest, most comfortable option.
But I also hope that my writing might appeal to people who aren’t like me, who don’t read poetry that much, or are from totally different backgrounds. It’s mostly a vain hope. But maybe after I’ve finished something, I might ask myself: “would people read this who aren’t like me? or am I alienating a bunch of people?” which are hard questions to answer. But the first step is asking them. New Zealand poetry can be very insular; we all read each other’s work and we sometimes probably write like each other. But I hope that’s changing. That’s where chapbooks and zines come in—especially zines—because anybody can write one. You don’t need to have a large following or have published extensively in journals. You can be new. And that’s what all “established literary communities” need—to be shaken up by new voices, constantly.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I haven’t arrived at any wisdom. I just read as much as I can, and I just try to speak a little louder at poetry readings.
I do wish I’d been told more about the reality of “being a writer.” I still wish people would tell me more about it. Stuff like: you can’t make a living from this, so how do you pay the rent? When did you realise this, and how did you cope with it? Sometimes when I meet well-established writers, I just want to ask them: how have you made a living? But I don’t. I also wish someone would tell me how to become Tumblr-famous, and that someone could have prepared me better for the look on people’s faces when I tell them I’m a poet. Specifically at Christmas family gatherings.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Goosebumps. Meteor showers. The notion that there are whale skeletons at the bottom of the sea. The notion that the universe is expanding. Moths flying at my window. Planetary alignments. Nature documentaries. Movie scores that make me cry. Imminent environmental disaster. Haunted opera houses. Unsolved mysteries. Poems that are so good you feel you might as well give up, but then suddenly they have the opposite effect; they make you go and write something.
Nina Powles is a poet from Wellington, New Zealand. Her debut poetry chapbook, Girls of the Drift, was published by Seraph Press in 2014, from which a poem was selected for Best New Zealand Poems 2014. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. She also makes poetry zines.
Constantia felt everything in the
parlour change colour when she
pulled the curtains open. The
yellow-breasted goldfinch her
father brought back from India
finely stuffed and perched, glass
eyes twinkling brightly, tail
feathers painted orange by the
light. The celestial globe (a
normal globe wouldn’t do, said
father) stitched all over with criss-
crossing constellations glowing
as if lit inside. The bluish white
teacup left forgotten on the table
when the nurse had shouted
please come quickly! The frame
of her mother’s portrait inlaid with
gold-flaked roses, where a woman
encircled by a black feather boa
watches her daughter, untouched
by the warm light flooding the
ghost-room that made Constantia
feel, just then, as if all of this
had actually mattered.