Our writer, Sammy Weaver, talks to poet, essayist and zine-maker, Nina Mingya Powles, about her recent poetry collection, Magnolia, 木蘭, formal techniques and writing, cooking as creativity, Anne Carson as inspiration and her upcoming book, Small Bodies of Water.
Nina Mingya Powles is a poet, writer and zine-maker from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Her work explores her Chinese-Malaysian heritage, the shifting in-between space of dreams and reality, and the uncanny experience of place as both familiar and unfamiliar.
I first encountered Nina Mingya Powles’ writing at an event in my local pub in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, where she read from her award-winning piece, Small Bodies of Water. I remember loving how she weaved lyric poetics with nature writing and her mixed-race heritage. Since then, she has published two books, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press), and Magnolia, 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press). Magnolia, 木蘭 was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection 2020 by the Forward Arts Foundation, and was a Poetry Book Society recommendation. Small Bodies of Water will be out in August 2021 with Canongate Press. I was lucky enough to catch up with Nina to talk about her writing practice, influences and getting crafty.
Could you talk about winning the Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, and the book that you’re working on as a result?
That was really unexpected but I think it was only because of the prize that I decided to put together a bunch of essays that I’d written over lots of different times. I’d never really thought of them as being part of a collection at all, but I have always enjoyed writing non-fiction as well as poetry so it has always been part of my creative practice. I saw there was a call-out for this prize for underrepresented nature writers and that really appealed to me after I had come across the books of Jessica J. Lee, who was at that event as well. She writes amazingly about particularly being a woman alone in the landscape, and then especially about being a mixed-race woman, so that really inspired me. I started to realise that I do constantly write about place and particularly about water, although not necessarily in a way that meant I would call myself a nature writer. Still, I don’t know if I necessarily fit into that bookshop category, which is very much an established category, but I loved that the prize seemed to be very open and interested in broadening the meaning of nature writing.
I put together a proposal and a very vague idea for a book, but it began with that particular essay, Small Bodies of Water, which was first published by Jessica J. Lee in The Willowherb Review, the journal that she edits for nature writers of colour. So, it all began with that essay and by writing it I discovered more connections and that’s really what I have been working on for the whole of 2020.
Although I really like writing non-fiction, I think I’m mainly a poet, so I found it so difficult to write long pieces. But thankfully, I was able to write some longer pieces which honestly were very exhausting to write, but there are also some much shorter pieces in there. It’s not a huge book, but it’s definitely the longest book that I can ever write I think!
One thing I love about your writing is how you engage all the senses. I feel like the senses are heightened after a lack of understanding, so in your poem ‘Girl Warrior, or: Watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English Subtitles’ not understanding some of the Chinese allows you to zoom into the other non-language elements, as if the world becomes brighter and more vivid as a result. I almost get a feeling of the hyperreal in your writing. What are your thoughts on that? Could you say a little about how the limitations of a language might then lead to a brighter world?
Yes, I think maybe you’ve hit on something deep in my subconscious! I think that’s definitely been a recurring way of how I’ve been able to record the world around me. It was very much a heightened feeling when I was living in China studying Chinese, which ironically was the highest point of my Chinese speaking abilities and have since decreased. But I think maybe being so open, trying to take in so much, both of the language and of the place where I was, naturally I think I was turning to the basics, like the very core of how I’m perceiving the world around me.
I remember that I was finding it difficult to write anything like poetry or prose, definitely for the first nine months of the year that I was there, and it only came gradually, and I told myself it’s ok to not be working on anything at the moment and just to be recording things. I kept a notebook, not like a diary but literally taking notes on things, and those notes are what later became a lot of the poems in Magnolia, 木蘭. Of course, I got more into writing about food in that year and I could only really come at that through the senses first, and then find my way through them into something more relating to my political or geographical positioning.
Poems are so sensory and I think that’s what I look for when I’m reading. I think poems are physical. Actually, most things I read I want to feel physically and so I think that’s why I strive for that in my writing.
Perhaps linked to that idea of embodiment and physicality, could you talk a little about Bitter Melon 苦瓜, the small press you run? I am particularly interested in the hand-made nature of your printing process. Do you see any parallels between cooking, printing and writing?
I thought about that a lot this year. I didn’t use to see any connection between those things but just spending so much time at home this year, I have realised that I love to be making things. As much as I’m a writer, I’m also a maker, but in a very rudimentary way; I’m not an artist but I really enjoy crafty things. Cooking comes under that because cooking for me is very creative and soothing. I think it’s doing things with my hands, and then the printing, I love being able to make something new with my hands that didn’t exist before. It’s amazing to me that I can print something, fold it together, bind it — it still astonishes me.
Writing is another kind of making, but sometimes I do need to step away and do things with my hands, particularly when I can’t focus. I’ve been trying to let myself see all those other things, gardening also, as part of my creative practice. I used to feel more negative if I wasn’t being productive or working on the deadlines I have, but sometimes I can’t, and so I’ll turn to another creative activity with my hands. I would say those other things are part of my creative practice as well as the writing – that’s what I’m telling myself anyway! I think that can be true for so many of us, and then maybe it would be easier to let ourselves experiment with other things that might inform our writing which will make us better writers. So, yes, it is deeply connected.
Same with reading – I might not be able to write a single thing until I just do some reading and that will unlock it, but it’s hard to give yourself permission to stop trying to get work done. Reading is a big part of my creative practice.
What are you reading at the moment?
Reading in quarantine has been hard. I brought a really difficult book with me, which I will read another time because I couldn’t read it here. So, instead, I ordered myself some novels and I just read Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh, and it’s very creepy but I needed something that was very plot-based – but actually it wasn’t, it was very experimental and more like a character study. For my comfort reading, I’m listening to the audiobook, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante and it’s great. At the moment, that’s all I can take.
Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
I think the first time I read something that made me want to try to write, it was by Katherine Mansfield, whose short stories I read at university. I’ve never actually tried to write fiction and it’s not something I feel I want to try and write at any point, but her short stories were visceral and her characters are quite unsettling and unnerving. She writes about colour and light in a way that woke me up to the possibilities of image, description and character.
Then, a bit later, I discovered Anne Carson, and that was an early moment of realising that poetry could be really interesting and could be totally strange and experimental. I first picked up her book of translations of Sappho and that blew my mind. The way she uses white space and just leaves the fragments as they are — I found that really haunting. There is something happening in the white space that she leaves between translations; it’s like the space is vibrating with this energy that you can’t see but can feel. So, I think that basically made me into a poet.
Then, there is a New Zealand-Chinese writer called Alison Wong, and she is a brilliant poet. Reading her was the first time I recognised something of my family’s background in New Zealand literature, which was startling and new for me. She has become a mentor for me and she writes essays as well, which have been a huge influence.
In Anne Carson’s translations, the white space vibrating with something reminds me of your work. The fragmented forms in Magnolia, 木蘭 — one of my favourite poems is ‘Mother Tongue’ because I love this dual-poem form where you can read it in so many different ways. Also, how some of your poems are double-spaced. It’s that magical thing that happens when subject matter and form coincide. Is there a form you feel most at home in – if one can feel at home in a poetic or a prose form?
It changes all the time, which is why there are so many different forms in that book. Some poets can use one type of form, like a sonnet, and make it their own and write a whole book of sonnets, and that’s amazing. But, I could never do that because I get bored easily, so I end up trying something new quite a lot.
At the moment, I feel more at home in long lines, almost like prose, but then broken up into poetry. There is quite a lot of that in Magnolia, 木蘭 – maybe that’s my default form. I guess it’s something about how it’s almost the beginning of an essay or the beginning of a short story, but then I like that with a poem you can just break the line and create that space and that pause.
I don’t fully understand myself why some poems end up in one form, but I do know that quite often I will have an idea or an image I want to write about, but it won’t be until I’ve found a form for it that the poem can come out. Usually, that might come from reading poetry, so quite often I’m really borrowing forms from other poets or looking at another poet’s way of using the space on the page and then trying to make my own version of it. I am most interested in the physical nature of poems and how they move on the page. I tend to think of them as physical objects.
Both in Tiny Moons and Magnolia, 木蘭 you poetically reimagine Chinese characters, which feels like an act of re-appropriation in which you’re making this familiar yet unfamiliar language your own. Do you see it as that kind of process?
I do. I think I was following the way that I was trying to learn the characters myself and that is something I write about in Magnolia, 木蘭, by breaking them down into pieces. I was coming at them as a language learner, not as a native speaker, so when I read those poems back I become very acutely aware of that, but I think that’s ok because I can see that they come from an earlier period of my life.
In recent years, I’ve become more aware of how other writers have done this and the history of particularly modernist poets appropriating Chinese characters, most famously, Ezra Pound, who really did exactly what I did, by breaking them into pieces and saying these are so mystical and incredible and representing the purity of the image, which he prized as an imagist. I was interested to do it by myself, in a different way obviously, but in that sense it is a kind of re-appropriation. I am also romanticising them myself and projecting my own whiteness onto them, which I am very conscious of, and was conscious of then as well. I am also aware when I’m writing that for some readers it might be the first time they are encountering them in a poem. There will be a mix of people – some who can read it and some who can’t, so I’m interested in that as well and what it means to include a Chinese character or word in an English poem. I think it’s mainly the work of Mary Jean Chan and Jennifer Wong that validated my feelings about exploring characters and not translating them. I think in my earlier writing, particularly in Tiny Moons, I’m pulling them apart and translating them for myself; but later I’m not so interested in translating them, I’m more interested in just holding them.
I think you draw upon that theme of the impossibility of translation a lot in your work. There’s an image in your poem ‘Falling City’ where you describe the experience of reading the Chinese writer, Eileen Chang, in translation as ‘trying to see/ her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass’. Almost as if you’re locked out from the originals.
I’m not a translator though so I think I was thinking of reading the translation and wondering how close I can get to the original text in the original language. I think that’s very much about me and my own guilt. Now, I feel I have learnt a lot about translation and translators, and what they do is just magical. I think about that line a lot actually because I worry that translators will take it the wrong way!
What aspect of writing do you enjoy the most?
That’s a really hard question! OK, I think I know — when I’ve read something that has blown my mind and you get that feeling that you need to go and write straight away. I think that’s also my favourite thing about reading. Yes, it’s that feeling of urgency that makes you want to try out something new yourself, that makes me constantly read more.
Any advice for budding writers?
When I was starting out, I was able to understand myself as a writer by reading as widely as I could. That was my education in poetry much more than doing a Creative Writing degree. I did do a Creative Writing degree, which gave me a community, but I think it’s more the reading that I discovered around that time before and after that really changed my practice.
I was going to say something wise about rejection but rejection sucks! Although to begin with, it does feel so personal, actually after a few rejections, it doesn’t take long to feel more business-like about it all, which really helps. Rejection only means that it wasn’t the right time, I think that’s all it means.
I think it’s possible to permit yourself to try something new. For me, that was zine-making. When I was 19, I started making zines, printing them myself and suddenly writing was much less scary. I started to worry less about pieces being perfect and people giving me permission, which were the two things that were holding me back from doing things like submitting to journals. That was an incredibly liberating community to get into.
Nina Mingya Powles’ latest poetry collection Magnolia, 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press) and her food memoir, Tiny Moons (The Emma Press) are available to purchase online now. Her forthcoming work, Small Bodies of Water is available to preorder here. Visit Nina’s website here or follow her on Twitter @ninamingya
Read Sammy’s review of Magnolia, 木蘭 here.
Feature photograph of Nina Mingya Powles is by Sophie Davidson.