Vana Manasiadis is a New Zealand-Greek writer and translator whose collection of poetry The Grief Almanac (Seraph Press) was launched in May this year.
We are giving away a copy of this volume through our social media channels this week to a lucky reader. We talked to Vana about sequels, the concept of place in poetry, and, of course, what's on her bedside table.
Here is our interview for this day in September, which Vana tells us is the name day of Greek screen siren, politician and activist Melina Mercouri who also happened to be Vana's mum's heroine.
Kia ora Vana, and congratulations on The Grief Almanac. Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing this collection, and, as a sequel, its relationship to your first collection?
Kia ora Melissa and thank you so much.
There were many parallel activities going on during the writing of this book: pain that I tried to narrativize as sort-of-memoir, questioning that took the form of essay, an obsessive cataloguing of physical artefacts that aimed to record the multiple losses. And all of these things together were an attempt to make sense of the original letters I wrote during the year after my mum’s death. They were desperate. I had to find the additional spaces of presence, absence and language in order to manage that grief.
The idea of crossing - or crossings - is important to both Ithaca Island Bay Leaves and The Grief Almanac. My mother was alive when I imagined a fantastical sailing home for her in the first book. In the second I needed to give her real passage back, its mana.
An almanac is a type of calendar, a keeper of days. The Grief Almanac includes descriptions of Wellington places at different times in your life and in other lives, such as the Waimapihi Stream – from washing-place to street, to petrol station. Can you say a little about this tension between place and time?
Thanks for this question! Place and time have merged for me in a difficult-to-define way. We all have particular times that transport us to other places and vice versa, and I think I now conceive of the doors between the two being permanently open. However, there’s nothing unique about this thinking, whether via biology or physics or archaeology, or indigenous thinking which contrasts Western worldviews of linearity and constant reboot. In The Grief Almanac I was interested in the stalled resonances between the layers – just because we can’t see the Waimapihi Stream doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Friends who attended the launch of this book talk about how moving and beautiful the speeches and your readings were. While it’s often assumed that writing poetry is a solitary act, how important were other people in the creation of your poems?
Other people have been crucial. I don’t like to think of writing being a solitary act anymore because so many people have been part of this book’s coming into being. The actual moment of writing or typing or crystallising might feel solitary, but they are moments along a continuum. I think that if I’m in the world, relating to others in any way, then I’m collaborating and the work can’t be mine alone. And there have been so many people, friends, family, and especially wāhine toa who got the words to the pages along with me.
The collection itself is a lovely object to open and close, and hold in your hands. How did the cover design come to be, and can you tell us anything about the other design and/or formatting decisions in the book?
Thank you so much. Because I imagined the book a sequel, I knew Marian Maguire’s artwork had to be on the cover again. I love her work very deeply, and really felt the whanaungatanga of this repeating connection. And then, when I saw her bold, graphic, labyrinthine Forest Series it was a no-brainer – especially since it recalled both Greek geometric vase painting and tukutuku panelling (in this case poutama which symbolises ascension or genealogy). That was the easy part. I obsessed for years over formatting, font type, and how the sections were going to talk to each other from within and across pages. Specifically, I was looking for dialogue and interruption between the various parts. Helen Rickerby had great ideas to add also: the amount of the page left blank and the slightly transparent paper.
Last year, you co-edited Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation with Mareaea Rakuraku. Did that project affect how you approached writing The Grief Almanac in any way, and if so, how?
It’s not an exaggeration to call the project life-giving, and an antidote to the difficulty of working on The Grief Almanac. It was also the beginning of a relationship with Te Ao Māori and Te Reo Māori which is becoming very important to me. I think Tātai Whetū helped me to take myself out of The Grief Almanac, to feel part of something more expansive, to begin to release it from my grip.
How does your work as a translator influence the way you write your poems?
I think we are all translating ourselves for others and others for ourselves all the time. I grew up code-switching Greek and English and identities and cultural values. This can be a hard place to be but it also lends itself to fluid definitions of terms. Translation means fluidity and inclination to me; and writing poetry is the same – when the energy is right, there’s a bending of and a careful listening to sound, shape, sense, selves – with equal parts faith, experiment, slog and surrender.
Which New Zealand books, poets or other writers have been special to you in your life?
Two wāhine that remain super important to me, are Jacquie Sturm and Janet Frame. And Chris Kraus – have we claimed her?
What are you reading right now, and have you got any book recommendations for us? (These two things don’t necessarily need to be related)
I’m reading tonnes and tonnes of student writing. But I have a mountain of non-student writing to read at semester-end which includes CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank. I really liked and recommend the genre-bending This Little Art by Kate Biggs for all translators of all things.
What’s next in store for you, Vana?
Less grief, more something else – love? Yes, definitely love – but messy.