Poet Nina Mingya Powles has newly arrived back in Wellington from London. Her latest collection of poetry, Magnolia 木蘭, is published by Seraph Press and longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry. The UK edition was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best first collection.
We welcome Nina back to Aotearoa with this small interview here on our blog, and ask her about the inspiration for Magnolia, what she's been reading, and local food she's looking forward to tasting again.
Kia ora Nina, and congratulations on Magnolia. Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing this collection?
Thank you! Most of the poems started as lists of images or unfinished sentences in my notebook during the 18 months I spent in Shanghai a few years ago.
At some point in that year, I gradually became aware of the fact that I would need to write a ‘Shanghai book’ one day. That vague idea turned into this book of poems.
The tagline on the back cover of Magnolia reads: Home is not a place but a string of colours threaded together and knotted at one end and the concept of home is a strong theme in the collection. What does 'home’ mean to you, and has that idea changed over time (and indeed, since the pandemic?)
I think this is the question behind everything I write. If I knew the answer, maybe that means I’ve run out of things to write about! The idea of home is always shifting.
Through writing, I’ve slowly unraveled what home means to me and the fact that it’s not just one place, but many threads at once. Sometimes it’s painful, like when travel isn’t possible, but mostly I feel very lucky. Since the pandemic, by necessity, home has become more of a close, immediate, physical thing. Having spent almost every day at home for the past nine months, I feel much more connected to London as a city now than I thought I ever would.
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 decisions in the book?
I think of poems themselves as physical objects and so the vessel that holds them should reflect that. Ever since my first chapbook was published by Seraph Press, I’ve been in awe of the care and creativity Helen Rickerby (the managing editor) puts into each publication. I remember going with her to look at paper samples at the art shop before Girls of the Drift came out and I immediately knew we were speaking the same language.
I’m so happy with how the design of Magnolia has turned out. Helen knows I’m picky about fonts and luckily she picked the most elegant font! For the cover, Kerry Ann Lee’s art is really important to me and I’ve known for a while that I wanted her work on the cover, although I didn’t know which piece. I came across this one online. The neon colours stayed with me. It’s also surreal – you don’t quite know what’s going on, with the ghostly celestial orb floating in the background.
I feel like this captures the feeling of what I’m trying to write sometimes. Kerry Ann is a zinemaker, too, so I feel a deep kinship with her in that way.
Your food memoir Tiny Moons was published last year and food memory plays an important role in Magnolia. I know you have just returned to New Zealand and wonder if there are certain foods here you dreamed of while abroad? What are you looking forward to eating again?
Tip Top boysenberry ripple ice cream, Toffee Pops, roti canai from Little Penang in Wellington.
Your beautiful zines are inspiring to this maker and I’m sure many others! There’s something about poetry in its handmade form – a physical object that can be easily shared – that appeals to me. How does your work as a zine-maker influence the way you write your poems?
Yes, poems appeal to me most of all as physical, handmade things – they come from the body, after all.
I’m beginning to see as a maker as well as a writer. Not in any professional sense, but I love to make things with my hands, including poems and poem-objects. The act of making a zine unlocks something in my brain, making it easier for me to write freely. Because there are no rules, and you don’t need permission from anyone. Zines resist categorisation. A zine can be anything, just like a poem can be anything. Making a zine is, for me, the most freeing type of creative work.
Do you have any advice for anyone interested in making their own zines?
It might feel daunting at first, but there are no rules! There are some great YouTube tutorials for how to fold a zine out of a single sheet of paper, nothing else – try that first, and go from there. Zinemaking communities are, by their very nature, so welcoming and open – connect with them on Instagram and see what’s out there.
Which New Zealand books, poets or other writers have been special to you in your life?
Lost and Gone Away by Lynn Jenner and Failed Love Poems by Joan Fleming had a deep influence on me as a writer working with hybrid, experimental poetic forms. Alison Wong, Chris Tse and Rose Lu are three writers with whom I began to see myself as part of a NZ-Chinese literary tradition, and now it’s getting bigger and bigger.
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)
It’s been hard to focus on reading throughout the winter lockdown in London, and also in quarantine back in Aotearoa. So I’ve been listening to the audiobook of the third Neopolitan novel by Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The narrator has the most wonderfully dramatic voice.
Two books I read recently that will stay with me: Luster by Raven Leilani and A Bathful of Kawakawa and Hot Water by Hana Pera Aoake.
What’s next in store for you, Nina?
I’ve been trying to give myself a bit of a break at the beginning of this year, because 2020 has been so exhausting! But I’m also working on the final edits of my essay collection, Small Bodies of Water, which will be published in the UK and NZ later this year.