Celebrating our Ockham Poets: Q & A with Nina Mingya Powles, finalist in the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry
Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Aotearoa New Zealand, currently living in London. She is the author of Magnolia 木蘭, shortlisted for the 2021 Ondaatje Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and a food memoir, Tiny Moons. In 2019 she founded Bitter Melon, a small press dedicated to publishing limited-edition poetry pamphlets by Asian authors. Her debut collection of essays, Small Bodies of Water, will be published in August 2021.
1) How do you think social media has changed the way people read, watch, listen to and/or discuss poetry?
It seems like poetry is reaching more people than ever before. I wouldn’t say it’s having a ‘a moment’, because it’s always been there, but I see more and more young people engaging with poetry on platforms like Instagram, which is encouraging and inspiring.
2) How do you find the poetry community altered by the pandemic? Has this had a large effect on your writing?
In Aotearoa, where I was lucky to spend a few months at the beginning of 2021, the poetry community seems as supportive and creative and energetic as ever – maybe even more than before. It felt magical and unreal to be able to gather in a small room together to listen to poetry, and I think everyone’s a little bit aware that this is so special at a time when, in most cities, such gatherings aren’t possible.
In London, where I live now, it’s a different story. So many poets, writers and creative practitioners are struggling. It’s had a huge effect on my writing, in that it’s mostly difficult to summon the focus to read or write or do anything creative at all. But online poetry events have been wonderful. I hope, one day soon, I might be able to attend a real-life poetry reading again.
3) How would you describe your kaupapa as a poet?
I recently taught myself how to sew, and I’m beginning to see my creative practice intertwined with textiles and cloth. I think my kaupapa as a poet is one of weaving, of layering together different coloured threads. A continual, shifting process – every small piece is part of a bigger whole. Also, I want to write poems that come from the body, the senses.
As a poet I am also part of a community – multiple communities, both online and in ‘real life’, both in the UK and in Aotearoa. In all of these spaces I hope to play an active role in anti-racist, anti-colonial work, which is deeply intertwined with the poetry and the art that we make.
4) How does your shortlisted book reflect, redefine or depart from the concerns and subjects of your previous work?
Magnolia 木蘭 feels like a culmination of lots of tiny fragments that I’ve been piecing together for a long time, scattered all over the place. In this book the fragments have finally found a coherent, unified form, which feels special. I always knew I’d write a Shanghai book but I didn’t know what form it would take until I realised I had lots of poems from this period of my life, and started to see them as small parts of a whole. It’s in this book that I think lots of things I obsessively write about – home, language, the body – finally converge.
5) What contemporary poets are you reading right now? Poetry collections on your bedside table?
Burst kisses on the actual wind by Courtney Sina Meredith, bird of winter by Alice Hiller, and Poor by Caleb Femi. At the bottom of the pile on my bedside table is issue 3 of the literary magazine Ache, a feminist publication about bodies and illness.
6) What role do you see for celebrations of poetry like Phantom National Poetry Day?
National Poetry Day events played a huge role in launching my writing career and building my confidence back when I first started writing and publishing. These events help create a crucial platform for new poets.
7) Have you discovered new poets or new poems on one of Phantom's poetry posters? How do you feel about getting poetry out to the community in this way?
I love seeing the poetry posters and about in the city – in this way poetry becomes part of the landscape, or rather, it has already been part of the fabric of the city for a long time.