Divya Mehrish: Nina, I am excited to speak with you about your newest poetry collection, Magnolia, which was a finalist for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and has recently been released in the U.S. by Tin House. Could you describe your experience of creating this collection, an intimate reckoning with girlhood which, as Rachel Long describes, is “bursting with food and flowers and colour” but is “not always beautiful”?
Nina Mingya Powles: Thank you! I first began writing this collection when I had gone to live in China for 18 months, after finishing my master’s degree in poetry in New Zealand. I hadn’t really known what I wanted to do next, so I applied for a scholarship to study Mandarin in Shanghai, which I received. That journey was really the basis for this book, in that I suddenly found myself in a familiar yet unfamiliar setting. I had lived in Shanghai as a teenager but was now there as an adult and on my own. I began trying to retrace my steps back to this language that is very familiar to me, and yet I am not fluent. That process got me thinking about my heritage and different places I’ve lived. I started writing poems on the side as a way of balancing out my intensive, memorization-heavy language lessons. I was attending classes every day, writing Chinese characters ten times each. Writing, even if just scraps and fragments of poems, served as a nice distraction. From there, I slowly began exploring themes like language learning and language loss.
DM: Thank you for sharing that part of your process. Throughout almost all of the poems in Magnolia, I feel that the appeal to the senses is profoundly vivid, making for a reading experience that is highly palpable and dynamic, especially as you describe fragmented moments of childhood. Could you speak about the relationship between texture, rhythm, color, and memory?
NMP: That’s a great question. For me, texture, rhythm, color, and memory all intertwine for me in poetry. When I read a poem, I’m often seeking out its texture, physical shape, colors, what I can smell, what I can taste. I am a very sensory person, very visual. In a new place in particular, as you take in new colors and sounds, I think these senses are heightened. That came to echo, I think, my experience of being in a new place. I began focusing on creating a record of memories of aloneness and full immersion, which is what I was meant to be doing linguistically, but I also felt very emotionally immersed in China. When I write about childhood memories, the easiest way in for me is through color, and then taste and smell. These are often starting points for me.
DM: In your synesthetic poem “Colour fragments,” you write “we dreamt of building / a museum of all the colours in the world … a museum of memories / stripped down … The tints and shades / of different feelings, and the objects that colour them.” You go on to write, “It is like being inside clouds in perpetual dusk / It is like being inside a / Rothko painting.” You seem to use description of color as a tool to define otherwise inexplicable experiences or sensations, to welcome your reader into a transcendent dance of light and shadow. How does color help you make sense of your memories and ultimately create a mosaic of meaning out of the ineffable?
NMP: Wow, I think that’s a beautiful reading of the poem. I think I’m interested in how hard it is to describe colors, especially while using new language. This is an ongoing challenge for me. I was just working on something today, actually, in which I came up against wanting to describe a particular color. Often, I’ll need to come back to the description, to first dedicate some real notetaking to write around the color, to figure out other approximations of the color, or to go deeper inside through my own associations with it. I think I’m quite sensitive to changes in color, even outside my writing, in what I wear, for example. I wouldn’t say I consciously choose to use color in my poems, but it is more so the lens through which I am seeing and understanding the world, so I can’t help but stuff my poems with color.
DM: I am also quite a visual person and writer, so your poems that grapple with memory through associations with color resonate deeply with me. I also want to talk a little bit about how your poems appear on the page. I am fascinated by how you engage with white space in very different yet equally nuanced ways across your collection. Every piece takes on a unique physical shape, presence, and character as a result. Your poem “Mother Tongue,” for example, consists of two column-like segments of text, separated by a serpentine coil of white space. The “I” voice that lives within the left column is distinct from that which exists on the right side, divided perhaps by time, by inherited legacies, by a language that is at once inaccessible and familiar, as you said. Can you speak about your approach to poetry as a visual form, and how these visual elements engage with your storytelling?
NMP: I think one of my favorite things about poetry is the shapes you can make, and the way you can use white space to propel a poem forward or slow it down, creating texture. I started out writing poetry because it felt so playful, so tactile, like a very free space of exploration. Almost like when I was little, making shapes out of clay. I’m not in any way a visual artist or sculptor, but for me, poetry is the making of new shapes, which I find really fun. Some of the poems in Magnolia look quite different from one another on the page, and I think perhaps that’s a reflection of my wanting to create different kinds of texture throughout the collection and play with the energy of the poems. I believe that when a reader opens a page, the exchange of breath and energy between the page and the reader changes depending on the visible white space and the expanse of the poem. I am very interested in how poetry can be a physical experience.
DM: I love how you describe poetry as a sculpting process, one in which energy radiates between the poet and the reader. I’d like to shift to discussing some of the themes of your poems. Pop culture plays a significant role in the ability of Magnolia’s narrator to connect with and make sense of a mixed-race childhood and adolescence. Carefully curated moments from Mulan, Blade Runner, and In the Mood for Love as well as Miyazaki films present images and dialogue that are likely to resonate with readers of all ages and backgrounds. “I feel things happening around me that are not real,” you write in your poem “Miyazaki bloom.” Your collection reminds me that in fantasy, in the surreal, in the hyperreal, we can discover or rediscover truths about ourselves, about how our minds and dreams and bodies exist in relation to ourselves. How has pop culture contributed to your sense of cultural belonging or isolation and to your sense of identity?
NMP: That’s a great question, thank you. Growing up, I was one of those kids who was glued to the TV and video games. I was reading a lot too, of course, but those early impressions of cartoons and Disney movies made me very interested in storytelling and world-building. I just couldn’t not bring these elements into my poems. Combining poetry with pop culture brings me so much joy, and to me, they are in no way separate. They have to converge. These cartoons and stories are part of me and my childhood. Growing up living in so many different places, I often found my safe space playing the Sims or watching Scooby Doo, or whatever else I watched in the 90s.
DM: These themes of belonging and home are very pervasive throughout Magnolia. What does home mean to you, and what does it mean to or within Magnolia?
NMP: This is the question I’m always writing around or towards. In my poem “April kōwhai,” I write, “Home is not a place but a string of colours threaded together and / knotted at one end.” That is a very comforting and powerful notion for me, formed through a composite of reading Asian-American and Chinese-New Zealand writers in particular. Over the years, I’ve begun to unpack my relationship with home through my writing, seeking out safety in putting words on the page and acknowledging that poems are very scattered and fragmented and intangible, and that home doesn’t belong to just one part of any piece.
DM: Where were you while writing Magnolia? Were you in one place consistently, or did you move around?
NMP: At the beginning, before I even knew I was writing a collection, I was just writing bits and pieces as a student in Shanghai. I was spending a lot of time alone, slowly getting back into writing again. There was one summer when most international students flew home, but I couldn’t afford to so I just stayed in the city. I went months without seeing anyone I knew. I enrolled in an online writing class with Winter Tangerine, which was the beginning of a new creative phase for me, when I first considered putting together a book. I continued working on it 18 months later, when I returned to Wellington. So, my collection moves around, with some Shanghai poems and some Wellington poems.
DM: I am also interested in how these questions of home may have influenced how you chose to juxtapose and organize the poems in Magnolia. While reading these poems, I did feel as though I was moving seamlessly across time and landscapes, through relationships, conversations, and questions. How do you hope for your readers to navigate this collection? In the transition from Part I to II to III, what layers of meaning did you seek to add to the reader’s understanding of the narrator, of belonging, or of the evolution of language?
NMP: That’s interesting. To me, this collection feels roughly chronological, in the sense that in the beginning there are poems that feel very old to me, as they represent earlier versions of myself. And then there are more recent poems at the end. I do feel a sense of movement and progression there, in unraveling these many different threads of home. I almost don’t want to know how a reader would move through this collection. I just want to put the book in their hands and leave the room. I would be excited by however my readers approach my collection, whether they read from beginning to end or just open up to any poem in the middle. I do have to say, though, that I did envisage Part II (the middle section) as the core of the book. Rather than a linear progression from Part I to II to III, I do feel that Part II, Field notes on a downpour, is the heart from which Part I and III hang.
DM: What is this experience like for you, of laying bare so much of yourself and your personal self reflections in a collection you then share with the world?
NMP: It is very weird. I think I managed to do it by not overthinking the end point, by almost forgetting that anyone else is going to read it. I need to focus on writing poems that are true to myself, and I can do that best by ignoring, especially, that anyone I know will read my work. The idea of strangers reading my work is more comfortable because of the distance. This tactic of pretending as though my family members will not be reading my work has somehow worked so far. It is funny, though, that people can read a poem and imagine they suddenly have an intimate relationship with you. What they might have developed a relationship with is the poem on the page, rather than the poet. I remember studying modern poetry at uni, and getting used to this idea that the “I” voice is not the poet’s voice. But I do think it’s also okay if poets are very open about embracing the “I” voice. I, for example, am writing as myself. But there are many versions of myself emerging onto the page, whether that’s an older self, or newer self, or an imagined self. It’s not a fixed self; there is room for change and nuance.
DM: As you talk about different versions of yourself, what advice would you give your younger self, who first began writing poetry?
NMP: I think whenever I’ve gotten stuck in writing, I’ve had a tendency to decide the piece is not worth pursuing anymore. There’s often a temptation to give up on a piece of writing. But after several years of practice, I’ve learned how to get myself unstuck. I will pick up new books of poetry, since reading can be very helpful. I’ve also learned how to put my own work away and look at it later, if I’ve gotten stuck. Even if it’s not usable in its current form, there’s always a piece of it I can distill and merge with another poem later.
DM: When you first began writing poetry, who were some of your biggest inspirations? And in the past year, what book or books have resonated most deeply with you?
NMP: When I first started writing, I didn’t realize how exciting contemporary poetry could be until I read Anne Carson in a class. I felt like my mind had been blown. I then went on to read Mary Ruefle and Ocean Vuong. Reading such brilliant and playful poets suddenly opened all these possibilities for me. I was also really lucky to discover some Chinese-New Zealand poets who had been writing for so many years before me, like Chris Tse and Alison Wong. Suddenly, I felt as though I could see some of my own experiences represented in poetry. That was huge for me, to begin to see myself as part of a Chinese-New Zealand literary tradition, which has now grown so much. One of my favorite New Zealand poets, Tayi Tibble, has written some earth-shattering poetry, which I’ve been reading recently. Her book Poūkahangatus actually just came out in the U.S. I’m also thinking a lot about novels, and how they work, and whether I could ever write one in the future. One that I loved recently is Greta and Valdin by Rebecca Reilly, which is a lovely, heartbreaking New Zealand love story.
DM: Thank you so much for this stimulating conversation, Nina. I would love to know, what is up next for you?
NMP: I’m between projects right now. It’s been a busy year of writing lots of essays, so I’d love to get back into writing poems, particularly about art and landscapes, but I don’t know what shape these will take yet.
DM: Do you foresee staying in London as you write these new poems, or do you think they will be based in a different setting?
NMP: I do plan on staying in London, at least for the next few years. I tend to write more about imagined or past landscapes as opposed to focusing on where I physically am, but perhaps someday I’ll write a collection of London poems.