Flash Frontier

Interview: Margaret Moores, 2023 NFFD winner

Interviews and Features

Flash Frontier: Congratulations! You’ve just won the NFFD 2023 top prize, with your story ‘Moon landing’. Judges Airini Beautrais and David Eggleton note this about the story: ‘Its mysterious poetry, its elegiac and poignant qualities, are neatly combined with humour.’ Can you tell us more about that intersection between the serious and the lightness?

Margaret MooresMargaret Moores: Thanks so much! I was thrilled to be judged winner of this year’s competition and I’ve really enjoyed thinking through my responses to these questions. ‘Moon landing’ originated in a prose poem that wasn’t working for me. I hadn’t managed to get any further with it than the artist-speaker’s perception that the Swiss ball that features in the flash fiction piece was in some measure like the moon and its glow enabled the orange berries on the karaka tree to glimmer like embers. Abandoning the poem’s focus on how to represent colour in darkness for the narrative arc of a piece of flash fiction loosened everything up for me.  When I look at the various drafts of the piece that I saved, I can see the speaker changing from the introspective artist of the poem to a woman with a much more prosaic take on life.  At the same time, the Swiss ball / moon connection went in a completely different direction while retaining some of the magical relationship that had first intrigued me.   

When you research prose poetry, it becomes apparent that humour and ironic wit are often included in its definitions, but humour doesn’t feature in my thinking when I write prose poetry. I tend to look at the form more as an opportunity to combine the lyricism of poetry with the sentences and paragraphs of prose. However, I view flash fiction as a bit like the second cousin who turns up from time to time to entertain you with stories about your distant relations. You see a vague family resemblance, and you’re intrigued and amused by the shared ancestry, even though over the generations, you’ve gone in different directions. I think prose poetry retains many of the characteristics of its lyrical antecedents, while in a flash fiction you can’t help but note its narrative forebears.  When I write a flash fiction, my narrator tends to turn to the humour and ironic wit of that visiting second cousin.

FF: You placed 2nd in the 2017 NZ Poetry Society competition for ‘Sea Glass’, which was lineated verse. Following that, you won the NZPS competition in 2019 with a prose poem called ‘Alumni Magazine’.  Could you talk about how you came to move from lineated verse to prose poetry and its second cousin flash fiction?

Margaret Moore working with booksMM: I wrote the poems that were placed in 2017 and 2019 in the NZ Poetry Society competitions at a time where I was in the middle of an intense period of academic and creative study at Massey University, first for a Masters in Creative Writing and later for a PhD in Creative Writing.  For both theses, I critically and creatively investigated ideas to do with the impact of photography on ekphrasis (poems inspired by works of art). ‘Sea Glass,’ the earlier poem, was lineated verse because that was the poetic form I was focused on at the time. But, when I came to write ‘Alumni Magazine,’ I had begun thinking about how the form of a poem might resemble a photograph and this had turned me to the prose poem—the block of prose placed on a page like a black and white photograph pasted into an album. Both poems were sparked by punctum that I perceived in a photograph. I had been reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and was interested in how Barthes’s ideas about punctum (the visual components of a photograph that hold emotional resonance for the viewer) were represented in poems inspired by photographs.

Now that I am no longer a student, I continue to be devoted to ekphrasis, but without such an emphasis on photographs. And in terms of form, I continue to write prose poetry because for me, it is an ideal form for representing female experience. Poet Kathleen Fraser commented in a 1998 interview with Cynthia Hogue that using sentences rather than lines in her work enabled her to capture the “layered or constellated time” and the condition of “continuous availability” that she felt marked female experience… “not just the fragmentation and the interruption, but the holding-in-the-mind-of-four-things-at-once.” That remark has such resonance for me as a writer, both in terms of my own experience and in terms of how I want to write.

FF: Last year, you won the Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems, administered by the IWW, for your series ‘Absences’. We’ve read about this beautiful sequence, grounded in Covid lockdown and real loss. Can you share a bit more about it – and perhaps an excerpt?

Margaret's writing spaceMM: The impulse for the poems in Absences initially came from Victorian “Hidden Mother” photographs. In an effort to keep very young children still for the time needed for photographs in the 19th century, some photographers sat the child on their caregiver’s knee and covered her with a cloth or rug so that she wasn’t visible. The photographs have begun circulating without the frames and mats that had concealed the subterfuge and the “mother” is now strangely both absent and present.

One of the reasons these photographs fascinated me was because there was a hidden mother in my own family.  Ida, the maternal grandmother who was the subject of the poem ‘Sea Glass’ had died from pneumonia in 1932 when my mother was four years old and, in order to preserve the status of her stepmother, my mother did not reveal Ida had existed until I was in my teens. Once I had seen Ida’s photograph when I was an adult, I realised how very present she is in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in terms of appearance and what you can gauge of her character by the way she looks at the photographer.  This inspired me to write a series of poems about maternal absence. The writing experience was all the more poignant for me as my mother died just before covid arrived, and most of the poems were written during lockdowns.

The poems in the sequence don’t just deal with maternal absence and bereavement, I also wrote about the way women can sometimes feel invisible, especially when they are alone all day at home with children.

…Sometimes sea fog wreathed the street in a kind of ethereal chiffon so that you felt trapped in a world in which everything important had been sucked into a vacuum and all that was left was a sea of Lego, endless repetitions of A Lion in the Meadow and a voice on the radio. You wonder if you will ever make up a story again.

FF: You seem to write in that space between poetry and prose. Where do you find yourself most comfortable? Do you write more naturally in one space? Do you allow yourself the space to move beyond genre and category? And in what ways do you view this winning story as a flash fiction?

MM: As I explained earlier, I view ‘Moon landing’ as a flash fiction, just as I view the prose poems in Absences as poems. They’ve come from a slightly different creative space, although both could be described as work that ‘blurs the boundaries’ between poetry and prose. I like Charles Simic’s definition: “Prose poetry depends on a collision of two impulses, those for poetry and those for prose.” When I’m writing, I’m hoping for collisions of one sort or another. Sometimes a poem turns into a flash fiction and vice versa. I am always open to discovery and wouldn’t like to think I had only one genre to write in.

FF: You have also been a bookseller for many years. Tell us more about your love of books. Is it the contents and diversity of authors, or the idea of them as artefacts of a particular time, or the voice that comes across from an author, or the intimacy that may be developed between you, the reader, and the world? And what’s the last book you held in your hands – and what was special about it as a physical object?

Moores, A little night readingMM: My attitude to books might seem a little disturbing because I am completely unsentimental about them. There are some books that I am drawn to for their design values, but mostly I view them as simply containers for ideas and quite disposable.  I have a big collection of poetry, books about art and photography and books of academic criticism that I refer to again and again, but I don’t feel any particular need to keep fiction or narrative non-fiction once I have read it.  In fact, I love to give books away to friends and family. Sometimes I read for pure entertainment like you might binge watch a TV series, but generally I’m reading and thinking about how the author has approached their subject matter, what literary devices they are using and whether they are succeeding. I’m always on the lookout for literary innovation, and once I have found an author I like, I seek out the rest of their oeuvre.

My current night-table book is The Trackers by Charles Frazier, best known for his prize-winning novel Cold Mountain. Frazier was inspired to write the book by his memories of a photograph taken in the 1930s in an Appalachian town of a well-dressed couple looking at two men painting a mural in a Post Office as part of the public art programme developed during the Great Depression. When the book comes out in July, I’ll be selling it to customers for the plot (young artist, missing woman, somewhat crooked wannabe politician, road trip through depression era America with an emphasis on Florida), but I’ll keep this copy for a while because of the beauty of Frazier’s descriptive and poetic writing and the way that a photograph provided him with a springboard into an imagined world.



Works Cited:

Fraser. Kathleen. “An Interview with Kathleen Fraser.” Interview conducted by Cynthia Hogue. Contemporary Literature, Vol 39, No.1 (Spring, 1998), pp.1-26. https://www.jstor.org/dtsblr/1208919. Accessed 05 June 2020.

Simic, Charles. “Essay on the Prose Poem.” The Poetry Festival, Rotterdam, 1 June 2010. Conference Presentation.
https://plumepoetry.com/essay-on-the-prose-poem-by-charles-simic/ Accessed 26 June 2023.

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