Interview with the first and second place winners of the 2021 Caselberg Trust Poetry Competition
Flash Frontier: Congratulations on your placements in the 2021 Caselberg Trust Poetry Competition – an exciting win for both of you! The awards night will come in November, and we’re excited to hear your poems there. We’d like to ask you to tell us a little about your poems, without giving too much away. Could you share the title and tell us something of the inspiration behind your work? Where did you begin your winning poem?
Sophia Wilson: Thank you.
Earlier this year, I had a nightmare about being trapped in a flooded underground carpark with my children. This was the initial inspiration for Sea-skins. I’d also been reading a narrative poem version of the story, The Leak in the Dyke. At the time, I was struck by the parallels between the classic tale and the current threats posed by rising sea levels and climate change. Sea-skins is essentially an environmental poem. It draws on images of the body and sickness as metaphors for exploitation of the natural world.
Jenna Heller: My piece is called ‘Kintsukuroi’. Kintsukuroi, or kintsugi, is the Japanese term for ‘golden repair’, the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery using a lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. This practice treats the break-and-repair as part of the object’s history, something to be celebrated rather than disguised. However, titles always come last for me so I didn’t start this poem with that concept in mind. Instead, I started with five words that a friend of mine gave me: serendipity, gumption, grief, swift, and lollygag. Not all five made the final cut.
FF: Sophia, you have recently had some impressive moments for your poetry: the 2021 Hippocrates Poetry Prize, the 2021 Robert Burns Poetry Prize (and gaining third place in 2020), Runner-up in the Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems. Do you see a connection between these winning poems, in the way you approach your poetry? Is there an evolution of the form as you keep working on poetry that you polish and submit to competitions? What does your poetry look like in 2021, compared to earlier?
SW: I don’t really see any connection! However, I sometimes feel that each time a piece of writing is submitted, it risks losing energy and power. While I don’t tailor my poems to a particular judge or competition (other than tailoring to the theme if there is one), I usually write something new for a competition. I wonder if the ‘fresh’ quality of a poem might help spur it along.
I’m not sure about the evolution of form of my poems….my writing tends to be spontaneous and haphazard (like my writing space!) and I don’t follow any method, plan or structure. Some poems work and most don’t. However, compared with my early poems, my recent poems are probably less sentimental and better pruned.
FF: Jenna, you have been focusing more on poetry this year, working with a mentor and refining your approach to how you write. What have you learned about poetry, specifically? What is it you value most about writing and reading poetry? Can you give us some examples of poets whose work guides you, or whose work you admire?
JH: When I write poetry, my first draft is completely free. I just write. I don’t try to get anywhere or make anything happen. I don’t start with a pre-conceived idea. I don’t try to make the words look like a poem. I do everything I possibly can to quiet my inner-critic and just write. I stop ‘trying’ to write and instead, write freely and without judgment, allowing the leaps of connection to simply occur. I think getting to this state is a bit like meditating because sometimes it’s very hard to quiet my inner critic… but when I’m there, time seems to disappear and I’m in flow.
John Allison, my poetry mentor, really reinforced the practice and value of stripping away unnecessary words, sometimes stripping away too many words and needing to put some back (!), and then ensuring that each word, each phrasing, and each line break does as much work as it can to contribute to the whole poem. Taking the poem to its brink.
There are some poems I return to again and again, where the words are sparse and precise and the poems seem to breathe and float on the page. These include ‘How to Write a Poem about the Sky’ by Leslie Marmon Silko, ‘Looking for Work’ by Raymond Carver and ‘Yellowtail’ by Mary Morris. Currently, I’m smitten with Anne Kennedy’s Moth Hour (Auckland University Press, 2019), John Allison’s Near Distance (Cold Hub Press, 2020) and Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017). I could go on and on.
FF: Sophia, you write quite a lot about land and migration and movement – inspired, perhaps, by your personal trajectory. Can you address how poetry is both personal and universal, for you? Who are some poets you admire who strike that balance just right, and why? What do you strive for with your poetry, in that it may begin sometimes from a very personal place?
SW: I’m still learning to get the balance between the personal and universal. It’s something I struggle with.
Certainly, poems I relate best to manage to convey both detail and wider meaning.
It’s hard to know who to highlight regarding poets I particularly admire – there are many outstanding voices, including emerging poets, and I have not had time to read a whole lot. But thinking of books on my shelf right now, favourites include Rhian Gallagher’s Shift and Lynn Davidson’s Islander.
FF: Jenna, your work often explores land and people, and the things that surprise us in both. In your work, there are small moments where a reader may catch their breath. Here, too, is that connection between the personal and the universal. Is there a connection between the way you experience the world and the way you write about it?
JH: I think so, yes, although I’ve never considered this before. I’ve learned to live life in the moment. I’m there. Fully present. I’m laughing or crying or angry or thoughtful. But I’m also a very reflective, in-my-head sort of person, always trying to make sense of things and understand my own perspective as well as the perspective of others. I’m always looking for the connections. From a young age, I taught myself to look for the lessons, to see the big picture, to identify and make sense of the patterns. Metaphor and symbolism are extremely important to me. Poetry and fiction writing are another way of sense-making for me.
FF: Jenna, you notably won the 2020 National Flash Fiction Day competition with your story ‘Best Friends’, and Sophia, you placed third in the 2021 NFFD competition with your story ‘Run’. Could you both tell us about moving between forms – story and poetry? Is there a deep connection between the two, for you? Do you find natural overlaps between short-form storytelling and poetry? Or is there a different approach when you write one or the other – a shift in feeling, intuition, technique, etc.? Is there more in common between the two, or more that separates poetry and small fiction for each of you?
JH: Yes, there is definitely a deep connection between poetry and fiction for me. It’s worth noting that I wrote ‘Best Friends’ when I was working closely with John Allison on my poetry. In fact, I wrote many flash pieces during that time, many of which have gone on to find published homes. I’d go so far as to say that reading, writing, and discussing the craft of poetry is integral to my fiction writing process.
My fiction writing process, however, is slightly different. When I write fiction, I tend to have more of sense of where I want to go, what I want to have happen, the layered conflict. I’ve mulled around an idea for a bit in my head for a day or two or longer before sitting down to write the story. But then, when I’m ready to write the story, I try to open myself up to write as freely as possible and without judgment but in a gently steered direction. Then just like my poetry process, the rewriting and editing phase becomes a careful carving session where I strip away all of the unnecessary words and sentences, sometimes stripping away too many words or sentences and needing to put some back, and then ensure that each word does as much work as it can, that the phrasing is just right, that the piece has breathing space, that everything is in service to the story.
SW: I’ve tweaked certain flash fictions and turned them into poems and vice versa. But usually I find a piece fits better as one or other. Poetry comes more naturally to me, perhaps as it seems to offer more freedom in form and content than fiction.
FF: Can you each share something about your writing space? Where do you find yourself most inspired? And what are you working on now?
SW: My ideal writing space would be anywhere without multi-tasking and distraction.…I am most inspired when on my own, or anonymous in the corner of a café or pub. My current writing space is the kitchen table/shared home-schooling desk. It’s not particularly conducive to concentration, but it’s near the fire and the wi-fi and enables me to interweave writing with teaching and other tasks.
I’m currently working on an ‘environmental’ poetry collection that also attempts to capture aspects of the journey that led me, my Asian partner and our children to make our home in Aotearoa.
JH: My writing space is my kitchen table at 5.30 am. I have always been an early riser and I do my clearest thinking before the rest of the household wakes up. I keep the door closed and the curtains pulled, so aside from the sometimes-needy cats, there aren’t any distractions.
I am most inspired by places. Places where significant things happened to me or where I felt some sort of heart-earth connection. Places like the seal-laden Kaikōura shoreline, the wild West Coast township of Hokitika, the red dirt roads of Stanley Bridge, Prince Edward Island (Canada) and the frozen ponds and creeks in the backwoods of my Connecticut and New York youth. My mind seems to capture smells, tastes, sweeping vistas, threadbare minutiae and the emotional breath and heartbeat in warped-memory detail.
I’m currently working on an experimental and interactive novel told non-linearly through flash fiction, poetry and zine-style art. Not quite a ‘pick-a-path’ but something that needs to be explored by the reader in order to fully stitch the story together. Each chapter is another piece of the puzzle, but it’s not a mystery. I imagine the finished, printed product being something of a ‘book for the senses’: something to savour, something to consume, something to examine, something to love. I am also actively seeking publishers for my first collection of poetry, my first collection of short fiction and my first young adult novel.