Flash Frontier Editor Gail Ingram talked this month with the 2022 NFFD judges about their books, inspiration in contents and titles – and, of course, tips for writing small fictions.
Gail Ingram: Kia ora korua, Anne and Kiri. First of all, congratulations to you both! Anne, for a big year – at the end of 2021, you were presented with the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry, and now your brilliant and unsettling collection The Sea Walks Into a Wall (AUP 2021) has been shortlisted for the 2022 Ockham NZ Book Awards. And Kiri, as founder and managing editor of the small publishing press, Anahera – for reaching the short list as publisher of Serie Barford’s moving poetry collection Sleeping with Stones. Interestingly, Kiri, the title of your poetry collection Night Swimming (2013) also refers to water, as Anne’s recent collection does.
And so, our first question: Do you think it is a New Zealand thing to write about the sea? How much are you both inspired by our environment?
- Anne Kennedy: The sea does seem to be a strong pull in our literatures – I guess because most of us live within striking distance. Certainly, it’s there in the mythologies of the region, Māori and Pasifika, and in contemporary writing – Bruce Mason’s The End of the Golden Weather, the many Patricia Grace novels that are set overlooking the sea, The bone people of course, Elizabeth Knox’s Glamour and the Sea, Kirsty Gunn’s Rain, Kiri Piahana-Wong’s Night Swimming, and so many more.
- Kiri Piahana-Wong: It’s understandable that so many New Zealand writers want to write about the sea – it surrounds us and is a visible, accessible, even daily part of our lives. I often write about the sea and, also, the foreshore and bush in my writing, and I have many poems about birds. My inspirations for writing have not changed much over time. I am interested in the natural world and in personal relationships.
GI: And, Anne, have your inspirations for writing changed over time?
- AK: I think they have. I tend to respond to what’s going on politically, even if it’s not a direct response. I used to be all about feminism and gender, I recently wrote something about the corporatization of tertiary education, and of course, there’s climate change – you can’t ignore that.
GI: Thinking about your writing process, how do you go about shaping a poem? Are you more informed by form, voice, structure and content, or musicality, rhythm and sound? Do the techniques of narrative come into your process, and if so, how?
- KPW: Usually the central idea sparking my poem will dictate the form. How a poem sounds is important, and I will often read my draft poems out loud to get a sense of the rhythm of the piece. Having said that, I try not to overthink my writing process. The most important part of my process is to ‘just write’, leave the draft work for a time, and then revisit and edit.
- AK: I shuttle back and forth between all those elements. But if voice (which includes rhythm, etc.) isn’t going right, I know I’m in trouble. So when voice becomes solid – which might take an agonizingly long time – that I can progress.
GI: And related to the above, how do you go about shaping or grouping poems into a collection, and is this much different than writing a small distinct piece?
- KPW: With my first collection, I had a big pile of poems and I looked for an order that had a good flow to it and was not jarring in terms of moving from one poem to the next. The poems were loosely linked thematically. I am working on a new collection now and I’m taking a different approach as I’m writing poems for a specific theme/central idea.
- AK: I like to make a shaped book of poems, so I put a lot of thought into the arc – the sections, how one poem might open on to the next (or not).
GI: And what of titles? Of individual poems or collections? How do you know when a title is perfectly in concert with the contents of the work that follows?
- AK: I find titles either fall into my lap, or I have to struggle with them – there’s no in-between. I often talk to students about ‘the sub-editor’s five-to-midnight title trick’, which comes from the journalists’ idea (who of course are on a deadline) of putting several words from an article down on paper, connecting them with lines to the centre, and seeing what the next few minutes bring up. Of course, if you’re not on a strict deadline, you could sleep on it.
- KPW: I have to confess I am not great with titles and often just use the first line of the poem, or I choose a single word. My writer friends who know me well often laugh at my titles. In a nice way, naturally.
GI: You both move between genres. Anne, in addition to your poetry, you have written novels and screenplays; Kiri, as well as writing your collection Night Swimming (2013), you have had a long-standing interest in slam and performance poetry as former emcee of Poetry Live. What is the appeal of the short form and how does it inform and interact with the other genres you work in?
- AK: The thing that connects the different forms I work in is narrative – which could be anti-narrative; it doesn’t need to be traditional. For me, short form is no different – except that of course it needs to be really economical!
- KPW: I like how a short form poem or piece of fiction will manage to do a lot within the constraints of a small word count. Some of the best flash fictions create a whole world in a few short lines.
GI: For me, inspiration often comes from reading an unfamiliar or experimental voice. Tell us about either some poetry, novels or flash fiction collections that have recently astonished you, and why.
- AK: Ocean Vuong – poet and novelist/memoirist, for their juxtaposed lyricism and brutality. Unsheltered, by Clare Moleta – a compelling dystopian novel in which the protagonist’s interior thought in the harsh environment draws you along. Now there’s a climate change book. I’m late to the party, but My Mother and the Hungarians, by Frankie McMillan – exquisite, surprising pieces that seem measured on the surface but are packed with emotion. The refugee theme resounds achingly right now, vis-à-vis Ukraine.
- KPW: I really like Jack Remiel Cottrell’s recent collection of short fiction. It is a marvellous example of what can be achieved with a series of short pieces. It is also just so readable and enjoyable. I am also enjoying Miriama Gemmell’s poetry. Lines from her poems stick in my mind. Other recent poetry collections that have impressed me are books by Ruby Solly, Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, Siobhan Harvey and Anne Kennedy of course.
GI: What do you hope to see in the flash fiction pieces for this year’s competition? What do you most look for when reading a compact piece of writing?
- AK: Something original, that I’ve never quite seen in that way before.
- KPW: A strong piece of flash fiction should elicit a strong reaction in the reader. I want to feel sucker punched, amazed, elevated, gobsmacked or devastated.
GI: What would you offer as your top three tips for writing flash fiction?
- KPW: Read a lot of short fiction so the cadences of the genre become fixed in your subconscious. All great writers are also great readers. As I mentioned earlier, my advice is to avoid overthinking the initial writing process as you can always come back and edit later. Just write. When you do come to edit your piece, that’s the time to pore and obsess over every word. With a short fiction piece, make every word and every punctuation mark pull its weight.
1. Be daring.
2. Sound new. Avoid clichés.
3. Read your work aloud, refining it as you go.
GI: Tēnā korua, Anne and Kiri. Lovely talking to you!
Anne Kennedy is a poet, fiction writer, screenplay editor and teacher. Recent books are The Sea Walks into a Wall (AUP), Moth Hour (AUP) and The Ice Shelf (VUP). Awards and fellowships include the 2021 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, the Montana NZ Book Award for Poetry, and the University of Iowa International Fall Residency. Anne has taught creative writing at the University of Hawai`i and Manukau Institute of Technology. She lives in Auckland.
Kiri Piahana-Wong (Ngāti Ranginui) is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press. Kiri’s poetry has appeared in over forty journals and anthologies, including Landfall, Essential NZ Poems, Poetry NZ, Puna Wai Kōrero, Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation, A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children, Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems, Vā: Stories by Women of the Moana, and more. She has one full-length collection, Night Swimming (2013), and a second, Tidelines, is forthcoming. Kiri also works with poetry and fiction as a book reviewer, manuscript assessor, anthology editor, NZSA mentor, and project manager. She lives in Whanganui with her family.