An Interview With Saradha Koirala

Saradha Koirala is a Wellington poet, who takes great pride in also having a day job. She has been teaching secondary school English since 2005 with occasional writing breaks. In 2007, she earned a MA from Victoria University’s Creative Writing programme and last year she tutored Creative Writing at Massey University.

Saradha’s poetry has been published in various literary journals and she is a contributing editor to Lumiere Reader, focussing on book reviews and interviews. Although poetry is her favoured form, finding time to string words together in any context makes her extremely happy.

1) Saradha, Tear Water Tea is your second poetry collection, following Wit of the Staircase. Back in the days when albums were the most important things that bands released, music magazines used to talk to bands about the “difficult second album”. Was there any difficulty involved in producing your second collection, or did it all come together quite smoothly?

Ah yes, I wrote a blog post last year titled ‘The difficult second book’ with exactly this in mind. I think the difficulty comes particularly if the first book was a success and there’s an expectation to live up to or exceed that with the second. This wasn’t necessarily the issue for me, but there were a number of difficulties: not wanting to be a ‘one hit wonder’ (to perpetuate the music magazine metaphor) was definitely one of them.

‘Wit of the Staircase’ was written during an intense year completing ‘the Manhire course’ at Victoria. There were imposed deadlines, eager tutors, constant feedback, critical class mates – the whole thing was very heavily guided and the book had to be completed within a strict timeline. I enjoyed this way of working, but wanted to prove I could also complete something solo. I do think writing is a very solo activity so if I could write a book I was proud of largely on my own, then I would prove to myself that I really could write.

Another difficulty was that I had to make tough decisions about leaving work to complete ‘Tear Water Tea’, which I really did want to be a much ‘better’ book than ‘Wit of the Staircase’. I applied for funding and thought a lot of about the implications of giving up the day job to frivolously write poems. But the process of writing was not difficult in itself, just the expectations and, I guess, a kind of audacity I had to muster to make writing – just writing – a priority.

2) Does the new collection have a significantly different focus to “Wit of the Staircase”, or do you think readers will notice a continuity between the two?

I think there’s both difference and continuity. Again, because ‘Wit of the Staircase’ was written during that one intense year, I feel the poems reflect a very specific time and a very specific thought process. Even the poems where I’m remembering the past are filtered through the time from which I was looking back.

The poems in ‘Tear Water Tea’, however, were written over a longer period of time, so there was less need to reminisce or conjure up past thoughts and feelings. I hope there’s a sense of immediacy to the poems – a poem written about a particular feeling was written while that feeling was fresh. But then it’s not such a long time on the scale of things, since I wrote ‘Wit’, so there are definite similarities in style. The same characters – my brother, mum and dad – appear and a few significant new ones have emerged.

3) What does the lovely and alliterative title Tear Water Tea refer to?

There’s a wonderful children’s book by Arnold Lobel called ‘Owl at Home’. In it are a bunch of stories about Owl doing this and that but the one that really spoke to me as a kid was ‘Tear Water Tea’ in which Owl holds his tea pot and thinks of all the things that make him sad – stubby pencils that can no longer be used, spoons lost behind the stove – he fills his teapot with tears and then makes a pot of tea! The quirkiness of this story and the list of things Owl comes up with is very appealing.

There are numerous times in my life when I could’ve brewed a strong pot of tear water tea, and the phrase became well-used in my family to explain particular feelings and inexplicable sadness. It’s a bit of a gloomy title, perhaps but I love the sound of it and, as I hope the cover shows, there are moments of inexplicable joy too!

4) Not only does the cover of “Tear Water Tea” look beautiful, but the book also features interior illustrations by David Randall Peters. How did that collaborative process work out?

I am really really happy with the illustrations and cover. They add a depth and detail to the book that I could never have achieved on my own. It was a bit difficult for me though as David is an absolute perfectionist and took a very long time to complete each part. It was difficult for him too because he did want to get it right and make something beautiful for me that also complemented the poetry.

The illustrations are part of one image that was painstakingly produced in pointillist style – 0.02 millimetre dot by 0.02 millimetre dot. The vision for this came quite easily for David after reading the complete manuscript, and then I chose where the separate sections were placed throughout the book. 

The cover was much harder to get started and we looked at lots of different designs – both antique and contemporary – and talked at length about how to “sum up” the mood of the work without giving too much away. I like the illustrative, hand-drawn style a lot and in the end am pleased he took his time with it to make it so beautiful, even if I got quite anxious at times having relinquished a sliver of control over the project.

5) You mention elsewhere in this interview that using simple language to convey complex emotions is something that you value highly in poetry. One of the things I admire about your poetry is its economy – and that’s expertly on display in my Tuesday Poem this week, A secret I don’t mind you knowing where you say a great deal in a few words. It made me think of a poet such as Paul Celan, whose utterances grew shorter and shorter – though, in his case, the language stayed rather complex! So … preamble over … do you imagine that your poems will get shorter and shorter over time, or do you also have long, elaborate poems in your future?

I hope I have both in me, but I have tried to write longer poems in the past and found I tend to edit them back anyway, eliminating repetitive images or places where I’ve ‘spelled things out’ too explicitly. But it’s not my intention to say things with as few words as possible – although that might be quite a cool exercise at some point (I’m thinking now of Ian McEwan whose novels have been set over shorter and shorter periods of time) – it’s more about leaving things open and letting the reader in to wander around the poem; never saying more than is necessary to convey or suggest meaning. I’m quite keen to explore different forms in the future and perhaps different ideas will demand different lengths.

Having said that, I do love haiku and the challenge of creating resonating images in so few syllables. Crafting is important to me – as well as incredibly satisfying – and I hope to avoid writing rambling, incoherent poetry for as long as possible.

6) Are you planning some readings to follow up the launch of ‘Tear Water Tea’, and if so, can you yet tell us where and when you’ll be reading?

Yes I am, but these are still in the planning stages. I’d like to take the book on a bit of a tour around the North Island at some point and I am planning a second launch in Nelson after my Wellington launch.

7) Who are some of the poets who have influenced your own work?

I read a lot and I guess anything I read has potential to influence my own work, consciously or otherwise. My favourite New Zealand poets are always James K Baxter, Janet Frame and Hone Tuwhare – I reread their work all the time. I have piles of poetry books all around my house: local and recent books by my computer; a pile by my bed which includes Carol Ann Duffy, Billy Collins, Simon Armitage and Dylan Thomas; and the old classics in the shelves. It sounds a bit silly to say I’m influenced by Shakespeare but I love the way his sonnets use such simple language to convey such complex emotions. That’s something I value highly in poetry.

8) And finally, who are some of the poets you currently enjoy reading – especially lesser-known ones – and whom you think readers of this interview might be interested in?

Recently I’ve enjoyed Vaughan Gunson – both his book ‘this hill, all it’s about is lifting it to a higher level’ and his various online postings; Reihana Robinson’s ‘Aue Rona’ is a masterful reworking of myth and I found Maria McMillan’s series of poems in ‘The Rope Walk’ particularly intriguing. I really like your last book too, Tim! There are some images in there that come to mind often – especially in relation to human interactions and family.

One thought on “An Interview With Saradha Koirala

  1. Very much enjoyed your interview, Saradha and Tim, thank you. Having just read \”New Years' Resolution\” in Tim's latest post, and now seeing these illustrations, I have to get your work, Saradha!

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