An Interview With Vana Manasiadis

Vana Manasiadis was born in Wellington in 1973. She studied English and Classics at Victoria University, and later completed an MA in Creative Writing there. For the last few years she has been living in Crete, and travelling whenever possible, but she plans to be back on Wellington’s South Coast at the end of the year. Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, and her first collection of poetry, Ithaca Island Bay Leaves, was recently published by Seraph Press.

What was the genesis of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves? Did it start life as your project for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria?

An earlier version of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves did end up as my MA folio, but my idea at first had been to explore that quite antipodean rite of passage commonly known as the OE. I was drawn to questions of mobility, transferability, and the various notions of home like comfort, familiarity, repose.

But, I didn’t get very far with my tales of the backpacker before the family stories of movement and flux blew in. My grandmother’s in particular, and then my mother’s. They both had/have quite conflicted relationship to moving and movement, to home and time; and I became interested in those tensions, and about people’s desire and ability to adapt and re-invent themselves, to settle or not settle.

So, the book became about my family’s various movements, and also about the various movements of figures from ancient history, as I’ve imagined them. (And, because I have difficulty conceiving of time as linear, everyone ended up sort of co-existing, crossing over countries and years).

I suspect many readers of this blog won’t be familiar with the form of a mythistorima – I certainly wasn’t! What is a mythistorima, and why did you choose this form for your collection?

I really like this question, because it gives me a chance to explain! Although mythistorima specifically means ‘novel’ in modern Greek, and also more generally ‘fairytale’ or ‘fantasy’, the etymological meaning (perhaps not surprisingly), is myth and history combined – from the time when people disseminated myths and (his)stories by word of mouth. I really like the fluid and undisciplined nature of speech and so I decided to kind of unfix the form of Ithaca and assume oral language with its tangents, fillers and pauses, as the governing concept. I tried to make sense of all the different forms in the book as transcripts, or fragments, then pieced them together so that they might ‘tell’ a kind of story while still remaining a little elusive.

Is there an identifiable tradition of Greek-New Zealand writing, or New Zealand writing about Greece, and if so, do you see Ithaca Island Bay Leaves as part of this tradition?

I’m not really aware of an identifiable tradition of Greek-New Zealand writing, but I could perhaps point to Michael Harlow who has Greek-Ukrainian heritage and whose poetry I’d say very strongly reflects an ‘older’ or ‘other’ world co-existing simultaneously with the here and new. In terms of New Zealand writing about Greece, there’s naturally a body of academic writing about ancient Greece via classics departments, and some non-fiction like travel writing and historical writing – for example on the battle of Crete.

In Ithaca I was interested in exploring ideas for which the country Greece became a bit of a vehicle. But, there’s no denying, I am of Greek descent, and so the whole thing becomes a bit chicken and egg.

I have to admit that I’m a little cautious about categorizations such as ‘Greek-New Zealand writing’. I think they can be useful in some situations (like this one!), but they have the potential to be limiting too. I went a bit nutty recently (then felt bad), when some new work which had nothing to do with Greece, was accepted by a publication and labeled Greek-New Zealand writing because I’d written it.

What has been the reaction to Ithaca Island Bay Leaves from readers of Greek descent in New Zealand, and in Greece and Crete?

So far my sample size is quite small, and I’ve only recently got back to Crete, so don’t have much feedback from this end. Readers of Greek descent in New Zealand seem to have related to the linguistic and cultural meeting points; and to the moments of loss, being-at-a-loss, slight absurdity. An older second-generation Greek woman said she cried, and that was really amazing for me – to hear that.

Are you involved in the poetry scene where you now live, and if so, can you tell us a little about it?

I haven’t really found a poetry scene in the town where I’m living, maybe it’s behind an amazing hidden door and I just haven’t discovered the secret handshake. I can say that I went to a talk tonight on Sappho which is part of a series of talks on various poets organized by a kind of bar/arts centre here. There’s a lot of interest or reverence or passion for poetry and literature generally here, and tonight’s question-answer time turned into a very animated affair as usual. So maybe I could say that I haven’t come across that many writers, but it seems that pretty much everyone feels very strongly about writing.

The production quality of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves is very high (as it has been for all the books published by Seraph Press). Were you heavily involved in the design of the book?

Helen Rickerby, of Seraph Press, did an amazing job with the design of Ithaca, and she was really wonderful to work with. The whole production aspect of the book was so easy and stimulating and a very positive experience.

We had similar ideas about the look of the book, about how things like the font, and the amount of space on the page and around the words could mirror the tone of the book. We liked the idea of the words and lines looking like loops of crochet, and seeming more frail than emphatic.

Also, it was Helen’s idea to have an image of my grandmother’s crochet on the inside cover, and she took the beautiful photograph of Island Bay on the back cover to complement Marian Maguire’s lithograph on the front. I’d been in totally in love with Marian Maguire’s work for a long time so excited to have Athena Observes a Fracas for the cover.

Have you been satisfied with the critical reaction to Ithaca Island Bay Leaves, in terms of both the number of reviews and the reactions of those who have reviewed it?

To date the book has been reviewed in the New Zealand Herald and the Otago Daily Times. The Herald review, by Paula Green, was a really positive and generous review, and (of course) I felt that she really got the book when she said, ‘It is a way of telling stories, and a way of being told’.

The ODT review, by Bluff resident Hamesh Wyatt, said something along the lines of fascinating, funny and a bit random. Lynn Freeman on “Arts on Sunday” – and I don’t know if this counts as a review – said nice things during her interview with me on Radio New Zealand too, and that was really exciting for me. I’m pretty happy and surprised to have had any critical response at all – but Helen has done some great work publicising in an environment where poetry, especially from small presses, sadly doesn’t get a heap of attention.

Which poets have had the most influence on your writing, or are among your personal favourites? Are there any whom you’d especially recommend?

Having recently seen Jane Campion’s Bright Star, I feel I have to say that John Keats was one of the first poets that really mattered to me. I remember receiving his embrace of life and earthy decay as epiphany.

In more recent times, I’ve really enjoyed and been inspired by Greek poet Nasos Vaghenas, Derek Walcott and Anne Carson – particularly Anne Carson – for her play with forms, and the unpredictable, magical, moving, powerful combinations of those forms, and times, settings, and voices. And, she knows a lot of stuff. When I read Anne Carson I feel in the presence of both raw heart and razor-sharp mind. I’ve also been reading a bit of New York poet Kenneth Koch, and his vitality, energy and again dancing and surprising combinations of images and directions have been pretty elating.

But, I have to admit that I read more prose than poetry, and at the moment Roberto Bolano has my favour. Entirely awed by his epic 2666, I’m now reading his Savage Detectives which has me equally amazed and moved and feeling very alive. His prose is active and declarative, and again, very intelligent. His characters are both egotistical and vulnerable at the same time, are vexed by longing and hunger.

Do you have a plan for how your writing career will unfold? If so, and if it isn’t a secret, where do you see yourself and your writing in five years’ time?

I should pay you for asking me this. I don’t have a plan, I feel like I should, but I don’t. It’s been five years since I wrote the first version of Ithaca, and although I’ve been working on other projects since then, its been in a very uncommitted, very inconsistent way.

My most stubborn project has grown out of a conversation with my sister who directs and writes for theatre. She had been working on a script and was interested in including prose written by one of the characters, and suggested I contribute the writing. The experience of collaboration was energizing and has made me think that I’d like to work more collaboratively in the future in general.

Writing is so solitary but it doesn’t have to be, and working on Ithaca has made me think about community. Sure, there’s often a writerly community, and the potential for numerous discussions, influences, inspirations, but ultimately a work ends up with a single author’s name on it, and I’m becoming quite interested in ideas of likeness and kinship. Let’s say that in five years I’ll be part of some collective writing type thing, and merging lots more.

Sample Poem: King of Mycenae

Menelaus was known as a bit of an eccentric.
Over a pint at The Arms, he’d boast about this
and that: his kidnapped wives, his wagered wars,
his days as a people smuggler. He’d sailed on
the Queen Mary, ridden on the Orient Express,
eaten quince. He was the talk of Greymouth.

For a longer poem from the collection, see Tuesday Poem: Ithaca.

Book Availability

Ithaca Island Bay Leaves is available from the publisher, Seraph Press, and from independent bookshops around New Zealand, including Unity Books; Otago University Bookshop; The Women’s Bookshop (Auckland); Parsons Books (Auckland); Scorpio Books (Christchurch); Time Out Bookstore (Auckland); and Page & Blackmore (Nelson).

It can be ordered through any bookshop, using its ISBN: 978-0-473-15235-2

Finally, if you have a jones for author interviews, you can view all the author interviews on my blog by using this search.

Book Review: Watching For Smoke, by Helen Heath

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover.

Paekakariki poet Helen Heath’s chapbook Watching for Smoke, recently published by Seraph Press and available from Seraph Press or on Etsy, is a beautiful package both inside and out, with its card cover featuring an inserted knitting needle and its coloured and textured end-papers.

The epigraph to Watching for Smoke is:

Family is a waiting fuse
watching for smoke.

Family is the subject of these poems: partners, children, parents, seen from the point of view of a daughter, a lover, a parent. Parents are ambiguously loved figures, sometimes too close, sometimes too far away, their lives brought into perspective by their daughter’s giving birth to and caring for children of her own:

The hills are my father
with a shotgun
as I write you a letter. (“Evidence”)

my mother’s brow, her heavy lids,
there, in my new daughter.
I am home now and she will leave me. (“Homing”)

I enjoyed the precision of the language and the viewpoint in these poems. The language is subtle, appropriate to the subject matter, well chosen. And the viewpoint is equally precise: each poem takes a stance, while not denying the right of other stances to exist.

“How We Disappear” both ends and summarises the chapbook, its nine short stanzas thumbnails of a woman’s life moving through time. I think it’s the best poem in “Watching for Smoke”, but I enjoyed each of the eleven poems, and only one, “Infallible Father”, did not quite possess the satisfying completeness which is a hallmark of the other ten.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I like “Watching for Smoke” a lot. It has been produced in a limited edition of 100 hand-bound copies. There are copies still available. I recommend that you get one soon, and watch out for Helen Heath’s first full collection when it appears.

An Interview with Helen Rickerby

Helen Rickerby is a Wellington poet, publisher (through Seraph Press) and blogger whose second poetry collection, My Iron Spine, has been released to considerable acclaim. I interviewed her by email to mark the publication of My Iron Spine.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of My Iron Spine. What can you tell me about the book, and where can interested readers find more information, and copies to buy?

Thank you. I’m pretty excited about this book coming out – it’s been in process for a while, and I’m quite pleased with it. Also, I think I’ll be able to move on now to the next thing.

About My Iron Spine: well it’s divided into three sections, the first is autobiographical poems, which are arranged, more or less, chronologically. The biggest section is the middle, which contains biographical poems about women (and one man – sort of) from history. Most of them are written in the first person, and some of them are rather long – the longest is 11 pages. The final section kind of brings the other two together – in these poems I hang out with various women from history – I go swimming with Virginia Woolf, party with Katherine Mansfield, knit with Minnie Dean, and so forth. That section is a bit lighter, with more fun poems. Running loosely through the whole thing is the theme of the ‘iron spine’ – things that constrict or suffocate us, but which also make us stronger.

You can get more info from the HeadworX site, and also I’ve blogged a bit about writing it and the process of putting it togther.

Where to get it? It will be in ‘all good bookshops’, which means most of the independent folks around New Zealand. It’s now on Fishpond, but you could also contact HeadworX. And I have a bunch of copies to sell also, so you can always get one off me (

My Iron Spine is your second poetry collection, after Abstract Internal Furniture (2001). Without sounding too much like an essay question, in what ways are the books similar, and in what ways do they differ?

While I’m still very fond of Abstract Internal Furniture, I think that My Iron Spine is a step up in terms of my development as a poet. It’s more ambitious. I spent more time crafting the poems – tinkering with bits that weren’t working or could work better. I began to appreciate and use like alliteration and internal rhyme – which I’d previously been scared of – and I think the language is more playful. Also, it is more of a whole than the previous collection. It’s kind of hard for me to compare them – I’m sure I still have some of the same concerns, like the place of women in the world, and identity and stuff, and I suspect that the colour red features quite a bit in both.

I know you as a publisher, editor and blogger as well as a writer. Do you find that these different roles fit well together? Does your writing sometimes suffer because of the time and effort you need to put into the other roles (not to mention everything else that’s going on in your life)?

My writing does seem to suffer in relation to everything else – my full-time job is probably the main thing that gets in my way, and I’ve had to figure out tactics to make some time and headspace for creative writing. And sometimes publishing, editing and blogging do take up the time I might otherwise use for writing. But I also find those other things enormously valuable.

My involvement in JAAM Magazine is the most longstanding thing, and that’s been really important in exposing me to the work of lots of writers, and making connections with some of them. My Seraph Press publishing is intermittent, so when I’m working on something it takes up a lot of time, but often I’m not. I’m very proud of the books I’ve published, and think they are all books that really should be out there in the world.

Blogging is quite a new thing for me – I only started my blog late last year when I suddenly realised that blogging wasn’t just a waste of time, as I had suspected, but that it was an informal but public outlet for writing about stuff that I’m into – like poetry and publishing, and writing generally. While it can take a bit of time, I’ve found it really, really rewarding. And I think it’s actually helped my writing, of prosey things at least – made my writing more fluent. When you’re writing a blog post, you don’t have the pressure of writing something more formal, which is quite a freedom. But writing things down also makes you think about what you’re writing about in a deeper way than if you were just thinking about it, or writing about it in a journal, or even talking about it. The other really important thing I’ve got out of blogging is a sense of community from writing and reading blogs – Wellington writing bloggers all seem very friendly, and I’ve also made some poetry blog friends overseas. And I’ve now met some of the more local folks in real life.

One of the things that strikes me about My Iron Spine is that it’s a very clearly structured collection. Did you have the structure of the collection in mind before you wrote any of the poems, or did it evolve as you went along?

It evolved as I went along – it grew out of what I was writing. I noticed I’d been writing some poems about real people, and thought I’d write more. And then at some point I started seeing a structure, and then I wrote some more poems that fitted in with what I was doing. I wrote most of it in a year that I was fortunate enough to be able to take off work (pre-mortgage, you understand), and as well as writing, I was reading a lot of collections of poetry. And the ones that struck me the most were ones that worked as a whole, rather than just being a ragbag of poems, because they set up resonances that made the whole even stronger than its parts. It’s something I’ve become really interested in.

Also, I find it easier to write when I have a kind of poetic project – I guess in Abstract Internal Furniture my series of Theodora poems were a bit like that, and I’m now working on poems which are loosely based around ideas of cinema. It means you don’t have to start from scratch each time, and you can really explore and develop some ideas.

The middle section of My Iron Spine features biographical poems about a number of well-known women, and then, in the third section, the poet interacts with these women. Abstract Internal Furniture also features biographical poems. Why does writing biographical poems appeal to you, and what balance of research and imagination goes into them?

To be honest, I haven’t really thought about that – I’ve thought about why I’m interested in reading biographies, but not why I’ve enjoyed writing these poems. I’m really interested in people’s lives, and in biography, which isn’t quite the same thing as someone’s actual life – it’s an attempt to turn someone’s life into a coherent narrative. I guess a biography is to a person what a map is to place. I suppose these poems are like that too. I think I’ve enjoyed writing these poems because I enjoyed imagining the character, how they might sound. But mainly to interpret them, highlight aspects of their story or personality. I also like stealing ideas from elsewhere – possibly I don’t have enough of my own.

For some of them I did a lot of research, but I found that if I knew too much in the beginning, then in made it harder to make a poem out of it. I wrote some poems before I did research, and then had to alter them. There’s one in the voice of John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield’s husband. I knew a lot about them both when I first wrote it, but then I read his autobiography, and then I rewrote it a bit, because I felt I’d been too hard on him. I’ve tried to evoke these people in ways that might be true, but there’s a lot of creation, especially about what they might have been thinking. You really can’t know.

Which poets have had the most influence on your work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading? (Of course, these might be one and the same.)

Sometimes they’re the same, and sometime quite different. For example, Scott Kendrick, whose work I’ve published, is one of my favourite writers, but we’re doing such different things in our writing – in style at least. There are very few poets that I know are influences on me – Anne Carson is one, and Margaret Atwood another, and I was trying to be influenced something in the style of T S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ when I wrote parts of ‘Empress Elisabeth’ – but I’m sure many others have been also. Sylvia Plath almost certainly. I’ve also very much enjoyed Anna Jackson, Jenny Powell-Chalmers, James K Baxter, Ursula Bethell, Vivienne Plumb, Dinah Hawken, Anne Sexton, Fleur Adcock, T S Eliot, Stevie Smith, Sharon Olds. You will notice that they’re mostly women, which isn’t deliberate, and many of them are people I know. I guess you put special effort into reading work by people you know, which I think is usually rewarded by getting extra out of it.

How about prose writers?

Again, Margaret Atwood, though I haven’t read as much of work in the last 10 years, because I overdosed by writing a masters thesis on her (‘Fairytale intertextuality in the fiction of Margaret Atwood’). Jeanette Winterson is a favourite, and her novel The Passion is a total inspiration to me. If I could have written any book in the world, it would be that one. Other favs include Douglas Coupland, Charles Dickens, Angela Carter, the Brontës…

What writing projects do you have on the go at the moment? (If you’re prepared to talk about them, of course: I know I don’t always want to talk about what I’m working on right now.)

The main think I’m working on is the cinema poems I mentioned earlier. I’ve written quite a few, but I feel like I’m still in an early stage with these. I’m hoping they will turn into a collection. Once I’d finished My Iron Spine I felt like I needed to go in a different direction, and leave the biographical/narrative poems for a while. I felt the same after Abstract Internal Furniture – I felt like I could write a parody of a Helen Rickerby/Theodora poem, and that it was time to write something a little different. Some of the cinema poems are still narrative, but others are more surreal or impressionistic.

A tough one to end on: if you had to choose three words to describe your writing, what would they be?

That’s very, very hard. I don’t think I know my poetry well enough from the outside to really be able to say. Last week someone I don’t really know, who had heard me read at the Winter Readings, told me that my poetry was like nothing he’d come across before (‘in a good way’ he qualified), and said it was intelligent. And one always likes to be thought of as intelligent, though I don’t always deserve it. Other people have said that my work is accessible, which also isn’t always true. I’d like it to be intricate, beautiful, layered, mythic, and so that’s something to aim for, and that’s more than three words…