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Interview: Anita Arlov, NFFD 2018 Winner

Flash Frontier: Congratulations on winning the 2018 NFFD competition! Your story ‘He She It They’ takes an unusual approach to storytelling. This is something we love about flash – the experimental nature of the form. Can you share with us how this story came about? Did you feel you were working with something experimental from the outset?

Anita Arlov: Yes. I wanted to write about the flights and falls, the bliss and bother and the myriad revelations when two people fall, and live, in love, but I wanted to write it in an alternating format using language you wouldn’t expect in a love story. The word love doesn’t occur.

The patterns move the rhythm that drives this story. Did you set out hearing these patterns as you wrote? Was it more language-driven, or idea-driven?

More language-driven. Sentences are short –72 in all. Each one is a small reveal, reflecting the habits and personality traits that unlayer when you get to know someone well. Language-wise, it’s chock-full of metaphors for pleasure, compatability or irritation. They hug and make up translates into “He’s breast of water. She’s landfall.“

FF: Let’s talk about titles – so important in flash fiction. This story sets itself apart, from the very first four words of the title. There is a wonderful suggestion of movement and change in those four small pronouns. Can you talk about how you choose titles for your stories or poems, and more about ‘He She It They’?

AA: Yes, titles are crucial to me. The title Ming The Other, is meant to make you curious. Is Ming a person? A colour? A dynasty? The title He She It They works more than one job. Firstly, the words are short and quick-change. This mirrors the flash. Secondly, any two people can love each other, so all the third person singular pronouns are included. (They being gender-fluid third person singular as well as plural.) Thirdly, the pronouns in that order echo the progress of the flash’s love bond: he and she become a couple, a they (although I never use that word in the text; they remain individuals.)

FF: We are curious about the editing process for this story. Did you spend many rounds of edits in order to get the phrasings right? Or did it simply flow as you moved through ideas and language?

AA: This flash flowed pretty quickly from start to finish, with few edits, and was always in this rapid-fire short sentence shape. The volley of repeating hes and shes underscores that they are on a par. It was fun arriving at words and phrases to reflect the ins and outs of a love bond. For example, the courting phase is sprinkled with sibillants (She sleeps in his spoon. He wakes her toes first.)The middle part, covering conflict, is thickly buttered with the plosive b e.g. bad breath, block-buster, bleached bone. When they reconcile the language slides into top gear. There’s equanimity, good vibes and wide angle shots: “She’s open fire, green belt, skylight, long weekend.“

FF: You have had an amazing run recently, including winning the 2017 Divine Muses Emerging Poets competition with your poem ‘Ballpoint‘. This poem also showcases your layering of words, and your sense of repetition, rhythm and play. Does your sense of language and rhythm come from your own focus around performance, and also your experience being a child of immigrants?

AA: Both. Reading aloud to myself is a useful editting tool for me. It cements rhythm and homes in on jarring or redundant words. I also read my work aloud at events. This shapes where I place line breaks and fullstops, for breath or emphasis. It influences the language too. Repetition, word play and rhyme are effective in spoken word, and rhythm is essential.

My parents immigrated as displaced persons in 1951, with two infants, keen wits, a knock-out work ethic, higher education but not a word of English. I was born a few years later, child number four. They spoke Croatian to each other, or a wondrous hybrid of German, Croatian and English – three tongues – in one sentence.

I love the sound of words. At school I cosied up to French and lapped up Latin, and later German and Linguistics. Learning any language teaches syntax and Latin opens your eyes to etymology. I remember sitting in standard six and hearing that the name of the flower gladiolus is derived from Latin gladius because of the shape of the leaf or flower spike. That was a light-bulb moment.

I recall a university lecturer noting at the botton of an essay that I used odd idiom, my prepositions were wrong, and was English my first language? That shocked me until I realised that English was my first spoken language but not the first I heard. English proverbs and sayings were a bit of a mystery because I heard different ones at home, e.g.‚ ‘it eats no bread’ ( i.e. there’s no cost in keeping it). Being a child of immigrants has definitely influenced my language, but I’m not sure I’m the one to pin-point how it manifests. I prefer the active voice as opposed to the passive; I like to slip in non-English words or lines where it works; sensuous language I love, but also matter-of-factness. I go looking at a topic laterally; relish imagery and like to group words in an arresting way. Are these signs? It might be something a reader could pick up on.

FF: Do you consider yourself more of a poet or a story teller – and how do you see the two in relation to each other?

AA: I prefer the word writer. It covers all bases. I don’t call myself a story teller. A flash needs to have something happen in it, but I don’t want to spell it out. However,I’ve noticed you can read some flashes aloud in a conversational style, looking at the audience, like you’re telling people a tale off the cuff.

Sometimes a piece starts as a flash then drops the fight scene and tightens into a poem, or a poem won’t wear its line breaks and becomes a prose poem.That’s OK.

FF: You founded the Auckland-based inside.out. Can you tell our readers more about this? How did you get the idea for it, who participates, how often, etc?

AA: There was something in the air. In 2012 I got involved in organising Spit it Out Spoken Word events with the late Miles Hughes. Ninety-five writers read at 30 gigs across seven venues in the 2013 Auckland Fringe Festival. The idea arose from a provocation by James George at the Auckland Authors Society (which I had just joined) to create ways to connect writers and readers. It won the AFF Special Award.

I started Inside.Out Open Mic for Writers at the same time. I knew literature and music were an entertaining mix. There were poetry/music gigs around, but nowhere for fiction, flash or life story writers to read. Plus, wouldn’t it be good to have an informal setting open to all poets and writers to read at open mic, meet, network and get updates on competitions and events? That’s been happening. Friendships, connections and the impetus to try something new (e.g., for a novelist to write a poem, or a poet to enter a competition) are very common. The vibe is inclusive.

Inside.Out hosts very good musician guests each time but importantly there is no writer guest. All open mic’ers are on the same footing, whether a creative writing student or a garrett-dwelling poet or a seasoned novelist. Inside.out attracts writers from all quarters along with first-time readers. (A first-time reader regularly is a very accomplished writer.) Hearing fresh work in the writer’s own voice is a revelation, and a privilege. Plus, Sappho, Rumi, Janet Frame and Virginia Woolf call by. August marks six years.

Inside.Out happens once a month on the second Wednesday, at the iconic One2one Cafe in Ponsonby, thanks to the co-manager Chris Priestley, a real music icon round these parts, and the NZSA (PEN NZ Inc) Auckland branch, which supports it.

FF: Tell us about your own spoken word poetry.

AA: That began in 2010. I was friends with neighbour the late Graham Brazier who ran the local second hand bookshop. As many will fondly recall, he could, and would, recite the work of W B Yeats, J K Baxter and more at the drop of a hat, from his dining chair throne in the centre of his shop. And he wrote himself, with ease, in one go: punchy or tender poems packed with quick-witted internal and end-line rhyme. When the earthquake rocked my home town of Christchurch, days after I’d been there for a visit, Graham encouraged me to start writing.I knew next to nothing about poetry and had never written creatively. So it followed that my first-ever poems , e.g., Red List Poem, were performance pieces. (I still read that one).

I owe a lot to Graham and to others – Graham McGregor, Gus Simonovic and Ila Selwyn – for giving performance spots to an enthusiastic newbie.I ’m also grateful to many writers who have generously invited me to submit work or given me tips or a helping hand, including Alistair Paterson, Riemke Ensing, Gill Ward, Bernard Brown, Leanne Radojkovich, Janet Charman,Trisha Hanifin, Michelle Elvy, Peter Bland, Michael Morrissey, Kirsten Warner and more.

I read poetry and flash at Poetry Live and other events when asked.

FF: Tell us a little about your creative space: where do you enjoy writing most, when (are you a morning or late-night person?) and how often do you sit down to jot notes or words? How does Auckland figure into your creative imaginings?

AA: I write at the computer. Sometimes the germ of a poem or flash will form in the morning when I wake, and I need to get it down then or puff! it’s a dust mote.

I collect peculiar facts in my head, or print them off, and like to approach something from a fresh angle. For example, imagining that inventor Daedalus did make the mainland seemed a story to rival the fable about his son. How was his life thereafter? This triggered the flash Bird Man in Aotea Square. And reading Brigitte Bardot’s last public interview, after which she ditched films for a quiet life by the sea, triggered The Beauty Who Let Herself Go. Recently I wrote a performance poem about Auckland called Disneyland, but generally, I don’t write from place. I get a fix on a feeling, bite the blade between my teeth, dive in and commit to getting out alive.

Congratulations again, Anita! And thank you for taking time to share more about your 2018 NFFD winning story and your other wonderful projects.

Anita Arlov organises and emcees Inside Out Open Mic for Writers (est 2012). In 2017 she won the Divine Muses New Voices Emerging Poets Competition with Ballpoint.

With a team she organised the NZ Poetry Conference & Festival – Auckland 2017.

Her flash He She It They won the National Flash Fiction Competition 2018. Ming the Other won the Auckland Regional Prize.

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