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Interview: Siobhan Harvey, 2019 NFFD Judge

James Norcliffe in conversation with National Flash Fiction Day 2019 judge Siobhan Harvey

This month, we bring interviews with this year’s NFFD judges. James Norcliffe sat down to talk to Siobhan Harvey, and Michelle Elvy talks with Lloyd Jones. We also bring you a discussion between the two youth judges, Gail Ingram and Eirlys Hunter.

The NFFD competition opens February 15 and runs through April 15. More information is available on the National Flash Fiction Day website.


On the short form, musicality and space

James Norcliffe: You bring to the job of judging the national Flash Fiction Day competition a wealth of experience as a poet, editor, anthologist and teacher, and of course you’ve written flash fiction yourself. What especially attracts you to the form?

Siobhan Harvey: Form is a strong part of my poetic engagement. Form is one of the most important engagements with craft. There’s an aesthetic to it which not only provides the work with ‘shape’ but also a corresponding musicality. The US poet Billy Collins talks about writing with the eye and, simultaneously, searching for the sonic integrity of a poem.

My interest with form generally applies to flash fiction specifically, of course. At its most conventional, a work of flash fiction appears as a few lines of prose, but of course it is far from conventional. While the space it occupies has an aesthetic distinct from, say, the space occupied by a conventional short story, or indeed a conventional poem (whatever that is!).

And of course, that space which is occupied on a page also accords and discords with the white space it doesn’t occupy on the page. I’m fascinated and, as an author, absorbed by the strictures of form, and flash fiction form therein.

 

On prose and poetry

JN: You come to flash fiction as a poet. Do you feel there are particular affinities between flash fiction and poetry?

SH: There are correlations and affinities between poetry and almost all other forms, including flash fiction. Poetry and flash fiction share the concision of meaning and form, as well as the distillation of cadence. As the medium is compacted, the innate lyricism of language is heightened; and this is true of poetry and flash fiction. There’s also the shared space of technique and of the unspoken, or rather the implied, in both flash and poetry.

JN: One or two of the poems in your collection Cloudboy (Otago University Press 2014) lean towards prose. I’m thinking particularly of ‘The Gifted Nephologist Goes to School’. Was this dictated by the nature of the Cloudboy project or do you see this as part of your evolution as a poet?

SH: I’ve always written prose poems, so not an evolution. With Cloudboy, I wanted to engage with form as a means of different/ diversity. Cloudboy is a different thinker, someone who is constrained, bullied and prejudiced systemically by his difference. As part of the narrative exploration of this story and its urge towards tolerance for those who are perceived by others as different and, thereby supposedly, wrong, I wanted the thematic, poetic and philosophical calls for tolerance to be framed and synchronised by poems whose forms were various. In Cloudboy, there are prose poems, concrete poems and free forms of different lengths and constructions. Prose-poem structure of ‘The Gifted Nephologist Goes to School’ evolved within this context.

JN: Even earlier, the concluding poem in your book Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts 2011) was the powerful piece ‘Borrowing Anne Sexton’s Attire’. We included this in Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (CUP 2018). Were you surprised by, happy with, this designation?

SH: Anytime one of my works is invited into an anthology, I’m deeply honoured.

 

On the art of editing and curating – and the discipline of writing

JN: You have been heavily involved as a selector and editor with two major anthologies, Our Own Kind and Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page. What for you are the satisfactions of gathering and curating the work of others?

SH: Like all writers, perhaps, I carry with me remembrance of the bleak winter’s day in 1991 when my first work was accepted for publication. It felt like an opening into something, a release. Nearly thirty years later, the world of publication has transformed – and yet, in many ways, remains the same. Back then, there was an elite, and it was hard to get published. Now, there’s still an elite, and it’s still hard – even harder – to get published. It’s a great disappointment, for instance, that at present many of our largest international publishers aren’t publishing new New Zealand poetry anthologies. Having Nicola Legat, who was a champion of New Zealand poetry anthologies, greenlight Our Own Kind and Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page offered contentment because, back in 2008 and 2012 when they were commissioned, it was already clear how rare the opportunity to give voice to New Zealand poets and their work was. It’s this privilege to helm, gather and curate which is the greatest gratification. And as with all privileges, there are liberations and responsibilities therein. Anthologies can only collect a moment in time, and are always limited by space. But the fulfilment of being enabled to give space to and to recognise work by established and new voices, as well as to work with remarkable talents like you and Harry (Ricketts), is an unbelievable satisfaction.

JN: Could you tell us something of your own writing habits / regime, given what must be a very busy life with so many demands on your time as a parent, teacher and of course your work as President of the New Zealand Society of Authors? This may be the time (blush) to thank you so much for giving more of your time to us by agreeing to judge, with Lloyd, this year’s competition.

SH: Studying an MA in Creative Writing furnished me with one key learning outcome – have a strict writing method. Ever since I graduated, I ensure I have a weekly schedule of writing time – early morning through the early afternoon sitting on my sofa at home in front of the lounge window which offers a panoramic and inspiring view out over the Tamaki Estuary, east Auckland and as far as the edge of the Hunuas. Need I say any more!

 

On NFFD 2019 and current reading

JN: What do you hope to see in this year’s NFFD competition entries?

SH: Work which surprises me and guides me back into the world seen anew.

JN: What authors have influenced you as a poet? Are there books you reach for time and again?

SH: Billy Collins; Anne Sexton; Robert Graves.

JN: What are you reading this year, and what do you recommend?

SH: I’m re-re-rereading Jacob Polley’s The Havocs, and Billy Collins’ The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems, and Horoscopes for the Dead. Always recommend Neil Astley (Ed.), Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (Bloodaxe).

Thank you Siobhan!

Siobhan Harvey is the author of five books, including the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award-winning poetry collection, Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). She’s a Lecturer at The Centre for Creative Writing, Auckland University of Technology, where she was nominated as a 2018 Champion, “an acknowledgement of women who have empowered, supported or driven the AUT community to be a better version of itself”. She won the 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction US) and was highly commended in the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. She has placed in many national and international competitions. The Poetry Archive (UK) holds a ‘Poet’s Page’ devoted to her work.

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