Poet Interview #18 – Tanaka Mhishi

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? At what age did you start writing? Have you always written poetry? Who/what first inspired you to start writing? Who are your favorite poets?
I live in London, which is where I grew up, but I spent a good chunk of my writing time living in Brighton, which is the poster city for grotty-beautiful and I love it deeply. I live within spitting distance of the little flat where I grew up.
When I was about fifteen someone handed me ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath. At the time I knew nothing about the idea of feminism or the Electra complex or psychoanalysis or anything like that. But I did know that like Plath, my dad was an immigrant with a wildly different culture experience to mine and I was terrified of living by his rules his entire life. And I knew that this person who was born an ocean away from me and died before I was existed somehow understood that more deeply than any of my real life friends.
Which, really, is a little bit magic and quite a good thing to spend a lifetime doing.
So I started reading poetry and then I started writing it. These days the poems I love are the ones that are good on the page but also allow me to perform. I like the feeling of putting a poem in a room full of people and seeing how it flies. That’s what led me to write for theatre as well-the two things are very linked for me. But poetry will always be my first love..
I still love Plath- she’s one of those heroes like Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg. Other poets who really excite me: Jeanann Verlee (her books are save-from-a-fire precious), Richard Silken, Andrew Mcmillan, Patricia Smith, Warsan Shire. And I’m an evangelist for the poetry of Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman- people know about their prose but both of them are excellent poets too. Other than that I’m a serial trawler of poetry magazines both online and in print. The list is long.
How do you first start writing a poem? Does it come to you out of the blue, or do you have a set time where you meet with your Muse each day and let the words just … come? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poetry?
I guess every poem is different. My Muse isn’t really into showing up at the same time every day so I do a lot of talking to it (like actual, out loud, crazy person talking). Sometimes the Muse shows up just when I’m waking up. Other times we make a date and nothing happens; I have to do all sorts of tricks to lure it out. It’s like being in love with the world’s flakiest person and trying to run a small business together.
A lot of the times the form shows up before the content, or a word combination will occur to me- but that seed often gets cut in the final edit.
I think I’m definitely less afraid nowadays that the Muse will up and desert me. I just finished a major project which involved working with lots and lots of trauma, and afterwards my writing went fallow for a while. It was pretty miserable, but things got a lot easier once I just began assuming that it would all come right in the end. And (fingers crossed) it seems to have done just that. I try to write every day, and usually I get something. But some days I just have to accept that my Muse is being moody, and that’s a good day to do laundry or clean the bathroom, so that’s cool too.
Are you on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?
I’m on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter and I’m pretty awful at all of them. I think the poet in me wants to edit each post just as much as a poem and I don’t really have the time so I end up not posting at all. I much prefer face to face communication- it’s easier to gauge people’s reactions.
I do have to use them so that people know what I’m doing. It’s horribly uncomfortable, which seems silly. I still do it though. If I’d wanted to be comfortable all the time I wouldn’t have become a poet.
That said, social media is a beautiful thing. I shared all my first work online and I don’t think the connections we make in meatspace are more or less ‘real’ than the ones we make via the Internet. But the format of Facebook and Twitter doesn’t quite work for me for some reason. My Tumblr is my own personal one, so I use that as a collecting place for inspiration.
Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they? What are you reading right now?
I have a handful of other writers from my university days and from various courses I’ve been on who I trust to send my work to. None of them produce poetry which is exactly like mine- actually not all of them are poets. If they all find something to interest them in one piece I know I’m onto something.
I just finished a novel called The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, which is her ‘cover version’ of A Winter’s Tale. I still don’t quite believe that she doesn’t write poetry (I know she loves to read it) because her prose has such a lyrical quality. She’s a poet’s novelist anyway. Also, A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler is beautiful; a bit like Hemingway after an ego-reduction. I work in a bookshop so I’ve always got something or other on the go.
In terms of poetry, I just did a course where I was tutored by Ross Sutherland, and I’m now a hardcore addict of his poetry podcast Imaginary Advice.
Across the pond, Amanda Oaks over at Words Dance (which is one of the best homes for poetry on the net in my opinion) just put out a free ebook of poems inspired by Tori Amos songs called Where’d You Put the Keys Girl. The poems come in pairs, so I’m reading one in the morning and one in the evening. They’re too good to rush.
I’m also doing my annual re-listen of Patti Smith’s 2008 reading of The Coral Sea, which is on Spotify. It’s achingly beautiful.
What words of encouragement can you offer other poets who are trying to get their work noticed?
My first instinct is to say persist, persist, persist. But actually there’s a caveat to that: be kind to yourself and respect your own work. If you’ve just had a gazillion rejections in a row then it’s ok to take some time off. If you’ve been hoarding your poems like an inky-fingered version of Smaug then maybe it’s time to send them out into the world.
One rule that I live by is to approach poetry magazines as a reader first. Keep your love alive. If I’m constantly awed by what an outlet publishes, I submit.

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Scott Thomas Outlar hosts the site 17Numa.wordpress.com where links to his published poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, reviews, and books can be found. He is a Best of the Net and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Scott's poetry books include: Songs of a Dissident (Transcendent Zero Press, 2015), Chaos Songs (Weasel Press, 2016), Happy Hour Hallelujah (CTU Publishing, 2016), and Poison in Paradise (Alien Buddha Press, 2017). Scott is a member of The Southern Collective Experience; he also serves as an editor for Walking Is Still Honest Press, The Blue Mountain Review, The Peregrine Muse, and Novelmasters.

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