Q&A with 2015 New Voices Award Nominee Genna Gardini

15 Dec 2015
Q&A with 2015 New Voices Award Nominee Genna Gardini

Genna Gardini’s poem “Performance Scale” was nominated by PEN South Africa for the 2015 PEN International New Voices Award, along with Liam Kruger’s story “Sarah“. PEN Afrikaans nominated Carien Smith and her story “Likkewaan“.

Read our Q&A with Genna below and click here to read her poem “Performance Scale”, which was also longlisted for the 2015 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award

Can you tell us a bit about your writing life – how long you’ve been writing for and what subjects you focus on?

I wrote my first collection of poems when I was around 6 or 7. It’s called The Shnozzcumber and is a series of rhyming fantasies about my problems with Catholicism, family, best friends and violence. The first is about an antagonist kleptomaniac healthcare practitioner. It starts like this: “Nurse Betty is a violent thing/ Apone her finger sits a ring”. I must have read or been read Roald Dahl at the time because most of the poems are very clear Revolting Rhymes rip-offs. My childhood best friend, who I’d tasked with illustrating the poems, gave them back to me when I was in my early twenties and I realised that I’m basically still writing about the same things.

As a kid, I wanted to be both a writer and an actor, but only the former stuck (although I am gainfully employed as a drama lecturer). I started trying to write poetry “seriously” as a teenager. It was pretty dismal, I think now, but I won high school prizes for it which made me feel like it might be something I should continue doing. I studied Drama and English at the university currently known as Rhodes and then eventually did both an Honours and MA in Drama at UCT. My work as a writer in theatre has always been strongly linked to poetry (my first play, written when I was in third year, was called Does Dorothy Parker Know About You?).

My writing currently looks at (some experiences of) feminism, the problem of privilege, fatness, sickness, bodies, trauma and the construct of womanhood.

Can you talk a bit about your poem “Performance Scale”, which you entered for the PEN New Voices Award?

I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in my late twenties and “Performance Scale” is a response to that news. It was written after I’d been hospitalized twice in as many months and was trying to come to grips with the illness while also finishing my MA. Like with most things in my life (identifying as a woman, being queer, fat, adopted etc), I tried to find writing that could help me understand what I was going through and that I could relate to. I initially really struggled to find any media about MS that I felt a real link to until I remembered that Joan Didion had been diagnosed with it as well. I read and reread her essay “The White Album”, where she talks about many things including receiving an exclusionary diagnosis of MS, in the early months of my own reckoning. I use a quote from this essay at the start of the poem because it sums up, perfectly, what I wanted and probably fail to express in “Performance Scale”: that many emotional and psychological shifts I had felt before suddenly seemed to be made manifest in my body.

Your debut collection, Matric Rage, is coming out this month. Can you tell us about it?

Matric Rage is made up of poems I wrote from ages 19 to 29. It is published by uHlanga, which is a progressive poetry press run by young poet and general wonder Nick Mulgrew. It’s part of the press’ first New Poets series, which includes Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes. Nick has also published his own fantastic first collection, the myth of this is that we’re all in this together, through uHlanga. I’m really excited for Matric Rage to be published alongside these collections by a new press that is invested in showcasing young, experimental local voices.

Poets or books that have had an impact on you?

When I was a teenager, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were big influences on me. This led to being an adult who has to deal with smirking men writers asking “How many times have you read The Bell Jar?” (Answer: as many as they’ve read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). But Antjie Krog was probably one of the reasons I began to write poetry seriously – she came to St Mary’s DSG, where I was a student, and how she spoke to us about the importance of poetry affected me. During my undergraduate degree, I encountered Ingrid Jonker and Adrienne Rich, who were big influences on me as well.

What was the last book or poem you read that you really loved?

Koleka Putuma is one of my favourite poets. The writing in Joanna Newsom’s new album Divers is astounding. I also recently read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, at the urging of my partner, and that shifted a lot of my political paradigms. R.A. Villanueva’s Reliquaria is extraordinary – I was lucky enough to chair a reading with him at the Open Book festival this year and listen to his beautiful verse about bodies, Catholicism and families. I’m also a big fan of Rosa Lyster’s weekly essays.