“No one truly owns a language”: An Interview with the Creators of harana poetry

I’m a poet even if I’m writing in my second language, I’m a poet even without any formal training in writing.

In the UK, Kostya Tsolákis, Romalyn Ante, and Alice Hiller recently launched harana poetry, a new online magazine for poets writing in English as a second or parallel language. The magazine, whose first issue appeared in February 2019, features poems, interviews, and reviews. In their welcome section, the three editors call for a celebration of solidarity and interaction: “The mission of harana poetry is to resist singleness of tongue and thought, initiate creative conversations and enlarge possibilities.” Here at Asymptote, we knew just how much this would resonate with our readers. Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production) Lou Sarabadzic conducted the following interview with the editors to learn more about harana poetry and contemporary multilingual poets.

Lou Sarabadzic (LS): harana poetry has three creators. How did you meet? What prompted you to launch a journal together?

Kostya Tsolákis (KT): The idea of a magazine for poets writing in English as a second language was brewing in my mind for several years. When I first started submitting poems to magazines, I felt a little insecure because I was writing in a language that isn’t my mother tongue. I’d mention my idea to friends, and they were very supportive, but I felt I needed someone to help me bring it to life. I thought it was important to have another poet’s perspective when it came to choosing the poems and, really, I didn’t want a project of this kind to be a one-man band.

Roma and I were both shortlisted for the Primers 3 mentoring scheme in 2017. That’s how we first came into each other’s radar. We then met at an event in London, in March last year, and I immediately felt we had a connection. I can be a bit shy and awkward when I meet people for the first time, but I felt comfortable in her company right away. I felt we could work well together. Without a second thought I asked her that evening if she was interested in creating the magazine with me.

Romalyn Ante (RA): Kostya and I only met on that night, even though I was familiar with his Primers 3 shortlisted poem—I loved his “Athenian Light.” I thought, what an auspicious night! Finally, another poet who’s like me. I was also insecure writing in my second language and thought Kostya’s idea was awesome. Here is a chance to help others, as well as build a friendship and connection with a person who is in a similar journey to me.

Alice and I met on our first Jerwood/Arvon retreat. I was carrying my luggage—too large for a one-week stay at Totleigh Barton!—up the stairs when Alice came and offered a hand. One evening, Alice welcomed me to her room and I sat by the window where I could get a phone signal to send a text to my family in Wolverhampton. I knew then that Alice has a good heart and we could be really good friends.

Alice Hiller (AH): I met Kostya on a Poetry School course and loved his work straightaway. He seemed to write with his heart and his head together. Romalyn and I met through the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme, as Roma mentioned. We both found the experience of arriving in this beautiful, creaking-floored old manor house, deep in the Devon hills, and being surrounded by seemingly confident writers, fairly intimidating. I remember feeling, “Here’s someone I can relate to!” when I saw Roma. We were both mentored by Pascale Petit, who has a French/English heritage, and is both a brilliant poet and a warm and nurturing mentor. Roma grew up with Tagalog and English, and Pascale and I grew up with French and English, so that connected us. Later, I had conversations with both Romalyn and Kostya about living with more than one language in your head and how it makes your brain different.

LS: Tell us a little bit about founding an online poetry journal. What did it involve? How long did it take? What were some of the biggest challenges, but also your happiest moments?

KT: From meeting Roma to our first announcement on Twitter in November, it took eight months. Firstly, we came up with our mission statement. We wanted to make sure we were offering something new, something that set us apart from the rest.

One of my happiest memories was sitting under a tree in the churchyard at St. Paul’s Cathedral with Roma on my lunch break in July last year. We discussed the name of the publication and decided that we wanted our project to be more about language itself, rather than just a publication exclusively for poets who write in English as a second language. We wanted to open it up to poets, irrespective of their mother tongue, who have a deep connection with language and experiment with it. It was a lovely, hot afternoon and it was the first time that I felt this dream of ours was on its way to becoming a reality.

In practical terms, setting up a website from scratch and getting the look right, choosing the font, etcetera, was hard work. It took a long time, but soon I got the hang of it. What we were sure about from the start was that the colour scheme of harana poetry had to be pink! We both love pink.

RA: Challenges are fun when you have good friends and a good team with you. Alice kindly offered to help us on the reviews, which solidify our commitment to helping writers promote their work.

One thing that is certainly challenging now is getting financial resources. We really value our contributors and would like to be able to pay them in the near future.

AH: Romalyn was staying with me the day she went to meet Kostya at St. Paul’s. I asked if I could come on board as well to do reviews, to draw attention to published work by poets working in English and parallel or additional languages. At a time when some people express hostility to migration, I wanted to celebrate the enriching, transformative gifts it can bring, and create a platform to discuss the unique ways in which work realises itself when it has a background in multiple language systems. We really hope that funding bodies will see this and want to support our work.

LS: You launched your first issue back in February. What has it been like since? How has your first issue been received in the UK and beyond?

RA: Our first issue was very well received. Respected names and organisations we admire were kind enough to share our website link via social media, including Modern Poetry in Translation and the Poetry Translation Centre in London. We’re big fans of theirs. It was also shared online by ArabLit and on the Facebook page of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop, one of the longest running workshops in Asia.

KT: It was brilliant to get all this support from the start. Twitter did help a lot. And Poetry in Aldeburgh recommended us on International Poetry Day! The reception we’ve had has been phenomenal. Our first issue struck a chord. People sent us emails from around the world that said harana poetry was something they’d wished for for a long time, that they felt inspired to write in English for the first time or start threading their mother tongue through their work. It was incredibly encouraging.

LS: In March, you hosted a launch event at Pages of Hackney, in London, where five poets featured in the first issue met their readers and shared their work. How did it go? And why did you find it important to create an opportunity for poets and readers to meet beyond the internet?

RA: The event was packed. Some people had to sit on the stairs! We got a lot of positive verbal feedback. Personally, I was so happy when poets, both contributors and from the audience, approached us and said that this platform was really needed. I felt that, finally, harana poetry is validating them as poets.

KT: I’m still processing the success of the event. I felt moved to see all these people join us for the launch of something that was just an idea in my head a year earlier. We felt that harana poetry needed a physical presence and for its voices to be literally heard through an event like the one we hosted in March. There’ll certainly be more. It also meant a lot to us that our contributors got the chance to meet each other in person. It felt like we were forming a harana poetry family—that we created bonds that will last forever. Really, we felt we needed to celebrate the success of our first issue. We love a good party! We hope to host our next one in the Midlands.

LS: Your first call for submissions was extremely successful. What was the selection process like?

RA: Kostya and I each chose a longlist of twenty poets separately. When we shared our lists, we discovered that we had seventeen poets in common. What a joy it was to read the poems quietly and out loud. What a joy to hear the music of an unfamiliar language and the cadence of poetry itself.

KT: It was pretty amazing to find out that we had been moved by the same voices. In the end, we worked out which poems spoke to each other and made our decision on the final twelve poets this way. There were some surprising connections between the poems that we only discovered later on. We loved how Iulia David’s “Good Things Happen to Good People I Must Be Bad” and Danne Jobin’s “wild” seemed to complement each other. This is why we decided that these two poems should be the first and final poems of issue 1, respectively.

LS: Did most of the submissions for your first issue come from the UK? Or was it very much international?

KT: I’d say two thirds came from outside the UK. We got poems from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the US. The Iberian Peninsula had a strong representation, as did the Philippines. It’d be great to get submissions from Latinx poets in the next issue. And poems in dialect.

AH: For the first issue reviews, I got hold of books by poets I knew and loved and felt would be really valuable to showcase. They were Lila Matsumoto, Belinda Zhawi, Mary Jean Chan, Raymond Antrobus, and Nina Mingya Powles, who are all working primarily out of the UK. Their work spans Japan, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, the US, Jamaica, New Zealand, and China, as well as the UK.

I’d really love to hear from poets working with English and other languages, and language systems, from Latin America, the US, Canada—including of course the French-speaking areas—from India and Pakistan, from the Middle East, from Africa. The list is limitless. It’s often difficult to get books that are published in small runs outside their territory of origins. If people want to send them in, or send a PDF of their published work, I’d be happy to work from that. My policy is to quote generously in the reviews, so that readers can come to an understanding of the poet, whether or not they are in the right part of the world, or have the financial resources, to buy their collection or pamphlet.

LS: Your first issue includes work by no less than twelve poets, plus an interview. Many countries are represented, either as the poets’ current location or their background. Could you tell us a few words about harana poetry’s commitment to diversity?

KT: Diversity matters. It matters because for a very, very long time there have been voices that have been silenced or not felt confident enough to express themselves. We wanted harana poetry to be a home for these voices from the start. Every voice is valid and has a story to tell. Having often grappled with insecurity in my life and writing career, with this fear that no one wants to hear my point of view or learn of my experience, I think it’s important that we provide a safe space for poets who may feel like this or perhaps have felt underrepresented.

RA: I definitely agree with Kostya. We want these voices to serenade this world.

LS: Any advice you’d like to give poets who are considering submitting to harana poetry?

KT: We’d love to be surprised, to read poems that make us think, “Wow, I wish I’d written this.” We’d love to receive poems that experiment with language, that include different alphabets or slang or dialect. Emojis. Invented languages. We like playful, we like cheeky, we like honest poems. If you’ve been told that your subject matter is “difficult,” that no one will publish your poems because of this, please send them to us.

RA: I agree. And I want to highlight what Kostya said about “honest” poems. We want a voice that is authentic because it shows if it’s not. harana poetry promotes you as a poet who uses English as a second or parallel language, but please don’t feel obliged to include your native language or dialect or emojis if the poem does not ask for it. We don’t command our poems to be something they are not. We are, in fact, servants to our craft.

LS: Let’s talk about the design of your website. harana poetry’s logo represents a seven-string guitar, designed by Martina Klančišar. Can you perhaps explain how this logo was chosen and developed?

KT: The word “harana” means “serenade” in Tagalog. So it made sense to have a guitar as a logo, which the very talented Slovene designer Martina Klančišar made for us. It’s the guitar we’re serenading language with, hoping it’ll come out for us on the balcony! As far as the seven strings are concerned, some musical traditions do use seven-string guitars and we wanted ours to be a little out of the ordinary—to be going against the norm.

RA: The seventh string also represents an “addition” to a regular six-stringed guitar. It represents a language or dialect of which we may be unaware. It represents what could be missing.

LS: Kostya and Romalyn, you write poetry in English as your second language. Can you tell us about your experience?

KT: Writing in English feels liberating to me. I love my mother tongue, it informs my writing, it finds its way into my poems, but Greek remains the language of the closet in my mind. I associate English with coming to England in 1999, aged seventeen, to study, although I already knew the UK was where I wanted to live. This is where I came into my own—and came out. English is the language of my first gay vocab. I can only ever write in English. I don’t think I’d be an honest poet if I didn’t write in English.

RA: Years ago, some people said that I wouldn’t be good in English poetry because of my “grammatical” errors. Truth is, I respected those opinions and still do. I hear what they have to say, but I know that opinions are not facts. I never let their voices paralyse me in doing what I must do.I’m a poet even if I’m writing in my second language, I’m a poet even without any formal training in writing. Along the way, I’ve met people who are on the same path, and we encourage each other. I’ve met kind and encouraging mentors whom I’ll always respect and love. No one truly “owns” a language. No one can truly “prohibit” us from speaking or writing in a certain language.

LS: In your first issue you reviewed, among other collections, The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, who just won The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. In The Perseverance, language doesn’t exist solely through written words: sign images do appear, and many references are made to the d/Deaf communities. Do you think that the British poetry world is becoming more open to multilingual poetry and poets from the d/Deaf communities?

AH: Definitely. Poetry is itself a separate language system. It communicates through multiple strategies including imagery, sound quality, and spaces of emptiness and omission, within the page or performance. Part of what makes Raymond Antrobus such a powerful and extraordinary poet is the creative resources that he developed to make d/Deafness comprehensible as a beautiful, autonomous space, particularly to those hearing people who previously saw it differently.

Ray asks us to enlarge our thought systems into new dimensions—as poets working with multiple language systems and cultures also do. This creates really compelling, essential work that is transforming what is possible in poetry. We want to make this more apparent, as Kate Clanchy does with her work with dual-language children who have come to the UK as refugees.

LS: What do you hope to have achieved with harana poetry after one or two years of existence?

KT: I’d love it if, every year, we brought out a physical anthology of all the harana poetry poems published the year before. And a dream of mine is to launch a harana poetry publishing house. I love pamphlets, and it’d be brilliant to run a publishing house dedicated to poets who write in English as a second or parallel language.

RA: What a great idea, Kostya! I’d love to launch a mentoring scheme and pass the learning and techniques I’ve learnt from all my fabulous mentors to other poets who may be struggling or feeling insecure—like myself, a few years ago.

AH: Following on from that, I’d hope that multilingual poets round the world will feel more connected to each other and celebrated through harana poetry. I’d like them to realise the unique and necessary quality of their work, by understanding that we all share in the project of global thought-transformation and respectful mutual inclusion.

Kostya Tsolákis was born in Athens in 1981. A Warwick Writing Programme graduate, his poems have appeared in Magma, Strix, perverse, The Fenland Reed, and Brittle Star. In the summer of 2018, his translations of the Greek gay poet Andreas Aggelákis were published in Modern Poetry in Translation’s LGBTQ+ issue, “The House of Thirst.”

Romalyn Ante was born in Batangas, Philippines, and moved to the UK when she was sixteen years old. She is currently based in Wolverhampton, where she works as a nurse practitioner/CBT therapist. Her debut collection is coming out in 2020.

Alice Hiller was born in Singapore and grew up in Europe, then the UK. She curates the work of the émigré sculptor, Oscar Nemon, who spoke Serbo-Croat, German, French, and English. Alice is working on a prose memoir and debut collection. They respond to her experience of being groomed, then sexually abused, as a child, and combat the silences around sexual abuse in childhood.


Read more interviews on the Asymptote blog: