An interview with Nora Selmani

Nora Selmani is a writer and poet based in London, an MA student in Comparative Literature at Kings College London and an Arts & Humanities editor at Porridge. We caught up with Nora to find out more about her first collection of poetry, Portraits, which has recently been released by the Cardiff-based publisher Lumin.

In Portraits, Nora draws on her Kosovan immigrant upbringing to explore diverse themes including homecoming, loss, and selfhood. In our conversation, we find out more about what it’s like to release a collection of poetry from an editor’s perspective, that men should probably steer clear of writing about women, and why poetry twitter deserves a look in.

NORABIG

Tell me about your biggest inspirations for your poetry and for this collection specifically, both poetic and otherwise.

The things that tend to inspire me the most are the everyday, interpersonal relationships, my own relationship with myself and my identity, and trying to think of new ways to conceptualise these things. I’m mostly interested in the conceptualisation of a contemporary Kosovar / Albanian identity and thinking about diaspora, migration and womanhood more broadly.

A lot of inspiration for this collection came from these things, but particularly from Albanian folk music – specifically songs by Shyhrete Behluli and Shkurte Fejza – which has a lot of themes I find interesting such as those of diaspora, nostalgia, and grief. As for actual poets, Frank O’ Hara and e.e.cummings have a bit of a role to play in this collection but I’m also really into Momtaza Mehri and Umang Kalra’s work at the moment.


So, you’ve obviously been an Arts & Humanities editor at Porridge for several years now and have spent your time critically reviewing others’ creative work. How does it feel to release your own collection of poetry and does this change your perspective at all?

And it’s the best job in the world! I really enjoy working with the submissions we get into Porridge and being able to share the work of some great up-and-coming artists, carving out a space for them in the online literary landscape, but it was nice to be able to focus on myself and make space for my own work. Some of these poems I’ve been hoarding for a few years and it really felt like now was the best time for them to go out into the world in the form of this collection.

As a poet you’re always particularly sensitive to contributors because you’re quite often in their shoes but nevertheless, working as an editor has certainly given me a lot of perspective, and reminds me constantly that I’m not a lone creative just shooting poetry into the ether. It’s also made me a lot more critical of my own work in a way that is actually productive rather than just ‘it’s bad because I wrote it’.


Talk me through how you came up with the title of the collection.

I find titling my poems almost impossible so finding a title that best described this collection was a bit tortuous. I consider most of my poems vignettes of sorts, lyrical snapshots of moments between people, meditations etc. so I initially wanted to call the collection ‘Sketches’. The reason I went with Portraits instead was because I thought the poems, for all their disparate themes, were quite fleshed out, and as many of them are concerned with people I thought the idea of portraiture was appropriate. I think it’s difficult to strike the balance between sounding like a pretentious dick and actually getting to the heart of your own work but in the end you have to mostly try not to give too much of a shit.


Tell me more about the different threads and themes which come together in the collection.

I’ve discussed previously how this collection considers exile, homesickness, and grief – rooted in the diasporic experience but also influenced by folk music – but I also want to discuss the dream sequence that runs through the collection. I wanted to make use of the Albanian infatuation with dreams and their prophetic power to broaden the scope of these poems to allude to the treatment and anxieties of migrants more generally, specifically migrant women and to construct a response to the current socio-political climate, particularly the ‘hostile environment’ of the UK.


What are your biggest poetry turn-ons and offs?

I love tactile and sensuous imagery in poetry, innovative use of colour, and fun turns of phrase. As for turn-offs, anyone who knows me at all knows I hate rhyming poetry with a deep unbridled passion; it can so rarely be done well. Also men writing about women is usually a recipe for disaster.


When you’re looking for poetic inspiration, do you look more to the present or to the past and why?

The present for sure! I like making sense of the things around me and making them permanent by writing them down. The past can also be an interesting site for creative inspiration but sometimes everything that can be said has been said.


If a reader wanted to delve into today’s best contemporary poetry, where should they be looking?

Independent publishers and magazines are the best places to look to be honest! Obviously, Porridge is a good start… Presses like Lumin, The Emma Press, Verve Poetry Press, Flipped Eye, and Ignition Press have published some really exciting work recently. There are a whole host of print and online magazines that I would strongly recommend too such as hotdog, Occulum, Peach Mag, and Bare Fiction to name a few. A quick scroll around poetry twitter can really open you up to the best things happening in poetry right now.


What do you hope for your poetry for the future?

I hope that I continue to develop my voice, that my poetry remains pertinent, and that it continues to find readership.


Finally, what might readers be surprised to learn about you?

I’m not one to keep my cards close to my chest, as anyone who follows me on my private twitter knows, so maybe I haven’t got that much left to reveal! Staying on theme, I guess it might be surprising for people to learn I didn’t start writing poetry until I started my undergrad – before then I’d always written short stories and flash (which I don’t do so much anymore).

Portraits is currently available to pre-order from Lumin’s website here. 

Portraits

Images: Courtesy of the author.
Words: Georgia Tindale

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