The write beat for Poetry Slam

Taranaki poet and writer Virginia Winder left a Womad audience crying. Taranaki Community News caught up with her after she took out first place at the festival’s 2019 Poetry Slam.

Congratulations on winning the Womad 2019 Poetry Slam, Virginia! Can you give us an insight into what your winning poems were about?
I performed two poems on the Saturday of Womad. The first was called This Too Shall Pass and is about how to save yourself from suicide.

While it sounds grim, it is a poem of hope and one I would like to take into Taranaki high schools this year to have a conversation that will hopefully save lives. The second poem was called Dad and Dick at Motat. I was in Auckland this month and drove past the Museum of Transport and Technology and remembered a special day in January 1974 when my dad and I watched Dick Tayler win the 10,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.

It was a snapshot of my dad and I wrote it on the plane home. On Sunday, I performed a poem, called Dearest Christchurch, which I wrote in the wake of the horrific events of March 15.

Your first poem left some people in the Womad audience crying, and others cheering as loud as they could. What is it about This Too Shall Pass that has that kind of impact? 
Last year, was a terrible year for me on the mental health front and I was close, so close, to taking my own life. But I chose not to for steadfast reasons.

This poem is about that and it’s written from my heart, because I know, personally, that the “this too shall pass” mantra tattooed on my left arm is absolutely bloody true. Everyone is affected by mental despair in some way – either themselves or through someone they know – and, sadly, too many have also been touched by suicide. I guess it just hit a chord.

Is there much of a difference between writing poetry and actually performing that poetry, or it is a natural evolution?
I do write my poetry with a beat in my head, which probably comes out when I’m performing. There’s been nearly a 40-year gap between stages for me though.

The Womad outing was my fourth public performance since high school, when I did a lot of drama. That’s not counting public speaking, which doesn’t faze me in the slightest. Performing poetry is the opposite. I have been known to shake on stage, but that seems to have settled down. But I do get ridiculously nervous for a few hours beforehand and have to be away from people to settle myself down. Yet, on stage, I’m OK. I just go out there and give it everything.

Outside of poetry you’re a full time writer. What other kinds of writing have you done in the past, and what do you do now?
I’ve been a journalist for 36 years and that’s my bread and butter. My great love is feature writing, which allows me to dive deep into a person’s head or subject. Pretty fond of script writing for small documentaries too. I enjoy writing about anything that involves the arts, gardens, science, social issues, food… on reflection, anything, as long as I’m learning something new.

My favourite stories are those that offer different viewpoints, add to our knowledge and acceptance of others, plus offer solutions. I don’t often appear in my stories – I prefer to be the “eye” not the “I”, but when necessary, I will put myself out there.

I work from home and have my own business called “Wetawoman writes everything” and my focus is on the purity of my craft – journalism, script writing, poetry and storytelling in its many guises. On the fiction front, there is a novel slowly growing and short stories too. Oh, and I have a blog, which I write intermittently when I have something to say.

So, did your skill for poetry develop overtime, or was it something you always had?
I’ve been writing poetry for about 44 years. When I was at high school and university, I wrote poetry instead of studying. In an act of procrastination, I turned my entire fifth form science syllabus into rhyming poetry and even answered some questions in pure rhyme. I passed.

I do have rhymes in my poetry, but they tend to be in the middle of sentences. One or two have them at the end of a line, but that’s usually by accident. I’m a great lover of 1990s New Zealand hip hop, especially what came out of South Auckland, and felt that was the beat of my heart. That and Dr Seuss! I’m all about the rhythm.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Swimming in the sea every day (I mean every day), walking our dog on the beach, taking photos of flowers, creating in our art room, having coffee with friends, eating my husband Warren Smart’s amazing spicy food, especially at dinner parties with mates.

I’m also an avid reader of contemporary fiction and poetry. I enjoy doing the crossword, watching great TV shows, superhero films and foreign festival movies, plus attending concerts and festivals.

Each Monday, for the past seven-plus years, I have been co-hosting Waxing Lyrical, a volunteer radio show on The Most FM with my mate Al. Our 7pm to 8pm session focuses on music with great lyrics. I also love napping (a lot), listening to audio books, doing mindfulness meditation and being kind to others.

If you could have a dinner party with any three people from history, who would they be, what would you talk about, and what would be on the menu?
Frida Kahlo, Nelson Mandela, and James K. Baxter. Wow, imagine the conversation! The menu would be Mexican, made by my husband Warren – ceviche as entrée, the main would tamales with mole sauce, served with cinnamon rice, spicy salsas, lime crema and rajas. We would have chocolate chilli icecream and Key lime pie for dessert.

If you were an animal, what type of animal would you be, and why? 
A whale, because I feel the sea is my natural habitat and it would be wonderful to power through the water with such grace. And one day my bones could be carved by Aotearoa’s amazing craftspeople.

You can follow Virginia on her website, her blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.