Nadia Patterson

Nadia lit by the blue-green light of a projector, which creates a shadow of her silhouette behind her. She has short, dark hair and is standing with one hand raised to the side of her face.

Nadia Patterson is a poet and visual artist on Kaurna Country. Writing with vivid imagery, Nadia has been published by the likes of Porridge Magazine and Tunnel Vision, and was one of the winners of the 2020 Mindshare Awards. She enjoys beer in the afternoon and warns she will talk through the movie.

How did you come to write your winning poem?

With poetry, it just comes out when it wants to. Sometimes I try to force it and it doesn’t work. This was one of those poems. I wrote a little something then erased the whole thing. Then it came out as it was.

It’s a big poem. I wrote it as I was starting to delve into looking to get help for my mental health, and thinking about how much anxiety has affected my life over the years. For a really long time, I didn’t realise I had any anxiety. I didn’t realise it was affecting my life, I just thought it was how life was.

When I was a young kid, I’d have panic attacks but didn’t know what they were. I’d be crying and hyperventilating and be unable to breathe, which is where the first line comes from: “I learned at a young age how to stop breathing until my face was red, and how to gasp for words and never grab any.”

So, it started from that and then delved into how it feels not to be able to say anything (“my tongue is better held hostage in the back of my throat”) – like a lump in your throat that you can’t get out.

In moments when hard things are going on, when you’re experiencing a traumatic event and can’t speak up for yourself (which is what “my teeth crack from withholding” is referring to), you sort of go into shock and it feels like you’re standing there while everything is going on around you.

My first relationship was where the part about “turning bones into butter and butter into blood, and you said ‘this is love’” came from, and me being able to say nothing in response – so there’s a big pause there. It’s about feeling different, not sure if I exist, feeling a bit like an extra-terrestrial, or feeling like I’m not sure where I am or what’s going on around me.

The last line (“I might be a human and on an earth with no-one left to trust except the soles of my shoes”) is a reference to what I’d do when I got into that sort of situation, which was to run away or go for a walk in the dark. And the knife is a reference to my own personal struggle with self-harm.

Are these similar themes that you explore in all of your writing?

Yes, I think in my response to trauma I used to look at it like it happened to someone else, and so I wrote about it. I wrote a lot about it – many, many poems about the same things – trying to get it all out but never truly feeling any of it. I was numb to my own experiences. So, I kept writing about it.

This is from my poem Point Blank:

I am a gun / a revolver : revolving / I shoot myself into the distance / so my past doesn’t feel like mine and I can joke about it forever / without ever actually feeling it.
Point Blank (extract)

But for this poem, I could actually read it and feel the emotions that I had felt at those times and was currently feeling. So that was the turning point – not writing it, but actually feeling it, and looking at it as my own experience rather than somebody else’s.

In a less heavy sense, I write poems about my best friends and our endeavours in drugs and the like, a goddamn lot about love, and sometimes simpler things like my apricot tree.

How did that transition feel?

It’s more freeing. I’ve written a lot of poems since that I’ve sat back and read once I’ve finally finished it, and had that release of emotions rather than just going “cool poem”. It feels like I can be more proud of it, because it got something out of me.

How have people responded to those poems?

I think people can tell when you feel it when you read it on stage. They notice the difference that I’m getting better at writing and it feeling like my own experience.

This has been one of my most successful poems, I think. When I first wrote it, I submitted it to a publication hoping it would be published, but it didn’t. But I also sent it to someone I know who runs poetry events around town, and his response was “that’s a slapping poem, it’s a cracker”.

I’m really proud of it and think it still stands as one of my best poems. I definitely think it wasn’t supposed to be published before, because then it could go on to win the Mindshare Award. It turned out well. I’m glad to be getting a collection of poems that I feel that way about, that stand the test of time.

Have you always written?

When I was younger, I loved writing. I grew up in rural South Australia in farming country. It was really lonely there, I only had 50 kids at my school and there wasn’t a whole lot going on. There wasn’t a lot of people that I felt like I truly resonated with. So, I turned to writing stories, then eventually really sad poetry. It’s been something I’ve always done. It’s always been there with me, to get me through things.

I sometimes feel like poetry chose me. I didn’t really have a choice. It was just something I did. I don’t know where the seed was planted from that I should write poetry from such a young age. It was always there. I’d just see things and write it down. I’d write poems about the sheep in the paddock, or Bart Simpson, or the bees on the lavender. The way words mesh together is really nice – finding nice ways to say things, even the most mundane.

Nadia lit by the blue-green light of a projector, which creates a shadow of her silhouette behind her. She has short, dark hair and is standing with one hand raised to the side of her face.
Nadia Patterson. Photo by Tiah Bullock.

How do you incorporate poetry into the rest of your life?

I love talking about it with everyone. I’m in a band and about to start another band with my sister, so I incorporate poetry into the lyrics for that. It’s part of me, so I make it part of my life.

I have a lot of friends who make art and things like that, so surrounding myself with other people who are interested in the same thing helps to incorporate it into my life as well.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

A lot of the time for me, it’s an internal process. I’ll go into myself and use poetry to help me discover parts of myself and bring in different experiences. It’s all about emotion for me. I feel I can delve into a past feeling and bring it back to life in poetry, so that’s what I do.

I don’t tend to write about things that happened recently, I draw inspiration from childhood, adolescent endeavours, platonic love and romantic experiences. I’m a sucker for a love poem, but they’re terrifying. I dissect my emotions long after moving on from them so love poems can seem so overdue. And those people knowing, oh God. But that’s the process. It’s the sealing of the emotional envelope and finally sending it off.

I love reading poetry that talks about really specific stuff, like having a cup of peppermint tea with a certain person or a specific street somewhere. I think with my own writing that stuff gets lost in translation of feeling, most of my memories become what I felt, not necessarily what I did and that’s where it all comes from. So, it may sound strange, but I guess I inspire myself the most. And in learning to love me, I’m happy with that.

What other writers have inspired or influenced you?

One of my favourite poets ever is from New Zealand, Freya Daly Sadgrove. She has inspired a lot of my writing. Since I discovered her, I’ve got better at writing just from reading hers. She is one of those people I was talking about that writes about specific things. I’ve got a line of her poetry tattooed on my collar bone that says “it makes me want to boogie like a spooked horse.” I think it’s a poem about someone she had a crush on, talking about how she wants to put their face in plaster and post it to the future. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from her. She’s fantastic.

Another one would be poet from the UK who wrote a lot of poetry in the 70s and 80s. Her name is Micheline Wandor and she’s a playwright as well. I found one of her books in an op shop. Her writing is a jumpy, modern style of poetry with spaces and gaps. She wrote about feminism and – as a mother – when she didn’t get along with her kids and when she did like her kids. It’s real and fraught and honest. Some of it’s really strange, but it’s so weird and interesting. I love it.

Then you’ve obviously got people like Sylvia Plath and her poem Lady Lazareth, the last line of which I tattooed on my arm: “I eat men like air”. I was like, I have to have that on my body. I need that somewhere. It’s so interesting.

Recently, I’ve started reading a book by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova that’s been translated by someone. It’s really nice. A lot of the poems were written in the early 1900s so they’re really interesting to read.

I have a few of the collections by Australian publisher Subbed In, including one by Alex Gallagher. Their books are always good. No matter what it is, I’ll pick it up.

I also love lyrics that incorporate poetry, by people like Courtney Barnett. They go hand in hand really, don’t they? Perhaps all the emo bands that raised me into adolescence have played a strong role in my sad and intense poetry, too.

What (or who) has helped you on your writing journey?

My sister is my twin sister, so I always show her first. When I’m proud of a poem, I send it to all my friends too – having the confidence that they’ll let me know what they think. Usually, it’s pretty positive, so that’s good.

Locally, Paroxysm Press has always been there for me. Their open mic night was the first open mic night I ever went to and I went almost every month for three and a half years or so. They’ve always had my back. They’ll get me on their gigs, including paid and featured gigs sometimes. They’re my enablers, they’re always encouraging.

What kind of barriers have you faced?

A lack of confidence in a publishing sense. I haven’t sent a lot of poetry out to be published, because a lot of it has been sent back. They probably haven’t found the right place yet and that’s OK, but it’s a bit hard when you get it back the first couple of times. It’s fine, but disheartening. That barrier is not knowing exactly where to put it. I’ve just to find the right magazine with the right kind of style for my poetry.

I think poetry is very different in Australia than it is in places like America and the UK. There are a lot of different styles of poetry being published all over America, where there’s a lot bigger scene. There’s a lot more opportunities to be published in a book too.

A lot of poetry in Australia needs to be the classic ‘bush poetry’ or really funny or really quirky. Finding my little niche of sad intensity has been strange, but I love keeping it local and going to open mic nights. Getting that sort of in-person interaction is really fun.

I feel like poetry is a slow burning process sometimes. You’re never going to gain any fame by just writing one poem and putting it on the internet. Poetry is an acquired taste. A lot of people just ignore it. I’ve found that hard.

What are you proud of?

Even just getting to the point where I can share my poetry and other people want to read it is one of the most wild things to me. From growing up in the country and never being sure if I would be able to move to the city, write poetry or see live music, to that being what I’m doing.

For people to want to read my poetry to tell me that they really like it, or that they’d like to read a book by me one that. That’s one of my favourite things. It helps me keep going and get better as a writer.

And all the events I have performed poetry at, the times I’ve been published and, of course, my poem winning the Mindshare award!

What are you hoping to achieve with your writing?

My biggest goal would be to one day publish a book. But I see my life now as very different to what I was feeling a year ago, so at the moment I really just want to start writing more positive things and let other people know that they can let their emotions out through poetry.

It’s helped me so much get my emotions out and discover things about myself. I’d love to encourage people to write, even if they don’t want to share it, even just to find things out about themselves. I want to help people along with that journey, because it’s been a really nice journey to get to that point with myself.

I’d love to share the message that we can accept ourselves, and we can love ourselves – without conditions. Which makes it easier to love other people too.

What advice do you have for other writers who are just starting out?

It’s hard to give advice on how to write, because its different for everyone.

Just don’t be scared of what comes out. You can edit things later. Never delete it. You can always take parts from other pieces of writing, or take a line you like from a poem you hate. Keep all those random thoughts around and never be afraid of going back and reading and discovering.

Don’t be afraid of the first line that comes to your head. You can always improve on it later if you need to. Let what wants to come out, come out. Sit back with yourself for a moment. And just keep writing it all down.

And read poetry! I think it’s so, SO important as a poet to actually engage with poetry and draw inspiration from everything you read. It helps.

You can read Nadia’s winning poem below.

Interview by Kate Larsen