How can you start an online magazine with a friend? How do you juggle your poetry passions with making a living? In the latest instalment of our series profiling arts workers, we speak to Kostya Tsolakis and Romalyn Ante, poets and co-editors of the online poetry magazine harana poetry.
What is your name and what are your current job titles?
My name is Kostya Tsolakis. I am a journalist and I edit an energy publication in London full time. I am also a poet, and I edit harana poetry, the online publication for poets writing in English as an additional or parallel language. I do this with a fellow poet and dear friend, Romalyn Ante. Romalyn and I have also recently been appointed deputy poetry editors at Ambit, a well-respected poetry and arts magazine with several decades of history.
How long have you been working in the arts and/or writing?
I’ve been interested in journalism and the arts since school. I have worked as a journalist, in one way or another, for twenty years, while I’ve been writing poetry for five years. Romalyn and I founded harana poetry in 2018, and our first issue was published in January 2019.
Could you tell us a bit about your current role?
My day job as a journalist is 9am-6pm. I commission long-form features to be written by freelancers and members of my team at work. I edit them, choose headlines and pictures, and prepare email campaigns for marketing them. Before the pandemic I’d also attend conferences in the UK and abroad, as it’s where I’d make contacts for my own research and writing. Having a secure, full-time job allows me to pursue more creative work that is often unpaid, such as editing harana poetry.
With my own poetry, I’m now finishing the manuscript for my debut pamphlet, which will be published in the autumn by ignitionpress. Writing poetry is always on my mind, but I don’t really have a daily structure for it. I make notes – in a notebook or on my phone – all the time, but I write the poems themselves down when they’ve finally formed in my mind, in however raw a condition. I’ve written a poem I was happy with in a day, while with other poems it’s taken me many years to get them there.
When it comes to my work for harana poetry, we publish an issue every four months. This keeps us busy during the month of submissions, followed by six weeks or so of reading them, accepting 15-20 poems and producing the magazine over the course of two-three weeks.
Production is hard work as you need to pay close attention not only to the content, but also details such as apostrophes – you can tell who uses Microsoft Word and who uses a Mac! I think I only get about one month in-between issues of not doing harana poetry work, although I always log in to our Twitter account and keep spreading the word about the latest issue and engaging with our readers.
Could you tell us about how you got into this role?
No one in my family works in the arts, though both my parents (my dad was a pilot and mum a flight attendant) read a lot. My dad sometimes recites Homer to me in classical Greek – which I don’t understand! So I was encouraged from an early age to read, and my mum and I share a love for museums, culture and film. My school also had a big focus on the arts.
I think it’s this encouragement from my parents to express myself through drawing and then writing that got me into the path I am on now. I also had a couple of teachers who saw my creative talent in high school, and then uni, and encouraged it. I owe a lot to them and haven’t forgotten them. In the same way that I have been supported by people in my life who saw my potential as a journalist and poet, I feel it’s important to nurture talent when you see it.
I knew I wanted to become a journalist since school. I wrote articles for my school magazine and also founded a small pamphlet-like newspaper, called La Gazette, for French class. My interest in creative writing began in university. I studied history for my undergraduate degree, but through those years I discovered that I was more interested in literature. I began reading a lot of fiction and then started writing a novel. This led to my doing an MA in Writing at Warwick right after my BA. That’s when I started reading poetry for the first time. I wrote poems for my poetry class, but though my tutors insisted that I was more suited to poetry, I wouldn’t listen! It took me 12 years after my MA to start writing poetry ‘seriously’.
During my first summer back home from uni in England (I was born and raised in Greece), I did an internship with a big newspaper in Athens in the culture segment. I carried on doing this throughout uni, and also wrote features for my uni’s newspaper, The Warwick Boar. Before I got a full-time job as a journalist, I worked as a freelancer in order to build up my writing portfolio. This involved pitching ideas to magazines back in Greece, but also in the UK. The Greek magazines soon started asking me to chase stories for them in London and interview writers for them ahead of their books’ Greek translations. Among the writers I interviewed were Sarah Waters, Mohsin Hamid and Bettany Hughes.
Freelancing was fun and creative but, I will admit, also a little bit uncertain. Overall, I think it is my career as a journalist and editor – not to mention poetry workshops and constant reading of poetry collections, pamphlets and magazines – that helped me shape my voice as a poet.
Could you share any advice for a young person wanting to get into the arts?
Practice does make perfect, as they say, and when it comes to sharing your work with the world (for example, sending poems to magazines if you’re a poet), just do it. There are poems I’ve been sending out for years that got rejection after rejection, only to finally find a home in a brilliant magazine.
Another thing you won’t regret: have a notebook close by all the time! Even when you’re not being ‘actively’ creative, it’s good to jot ideas down. I’ve regretted not writing down an idea many times, as very often I forget them!
When it came to starting harana poetry up, the decision to make it an online, free magazine, was key. I think it would have been much more difficult to start it up as a print publication, and its virtual nature makes it easier to fit around our jobs. It took Romalyn and me several months to come up with its name (harana means ‘serenade’ in Tagalog) and overall look, but once we got there, the ‘fun’ bit of inviting submissions began. Creating an online community via Twitter also played a big role in developing harana poetry and making it known around the world.
Is there anything you wish your younger self had known that you know now about working in the arts?
Be open to constructive criticism, but call out unfair critiques. I think you can always tell the two apart.
Name and current job titles: Romalyn Ante, Specialist Nurse Practitioner and editor of harana poetry
How long have you been working in the arts?
I have been writing poetry in English since 2014, but growing up, I had always scribbled something in my mother tongue, Tagalog.
Could you tell us a bit about your current roles?
I work full-time as a Specialist Nurse Practitioner for the NHS Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). My work involves assessing children and young people who may have mental, emotional, and behavioural difficulties, as well as those who may have neurological developmental disorders such as Autism or Attention Deficit Disorder. I also work on-call as part of the Crisis Team to help children and young people at the most risky stages of their mental health problems.
In my spare time, I co-edit harana poetry and was also recently appointed Ambit’s deputy co-editor. harana is completely voluntary work. I read poetry submissions and work with my co-editor on choosing them. Sometimes, we invite work from poets we admire but we rarely find in the poetry scene. We also work with our poets on editing their work whenever necessary.
As a poet, I am also paid for commissioned work, run workshops and give performances. I also help to run our Filipino Grocery Store in Wolverhampton.
Could you tell us a bit about how you got into this role?
I did not come from a literary background. However, in 2016, I took an Arvon class which qualified me to apply to the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme. I also won a mentoring scheme via Creative Future Writers’ Award in 2017. Through mentoring, my poetry became stronger. In 2018, I received the Poetry London Clore Prize which caught the attention of Chatto & Windus. My first poetry collection, Antiemetic for Homesickness, came out earlier this year!
Could you share any advice for young person getting into the arts?
I grew up in a sub-standard socio-economic background in the Philippines. I remember a time when my siblings and I clambered over our neighbour’s gates (after they migrated abroad) to get the books they left rotting at their front-yard. Even though my literary resources were limited, I was enriched by other modes of learning, by paying attention – to my grandfather’s stories, to our neighbourhood drunkards’ songs. As poets, we must hone our skills in paying attention – to the world around and inside us. Pay attention to your story, to its music.
Apply to as many schemes as you can. Do not hesitate to knock on the doors of opportunities. Do not hesitate to enter even if you think it is “not the right time” or you’re “not yet ready”. Continue finding different ways to learn. Be open to criticisms, choose wisely which ones to keep, which ones to bin. Develop a positive and sustainable writing community.
If you want to set up your own magazine, ask yourself what is the purpose of your project. Are you opening a doorway for specific type of writer/audience? Be careful not to fall into a trap of asking already established poets to submit, in an attempt to lift the magazine’s reputation. Be open to others whose names the literary world may not have heard of. It might be good to establish yourself as a writer first: when people begin to see and respect your work, it will be easier for them to welcome your other kinds of work too.
Is there anything you wish your younger self had known that you know now about working in the arts?
I came into the arts in my mid-twenties, so I wouldn’t say there was something I wish my younger self had known. But I always believe that the world of arts is both big and small. Do not feel that you have to hurry through life, take time developing your craft. Also, always be humble.
Keep your eyes peeled for more Young Poets Network features about careers in the arts – and let us know in the comments what you’d like to see next. Find our first careers feature with Arts Council England Literature Relationship Manager James Trevelyan and Ledbury Poetry Festival Manager Phillippa Slinger here, our second with Annette Brook from the Royal Society of Literature and Ali Lewis at Poetry London here, and our third with Verve Festival and Press’s Stuart Bartholomew, and Spread the Word’s Bobby Nayyar here.
Kostya Tsolakis is a London-based poet and journalist born and raised in Athens, Greece. In 2019 he won the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition (EAL category). He founded and co-edits harana poetry, the online magazine for poets writing in English as a second or parallel language, and is deputy poetry editor at Ambit. His debut pamphlet will be published by ignitionpress in November 2020.
Romalyn Ante grew up in the Philippines until she migrated to the UK when she was 16 years old. She is a West Midland-based poet and co-founding editor of harana poetry. Her debut collection is Antiemetic for Homesickness (Chatto & Windus). Romalyn was appointed Poet-in-Residence at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust / Hosking Houses Trust in 2019. She is the first East-Asian to win the Poetry London Prize (2018) as well as the Manchester Poetry Prize (2017). Her debut pamphlet, Rice & Rain (V. Press), received the 2018 Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. Apart from being a writer, she also works as a specialist nurse practitioner.
harana poetry is the online magazine for poets who write in English as a second language, or use additional languages and dialects, including Sign, in combination with English in their work. The editors are Kostya Tsolakis and Romalyn Ante. Kostya and Romalyn are both poets who write in English as their second language. Their mother tongues are Greek and Tagalog respectively. The mission of harana poetry is to resist singleness of tongue and thought, initiate creative conversations and enlarge possibilities.