“I want them to come away from my book as if on fire”: An Interview with Monika Radojevic, Author of Teeth in the Back of My Neck
We caught up with the inaugural winner of the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize
BY JENNIFER HAKIM
"I’m writing to galvanise the reader, to rile them up and fill them with a sense of urgency at what is happening right now – to women, to the planet, to people of colour, to indigenous communities, to marginalised identities."
BY JENNIFER HAKIM
18 May 2021
An arresting debut collection from a young poet, Monika Radojevic’s Teeth in the Back of My Neck was the inaugural winner of the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize, launched by Stormzy and Penguin Random House UK in 2018.
Written with profound depth and insight, the poems in Teeth in the Back of My Neck explore the joys, the confusions, and the moments of sadness behind having one’s history scattered around the globe – and the way in which your identity is always worn on your skin, whether you like it or not.
Half-Brazilian and half-Montenegrin, Monika Radojevic was born and grew up in London. She currently works in the non-profit sector for women’s rights and gender equality, and recently completed her Masters in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
We reached out to Monika Radojevic shortly after the release of Teeth in the Back of My Neck, to discuss her process, the message behind the collection, and using poetry as an agent for change.
The Spill: Congratulations for the release of Teeth in the Back of My Neck, how have the last few weeks been for you? How does it feel to have your first collection of poems published?
Monika Radojevic: Thank you! It feels so surreal still – holding my work in my hands, flicking through it, reading my own work... I’m one of those people that always finds something to improve in their own work and never feels ‘finished’, but some of that has faded away with this collection as it became something physical. The last few weeks have been brilliant – hearing from people who have started reading the collection, especially those who are trying poetry for the first time and sharing their discovery and joy with me. I’d love to have those conversations forever!
TS: How long had you been working on this collection, and what was the process like for you?
MR: I had plenty of time to write which I’m really grateful for, so I worked on it in two bursts – on and off at the end of 2019 and start of 2020, and then in a huge burst in the middle of 2020 when I finally hit my stride and understood what direction I wanted to take the collection in. Having never written a collection before, I found the process taught me how to weave a winding, connected narrative throughout each poem, and changed how I understood poetry collections. I had always seen poems as standalone; a singular story wrapped in their own verses. But I’ve come to understand how much more there is to a collection and it’s given me a newfound appreciation for them.
TS: Of course the collection seems deeply personal, would you say this is a diary of some sort, a mirror of your life?
MR: A part of it certainly is, and some poems are more personal than I ever thought I would share. They were also the hardest ones to write. The ‘neck’ section of the book (teeth in the back of my neck is divided into two sections, the ‘teeth’ and the ‘neck’) took the longest to form – I was going back and forth over what to include there. But as I shaped the collection, I wanted to connect the impact of external issues on internal experiences and traumas, and it felt natural therefore to include some of my own life in the pages.
TS: What are your sources of inspiration, whether internal or external?
MR: It is that age-old cliché of writing what I know – or what I see. Life is my inspiration. You only need to look at what is going on in the world right now to get a sense of how deep injustice and inequality run, and so that is what compels me to write. These poems are not light, they’re full of darkness and anger and I’ve embraced that as part of how I express myself. I’m writing to galvanise the reader, to rile them up and fill them with a sense of urgency at what is happening right now – to women, to the planet, to people of colour, to indigenous communities, to marginalised identities. I want them to come away from my book as if on fire, with the hope that they direct that energy somewhere productive and conducive to change.
TS: At a time where we need to hear from women’s experiences more than ever, how was it for you to share yourself so intimately in your poetry, and why was it important to you?
MR: I think as a society, we vastly underestimate the power of poetry. Audre Lorde says it best, when she speaks about poetry being both an instrument of change and the instinctive language of women. I am badly paraphrasing there, but I couldn’t agree more. Poetry is such a space of freedom for women, because of the inherent emotion and the drama of it. It is a form of expression that is all about capturing the heart, which in turn captures the head, and that is what makes it so powerful. Women, especially Black women and women of colour, know what it is to reign themselves in because of how they might be written off as hysterical, as unintelligent, as ‘too much’. Poetry - at least as I understand it - strips away that censorship and almost demands the poet to lean into everything they need to express. What a blessing that is. I felt that way when I began writing. It wasn’t really an option to not pour myself into my work and it was important to me that I do so if I wanted to connect with those who would read it.
TS: Is there a poem in the collection that you have a deeper connection to, or a specific line that stays with you?
MR: I have a connection to them all, of course, but there’s one that I’m deeply embarrassed about and that is what springs to mind. Midriff is the hardest to read and perform in front of other people, which is probably because of how personal it is. And I don’t think it’s even one of my best ones, but it’s a poem about shame and how deeply ingrained into the body it is. We’re living in the self-love era and as much as I agree with the importance of that, I found it so challenging to externally advocate for self-love when internally, that message is a real struggle to absorb and practice. That’s what Midriff is about - drawing attention to how hypocritical it is of me to bat away the mean things my friends say about themselves when I’m more than happy to pile my negativity onto myself! My favourite lines are:
“I’d love to pretend I too, have avoided the trap of misplacing value in beauty.
But these teeth in the back of my neck, they hurt too much,
I live in the urge to pick up a razor every day,
‘The presence of hair is a powerful and political statement on every body – except mine’
I tell my lover to his immense confusion –
Honestly, I’ll trip over my words in my efforts to stop your self-criticism,
pound your comments into the ground the way I would a cigarette,
but god forbid anyone catch the softness of my belly.“
TS: As you also have a full time job, how do you juggle it all? And what advice would you give to aspiring writers out there?
It’s a lot of late nights or early mornings, I can’t lie! My job is pretty intense – I work for The Women’s Equality Party in a political communications role, which can be pretty mentally and emotionally draining at times, due to how serious the backlash to women’s rights currently is. But I write, edit, create and illustrate as a balm to that, so those nights and mornings are always worth it. I juggle it because I have to, pretty much. I wouldn’t be happy without it. My advice would be to be gentle with yourself and learn to recognise your pattern of writing so you can nurture it. I write instinctively and in bursts, and routine doesn’t work for me, so it’s about keeping my creative energy going over long stretches, even if it isn’t being used just yet. People say that creativity is a muscle you need to consistently work on, and I agree. For me, being plugged in politically, reading other people’s work, listening to music and painting are all things that bring out a strong desire to write, so I make sure I have a balance of that in my life. It flows pretty naturally from that point.
Monika Radojevic’s Teeth in the Back of My Neck (£10.00) is published by #Merky Books and available in major book retailers.