NOVENA: An interview with Shirley Camia
  • Poet and director Shirley Camia joined us for a special interview about her new poetry film, NOVENA.
  • Turnstonre Press: Congratulations on your beautiful debut poetry film! Is this the first time you’ve stepped into the role of director for a creative visual project?
  • Shirley Camia: Thank you! Yes, this is the first time I’ve done this – and to be honest, it wasn’t something I had intended to do, but with COVID-19, I, like many people, was feeling very isolated and searching for forms of connection, as well as a way to be creative. I kept receiving emails about a new Canada Council for the Arts/CBC initiative called Digital Originals, and that was the impetus I needed to think of ways to transform my written work, work with others and, ultimately, embark on this project.
  • TP: The titular poem, “Novena,” is from your latest collection, Mercy. Why did you choose this particular poem for this project? 
  • SC: I chose “Novena” (which is also the name for a ritual of nine consecutive days of prayer, that begins the night of a person’s death) because it describes a scene with so many elements, and therefore, offered numerous possibilities to collaborate with others – from my aunts, to musicians, to a film editor and motion designer – in ways I hadn’t explored before with my work.
  • TP: The visuals in NOVENA are striking. How were you introduced to Rosie Holtom’s animation and what was it like working together on this project?
  • SC: I had worked with Rosie on previous projects in my day job, so I was already familiar with her work. She has a unique, hand-drawn style of motion design, and given the very personal nature of the poem, and the surreal, dreamlike quality I wanted to capture, I knew that animation was the way to go. I sent Rosie the written poem and a rough clip of my read, and she requested images to familiarize herself with the traditions of a novena. And with that, she went to work and brought the poem to life.
  • Camia shirley 2019 credViktor Presenti smallerTP: Do you have a favourite still image from the film?
  • SC: That’s like asking if I have a favourite child! But in all seriousness, no – I see all the images collectively as one scenario, so it’s difficult for me to select any particular one as a favourite.
  • TP: There are a number of audio elements in the film, including your reading of the poem, music by Kat Estacio, and background prayer vocals by members of your family. How did these pieces come together? 
  • SC: The audio elements were captured quite differently. For the music, I had always wanted to work with Kat, who plays the kulintang (a traditional instrument that comprises of a set of gongs). I had one conversation with her about the project and the tone I was trying to convey, and, like Rosie, she went to work and came back to me with a piece that fit perfectly. As for the prayer, it just so happened that my aunts were playing cards together that day so they took a quick break to record! A cousin of mine captured it on her phone and sent it to me over WhatsApp. We had an audio engineer take all the elements, including my read, and mix them together. This all happened in two cities – Toronto and Winnipeg – not to mention that Rosie worked from London, UK and the film editor worked from Copenhagen, Denmark, so the end result is truly an international effort, all from the comfort of our respective homes!
  • TP: Can you tell us a bit about this film’s dedication?
  • SC: The film was created in June, to commemorate Filipino Heritage Month, but it also focuses on grief, and provides a meditation on this specific time in the world that is challenging to us all. For many Filipinos in Canada who are frontline workers, they are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and at higher risk of exposure and infection. Some have died. So, this is a tribute to them, and those who are grieving and searching for forms of healing.
  • TP: Are there any other plans in the works to bring more of your poetry to life?
  • SC: Nothing concrete at the moment, but I loved this entire process and intend to create more films in the future.



Shirley Camia is a Filipina-Canadian poet. She is the author of four books of poetry, including The Significance of Moths and Mercy. She is a founding member of Pluma, a collective of Filipinx-Canadian writers whose work spans genres and generations. Born in Winnipeg, Shirley has lived across Canada, the Philippines, Japan, and Kenya. She currently divides her time between Toronto, Canada and Copenhagen, Denmark.

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