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Topaz Winters, student and artist, makes meaning out of suffering

<h5>Topaz Winters aka Priyanka Aiyer ’23</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Jared Ho</h6>
Topaz Winters aka Priyanka Aiyer ’23
Courtesy of Jared Ho

At 21 years old, Topaz Winters is an internationally-acclaimed poet, essayist, editor, performer, curator, and scholar. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections and a chapbook, and she is the founder and editor-in-chief of the publishing house, literary journal, radio show, and arts organization Half Mystic.

She is also known as Priyanka Aiyer, a current University sophomore in Rockefeller College planning to concentrate in English with certificates in cognitive science, creative writing, Italian, and visual art.

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How does Winters manage it all?

“To me, it’s a lot of understanding what I can take on and what matters to me,” said Winters when she sat down recently for an interview with The Daily Princetonian, wearing her signature winged eyeliner and knowing smile. “If something matters to me, I’ll make time for it, which is probably the simplest possible answer.”

Early Career

Winters began writing poetry in her early teens. She had previously associated poetry with the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and other old, dead writers that she struggled to connect to her experiences. But when Winters discovered modern poetry online, she became more interested in what poetry could accomplish and in creating her own content.

In response, Winters started a weekly blog featuring an original poem every Friday. From there, she developed a following and became involved in the online teen writing community where she found camaraderie and support.

“I grew up in Singapore where, at least when I was a kid, there was really no kind of access to poetry,” Winters said. “Being online and having access to an international community was this really special thing that I didn't have in person. When I got a little bit older, that changed — I was able to make connections in my own country and get involved with a local literary scene — but when I really was first starting out, the online community was all I had.”

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The close-knit nature of the poetry, literary, and publishing communities in Singapore allowed Winters to make a name for herself at a young age. 

“It’s likelier that a publisher is going to take a chance on a 17-year-old kid and publish their book, and that’s what happened to me,” Winters said. “I don’t think that would have happened in the [United] States.”

At the same time, Winters never thought poetry could be a viable career option. She considers the perceived unviability of the arts and the prioritization of STEM fields in Singapore to be both a blessing and a curse.

“On the one hand, it did feel very isolating at times. But on the other hand, it created a sense of freedom, where nobody was listening for the first few years that I was making,” Winters said. “Because of that, I was able to kind of do what I wanted.”

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In 2015, Winters founded Half Mystic, an organization dedicated to celebrating music in all its forms. Half Mystic now produces an annual journal, two or three books per year, a radio show, a blog, and events around the world.

Winters started the business when she was only fifteen, shortly after she was diagnosed with an illness that prevented her from playing music. Since music was a large part of Winters’s identity, she founded Half Mystic as a way of staying in touch with the art form and creating space for interdisciplinary work.

Winters views Half Mystic as a way to “give back” to the communities that helped her and uplift marginalized voices and individuals who might not get a platform otherwise.

“I frankly didn’t think it was going to survive past, like, two years, and it’s been six,” Winters said.

While Winters feels incredibly lucky to have achieved so much at a young age, she also points out the personal challenges of receiving such attention.

“I’m 21. I have been doing this since I was 13. For over a third of my life, I have lived in the public eye,” Winters said. “That can be really hard, and that can be something where I don't necessarily know how much of my identity is truly mine and how much of it belongs to the readers.”

Life at Princeton

After taking a gap year to focus on her mental health and self-publish her second full-length collection, “Portrait of My Body as a Crime I’m Still Committing,” Winters moved from Singapore to the United States to attend Princeton University.

Originally, the University was not at the top of Winters’ list of colleges. Even after she was admitted, she leaned toward other options: her “dream school” and her mother’s alma mater. 

Her mind was changed when she visited the University’s campus and “completely fell in love.”

“It, to me, had this incredible balance between the highest level of intellectual rigor but also very unfailing kindness and warmth,” Winters said. “I was really impressed that it felt like so many of the students and so many of the professors and just the soul of the school could hold both.”

Winters strives to maintain intellectual rigor and interpersonal kindness while balancing her University workload, extracurricular and social activities, and business endeavors.

“I try to be present in whatever I'm working on at the current moment,” she said. “I try not to be thinking about school when I'm doing work and vice versa. When I'm on The Street or when I'm on Nassau [Street], I'm trying to be there fully, and that is how I make the time to prioritize both of those really important elements of my life.”

Another important element of Winters’ life at the University is slam poetry, a passion she discovered at college through the student-run group Songline Slam. She now serves as Songline’s artistic director, calling the group a support system and a family. 

Winters considers putting on a show with Songline “the most important and radical act of creation that [she’s] ever been a part of on Princeton's campus.”

“I’ll invite my chem major friends or my COS major friends and they'll walk out sobbing because it's the first time that they've ever kind of seen poetry as something that can be that dynamic and alive and not just something that exists in the past or on the page,” Winters said.

Winters is set to serve as co-president of Songline for the next school year.  

Topaz Winters aka Priyanka Aiyer ’23
Courtesy of Jared Ho

Poetry and Process

For Winters, poetry is an act of self-reflection and self-care.

“My therapist always laughs at me because it’s like, ‘Have you eaten? Have you drunk water? Have you slept? Have you worked out? Have you written a poem?’” Winters said.

Viewing poetry as a routine of care infuses Winters’ process, allowing her to turn to poetry as “a necessity rather than as something that will come or it won’t.”

“The idea of forcing myself to write feels so much less like forcing and more like, ‘This is what needs to happen in order for me to be the best person, the best sister, and the best friend, and the best student, the best daughter that I can possibly be,’” Winters said.

Though Winters believes in constantly cultivating poetry, she also trusts that “if the words aren’t coming, they’re not coming for a reason.”

“When there’s nothing that I can write that feels like my own, that’s probably because I need to be doing something else which is not writing,” Winters said.

In those moments, Winters turns to books, movies, walks, podcasts, and time with friends. Before the pandemic, she loved sitting in coffee shops and people watching. Now, she’s been baking a lot of bread — she has six recipes under her belt — and making blankets for her friends.

“Poetry for me is a method of holding onto life,” Winters said. “So if there’s not enough life happening, then naturally the words aren’t going to come.”

Winters recently found herself in a prolonged period when the words weren’t coming. When the University first sent students home in March 2020, Winters stayed on campus in emergency housing.

“I wasn’t writing, but I felt like I was noticing, and to me that was more important,” Winters said.

Over the summer, Winters went home to Singapore. When she returned to campus in the fall, she was “really, really unhappy.”

“I was in a space where I missed home and I missed campus as it was, and that was when I started writing on a very regular basis,” Winters said. “Over the past fall and leading up until now, I’ve probably written more than I have since March, just because I think all of the stuff that I’ve been holding onto and all the stuff that I’ve been gathering since March is coming out.”

Winters attributes some of her regular writing in the fall to a creative writing course with Princeton Arts Fellow Danez Smith.

“Danez has always been one of my inspirations and is one of the big reasons I started seriously writing poetry. The class was good in terms of craft, but it was also just as good in terms of taking care of yourself,” Winters said. “I love that Danez emphasized that in order to be an artist, one also must notice one's own longings and one's own needs and the things that one's body is asking.”

Working with Danez helped Winters reconsider the voice of her poetry. Winters often writes her poems from her own perspective, but in the fall, she found herself stuck in her writing. Danez suggested that Winters write in a voice that wasn’t her own.

“That was something that was hugely helpful in understanding that as much as poetry is an act of processing, an act of self-understanding and self-reflection and self-care, it can also be an act of creation,” Winters said.

“Making fiction out of poems and writing in a voice that is not my own is something that's super new to me,” Winters continued. “But I also think that, even in that, there is a lot to say about the experiences that I'm having, and the things that I need to say to myself, and the things that I need to call by name. Sometimes that can't really be in a voice that sounds like my own or in a voice that I fully identify with.”

Regardless of the perspective she’s writing from, Winters tries to allow her poetry to be vulnerable and unfiltered.

“To me, poetry should never come from a place of fear,” Winters said. “When we think about the rawness or the nitty-gritty of poems, that — I believe, at least — is the heart of where my work arises and the heart of what it’s trying to get at.”

In this rawness, Winters often explores painful topics and difficult traumas. While Winters believes her work cannot be separated from the trauma that created it, she also considers joy an equally important catalyst for her poetry. Her poems return to images and ideas such as water, birds, hands, heritage, movement, airports, and love.

“I’m always thinking about the body, and particularly living in a disabled body and living in the body of a person of color and the body that has experienced girlhood,” Winters said. “I’m always thinking about femininity and how femininity is twisted in on itself and becomes its own kind of monster but also its own beauty.”

“I think a lot about myth as a very present thing and as a way of tying into the urgency of illness and the urgency of the body and the urgency of actually what it is like to exist as a queer woman in a world that often wants you dead,” Winters continued. “I think a lot about the act of storytelling and who gets to tell stories and whose stories are heard and whose stories are treated as myth versus whose are treated as history.”

In her poetry, Winters finds a means of coping with and making meaning out of suffering.

“I think that if I was not writing poetry, I wouldn’t really be able to make anything beautiful out of things like trauma or illness or pain or oppression,” Winters said. “I hope that I can create meaning where there might be none, but meaning that still holds me up and still keeps me going. Even if it isn’t necessarily real or isn’t necessarily intrinsic to the suffering itself, it’s still worth something.”

“When I’m trying to craft something, whether that is an incredibly vulnerable poem or a poem that is maybe a little bit more detached, I’m trying to make the poem sound like itself,” Winters continued. “I’m not trying to make it sound like mine. I’m not trying to make it sound like a good story to tell. I’m just trying to make it sound like it needs to sound, like itself.”

Looking toward the future, Winters is uncertain where exactly her career will take her.

“I owe Singapore a lot, and Singapore means a lot to me, and many, many of the people that I love and who have shaped me are in Singapore. So it's never going to be a thing where I never go back,” Winters said. “But I also think I could do a lot of work here and make a lot of changes that I don't necessarily think I could at home. To me, it's about kind of weighing both of those factors and understanding both where I'm going to be the happiest, but also where I can create something that's lasting and important and meaningful on a broader scale.”

Though her long-term dreams may be big, her short-term goals are modest. When asked for one hope she has for the spring semester, Winters smiled playfully and replied, “I really want to finish my blanket.”

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