Poetry International Poetry International

Interview with Jill Jones

June 02, 2011
Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Jill Jones: When I was about eight years old, I tried to make a book. It wasn’t poetry and it was child-like, of course. But I have been interested in making things of words, on paper, in collections, ever since.

I’m a child of the Australian suburbs: blank, sunny stretches that held nothing but boredom for certain kids, like myself. I was studying English in Second Year high school (Year 8, I guess it is now) and I recall we read these lines from Wordsworth: “This city doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,/ Ships towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/ Open unto the fields, and to the sky.” And I thought, wow, you could write about cities; it didn’t have to be about gum trees, stockmen and kangaroos, or epics of ancient times or light brigades or ladies palely loitering. Nowadays, of course, Wordsworth isn’t probably read much or considered reactionary (though he wrote that poem in his younger, radical phase which people tend to skate on by these days), but that discovery was all part of my experience as a reader and would-be writer, so I can’t be bothered repudiating it at this late stage.

Of course, my reading expanded. What Australian high school kid didn’t read Kenneth Slessor back then? I am surprised to find out how little younger readers and writers know of him, in fact, many have never even heard of him. But back then, poems such as ‘William Street’ and ‘Five Bells’ entered my consciousness. It’s interesting to read Slessor’s own notes on ‘William Street’, in the preface to his Selected, where he says: “The general reason for the poem remains, since it was intended as a defence of metropolitan fascinations against those who considered the city ‘ugly’ and found beauty only in the outback”. The poem’s first stanza, and its well-known refrain reads: “The red globes of light, the liquor-green,/ The pulsing arrows and the running fire/ Spilt on the stones, go deeper than a stream;/ You find this ugly, I find it lovely.” It may not be one of Slessor's best poems, in hindsight, but I’m talking about beginnings, about what a kid embarking on poetry might have thought possible. However, I was a very late beginner, in one sense.

As I got a bit older, I ‘escaped’, to the supposedly more cosmopolitan, semi-bohemian inner city of Sydney. It was from there I started, eventually, to write. In my mind I was beginning with ‘what I knew’. At the same time, however, I realised you could play around with language, as I found poets doing in anthologies of what was then called ‘modern poetry’. In other words, you could experiment. My first teenage experiments were forgettable, but at least some words got down on paper.

My experiences of ‘nature’, ‘environment’, ‘place’ were all metropolitan or suburban and any art that approached these was like a great invitation to me. The irony is that when I look into certain corners of Australian poetry, today, here and now, I still feel as though nothing has happened, that I might as well be back in the sunny blankness.

Anyway, so I started writing poetry, badly, in my teens, then stopped and didn’t get going till much later. The poetry of Adrienne Rich helped a lot in that second beginning, now some twenty-five odd years later. Sort of obvious, I suppose, looking at the changes in my life.

MB: Who are the writers that first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What's changed?

Jill Jones: I’ve covered some of the early inspirations, although I could name many others, including, very early on, Eugenio Montale’s complex Mediterranean modernism, then Tomas Transtromer’s deceptively clear darkness, and a bit later, Charles Baudelaire in his city and sexual wandering, and Gertrude Stein’s writing the continuous present and working over grammar and syntax. That looks like an odd list, but I can trace each of them in my earlier published poems.

My reading now is much more widespread, obviously. I can go to the internet any time and find something new in an online journal. I can plug into e-lists and find out about a writer new to me who has been part of another reader or writer’s life in another part of the world for a long time. There is so much I have missed and will always miss. You grow older and the list gets longer, as do the recommendations. My reading is also widespread in that it takes in poets whose work is, just as likely, on a completely different wavelength to the way I write, even antithetical. I read for interest, which is a distinct pleasure, and my tastes are diverse.

I always go back to the poets I’ve mentioned for all sorts of reasons, as I’ll always go back to Sappho, or Tu Fu or Li Po, or Dickinson. Australian touchstones for me will be, among others, Slessor or Forbes, the later Wright, Harwood, and more recently, Rankin. I have been re-reading the Canadian, Phyllis Webb, partly for research reasons, and enjoying her work over again; she is so incisive. I found George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker some years ago and re-read them regularly, they get me to look at the line and the space of the page, among other things. Paul Celan always makes me try to clean my language, which probably sounds odd. Other influences are O’Hara and Ashbery for the way their work turns – I do this, I think that. I was also recently teaching into courses on the 1960s (the “long 60s” beginning in the 50s) so that leads me back to Berrigan, Ginsberg, Duncan, as well as the afore-mentioned Ashbery and O’Hara. I’m a big fan of Janet Frame’s poetry and took her posthumously published The Goose Bath with me to New Zealand for a holiday recently; most nights we had readings from the book in the Kaikoura twilight. It was good in an imperfect way; her earlier The Pocket Mirror is a better book. I probably should go and look at H.D. again. I can feel that coming on. I had a John Clare moment a couple of years ago and, in 2011, a Jack Spicer revisit via the recent Collected. That is often how it goes, re-discoveries, discoveries.

MB: How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

Jill Jones:
My poems are definitely made up of my preoccupations; on the one hand, the turns and effects of language, of course, but certainly, place and daily weather. Or, maybe it is truer to say they were. I’m no longer living in my home city and have a feeling other preoccupations are moving in me and I am only beginning to work out what they may be. No more train poems, for a start. I no longer have a handle on direction, weather and place as I did. Days move differently. I sometimes lose my punctuation:

WE ARE ALL making works I hear
us in the fences the metal
quavers and muddle tumbles
in time with our hands and
our breaths we make a blow
or a tough thumb into patches
of water grass cotton cement . . .

(‘We Are All’)

I know I have been seen as a poet of the quotidian but it has led people to say I am, for instance, a “domestic poet”, which seems to me to be a great way to dismiss women writers. Besides, I am not very domesticated. Dailiness implies far more than that. On the other hand, it’s the domestic that keeps things going.

An early poem ‘Around the White Vase’, from my first book The Mask and the Jagged Star, for instance, ends with:

. . . deserts, electrons, around
the white vase,
round and round, the sound of loose shells,
then the waiting, dense as silence.

whereas a more recent uncollected poem, ‘This Is Not Dove Cottage’, begins:

The house is talking dirty, it’s that time of night
when heat goes off the naked ceiling,
& closer & closer, step by step,
wood gets hold of the plaster . . .

They are quite different poems but you could say they mine similar territory.

The writing body, of course, is as everyday as you can get and I am certainly aware of making, the method and place of it. I don’t have any brief for writing some authentic experience of kitchens or work places though those things have appeared in my work. The thing that appears most is sky, actually, day and night, with or without clouds:

The traffic begins its wave,
the sky is threaded with exhaust,
the blind man has a ticket, your bag
is heavy today, the traffic is beautiful
going somewhere, the sky does not move
though it seems to . . .


But even in that, I wouldn’t say I was writing more abstractly but in a less ‘thingy’ way, a less narrative way:

surrender moves me into long voice
hours blur lines
against open gates, threaded, poured, ached
gone and open
flocks seek me like air . . .

(‘Breath, the Hours’, from Dark Bright Doors)

Then again, I can still appear to tell a story:

They took all my money.
I earnt that money
scraping rancid face cream
from pink containers
to be recycled as mouth wash, or icing.
That wasn’t my issue . . .

(‘Brilliant Slippy Works’)

MB: What is the role or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Jill Jones: Subjectivity is one of my central questions. My last book, Dark Bright Doors, was a space in which I was specifically thinking through that in poems. But I always have been. I think it’s an ancient poetic concern.

A poem, ‘Figure’, from Dark Bright Doors, makes my interest explicit as it begins:

I’m sometimes very like me.
I can’t get rid of the
poor little nonsense!  . . .

My poetry is an investigative process, rather than a self-expressive process. So, examination of self, yes, but self or selves within cultures and environments.

It’s not just one object after or before or on or in another. These ecologies, strings, dimensions exist and move in more than human ways, whatever that may mean. I want to find ways of how to say that as a human, and as a particular kind of human.

The doubleness of the poet, between possibilities and limits, is one way I have referred to it. It leads me to a kind of fragmentary making, making use of grammatical and syntactical leaps.

 . . . our hollow-bellied our
if this repetition do I
know you can we rise
above our gods and join
above our rise
and know if this is . . .

(‘Skin Knowing’, from Dark Bright Doors)

I’m sceptical about representation, especially of the self, but, if you deal with subjectivity, then the singular self, and its versions, is where it begins. But that then leads me to ask “self in relation to what?” The one, or the many. People, things, history, the world. Equivalence, correspondence. A self as part of a larger project, a broader subjectivity. For instance, the lyric space made broader than just personal intimacy:

. . . I’m hungry with these skinny solutions.
My sweat thickens the walls of an hour.
Even the packages are vanilla wrapped.
I wish for response rather than a flip-phone.

(‘I Must Be With You in the Cold Time’)

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Jill Jones: I would say “yes” to both, but it is hard to be really specific without going on endlessly. Regarding literary traditions, I’ve been placed and misplaced by critics in many ways – mainstream, affinities with langpo or post-avant poetries, feminist, and the very reductionist ‘Sydney poet’, etc. – but for all that, I regard myself as working the seams, the folds of language. I want to continue resisting the poem as either perfect little artefact, or as pure linguistic construct.

I can address the ‘feminist’ portion of this. If there is a feminist way of looking at things that is non-compliant, is not making exclusive claims, works with a non-singular vision, is non-hierarchical, then that’s where I am.

I see what I do as an experiment in discourse – that is, there is more than one discourse, and they have inclusions and exclusions, they can be queried. I am interested in wholeness (i.e. diversity, messiness) rather than totality (system). In other words, not an essentialist feminism. And this goes for any lesbian/gay/queer perspective in my work. Another poem from Dark Bright Doors, the sonnet ‘Seasonal Durance’, makes reference to Tim Conigrave’s book about love in that time of AIDS, Holding the Man (also a reference to football) and a well-known Devo song, uses some capitalised ironies:

. . . So holding on, like ‘holding the man’
Is hard
But we are not men!
Which leaves us Outside, our arms
Lifting the minutes of the Rest
& holding our own green

Poetry as work is of a body – breath, movement, hands. And eyes; my work has seeing, has vision all through it:

I scrape light to its bones
keep guessing, water’s true colours.

(‘Dreaming Homeward’, from Dark Bright Doors)

Bodies are gendered bodies (the body of a woman, the body of a man – they are writing poetry) with sexual histories, along with many other intertwined and complex histories. Oddly, a few of my more recent poems have dresses, petticoats and corsets in them when I can barely recall ever owning or wearing such items. So, ‘The Dress Sonnet’ begins:

I have taken off my little dress, there’s no scope
for me within it, there are things
that fall down the body, like breath and the texture
of the flap. This is a button I can’t do.

That is a poem about desire, but not all poems containing dresses are about desire, rather are more gothic or melancholy:

I died for fun
under the mask of the fair.
My hand still holds its line.
That’s the joke!
My dress in fullness cries down.

(‘Big Fun’)

MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Jill Jones: In the writing of it, I find the forming is hardest. I can jot down phrases, collect ideas, concepts, titles – I have handwritten notebooks and digital files of the stuff – but to get all that to cohere is hard, especially when one questions a narrow view of coherence yet works through ideas of form and the making of something that, well, ‘works’. I don’t want to be trapped by technologies of perfection and finality so, of late, I have been happy to make unimproved poems, ‘wrong’ poems. But they certainly must ‘work’. I take the making seriously.

Over a number of years, I have also been adopting various appropriative procedures, often sampling my own older work and feeding it back through various transformations, some of them machine-based or concept-based, and some of them more ‘on the fly’. For instance, I made a poem from selected last words of each line from a poem written in 2000; the words were selected from the list but kept in order they appeared in original, thus, a very ‘made’ thing also based on chances:


cloud crowd out
watch channel
monitors somewhere souls savvy

corridors shadow opium
intrude ghost idea
tomorrow code escape

now unleashed lagoon
wind fugitives
fluid wings move levels

Sydney, 5 Jan 2011

In working as a poet, the most challenging aspect is to readjust your thinking about the reception of your work. In other words, to accept there is little or none, especially in Australia, either of your work as an individual practitioner or any serious discussion of poetries within a culture that’s still mired in some kind of anti-modernist boondocks, and admiring of itself for precisely that.

In the day-to-day of living as a writer, simply finding the time that works best for writing in and amongst the necessities and trivia of the twenty-first century is what can drive me wild.

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

Jill Jones: I read anything. Words are important. I used to devour newspapers, but these days I can barely stomach reading them, on- or offline. I like to read what other poets and writers say about their work. I suspect a lot of it is “beautiful lies” but it interests me nonetheless. As a kid I used to read old encyclopaedias, and I’m still an info scavenger, both on- and offline. I read a bit of crime, noir, speculative fiction, even kids lit, as well as my usual scatter-gun approach to literary fiction and biographies. I’ve been re-reading old fairy tales lately. I read a lot about all kinds of music, and cinema as well, the serious and the trivial. I rummage around, in a non-programmatic way, amongst books by various thinkers. All the usual suspects, some perhaps less usual. You can trace most of this through my writing. It’s not hard to see.

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Jill Jones: Is it only Australians who worry about what is ‘Australian’ poetry? These days I shy away from that nationalist anxiety, of becoming tied up in knots about Aussie identity. Australians writing poetry is the way I look at it. There are many ‘Australian’ poetries, and not all of them in English. I was born in Australia, I live in Australia, I write poetry, I use Australian English and Australian idioms (as well as others). The local is important to me. My local was once around parts of Sydney, now it’s around parts of Adelaide. If I was living somewhere else in the world, I would have a different local.

If you mean, do I think I fit somewhere into some sanctioned idea of ‘Australian poetry’, then, on the reckoning of a number of gatekeepers, most likely not. Critics from elsewhere (that famous place) don’t seem to have the same problem with my work; they ‘get’ it and where it’s coming from, though an idea of Australia is not one of their touchstones. In this country, I seem to be a kind of ‘other’ (just a small ‘o’ other, nothing fancy) in many people’s minds because they can’t easily place me. I’ve been told this to my face, and other less pleasant things besides. I’m a realist, and I'm not into victimhood; I look where I need to, sans frontières. I get on with it.

Broadly, in relation to these endless discussions about Australian poetry, there is an agenda operating that is small-town, mostly bloke-ish and combative. It links with those ever-present nationalist, hetero-normative, Anglo-centric, white, vaguely liberal values; a worldview that prefers the straightforward and mostly ‘realist’, that distrusts linguistic play and excess, and certainly distrusts any investigation of language. If people don’t ‘get it’ first up, well, “geez, yr a wanker, mate”. It’s a refusal of any kind of seriousness. I find it best these days not to get caught up with this. Happily, I find other avenues for discussion beyond this island. Even across ‘the ditch’ you’ll get more seriousness, way more, even if you don’t agree with it. It’s not about agreement but engagement. The above may sound like an exaggeration but, sadly, it isn’t.

But, I also have to be honest. I teach poetry that is written by Australians, and have lectured on ‘contemporary Australian poetry’. So, sure, I can put little boxes around poems written by Australians, but they escape those markings all the same.

And while ever there is a system of funding, grants etc. that supports the publication of Australian poetry, we have to deal with the fact of it, as a bureaucratic and corporatised category. Believe me, I was once one part of that bureaucracy and in another sense, I still am. Australian poetry, you’re standing in it! So, in a nutshell, there is a something badged as Australian poetry and my engagement with it chiefly involves individuals who are poets and who are Australians. The rest is pragmatic, is necessity. I don’t think I am alone in this.

MB: In reference to the heated debates around poetics and poets, Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only “blood sport”. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a “new lyricism” (David McCooey) and “networked language” (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry in your view? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the future?

Is there a heated debate about poetry these days – truly? I think people are too busy to worry about the old arguments, or thought so until recently, when I’ve noticed that the old lines in the sand are still being drawn by certain anthologists, the blokes. I wish they’d let the old animosities go – let’s see what newer generations can do or say. I hope that’s what happens in the future. One of the most interesting anthologies that has appeared in the last few years is the one Michael Farrell and I edited. I’m quite comfortable stating this. We consciously tried to avoid the hierarchical hot air that often stymies poetry in this country. Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets is non-compliant even in the way it is ordered, and does not make exclusive claims. It put a lot of known and not-so-known poets together in a new context. In a sense, it is a beginning, an ongoing project.

To take two of your exemplars, I’m not sure ‘new’ this or that, or neo- or post- etc. rubrics, are helpful or meaningful anymore, although I ‘get’ what David is saying about a “new lyricism”, the uncanny, etc. While ever poetry is connected to song there will be lyric of some kind, refigured, decentred or weirded as it may be. Philip’s book is very useful, especially in exploring sources that have not, till now, been tapped. Slessor’s cinematicism – why didn’t anyone think of that before? It is also a reminder of persistent tensions in Australian poetry. I have used the book for my own thinking and to teach from. But the book itself is centred on male poets and male poetry preoccupations and factions; only one chapter on Judith Wright among the boys. Of course, it is what it is, and more, I presume, will be forthcoming from other poets and thinkers, discussion that opens things out.

And it’s not as if other, sometimes similar, ideas haven’t been explored. For instance, Ann Vickery’s recent Stressing the Modern traces gender and geographical coding of modern Australian poetry and the way in which a number of women writers in the earlier part of the twentieth century engaged in textual experiments and opened up possibility of exploring various selves in writing. (Of course, all writing is gendered, it should go without saying.) She engages with poets such as Mary Gilmore and Lesbia Harford. Her book also offers a way of looking at “networked language” and writing communities as well as differences within modernities. It gets away from the prevailing reductive poetry genealogies we have been fed, and the either/or boofiness of the so-called poetry wars already referred to, which seem to be as much about personal animosity as about divergent poetry practices.

I suppose this question, like the previous one, leads back into an idea of ‘Australian poetry’, but I still want to resist that, and all those tired old standpoints about what is ‘good’ or ‘new’ or ‘worth preserving’ or ‘cutting edge’ or ‘excellent’. I dislike all those words because they are never defined by those who bandy them about. They are part of an old yet constantly rehashed combat zone I find wearying. In saying that, I don’t want to propose that we should all be friends and there’s nothing to challenge – there most assuredly is – but the 1950s and 60s have passed and this is a new century. I think there are things in the past that must be valued and things that must be contested but the particular tussles from that time should be laid to rest. Let’s move on, all the while challenging the templates of poetic authority – the given – including each of our own histories and ways.

I do see energies here and now in the recent work of a number of newer (and older) Australian poets whose work is more than centred on the mimetic or expressive, more than well-researched and over-willed poeticising, or poems that want to tell a reader about the poet’s special experience of the world. Possibly general readers are right to reject a lot of the endless poetry sequences, clever projects and versy narratives that try too hard to be either significant or populist and are just uninteresting, or try-too-hard. Though I worry when readers shy away because poetry is branded, often sight unseen, as highbrow or, in that more recent version, ayleetist.

What is positive is a plurality of practice that’s not always reflected in Australian literary journals, book reviews, and certainly not in many of the current anthologies, the ones still flailing around in simplified historical, hierarchical and canonical posturing. Instead, a lot is going on on-line and through international networks, this Poetry International Web site being one good example. It’s not all necessarily another rerun of a restricted version of the old avant garde but writing that loves the working of language and what it can do. It is poetry that ignores fixed perspectives and the old binaries (city or the bush still being a fave in Australia) to register what’s happening in the culture, the environment, in fresh, sometimes heated, often witty, and weirdly beautiful ways, and using language in new formations, including all the resources of digital platforms, and all the older resources of syntax, register, grammar, sound and space, etc. It is poetry that is not simply elliptical, solipsistic, or singular in purpose, which is a feature of both so-called mainstream poetries (where are they going?) as well as a lot of the older so-called avant-garde poetries.

To give a sense of how wide the work is and my own interests, I’ll mention just three poets who are being noticed more and more out of out of a number of poets I could have chosen. They are poets working different areas of some imagined spectrum, and not mentioned on this site, at least so far. The work of Claire Gaskin challenges any sense of closure and safety in her work, yet there is a real tact and delicacy her imagery. Her book, A Bud, does far more with language than it may initially appear to do. Or there is Duncan Hose, whose poem, ‘An Allegory of Edward Trouble’, was selected by myself and Anthony Lawrence as the winner of the 2010 Newcastle Poetry Prize. Duncan’s work is full of wit and energy, and often outrageous puns, and he takes continual risks with structure, tone, and myth-making. It’s intelligent and clever in the best sense and is often moving in a non-sentimental way. Angela Gardner is both a writer and an artist and her work explores in a particularly acute way, the many ways of speaking as ways of seeing, the experimental workings of an artist. She uses a number of compositional structures and repetitions, even neologisms, to investigate art, war, relationship, much as the title of her first book, Parts of Speech would suggest. But it is all done with freshness and verve all the while she engages with scientific, art and other discourses.

I won’t do a further roll call but there are many other emerging and established Australian poets I respond to, poets who are not pretending there’s a centre; they believe that somehow everything can be included, and they also know where and how they have been influenced and acknowledge what they have made of that, and to incorporate that. Though the reader may not always know where the “samples” come from but that’s because the poets make them their own. To steal a thought from Ashbery, it’s work that is “a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence”, but more interesting than that sounds, and in which there are patterns that unfold, an idea of form that gets beyond, but does not necessarily exclude, play with ancient resources of rhythm and sound; it is polyphonous and can be as lucid as it is complex, accessible as well as joyfully excessive, difficult or intricate, eccentric as well as intense, if you’re prepared to go along for the ride. It doesn't always work, and that’s fine too. Some of the best poets write plenty of work that doesn’t work to get to the work that does.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

Jill Jones: Poetry is working in language to a high degree. That surely is central and valuable to any culture in its ongoingness. That question does beg other questions, however, such as, “what society?” or “what culture?”. What is going on in Australia isn’t monolithic. And neither is what is going on in poetry; whatever ‘it’ is, it can take us out of narrow ways of working with language, among other things.

‘Relevance’ is an odd concept and, I find, often used to justify a narrow kind of realism or focus on particular cultural mores. It’s become a buzz word, a bit like engagement, as though poetry can be fitted into a box labelled “what is good for society” or similar. I am interested in what is happening now, how could I not be, I’m going along in it, but I don’t think of that ongoingness in terms of ‘relevance’.

And I’ve never understood why people feel they need to defend poetry. Poetry never needs defending. It could do more offending.
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