Breaking the Days – Jill Jones PLUS bonus poet interview

BreakingTheDaysToday’s post is longer than usual; however I urge you to read the interview, you will not be disappointed,

Adelaide based Australian poet Jill Jones has just released a new collection of poems titled “Brink”, however as part of my reading of the 2017 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry I read her 2015 collection “Breaking The Days”. As I have been featuring recently interviews with Australian poets, I approached Jill Jones about her earlier book and she was extremely generous giving her time and an extensive in-depth interview follows my few short thoughts on her book.

A collection that contains forty-five single page poems, closing with a fifteen sectioned sequence “The plover in the poem and what meaning does not mean”. The book opens with “Lose Your Grip” where the unreliability of memory, “if you forget what you forgot”, and ageing shimmer throughout, with a core message of enjoying the moment, the “pleasure”. “Telltale” continues the theme:

The past might be connected to
pines, matchboxes
indistinguishable songs

As does “Evidence”;

The past is something a prisoner
might want to forget, or maybe
it uncovers, but what?

Through measured and stark poetics a number of seemingly insignificant observations are questioned, “appliances/pieces of a house”, and “Any life is accumulation/things, hair, fat, disequilibrium/traces where the drugs went on their way”, and “Even the fridge sings”, these examples across three different poems. But the collection is not insignificant, it is an appeal for the reader to dwell, to notice, to dissect and analyse and to enjoy the present,

Cold is colder

Feedback isn’t really food
thanks isn’t hope
feet are also traffic
stars are predictable, if also
and concurrently, untrue.

Political debate is no more stupid
on one day or another day
there’s always an excuse to
mention breasts.

Trains can bring out
the worst in people
noise is always noise
(there’s always noise)
traditions were once
revolutions.

I actually like writing, when I like it
the temperature takes it time.

Choice is kin to boredom
cold is colder than it looks
talking to yourself really helps.

If only I could stop dreaming about poems.

The seasonal, the weather, creep into most poems, in a lot of ways decay, “Some bug is eating the violets”, but the one constant is the weather, the sun, it contrasts with the ephemeral shopping malls, with material goods. Clouds and birds, themes we often see in poetry occur throughout, welcome visitors to the page, again a call to slow down, live in the present moment.

Touching on the political, “Email is record” a plea to address climate change, as well as being a collection that questions the reader, if you could observe your life as art, “if you were more open/would it make a difference?” Thoughtful ruminations where you need to abide and contemplate the poems, deeper works than the stark lines imply.

Recently I have been exploring more experimental poetic works and it was a breath of fresh air to read Jill Jones’ book, whilst not “traditional” the rhythm and cadence of these works left a lingering foggy feeling, a collection to be revisited, a collection to be read outdoors (in all types of weather), poems that you finish and return immediately to the beginning to gain further depth. A worthwhile addition to the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award and I very much look forward to reading Jill Jones’ new collection “Brink”.

As always, I am indebted to the honesty and openness of the poet in giving me their time as well as contemplating my questions. Based on recent email exchanges I do know that a few of the interviewees have found the “unpicking” of their works an interesting exercise in itself and I am grateful that all of them have been so approachable.

This interview is presented (as always) unedited, hopefully it helps readers of poetry understand the art a little more, demystifies the process and gives the reader another level of understanding of their work. In the case of “Breaking the Days” I hope you read the interview and then seek out the book from “Whitmore Press Poetry”, you will not be disappointed.

Here’s the interview

Q. You challenge the reader, in the first poem, “Lose your grip”, to let go and live in the present, “fall into its pleasure/every time”. Was this a conscious decision to ask the reader, throughout your collection, to dwell?

The first poem is always important, yes. And the book is very much made around the idea of a continuous present – if not in the strict Steinian sense of that. But the thought behind ‘lose your grip’ could be as much directed to myself as to a reader. I’m always interested in ideas of what is ‘the present’, which is always becoming the past. That is, how do we grasp the ‘now’? Although presumably we do sense that ‘now’ is the only place we are, continually. I think I need to let go a lot more, in many ways, and get out a bit more. Writing, living. A sentence from Robert Duncan’s The HD Book springs to mind: “There must be currents of meaning as well as particularities of meaning”. I think my work moves within currents and particularities.

Q. You boil everything down to its essence, music becomes the smell of instruments, shivers painful cells, why this interest in minutiae?

Boiling down sounds a bit gruesome. This book was deliberately fined down, though, for sure. Still, I wouldn’t say ‘essence’. I’m not sure I believe in essences, at least in that sense. I’m interested in detail – image or sensual detail of things, as well as the details of language. It’s a way I connect to things, which can then spark off memory or reminiscence, maybe like Proust’s madeleine. Or it’s simply that there’s often one aspect of experiencing something that’s uppermost, that comes first, that leads you in. A smell, a taste, some sound. It’s also a form of materialism, in a sense. There’s also the part that stands for the whole (synecdoche, metonymy, I guess).

And do I always do that, boil down? I also use generalities – for instance, sky, rain, clouds – without always being specific, or locating them. One reviewer of the book felt it wasn’t specifically located – I know, a slightly different issue – and I found that interesting, and bemusing. It wasn’t a criticism, just how he felt it. To my mind the book is very located in where I live now, in Adelaide (with one or two exceptions of older poems originally written in my Sydney years). But I don’t add in street names (I do mention West Beach, however) or obvious landmarks so, sure, it could be anywhere, but there are Adelaide effects in there – the hills, the gulf, level crossings, provinciality, bad drivers, endless festivals – I do want my poems to seem as though they occur in a real, specific place where specific bodies and other entities exist and feel as though they are ‘real’. Even if my writing may seem at times syntactically complex, or linguistically intricate, or conceptual (these are things people have said to me about my work, by the way, not just how I might think of it). This book is less like that than some of my others, deliberately so. The new book, Brink, is more a big mix of detail and dislocation, images and word play, a lot of play, actually.

A lot of the poems in Breaking the Days originated from brief daily notes I posted on Facebook (I no longer post on FB) or as lines/ideas in an actual daily paper diary I kept around 2014 and early 2015 (again, I no longer do this). So, I wanted the book to have a sense of the quick (in its various senses) and the daily. Thus, a present thinginess. Also, apart from the final poem sequence (which is, in fact, a series of short fragments, ie daily notes), I wanted each poem to be no longer than a page. It took a bit of wrangling and rejection to get it to that. If Whitmore Press’s book design had been other than it was, ie if the pages and/or type had been larger or smaller, it would have changed some of the choices and, therefore, arrangements of the poems in the book. I have absolutely no problem with the design, it’s absolutely fine, but every book has its particular size, design, feel, and the way the poems fit into that is important to me.

Q. I used a quote in a recent question to poet Holly Isemonger, and given the cover of your book uses the word “unsettling”, I’d like to recycle that question for yourself. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, in his latest novel, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Your work is described as “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Haha, I was the one who wrote the cover blurb. I’ve never had a publisher write one for me, at least not so far. Most poets, I suspect, are in the same boat. You have to write yr own publicity and, mostly, schlepp yr own stuff around the place. So, I think it’s a fair assessment. I’d rather be unsettling than anodyne. The world is unsettled, even in its settlement. We surely see and hear and taste that every day. Besides, all is change, if I can get a bit Heraclitian for a moment, so nothing can settle. Even in stillness, bodies move, minutely, and internally it’s a continual flux. Unsettling, resettling. And in a very literal sense, I suffer from a form of vertigo (it’s an inner ear problem), so I’m always potentially off-balance. A bit ironic for a Libran, eh!

Q. The poem “Email is record” although a plea to Governments to stop global warming, is a resignation that they won’t listen, is this a defeatist attitude?

I once worked in Government bureaucracies as a public servant, and at times close-ish (more –ish than close, but nonetheless) to Parliamentary decision-making. I don’t ever think you can shrug off the cynicism that kind of experience engenders. Sadly, it’s a cynicism that’s also realistic. Especially these days, when the ‘government’ bit doesn’t actually seem to happen. It’s as though parliamentarians have forgotten that word ‘govern’. Instead, there’s a lot of bully-boy tactics, social media screeching or preening, one-up-personship, and simply noise.

I admire those activists and lobbyists who try to influence politicians about global warming or any number of other issues that need attention. Some times things get done but I realise it’s usually due to trade-offs (you win some …, etc), or being in the right place at the right time, or out-and-out push-and-shove, or blackmail. That’s politics as it’s ever been done, for sure, but at the moment I think it’s more toxic. That’s simply being a realist rather than being resigned. Though, essentially, I think we are defeated on climate change. I see no point in pretending otherwise. The only things that can be done now are adjustments – the climate has changed, and it won’t go back, or not for a long, long time. There can be/should be/is, however, a big salvage operation or series of them, that one hopes, might delay the magnitude of the disaster. Don’t know if it will save all the islands in the Pacific, or Miami or Bangladesh, or the beaches of Adelaide, let alone the poles, but there’s plenty to do and should be supported by politicians but they let petty point-scoring or religious manias or personal inadequacies over-ride community good, you know, the government thing. For instance, the Federal Government’s ridiculous blathering about power issues in South Australia – most of it lies and none of it constructive nor having any relationship to reality, the lived reality of individuals, nor the needs of communities, nor the environment. ‘Clean coal’ – please, spare me!

The poem, however, was also a take on the stupidities of media and technology (and, by implication, all of us as partakers of these) as well as politicians. I was trying to have a laugh at it all, but that maybe doesn’t come across. The references were local, it was a time when a past SA Premier was having a few public personal issues, as much as federal (it was the time of the Godwin Grech Utegate affair, in fact). Actually, I’m not sure people get my jokes (or perhaps they just ain’t that funny – note to self ).

Q. Neruda’s upbringing is said to be the blame for the domineering images of rain in his poetry. Did he influence your work or are your rain images from your upbringing or a more sinister place?

Have people really said that? How curious it is to blame poets/writers for their choices of words. It’s like blaming them for their subject matter or choice of genre. But, no, I wasn’t aware that Neruda’s childhood led him to such heinous acts and, thus, ‘no’ his writing in that regard doesn’t bear any relation to my choices. And I have no negative or sinister relationship to rain. It can be annoying even dangerous, of course, as well as welcome, and good to watch. I guess, being Australian and now living in a much drier city than Sydney, rain or the lack thereof is something you notice and worry about.

Also, thinking back to my answer to the previous question, rain is obviously weather and, thus, climate, and thus, something I’m concerned about, a preoccupation in my work. It’s why there’s also a lot of sky, clouds, and, yes, birds various, in the poems.

I realise I write less directly about specific dramas of human relationships and don’t tell stories or anecdotes as much as some other poets, or not in recent years, anyway. I’m not that kind of poet (nothing wrong with being whatever ‘kind of poet’ one thinks one is, by the way). I’m more drawn to the discursive, or the reflective, sometimes the conceptual (in a very broad sense), rather than the narrative or purely descriptive. I sometimes try to move out of those modes, so, presenting shorter poems in Breaking the Days was a little in that direction, to my mind at least.

But what I think I’m doing and what readers read me as me doing can be two quite different things, I’ve found. And that’s perfectly fine, though disconcerting. I realised this quite recently when I got at least one of the endorsements back for my new book, Brink. The comments made me realise there was an obviously sensual/sexual, relational (and strange) thing going on throughout the book that I knew was there but saw as undercurrent, rather than the kind of thing someone else would go ‘oh hey, here’s what Jonesy’s really on about this time’.

Q. The art of forgetting, an unreliable memory, “Progress is better with forgetting” is another recurring theme. Why this connection to an unreliable memory?

Memory is a preoccupation of a lot of poets, and writers in general. It’s obvious, I guess, as we all live in memory time. But most memory is unreliable, or skewed. The line you’ve quoted, however, is more about how ideas of progress focus on ‘the future’ and that involves a lot of effacing of or forgetting of the past. My old city, Sydney, is a great city of forgetting. Australian history, white settlement, is all about forgetting, forgetting it’s based on theft, rape and murder. So, it’s not so much about unreliable memory but a refusal to face it, or telling lies about it.

Also, it’s generational. My relation to events I’ve lived through, have been close to, is clearly different to my relationship to events I’d only been told about, say by my parents, or teachers, or whatever I’ve read in books, seen on TV. Of course, each generation probably thinks they ‘own’ certain experiences because they lived them, and that experience still remains ‘true’ in the body somewhere, although the specific recall can often be pretty faulty.

On another level, there is woven through the book a lot of memory, including references to very old songs and music. There are poems in the book that directly reference or even quote from music, such as Brian Eno’s Another Green World and The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (‘Nowhere in Another Green World’) or a song by an old 1960s Sydney band, Phil Jones and The Unknown Blues (in ‘Negative Theology’). So, from the obvious to the obscure. That’s not to say that’s all music I like – my tastes are very broad if slightly odd or obscure at times – simply that, for one reason or another, that music wandered in and around the poems, whether I was playing it, or it was overheard somewhere, or part of a topic of conversation in the media, or I simply had an earworm thing happen. None of that’s recent music – but newer music lurks in other of my poems, I hasten to add. I’m not stuck in the 60s and 70s.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’ve been re-reading Marianne Moore and just got the very recent New Collected Poems which I’ve yet to truly delve into. But I was using her work with students earlier in the year and noted that they seemed quite drawn to at least one of her poems, ‘The Fish’. OK, there was also one student who hated it. But I dug out an older Selected of hers I had on the shelf and it made me think again about syllables, shape and line break, and the ways appropriation or collage has been around for so long, as well as her characteristic precision and irony.

I was also looking again at HD’s poetry, partly because there’s a link between her and Moore as well as her and DH Lawrence (whose poetry must be due for a revival!), and partly because I finally sat down with Robert Duncan’s The HD Book, and am still slowly going through its dizzying thought (vertiginous in a good way), as well as HD’s own Tribute To Freud, which covers a great many things but certainly ideas of remembering, plus it shows a different kind of Freud than the one I’d been used to, less patrician, more collaborative.

I suppose this area of reading shows I’m thinking again about modernism, as you tend to do every so often, both from a formalist perspective, from the perspective of all the connections between so many of these writers, and also, in the broadest sense, the occult or ‘magical’ perspective – of what might be magical in forms as well as symbols, masks and ideas of metamorphosis. Yeah, OK, a dangerous area, which means it’s been an old fascination of mine. Besides, I was always rotten at maths so ideas around numbers and systems in poetry, magical or not, make me challenge my innumeracy. Regarding HD, I’m interested for instance in how one of her later works, ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ as part of Trilogy, comes out of communal crisis, the very real and devastating experience of the bombing of London during World War II, yet is layered with its appeal to ancient wisdoms, a thinking through of recurrences, or a kind of palimpsest, as she stays also in the now: “though our books are a floor / of smouldering ash under our feet”. And, of course, she was working through her own personal crises using masks/personae and, at different times in her life, ideas of lyric or epic. So, yes, ‘currents of meaning’ and ‘particularities of meaning’.

I have also slowly been working my way through CD Wright’s last book Shallcross, published posthumously. Though I believe there may be other work still to follow. She was such a loss. I have followed her work for years. Her work is earthy and embodied (all those particularities of individuals and places), yet never afraid to play amongst language, approachable yet never afraid to experiment. I love her iterations, her grit, her compassion, her love of music, the way she makes fragments really work. There’s so much to love in it.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

What is next is happening now. As I mentioned before, I have a new book out from Five Islands Press, titled Brink. It’s longer than Breaking the Days, although the title is shorter. It’s the first time I’ve ever used just a single word for a title. I had a great time editing it with the folks from Five Islands. They challenged me about a lot of things, from spelling and grammar minutiae through to deleting and replacing poems. It was a terrific experience in thinking through poem ideas and arrangements. The book covers a lot of ecopoetic territory, as the title Brink would suggest, but it’s more than that. There’s more formal experiment as well.

I have a couple of other things in the works. One is a chapbook but I don’t know when it will be available. The publisher, I think, is aiming for later this year. It’ll contain 17 pages of poems, some previously published and a few newies, and will be launched with titles by other poets but, to be honest, I’m not sure who all those folks are yet (well, I think I have some idea about one or two, but nothing official-like). Also, I have a new full-length book definitely lined up but that won’t be out until later in 2018. I’m writing towards that now, obviously. Both of these only have working titles, so there’s not much more I can say at the moment. I know that sounds a bit vague but until things have a name I feel they’re under the surface and should stay a bit secret.

Also, the project that poet Alison Flett and I started last year – a series of chapbooks from our Little Windows press – is continuing. We have four poets lined up again, three Australians (one of them from Adelaide) and one Scots poet, but again it’s best not to make announcements until it’s all ready to go. Life has a habit of intervening in plans, even well-sorted ones. But if the plan works, we’re hoping to release these later this year. And they’ll be great, definitely. All the poets are wonderful.

I also have a couple of other ideas for my own small projects, I suppose you’d call them chapbooky type things, that I’m hoping some one or another might be interested in. They involve the more odd or playful or just weird end of the spectrum of my writing, so maybe they’ll never surface. And I’m always writing … something. I’ve been a bit dissatisfied with my recent writing so I’m trying to loosen up – hey, ‘lose your grip’ – and see if something different may start happening. Paradoxically, some of that writing involves thinking about form and constraints. Let’s just say form never settles. Let’s just say I’m busy.

 

 

 

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