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RALPH WESSMAN

Conversations : an interview with Jill Jones

recorded Sydney, May 2005

 

Jill Jones is a poet and writer who lives in Sydney, Australia. Her work has been widely published in most of the leading literary periodicals in Australia as well as in a number of print and online magazines in New Zealand, Canada, the USA, Britain and India. In 1993 she won the Mary Gilmore Award for her first book of poetry, The Mask and the Jagged Star (Hazard Press). Her second book, Flagging Down Time, was published in late 1993 by Five Islands Press. Her third book, The Book of Possibilities, (Hale & Iremonger), was published in 1997. It was shortlisted for the National Book Council 'Banjo' Awards, The Age Poetry Book of the Year award, and the Adelaide Festival Awards. Her fourth book, Screens, Jets, Heaven: New and Selected Poems, was published by Salt Publishing 2002. It won the 2003 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize (NSW Premier's Literary Awards). A chap book, Struggle and Radiance: Ten Commentaries, was published in Ireland by Wild Honey Press in 2004. Her fifth full-length book, Broken/Open, was published by Salt Publishing in 2005. It was shortlisted for The Age Poetry Book of the Year 2005 and for the 2006 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize.

In Sydney during May 2005 I managed to catch up briefly with Jill Jones. She’d been experiencing an intensely busy period, with her first all new full-length collection in eight years [Broken/Open] having been launched just days before at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. With the festival fresh in her mind, I began by asking Jill what other highlights it had held for her.

"I think the highlight of any festival is meeting people, and talking to them, casually, informally, over coffee - that’s what I always get out of festivals. The other is good, to hear and see people perform in the flesh. However, I went to sessions with independent publishers like Tony Frazer, a translator of German poetry and publisher of Shearsman Books in the UK. I found what he had to say was very interesting about how to make small print-run, or print-on-demand (POD) type publishing viable. It was good to catch up with John Kinsella, I see John perhaps once every year or two and I enjoy seeing him read, to witness his high energy and to catch up with him to hear what plans are on his mind."

"As you’d know, given the vast geography of this country, the opportunity to meet other writers is important. I do a lot of travelling and I often hear how people in different cities, in different regions, don’t know who else is out there, because they haven’t been able to get out themselves. It says a lot about how big this country is and how hard it is to make the connections. There’s certainly opportunity to get your material out there - on the web, electronically – but it’s not the same as meeting people."

It’s one thing to have a book in circulation, it’s another for it to succeed in the marketplace. How hopeful does Jill feel for Broken/Open.

"One is always hopeful. I’m hoping that this book will open up some people’s minds to what I’ve been trying to do lately, to see beyond the way they’ve perhaps perceived my work before. I think any poet would say that … that in each book as it comes along, you’re trying to do something new or different, that each poem is an experiment, and each book is a so-called experiment, that you’re throwing the words together and seeing what sort of reaction you get (if you want to continue the metaphor)."

"I was thinking this morning, strolling down to the station, that the big old philosophical metaphor - you never step in the same river twice - is one that works for me. Even if you continue to write along the same kind of lines, it's never the same. Even if you're doing the same-old same-old, it’s never quite the same same-old same-old. You’re getting older, you’ve got more responsibilities/you’ve got less responsibilities, you’re in the same place/you’re in a different place … the words are never going to come out exactly the same. With this book I’m hoping everybody sees something a bit more … As John [Kinsella] said at the launch, this book is ‘visionary’. We’re not talking about a Blakean vision, but from the cover on, it’s about ways of seeing. Looking at things – at language – in different ways. Looking at the poem on the page in a different way, looking at and feeling the words in a different way. A number of poems refer to paintings. Colour is also important. For me, it’s been a broadening out of the way I look at things. So, I use the vision word in the material sense. I also did it, consciously, as a whole book, something that connected from beginning to last page, not just a collection of poems. There’s a lot of interlinking of words, phrases and ideas worked into it."

Another reason Jill is hopeful for the book is that in a recent development, Salt's titles are once more being distributed within Australia.

"Chris Hamilton-Emery from Salt travelled down from Cambridge this year to the London Book Fair and met with the James Bennett people from Australia, with the result that James Bennett has agreed to distribute Salt books in Australia," she explains. "Broken/Open won’t be cheap - it's sourced from overseas and the pound is a bit of a barrier - but nonetheless they’ve tried to make the book available for a reasonably acceptable price."

Jill laughs. "An acceptable price for a fantastic product! The process isn’t offset printing but a new printing process – with perfect binding and full colour cover - done in England through Lightning Source. As soon as they get a proper way of doing this in Australia, we'll be much better off. Because they're not large print runs, no one has to warehouse the book. In theory, it could revolutionise the economics of producing and selling poetry books."

"But, as we all know, a good product doesn’t necessary mean a good review," she adds, "or indeed an informed review. It doesn’t matter if people don’t like the book, so long as they can be intelligently critical, fine. But to give serious consideration to a book – as you’re suggesting – takes quite a bit of time and reading. I think it’s a difficult time at the moment to encourage critical debate on any sort of cultural production or process, let alone poetry."

"And I think poetry is in … I won’t say ‘dire’ straits, cos I don’t believe that, I don’t think it’s in a dire strait or state at all … but I think there’s something of a turning point happening at the moment. There are very few of what I guess you might call independent critical minds around dealing with poetry. Part of that is the way poetry as a form has been situated by the academy in the last ten to twenty years, moved into cultural studies. I’m not doing an anti-cultural studies rave in particular, but I think many people have found it easier to deal with say, comics, or cinema, or those sorts of particular productions rather than poetry. Partly, I think, because it’s not seen to be popular, it’s not whizz-bang stuff: it takes a lot of time to get to know poetry, where it’s coming from ... to understand how people are writing out of traditions, and then why they might break a traditional mould. Poetry is resistant."

"Some of the reviewing I have seen in recent years has also worried me because some of it’s been ad hominen. Or someone’s got an idea of what poetry should be, but is not prepared to say ‘well this is what I think poetry should be, however this person is writing out of another tradition, another movement so I just don’t like it’. There's too little effort made to take a book of poetry on its own terms."

"There needs to be a greater breadth of thinking, that you don’t necessarily have to like something to be able to say it’s good. You don’t have to be in love with it. If you are in love with it, that’s fantastic. And to be in love with it, and not be sycophantic, is a wonderful thing."

"I often write the city," Jill observes in ‘Ruby Street’, her literary blog featuring recent work and commentary. It is readily apparent that the question of place – placement of the writer and the writing - is important to her.

"I always have and always will write out of where I am. That’s not to say I’m writing the story about Jill Jones of Marrickville. It’s a different kind of specificity. For instance, one of the projects I’ve used to keep myself writing is a poetry project generated through the poetryetc list, which started up in the UK but is currently being moderated by Alison Croggon down in Melbourne, with list members from the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and people based in European countries. Every Wednesday a core group of people write what we call a ‘snapshot’. The original idea was write about what’s going on for you either inside or outside, wherever you are – on a Wednesday – anywhere in the world. Marrickville, 8.50 am Wednesday morning, whatever …"

"Now, for me – and this is just my own discipline, it has nothing else to do with what anyone else does – I try to connect to something actually going on in the place where I am. I don’t think that I can do other than write out of where I am. But I don’t want to pour out my soul – I don’t think anyone's particularly interested in my soul. But I’m sure they’re interested in places, I’m sure they’re interested in the way words can construct a place – and that place can be an internal state. So my snaps could be based in a place, based on a mood, using various words that might or might not get at that - perhaps conveyed through syntax, perhaps broken syntax, maybe having a structure that breaks at a certain time, with lines contained within themselves. One can use various sorts of structures. Or sometimes it can be very straight up and down."

"To give an example ... I went to a funeral recently. I wrote about it, because I felt there was a need to. It happened on a Wednesday. The music that was played at the funeral was the 'In Paradisum' from Faure’s 'Requiem', quite well known. It was raining as I arrived, but when I walked outside again it was sunny. That's when two black crows - Australian ravens - flew overhead. I made something out of that."

"Now from the point of view of the poem, it doesn't matter to anyone who it was who died. It matters of course to the people involved, and there was something quite specific about what happened in that place, I felt I could write something about how the living were dealing with death. There were consequences, there are always consequences when someone dies, but the consequences are for the living. The person who’s dead … is dead, is dead. Whatever happens after death we don’t know, it’s either nothing or it's something along the lines of what the religions talk about or something absolutely other than all that."

"The poem itself is fairly accessible and uses the Latin text of ‘In Paradisum’. Now, I don’t know Latin, so I looked up the English translation. And I’m not a Catholic - but I’ve been around churches and religion enough to know what music and song liturgy can mean. Particularly to someone, the dead person, who in fact was also not a Catholic. There were a lot of complexities in that particular situation. People reading the poem didn’t need to know my story about it, they just needed to read the words, to go along with it. There was something in it about me talking out of that place that readers responded to. Does that make sense? Specificity is important. Even if you’re not writing using the autobiographical ‘I’, it’s still writing out of where you are, it’s still something to do with where you are instead of a homogenised generalisation. And people will deal with that in different ways."

 

At the launch of Phil Hammial's Voodoo Realities, Pam Brown spoke of a loss of idealism, of the way that many poets seem to jump at the chance to be institutionalised, "to be acclaimed by society's committees, happy to forfeit poetry's adversarial alienation (which is the source of its critical autonomy) to pitch themselves at winning the applause of posterity." Phil Hammial's poetry, Brown pointed out, resists this – "… he seems not to want to leap and he certainly can't be pushed". I asked Jill how much of a balancing act she found the practice of poetry.

"It’s always a balancing act, isn’t it? I certainly have no pretensions to the so-called canon or similar acclaim. That’s for when you’re dead at least fifty years. I do worry when I hear quite relatively young poets talk about their ‘place in the canon’, as if by getting into an anthology they’ve confirmed it. Anthologies date even more quickly than the original ‘slim volume’. I have a collection of old Australian anthologies at home and you wouldn’t recognise half the names in them. The balancing act involves getting the work out there to be read but not dumbing it down. Anyone who publishes wants the work read but by whom and to what end? I assume that’s what Pam was getting at. Not to make people comfortable or keep them entertained, that’s for sure."

"It’s less clear to me who are really the influential ‘committees’. And I say that with a certain well-developed sense of irony, given my position. But the tastemakers and the nay-sayers are everywhere. It’s not just a mainstream activity. Most of us have our coteries, we hang around with ‘our gang’. Posterity will be us, unfortunately. But, yeah, I gave up worrying about it a while ago. I’m pretty de- or non-institutionalised in my writing and its acceptance, which is the opposite of my working life. There’s the strange balance for me, I guess, right there."

 

Many consider performance and the spoken word to be poetry’s future, that the printed page will become a thing of the past. Jill has numerous stories of collectively pushing out publications round the table, of the ink smells of the gestetner rolling out the next issue of little magazines. It’s a process she’s reluctant to see change.

"Of course, I wouldn’t like the little book to disappear. In fact, I do see a small revival in DIY. It’s reflected in zine culture, in personal web sites and blogging (though that’s an ink-free zone) and in the output of a lot of self-published or semi-self-published chapbooks, particularly in the USA. People are using POD services such as Lulu.com to produce books which can be sold world-wide. It’s not as much fun maybe as crunching around the kitchen table with a dodgy stapler, but it’s the individual or small collective grabbing the available technology and using it to get stuff out there. I see poetry as visual as much as auditory so I personally don’t see a conflict with either seeing the page (or screen) and listening with the ‘internal ear’ or with hearing and seeing the live or filmed performance. I also see some very good (as well as some very bad) digital works which are not strictly page or performance. But the book is still here for a while. Nothing convinces me it’s gone yet. The book’s a sensual material object and a very successful bit of technology It’s portable, doesn’t need electricity or batteries, it’s available on demand and isn’t tied to a performance time or place. I know of people getting mugged for their iPods, but not their poetry books. But I love hearing and seeing things live, the grain and rhythm of voice and body. I’m not interested in getting involved in some false dichotomy here. There’s a lot going on."

Thinking of anthologies, I reflect on how odd – or coincidental – it is to have two annual "Best of" anthologies of Australian poetry being published these days, when for many years there was nothing. Jill has edited magazines and anthologies – or at least one poetry anthology, A Parachute of Blue – and I ask for her thoughts on how she’d approach an annual anthology representative of Australian poetry? Would she do anything differently – from before? From the current editors?

"Ah, Ralph, talking about anthologies presses too many buttons for me. And I agree that having two is just a bit weird. I can’t quite get with this ‘best of’ monicker. It’s not the ‘best of’, it’s just one editor’s view. OK, it’s marketing but … On the other hand, you have to let each editor do their thing. You can be critical of the final product, of course. I’d like to see some focused anthologies, something a bit opinionated, saying ’there’s this particular stuff happening here which is important, and you must read it’. It might be wrong-headed but at least it’s engaged. There was, no doubt about it, some lazy anthologising going on a while ago. A friend of mine called it ‘wet weekend anthologising’. I really would prefer it if people read among single author titles and mags like Famous Reporter and all the other journals. Too much gets lost. But I can’t really answer your question."

 

Having a manuscript published provides freedom for moving forward, for the exploration of new ideas and projects. I ask Jill what she intends turning her mind to next. She replies that an area of interest is in the idea of collaborations with other artists.

"I'm always working on material, fiddling around with it. Lately I’ve been interested in forms that are not really haiku, but nevertheless are minimum forms, and I’ve also been interested in playing on the sonnet form. I’m also playing with multimedia, trying to learn Flash at the moment, or working with other artists. I think there a lot of opportunities now for people to exchange material with artists in different cities, or countries: a poet could be working with a filmmaker, and/or a musician, a photographer anywhere. Or even – although I’ve never really found the right situation – work with another poet, as a collaborator. You can do it in many different ways. To some extent, there’s a collaborative element to the DiVerse group of writers here in Sydney. We write about paintings in galleries and then perform them together in the gallery spaces, so we do spark off each other. There’s a collaborative element to the snapshots project as people often pick up on what other people are on about. And on another mailing group – poneme – people have been doing a serial response where someone will put up a text to which someone else will respond to that the response is directly linked to the text."

"I’m quite interested in poets working in that kind of way, it gets you out of yourself. This so-called garret that we’re all supposed to be working in, I’ve never been there. Poets have always collaborated over the centuries – and there are new ways of doing it, and I’m quite excited by that. I think after I sat down and had a talk to myself a few years ago about all the kinds of things that poets get unhappy, restless or depressed about, I thought that’s all very well, let's just keep on keeping on. That’s what I’m doing."