Two poets reflect on the year in letters and the writing life
ALEXANDRA OLIVER, A contributing editor to Partisan, and Amanda Jernigan, a regular contributor to the magazine, have a lot to talk about. Poets and friends, they sat down (on the occasion of Jernigan’s birthday) to eat stollen, drink coffee, and reflect upon the year in letters that has been, the writing life, and what both see looming ahead for 2016.
First things first, Amanda. Happy birthday.
Thank you, Alexandra! I hope that I will be able to hold to the level of your “reflect upon the year in letters.” I feel like I know more about the year in laundry!
Wait until the boys get older and start sports. The stains get worse. Seriously, though. You’re something of an inspiration, what with two wonderful books (Groundwork and All the Daylight Hours) under your belt, plus your work on Richard Outram at McMaster (and all while raising two kids. Phew.). How has your poetry practice adapted itself to a life of academic discipline (or vice versa)? Do you have a particular schedule or particular rituals you follow in order to accommodate everything?
Okay, the scene right now: I am typing at my computer, in the attic study that I share with my husband. On the floor, my long-suffering mother attempts to change the diaper of my one-year-old who is writhing like a pinned eel. Behind them, and doing his best to sabotage the diaper-change, my three-year-old hauls boxes out of the storage-closet/boogey hole—boxes with which, as he has told us, he is “building his special house”: this to a construction-site soundtrack of “Bash, bash.” Downstairs, my husband makes sausage-and-potatoes for the dozen MFA students due to gather at our house in, oh, four hours. What am I doing at my desk? Well, there’s what I’m supposed to be doing: writing the introduction to the first section of my thesis, a scholarly edition of the published poems of Richard Outram. That window is open on my word processor. Behind it, faintly waving the white flags of their doc. icons, are several started poems. And in the foreground, the e-mail window where I type. (Yes, I’m breaking the fourth wall here, and letting readers in on the fact that, while our conversation began over stollen and proceeds under the sign of that same confection, it is unfolding, just now, over e-mail.) So: schedule? Rituals? Most days look like this, despite my perennial resolutions to bring order to the chaos.
That said, life is chaos — and I love life, and believe that, whatever challenges it may pose to the making of poems, it is also poems’ only source.
And you? Rituals? Schedule? How do you get your work done
Oh, as best I can. As you paint this vivid tableau, I’m being carted back, kicking and screaming, to 2005. We were living in Seattle, and Gavra was only a few months old. Everything was extremely regimented—he napped from 10:30 to 12:00 and then from 3:00 to 5:00. So during those two increments of time, I went on massive brain power sprints. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and edited what was to become my first little book (Where the English Housewife Shines) and stopped whenever I heard a yell or sensed a stuffed toy being thrown in the general direction of my head. Nowadays Gavra’s (relatively speaking) bigger, so he takes himself off to school and stays there until he comes home for a pre-tennis training snack. Then he goes off again, and I pick up where I left off (and make dinner). Having bigger swathes of time means I can—logistically speaking—deal with bigger projects, but it’s easy to get distracted by minutiae. I have a few coping strategies to avoid being dragged off the rails by social media, snacks and other temptations. OCD has actually turned out to be my best friend here. I have a very specific way of handling tasks. I write five “to-do’s” on a Post-It. Then I stick the Post-It above my desk, where it hangs ominously, like a note for a short-order cook. I address everything on that Post-It. Then I toss it and I write out another Post-It note. The To-Do’s include (but aren’t limited to) articles and associated research, Rotary Dial stuff, tasks for my work at the Dundas Valley School of Art, associated editing projects, course preparation for online courses and (drum roll) my own poems. Even with more hours in the day, there never seem to be enough, so I tend to keep my observing eye and my wondering brain on standby when I’m doing stuff like shopping for groceries or skiing in the woods or chopping vegetables. I let the raw matter occur to me, as naturally as possible—or I try to.
This brings me to the question of what makes a poem. You know, one of the biggest pitfalls (for me, anyhow) is the idea of a poem. Let me explain. Sometimes it occurs to me, “Aha! I should write a poem about B-movies!” or, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to write about that weird lady who lives on the third floor, wears pink fluffy pyjama pants every day and smells like rye?” But the idea alone is never enough. Topic doesn’t make the poem. There has to be the inner rattle, the resonating essence that makes the act very urgent. This urgency communicates things on a much more visceral level once the poem is written. I therefore need to spend a good part of the day, groping around for resonating essences. It involves a lot of staring at the wall, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. How do you harness inspiration, given how marvellously chaotic things are over at your place?
Hmm. Well, I do an awful lot of not writing. You see, I’m superstitious about beginning to write too early, before the “idea” has accrued that sense of urgency, of resonating essence, of which you speak. A lot of ideas are therefore simply told to queue indefinitely, by my inner comptroller. But the key thing for me is, when a poem does present itself—not just the “idea” but the whole nexus of memories and allusions and associations and feelings, including, of course, centrally, that feeling of ineffable freight—to really let it jump the turnstile and take over my train of thought, completely. To write while the spirit moves, if you like. Because I’ve learned that if the thing doesn’t get written down then, it’s likely to never get written.
Let’s get specific, though.
How ‘bout that poem you published here in Partisan back in November, all set for disaster in its little red shoes (“Christopher Robin Kindergarten Class Photo, 1974”). Can you give me a genesis of that?
Well, there really was a class photo like that and it really was taken at Christopher Robin, which was a private kindergarten in Vancouver. CRK was housed in a strange mint green modernist building on Nanton Street and was a very strictly run outfit—none of this self-esteem nonsense (ironic eyebrow lift inserted here). Our teacher was called Miss Hope, and I can still see her, to this day, in a floral minidress, looming over me with her massive, weirdly elegant beehive. Anyhow, no miniskirts for us. We had a uniform—blue tunics with crisp white blouses and little white berets. Blue trousers and jumpers for the guys. The required footwear: blue or black Buster Brown/Clarks T-straps. Picture day came and there I was—bam in the middle of the posse—sporting a shit-eating grin and red shoes. A scandal! The resonating essence behind the photo (and hence, the poem) came from that was the sense of being tarred with the naughty brush at a very early age. Yes, I was a little madam at age four, but from then on I’d meet teachers who kept saying, “Oh, I’ve heard what you kind of person you are!” and there you’d be, trying to dig yourself out of some burgeoning bandit reputation but being smacked back into line. The seventies were different. Teachers used to shove kids and hit them and say pretty ghastly things. I can still hear my Grade One P.E. teacher calling me a joke because I was afraid to get onto the balance beam. There were a lot of great things about the seventies, but the educational system—at least from where I stood—seemed very impatient and rigid, to the point of being draconian. My brothers had the sixties to get through as well, so they have their own horror stories. To cut a long story short: I wanted to send a knowing nod back to my educators and my childhood self that the shoes had taken me somewhere and I had, in fact, survived. The poem is meant to be a survival piece, but not a flat, stock “You go, girl!” empowerment piece. The question of survival and self-definition is more complex than that. Now you—tell me about your childhood. Where were you at age four?
Wait, not so fast. So, the class photo inspired the poem: that was the “idea.” Write a poem about that CRK class photo. And the “resonating essence,” as you say, is this business of having been tarred with the naughty brush at an early age. But why write this poem now? (Is this a new poem?) What made this idea acquire critical mass when it did? Or, why assign yourself this particular “idea,” of all ideas, at this point in the unfolding of your life and work?
But, not to dodge your question:
When I was four my family (then comprising my mother and father and me and my infant sister and a shaggy dog named after Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) moved from a townhouse in Waterloo, Ontario, to the house-by-the-river, outside of Waterloo, that would be the great fort of my growing-up years. (My sister and I — and later a brother, too, eight years my junior — were, or would become, keen builders of forts: box forts, blanket forts, tree forts, snow forts …. But the house, designed by a close friend of my parents’ and built by a crew of Waterloo County Mennonites, full of weird modernist angles but board-and-battened like a barn, was the greatest fort of all.) I took to country living. My “uniform,” if such it was, comprised a red sweater and blue jeans with grass- or mud-stained knees. But a rural public school had its own challenges. My parents were university people, and heathens, and Americans, and thus triple outsiders to this strongly Protestant, southern-Ontario farming community—in ways I didn’t understand, then, but could certainly feel. But I was privileged, shored against schoolyard contempt by comfort and love, at home, so I shouldn’t pitymonger. And, you know, being a bit on the outside gives one time and room to read and think, which would shortly become of great importance to me, if it wasn’t already, at the age of four. (I wasn’t an early reader, but I was a daydreamer probably from the womb.) I can see that now I sort of seek out that position, on the edge of things. I associate it with freedom.
Something more about your Christopher Robin poem, though. I’ve been reading Pooh to my three-year-old, and it’s heart-squeaky, that moment at the end when C.R. prepares to go off, to school or more generally into older-kid life, and leave his nursery friends. So in your poem, blithely reading against the grammar of the title, I saw, well, Christopher Robin—transplanted, sure, to 1974; but the cheeky pose and red shoes (and also, a little bit, the foretaste of disaster) seemed to suit him.
This brings me to a question about poetry and biography. How much do you think a person needs to understand about your life, or the life of any poet, in order to understand the work? Are you interested in biography, yourself, when it comes to the poets whose work you admire?
I’ll start with your first question about the assigning of the Christopher Robin Kindergarten Photo Idea. I wrote the bulk of my forthcoming collection (Let the Empire Down) whilst we were living in Glasgow, Scotland, between August 2012 and January 2015. I had always moaned about living in the suburbs of Toronto and, poof! Suddenly Dragan got an overseas assignment and we were away. It was exciting, of course, but leaving town was not a secret cure to whatever malaise had been chomping at my ankles. You know that old adage, “Wherever you go, there you are”? Well, there I was. I had no job. It seemed to rain day and night. I had to start making friends from scratch. And I had a lot of time to mull things over. I began to think about the idea of escape and exile. I thought about how people grow up or run away—or both!—and how they define themselves in the process, the little tweaks they effect to make themselves more “viable” in the greater scheme of things. I thought a lot about my own childhood—was my nature, as I see it now, encapsulated in those childhood moments, ready to burst forth (and here, I poke you with my cake fork and suggest that you read James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code—so out there and crazy-fascinating! It’s all about that—the acorn of one’s “true” nature.)
About biography: you nailed one of my secret addictions. I like watching people and writing about “secret lives” imagined, and I love biographies in general. When they’re well written, it’s like riding shotgun on a road trip with someone you admire (or are at least curious about). I always treat myself to a biography every few months. Right now I’m reading an ever-so-slightly limp book about Yves St. Laurent. So, when I read a poet and I find myself snagged by their approach or their imagery or their tone, dollars to donuts I’m going to try and find out something about who they are or were and what propelled them forth. Some poets absolutely require that you delve into matters biographical—take James Merrill, for example. Knowing about his unhappy childhood, his friendships, his love affairs, his fascination with the spirit world, it unlocks so many secrets in his poems, at least for me. With other poets, I like to enjoy the mystery first before getting to know more about background. When I’m reading poets like Alice Notley or Lisa Robertson, I like to feel immersed in, and overwhelmed by, language and image. I like feeling out of my depth there. It’s quite indulgent. So I suppose it depends on the situation. Knowing a little more about your childhood—the modernist barn-house, the grubby knees, the feeling of being a designated observer (I’m so with you there!), the abundance of family love—tells me a great deal about the underpinnings of your own poetry, which has its own mysterious dimension and yet pulses with real warmth and compassion. I know that sounds cheesy, but I’m really feeling it here. Let’s look at one of your own Partisan poems, “Engraving”—it’s an ekphrastic work, I assume, but there’s so much of you in there. Can you tell me a little more about this poem and the work which inspired it?
Ah, yes. The titular “engraving” is of course Dürer’s famous master print Ritter, Tod und Teufel (Knight, Death, and the Devil): in particular a specific, late-off-the-block copy of this work that hung on the wall in my grandparents’ house, exiled to a spot beneath the basement stairs (where, my mother tells me, it used to scare her rigid), when I was growing up. I returned to the image after my second son was born, following a week spent with him in the hospital as he recovered from an unexpected, early-weeks illness. And I thought: obviously (such is the sleep-deprived insight of new motherhood), Dürer’s rider isn’t a knight but a woman, specifically a mother. And his (her) breastplate conceals no mead-paunch but a child. This stretches the engraved facts, of course. But really, I was feeling how the stakes of mortality are raised when you have a baby: what did Dürer’s chaste knight know about terror? (Critics of the engraving have discussed the devil as a weirdly un-menacing figure.) So I suppose this is a feminist piece too, in its way, like your “Christopher Robin …”—but again, at a slant. “This is the way the ladies ride” is from the nursery rhyme, of course, and an echo of Eliot in its triple iteration. I’m a scholar (read, nerd), and often poems happen for me when multiple bits of read and lived experience line up in superposition, like stacked transparencies: the Dürer engraving, the fairytale cliché of the woman incognito in knight’s armour, the experience of trying to nurse (literally and figuratively) a little baby through its first weeks of life, the nursery rhyme, the Eliot. There’s a Borges poem in there, too. Though I always hope a poem will turn out to be more than the sum of its allusions (that’s the x factor, the ineffable freight — and also the art of not saying too much; of getting out of the reader’s way, at a certain point). The title, “Engraving,” with its etymological gravity, came last, and out of nowhere: obvious, but a gift.
I say I’m a scholar, but really I suppose I’m a collagist. One of the scholars I most respect recently told me that what I take for his erudition is really a scramble of patched-together surmises made to shore up his poetry. Perhaps I’ll say the same, someday. (And the poetry a scramble of patched-together surmises made to shore up the life?) I respect scholarship, though. I think accuracy is an underrated virtue, and bibliography the great, boring, important critical task. But it’s not an unliterary task. Think of Melville’s sub-sub librarian, at the beginning of Moby Dick, who establishes the ocean in which the great white whale will shortly be set loose.
Alexandra, I know we have to wrap this up, but you have a new book coming out shortly. Can you tell me something more about it?
Well, first I’m going to thank you for that explanation. It says so much and your self-identification as a collagist really rings a bell now and shines a light on your work, which I love so much. Aren’t we all collagists in some sense?
To answer your question, though: Let the Empire Down is coming out in March/April, again with Biblioasis. It’s a little more thoughtful (is that the right word?) than Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway. “[A] scramble of patched-together surmises made to shore up […] life” is something I’m going to pluck, magpie-like, from your nest here. I found myself scrambling, in Scotland, to make sense of everything that had happened during the trajectory of my life and work (as hackneyed and melodramatic as that may sound), and I expressly wanted to find a way of taking personal responsibility for all the shenanigans I had found myself in. Let me rephrase that: looking back on Tormentors, I wonder now if I had (consciously or unconsciously) shovelled all of the freight of the malaise/loneliness/alienation I sensed after my son’s birth onto the Toronto suburb where we found ourselves living—like we were somehow taken over by an unspoken Southern Ontario gothic curse. The ravages of bad geography! Those terrible suburban zombies! Of course, there is an undeniable thread of truth in that horror film scenario (at least for me), but I wanted to show that the darkness was indeed also plugged into the self and to history—familial, cultural and otherwise. And it can be simultaneously embraced and escaped from. How weird that sounds. Have some more stollen. I think I’ve got some brandy around somewhere… and tell me about what’s on your agenda this year!
My agenda this year … I’m working on a series of poems based on stories from the Metamorphoses (“Arachne,” which appeared in Partisan, is one of them). It’s a long-term project, but the poems keep coming. I’m writing words for a choral piece, in collaboration with Colin Labadie, a composer from Waterloo. I dream of getting back to a play-in-progress, these five years abandoned.… Oh yes, and then there’s my thesis. Hmm. Brandy?
Take the bottle. It’s going to be a wild year.
ALEXANDRA OLIVER is the author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (2013). She is a contributing editor for Partisan.
AMANDA JERNIGAN's latest book is All the Daylight Hours (2013). Her work has appeared in Poetry and other magazines.