QPF 2012 Feature Poet: Jill Jones

It’s edging ever closer… QPF 2012 feels like I can reach out and touch it. So to bring it even closer, here’s an interview with one of the featured poets, Jill Jones. You can catch Jill at the following sessions:

The Phrasebook of Silence (w/ Nicola Easthope and Robert Adamson)
Saturday August 25
4pm – 5pm

A Million Bright Things (a showcase of every artist on the program)
Saturday August 25
8pm – 9:30pm

Whisper Me Awake (w/ Vanessa Page and Nathan Curnow)
Sunday August 26
12:15pm – 1:15pm

ALS: Since Dark Bright Doors was released in 2010 (Wakefield Press), you have co-edited ‘Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets (Puncher & Wattman, 2011). I would love to hear about the process of editing such a major work.

Jill: Editing Out of the Box was a long process for a couple of interlinked reasons. We took a while to get a publisher sorted out, a few years, a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, initial interest from publishers not followed through for various reasons. We were finally happy that David Musgrave decided to take it on, but because the whole process was drawn out, we kept finding new poets to approach, or people we’d initially approached then having newer work to check out, and all of that sorting takes time. There were poets whose work we were interested in who were difficult to contact as well. Not everyone is within email distance. Some sent recent work from which we chose. Others didn’t want to do that, or we did not know how to contact them initially, so we went through their publications to find what we wanted. A lot of reading and negotiating.

The two of us also had to decide what it would look like, both physically and organisationally. I was keen not to have separate sections for lesbians and gay men. Luckily, Michael was of the same mind, though we toyed with it for a moment. It was his great idea to order the volume alphabetically by poem which got away both from age, and alpha order by poet and, therefore, an instant reckoning of who had more and who had less poems. So, less hierarchy and less generational.

We deliberately used ‘poet’ in the title. Both of us wanted poets who identified as gay or lesbian rather than poems with a specific kind of subject matter. So, although there is obvious subject matter there, a lot of the poems aren’t necessarily about sex, or identity, or coming out, or discrimination, or queer history, etc. I think some readers wanted more out-and-out (so to speak) sex writing, identity writing. That was never going to happen, not with the mix of writers we included and not with us as editors.

We had other constraints which are summed up in the ‘contemporary’ part of the title. There are other writers who would belong in an historical overview, obviously, but we wanted to present something new and fresh, and quite a few of the poems make a first appearance in Out of the Box. The other idea awaits the work it would take to do it.

We did divide the tasks so that, by and large, I edited the women and Michael men, but we came up with a pretty even amount of work, and shared what we were doing along the way, often by email but we met up plenty of times, mainly in Sydney or Melbourne. We agreed to do separate introductions and that I’d do a bit of historical overview as I’d had those connections going back a ways with gay and lesbian literary publishing.

Since publishing the book, and even as we were finalising the proofs, we came across other writers that we could have included but it was too late to take it all apart. We did have a last minute drama when another publisher insisted we withdraw poems by a writer they were publishing but luckily we saved enough, after a bit of negotiation. If there is ever a second edition, there are obviously other writers who would be in it. There were a couple of writers whose work was difficult to excerpt as well and we had to pass on that. It’s always hard to do justice to what’s out there and to bring it into focus in the limited space of an anthology. The anthology you do in your head is easier than the one that can get published.

So, the process was incremental and the shape of the anthology changed over time, either due to practicalities or changes in our own thoughts. The title also changed a lot. One idea was ‘paintbox’, picking up from a Malouf poem, so in a sense, ‘box’ led us to ‘out of the box’, which then led to the shape of the book.

ALS:  I also wanted to ask about the poems you are currently writing and the themes that are emerging for you. And is there a new book in the pipeline?

Jill: My own writing at the moment is fitful. Time is a problem but, in saying that, I do get bursts of ideas and lines that come together. I work, as I probably always have, in two kinds of ways. There are the poems that begin with a free flow of writing based around things, dialogue, ideas, images, that I’ve come across, or come across me, during a day. The sort of writing that begins in a notebook. It’s the writing that people want to mark, in my case, as writing about place, ie the material base of the writing is apparent.

The second kind of writing is more based around language play (not that the other isn’t), is more processual or very, very loosely conceptual. I’ve spent a bit of time collaging my own older work by using chance or constraint procedures. If in doubt, recycle.

Themes? I get bored with projects and dislike being bound by themes. Which probably says a lot for where my poetry sits. It’s fairly heterodox. ‘Hard to pin down’, I’m told some people say. I know what I’m doing and if it doesn’t conform to current poetry fashions, I’m certainly not bothered. Nonetheless, I did start a project recently, sort of, of writing poems that had one true autobiographical feature (often very insignificant) and were written deliberately in the first person but are essentially, lies, or somehow wrong. I called them ‘histories’. I’ve also been writing a lot of short poems, often begun with some kind of constraint (syllable counts, n+7, or abecedarian, for instance) These poems are then usually worked over while wearing my surrealist hat, or I simply break my own rules, get a bit of a swerve happening. I can’t imagine who would publish them, but some people have liked them.

I do have a book in the wings. I was hoping it would be out by the time of the Queensland Poetry Festival but alas not. It’s called Ash is Here, So are Stars. It’s based around a selection of poems that was shortlisted for the Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize last year but I’ve extended it significantly, rewritten parts of it. That’s the central part of the book called ‘In Fire City’. Then I’ve included three longer self-contained older poems. Nonetheless, it’s still a slim volume. I have another older manuscript in the wings, a larger work, but getting it to see the light of day has been, still is, umm, difficult. But I am most grateful to Ralph Wessman who asked me for Ash … Stars for Walleah Press and he’ll be getting it to the presses soon.

Here’s a poem, not published anywhere else yet, from Ash is Here, So are Stars:

Whose Words Did These Things?

Whose workbenches made these thirsts
pounding out like stereos, stiffening
the air-conditioner? Who can tell
when you’re lonely?
But we’ll survive wisecracks and wishbones
or loaf amongst the dead of the crossroads,
the proof to which we are not entitled.

There’s an expansion of sinew containing
the freewheeling we undergo;
loosening our gymslips we turn on kaleidoscopes
then watch our hands as the similarity electric
charges dryness — but we are not static
and we are not grief, but fill
our hands with the spill and as it fizzles
it frets and comes fullest ‘til it breasts
yes, you know how it breaches anew though
it’s old, much older than workbooks.

But breathe and merge, then lug down words
don’t pussyfoot round the sidelines. And if
you die a little here, you might embrace the wrench
and relish workdays again.

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