Poems from The Striped World in this issue.
Writing the Ocean & the Zoo: An Interview
with the poet, Emma Jones
by Melissa Buckheit
MB: Hello, Emma. It is such a pleasure to speak with you about your debut collection, The Striped World (Faber and Faber, 2009), its movements, themes and influences, as well as your current writing and travels since its publication. The Striped World wields its own power of language and lyric on a confluence of themes and subjects—historical, personal, & natural. When I first heard you read from your collection at the Stanza Poetry Festival, in St. Andrews, Scotland in 2010, I was struck by your control of language— below a surface staidness reminiscent of our everyday speech, you reveal a power sourced in the idiosyncracy of the colloquial, in the sentence form and within it, the question and answer, as well as the roots of Latin and Anglo-Saxon. To this, an almost gentleness toward the objects and subjects of your book emerges; your use of language sets your subjects, narratives and ideas apart from the common, reveals their humanity (or animality, I suppose), and particularly, their complexity. The various speakers, whether you, a third-person narrator or a character or person, are not black and white, but grey—above all, they speak truthfully and directly. You often use unique pairings of nouns and verbs to highlight the strange or a sense of survival. In your voice, there is often playfulness, and a dark and mordant humor often linked to melancholy. Please speak about some of these ideas—your use of language, emotion, tone, depiction of subjects/objects, and your musicality and sources.
EJ: Thank you for reading the poems so closely and sympathetically. And for saying, very generously, that I have control of language. I dont know if this is true but I do have a tendency when I write to pare back. Not as part of some minimalist philosophy but because I want a distilled language I suppose, a concentration. And I do find that individual words will resonate more widely and ambiguously the less you pad or accessorise them. But that desire to pare back can also go hand in hand with an impulse to imaginative extravagance, or the desire to knit together a variety of voices and shifts in tone. There was a certain breakthrough when I began inserting speech of people and often objects into my poems, and making the inanimate speak (its funny, but I never noticed this tendency until the poems were collected, and people pointed it out to me). This is a way I suppose of not locking the poem into one perspective, or showing that youre aware of the limits of perspective, and are very interested in those limitsÉ You say my speakers are grey, and I like that. A friend once described them as exhibiting sfumato, and I like the cinematic or painterly quality of both those descriptions, that sense of a fading in and out between speakers and objects. This certainly happens throughout the poems, not that the process was that self-conscious at the point of writing. But I like to admit polyphony and fragmentation without sacrificing the shape and the momentum and the sense of completeness in a poem, which are very important to the pleasure I get from writing a poem, and from having written it – poems can appear to me very musically, as shapes and as structures of sound, before Im properly aware of their content. And that sound has a visual quality, and can come to me as a visual representation, a kind of primitive score. So I work on different parts of the page according to that mental picture, and have the sensation that Im knitting together some whole, however fictive or ephemeral or naïve that sensation might be.
I like too that you say my characters speak directly and truthfully. I feel they have no choice, that the types of creatures I write are always embarrassingly sincere, even when the sensibility of a poem is ironic. I have a poem, for instance, from the point of view of a goldfish in a little bowl, surrounded by the dingy paraphernalia of a little goldfish bowl, whose worldview is high-toned and quite kingly. The poems ironic but the fish is serious. Perhaps thats what you mean by humour linked to melancholy – both humour and melancholy are often triggered by a recognition of the strange. And they illuminate the strange. One of my favourite books is Charlie Chaplins autobiography, which is a very melancholy book. Theres one chapter in there which is more or less a descriptive list of famous, suicidally depressed clowns. And when you write poems and create speakers you often have the sense that youre exhibiting a pack of clowns, who may or may not know that theyre clowns, and that you might be the biggest oaf of all. Theres a line from a Geoffrey Hill poem, which Ill misquote because Im plucking it from memory, which goes something like himself a clown, and a judge of clowns. Maybe most poets feel that way. And to tie these things together for a minute – the idea of different speakers and subjects/objects, and the sense of a poem as a maudlin curious thing and as a whole and as a performance – I think that certain antic shifts in tone and voice are one of the strengths of poetry. I find it confusing when people talk about a poet finding their voice, as though this were a unitary thing. I dont see why poets shouldnt have as many voices as actors have characters.
MB: Yes, an interesting idea of confluence. This is very true of voices. I agree from within my own poetry writing. It is often challenging for others when one may write in many different styles and with different voices, tones and sensibilities; I think that a poet is often expected, like you say, to have one voice. This can be boring and is also quite limiting, as well. Emma, what were you reading during the years when you wrote many of these poems? Were there sources which influenced you, particularly, whether evident in your texts, or not?
EJ: I wrote one or two of the poems when I was pretty young, an undergraduate. I was reading English at Sydney University and was lucky enough to have teachers, some of them poets, who introduced me to a pretty wide variety of literatures and theories, which stimulated me: you know, Milton and the Modernists and contemporary American poetry and Central European poetry and Australian novels all at once and without a sense of hierarchy. I wrote most of the poems as a postgraduate student. Ive always read a lot in translation. Its hard for me to pinpoint where an influence begins or what my sources are. Like a lot of writers, I have a tendency to syncretism and my work seems to reflect that more and more. Its a sort of sad casserole. Saying that, there are some encounters that have changed the way I write, and which I can see blaring through, even though these are rarely the things that are commented on: city architecture, ballads, religious art, the Blues. Id say Im as much influenced by music and cinema as I am by literature.
MB: Im also curious about the geographical movements of the poems—you travel from Australia to Europe, England, America, to the oceans and across ocean-beds, and back to Australia with its wide open spaces. How did place and the local, as the art historian Lucy Lippard calls it, surface and shift your work in this book, from narrative to style and beyond? Did travel also influence specific poems?
EJ: Im an Australian who lives in Europe a lot of the time. My mother was English. Ive moved around a lot in the last five years. I dont often feel very at home, or very foreign. I think this movement has mostly inflected the visual vocabulary of my poems, for want of a better phrase, and imagery in my poems isnt ornamental but does conceptual work. That is, I think through things. Certain things that appear – very green fields, leafless trees, cobbles, the wrought-iron Rococo cages of older zoos – wouldnt have appeared if Id spent all my time in Australia. But are they always interpreted through a lens of strangeness, because of where I grew up? Probably. But I dont think Im interested in change and difference because I travel; I think I travel because Im interested in difference and change. And certainly there are things Ive come across as Ive traveled that have been jumping-off points for poems. I spent a winter in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which led to a very place-specific poem called Citizenship. So a particular place will sometimes provide the narrative germ of a poem, though in terms of their preoccupations theyre not really poems of landscape or place as such. I wish I could write such grounded poems.
But in terms of the local and the specific, I think Sydney has been very important to me. Its my city. I think its shaped my tendencies of thought. There are certain motifs that recur in my poems – certain interpenetrations of water and glass for example, and the motif of the reflected city – that are probably imprinted in me because of Sydney. I wouldnt say they were just cosmetic, or decorative though. Theyre recurrences through which I think things through. But local, yes. My tropes would undoubtedly be different if Id been from, say, Dresden.
MB: Your poems movements are vast in the best sense of the word—you encompass strange and unique narratives, with figurative shorter poems, mythology, history, personal narrative and parable. Amongst these forms and experiments, you write about immigration, colonialism, prejudices based on race, relationships, both familial and other, and the many reflections and guises of the self. Please speak about this confluence in your book. What organized your attention and focus? What were you essentially trying to achieve?
EJ: Im glad you use the word confluence, because I find it hard to unpick where those different preoccupations end and begin. The more political preoccupations I generally approach through narrative, but even then, at the heart of these narratives theres often a character or figure or object that compresses (at least in my mind) those more varied preoccupations to an indissoluble point – the parrot in Zoos for the Dead, for example, or the pearls in Farming. I think in images and I often write through compressed metaphors, which are the linguistic relatives of images. And, as you say, in analogies and parables, which come to me as brief, intense vignettes, almost like movie stills. These are the things that organize my poems I guess, or at least the things around which the poems orbit. And theres that fascination with where the self begins and ends – the masks of the self which are no less genuine for being masks. And this feeds into the more outward looking poems about things like immigration and colonialism because these narratives and their consequences partly organize the self. I think that theres sometimes an assumption that these more philosophical preoccupations are solipsistic, and divorced from the political. I think that its opposed to the solipsistic, to examine the contingency of the self. And to be aware of your own contingency is a foundation for a nuanced political perspective.
Its interesting to me that I didnt realize the recurrent nature of my tropes and preoccupations until I was choosing poems for the book, and going through my work. Writing is the process through which I discover my preoccupations; I dont know and then express them.
MB: I like your articulation: the masks of the self, which are no less genuine for being masks. This connects to your previous idea about voices, sources, and the narratives and consequences which organize the self. There are quite a few poems which touch upon the history of peoples and events in Australia, your birth country. Perhaps you could speak about a few of these poems briefly—particularly their focus on history and the depictions of insider/outsider vis-à-vis Australia and the United Kingdom. There seems to be a liminal space inhabited and created in some of these poems that captures the inbetweenness of your subjects and their narratives, including your own ancestors and family. Im thinking of Zoos for the Living, and Zoos for the Dead.
EJ: Yes, theyre a funny set of twins, those poems. I wrote a long, bad poem when I was 21, and those two phrases are the only things I salvaged from it. It was built around an opening villanelle, and the phrase zoos for the living and zoos for the dead was one of the refrain lines, and the poems then had different sections built around different lines of the villanelle. The idea was to show the guts underneath the villanelles smooth surface. The phrases stayed with me after that poem, and I knew I wanted to write poems with those titles, though I didnt really know what theyd be. I wrote Zoos for the Dead first, over a couple of years. Its interesting that you speak of inbetweenness, because that poem evolved similarly to the initial poem, in that its built around the intersection of certain narratives and forms, and the inbetween world they create. The poem starts as straight terza rima, which gets increasingly interrupted and fractured as different narratives, real and imagined, intersect. And then you have these other inbetween elements – the imagined underwater society, that alternative commonwealth, and the imagined, projected history of the parrot Narcissus, and the shipwreck, and these things are liminal or hybrid or compensatory and mostly sad. Narratives are where we keep our ancestors. Libraries are where we keep our ancestors. Languages contain them, and all these things are zoos, where we stand and stare, or so it went in my mind as I was writing the poem over time, though I wasnt conscious of these things in the blatant terms with which I can speak of them now. I think Id write it differently now.
I wrote Zoos for the Living a couple of years after I finished Zoos for the Dead. It was conceived as a sort of living twin to the other poems stiff little effigy – it was about immediate ancestry, rather than more distant ancestry, though theres a little mirror there, in the sense that my mother was English and came out to Australia, and she did this through an immigration program that was part of the same general White Australia policy that saw mixed race children being removed from their families, which is described in Zoos for the Dead. And the whole UK-Australia immigration pattern forms part of the scheme of that other poem too, and for a long time Id seen my very white skin as a kind of telling material, a material consequence of a particular worldview. And if we interpret ourselves through narrative, these, I thought, were narratives for the living, they were more personal, though theres a drowned society here too – a flooded town in the case of Zoos for the Living, rather than a shipwreck, and the interwoven narratives of that town. One thing that I regret about that poem is that I ended up cutting a lot of the quotation marks that were originally included – many of the phrases about the history of the town were from a newspaper article and are quoted verbatim, and that history is very much bound up with a kind of folk or bush poetry that was my first experience of poetry, and is important to me for that reason. And I made the quotes and my own words connect cohesively without any obvious rupture, to mirror the smooth way in which the narratives we create often smooth over the ruptures in our experience and personalities, and our distance from history – just as water covers a drowned town.
MB: The books title The Striped World, prepares us for both an extended metaphor and a reality of animals in nature and animals in a zoo. The zoo is not only reserved for animals, and the animals are a stand-in, it seems, for our human experience as well— whether pacing, locked up, restless or speaking. And the animals seem to also be animals. Your poem, The Mind, feels like one key among many associations and intersections between your multiple themes and your chosen metaphor—and their clear yet complex relationships; animals, characters—pearl, tiger, the girl, creator, zoo—surface in multiple poems. Please speak about some of these ideas and the concept of the zoo.
EJ: A zoo is a kind of Garden of Eden, but a fallen one. You know, there are the gathered animals, and then us, the self-conscious apes, walking around, marveling at apes. A zoo is also a tiny empire. I wasnt even consciously interested in zoos until they began surfacing again and again in my work, and now I have a fascination for them. They have their own particular iconography. Elephant houses are Orientalist and domed – in the older zoos anyway – and apes have quasi-natural enclosures. In most zoos, emphasis has shifted from curiosity to conservation. But theres still that element of curiosity, of kitsch. I go to zoos wherever I travel and they all have, for me at least, that atmosphere of a melancholy afternoon dream. And conceptually they cluster together all sorts of things – notions of collection, arrangement, taxonomy, perception, spectatorship, ownership, how I tell what I am, what you are. Theres also a lineage of caged animals in poetry... Its funny, the title of the collection came to me quite late, though looking back it unites so many of the poems. Id been trawling through and reread my poem Sentimental Public Man – which isnt openly about zoos at all, and came across the lines my barred heart / saw the striped world move like a beast, which I realized was a concentration of what many of the poems were on about – the way subjectivity is a little enclosure, and the world the thing that is looked at, and that looks at you.
MB: Your book is dedicated to your mother, Maureen Jones, who passed in 2007. Several poems seem to speak about your relationship. The depiction of birth emerges again and again. Im thinking of your first poem, Waking, in particular. If you are comfortable, can you speak about this subject and its relationship to the other themes in the book? Were you still writing this book in 2007, or was it already complete before then?
EJ: Im pretty fascinated by birth, that point where youre yourself and not yourself, separating from another self, when you come into your own in different ways, though of course youre not immediately individual. Most of the poems were written before 2007. A couple were written in late 2007 and early 2008 – Conversation was the first poem I wrote after the death of my mother.
MB: Im wondering what you have been occupied with—both in work and writing— since The Striped World came out. What preoccupations, investigations or themes are you concerned with in your current work?
EJ: Its been an interesting couple of years. Ive done a few poetry fellowships – a year in the Lake District in England, some time in Latvia and Italy and, of course, Australia. Its been a time of real re-evaluation in terms of how I write. There was such a wonderful lack of self-consciousness about the way I wrote the poems in The Striped World. I was a student, reading a lot, and writing a lot, drawing on different things, but not publishing much and not at all interested in the more sectarian side of the poetry world. Then you publish and youre placed or asked to place yourself, which isnt intuitive for me, and you become more self-conscious about how you write, and why you write. So Ive experimented with some different forms of writing; Ive written more slowly, though Ive always been a slow writer. Id say that what Im working on is more overtly musical in a formal sense, and more concerned with address. Im working on some secular psalms, which draws together a lot of things for me – a psalm is the ultimate apostrophe and is also a song. Arab poetry has been one rich source for me in the last couple of years. Ive also been writing poems to do with metamorphosis, and with cinema.
MB: I know you have been traveling a lot recently. Im curious about your interests with traveling and its influences on current projects.
EJ: Australians travel a lot, so its a cultural thing partly. Ive wanted to travel since I was very young. Of course when youre doing it theres always that worry that youve invested in some indulgent life-experiment or other, but its important to me. For me, writing and traveling seem related somehow. I think its influenced my recent poems in the sense that theyre not very rooted; with one or two exceptions, theyre not set anywhere at all.
MB: This current issue of The Drunken Boat is partially-themed around ideas of self and other, dark and light, death and loss, and dual experiences, for which I used an excerpt of Jacques Roubauds The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis, as an inspiration and prompt. I feel like many of these subjects exist in your writing. Can you speak personally about your conception of self and other, among other ideas?
EJ: Theres a short poem in my book called Equator, about those rituals that take place on ships when they cross the line, and it plays with the idea of binaries and of dual experiences and the ways in which these can be both profoundly real and also illusions. Im really interested in meaningful illusions. You know, in the fact of gradation – isnt everything shading into everything else in some way? – and also in the undeniable isolation of certain states of being, certain situations as we experience them. So, yes, self and other crops up a lot as a point of fascination – maybe its also behind that recurring birth motif – because to me its astounding that we achieve inter-subjectivity and yet we do, daily, and theres that grey area of relationship, communication, inter-personality, projection. And poetry – any art form actually – is a space where you can dramatize this in all its fluctuation and uncertainty, because it deals in provisional truth, not rational truth. Its the sort of mirror where distortion is ok, distortion is the point, because distortion is a part of experienced reality. A Cubist painting is a realist painting, etc... So Ive been working on some poems which deal with the idea of what constitutes self and other in a sort of innocently literal sense—you know, reflections or shadows addressing their owners, that sort of thing—that old childish fascination with where I ends and something else begins.
MB: Lastly, Id like to ask you about a preoccupation which has interested me for a long time—and one about which I have spent many hours reading and researching. You seem to try to balance a life of writing, traveling and teaching, among other activities. Yet, in the midst of work such as teaching, which involves a lot of speech and perhaps an over- exposure at times to language not necessarily akin to poetry, there is the intention and necessity to create the space for silence and solitude—utter aloneness. I believe this is absolutely necessary for the self and for art, as well as spiritual and somatic realities, in the most spacious sense of those terms. How do we do this, and is it possible? How do you carry these impulses, that dont always converge? I also believe there is a self we only know when we are fully alone—an experience which again converges with the creation of literature, art, dance, music, etc... Additionally, travel allows us a freedom and relief; in a way, we are concerned with how we create both an inner space/world for the writer, as women and people, for example, in the home, etc..., as well as how we create an outer space/world for the very same thing—freedom of self and spirit. Both of these spaces can be freedoms or not, and hovering near all of this reality, is the necessity to earn a living, which brings us right back to balancing teaching (or any given work) and the creation of art. This was a concern of Woolfs, evident in many of her novels and personal writing/diaries, as well as some essays. Ive just dredged up a lot for you; perhaps you can speak about this, both personally and academically.
EJ: I had this idea for quite a long time that I would be an academic, that it would be a sensible choice, a good and sympathetic way of earning a living while I was writing poems, and of finding that balance. And I think it would be, if I had the stamina for it. But you know, I was a graduate student writing this thesis, and living with this thesis, and I slowly began to realize that if I spent too much of my life writing criticism that it would take something from the poetry, that Id end up feeding my poems to some monstrous form of the thesis, for decades. Or so it went in my head. Some people can write poetry and criticism together very well, but unfortunately Im not one of them. Ive had to accept my limitations there. Saying that, the fellowship I have at the moment involves teaching, as opposed to research, and this has been great. Its great giving an undergraduate a Yeats poem or a Stevens poem for the first time and watching that little bomb take root and rattle. But it does, as you say, take a different mindset to do it well, an expansion outward that can be at odds with the solitude thats often needed for writing. One way that I get around this is to have certain chunks of the week that are packed with work and social commitments and to leave other days free for writing; its a practical way to trick myself. I also find that I tend to write in seasons; Ill have a few months when for whatever reason I write like mad and then Ill have more fallow time, when I read a lot and think and wait. I think a lot of the writing of poems is in the waiting... But I do like your suggestion of the self that emerges in solitude which we cant know at any other time, and I do think its connected with the writing self, however we define that. Some of my poems start life as spoken phrases that come into my mind very clearly and without warning, and because I tend to think in pictures rather than words I take these moments seriously, because theyre unusual. And this happens most when Ive been able to pursue a sort of idleness and aloneness. Though perhaps Im just trying to justify a kind of idleness that Id hate to live without! I think it was Borges who said that the task of art is to transform what is happening to us, what is continuously happening to us, into symbols, and that a poet never rests, because a poet is always working, even when they dream. So perhaps that can be a justification of sorts for what can seem like a vaguely voluptuous life, traveling about and taking yourself very seriously and reading and writing, which, at the end of the day, is staring at so much paper.
MB: This makes great sense—I do believe there is an idleness and aloneness which we cannot live without; we must seek it, for ourselves, and because what is beneath the daily is its own sea. How good youve realized the work and movement (traveling) which you seek. Thank you for speaking with us and sharing your work, Emma.