On my way elsewhere.
My shoulders are sore, and my feet. But I have my vision.
I will look past the old man whose beard drips
down like a stalactite, to the light
at the end of the tunnel – it isn’t a cave
he sits in, but a tunnel, and out
the other side there is a path as white
as sand. There is a break in the clouds to the East,
but the light falls from the West – it is later
than I thought. I should have gone home long ago
and he, no doubt, has come a long way himself,
is no doubt just resting a moment, not living in a cave.
Though it isn’t a cave, but the mouth of a tunnel, and I
should be getting home, though I have no family
to go home to and the fireworks can be seen
from here, through the tunnel, which could
be seen as a frame, almost. Would you rather
have twenty-twenty vision of the fireworks or be blind
with five children around you, five children
clamouring for fireworks that you cannot light?
I would ask the old man this question, if
he were close enough to hear me – I don’t know
how well he can hear. But what I thought
was the sound of the fireworks I think is the old man, light
catching his eyes suddenly so they shine in the dimness,
calling out from inside the tunnel to me:
“even if you lit them, you wouldn’t be able to see.”
©Anna Jackson in Pasture and Flock
Anna Jackson debuted in AUP New Poets 1 and has subsequently published 6 poetry collections with Auckland University Press. She has a DPhil from Oxford, and is an Associate Professor of English at Victoria University. She has organised several poetry related conferences with Helen Rickerby (most recently Poetry & the Essay) along with the Ruapehu Writers Festival (much loved by participants). In 2009, with Charles Ferrall, she published British Juvenile Fiction 1850 – 1950: The Age of Adolescence, and in the following year, Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915 -1962.
When Anna Jackson’s Pasture and Flock: New & selected poems arrived in my reading lap, I stalled on the perfect cover and the perfect title for curated travels across 25 years of poetry. There is new growth, myriad viewpoints, shelter and flight. My relationship with the poetry extends back to the first publication as does my friendship with Anna. Opening this book is like opening a poetry album where the ghosts above the line are our shared conversations, celebrations and confessions. Yet when I enter the poem, our interlinked history dissolves, and it is just the poem flaring and gliding in my mind.
An unfolding email conversation with Anna
Paula: Right from the start your poetry has touched a chord with me. I am reading the early poems, and the litheness on the line, the measured wit, the roving curiosity are as captivating as when your debut poems appeared in AUP New Poets 1 and The Long Road to Teatime. Reading the poems from the early collections, I wondered what it is like musing back on the young woman who wrote them. Are you startled to see what you wrote? What do you love about these first outings? Was there difficulty?
Anna: It is more startling finding unpublished things I wrote at the time, when I really don’t know where they are going to go or what I was thinking. Because these poems were published I have never forgotten them so completely, but I like returning to that sense of who I was, and who we were, when I was writing poetry for my friends at the age of 23 (“looking as young as the teenagers at the bar” – well of course I did, I was only 23!). I wasn’t writing for publication except we found we could use the old printing press at the university, so we wrote some things to play around with the letterpress with, and then we got more ambitious and made little chapbook anthologies of our writing, with a photocopier and woodcuts, or maybe they were linocuts.
Paula: I am really drawn to the ‘friendships’ you set up with other writers and the way the poem becomes conversation or story, surprising in the paths taken.
The sun has taken to me.
It rarely comes out now
without stopping to talk.
I am expected to drop everything.
from ‘My friendship with Mayakovsky’
Often your family and friends are drawn into the other scenes. I especially love the Dante poems where you are all lost in a thicket of autobiography, musings and literary engagements.
In the middle of the journey
we found ourselves lost.
‘This is the jungle,’ said Johnny.
Roe asked if we had a map.
‘Not a road map,’ said Simon.
‘So what sort do you have?’
We looked for a life map.
from ‘The road to Karekare’ in ‘The long road to teatime’
Were these early literary friendships like a support crew as you started out, or a way to take risks and refresh the inherited page, or something in between or altogether different?
Anna: Yes and yes…In Dunedin, writing and publishing poetry was a way of taking part in an arts scene I wanted to be a part of. There were empty warehouse buildings, scavenged equipment, all sorts of projects people were trying out, some of which never amounted to anything, some which were just one-off experiences. One evening Alastair Galbraith, a musician, writer and artist, read through a Marguerite Duras script with me, I can’t remember why, but it was an extraordinarily powerful theatrical experience for me, except more intimate than theatrical because we were performing for no one. And making friends with Mayakovsky, travelling with Dante, was part of this way of living in connection with other writers and artists, on and off the page.
Paula: Were there losses in not including the whole sequences? From my point of view there is a greater economy of travel, yet the underlying pulse of intersections is not diminished. So the family refreshes Dante and Dante refreshes the family—and that ‘would of selves’ hungry for ‘hot buttered toast’.
Anna: The collection includes six sequences, two from my first book, and I only edited them a little, for “economy of travel” as you say and also to cut out some lines or stanzas that still embarrass me. I selected six whole sequences rather than fragments from more sequences, to tell whole stories as much as I could, and I think another story tells itself through the sequence of sequences too maybe.
Paula: I have edited earlier poems when performing them in public on the spot! There is the little nag hovering above a word or a line that I finally pay attention to. When an editor coincides with that nag, I sit up and listen.
It is fascinating how this new version of sequences retains the original chords yet makes the synchronicities between books sing with different intensities. I am thinking of the voice of the child (Johnny, Elvira, Rufus), relations with writing, the imagined and longed for, the lived.
With The Gas Leak you step into narrative, but family is still in acute focus. There is a humaneness at work, little wisdoms, a playful yet serious pushing at familial boundaries. What freedoms and advantages did you find in writing this book? How did the sonnet help?
Has someone broken in?
I wouldn’t know what was missing.
For years I have left
the door open
thinking even mud
from the break-in would be
from ‘A master key is easy to procure’
The family in acute focus, I like that. The sonnet form allowed for a very taut story-telling voice, the sonnets in the book being reduced sonnets, with fourteen lines but very short lines. I would put as much as I could in each poem and then cut it back, and when I couldn’t cut it back any further, I would add an additional element and then cut again. Perhaps I was doing something like that with the narrative too, with the rearrangement and fictionalization of elements of autobiography and elements of narrative I’d taken from Gerrit Achterberg’s Ballade of a Gas-fitter – a “ballad” that is also written in sonnet form. It is a heightened, fraught version of a family that only incidentally resembles, sometimes, my own. I wrote it very quickly, between classes, making use of whatever material was to hand, a discussion of Xeno’s arrow with a colleague, an attempt to use the barre around our office lifts for leg stretches, the children’s soccer game in the weekend, a song on the radio. There isn’t a word I would change, but I’ve already found changes I would make to two of the poems in the new selection at the end of Pasture and Flock.
Paula: What draws you to poetry rather than narrative?
Anna: I went to a novel-writing workshop run by Curtis Sittenfeld once, and she said writers reveal a lot about themselves in fiction in details they don’t think are giving anything away – how much characters drink, or what they worry about, or how they respond to a telephone ringing. I think poetry offers more secrecy, but maybe I am giving away more than I mean to. I do think I am writing narrative though – sometimes little narratives in individual poems, sometimes a narrative sequence across a series of poems. I like the possibility for different forms of narrative, shorter stories, or stories that leap across gaps and shifts in perspective.
Paula: Catullus is your point of return. What attracts you to his poetry? In meshing your voice and his, your preoccupations and his, again you freshen poetic possibilities. There is daring and there is conversation, particularly when you turn your attention to Clodia. The I, Clodia poems have always resonated for me.
I might cry over your verses –
tears of laughter –
but these are real tears,
Look at what wax my little bird,
yesterday – this was
somebody, closer to me than …
you had better be leaving.
Anna: Yes, the Catullus for Children poems were a kind of translation game, domesticating Catullus not just into a contemporary New Zealand setting but revisiting his poetry in terms of the preoccupations of a seven-year-old child. I liked how the excess and passion of his poetry translated into the different kinds of excesses of the playground, and also was interested to see what was left with the very adult themes of his poems taken away. I, Clodia is a more serious engagement with the poetry, putting the love affair with Clodia (or Lesbia as he calls her), that several of his poems return to, right at the centre of a narrative I construct through a series of poems in her voice. I was drawn to the narrative possibilities that the Catullus poems suggest but do not resolve, and I was also drawn to the romantic intensity of the poetry, and wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of it, and perhaps to match it.
Paula: I enthused wildly on the blog about your chapbook with Seraph Press (Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon). Much of these poems were written when you had the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in Menton. You have included ‘Dear Tombs’ that comes out of that cluster of experience. On my blog I wrote:
The poem steps off from graffiti witnessed on rocks: ‘You are my most lovely horizon’. Each experience, thought, recalled page or vista steps off into the mysterious elsewhere of thinking, and from the elsewhere of thinking into the paradoxical here yet elsewhere of writing. The horizon is the translucent line where Mediterranean sky meets Mediterranean sea, a sensual hook of beauty that stalls the walker, but it is also the indefinable lure that poses a need to write, to think, to experience. It is Katherine Mansfield, the other authors, the conversations that stick, the not-home-ness that becomes a home-ness. (see here for review)
What prompted the ‘Dear Tombs’ narrative? I do think these poems lift from the page in glorious ways. Did your French writing sojourn make a difference?
Dear Tombs, I do not see anything here but dust.
Dust, dust, dust and beyond your hollows
and pillars, some trees still clinging to the dust
that gives them nothing, not a swallow
of water in it, a good winter one with rain,
a bad winter the one they have just had, and the one to follow.
from ‘Dear Tombs’
Anna: Yes, I was wonderfully home and not-home in France, and at home and not-at-home in my own writing as well. Poetry is something I can write in between what I ought to be doing, as a form of procrastination or resistance, so it was both liberating and unnerving to feel an obligation to write, and to write something I couldn’t otherwise have written. The Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon chapbook was made up of notes I wrote to myself, work towards writing rather than writing itself, not a way I usually work, but a way of writing I could do every day. It did come to take on a kind of life and rhythm of its own and I was really pleased Helen Rickerby would publish it as a Seraph Press chapbook. I feel it has a lightness and spaciousness like our life in France. It wouldn’t really have worked to work up the notes into a different kind of poetry, except I did work up the dream at the very end of the chapbook about the tombs, exactly as I half-jokingly planned in those notes, in terza rima. And then that set me off writing a few other poems in terza rima – but none of the others have the depth and glittery darkness of Dear Tombs.
Paula: The new poems continue this uplift. I love all of them, but especially ‘Flammable’, ‘On my way elsewhere’, ‘Bees, so many bees’, ‘Pasture and flock’. Really any page I land on becomes a favourite. There is a pulse of love that is always surprising and that is steered by shifting melodies. Which poems have particularly fallen into place for you? What mattered as you wrote these?
The world was flammable, we knew it was.
Our hair lit up with candle-light, we peeled off
the wax from the table and made it into
something beautiful, tender as the high voices
of the castrati, fine as smoke through the grain
of an old LP, a radiance through their song
like the flame of a wick slowly burning,
burning in its casing of wax. We all felt it.
Anna: ‘Flammable’ and ‘On my way elsewhere’ I think have something of that glittery darkness of Dear Tombs. They both, in fact, have darkening skies and glittering lights, candlelight again in ‘Flammable’, and fireworks in ‘On my way elsewhere’, but I also mean a kind of coming from elsewhere, a sort of charged darkness. They are about what we can’t see, can’t have, don’t know about ourselves, and I think they have something of an oracular quality about them, represented in ‘On my way elsewhere’ by the old man in the tunnel. Maybe they are also a bit silly, a bit absurd, or at least a bit comic. Most of the poems have been published in journals and I sent “On my way elsewhere” out to a few in turn but couldn’t place it anywhere, but it is one of my favourites.
Paula: I like the idea of glitter and darkness in a poem. You often draw real people into your poems, as we have already discussed. Does this ever make you uncomfortable?
Anna: I have written some I won’t publish because they draw too closely on real life, in ways that might be uncomfortable for the people I’ve written about. To make a poem work, often you want to push it as far as you can into discomfort. And sometimes you will take risks for the work, at the risk of other people as well as yourself. I mean, I have. It is the same in fiction and essays – Brian Blanchfield’s brilliant, compelling book of essays, Proxies, was written with the method of keeping going from any starting point until he reached a point of personal discomfort or shame. It makes for brilliant reading but it is very exposing, for himself and sometimes for other people he writes about. I think he is extraordinarily brave.
Paula: Writing is the most important thing, but there are so many other aspects to a poet’s life: public readings, festivals, reviews, interviews, book awards, teaching. How do you feel about these extra demands?
Anna: I think most poets probably write because it is such a secret art, no one watches you do it. You can be very controlled about what you release, no one has to see the early drafts or the work that goes nowhere, or goes somewhere you don’t want anyone to know about. So public events are everything the poet has chosen against. I love teaching and I have really brilliant, engaged students this year who constantly surprise me with new insights, but it is always still a little frightening standing at the front of the lecture hall, hoping the hour will go well. There is a poem in Pasture and Flock, ‘The Cooking Show’, about the dread of lecturing, wishing I could lecture in secret, under a blanket with a torch. You want people to read your work, and so the invitations to take part in events are very welcome, but I always wish I didn’t have to do them. I don’t want to put people off inviting me by saying this, I’m grateful too to be asked. I think it is the same for most writers. And it isn’t as if publishing the work isn’t also an act of exposure you sometimes dread. You still want to do it.
Paula: Why write poetry? Why read it?
Anna: I read poetry almost every day. It allows for a different kind of thinking and seeing. I love fiction too and the way you can be immersed in a whole other world, but poetry allows for micro-immersions, intense unfinished experiences like dreams, that can have that same urgent resonance a dream can have. Some poems I have held in my head for years, a poem is very portable. I would like to think a poem of mine could have that kind of resonance for another reader. Writing poetry is itself a micro-immersion in a developing dream, a dream you can partly control, even as it takes control of you. It is like a more active form of reading. And then you have written a poem, that wouldn’t be in the world if you hadn’t written it.
Pasture and flock
Staring up into the sky my feet
anchor me to the ground so hard
I’m almost drowning, drowning
in air, my hair falling upwards
around my shoulders, I think I’ll hug
my coat closer. I’m standing
on hundreds of blades of grass, and
still there are so many more
untrodden on. Last night, in bed,
you said, “you are the sheet
of linen and I am the threads,” and
I wanted to know what you meant
but you wouldn’t wake up to tell me
and in the morning you didn’t
remember, and I had forgotten
till now when I think, who is
the blades of grass, who is the pasture?
It is awfully cold, and my coat
smells of something unusual.
It almost seems as if it is the stars
smelling, as if there were
an electrical fault in the sky,
and though it is almost too dark
to see I can see the sheep
moving closer, and the stars
falling. I feel like we are all
going to plunge into the sky
at once, the sheep and I,
and I am the sheep and I am
the flock, and you are the pasture
I fall from, the stars and the sky.
Auckland University Press author page
‘Meet Viva la Novella shortlistee Anna Jackson’ – interview with Seizure Press includes her new project!
‘What are you working on now?
I am writing a book about poetry and at the moment I am finishing a chapter on sprawl in poetry, while thinking about a chapter on dead poets and what it means to write in anticipation of being dead.’