from Able Muse, Summer 2016
Amanda Jernigan is the author of two books of poems, Groundwork (Biblioasis, 2011) and All the Daylight Hours (Cormorant, 2013)—the first of these named to NPR's list of best books of the year—as well as of the monograph Living in the Orchard: The Poetry of Peter Sanger (Frog Hollow, 2014). She is the editor of The Essential Richard Outram (Porcupine's Quill, 2011) and, with Evan Jones, of Earth and Heaven: An Anthology of Myth Poetry (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Parnassus, PN Review, The Dark Horse, Atlanta Review, and The Nation, as well as in numerous Canadian literary journals, and have been set to music. Jernigan is an essayist as well as a poet, and has written for the stage, collaborating with the members of DaPoPo Theatre in Halifax on the productions Four Actors in Search of a Nation and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Madman, and on a public reading of her verse-play Drinking Song. She grew up in rural Ontario and lived for many years in Atlantic Canada, working as an editor, scholar, and teacher; she now lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with her husband—artist John Haney—and their two children.
This interview was conducted over e-mail starting on Shakespeare's 452nd birthday—April 23, 2016—and completed on Midsummer Night, June 20, 2016.
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AM: I'll say at the outset (and somewhat cheekily) that I dislike interviews. Not intrinsically, but because there are too many of them nowadays. They seem to have taken the place of serious reviewing or criticism. They're apt to domesticate or make diminutive (approachable, nonthreatening) their subjects. Where a good critic can enhance the mystique of a poet, interviewers (perhaps inadvertently) strip one of mystique.
AJ: I, too, dislike them, as Ms. Moore might say. For the reasons you note, among others. Though I love a good radio interview, with almost anyone: all the pleasures of eavesdropping (except the guilt), with none of the guilt. And there are some writers' interviews that I go back to, again and again. Richard Outram to Michael Carbert:
Morality ultimately springs from faith. And the best definition of what I mean by that was articulated by Simone Weil when she said that "Faith is the experience of the intelligence illuminated by love." I can't think of it having been put any more cogently for my purposes. So through a morality springing from a faith of that nature and reflected through acts in the world, you can become imbued and endowed with an authority that vastly exceeds anything which you might accumulate through the power of might. Might is not right, though it may be dominant and dominate everything around it and ultimately may destroy everything, including all of its instruments. But authority is ultimately prior.
But, then, Outram was one of those people whose conversational speech actually enhanced rather than dispersed his mystique.
I think the Internet in general is disenchanting, to writers and to everything that comes within its virtual grasp, giving the illusion of accessibility to all: authors, Mars rovers, cave paintings, giraffes ... My consolation is that this is, still, an illusion—the real world as intractable, as salutarily resistant, as ever. I hope.
AM: Your poems have mystique. They are powerful magical objects, and they would be so if we never knew anything about you.
AJ: I hope so. I hope, too, that poems have a kind of resistance: an ability to slough their authors and their authors' small talk as they move forward in time. George Johnston writes that poems aspire to the condition of anonymity. I think that's true.
AM: Nevertheless, here's the first disenchanting question: What was your education in poetry like? Did you have richly literate parents, or did you discover it in school; did you study it in university, or was there an alternate path?
AJ: I do have richly literate parents, both of them, though they are different sorts of readers. My mother is a literary editor: for thirty-some years she edited a well-known Canadian literary magazine called the New Quarterly, choosing fiction for its pages, and later commissioning a good deal of literary nonfiction, writing-about-writing, as well. And she, too, is born and bred in the briar patch: her father a newspaper man and occasional poet; her mother a scene-artist and costume designer manqué; her grandmother a woman of letters avant la lettre, who loved to read aloud. My father is an engineer and teacher, but he's the true "recreational reader" in our family, putting back the books, all sorts, at great speeds. And he's an avid cruciverbalist, as was his father before him. Both of my parents read aloud to me when I was young (still do, on occasion) and because I am the oldest in my family I got to hear the great books of my childhood (Peter and Wendy, The Wind and the Willows, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, The Yearling, the Narnia books, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, The Borrowers, The Racketty-Packetty House, Treasure Island, Charlotte's Web ... ) more than once: first as they were read to me, and then as they were read to my sister and/or brother.
My maternal grandfather loved to read and recite poetry—Whittier, Longfellow, Riley; poems by Tennyson and Coleridge; Blake's "Tyger"; Hodgson's "Eve." I owe to him an ear for the accentual-syllabic meters that underlie my (English-language) speech—and also my sense of form not as an aberration of language, but as its foundation.
In my teenage years I read a lot of rnid-twentieth-century Canadian poetry, with which the shelves of my high-school library were well stocked: the love lyrics of Leonard Cohen (I was drawn—well, to the love—but also to the song-structure that was implicit in his poetry, even before he took the show on the road) and Margaret Atwood (it was the mythopoeic aspect of her work that attracted me). But I didn't really receive my fiat as a poet until later, when a university professor started giving us assignments like "write a sonnet," "write a villanelle." These were exercises, and to some extent we were meant to move beyond them. But they gave me license to draw from the well of my childhood listening, and I think I've never stopped. That said, I have avoided creative writing courses since then—the workshop environment being, for me, deeply disenchanting, however helpful I know it has been to some.
Then, too, the discovery of Outram's poetry, when I was in my early twenties, was hugely significant: here was a poet who strutted and fretted, his work full of linguistic brio, and unapologetically complex. Outram was from Southern Ontario, as was I; the place where he had grown up, now engulfed by Toronto, was a small town when he was a child there. I learned from him that a small-town Ontario girl (or boy) doesn't have to play dumb.
If one is interested in origins (and because, as you say, interviews, with their invitations to reflect on such matters, are thick on the ground), one can rehearse these things so often they become cliché. Rereading what I've written, two new facts occur:
First—and because we converse under the sign of the Bard (our interview begun on April 23rd)—I grew up twenty minutes down the road from the Stratford Festival, home to Canada's major Shakespeare company. My parents used to take me there, but also I went on school trips, by bus, rattling down gravel roads past pig farms to the theatre. And I got to see some very fine productions, and to hear the beautiful language spoken aloud, by people who loved it.
And second: an education in poetry is more than an education in literature. So my father's delight in simple (and complex) math problems, and their solutions; a great aunt who taught me the names of tiny forest plants—these were probably as important as was Shakespeare.
AM: Can you say more about how you met Richard Outram, what your relationship was like, his position in Canadian poetry, and perhaps how you see your own position in Canadian poetry? It would be presumptuous of me to make any sweeping claims, but I do think of it as distinct from US poetry and from UK poetry. Can you tell me how that is, and why that is? Can you tell me, for instance, if you (and/or he) go with or against the grain?
AJ: I met Richard Outram and his wife, the artist Barbara Howard, quite coincidentally, through my mother-in-law. She is an environmental activist, and she shared with Outram and Howard an interest in, a concern for, whales and the oceans. Outram and Howard attended a fundraiser for whale scientists that my mother-in-law had organized. I spoke with them at the reception, and my husband (then my boyfriend: we were all of nineteen) offered them a ride to the closest subway station. I had discovered in conversation that Outram was a poet. I had never heard of him (testament more to my naiveté than to his critical neglect), for all that he had published twenty books.
Outram asked that evening for my address, saying that he would send me some poems. Which he did. And we corresponded for the next seven years, up until the time of his death (my last letter from him arriving after he was gone).
When I met Outram, I was fresh out of my first year of university—nursing writerly ambitions, but with little sense of what sort of a writer I might be. I was in a new relationship that was shaping up to be an enduring relationship, and there, too, I felt ... scared: unsure of how to navigate the world in the context of the commitment it was increasingly evident my heart had made.
I have mentioned Outram's stylistic bravura—which did buck the trend of Canadian letters, especially coming out of the mid- to late-twentieth century, and which was exciting to me. But equally important was that I had the good luck to stumble upon one of the great English poets of committed, long-term love, just as I was stumbling into the relationship that would become my marriage. In Outram and Howard, I think John and I both came to see a model for a kind of life we might live: and learned something of how art-making, in the broadest sense, might be integral to that life.
The years since Outram's death now outnumber the years in which I knew him, so when I think about the effect that the relationship has had on me, I think as much about the absence as about the presence. I miss Outram. And I think about him a lot these days, as I work my way through his poems, which I'm editing for a collected edition: typing, proofreading, collating. In art there is a long tradition of learning by copying, and this can serve a poet, too. It builds one's muscles. It's a form of devotion. And it also builds in one the itch—perhaps, too, the ability—to do something that's radically one's own.
It's easier for me to talk about Outram's place in Canadian poetry than it is to talk about my own place. In 1988, the critic Alberto Manguel wrote:
Until the 1960s, Canada barely acknowledged the existence of any Canadian literature. When, thanks to the perseverance of young writers such as Margaret Atwood, and stubborn editors such as Robert Weaver, readers made the discovery that this literature existed, the pantheon of authors chosen to represent it set a style against which the writing to come was measured. The most vociferous representatives of the newly discovered literature were poets, and small publishers of poetry—Anansi, Talonbooks, Coach House Press—were among its most energetic champions. In very broad terms, the style of what became recognized as Canadian poetry was simple-sounding, chatty, intimate but never overwhelmingly passionate, well-mannered, pleasantly funny, in obligatory free verse.... It is as if, in the beginning, Canadian literature chose to be easy. This, perhaps, explains why certain poets, Atwood included, are remembered for their lighter verse, and others whose work seems more complex are virtually ignored.
Outram—for Manguel "one of the finest poets in the English language"—was among the ignored.
The tenor of Canadian literature has changed since Manguel wrote this: in part because of Manguel and others like him (I think of Eric Ormsby and John Metcalf), with their wonderful, unapologetic cosmopolitanism. Then, too, there are homegrown canon-[re]shapers (Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel, Zach Wells ... ), who have worked hard to teach Canadian readers (and writers) about the fascination of what's difficult. And equally important, the writers who have just continued to make obstinate, unfashionable work, sometimes in obscurity. (I think of M. Travis Lane and Peter Sanger, working away in Atlantic Canada, outside the circle of Toronto litlight. Or the uncompromising minimalism of Souvankham Thammavongsa and Sean Howard. Or, in an earlier generation, Outram's contemporary, Jay Macpherson, whose work is important to me.) The literature is always more than gets noticed at any given time.
Which is one of the reasons a writer probably shouldn't be so foolish as to try to position herself within it!
Other people have written about my work in the context of feminist formalism, in a tradition of Canadian myth poetry, in relation to Outram's work, in the context of nature and ecology ... But a poet's job is probably to pay as little attention as possible to such things, and to continue to follow her instincts in as unselfconscious a way as possible. If that's possible. (And, as that list betrays, it hasn't been, entirely, for me—though I try.)
I'm not well enough read in contemporary American or British poetry to say much about any differences, inherent or incidental, between what's going on here and what's going on south of the border, or across the pond. I did feel that, when I began to publish, I found a wider audience, sooner, in the States than I did in Canada. But that may have less to do with a different literary culture than it did with an accident of personalities. Christian Wiman at Poetry took poems of mine in 2005, when I'd published very little in Canada, and not at all in the States. Having read some of his work, now, I see reasons why my poems might have spoken to him. I consider it great good luck to have found such a reader.
AM: Do you read any foreign languages? Have you any foreign influences?
AJ: I am basically a monoglot. I have smatterings of Spanish, German, and Thai (I learned that last as a teenage exchange student, though my vocabulary is much eroded, now)—not enough to carry on a conversation; I can read French limpingly, with a dictionary. So my experience with poetry in languages other than English is almost entirely through translation: my Odyssey is Lattimore's Odyssey; my Sonnets to Orpheus are M.D. Herter Norton's Sonnets to Orpheus; my Metamorphoses is A.D. Melville's Metamorphoses ... That said, certain translations (those ones, in particular) have been important to me.
AM: Groundwork suggests you studied archeology—am I right?
AJ: Yes, I did study archaeology. It's an old fascination: I used to dig up pill bottles and groundhog skulls on the river bank behind my parents' house. My university offered courses in Classics, which I took until I got spooked by the language requirement (I regret, now, that I didn't learn Latin and Greek)—and a summer field school, working on a dig in North Africa. I loved the field work. The scholarship I found, in its minutiae, less interesting, so I schlepped off to the English department.
But there is something archaeological about my work, still—the work on Outram, say. The whole impossible, necessary business of trying to bring the past to light.
Archaeological, and mythological: Outram's papers are held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. To access the collection you go up three flight of stairs, then into a Stygian lobby, where you divest yourself of anything with pockets. An elevator takes you down a story to the reading room. So there is a sense of descent to an underworld—even though the reading room windows look out onto the street, with its incongruous spectacle of backpacked students on their ways.
AM: "The literature is always more than gets noticed at any given time."—That's a lovely way to put it. And while I agree that it is, on the whole, not terribly useful to think of oneself as "positioned" in the field, I ask because there's a stance toward time inherent in it. Your poems take into account different kinds of time—planetary, mythical, historical—and the stories you tell often feel of another time, or even completely outside of time. This is accomplished through the masks of literary characters such as Lear or Odysseus (I absolutely adore "Islands"), but some you seem to have invented (I'm thinking of, for example, "The Marble King of Athens, Greece"—where in the world did that come from? Or "Favourite"). You do interleave All the Daylight Hours with tender personal poems, whose "I" is recognizable as yourself, frequently addressed to loved ones, in lived time. But on balance, your collections do not pitch themselves in secular or "ordinary time" (to use a phrase I used to read as a child in weekly Mass leaflets). Even your account of your friendship with Richard Outram seems of a piece with the idea that time is long and deep and cyclical rather than linear—and he was, unbeknownst to you, showing you your future.
So this led me to wonder if you think at all about the pressures and imperatives to write about the here and now. There is a hysterical insistence that poets be "relevant," that is, write in response to news headlines. I think poets are enslaved by the contemporary—one's contemporaries—yet I also believe in criticism, in discourse. And if this tips my hand a bit, I'm also thinking of your biting little poem, "On Modern Verse," which does betray a hint of animosity towards the contemporary.
AJ: There's a lot here I could speak to.
I am a country mouse living in the city, and although I've learned to walk without constantly looking over my shoulder, I'm not really naturalized to urban life. A lot of what's around me seems unreal: all this industrialized infrastructure, from the crosswalks to the government buildings to the billboards for personal injury lawyers (ubiquitous in Hamilton, for some reason) to say nothing of the steel mills—a kind of aberration. Not that I hate it—there is a lot to like about living in a city, and this is home to me; indeed, I've come to love it, in a kind of family way. And I'm deeply dependent on it. But it does still seem to me a bit . . . illusory. And then, this is the other thing: a lot of it is illusory, or had better be, if we're going to survive as a species. Not that we can't have cities: most of us live in cities. But we need to figure out radically new ways to live in them. To look after each other in them. And to be, on the face of this planet, whether urban or rural. When I think about being "relevant," I think about writing poems that will still be relevant, when the ivory cities fall. To put it apocalyptically. (And lest I make myself out to be a complete urbanophobe: what I'm really talking about isn't urban life but consumer culture. And capitalism, in all its rapacious ugliness. Which struts and frets more loudly in cities than it does outside of them: "Prepare for death by banking your assets with TLC," "Spring is home improvement time," "Begin a new life with LaserPeeps"... )
But there's an ethical imperative, too, to writing about the world as we know it. I certainly don't write for some kind of post-human future: who would want to do this, even if it were possible (and it's not, in the beautiful, human artifact and living entity that is language). No. I am deeply in love with humanity, and I write for humanity, and in the faith that, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, we are worth saving. "Love calls us to the things of this world," says Richard Wilbur, and that's true. And I admire a writer like my countryman Steven Heighton, whose poems take in a broad sweep of history yet also caressingly embrace the dailiness of "writing cheques or checking e-mail."
But I think often of Northrop Frye's distinction between primary concerns (food, sex, shelter, liberty of movement [I'd add love, in its many forms]) and secondary concerns (patriotism, religion, class-conditioned attitudes and behaviors). "All through history secondary concerns have taken precedence over primary ones," he writes. ''We want to live, but we go to war; we want freedom, but permit, in varying degrees of complacency, an immense amount of exploitation, of ourselves as well as of others; we want happiness, but allow most of our lives to go to waste. The twentieth century [and how much more is this true of the twenty-first], with its nuclear weaponry and its pollution that threatens the supply of air to breathe and water to drink, may be the first time in history when it is really obvious that primary concerns must become primary, or else." Frye makes it clear that there isn't any golden age before the rise of secondary concern that we can hearken back to. And I don't mean to idealize the pre-industrial past. I am keenly aware of the fact that, especially as a woman, I'd be much worse off in almost any other time and place than the one I am fortunate to inhabit. But more and more, what I want to write about is primary concern.
You mention personae: I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a writer, so this mask-making is in part a way to live that dream by other means. And of course masks can signify different aspects of the self, as well as signifying others. Both these aspects of mask-making are important, I think: the aspect of it that emphasizes the distinctness of self and other, and the aspect of it that emphasizes their identity. I love performance, and the plasticity of identity in performance. And the ability to command, in writing, an androgynous voice: or, rather, one that can move along the spectrum of gender. And be young or old, human or (anthropomorphized) animal. What Empedocles said about pre-incarnation rings true for me, about the inner life: "For already have I once been a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a dumb sea fish." (But then, too, I love the surprise one gets from life, when one realizes that however much one has acted the part, one hasn't come close to understanding the real thing. Thus, for instance—for me—motherhood. But that's another kettle of fry.)
In keeping with the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction, both "The Marble King" and the woman in "Favourite" are based, albeit loosely, on people in my life.
There are two more strands in what you say that I want to tease out.
First of all, criticism, discourse. Yes. I love to read good literary criticism. But I tend to go more for books or published magazines, on or off-line, than for blogs (with a couple of exceptions). Finding the Internet a rabbit hole. And there's a big difference, for me, between "criticism, discourse," and the kind of tweetable sniping (see "On Modern Verse") that so often goes on online. I think a writer is well out of the latter.
I've always haunted the mailbox, waiting for its daily possible tidings of the outside world. E-mail is a mailbox that can cough up a missive at any time, and for that reason it's a terrible, constant distraction. For that reason, too, I don't "do" social media at all: that would be the end of me.
But finally: circling back to what you say about time. Yes: time, change, that's the great subject. It's time that robs us of everything we have. On the other hand, it's time that gives us everything we have, and that is the container for everything we have.
Time, and memory, which is our container for time.
AM: I'd like to end on something a little lighter, so here are two final questions. First:
I would love to know if you, as coeditor of Earth and Heaven: An Anthology of Myth Poetry, have a favorite myth.
AJ: I don't have a particular favorite myth, but rather a series of myths that have spoken to my condition at various times—and a fascination, too, with the way the unfolding of experience can open different stories to our understanding, and vice versa, as we go along. When I was in my peripatetic twenties, I thought a lot about the Odyssey—also the initial stories of Genesis, with their reflections on beginnings and on relationships, personal, creative, and ecological. Now, in my thirties, with children, I think of the Christian stories of Annunciation and Nativity, and, in the Classical tradition, of various mothers: Callisto and Demeter, centrally, for me. And I think that for a poet, stories of makers, and Makers, will be perennially important. Orpheus, Arachne. God.
AM: Okay, and second: I would love it if you could tell me a) What place you've always wanted to visit but never have; and b) What your favorite salad is. (I think of salad as the food most like to poetry-the greatest variety or texture in a space of containment!)
AJ: I had the good fortune to travel a lot when I was younger: a year in Thailand, as I mentioned; that summer working in North Africa; shorter trips to Berlin, to southern Spain, to the UK, and to Ecuador, where my sister briefly lived. That was a wealth of experience, and a well of trouble, too, and there are ways in which I think I'm still recovering—and, on the other hand, still reveling in the settled glories of home. I'm aware, too, that at the age of thirty-seven I've already burned through more fossil fuels than any human being has a right to. So I think more of road trips, than of plane trips (not that road trips are carbon-innocent!). Whitehorse, in the Yukon: a road not taken, from my twenties. Marianna, Arkansas, where my great-grandfather, proprietor of a diner, purportedly made forty pies a day ...
As for favorite salad: that's easy. My husband, John, il miglior fabbro, makes the best Caesar salad known to Man. Or at least to Amanda.
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About the Interviewer
Ange Mlinko is the author of four books of poetry, including Marvelous Things Overheard, Shoulder Season, which was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award, and Starred Wire, a National Poetry Series pick and finalist for the James Laughlin Award. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Randall Jarrell Award for Criticism, and served as poetry editor for the Nation. Her essays and reviews have been published in The Nation, The London Review of Books, Poetry, and Parnassus.Educated at St. John’s College and Brown University, she has lived abroad in Morocco and Lebanon, and is currently Associate Professor of English at the University of Florida. She lives in Gainesville.
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