Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jennifer Still

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Jennifer Still

Jennifer Still talks to Open Book about her remarkable second collection of poetry, Girlwood (Brick Books), and the expectations — at once liberating and debilitating — that she places on herself as both poet and mother.

Join Jennifer Still for the launch of Girlwood this Wednesday, March 2nd, at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg. Jennifer Still will also be reading later this week with poet and novelist Holly Luhning in Saskatoon and Regina. Visit the Brick Books website for details.

Listen to Jennifer Still read an excerpt from "Track 1" in the podcast below. For readings of other poems from Girlwood, please visit Audioboo (with special thanks to Brick Books and Julie Wilson).

Listen!

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Girlwood.

Jennifer Still:

Girlwood came together for me as an act of claiming a particular time and place of formation, in this case a girlhood located on the wrong-side-of-the-tracks in the townhouse community of Winnipeg’s eccentric Girdwood Crescent.

OB:

Girlwood has an interesting structure: its sections are divided by five poems called "Track 1," "Track 2," and so on. What can you tell us about the decisions that you made about the collection's organization, and how are these "Tracks" meant to frame the poems?

JS:

The “Tracks” are very much the spark of the book for me. The source of those initial tremors one feels in life when something momentous is about to happen. The moment a girlhood is unsettled from innocence to awareness. The act of listening with a hand held to the rail. I see the “Tracks” poems as a record of the rush and haul of memory, a progression of experiences, one by one, laid down in a very present and urgent way.

Girdwood Crescent is quite literally built along the curve of a CPR freight line. Many times a day the houses visibly shake! I think there is an embedded sense of fragility that occupies one’s psyche in growing up with this sense of rupture. In the rhythm, force, and imminent approach of something far greater than oneself. In that immense weight rushing past. I wanted to capture that very near and always impending sense of danger — the rattles and fissures and bracings that can become part of one’s literal and psychological foundation.

These “Tracks” are very much markers of a place in memory that both locate and free oneself when they are spoken, witnessed, laid down. They run in a long, kind of kaleidoscopic horizon throughout the book. A line that twists between leading us back and carrying us out. Even as the rest of the manuscript departs from childhood, or veers into a more mature sensibility, there is always that specific location and presence of those formative girlhood years, the memories, the events, that quite fundamentally continue to inform one’s choices, one’s experience.

So the “Tracks” running throughout become the recurring trancelike soundtrack of an interior — window rattles, china cabinet chimes — of a house yes, but also of its occupants, mother and girl, who simultaneously, in their varying ways, are in a constant state of being settled and unsettled.

OB:

Girlwood takes on the complicated relationship that exists between mothers and daughters in interesting ways. How do the expectations placed on motherhood, womanhood and gender affect your work and your understanding of yourself as a poet?

JS:

Oh, this is a big one Erin. The fact that this is possibly the tenth answer I’m attempting to compose just might be an indication of the expectations I place on myself! I am writing this version to you from my bathroom while my daughter washes her hair. My keypad dangerously close to her splashes. I may or may not complete a thought. Yet I want to answer in the most honest, considered way. I also want to make sure all the soap is out of her hair. I am noting how often “want” has turned up in this answer. I am suddenly very self-conscious of the expectations I have on myself, to say something new and unangsty here, about writing and mothering, but alas, feel more strongly the limits, everything I won’t be able to say.

Essentially, the expectations I have on myself — as a mother and as a writer — are likely the most liberating and debilitating of my daily experiences! They affect me completely. They guide how I function, in practical ways, in my creative process, they are markers for how high I aim and how deeply I fail. What I’m saying is that my expectations are very much my own. I have to value my role as mother, as poet, very deeply. The greater world has very little expectation from me on a daily basis regarding unmade beds and unwritten poems! So my internal desire, motivation and self-recognition is a strong one, has to be. That I can unite this stretch between the playground and the poem, this is strengthening. Empowering. Freeing.

But this is not without debilitating waves of failure and grief. I’m in a constant state of reconciling my expectations with the real potentiality at hand. How to get from breakfast dishes to writing desk. The answer changing as quickly as the food preferences of my children! So the tweaking of my expectations is ongoing as well. There’s an improvisation that takes place throughout the day on many levels. This openness, keenness, to change, to the unknown, this I do believe I very much bring to my work.

Artist-mother friends of mine have agreed that the limit we have on the very basics one needs to create — time, focus, energy — certainly has the potential to streamline one’s process. I have never been so efficient, so focused, and I think there is the presence of this efficacy in my work as well. There is a spareness, an essentiality, in Girlwood that does reflect some sort of domestic resourcefulness. It breaks out into an excessiveness too, but just briefly, say as in the “Nest” sequence, which considers motherhood and 1970s home making. The simultaneous diligence and restlessness that is learned, passed on, resisted and quietly encouraged between mothers and daughters. I imagine this will be an ongoing fascination for me.

OB:

When working on a poetry collection, do you consciously decide on a theme for the book, or does a theme emerge after you've written a number of seemingly unrelated poems?

JS:

At best it turns out to be a mix of knowing and not knowing really. A kind of dance between having a theme, and then writing the poem that needs to be written. I like to think of it as a focused discovery. The longer I write the more I do find I’m conscious of my themes, or perhaps more finely tuned to the dominant impulses in my work. Not to say I will stick to them. The act of writing is my discovery, how I get somewhere. I used to write and write and write and then identify the theme as it emerged, which is really how I eventually got to Girlwood. In many layers. But I am finding with experience that my process is becoming more streamlined. I get to where I’m going not necessarily faster, but with a bit less wandering, more directly.

OB:

You had the opportunity to work on this manuscript at the Sage Hill Writing Experience. What was this retreat like, and how did the experience help your project along?

JS:

Sage Hill is a remarkable experience. It exists in another time dimension completely. The ground I covered in ten days there, the intensity, the focus, the discussion, well it’s hard to know where Girlwood would be without it. Working with Daphne Marlatt was a crucial tuning/turning point for Girlwood. The writing I did with her at Sage revealed a much stronger mother/daughter connection within the work than I had initially imagined. It wasn’t just about the connections in mother daughter relationships, but more deftly, the split. Working with Daphne was a deeply productive time for me.

OB:

What strategies do you use when you are trying to write a poem that just isn't working?

JS:

I usually start by walking away. Sometimes many times. Literally, a long walk. Then often I abandon it altogether. If it keeps hounding me I start over completely. Sounds impatient perhaps, but if it’s not working then maybe it doesn’t need to be written, or if it does, maybe not quite in the way I am thinking about it. I have no problem abandoning work actually! I work very intensely, but there has to be an element of joy and discovery in what I’m doing to keep on. Otherwise it is just work, and worse, forced writing! When that joy isn’t there in any way, then it’s time to walk.

OB:

What writers would you say have most strongly influenced your work?

JS:

Contemporary North American women poets. My reading of poetry began very close to home. The writing of other young women like Karen Connelly and Anne Michaels made me feel very brave. When I took my first poetry class with Tim Lilburn I was introduced to Erin Mouré and continued from there. But as much poetry as I read now, I still think the imaginary world of my work is most influenced by my reading as a young girl, with such fantastical stories as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.

OB:

What direction do you think your writing will take you next?

JS:

I don’t have much to say in this regard yet as I am a very project-by-project person, one at a time. But I do have the sense that my subject is opening up. Where Girlwood is concerned with a very particular subject, drawn from a very particular place, my next work I imagine will occupy a wider lens. I think it will have something to do with illness and ecosystems.


Jennifer Still’s first collection of poems, Saltations (Thistledown Press, 2005) was nominated for three Saskatchewan Book Awards. Poems from Girlwood were finalists in the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. After living her adult years until just recently in Saskatchewan, Jennifer now lives in Winnipeg with her husband and two children.

For more information about Girlwood please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Listen!

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