Thursday, 11 August 2016

An interview with Jenny Bornholdt

Jenny Bornholdt (photo by Deborah Smith)

What is like looking back over such a large body of work to make decisions for what to include in the Selected Poems?

It was like watching an old home movie––black and white and a bit shaky. I felt overwhelmed by it; by the way it took me back to when I was in my twenties and thirties. I had to stop looking at the poems for a while, then it was okay again. I was surprised that the poems affected me in this way ––I don’t mean because of their brilliance! Just that because they are emotionally pretty open, it was like bumping into an early version of myself and that was unsettling.

I’d already done this once before, for Miss New Zealand, and it’s not as though I don’t look at the early poems, or read them at readings, but there was something about methodically working my way through those books.

Were there poems you felt particularly pleased with after all these years? Or some you thought, what the hell was I thinking?

I didn’t ever think ‘what the hell!’ but I sometimes winced a bit. I still feel very fond of the ‘Sophie’ pieces––I remember the feeling of writing those––it was the first time I felt that everything I read or saw or felt or thought fed into the work. A bit like when I wrote The Rocky Shore poems, though that was different again.

It was interesting to read the books in order––I could see a progression, though there are things common to most of them––that mix of short/long/prose...I do think I’ve got better, so that’s something.

It’s the later poems I felt especially good about, but maybe it’s like that for all poets.

Do you have a favourite poem or book of yours?

The Rocky Shore is my favourite book. It’s the one I loved writing most––I felt completely inside those poems when I was writing them. They were exciting to work on. I had them in my head the whole time and I remember running up the steps to my shed every morning because I couldn’t wait to get back to work.

When you look back over your body of work does it seem to you that you’ve changed how you approach writing poetry? Is there anything you’ve learned over your writing career that’s been a hard won lesson? (For example, I’m learning about patience in writing. I’ve not got it yet, but I’m learning that I need to find some!)

I’m not sure about that, because I don’t know that I have an approach. On the back cover of This Big Face I wrote that the poems were ‘going for some kind of clarity.’ That’s certainly changed. Now I think life is mostly a great big shambles and I’m happy to go along with that. The earlier poems seem quite neat, as in tidily put together, whereas I think the recent poems have an unruly element to them, which I like. I’m probably more relaxed about writing now–– maybe that’s my answer.

One of the things that is obvious reading over the selection is how your poems have become longer. Of course there was the wonderful early ‘Sophie travels backwards on a train’ which I often think of as a short film, but by the end of your Selected you’re striding out with feature films like ‘Big Minty Nose’. What is the delight of the long poem for you? A desire to tell a story? I know you’re a great reader of novels and stories. It was you who put me onto one of my favourite books of the last ten years Olive Kitteridge.

It’s nice you think of ‘Sophie’ as a short film. I did Russell Campbell’s great film courses at Victoria University in the early 80’s and always wanted to make a film, but was completely intimidated by the thought of having to operate a camera. Ridiculous, but that was how I felt, so ‘Sophie’ is probably my short film in print. And yes, the poems have got longer. I do love narrative and the longer poems are me wanting to tell something––a story I guess, or stories, saying ‘this happened, then this happened and then this’, but I hope they’re not as straightforward as that. I like the way you can play with narrative ––the loops and moves and echoes that are possible. Much of the delight is in feeling able to stretch out, especially in The Rocky Shore poems. I really felt I hit my stride with that book.

I do read a lot of novels and I’m very pleased you liked Olive Kitteridge. It’s still one of my favourite books. Her (Elizabeth Strout’s) new novel My Name is Lucy Barton is extraordinary––I’ve read it twice and am about to embark on it again because I want to work out how she does what she does. It’s quite strange and compelling.

Your voice has spawned a thousand imitations over the years, but no one quite gets it right. I think the thing with you, Jen, is your writing voice combines a light glance around the beautiful horrible wondrous things of the world, but the eye that’s watching them, and the mind that’s thinking and reporting back is steely and fierce. I think your imitators don’t get how important those two things in tango are. Your poems are, as Jane Stafford pointed out in one of my undergrad English classes (she was quoting a Jen Bornholdt poem) ‘a decoy of simplicity’. Can you talk a bit about how you developed your own voice? Is it a thing a writer can ‘develop’ or are you just speaking out what you really think on the page?

Those are very complimentary things you said. Thank you. I do feel quite fierce. 

Your question about voice–– I am speaking out what I think on the page. I don’t feel as though I had to find my voice, it was just there. Sometimes I tell people things and they say ‘that sounds like a Jenny Bornholdt poem’, so my own voice is obviously very close to my writing voice. It’s probably to do with the things I write about, which, as we know are pretty down home.

I’m sure it’s possible to develop a voice, I just don’t have the flair or imagination to be able to do that. A poet like Frederick Seidel––his is a voice I wouldn’t like to run into in a dark alley.

Any writers who are really doing it for you right now?

I’m reading a lot of NZ poetry because I’m editing Best New Zealand Poems for the IIML. There’s some great writing going on out there, but I’m not going to name names for fear of causing a riot.

Jenny Bornholdt's Selected Poems (h/b, $40) is released today, and launched tonight at Unity Books alongside Ashleigh Young's new essay collection, Can You Tolerate This?

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