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?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ashleigh Young – 5 Questions

Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young will be released on 11 August. Ashleigh's essays are already well known from her popular blog, eyelashroaming. She works as an editor at VUP and teaches creative non-fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Ashleigh's book of poetry, Magnificent Moon, was published in 2012.

Ashleigh Young (photo credit: Russell Kleyn)

This book has been a long time in the making – from when you won the Adam Prize in 2009 with a portfolio of essays, to now, 2016. How does it feel to finally be publishing your essays in a book form? How much has the work evolved in the time between your MA portfolio and the published book?

That’s a long time! I feel glad and a bit nervous, but mostly tired because I’ve been so busy avoiding this book for seven years. I know all the avoidance tricks now. I could probably organise a special conference on avoidance, or a festival. My favourite trick for avoiding this book – because it was full of problems that I didn’t want to think about yet – was to write things that weren’t this book. So I finished writing a book of poetry and started writing a blog. The blog allowed me to write my way into things I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise – cycling, odd encounters, mental health, phrases and gestures, friendships, members of my family, inner voice … Sometimes the posts were intensely personal and sometimes detached. Nothing I wrote would be out of place, because it was the place. Also, publishing work on a blog feels more tentative – to me – than having it appear in a proper publication. You can say, ‘I’m just mucking around.’ What happened was I tricked myself into writing pieces that ended up in this book (in slightly different forms). So ultimately the only way I was able to pick up this book again was to tell myself I wasn’t writing it. And sooner or later, when I figured out that trick, I was able to look back at those earlier pieces from my MA year and work on them again. I think I’d loosened up a bit, as a writer. Maybe I was just taking my writing less seriously.

Can you explain what an ‘essay’ is, in the context of your own work in Can You Tolerate This?

I would describe many of the essays in this book as existential meditations. If that’s not too grandiose. It’s just that sometimes, not much actively happen in them. Or, all that happens is I examine a problem, like the problem of trying to do your work when somebody is distracting you, or the problem of being on a long walk that you don’t want to be on anymore and it’s too late to turn back. Or I try to see why things happened in the way they did and why they felt like they did. I have this hope that this book has a kind of vibrational field and that readers will come out of it and say, ‘What the hell was that?’ Some writers who made me feel it might be possible to try things this way were Natalia Ginzburg, Vivian Gornick, Lauren Slater, Helen Garner, Anna Sanderson, Martin Edmond, and Lydia Davis.

For ages I understood an essay to be an attempt, a trial or test, a stab at something. That’s what I was always taught. When I was starting out in nonfiction I read a lot of this guy called Phillip Lopate, who I got a bit of a crush on because of the way he wrote so freely about himself. For instance there was an essay just called ‘Portrait of My Body’ and it was all about Lopate’s body and had lines like ‘I have a commanding stare’ and ‘Often, I give off a sort of psychic stench to myself’. Lopate has written a lot about the 16th-century writer Michel de Montaigne, so it was through him that I came to Montainge’s Essais. They are held up as the first example of a writer exploring his subject – usually some aspect of himself – in a freeform, spontaneous way, turning them restlessly this way and that, trying to take some measure of them, and I liked that definition of an essay because it gave me permission to meander. But then I kept coming across essays that didn’t seem to work like that at all, like Eliot Weinberger’s. His famous piece about naked mole rats – so systematically, ruthlessly described – showed me that an essay could be something utterly else. (I recently read someone describe Weinberger’s essays as vortexes – when you read a Weinberger essay, the vortex opens up inside your head and ideas rush in.) I realized the essay is very slippery at heart.

John Jeremiah Sullivan has an essay called ‘The Ill-Defined Plot’ where he makes the point that the sense of ‘essay’ as ‘an attempt’ is only one layer within many other layers of meaning in that word. Some other possible meanings are: a swarm, a flourish, a preamble, a masterpiece, an amateur work … But maybe all essays – whether formal or familiar, literary or journalistic, academic or creative – enact the way that somebody’s mind can shape thought. The shape can be ever-shifting and ever-changing, because thought never quite settles into just one thing; it has to stay in motion, like a shark.

That was a long answer, sorry.

Two long, deeply personal essays are what I think of as the backbone for this book, ‘Big Red,’ about your brothers JP, and Neil, and ‘Bikram’s Knee,’ about your struggles with your own body image. Both essays are in their own way deeply sad, kind of hopeful and fascinating in a ‘watching a car crash’ kind of way. Can you describe how it was to write these? It seems to me that while these are non-fiction pieces, the experience of reading them is the same as reading fiction – we want to know what’s going to happen to these characters.

I was wary of those pieces seeming like straight confession, as if I were trying to absolve myself or ask forgiveness of the reader. I love all those ‘It really happened to me!’ stories, in the same way that I love advice columns, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do. I wanted to try to describe quite chaotic experiences in a way that might help people to understand why things can feel the way they feel, and I wanted to admit where I came up against the limitations of myself and the limitations you meet when writing about other living people. After the piece is written you still have to be a human being in the world.

It was strange to realise that neither experience had a clear ‘arc’ or a moment where things resolved themselves and all was well. It wouldn’t have worked to impose that shape on either piece but I still had to resist the urge to try. I guess, through the stories we tell each other all our lives, we’re conditioned to want really meaningful endings or moments of revelation. I think everyday life can be quite stingy with those.

Sometimes writing feels like a second chance, to me – I often can’t articulate myself very well in person, or speak about things at length without trailing off, which is frustrating because I really want to connect with people, but if I’m writing I get a chance to try again. That feels exhilarating.

Awkwardness, oddness, shame – I’m going to make a call and say these are your themes – you go back and back to them in the essays. Which isn’t to say that the book isn’t funny – you’re a good comic writer. Why do you think these are your big concerns? Or perhaps you disagree that they even are!

Those are my concerns because they’re my concerns in life – or, those feelings have always shaped my experience, at times much more than was strictly necessary. I wonder whether those feelings serve any evolutionary purpose. They make you a ruthless observer of yourself and others, so maybe it’s a hunting thing. I’m not sure whether, if I were more at ease, I would have been able to write any of these pieces. I also think that sometimes our self-contortions can be hugely funny. I would like my next book to be much funnier, actually. I wish this one were funnier. I’m in awe of anyone who can make people laugh. (That’s one reason why I wanted to write about my brother, JP – I just find him very funny.)

I have to ask this – what’s it like being the editor at VUP and having a book published by VUP? Be honest!

Well, it’s a bit weird. Is this even allowed? The most dangerous thing was that I was able to access the raw files of the book. I resisted going into them as often as I could, but a few times I went in there and start twitching around. It immediately felt wrong, like a dog stealing food. On the whole, though, being an editor here has given me really useful perspective as a writer. I can see that my book is just one of many in the pipeline, so I feel less precious about it, and I know how the process goes, and I’m extremely grateful for the book community we have here, who show up again and again to celebrate other people’s books. I also value my workmates’ judgement a huge deal and so it was good to have them on tap. I think if I wrote something like ‘Often, I give off a sort of psychic stench to myself’ they would say, ‘Maybe take that bit out’.

Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young.
Release date: 11 August. Paperback, $30.
Available at the best bookshops and through our online bookstore.