Traverse: songs

A sonnet sequence by Jill Jones


Breath, the hours: collaboration of Jill Jones' poetry and Annette Willis's photography


Photo of Jill Jones by Annette Willis 2005

Interview with

Jill Jones

Jill Jones

By Rebecca Seiferle

Jill Jones is a poet and writer who lives in Sydney, Australia. Her work has been widely published in most of the leading literary periodicals in Australia as well as in a number of print magazines in New Zealand, Canada, the USA, Britain and India. She is also widely published online. Her latest books are her fifth full length work, Broken/Open (Salt, 2005), which was short-listed for The Age Book of the Year 2005 and the 2006 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize, and three chapbooks, Fold Unfold (Vagabond, 2005) poems written in response to paintings; Where the Sea Burns (Picaro, 2004); and Struggle and Radiance: Ten Commentaries (Wild Honey Press, 2004).

In 1993 she won the Mary Gilmore Award for her first book of poetry, The Mask and the Jagged Star (Hazard Press). Her third book, The Book of Possibilities (Hale & Iremonger), was shortlisted for the 1997 National Book Council 'Banjo' Awards and the 1998 Adelaide Festival Awards. Screens, Jets, Heaven: New and Selected Poems won the 2003 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize (NSW Premier's Literary Awards).

She has collaborated with photographer Annette Willis on a number of projects, including c-side, and also Sea Shadow Land Light, a multimedia presentation first delivered at the On the Beach conference held by Edith Cowan University at Fremantle in February 2004.

She was a co-founder, with Laurin McKinnon, of BlackWattle Press, and in 1995 she co-edited (with Judith Beveridge and Louise Wakeling) A Parachute of Blue, an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry. With Michael Farrell, she co-edited a selection of Australian erotic poetry for a 2003 edition of Slope online magazine. She has been a film reviewer, journalist, book editor and arts administrator.

She maintains a weblog Ruby Street, as well as two websites, her home page and poems extracted from her weblog off the street


Rebecca Seiferle: Usually I like to focus in the interview on the poet's particular works in this issue, but I think this is the first time that we've had a feature that involves two different series of work. So I'd like to begin with the sonnet sequence, Traverse, in part because I'm aware from our previous discussions that you began with this series of sonnets and have been working on it for some time. I thought you might like to discuss the 'beginning' and development of this sonnet series?

Jill Jones: Yes, I have been working on the series of sonnets for a while, intensively since the beginning of the year— though a few poems date much back further, as it's been, as you say, on my mind for a while.

I should say, before I talk more specifically about the sonnets, that I haven't really been a poet of 'projects'. In fact, I've tended to avoid them, as though I felt it was something forced. I can't really explain why I seem to have changed though, on reflection, it's partly pragmatic. I don't have the luxury of a lot of spare time, due to my current working life, so a project gave me some focus. I've always worked well with constraints for individual poems, why not for a series? So, just as in the last few years I've worked with groups on projects such as ekphrastic poems, the snapshot project with poetryetc and image and text work with c-side, I set to collaborating with sonnets.

RS: Was it a kind of correspondence with other texts or particular authors? Did you make a choice to engage with the sonnet, or did you find yourself writing in that direction and then made a conscious choice to develop the poems into a series?

JJ: It just began to happen. But that's never true, is it? I realise, as an afterthought, that I was aware of a couple of poet friends writing sonnets, Michael Farrell and Peter Minter, for instance, so the idea was hanging around. I was also noticing that a lot of what I was writing was around the 14 line length, with the kind of turning you'd expect in traditional sonnet forms.

So, yes, I was writing in a certain direction, as well as reading around sonnets, particularly going back to the 'classics' which, for me, included Coleridge pere et fils , Samuel Taylor and Hartley, George Herbert, John Clare, but others as well. I became fairly promiscuous in my reading. Shakespeare, sure, but probably not as much as it's too overwhelming. And, of course, I revisited Ted Berrigan, how could I not.

Again, a kind of collaboration grew out of this, the gesture to tradition and how it has developed, as well as a recognition of how I'd been writing lately, which is the more mysterious part.

So, why a sequence? I feel that, as most of the poems were written over a short time period, they were talking to each other in those odd ways texts do. I'm not sure the sequence is 'finished' but the writing in that direction began to slow by the time I assembled them into Traverse. I've written more since putting the sequence together so they may all be included in another kind of publication further down the track. I just don't know at the moment and am happy to let this stand.

RS: Given that your work is somewhat dialogic, how did working with a form like the sonnet change the conversation for you? the process of working?

JJ: As you say, the dialogic way of working is conversational, which I see as collaborative. I even stole a few things, as one does: obviously rhyming schemes but also actual rhymes, which I grabbed from all kinds of poets. Full rhymes and slant rhymes, whatever looked interesting. I sometimes used them as constraints and sometimes just as suggestions. I got quite involved in devising various patterns, many of which I never ended up using for this project. But I never waste anything, so it will all have a bearing on other things I do.

RS: What formal elements of the sonnet did you follow? And was this something new for your work, to engage with a particular form?

JJ: The most obvious formal element is the 14 lines. But I mention it anyway, as I did not veer from it as, say, Hopkins did, or Berrigan, for that matter, or the Australian poet Alex Skovron, who wrote a book of what he called 'sonnetinas', 10 line poems. Fourteen lines was the central constraint.

Mostly, I tended to converge on iambic pentameter, I do tend to do that in a lot of my work, but sometimes purposely subverted it, with either more of a tetrameter line, or some very clipped lines and one instance of some lavish Whitmanesque lines.

For most of the poems I followed my own version of the Shakespearean or Petrarchean or Spenserian. I played around with rhyme schemes but mainly tended not to get into too much rigid end-line rhyming as it threatened to get a bit clunky. The sonics of a poem are always important to me but you can get that going in so many other ways, rhymes within lines, repetitions setting up echoes, and the like.

RS: Has your sense of the sonnet changed as you developed these pieces or wrote new ones? Have you found yourself moving to a more fluid sense of the form?

JJ: At one stage, I got a bit more tightly focused on the form, the traditional forms, that is. But the words kept going in all kinds of directions, as of course they will. So there are some traditional dictions and registers mixing with other registers, as well as non-traditional forms. I found myself writing nearly always in sonnet form, i.e. 14 lines, over a period of months, even if some of these initial 'sonnets' had to be unhooked from that constraint to become another kind of poem. It was a little disconcerting on the one hand, vaguely obsessional, but also quite deliberate. I found a rhyming type of pattern which I liked — not traditional at all but with enough singing in it — and it has given me ideas of using it in other ways. I haven't had the time to move there yet.

RS: I've noticed in these sonnets in comparison to your previous work a greater freedom, range of feeling, more juxtapositions, and wonder if you found this in writing them.

JJ: I think that's true, and I put it down partly to the ways constraints can be liberating. I think I have been aiming for more range and fluidity anyway, in the last while. Though it was commented recently that “early in her career she [ie, me] hitched her star to the wonderful 'Go anywhere, write on anything, in any style' tradition and this still very much sustains her” so maybe people see that I've always been a bit like that. I'm not sure that I can stand outside of my work enough to say, to now contradict what I said before.

Certainly nowadays, I find I'm even less worried about what even I might think about what I write, let alone the rest of the world. Life's too short. Oddly enough, or perhaps obviously enough, it may be an age thing. Going with a sense of not needing to prove anything to anyone in particular, and that one has the various resources to go on into one's own newness, aware that it's never new in the great scheme of things, but a continuing dialogue with traditions and current practices.

And, mysteriously, I have been having some very strong dreams lately, dialogues with the past, and some of that feeling, if not the dreams themselves, is within the sonnet texts. I found things coming up I hadn't expected, everything from prayer to black grubs to dresses.

RS: In the text-image series
Breath, the hours, the black and white photographs were taken by Annette Willis. Are they taken of a particular trip or a series? Or selected out of a larger group of work with an 'eye' toward poetic response?

JJ: Mostly, the photographs were selected out of a larger group but it's true to say that, for the most part, the ones I selected to respond to were taken during a specific trip to Europe, though some were taken in Australia. They were rounded up by Annette from her collection after we had spoken about what I was thinking of doing. It was a case of both her suggestions, and her knowing my work, and me remembering certain photos of hers. Although in one sense I had decided on the types of image, we both made the final final decision about the actual photos— and she definitely insisted on replacing one I had fixed on with another one. She was, of course, right, it was better.

RS: How did the collaboration between your text and her photographs develop? I'd guess that you wrote the poems in a sort of dialogic response to the photos. Did you select the photos with the sense of which were the most provocative in terms of a poetic response?

JJ: Your guess is pretty much spot on. I also had an idea of where I was headed, pretty vaguely but bubbling away, before I chose the kinds of images I wanted to engage with. Annette and I both know how each other works and we have a number of mutual artistic interests — streets, remnants, an archaeological point of view, effects of light (obvious for a photographer, eh). Some of the photographs followed as response but I knew that the right images existed in her collection. We just had to find them.

RS: One of the things that strikes me is how interwoven the images and the text are and yet how the poem does have an ongoing movement, a kind of flow, that eddies and ebbs and turns around the images. How would you describe the correspondence with Annette's images in terms of the process of writing?

JJ: Thank you. That's how I wanted it to work. The eddies and flows were also my own process.

I wanted a form and played around with the hay(na)ku (I assume people are aware of Eileen Tabios's creation of this form). What I mean is that I originally thought of using that form — a tercet of one word, two words and three words — but found that, for this project, I wanted a longer line and a way of forming a hook or link between image and thought. So I developed a way of working with a six word line (in other words, a hay(na)ku written in a straight line instead of a stepped stanza), followed by a three word line, in a way I think works the way that 'things of three' can interweave yet move along, and deliberately used repetitions but pushed them through definite changes. In reality, it was a bit more intuitive than that but the idea sort of worked out that way.

The correspondence with Annette's work comes through a close focus on texture and detail, which is very much Annette's way of working, a close seeing with its implications for what lies outside or beyond the frame, so to speak. Annette usually works with a series or concept in mind and her work in one area usually has strong connections to other things she is doing. I wanted to get that sense of connectivity.

RS: I'd guess most obviously that one of the similarities between the sonnet series and the photo/text is that they involve a sense of collaboration. One with a literary form that perhaps seemed 'different' enough to seem like an encounter with another reality? And the other with a different art form?

JJ: Collaboration is the way of the poet, in my view. I'm not a great believer in the garret. Of course, there's collaboration with the language, with the traditions, the various versions of the 'canon', with the work of one's contemporaries. But my own way has also been specifically collaborative in recent years. This includes the ekphrastic work I have done with the DiVerse group of Sydney poets, who have written many series of works in reference to images, usually paintings but also other visual stimuli, in various galleries and museums in Sydney and Canberra. We don't collaborate with each other on individual works but work alongside each other in the knowledge that we're dealing with the same group of images. We then do readings together in the galleries in question.

Also there's the multimedia work Annette and I have done that James Stuart has curated through his ongoing c-side project, using writers, photographers and DJs for events in social spaces. I'm no technological genius but simple tools like PowerPoint can be pushed a fair way. As a slightly off-topic comment, David Byrne is also fascinated by PowerPoint, for different reasons. I'm fooling now with sound stuff (yes, more laptop electronica geekdom) and would love to work more with composers and musicians.

One thing I have not managed yet is to do any extended collaboration with one or even a few poets. I tried a long distance thing with a friend of mine once. The idea was that we'd write to similar kinds of music (jazz, of course; for me, Miles Davis, of course) at the same time of day and then marry it together somehow, but we figured it never quite hung together. It was a once-only thing and perhaps we gave up on it too soon. I have also been involved in a few of those renga-type exercises with small groups of poets. They were fun and fine, though one did have some controversy attached to it, which I'd rather not resurrect. And I have done other linked writing with email list groups which I have enjoyed.

I remain hopeful that an opportunity will arise for something more substantial. I suspect you can't force it but I'm always alert, just in case.

RS: Each of these series seems to be complete, or could be? Do you anticipate adding to either? Or do you perhaps anticipate extending some of the same formal procedures you used in writing these series in other directions?

JJ: The text-image series Breath, the hours is pretty much complete as is. Though we can also see it as a starting off point for an exhibition project Annette is planning later in the year. It could be, for instance, a limited edition booklet accompanying the exhibition. It remains to be seen.

As I mentioned before, I have more sonnets than the ones in this Traverse series, some of them older versions or poems already well published. Others more recently written still haven't been finished. I have also put together another much shorter series. So maybe it's a series within a series. I don't feel that it's quite settled. But it's all work in progress, in a sense. I remain strongly interested in developing more formal procedures for my work, for the pragmatic reasons I alluded to before and also because of that mysterious thing that happens, an intensity and freedom with form that I am liking.


To order books by Jill Jones

From Salt Publishing:
Broken/ Open

Screens Jets Heaven

From Vagabond Press:

From Wild Honey Press:
Struggle and Radiance

Reviews of Broken/Open:
By Peter Boyle in The Famous Reporter
By Angela Gardner in foam:e

Reviews of Struggle & Radiance:
By Peter Minter in Jacket
By Maria Christoforatos in Cordite

Other on-line references to Jill Jones's poetry:
Poetry International Web
Australian Literary Resources