JW: In one of your previous collections, ,em>Catullus for Children (Auckland UP, 2003), there is a poem called ‘Sparrow (as told by Elvira),’ which I assume refers to an incident with your daughter? Catullus has obviously been a source of ongoing interest for you as a writer. What has sustained that interest?
AJ: Catullus wrote such vivid poetry, with such extravagant similes and metaphors, about ordinary, everyday affairs – the affair with Clodia, obviously, but also rivalries with other poets and other lovers, dinner invitations, poetry writing competitions, a return home, the death of a bird. The poems are typically constructed around a joke, a witty rejoinder, or an irony. As much as the poetry itself, I have loved the various translations that have been made of them – I mean, I have really only known them in translation, but I have been as interested in the variety of translations and the purposes the translations have served. More than the Clodia project, the Catullus for Children project is about that tradition of translation, an exploration into the purposes to which the Catullus poems can be put, and the Catullus ‘voices’ that can be constructed. It is such an absurd starting point – to write Catullus poetry for children, leaving out the erotic and the obscene – that it necessarily questions the possibility of translation, or explores the potential of translation to do something quite different from replicating a text.
JW: The second half of I, Clodia takes us to a contemporary world with a female photographer as protagonist. Can you tell me about the relationship between the two parts?
AJ: I, Clodia and Other Portraits wasn’t meant to be the title; ‘and Other Portraits’ was supposed to be a subtitle. But it is a book of portraits and portraiture, and it was a way of tying it all together. They could have been two books, but they balance each other nicely. The first section explores the potential of biography to tell a story, and even though the ‘I, Clodia’ section is made up of poems that work separately, it does tell a story, with a narrative arc; the story as a whole is stronger than any of the individual poems. The second section, in contrast, explores the still nature of portraiture, the way in which it resists narrative, even while perhaps gesturing towards a narrative beyond the frame. The section begins with several portraits of a photographer, who is not initially a portrait photographer. When she finds herself wanting to take portraits, that’s a catastrophe for her. For her, portraiture isn’t art. For her, art should be representing a feeling more obliquely. But she becomes interested in portraiture when she becomes interested in emotion. She realises that she’s interested in movement, and can’t capture that as a still photographer. She takes portraits because they capture this tension, between the essential stillness of the portrait, and the emotional resonance that depends on a context outside the portrait itself. There’s a whole story that the portrait isn’t telling. Most of the poems in the second section are portraits that aren’t descriptions of the photographer’s portraits, but which offer their own take on the idea of portraiture.
JW: Do you think the tension between stillness and movement is something that you attempt to evoke or play with in your poems?
AJ: The portraits are meant to be still moments. They take moments in time. But a poem can’t be still in the way a photograph is still – it moves in time, down the page, but also through a narrative. The characters would always be walking through the most still scenes – everyone else might be sleeping, but the character would walk past them and imagine them waking up after she had gone; or a character is portrayed at the moment at which she receives her scholarship results, but would be thinking of the moment of writing – the moment of preparation – that took place weeks earlier. Time is everywhere in these poems.
Amanda in the mirror Pink cheeked, dark browed, scowling at herself the way people look at themselves in the mirror, as if we were our own worst enemies, rehearsing a German phrase, ein bisschen Hoffnung, a little bit of hope, this is Amanda, the night before she sits the German exam that results in the letter she holds in her hand weeks later, the letter, weeks later, everyone is asking about and no one knows has arrived. She has won a scholarship. She had described ein rosa-beige Haus, a pink-beige house, knowing beige was the word for beige and risking her use of it looking like a guess, intent on capturing a dream, the black tree trunks, a whole landscape in shadow, the sense of sunlight falling elsewhere, a dank feeling which she used the word feuchtes – humid – for, anxiously, the taste of pencil in her mouth. She sees herself now looking anxious in the glass, the feeling nowhere apparent of sunlight in her heart – das Gefühl des Sonnenlichts, she thinks to herself with a smile that doesn’t appear on her face.
JW: What sort of archival or other kinds of research to you undertake to write your books?
AJ: No archival research, unless you count museums – objects were important and appear in some of the Clodia poems. I did also go to Rome for a month, and from Rome we travelled to Sirmione, where the Catullus ruins are. That was wonderful. I don’t know if it made any difference to the poems at all, although perhaps it did, because you got a sense of how important his family must have been. These were the ruins of a palace. It was majestic. As you see it from the waterside, there are these tremendously tall pillars – it’s like some kind of giant’s home, beyond human scale. It had an indoor swimming pool with mosaics all over the floor.
But it’s funny sort of research because you’re looking at ruins. I don’t know whether the poetry would have been any different if I hadn’t seen the ruins or gone to Rome, because what you have of Catullus are the poems, the literary texts, and what I was writing in response is another literary text. So most of my reading was of classical texts, and the scholarship that interprets and contextualises them. It was important to me not to be doing the work of novelisation; I’m not reconstructing a world and presenting my reconstruction as a reality, even if only an imagined reality; I’m working on the same level as the texts themselves, writing texts that make sense in the context of other texts. It is a purely literary, aesthetic project.