JW: This is your sixth collection of poetry. When did you feel the tug towards poetry?
AJ: It was when I bought an electric typewriter. I was taught Modern Poetry at Auckland Unversity by Murray Edmond, a poet himself, whose own work I found inspiring and who was extraordinarily generous as a tutor, a mentor, and, eventually, a close friend. I also took a course in American Poetry taught by Winston Curnow and Roger Horrocks who were both brilliantly energetic and funny teachers, so you couldn’t help but get caught up by their own enthusiasm, and Roger, like Murray, showed a real interest in my first experiments in writing poetry, which began as a way of playing with my new typewriter.
I had wanted to be a novelist – as a schoolgirl I went to sleep with John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist under my pillow – but it was always about the sentences for me, never about the plot. I tried to write a novel when I had the Waikato writing residency, and after months of writing pages of prose I had nothing like a novel, just a lot of words on paper. I had no sense of form or structure or what it would be like for a reader to read what I had written. Whereas a poem is such a taut, contained form. There are so many things that you want to get into play at once, while always thinking about the form. You can see the whole thing. So I was always writing, really, as a poet.
JW: How do you feel about your poetic past, your published books?
AJ: With every new book, I want to leave the last book behind. If someone is reading something I published some time ago, I want to tell them to put it down and read what I am writing now. I, Clodia is recent enough for me still to feel interested in it, and because of the Catullus connection I’ve been thinking and talking about the Catullus for Children poems again and I still like reading them; I like what an off-beat idea it was and how it worked out. And I still love The Gas Leak, partly because I still remember how exhilarating it was to write, how much I loved working with my invented sonnet form and seeing how tight I could make it, how many ideas I could pack into those small lines. But nothing is ever as good as the poetry you haven’t written yet, or the sequence you are beginning to work out.
JW: You completed your doctorate at Oxford University – tell me about your dissertation on the poetics of the diary.
AJ: It was about what makes diary writing interesting as literature. It’s a kind of paradoxical project because the diary is not meant to be read as literature. But these were writers’ diaries, so the writers themselves were interested in the poetics of writing, including their own diary writing. The speed of writing, for instance, is important to the poetics of diary writing in a way it isn’t to poetry or the novel. Mistakes become something the diarist can play with; the random juxtaposition of ideas can have a literary value that is discovered in the act of writing. Take a writer like John Cheever, for example. His stories are so ensconced in the domestic detail, and even in a diary entry he’ll be writing down an argument at breakfast, but then he’ll try and give it some kind of elevated moral. How this exemplifies some idea of manliness or honour. But his own failure to make anything truly significant of these details, the incommensurateness of what he’s writing about and what he’s trying to make of it, is what he himself is interested in and is aware of, and this awareness gives the diary entries their poignancy. And because of the structure of the diary, the polished little diary entries undo each other because there’s never an ending, there is always another entry, so that even when Cheever again and again reaches – or reaches for – some elevated interpretation of daily events, the next day’s return to the same tawdry details, the same arguments, the same failure of resolve, undoes whatever moment of epiphany or moral elevation the entry might have achieved on its own. They read very differently from the short stories, even though it’s the same material.
JW: Do you keep a diary, and if so, do you think there’s a link between your diary and your poetic writing?
AJ: I used to keep diaries – it was how I became interested in how the diary form worked as a literary form – but when I began writing about the diary I stopped keeping my own, and haven’t ever since. Email took the place of the diary to a certain extent, which is to say, letter writing, but it is different of course in its address to someone in particular. And the emails won’t be saved. But bits of my life get into the poems; it is another way of making something of everyday life, of details you want to aestheticise, or find aesthetic. Or uncanny, or resonant.
I stopped writing poems with my children in them when they entered adolescence, I no longer felt I could take their stories as my own. But oddly, I have recently begun writing some featuring my son, and calling him ‘my son,’ instead of using his name as I did in poems I wrote when he was smaller. In the Catullus for Children collection, of course, I didn’t use his name, he was my stand in for Catullus. Perhaps he has always been larger than life in my eyes.
JW: Domesticity, family and the everyday seem common themes or preoccupations in your work. Can you tell me what drives you to explore these themes through the poetic form?
AJ: In a collection like The Long Road to Tea-Time the family was everywhere. Even when I wanted to write about other subjects – when I wanted to write about the political situation in East Timor, for instance – it didn’t feel like it was my story to tell, as non-fiction. But for some reason I felt alright about imagining scenes in our domestic family life in which various political figures entered our living room and had imaginary conversations with the family. I can’t really say why, except that this was my experience of the politics; I was reading about these things as a mother of children, dealing with domestic situations at the time.
JW: The Long Road to Tea-Time also has some evocative lines about place and history: ‘New Zealand feeds history on history, turning it over and over,’ is a line from one of the final sequences in that collection. And in an earlier sequence, the narrator attempts to understand the politics of belonging and place through Maori symbols, such as the waka. (I also like your nod to Maori poet Robert Sullivan in these poems). I think as poets we all feel strongly connected to place; we frequently designate ourselves by saying ‘I’m an Australian poet,’ ‘I’m an Irish poet,’ ‘I’m a Chilean poet’ and so on. How has place, and the ties that place has with history, influenced your own poetry? Do you think politics of your earlier poems has changed across your collections?
AJ: I think I moved away a bit from the poetry of place after The Pastoral Kitchen. I wanted to do so much with that collection and did so little. I like the title, and I love the cover, but I would like to start again with the contents. I wanted to write about domesticity as a kind of pastoral realm for thinking in, outside of culture, and I wanted also to write about place and as a New Zealander, and I also wanted to write about the environment and ecology. I was reading a lot of popular science books at the time, and I thought poetry should be able to encompass everything, I didn’t want to write only about my life, and ordinary domesticity, and leave out everything I was thinking and reading. But I couldn’t make the different aims cohere, and most of the poetry just isn’t very good. It was an early attempt at what I finally achieved with The Gas Leak, to get a kind of taut compression into the poetry – I wanted to move beyond the long lines of The Long Road to Tea-Time which I felt were too easy. I shouldn’t have published the collection until I had made the new lines work, or I should have given up on compression, for a collection that wanted to do so much. I suppose that answers your earlier question about how I feel about my previous collections.
In the collection I am beginning to write now, there’s a bit of a return to the pastoral. One of the poems, which might become the title poem, is ‘Pasture and Flock,’ and actually takes place in a field, with sheep. But as in Thicket, but more so, place becomes metaphysical. Perhaps this will be the collection that solves the problems of The Pastoral Kitchen – or some of them, or one of them, perhaps.