What am I working on?
The answer to this just changed. In April I would have said that I was getting towards completing my second collection – called erratic. The collection was going to be in two parts. The first was a selection of about 25-40 shortish poems of themes of travel and displacement while the second was a 25 part sequence called Fence Furthest North about a fence in Svalbard (supposedly the northernmost fence in the world – who knows). Then I was lucky enough to go to the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada for a month long “Writing Studio” under the mentorship of the Canadian poets Karen Solie and Suzanne Buffam and the American poet Srikanth Reddy. The Writing Studio programme is aimed at writers who already have a first book out so I was also accompanied by 23 excellent writers as well as the mentors for the narrative writers including Greg Hollingshead, Dionne Brand and Gail Jones. I am not sure that anything quite like this programme exists anywhere else – a whole month surrounded by mountains, elk, bears and writing, writing, writing. Anyway – back to the story. I was aiming to polish up the collection and get it ready to send out. I just needed a few more poems. Well, to cut to the chase, Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy was suitably enthused by the sequence to suggest it might benefit from being expanded to become a whole book. This meant embracing some tendencies in my writing that I have resisted – a more ‘clever’ and ‘experimental’ mode of writing that connects most directly to my work as an academic who is quite fond of ‘theory’. I have quite a catholic taste in poetry and can be moved by both short traditional lyric poems and long, complicated whole book sequences that are in a more modernist mode. I don’t have much time for the camps that disparage one another frequently. But that does present some problems when I am writing in both modes and I have doubts about both. Anyway – I worked on the sequence and it is now 42 segments and close to being complete (just three more segments in my head that I need to find inspiration/time/space for). The sequence included my own visit to Svalbard and my encounter with the fence as well as poetic renditions of journals of previous visitors from 1613 and 1838. There is concrete poety, erasure, noun-heavy Lorine Neidecker objectivism and sly, pop-culture references. The themes are travel, territory, whaling, northern-ness and language. Oh – and, of course, there is still the collection of short poems – erratic. So one collection has become two. And, while I have your attention, I am completing the prose section of my PhD in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway with Jo Shapcott. This is an account of poetry and place which I call topo-poetics which draws on Aristotle, Heidegger and contemporary phenomenology to look at Elizabeth Bishop, John Burnside, Don McKay and Jorie Graham. I plan to add Lorine Neidecker and Jack Spicer and then see if I can find a publisher.
How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Well my work represents a combination of a life only I have lived on the one hand, and over twenty years of being a professional human geographer on the other (obviously the latter is part of the former). These are the preoccupations I bring to my work. So thematically they tend to draw on my travels and the places I have lived as well as my concern for landscapes and places and the ways we (I, mostly) relate to them. So they are about place, belonging, travel, displacement and lack of belonging. Stylistically I tend to like a spare, adjective-free style with plenty of space. I am not a noisy poet. I also like poems that are slightly removed from their object – that look at things from a distance. There is a lot of looking in my work. “I” am often absent. I quite like thinking through poetry. If there is one piece of advice I have heard over and over it is not to have an ‘idea’ for a poem – or not to let ideas drive poems. I have tried to write idea-free poems and have only recently embraced the possibility that it might be ok to write poems driven by ideas (abstractions). I saw Alice Oswald read recently in Boston and she was asked about American poetry and she said she admired its ability to tackle ideas and that she could not do that. I am not sure if she was being serious or giving a coded criticism. But it is certainly true that there is a more intellectual bent to much of the work being done over here than back in the UK. I quite like that.
Why do I write what I do?
I don’t really know the answer to this. I know that is something I enjoy immensely. It feels like it has no ulterior motive – it is just itself. The specific themes that preoccupy me might come from being born to an airforce family that moved around quite a bit. I think I went to five primary schools. Since leaving school I have never lived anywhere for longer than 7 years. I have no really deep attachment to anywhere but envy those who do. But I also like the endless possibilities of other places which I fall for again and again. I can get off a plane sick from travel and it only takes a few days to think of the next trip. I look at contrails from planes in the sky in the same way people used to talk about the lure of the train’s whistle in the American Midwest (British trains don’t have alluring whistles). In addition to these quite embodied senses I am also generally fascinated with the way people attach themselves or do not attach themselves to the world. And how those attachments (or lack of them) mess up the earth so much. I love things that are a little out of place – that don’t seem to belong. It may be that that is all I ever write about.
How does my writing process work
There are several ways poems come about for me. One is simply based on a line or sound that catches my attention – something I want to work with. Often I am inspired by reading other poems. I tend to work with books by my side which vary depending on which mood I am in. I often have Elizabeth Bishop moods or Jen Hadfield moods. Sometimes I am in more of an Anne Carson or Lorine Neidecker frame of mind. I think it will take decades of doing this over and over again before something that might be more purely me might emerge. I am happy to be derivative in the sense that blues musician might do blues songs over and over hoping to get it right. Sometimes it is an idea that drives a poem. I will want to write a poem about something in particular. I have been trying to write a poem about turbulence – a turbulent poem – without much success. Sometimes it is even a form that I want to try on for size. I walk around with poems in my head as companions. I like this stage – having company – and get antsy if there no poem I am thinking about. At some point I write in a note book – a few lines or perhaps something resembling a whole poem. I often arrange poems into sonnets or into couplets just to see how they look. I also change points of view and tenses. I write poems and then take away the endings or beginnings – sometimes I turn endings into beginnings. Another moment I enjoy is typing them out so they look like a poem on the screen and then the page. But this has the danger of thinking they might be finished. There are usually moments months, or even years, later when a sudden jolt and rearrangement makes the poem approach its final form. It amazes me how they can exist so long before something suddenly becomes obvious about how the poem needs to be.
For the next stop on the blog tour (coming next week) please visit Joanna Lilley‘s blog.
Joanna Lilley is a writer living in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Her poetry collection, The Fleece Era was published by Brick Books in 2014 and her short story collection, The Birthday Books is due to be published by Hagios Press in 2015. Her poems are widely published in leading Canadian poetry magazines.