An Interview with Jennifer Still

Clarise Foster: Your new book, Girlwood, is quite stunning; Brick Books makes beautiful books, both inside and out. Congratulations. Talking with you in this issue marks an anniversary of sorts for me and for CV2. Back in 2001, I was in the midst of putting together the first issue of the magazine after it almost went under. It was called “Why Poetry,” and it featured interviews with and writing by several poets, including George Elliot Clark and Esta Spalding. The issue was almost all interviews and related writing, but I thought there needed to be a fresh new voice. There wasn’t much space left and I was struggling with a big pile of submissions and then suddenly there you were. It was a selection that, I believe, would eventually become part of your first collection, Saltations. I was very taken with your writing then, and I am taken with it now. So how does it feel to be ten years into what by all accounts is a very successful writing career? How do you feel your writing has changed over this time?

Jennifer Still: Well happy anniversary, Clarise! You know, ten years ago you really made my day. Your acceptance was the defining moment when I became a published poet. The poems were the heart of what would become Saltations and a real affirmation on my way to a book. And now, ten years later, you’ve made my day again! And in this way it feels very little has changed — there is still that held-breath astonishment of the thought that my work has resonated somewhere out there in the wider world. However, there is an overall sense of awareness that I have now, the ability to see more clearly where I am, where I’ve been, and by extension, where I might be headed. At this particular moment I am moving into new territory and the work is still very unknown to me (thinking here of Kroetsch’s “The story is concealed from us.”). However, I’m pleased to find I’m much more comfortable here, joyful even. I’ve a trust in my process now that I didn’t have ten years ago. As a result, I think my writing has become more direct and distilled. Saltations had this liquid, pupal quality to it. Now I feel my work moving into more of a defined moment, both in form and content. I have a keener sense of what I track back to, what I seem never to be able to leave. I feel much closer to what is most urgent in me and have less hesitation in following it, risking it. So that perhaps now I write not just with a desire to express, which is what brought me to poetry in the first place, but with more of an initial sense of the substance that will be a result of that desire.

CF: Sounds to me like you have found poetic nirvana. What is it you “never seem to be able to leave” and how have you come to a “joyful” sense of acceptance about your writing?

JS: I’m deeply interested in the themes of our lives. How our interiors resonate and manifest in the world, and maybe even more so, the silences that are felt when they don’t. I’ve come back again and again to notions of change and growth which I don’t so much question anymore, just acknowledge and try to write/see anew. The joy comes in always striving for a sense of connection, a sense of wonder, so the writing itself becomes an act of transformation.

CF: What brought you to poetry in the first place? When did you start writing and when did you realize that you wanted to write poetry seriously?

JS: You know, I’ve often said that I came to poetry because my parents didn’t force me into music lessons! But seriously, I think I came to words mostly because of my shyness. I found great freedom in reading so I had words, imagination, and a good stash of my mother’s stationery. I kept letters to myself. Diaries. I think too that I was drawn to the musical possibility of poetry. But more deeply and urgently was the desire to express a disconnect I felt in myself — between what one feels but cannot necessarily speak or live. I could feel the dissonance between that wide open possibility of a world/life before me right alongside the limits, the rules, the expectations and normalizing shoulds of how one ought to be. Not in any openly oppressive way, but in that more sinister general North American labouring classist way. The paycheque to paycheque routine, the means to an end sort of stifledness of that kind of living. So prescribed and with such a slim chance (three weeks holiday) for happiness, or so it was perceived to me. So perhaps, in being so shy, or as the American poet Lyn Hejinian has so wonderfully described it as “an extreme state of empathy,” I sensed this conflict in my family and greater community around me. So poetry was and continues for me to be an attempt to connect and liberate some of that shyness — not necessarily just my own, but that larger unspokenness in the world. And to me, poetry is such an intimate and possible place for that transformation.

CF: What was the first big moment for you in poetry? Publication, a particular poem, reading a particular poet?

JS: I think the “big” moment — meaning the lasting one, the one that actually opened up subsequent moments for me, within me — was in the writing itself. It was my first true poetic discovery when I found the title and poem for my first book. I was at the end of a weekend retreat that had been largely unproductive. I found myself alone on a sunny cabin deck overlooking a river valley, thumbing through a dictionary, thinking of inheritance through generations of women, thinking of a little salt doll I had inherited from my great-great-grandmother, when I came across the word “saltations.” Everything grew out of this one word. It became this nexus point, a small explosion that illuminated a multitude of directions for me. It had this sense of potential around it. Expansion. It was tremendously exciting and felt like something I was following rather than reaching for. Something all my own. And though a rare moment, that sense of discovery, of following, has become a marker for me in gauging the rightness of a poem, an impulse. And it has repeated itself in various poems and projects along the way.

CF: Saltations and Girlwood are two very different works in terms of style — the way imagery is realized, in form and the timbre of language. On the other hand, both books stem from a sense of personal history and both have an unusual sense of grace — a kind of gratitude that is characteristic. By this I mean that part of the power of your work is that you are able to communicate to the reader a genuine sense of awe and appreciation of awareness gained though poetic insight. Saltations is more manifest in the imagery and language. The text is beautifully dense and ultimately more imagistically rooted, whereas in Girlwood, the grace, the generosity is proffered in the rendering of the voice to page. There is a sense of speaking cadence wonderfully woven into the images of the moth and the snake; everything is accentuated by the manner in which words are sculpted to the page. What is important to you in the shaping of poems? What do you feel a poem should do before you are satisfied with it?

JS: It’s wonderful to me that you sense a “grace.” Thank you. I suppose at the very bottom of it all, I want to learn something in the poem. I want to feel like I did upon discovering “saltations,” that something is just my own in it. I do feel that if I do this then perhaps a reader will have a similar sense of discovery within themselves. Or that there is an originality that doesn’t yet exist quite in this way in the world. Not in just making something that is competent, but rather reaches out, that extends beyond what I thought it might be into a content all its own. Now aiming for this and getting there is sometimes not possible. This is when I know the poem isn’t ready, that it hasn’t gone as far as it might. My biggest ongoing struggle is to know the difference between a poem that isn’t ready and one that is opening up to the next. I put a tremendous amount of pressure on my work. I like density to a work; however, I am learning about density in accumulation as well. I think this is how Girlwood opened up to me. Because of course it always feels like one hasn’t gone far enough. But if there is that marker of astonishment, or of just plain fun, well then I do like to tend to trust in it.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.