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Interview: Anna Jackson talks about Actions & Travels

Anna Jackson is a New Zealand poet who grew up in Auckland and now lives in Island Bay, Wellington. She has a DPhil from Oxford and is an associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Anna talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Action & Travels.

The blurb says if there is one book on poetry you are going to read this year, it should be Actions & Travels – but I hope some people might pick up the book even if they hadn’t planned to read a book on poetry this year.

It is for anyone who wants to get more out of reading poetry – if you like to read the notes in galleries to get more out of the art, you might like to go on a tour of some poetry with notes about each of the poems. The chapters look at what makes poetry work – how simplicity gives rise to resonance, the pleasures of ornamentation and excess, the ways a poem can work as an argument, a joke, a response, or like a shared dream. Some of the poems will be familiar to a lot of readers – there are poems by Shakespeare and Frost that are in thousands of anthologies, there are poems by Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood that have gone viral on the internet – but with a hundred poems included, some written very recently, there should be some discoveries for almost any reader. Not every poem or poet I love found a place in one of the chapters, but every poem in the book is one I particularly love.

What inspired you to write this book?

This book is a response to two different conversations about poetry I often find myself having. Younger poets who can introduce me to the most astonishing, experimental, challenging poetry I haven’t heard of by brilliant poets from all over the world can sometimes be surprisingly dismissive of poetry written more than a few decades ago, or sometimes confess to feeling daunted by the idea of reading poetry from the past without a knowledge of metrical scansion or historical context. But I also quite often talk to readers who love poetry by Coleridge or Keats but can’t see how contemporary poetry is even poetry if it doesn’t rhyme or fit a metrical scheme, or don’t know how to begin to find new poems they might love as much as the poetry they already know. But if you like to luxuriate in the lush imagery and gorgeous vocabulary of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” or Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” you might find yourself equally taken with the queasy gorgeousness of the poetry of Rebecca Hawkes. And, on the other hand, if you relish the ingenious and outrageous arguments of Luke Kennard’s wolf psychiatrist in poems like “Wolf on the couch” and “Wolf Nationalist,” it would be a pity to miss out on John Donne’s equally ingenious arguments in poems like “The Flea.”

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I had some notes to start with from lectures on poetry I had been giving, so to begin with I was just filling out the notes, making observations into sentences, finding connections between different things I’d already found to say about the poems, and finding connections between different poems I wanted to talk about. I arranged the poems loosely into chapters and then looked for more poems that would fill out each of the discussions I wanted to have, looking for a balance between contemporary and canonical poems, some poems that would be well known and others that might be more of a surprise to some readers. Then as I was looking, some poems would suggest another whole aspect of poetry I might want to write about, and I’d begin to see which poems might be grouped alongside them. Some of those chapters were abandoned, and some poems from abandoned chapters never found their way back into the book, and I feel the loss of them, but I went with the chapters that almost wrote themselves as one poem led into the discussion of the next. I wrote for about two or three hours a day, on the first draft. Then there were later drafts as poems and chapters were dropped and added, and material reworked to fit around the changes. I’d thought it was going to be a really quick project to complete but with all the changes it ended up taking about three years I think.

What research was involved?

One of the arguments of the book is that you don’t need to do any research to read poetry, you’ll get something out of any poem you read, even if what you get out of it is a clearer sense of what you don’t like in poetry. So as much as possible, the readings of the poems just look at what anyone could notice on the page, even if they knew nothing about the poem or the poet. But I have been teaching poetry at university and I did let myself include some things I knew about the poets from time to time, and I did do some additional reading as well to find out more about some of the poems and their contexts, reading that ranged from biographies to internet interviews, from critical studies to poetry blogs. Mostly, I just read and reread the poems and then read and reread them again.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

There are two musical settings I especially love of one of the poems I talk about in the book, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” by W B Yeats. One is by Jolie Holland, an American singer-songwriter, and the other is by Tiny Ruins, New Zealander Hollie Fulbrooke’s setting of the song, and both of them are beautiful and haunting.

Tiny Ruins on Youtube:

And Jolie Holland:

What did you enjoy the most about writing Action & Travels?

Writing about poems is a very intimate and intricate way of reading them. I loved the way that trying to figure out what was so good about a poem made me love it even more, and made me notice new things about it I hadn’t even thought about before. I have given a link in the book to a page on my website where you can read all the poems yourself before reading each chapter. I don’t suppose most readers will, but if you wanted to, you could write up your own notes before even reading mine, and see how much you can talk yourself into loving each of the poems.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I think the day I finished it I met Pip Adam at Aro café, and we talked about the Jenny Odell book I was reading, called On Doing Nothing. It is about art and art writing as a way of withdrawing from the world – but it is also about how to withdraw from the world in order to work out how to engage with the world more deeply. So it was quite a good way to celebrate. I think I maybe had one more sentence to write, which I wrote still on a high from talking to Pip after I had walked back up the hill.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

My favourite book of poetry I have been reading this year is Anne Kennedy’s The Sea Walks Into a Wall. It came out last year and I read it straight away and loved it at once but it is the kind of book that resonates more and more with each rereading. In my book I write a lot about resonance, and the importance of simplicity, and Anne is brilliant at setting out quite difficult, abstract ideas very simply and concretely. But she is also brilliant at building up really complicated ideas in the way poetry can work by layering one idea on another, or starting with a simple motif that then gets embellished and expanded. Her previous book did this very deliberately, using Beethoven variations as a model, but this book also builds up from simplicity to complexity, sometimes within a single poem, sometimes across poems. She is very good at writing about complications, too – complications psychological, political, ecological. They are troubling but also what makes life worth living, what fills it up. I love these lines from one of the poems about the complications of life:

Without distractions you’d rush through your life like chi through an empty room. You bump into a baby and that takes up eighteen years. Love fills the room like a maze.

This has also been my summer of Knausgaard, the second summer of Knausgaard in my life, as I’ve been reading his latest novel, The Morning Star, alongside an early novel of his, A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven. Knausgaard is famously good at – or boring about, for some readers, not me – describing all the distractions that fill up the ordinary days of a life, but these books combine these ordinary distractions with metaphysical events of vast significance. Reviews have dismissed the metaphysical portents of the recent novel as an attempt to make fiction out of an essayist’s prose but I think this dramatically underreads it. He’s been interested in what different historical world views allow us to see and to understand, in relation to metaphysics in general and angels in particular, since long before the autobiographical work he’s known for now. I find his writing thrilling, whether he is writing about the raising of the dead or the fitting together of a stovetop coffee maker.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I don’t really know. I’ve sort of written a draft of a work of fiction I’m trying to do something with, I have some poetry already written that might be the start of a new collection, and I can’t help thinking of new chapters on poetry I’d write if I ever wrote a sequel to Actions & Travels.

Auckland University Press

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