Hi Janette! And welcome to CAMPUS. Tell us more about your upcoming residency – ‘The Poet’s Ego: Writers Who Love Writers’ – and what you’ve got planned.
Janette: I have been rolling around in that question myself, its seems the more research I do, the more I spiral off on horizontal tangents of the self! Which is ironically compatible as the title I’ve chosen for the residency is ‘The Poet’s Ego: Writers Who Love Writers’ and I will be looking at poetry as self-love, how healthy Narcissism is an unavoidable trend amongst writers, and how it suites the artistic temperament, public poetry and confessionalism. The aim is to showcase how literary power couples have emerged in history and to talk to those still writing today. Shakespeare said ‘seduction is an affair of language’ so I will be delving into how and why writers seduce other writers; how the love letter has shifted over a century, how jealousy is a useful emotion, and how all the other exalting synergies they share like their common penchant for addictions (or how poetry itself is solvent to romantic relationships in ways similar to drugs and alcohol) pattern through these affairs.
I will also be running an online Exquisite Corpse workshop: a blog about Ekphrasis (specifically in writing poetry from art) a debate about why a poet should date another poet and picking the brain of one of my favourite poets writing today in a quick-fire interview. Lastly I have a gig at The Edinburgh Book Festival this month ‘Voices In The Dark’ where I will be performing completely from memory for the first time from a pitch black stage, so I will be blogging my Memorisation Diary fragments to show the highs and lows of obsessively attaching yourself to your work by learning your poetry from memory.
When did you first start to write seriously? Was it always poetry? If not, when did you start writing poems?
Janette: I have always kept a journal, since I was thirteen and I was writing poems without awareness, it wasn’t until I started studying English Literature at Stirling University that I was able to dissect the neat poems from the fathomless swell of prose that I had been collecting. I wanted to do a Creative Writing thesis at the end of my degree but my tutor, the poet Roderick Watson, said I had still to learn from my literary idols. So instead I visited San Francisco that summer, discovered Beat poetry and studied the women of the Beat Generation who I noticed were often overshadowed by the men. I was then serious enough to begin a Creative Writing Masters at Edinburgh University the following year, and after that I started submitting my work to journals and magazines.
What do you think is the main thing that motivates you to write, to have an idea and actually put words down on the page?
Janette: Dare I say it but my motivation has mostly been women, affairs of the heart at least, but anything that ignites the senses really: I have written some birth poetry and have been inspired by artworks, it depends on what strikes me in the immediacy of the moment – and the surprise is all part of the thrill of writing. Any time I need to be inspired I read some Pessoa or Neruda, visit an art gallery, travel to a romantic city or cause a riot in a some bar, or as Hughes suggests as motivation, I just stick my head into the subject.
Apart from poems what else do you write?
Janette: I have published in essay; feature article, short story, book review and travel writing but my passion is memoir and poetry. I also have a few dusty teenage manuscripts tucked away, stories written in a voice I mimicked from the Victorian pastoral novels that I disappeared into as a child!
What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?
Janette: I like language that makes me gasp, a line or an image that creates something so visual that I am immediately transported to that place or feeling. I don’t like simple, over-used washed up words or phrases, anything that lacks originality so it all starts to sound the same, if I am bored by the first stanza I am not compelled to keep reading. At a poetry reading you can’t use the same escape plan, and there is a lot of awful performance poetry out there. I also don’t like humour in poetry, comic, satire, limericks, poetry should make you laugh unless you giggle with awe. I like less than I don’t like, but that is all part of the fun when digging through the treasure of undiscovered poetry, when something really amazing surfaces its sensory effect is exponential.
Quite a number of your poems wrestle against difficult and intense feelings, particularly love, which you seem to have quite a combative relationship with. How has poetry helped you in or out of love?
Janette: Love has helped me in and out of poetry really, though the anguish that you notice is often soothed by the therapy of writing- you really understand a situation more once you have stripped it down to marrow and sucked at the core of what the heart desperately desires. I fall in love very easily, with people, sunsets and songs- a lot of the pain arrives in determining finality from things you attach yourself to, though honestly, sometimes it feels like I have conjured the love just to be able to write about it- but I am rarely aware of this at the time. And I have later come to realise that when you are in ‘true love’ the poetry you produce ends up being weak and commercial, or at worst invincible, but thankfully I have been working on commissioned poems about an element from the periodic table or rehearsing poems from memory for performances to avoid the realisation of this current transmission of poetic drought!
So is poetry catharsis?
Janette: The Marquis De Sade wonderfully said that poetry was as imperative as the beating of his heart, and I agree with him, if it helps to alleviate stress (which I believe it does) then that is a bonus, but not the reason I write, as more often than not poetry can cause the tension that it seeks to sooth. The act of writing itself is purifying as you catapult ideas onto the page, the purging with the pen as tool, plus documenting experiences creates a magical backlog of your thoughts, reactions, memories and dreams which is so enlightening in terms of any problematic grapple with self hood and self rinsing in the future.
Aside from love, another thing that crops up in your work repeatedly are ghosts. David Foster Wallace once said “Every story is a ghost story”. Is this something you agree with?
Janette: Well, I am not sure, perhaps every story is a memory and memories are the ghosts: they both fade, they both haunt, and both possibly reside in the imagination. Though I definitely believe in ghosts and the supernatural.
Do you think your poems reflect your cultural heritage?
Janette: Sometimes, I have written a lot about my Algerian father who I haven’t spoken to in years because the choices I made in life did not coincide with the life he had planned for me. I escaped arranged marriages, an all girl’s school and a strict Arabic background and fled to University promising to return after I finished, but I was raised in a Western world and it was impossible to flock back to him in London when Scotland had already offered me so much education and independent possibility. My mother is an artist, and a very patriarchal Scot, and I have written some historical poems for her exhibitions, getting tangled in visions of battlefields and royal tartan weddings isn’t that fun for me. I am not at all militant about nationality, I think I am more of a Universalist. My children are Scottish-Algerian Italian and it is important in terms of identity, but heritage comes from birth, it naturally conditions you, mostly I am more interested in detailing where I am in the moment rather than where I have come from. I don’t think there is much potency in the past, and I don’t agree with most Freudian or Lacanian regressions to infancy and our parents to root out the struggle with the Self either, tampering with old wounds can cause infection, you tend to the laceration to clean it and you bandage it up to heal. I would rather write a poem about Brazil on my hypothetical first visit than keep re-visiting a heritage of struggle, despite the unusual exoticism and tension of my dual nationality.
You have an extremely seductive voice. I was listening to your poemfilm ‘On Meeting A Fox’ and was sucked into this hypnagogic state. It’s very soothing, particularly when paired up with the quite dreamy language. Is this what you aspire to do with your poems? To intoxicate?
Janette: I think that it is wonderful that you went on that journey, or should I say ‘trip’, with ‘On Meeting a Fox’. I discovered that audio and voice alone can be very powerful (this is where page poetry becomes performance poetry) so I worked with a few filmmakers to provide visuals for my recordings. I didn’t know my voice was seductive, I guess an English-Scottish accent helps, and my passion for language. I love the way my tongue can wrap around a word, and how volume and pronunciation can alter the intensity of the poem, there is a spell-like quality to poetry; similar to prayers, mantras or incantations, a certain magical quality. Carl Jung said that there is a limit to what can be held in conscious focal awareness, and this is where we slide into the subconscious, so if some of the poem is absorbed on that trance-like level I am still thrilled! And now that you mention it, yes, I do want to intoxicate, as long as I don’t overdose the listener.
What’s your favourite colour?
Janette: Black to wear, blue to look at.
I’ll certainly not be the first person to point out the quite fleshy, thick cultivation of language and imagery in your poems; it’s like an explosion in theatre set! It has about it the opulence of 19th century poetry, and latterly some of the visionary female poets of the 20th century such as Plath and Tonks. Have these been influences?
Janette: An explosion in a theatre set, oh my that sounds dangerous Will! But no you are right, not the first, not the last undoubtedly either. The problem with the opulent 19th century Romantics is that the language obviously doesn’t reflect our generation- it’s almost as if we fear the giddiness and the spices, birdcages and dreams, or nakedness towards landscape; now we prefer the sterility and safety of science, the neatly programmed uniform of technology, the glass, the steel, things that make sense rather than make you swoon. So unless we pull their poetry apart academically at the seams it is difficult to get a gist of what they are saying, to feel what they feel, despite the beauty in which they say it. The scientific rationalization of nature was what they sought to oppose, but their heady delve into universal qualms like love and death have been known to make me drool. The trick for me was in introducing simplicity to the density of my language, if anything to give the reader a breather and pause from the hypnotic images. Plath is always an influence as she is one of the best; most female writers today caught up in the confessional can learn so much from her personal plight, and the way that she depicts it through her selection of language and poetic technique. There is a post-Plathean generation that continues to emanate the female struggle with writing; jealousy, suffering, and juggling motherhood, concepts that are central to what it is to be a woman. Writers like Sexton, Rich, and Plath propagate what it means to not shy away from telling the truth, they encourage us to embrace our femininity and show us that catharses can be an authentic source of our aesthetic experience. Tonks on the other hand, never pulled me in, or made me believe in anything.
You’re an openly queer writer. What does queer mean to you and do you think there is a queer subtext to your writing?
Janette: ‘Queer’ means something peculiar or suspicious in character to me, I think I would rather identify as a lesbian writer. Sexuality is very important when it comes to the type of confessional poetry that I write, it would be impossible to disguise it, so yes I am open, but it is naturally exposed and I am not political about it. But I do know that as a young lesbian writer desperate to relate, I struggled to find good modern poetry, if any at all, written by women about women in a romantic fashion. The latest LGBT anthology I was featured in last year alongside Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay et al called ‘Out There’ published by Freight Books is a good place to start for anyone still searching.
For a while you worked at the Scottish National Gallery of Art, where you developed an interest in ekphrastic poetry, and you’ve since written many excellent examples (particularly ‘The Procuress’ which is based on a Vermeer painting). What makes for a good ekphrastic poem?
Janette: Yes, I worked as a gallery attendant at The National Gallery for four years and found myself in an escapable, and somewhat exhaustible space of writing. I think what is important about good ekphrastic poetry is that it still has to support itself without the original inspiration, through the process of connecting one art to another. For example, although there are very few Vermeer paintings and most of us have an idea of his work, the poem has to stand without the image. It has to say something universal, or even recreate the painting, tell a story, inhabit the scene, interpret, or confront or play around with voices of the subjects by giving them manner and dialogue. But it is also interesting to depict what is beyond the frame, what can be interpreted from absence, what do the things we cannot see tell us.
You’re part of an elite guard who’ve successfully managed to write a pantoum (a very good one). Tell me more about ‘Valentina Tershhkova’.
Janette: Thank you! Valentina Tereshkiova was the first female cosmonaut to be flown into space. She zipped up into pantoum form perfectly, the repetition of the solar system, and the beautiful sounding words reserved for space seemed worthy of repeating and fiddling around with for hours. Her story is inspiring, and she loved her experience so much in the end she offered to orbit to Mars, despite not ever being able to return to Earth.
What other living poets do you like? Let’s be mean – choose five.
Janette: Sinead Morrissey, Bianca Stone, Michael Hofmann, Tamar Yoseloff, Carol Rumens.
That was hard!
What advice would you give to a young poet today?
Janette: Never give up; you have to channel a lot of your energy into ambition, even when there has been more rejections than acceptances thrown at your work, understand that there is a fair mount of luck involved in publishing and personal tastes are divided. Poetry is essential to us as humble humans and there will always be a place for it in the world, so as poets we must keep writing. Keep submitting, keep writing, keep reading and don’t hold your breath too long under water.