Amanda Jernigan (pictured here at her husband’s studio with an Adana hand press, photo credit: John Haney) is a poet, playwright, essayist and editor. Her first collection is Groundwork: poems (Biblioasis, 2011); her poems also appear in Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry, edited by Robyn Sarah (Cormorant Books, 2011). She lives and works in Hamilton, Ontario, with her husband, the artist John Haney.
Carmelo Militano interviewed Amanda Jernigan in January, 2012.
Your collection is structured [in] three sections: (1) Excavations, poems centred around an archaeological dig, (2) First Principals, the Garden of Eden myth, (3) [Journeywork], the Odyssey and the Iliad. Each section is an attempt to see or reimagine what was left out either by the passing of time or in the original telling. The poems, if you will, are an attempt at finding detail obscured, lost, or neglected and giving a fresh voice to characters such as Penelope. All this is by way of asking: How do you see the poems in each sequence working? Do you see each sequence [as] independent of the other[s] or do you see the sequences interacting with each other? Do the poems echo each other in your view?
These are difficult questions for a poet to answer: how do you see your poems working? how do they relate to one another? They are, of course, the questions, and to answer them directly feels unmannerly — as if I were stealing from the reader the opportunity for a direct encounter with the text. (Good readers often ignore what writers say about their own work, of course — but it still seems a courtesy to be a touch evasive here!)
But I will say this:
Each of the three sequences was composed, for the most part, independently, prior to my sense that I might gather them into a triptych; but once the idea of a triptych was conceived, I began to sense the through-lines — and these through-lines ultimately became very important to me. The last poem in Excavations, and a handful of the poems in Journeywork, were written with the whole of the book in mind, as were the dedication poem and the ‘Envoi’.
As for your question as to whether the poems echo one another: they do. This became clear to me as I read the three sequences together, and I’m delighted by it. I’d like to think that, among other things, the poems ring the changes on a set of crucial (to me) words and images. This wasn’t something that I planned — but repetitions, and the contexts of memory and oblivion in which they occur, are very much at the heart of the book, thematically, so it’s no surprise that repetitions also crop up in the form.
Did you have a model or models in your head (other poems or other books) as your work progressed or did you impose the structure after you had a whole batch of poems? How do you see the four wood [engravings] done by your husband functioning in this collection?
Well, I began writing poem-sequences — alongside the other, autonomous lyrics that I had been working on for some time — after I had been exposed to other poets’ work in that form. Of course, most poets have written sequences at one point or another: but I was particularly intrigued by what Richard Outram, Jay Macpherson, and George Johnston had done with the form — by the arch theatricality of their sequences. I hadn’t encountered that tone in lyric verse before. It’s years, now, since my first encounters with those authors. I’d like to think that Groundwork tips its hat to them, while also going its own way.
Of course, each of the sequences in Groundwork is quite different from the other sequences in the book, and this is the case formally as well as thematically: this is something that I think is reflected in John’s wood engravings.
The idea of including the wood engravings in the book came out of my desire to have the book evince the creative world from which the poems had come, a world characterized by, among other things, collaboration. More or less yearly since 2000, John and I had hand-printed a poem of mine, and paired it with a photograph of his, as a kind of Christmas keepsake to send round to family and friends. These began as ‘occasional’ works, but as the years went by they became more and more of a piece with our respective, ongoing art practices. Three of the poems in Groundwork first saw print in our letterpress keepsakes.
John has been doing wood engraving since 2006, though always as something of a sideline to his work in other forms. But he likes the way that printed engravings share the page with printed type, and so has been experimenting with engraving as, in particular, a counterpart to poetry. He tells me he conceives of the engravings in Groundwork (particularly the three of them that serve as frontispieces to the three sequences) as visual riddles, each of them working on a number of levels, ringing the changes on a set of crucial images — much as the poems ring their changes on crucial terms.
Then, too, I liked the idea of including wood engravings for their visual and haptic qualities: each of them has its genesis in an actual wood block, a physical object — so they are sculptural, artifactual, as well as imagistic. The book has a lot to do with artifacts, and what becomes of them: ‘the artifacts of trouble’, as the speaker puts it in the poem ‘The Scholar’ — but also the artifacts of art, and of daily living.
What is it, in your view, about the Garden of Eden myth and the Odyssey and the Iliad that has been attracting both readers and writers for centuries? What brought you to reread and retell those stories?
Well, everything. These are what the poet Peter Sanger might call ‘civilizational’ stories: they gather in to themselves about as much as a story can hold about the experience of being human. Which is, of course, an exclusive and exclusionary experience — so no one story can tell it all. Still, we construct these arcs, these myths. Their capacity is the capacity of human life: finite, but, to us, all there is.
After each sequence there seems to be a feeling of undefined loss, even in your surreal poems or comic ones. Also, your poems aim to be a series of delicate mediations that end with either a certain uneasy lightness or elusiveness. I am thinking, for example, of the poem ‘Islands’ which I like very much, and an early poem by way of example, ‘The Fieldworker’, which I also enjoyed. Can you comment on how you see the process of starting and ending a poem in this collection? What effect are you aiming for with your endings?
If a poem ends too neatly — if it lets me off the hook — I know that, as the poet, I’ve failed somehow. The trick is to close the box while still leaving it open.
Strangely, I find it harder to talk about beginnings. Richard Outram writes: ‘We begin / at our beginnings, which are never-ending.’
And then there’s the question of loss. The writer Mike Barnes once told me he thinks of my poems as ‘startled elegies’, and I think there’s something to that. I like the ambiguity of the phrase: it could mean that I write poems that find themselves startled by loss, by the elegaic — or that I write elegies that find themselves startled by life, by the ongoing. I think I do a bit of both.
I was a bit startled by the blurb on the back that says your collection of poems [is] a ‘reworking of European myth on the order of Yeats’ The Tower’ and that your poems ‘form a devastating critique of contemporary aesthetics’. Is this the over-enthusiastic blurbing of a publicist or was your work indeed inspired by Yeats and a reaction to contemporary aesthetics? If so, can you describe your thoughts on both subjects and how they affected your poetic aesthetic? If not, who are the poets [who] influenced your development and aesthetic?
The uncredited text on the back of Groundwork was written by Tara Murphy, publishing assistant at Biblioasis and, yes, my publicist, among many other things. (She was copy-editor of the book, and at that stage gave me a fine and generous reading of Groundwork in the context of western literature, which sent me back to the book with new eyes.)
Writers would be in a bad way if they believed everything their publicists wrote about them; on the other hand, writers would be in a bad way if they believed nothing their publicists wrote about them. And it happens that Tara, in addition to being a publicist, is a tremendously erudite scholar and poet — so I do trust both her judgment and her literary integrity.
And for that reason, I don’t want to speak for her! But I suspect that what she is getting at, with the bit about Yeats, is less a matter of influence (though there are Yeatsian echoes in Groundwork) than a matter of shared ambition and intention: Groundwork is a wholesale reworking of European myth (as is The Tower). And this brings me back to your first question. ‘Each section [of Groundwork] is an attempt to see or reimagine what was left out either by the passing of time or in the original telling [of a myth],’ you write. I can see the truth in that, but I didn’t think of the mythological poems in that way, as I was working on them. I didn’t want to fill in the ‘gaps’ in those stories; I wanted to wholly reinhabit those stories, as an actor reinhabits a role. I wanted to live and move and breathe in them — and in so doing, of course to change them; and be changed by them, too. This may sound wildly ambitious, but I feel that any writer does the same, when he or she is working honestly with traditional materials.
As for contemporary aesthetics: well, there are more versions of contemporary aesthetics than you can shake a stanza at. The Nintendo sets of ‘The Cartographer’, the petrochemical canary of ‘The Birds of Paradise’, represent one sort of contemporary aesthetic: and certainly the book is a critique of that ‘aesthetic’. But I’d like to think that there are subtler dichotomies of aesthetic and critique at work — that the book is, at times, self-critical. After all, its scholars and night guards, its lovers and beasts, speak back and forth to one another. They also speak to me.