In Conversation with Amanda Jernigan

Photo by Patrik Jandak
The Atwater library in downtown Montreal, housed in an early 20th century building designated a National Historic Site, has hosted excellent poetry readings for several years now. Recently I heard Amanda Jernigan there. The light that came slanting in as she read -- well, it came in through the high arched windows, but might as well have come from her poems.

SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry—or, if you prefer, brought poetry to you—in the first place?

AMANDA JERNIGAN: Poetry and family have always been intertwined, for me. My maternal grandfather loved to recite poems, and to read them aloud. I associate my earliest experiences of poetry with his and my grandmother’s house in Virginia: a magical place, full of his books, her dioramas and collections (she was an installation-artist manqué). And also with a family camp in northern Wisconsin, where my grandfather’s mother (this vein runs generations deep) had painted on the cabin rafters lines from Ralph Hodgson (‘Time, you old gipsy man …’) and George Borrow (‘Life is sweet, brother …’: a passage from Borrow’s prose-work Lavengro, but one that became, out of context, a short poem).

SG: Your poems seek, and find, the echo-chambers of their language, so that your subjects resonate musically as much as imagistically. Would you say that sound is what instigates a poem, is where the poem comes from, or is it something that develops as you work up the seeds of an idea into its eventual form?

AJ: Your wording seems to me apt: sound in my poems is ‘something that develops as [I] work up the seeds of an idea into its eventual form.’ Which is to say that, usually, the ‘idea’ (a nexus of images, a pattern that connects) comes first. And yet: it usually becomes clear to me at some point, when I am working on the poem, that I have a certain aural ‘shape’ in mind; finishing the poem becomes a matter of listening to it, and then of rendering it as accurately as I can on the page, using the tools of syntax and prosody. So, in this sense, perhaps sound does come first, if only at some pre-conscious level. As Northrop Frye says, many writers compose in such a way that they are filling out a rhythm, one internally heard in advance of the words that will come to comprise it. Such rhythms tend to bubble up out of deep wells. In an interview in the current issue of Canadian Notes & Queries, Michael Harris says that his taste in poetry is in no small measure a function of the Scottish speech- and song-rhythms he absorbed from his father, while young.

I tend to feel that the form of a poem (and when I say ‘a poem,’ I really mean, ‘one of my poems’ — this is a personal, not a general, prescription) should be aurally implicit: a listener should be able to ‘hear’ the shape of a poem, in the absence of any typographical cues. (Not all of my poems work this way, but many of them do.) I suppose this means that I am in some way, at root, an oral poet — for all that I love the look of words on a page, the shapes of letters, words, and stanzas.

And I should say that I am drawn to rhyme and meter for reasons mnemonic as well as aesthetic: I like to make poems that a reader (or the writer) can carry around in her mind — poems that can go back into the world of recitation, out of which, it seems, poetry first came to me.

SG: What is inspiring your work these days? 

AJ: I have a two-year-old, and another child on the way. Given the proliferation of mombooks on the market, you might think motherhood an exhausted subject — for books, if not for poetry. But if you think about the poems that have come down to us in English, the great body of them are written by men (in the fifth ed. of The Norton Anthology of Poetry — the table of contents of which represents decades of scholarly excavation, to retrieve the works of female poets — still only a fifth of the poems are by women). This is not to say there have not been great poems of motherhood, written by both men and women. But I feel that there are many unexplored possibilities here, still, both thematic and formal. (It is tempting to say, ‘The great poem of motherhood has yet to be written.’ But that’s really just a pep-talk to myself. And, lately I’ve been wondering if in fact the great poem of motherhood has been written, and it’s Janet Lewis’s ‘A Lullaby’.)

I was reading recently Dan Chiasson’s review of new work by the American poet Rachel Zucker, in The New Yorker. He talks about her work as that rare thing, a poetry of motherhood that gives the effect of having been actually ‘written … under the conditions it describes.’ I’m still not often able to write under the conditions of early motherhood, all-consuming as it is: there just isn’t the time to work up an idea, often, even when the idea is there. Which often, it isn’t: so much of early motherhood is averbal. One tends to think in ways that are other than linguistic. But, then, great poems are made as much out of silence as they are out of speech, and I tell myself that the way to new poems is to immerse myself more deeply in this seeming interruption, rather than to bridle at it.

Motherhood does make me read the old stories, Christian and Classical, in new ways. So there is, as often in my work, an element of reading/rereading, in those new poems that I have managed to write. ‘[D]eath also / can still propose the old labors,’ Robert Creeley writes in his poem ‘Heroes’; it turns out that life can still propose the old labours (and the old labour), too.

Amanda Jernigan lived for many years on the east coast of Canada, and now lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with her husband, the artist John Haney, and their growing family. She is the author of two books of poems, Groundwork and All the Daylight Hours, and of the monograph Living in the Orchard: The Poetry of Peter Sanger. She edited The Essential Richard Outram, and is currently at work on a critical edition of Outram's poems. Read her poem "Stille" here.