Q&A with Jill Jones

A collage of images, including the suburban review Issue 19 cover, a textured orange rectangle, and a greyscale portrait of Jill Jones. Jill has short hair swept across her forehead, dark rimmed glasses, and wears a collared shirt. She is smiling slightly. Her desk is in the background.

JILL JONES was born in Sydney and has lived in Adelaide since 2008. Recent books include A History Of What I’ll Become, Viva the Real, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for Poetry and the 2020 John Bray Award, and Brink. In 2015 she won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry for The Beautiful Anxiety. She is a member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide, where she teaches creative writing and literary studies. Prior to her career as an academic, she was a film reviewer, journalist, book editor, and arts administrator.

Our Associate Editor, Sam, interviews Jill Jones about her poem, ‘Is Anyone Anonymous’, in #19: Echo.

Is Anyone Anonymous’ is a bewildering collection of seemingly disparate moods and scenes, which you somehow bring together to produce a very specific tone. You’ve struck a compelling balance between playful humour and unsettling uncertainty. What provoked this particular poem?

Thanks for those kind comments, Sam. I was provoked, so to speak, by a few things in these strange and surreal times. I had been reading about female composers in the classical realm, as well as certain girl bands or girls in bands in rock/pop/indie/etc., and how a lot of women in music are obscured, disrespected even if famous, or remain little-known. And, from another direction, about how, when you front up to the microphone to sing, play, read a poem, that you’re performing a certain role, wearing a specific mask. A mask isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way, and anonymity can be an advantage as well as a fate, or a non-elite gesture as well as an erasure. Alongside that, I was also thinking about the way social media and surveillance culture, in their own various ways, make it hard to either stay private or be anonymous. Even if you feel as though no-one is listening, someone is, and not always in a good way. So, all these ideas of hiding or revealing. How does anyone try to deal with this? Do you try to outwit the algorithms, try some magic, simply give up and embrace the daily round, put on another mask? The final stanza was me recalling a time when I was on social media, Twitter in fact. The Canadian pianist, Angela Hewitt, was posting short videos of herself playing various pieces while she was holed up somewhere in London due to the COVID lockdown. One of those pieces was the aria from the beginning of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Of course, we usually think of an aria as a song, but it can refer to instrumental music. The connection I made was both with aria or song, either sung or played, and with a female performer playing something in private but also very much in public. In the videos, you’d only see Hewitt’s hands on the piano keys, not her face, but her hands were also reflected in the shiny fallboard of the piano. So, embodied and slightly disembodied, private performance yet shared/watched by thousands. The poem, of course, is full of many other ideas – it certainly toggles around past, present, future and the female body – but music was central and these were some of the touchstones of my thinking around it. The poets I was reading around the time I wrote the poem included Lorine Niedecker and Bhanu Kapil, and some of their thinking around music, gender and incongruity have crept into my poem as well.

You are quite a prolific poet! You’ve published five volumes of poetry since 2014, attracting a number of significant poetry prizes along the way. Can you give us a glimpse into the process of such a productive writer? (Asking for a friend…)

People say that a lot about me and I wonder why. I’m not the only prolific poet/writer/artist in the country, or the world. A good number of poets publish books pretty frequently, and so they should, if they are ready to. Besides, I’ve had years when nothing much got published at all. It comes and it goes. Being productive simply means working, collecting together enough material to keep things moving. I also keep my thinking as fresh as I can and seek ideas from other writers, not just poets, and other artists and thinkers in all areas, or just whatever is happening around me. Also, it helps to get older so you accumulate even more material. It’s one of the very few benefits of getting older. I am still publishing work that I wrote over a decade or more back, or at least began to write back then. I reject plenty of my own stuff, stacks of it, and I still get plenty of rejections. Even then, rejection means it’s something else to work on, to rethink at a later point, or to plunder for working parts that may sit better in another poem. I’m not a great believer in being mystical about writing. It’s work and, sure, there are what you might call revelations from time-to-time, and there are times it flows out more readily than at other times. Just be restless and keep moving things around, in your head, on paper, on screen. Stuff happens in the process. It’s a buzz, it’s frustrating, it’s sometimes boring, like all work. So, take a break, a holiday, breathe a bit, go for a walk, make other things, stare into space. Actually, staring into space is part of the work. I do it a lot and recommend it.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Where can we find you, to keep up with you and your work?

I’m always turning over ideas in my head or on paper. But as for a specific manuscript, or some other kind of project, nothing definite at the moment. I do have ideas that are in early stages and may go somewhere, or nowhere. I am thinking about the monstrous, about ghosts and spirits, or about unruliness, and a dozen brilliant (or not) ideas using form that have never got anywhere. I’m still getting the odd poem published, so keep an eye on various poetry journals. You can get the latest books at either https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/poetry/products/a-history-of-what-ill-become for A History Of What I’ll Become, or https://recentworkpress.com/books/product/wild-curious-air/ for Wild Curious Air. I’ve left Twitter, and though I have a Facebook account, I don’t post there and haven’t for many years. I’ve found both those sites a bit disheartening and certainly time-wasting. I have a relatively new Instagram account at @jill_jones__ and I’ll see how that works out. I won’t mention my website as I haven’t updated it for years. It needs a complete redesign. I have a blog, Ruby Street, https://rubystreet.blogspot.com/, which I’ve not posted to for a while but I plan to revive it.