Tea Gerbeza interviews Jennifer Still
Jennifer Still (she/her) explores intersections of language and material forms in her home town in Treaty 1 territory (now known as Winnipeg, MB, Canada). She is the author of three poetry collections, Girlwood (Brick Books, 2011), Comma (Book*hug 2017), Saltations (Thistledown, 2005) and a few handmade chapbooks. Her threaded poems appeared in the group exhibition Illuminations (Mentoring Artists for Women in the Arts, 2018) at Aceart Inc. and The Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. She has served as a mentor and editor and is currently completing her fourth collection, an illuminated long poem composition with pinholes, a light table, electric typewriter and carbon sheets.
Tea Gerbeza: What are you currently working on?
Jennifer Still: I’m up to my eyes in a manuscript of dots and holes. It all started when I pressed a pin through a page and erased a word with light. The page was a turn-of-the-century study of the honeybee by Belgian playwright and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck. The language was ecstatic and magical and the hundred-year-old paper yellowed and soft.
This piercing erasure, back when I discovered it in 2015, was more of a code than a poem. A series of perforations with a word saved here and there. A lacy structure that threatened to shatter.
I was fresh in the shock of losing my mother very quickly to lung cancer. I felt far from words, far from being able to read even. There was no text or tradition that could comfort my atheist heart, so I started making one up (a text that is—though also my heart). Flipping through Maeterlinck’s reverie of the bees felt gentle. As I grazed over his bee language, I circled words that shimmered and started to connect them into a lifted text. I came across an image of a honeycomb structure that looks like the zigzag stitch on my mother’s sewing machine. I ran a page through the feed dog, trying to puncture out a line, but the book was old, the pages too brittle, so it just tore. So instead, with the same forward motion of a stitch, I used a needle tool to punch out the words, point by point. It was mesmerizing. So detailed and final and clear. Something about the rhythmic labour. The tactile crack of fibres under my tip. The minute sound of rupture. The daily piercings became a monotonous, domestic on and on and on, that left a type of ellipses when I looked back. It wasn’t long before the physicality of the piercing was as important as the words I was saving. It was a kind of unwriting, anti-writing even. It was lovely to make a mark that didn’t sound, that didn’t need anything more from me. But yet it still communicated something. And then the magic happened. One day I held the page to the light and all the saved words floated into view, as if right off the page, surrounded by those tiny pinpricks. It was a beautiful encounter, words and light, and it felt dangerous too, like I was testing the page to see how much it could be devastated and still maintain structure. Physically and lyrically. How could a page hold absence and light? It was all very beautiful and spoke to me and I followed it. I can see now how that initial work was an acute document of separation which of course, is ultimately about connection. Kind of like the track a stitch leaves in fabric when a seam has been ripped. Every text I’ve made since has grown out of these tiny piercings. Every page I’ve composed has a transparency to it—a scratch in carbon paper, a letter cut from a powdered typewriter ribbon—a physical passage that streams light.
Right now, I’m combining all my dot and hole compositions—carbon sheets through electronic typewriter, letter cut-outs on a daisywheel ribbon, pierced pages—into a cohesive collection for traditional book form. The text has become a single unpunctuated line. It’s as if I’ve fallen through those first piercings to learn they’re not absences at all, but vowels. A long line of vowels calling out from the center of a voice that has a lot to say. The illuminated poems have taken the shape of a single hundred-page poetic line. It’s quite exasperating. And exciting. And a wallop to edit.
The fullest vision is a poem that can only be fully read when held to the light. So, I will hopefully share the physical manuscripts illuminated in a gallery, or shared digitally, for a three-dimensional experience of the work.
TG: What have you learned through working on your current project about the intersections of language and material forms?
JS: That I’m interested in the tiniest, intricate marks of language. And that a poem is not limited to existing on a page. It can be a performance, an animation, an installation and a book. I’m interested in the embodied experience of poetry and poem making—the implement one uses to compose, the possibilities of what might constitute “a page” and how a poem can be shared and read as a three-dimensional experience.
I’ve learned that using an analog method for composition—a method that can’t be saved in any permanent, stable way, nor neatly revised with a delete key—is a very productive way for me to work. Though slow, it is also wildly informative. There’s more at risk when I type a word into an antique sheet of carbon. I press myself into form before pressing the key in a different way. Using a typewriter allows me to move ahead and ahead with a rhythm, the words leave a physical imprint in the world, and at their moment of impact they make a very loud percussive sound that feels like music. Composing on a typewriter reminds me of the impact of the written word, that every character is a strike.
The physicality of my work guides my process and content. When I first shared my pierced poems on a light table at a University of Manitoba Archives poetry symposia, the light through my pages created a kind of starry effect, a glitter beside me as I read. Later, when I was Writer-in-Residence at the U of M’s Center for Creative Writing and Oral Culture, I collaborated with the U of M’s Star Factory planetarium to project my poems up into the dome and perform a reading in the dark.
I find lifting the poem into material forms allows for physical iterations that add and extend meaning, that can be translated into performance. This is just how my imagination works. In a very physical way. The page as constellation, the page as a sifter of light.
The ways to experience a text are greatly altered when one explores language with the physicality of the page in mind and I highly recommend it as a writing exercise. For instance, a poet could ask themselves what is the object version of my poem? and see where this takes them in language.
I guess for me, poetry has always been about creating openings and connection and pluralities. And making things up. That language exists because I can imagine it, because you and I here in our bodies can imagine it, makes me want to acknowledge the physical body that makes all this imagining possible. I just don’t want to forget the body, the hand, in my work.
TG: In your recent collaborated chapbook, Table for Four, there are fragments of lines on paper strips that you paper-weave into a visual poem. Could you talk about what the process of paper weaving is like? How do you approach creating a paper-woven poem? How do you “revise” it?
JS: I assembled that poem like latticing pastry on a pie! It was a joy. And my solution to the collaborative challenge: making a poem out of 16 lines chosen from 4 different poets. Somehow allowing the physical structure of the weave to guide the poem was a way to handle the words of others with playful respect. Or maybe it was cowardly. I deferred lyric responsibility to the form! All the lines remained whole while also being partially obscured and altered. I love how the words interact individually at all the little warp and weft cross-sections. And that the weaving is two-sided and can be read in different directions. The words land where they land in such structures and one can really only observe and listen to what is there.
Once the weave was done, the words were set and so the revision was more about listening for how best to arrange it within the manuscript and how to present it visually (white strips on a black background, black strips on a white background, front and back on a single page, front and back on two sides of the same page?). Still lots to consider. I enjoy pieces that are set by form like this, like your paper strip weave through the quill.
TG: What draws you to the long poem form? How is that work different than a more traditional collection of poetry?
JS: My experience as an artist has been one of adapting, self-study, making things up. Making everything up is so exciting to me. I do admire tradition and rules and forms, but they’re not where I come from. The short answer is that the long poem affords me the most room to make things up. It allows me to go as far as possible with a subject or an idea. It allows me to circle and extend and refract and repeat. It seems to be the form that is most open to movement, digression, polyphony, possibility, inventiveness, experimentation, visual shape. The long poem can really look like anything. Eventually it defines itself and I love this. I imagine its shape something that exists in the sensed unknown, but needs to be found. Like an ultrasound of an inner voice that says this is what my silence looks like.
I don’t hear poetry in discrete anecdotes, rather I hear it in waves and rushes, rhythms more akin to swimming than, say, diving. There’s no definite beginning or end to the long poem, in my experience. When I read a long poem, it feels more like I’ve stepped into a current that is just a point in a much longer force. It has endurance and sustained rhythm and can end and begin mid-stroke.
TG: During my mentorship with you this past summer, we had a conversation about how we both loved the ongoingness of a long work rather than the final end result. What is your favourite part of this continuing?
JS: The refusal of a definitive end.
TG: Describe your revision process. What is the charm that you hold close as you revise? What is the most challenging?
JS: This fall I adopted a methodical daily revision schedule that involved building a bonfire in my backyard at sunset, pouring a cup of tea, and sitting down with my full hardcopy manuscript and reading and pencilling-in notes, a few pages a day. The next morning, I would sit at my laptop and make my revisions and then use these old, marked-up pages to start my fire in the evening. I got through 100+ dense pages this way. It got to the point where I didn’t really have to refer to my pencilled-in notes because I would simply remember them as I scrolled through the word file. That might be an editing charm—when I make the same edits twice—once on hardcopy and later in a digital file without referring to the hard copy.
When I got to the end of those pages, I printed everything off again and am now in the read-aloud stage, where I start with the first page and edit to my voice. It’s really slow. And a great way to memorize an entire book. And I often just go back to the pencilling in minor edits and also the scratching out of a long section and the writing of a new. It’s all very dynamic and though my process is methodical and linear, the fluidity of the actual writing is not.
This current project, being an unpunctuated long line is the most challenging edit I’ve ever attempted because I’m punctuating an entire poem with cadence. The pacing is embodied, entirely held in the ear and the voice, without any punctuation to guide needs every syllable, and every clause structure to go just the right way. Every word tugs on another so it’s a tight weave to mess with. Kind of like untangling lace or something. It might be impossible to ever get it just right. I’ll let you know!
I love your phrasing “the charm you hold close.” For me, it’s how the poem exists in my imagination when the page is put away and the laptop closed. When I close my eyes, what impression does the poem hold? Can I see it? Does it have an atmosphere, a texture, a colour? And most important, what is the gravitational noun the entire poem pulls to? If I can see this, if I can hang the entire poem on a single word, a concrete image, then I’m pretty certain the poem has a center. If I can’t, then I keep printing and note-taking and reading and resting it and returning until it can be held in my imagination as a defined thing.
As I’m sure you suspect by now, the most challenging part of revision remains finishing. Because the nature of a long poem is, in a way, to refuse an end. I’m good at listening to possibility and pluralities, what a poem might also be. But to commit to finishing is always the hardest part. Usually, I work myself to a point of exhaustion where I just don’t have the energy to refuse an ending any longer. Or something else has caught my attention and the ending becomes a necessity so I can move on. Or there’s a deadline, like the one you’ve given me for this interview. I have another idea tugging on me now for a next work, so I do need to finish up this one. Not ending really is my specialty.
TG: My mentorship with you was marvellously life-altering for me in so many ways, particularly the introduction of paper quilling into my poetic process—a suggestion you made! During the mentorship, you mentioned once that our work together has helped you with your own process for your current project. Could you discuss what your process is like now and how it has changed? What was unlocked for you?
JS: Though I can’t think of a specific example I know this is true because of the way your interview questions have ignited that same feeling of reflective clarity in me this week as I jotted and responded. Our conversation, present tense, helps me reflect on where I am, what I’m doing, how I got here, and where I might be going. Your refined openness, Tea, got me right from the start. The generosity of your responses in words, quilling, photographic image—it just all makes me braver in my work too.
Right now, I’m recalling the afternoon we sat together (in our different provinces) with all your pages before us and we worked as if at the same table considering all the poems you had created and we saw that certain groupings could be opened up and woven throughout the manuscript and we shuffled pages and we listened and shuffled some more. This generous listening and gazing together is where magic happens. I’ve had the same experience with my mentors—Sylvia Legris, Daphne Marlatt, Liz Philips—and it’s exhilarating. This intense listening over a page with another poet is how I’ve made my way completely as an artist. It’s where growth and risk happen, and ideally, if both parties are invested and listening, it’s never just one way.
TG: Paper quilling has reminded me of the importance of the process of building, of using the small individual piece to help the whole. How has your work with textiles influenced your writing practice?
JS: That’s a really beautiful way to connect quilling and writing. My work with textile has been on the level of thread. That single unspooling line is definitely akin to the unravelling webbed motion of the long poem. Creating that word cord that goes on and on. The multivocal braiding or twining of lines and voices. Maybe its helpful to think of the long poem as a loom. A frame for the warp and weft of multiple narrative strands to fall through each other and hold.
But my working with thread is not traditional either (I installed my pierced poems with a veil of thread falling through each hole). I can’t read a sewing pattern, I’m just in love with what a thread does. Was it the long poem that brought me to this aesthetic or the aesthetic that brought me to the long poem? Which informs which, the thread or the poem?
Installation artist and visual poet Anne Hamilton says that all stitching is an act that joins the “close-at-hand” to the “underneath-we-can’t-see.” “Stitching,” says Anne, “is a kind of suturing of the visible to the invisible.” I love to think of words this way. My pinholes, too. That act of trying to connect what is felt and seen right before us to what we can’t quite get at.
Lately I’ve been thinking about organic fibres, textual fibres, the fibres of the human body (text n. from the Latin textus means tissue, body, that which is woven webbed textured). Skin as the largest organ, the body as a type of cloth we wear, reach through. The intimacy of clothing, cloth, has been especially acute for me as I deal with my mother’s wardrobe. The personal scent a fibre holds. I took a weaving course a year ago and was so delighted to learn that the “hand” of a fabric is a term for the drape of a cloth. The hand of a cloth. That image of a hand reaching through.
TG: You taught me the importance of asking myself the question “how much do I reveal?” while revising my poems. How do you approach this question? How do you decide what remains the secret of your book or what needs to be released?
JS: Will I ever be aware of the secret in my work the way my poem is aware? Probably not. The gauge for what to say and what to protect is so personal and evolving. To paraphrase Robert Kroetsch, I hope that by carefully acknowledging my own concealment I will make way for the story. Thinking back to Anne Hamilton—push the needle through to that underside, that unknown. That is where the secret lives for me. I go there delicately. I feel as long as I’m reaching into that unknown—through language, through material exploration, through subject—then I’m touching it, I’m entering the atmosphere of some learning, some tension. The language I access from this exciting place—I trust this is what I am ready to learn. I guess rather than think in terms of what not to reveal, I trust the draw. Make make make, I say. Just keep making and you are in the secret of it all.
TG: Creating is often a solitary practice and since the pandemic, even more so. How have you fostered community during the pandemic? Has the pandemic changed your writing practice?
JS: I’m very solitary and intimate in my work and life so for the most part I maintain the rhythms and community connections as before, with just a bit more silence around everything.
But there have been shifts and opportunities. The week before the pandemic was announced, video artist Chantel Mierau and I shot a sewing circle duet using our twin Brother sewing machines. The collaboration was a first for us both and absolutely thrilling–unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Then, shortly after, just before lockdown, I made a stop-motion typewriter poem with musician/poet/collage artist Christine Fellows that felt like the pinnacle of what a collaboration could be. It was such a gift to have these expansive experiences at a time when the world was narrowing. It was like a window had been thrown open on my usual solitary practice and voila—the wind that swept through took my breath away! There are so many skills they offered that I can’t, and maybe I offered something to them too. And in this way, I saw how collaboration was both magical and efficient. One person can’t do it all always. So, I think collaboration will be a major way to continue to foster community and to evolve as an artist.
In terms of artistic practice, I’ve built a light table and taken a hand-drawn animation workshop and have created a series of stop motion poem gifs, which is a new development in my work—animating poems digitally. I’m surprised by my energy for online and digital dissemination and do feel the way I share my work is changing.
There were a few weeks in the fall when we were allowed a guest or two on our property. I hosted a series of informal one-on-one bonfires with poet and artist friends and hope to continue these intimate conversations when we’re out of the polar vortex here and can share a fireside again. I’m not sure I would have carved time and space for such focused conversations like this if we weren’t in a pandemic, to be honest. That caring for community, that creating of space for intimate conversation, feels more poignant and fragile than ever.
I just had a vision of us continuing this chat by fireside one day too. Bring poems!
Interview by Tea Gerbeza (she/her), a disabled queer poet, writer and multimedia artist creating in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, SK) and on the Homeland of the Métis Nation. Tea’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Release All the Words Stuck Inside You III, Room Magazine, antilang., and spring, among others. Find out more on teagerbeza.com.