Ordinary Magic, An Interview With Jennifer Still

By Sharon Caseburg


Sharon Caseburg: Do you believe in magic?

Jennifer Still: Yes! Let’s just say it’s within my sense of the “possible” to
be awestruck quite regularly!

SC: How do you define “magic”?

JS: I think of magic as any form of surprising connection. It’s that resonant,
sparking encounter which seems to be the result of some heightened state
of openness. It is what happens when I am most engaged, alert, or play-
fully attentive. It is that sense of the world becoming something more, or,
to borrow a term from Alice in Wonderland, “curiouser and curiouser.”

SC: How does poetry operate within this definition? What’s so magical
about it?

JS: I think the magic in poetry, in any art form really, is in its making. The
open state I mention above is the space where poetry becomes possible.
I think of poetry as linguistic divination—a two-way bending of meaning
and words. So the poet wanders out, dowsing for the poem that is both
a leaning towards and a drawing up. A following and an attracting. The
magic is in finding this pose, the most intense arc between the words and
the current of meaning by which they are drawn.

This past summer I spent a lot of time at our cabin near Lake Winnipeg.
One day as I was swimming I found myself recalling one of the first poems
I had written many years before, and remembering quite specifically a sin-
gle line from that poem as if I were just beginning to understand, all these
years later, what it was working toward. The poem was called “Swimming
Lessons” and the line was “fresh from chrysalis.” As I swam with this line
in my mind a flutter caught my eye. A pale pink, palm-sized moth flapped
on the water’s surface, drowning likely, quite far from the shore. I caught
it in my hands and carried it back, placing it on my notebook to dry. As I
carried it, I had this feeling that I had encountered my poem, right there in
the lake, saved it in fact, momentarily, from being washed away. The moth,
that I later learned to be an oakworm, eventually died on the page as I
thought the poem I’d written years before had. But the poem comes back.
I’m trying now for the words around this encounter. To cast out towards
the poem as the moth’s ripple on the water cast out to me. It is moments
like this—when the imaginative and the material converge—that I consi-
der charmed. That sense of recognition where the world and my place in it
becomes more poignant and strange.

SC: Do you find when you are in the “zone,” working on a particular piece,
that you are more open to these types of “charmed” experiences, than say
in the regular day to day?

JS: Oh for sure. It can be overwhelming actually, the connections that
present themselves. When I’m really focused on my writing, my poem will
begin to speak to me through odd and wondrous ways. If I’m interested in
prescribed forest burning say, I will learn in the planting of a tree that the
uppermost roots on a sapling are called a “flare.” Later, my son will insist
on lighting birthday candles and snuffing them out with a brass bell. I will
become hyper-sensitive to the scent of smoke, from burnt electrical wires
to a cigar lit across a park. A dental procedure will involve the melted sap
of a tree. Language, image, and associations will begin to present them-
selves all around me and it will be as if I am living inside my poem, as if it
has chosen me and now I must listen and write my way out!

SC: You believe in the transformative nature of poetry. In which ways do
these transformative properties of poetry work?

JS: The transformative nature of poetry for me is in its seemingly bound-
less potential to say something new through a medium that on one level is
as accessible, utilitarian and as ordinary as our thumbs! It’s astounding to
me that the same material that comprises a grocery list and game board
rules can be twisted into a poem! It is in language’s flexibility—the sticky
web of poetry’s footings—that words transform.

For instance, if we try to isolate a word as sound, purely, or rhythm, we
still can’t quite separate it from its meaning, or association within us.
Words are filled with so many threads of their own, they are webs unto
themselves. Place one word beside another and poof, we have meaning!
Neruda’s hat of night flying full of holes offers up a new idea of the stars—
what is perceived to be in multiples could perhaps be one blinding light. So
metaphor becomes a kind of alchemy. A particle is smashed and recon-
figured. Our perception is transformed. The poem is not the words unto
themselves, but the elixir of their combined presence.

Much resides in a poem’s betwixt location, that significant stretch be-
tween language as we know it and everything we haven’t said, what we
may understand at some level but hold away from ourselves, just outside
of words. It is when we encounter language for our speechlessness that we
transform our thinking and ways of experiencing the world.

SC: Are you superstitious?

JS: Just a bit (knock on wood).

SC: Are there any particular charms or talismans you hold dear?

JS: There are two parts to this for me. The first is the conceptual charm:
the charm of words and the images I’ve tied to them. As I create through
language I am trying to make words more tangible, to hear through them
the way one would with a shell held to the ear, listening for the larger con-
text from which they are a part. And so it is that the most concrete charac-
ter form of a word, its smallest, hardest, seed-like state, that has become,
increasingly, a touchstone for me.

However, I’m also very fond of objects. This is the second part for me.
There’s always a question for me whether or not I’m writing a poem or
creating an object, something meant to exist more spherical than textual.
I always have an extreme object version of my poems in mind when I’m
working on them. I like to imagine what my poem would look like if I could
lift it off the page and hold it in my hands. I am interested in the poem with-
out words, if that makes any sense. What is its elemental form? Which
of course isn’t anything likely to simply be found. To think of the poem as
charm, as a physical shape helps me to see what I’m creating. As a result,
in writing, I often encounter objects that seem to have fallen right out of
my poems.

SC: Has any particular object or talisman sparked the creation of a poem?

JS: Very clearly, yes, many and actually all my projects have a central
material-world figure. A central image is very useful to me in locating my
writing. If something tangible, say, as a hummingbird sits at the center of
large conceptual ideas such as “beauty” or “capture” or “being seen,” then
I have a counterweight to anchor the line as I cast out for the poem. Even
if the bird flits away, the pendant center of the poem is clear to me, the
bronze cast around which the words were formed remains suspended on
some level.

Right now the image of a rose bowl is at the center of my next work. You
know, those glass water bowls from the fifties that preserved flowers? I’m
fascinated by the concept of “eternal bloom” or what was meant to be!
My great-grandmother had one that I spent many hours gazing into like a
crystal ball, as if the rose blossom was the dress of a dancer that might be
caught in there. I haven’t held one for years but I can still sense the weight
and gloss of it.

SC: Do the transformative or magical properties of poetry change when
poetry is spoken or read out loud?

JS: They can—for better or for worse, I think. Reading one’s poetry to an
audience is an opportunity for the poem to live anew really. It’s a chance
to enter that open field yet again with the work! Mostly I am interested in
chance, improvisation, spontaneity, and how this intimate, lived, embo-
died version of the work can recast the poem, both for the reader and for
the audience.

With my last book I felt it necessary to recite a sequence of poems I call
“Tracks” because they were far more alive under my skin than they were
on the page. They were composed more as chant, written with speed and
rhythm and not necessarily for the page at all. It’s funny, but every time I
recite one of these pieces my nerves momentarily dissolve. The reading
is not about me suddenly. I am not this fraud-feeling poet looking embar-
rassingly down at a page in public. Instead, I am completely untethered
from the book. I am back in that place between heart and poem I guess. I
am the poem, for those 90 seconds, perhaps in the same way a musician
might become her song. I never have post-reading remorse after a recita-
tion the way I often do after a straight-ahead reading.

SC: How does the incantation of poetry affect you?

JS: Incantatory work calls for a listening, a spine of presence, that is far
more visceral than it is intellectual. The rhythms of the incantatory or
recited poem are as important as the words. It is a form that lives more
in the air, in its act or ritual, than on the page. It is more intimate and
internal than a poem simply read. In incantation, the page is stripped away.
The poem is immediate, imperative, on a level more akin to original com-
position than refined document. The heaviness of song in incantation is
more rhythm than lyric. The poet more conjurer than orator. A secret text
is evoked.

Perhaps it is this secret text we are holding out for, what we believe words
might contain for us, that gives poetry its magic: this potential to be turned
toward something new, to reveal ourselves back to ourselves, to be spelled
out to our desires.

1 Neruda, Pablo, The Book of Questions, trans. William O’Daly, Copper-Canyon Press, 2nd edition, 2001.


Jennifer Still is the recipient of the 2012 John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer. Her second collection of poems, Girlwood (Brick Books, 2011), was nominated for the 2012 Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. A faculty member of the 2013 Banff Centre of the Arts Wired Writing Studio and a poetry editor for the literary journal CV2, Jennifer lives within hopeful proximity of Philip’s Magical Paradise, the only magic museum in Western Canada.

This interview is featured in 10:1 “Magic”. To view other work published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is available as a digital feature with additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!