Lynn Jenner interview

by Guy Somerset / 22 July, 2011
A chat with the winner of the Best First Book Award for Poetry in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.
Lynn Jenner, who didn’t begin writing until she was 49, won the Best First Book Award for Poetry in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for her debut collection, Dear Sweet Harry, which she completed while studying for an MA at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is now working on a second book as part of a PhD there. Dear Sweet Harry was described by Hugh Roberts in his Listener review as a “simply exhilarating” poetic sequence “that weaves together scraps of found material, family history, speculation and archival research pertaining to Harry Houdini, Mata Hari, Jewish history, the author’s grandfather’s World War I experiences, Katherine Mansfield, early treatment of tuberculosis, locomotive whistle-signal codes and god knows what else into a kind of fun-house mirror-world evocation of the early 20th century”. Jenner will pick up her prize at next Wednesday’s New Zealand Post Book Awards ceremony in Wellington, and talks to the Listener for today's National Poetry Day.

On National Poetry Day last year, you were launching Dear Sweet Harry. You must be pleased with the distance you’ve travelled in those 12 months? Yes, and I guess I would have been happy and not surprised if it had all been a lot different. I was not expecting the book to do some of these things it has recently done. So, yeah, I have been pleased and surprised.

What does it mean to have the award’s affirmation? I read what Laurence Fearnley said in her interview in a recent issue of the Listener. She said it’s cool to pretend it’s not a big deal [winning an award] but it actually is quite a big deal. It is always really nice to think some people you don’t know have enjoyed the book. That’s what I took from [winning the award]. That the people that made up the judging panel had been able to get into the book and find aspects of it enjoyable. And that’s a really fantastic thing as a writer.

And Helen Heath noted on her blog that earlier you even got a good review from, as she put it, the “notoriously grumpy” Hugh Roberts. That’s right [laughs]. It’s kind of banal to say it but you really don’t know what your work means to other people when you send it out there and you don’t know whether it’s going to be accessible to a range of people and what sorts of people. Because mine is a reasonably unconventional book. I’m never surprised when people say, “What is it? It’s weird” [laughs], and I’m really positively surprised when people find it able to be engaged with.

Did you want it to be accessible? Some poets don’t really care, that’s not paramount to them. It isn’t the main thing I was thinking about. I guess what I was thinking about was – and I think in some ways this would be something lots of writers would say – I had a kind of an internal sense of a story and I wanted to make my writing as close as possible to this feeling of it I had.

The book features as major strands your grandfather, family, shortwave radio, Harry Houdini, Mata Hari, trains … Tuberculosis.

That’s true. And Katherine Mansfield, of course. How did those connections emerge for you? Was it always planned as an entity or did it become more cohesive as you were writing individual poems? I think it would be fair to say at certain times it seemed cohesive and I had a sense of it as an entity and then at other times I had less of that. And that would sort of come and go at different points in writing it. I started writing it in 2007 and I had a few poems about Houdini when I started the MA in 2008. And at the start of 2008, I had a bit of an idea of how I could write a book about World War I by following some people around during that time. And then during the year, there would have been quite a bit of time when I didn’t think that was what I was doing [laughs]. Then in the middle of the year, it kind of coalesced into being roughly that kind of story. Then it was easy enough to follow some different strands and try to construct something that seemed to have a little bit of balance.

Harry Houdini, Mata Hari – these would have been pretty fascinating figures to research. Absolutely. And as you can see from some of the little snippets in the book, there was some distinct possibility that I would never emerge from that research [laughs]. I do love research and these were very, very rich veins of research, both of them.

And also, I’d think, fascinating figures to play with in your imagination. You talk in the back of the book about how you’re not keeping strictly to the facts of their lives. No. I guess I began with Houdini and I felt after a while, after some months of reading about him, that I had quite a strong sense of him as a man. Like knowing someone. And so it wasn’t difficult to imagine some other situations other than the real ones – how he might have acted or what he might have done. So, for example, when I had him engaging in charity and giving money to Mata Hari, he was famous for his acts of kindness towards other failed and old artists.

So that was a complete fabrication on your part, that poem? It was, but it was the kind of thing he used to do. He used to give money to the widows of old magicians and things like that.

There’s a striking scene in a hospital where he wants to talk to a tunnel worker who survives after exploding “through twenty feet of river silt, up through the river itself, and forty feet into the air on the crest of a geyser”. Is that true or fiction? The story about the men coming out of the river is true. The part about Houdini is apocryphal. Some people say that’s what happened. I’m not dead sure that it’s true.

And did your grandfather really see him perform? As far as I know not.

Not. So was that made up to tie his story more tightly in with Houdini’s? It’s an artistic representation of something I felt. I felt there were a significant number of parallels between the life of my grandfather and the life of Houdini. I only wrote about some of them, but to me they felt very significant and I guess that’s a way of saying that.

Can you tell us a little about those parallels and about your grandfather? My grandfather was born in Wellington, in Aro St. His own father had come to Wellington in 1878 and was a Jewish tailor. So the story of someone in a new place with the older generation still having their memories of the old place, that’s something completely in common with Houdini. He went to America when he was four and his father was a rabbi. So I suppose Houdini was trying to turn himself into a proper American, and my grandfather was turning himself into a proper Kiwi. My grandfather did go off to war in a very literal way, very differently from what Houdini did. But I imagine that in some ways he saw the war as the time he really showed he belonged. In his case, he and three of his brothers went off to the war in the service of British Empire, which they were very loyal to. So that’s a few of the parallels. I guess another one is that my grandfather actually really did love magic. He performed magic a little himself. And he really did have a postcard of Amy Bock on his mantelpiece [as in one of the poems].

Was he still alive when you were a girl? Yes, he was. And the little poem about the All Blacks playing at Murrayfield [in 1978] is the actual story of the first and only time he spoke to me about his World War I experience. When he just describes how tired they were and how they were marching along and - I suppose they’re going back from the frontline at that time - how a marching band came along and played for them bagpipes and how important that was for them. That sort of kept them going.

How old were you when he told you that? I was probably about 16 or 17.

It’s obviously stuck with you. It’s stuck with me in a really deep way. I think partly because that was the only thing he ever said to me about it. Later, I found out when I was speaking to my mother that little chunk of stuff he said to me was something he said to lots of people. It was kind of like a regurgitated trance memory thing and he would just sometimes cough it up. And I guess the bagpipes and the rugby on that day when we were watching the test match brought it back.

Did he perform magic for you when you were a kid? [Laughs] In the crudest possible way. He used to make pennies come out. I think he made them go up from his hand and come out his ear [laughs].

But that would be pretty enchanting for a kid. Well, it wasn’t done with great finesse [laughs]. It was just one of those weird things your grandfather does.

Your description in the book of Houdini being "entirely free" after his acts of escapology seems a good description of working within the constraints of poetry. Does it feel a bit like that for you? That you end up hanging upside down in a straitjacket? [Laughs]

More that when you complete a poem you feel that sense of having freed yourself. I guess everyone’s got their own sense of what they’re doing when they’re writing poems or anything else. But one of the things I’m usually doing is I’m usually writing in order to find out what it is about this thing that is drawing me to it and fascinating me. And so I’m kind of trying all the time to figure out in the course of the poem where the real nub of the feeling is. And having peeled it back to the point where I have understood where that is, yeah, there’s some satisfaction in that.

Your bio at the back of the book says you began writing at the age of 49. Really? Nothing before that? Nothing of this type. I was a psychologist and I wrote in the line of duty. I enjoyed the writing part of my job and I always read very, very widely in fiction and so on. But no, I didn’t pick up a pen for fun until I was that age.

So what was it that inspired you at 49? [Laughs] It sounds like a road to Damascus, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t, really. I was working as a guidance counsellor part-time at Palmerston North Girls’ High and there was a woman I used to sit with there in the staff room who had been to Whitireia Polytech and done a year’s writing course. I used to say to her, “People always tell me I should write”, and she used to say to me, “So write.” The fact she had been to this course and she all the time wrote, she was always busy writing, stories and poems and novels and things, it just kind of showed me – the way she reacted about writing, which was that it was a thing you do, it wasn’t a thing you just talk about. It really had a profound effect on me. And the result was that the next year, after she said that, I went and did a one-year course at Whitireia. That was 2004.

What was it about you that made people say you should write? What did they see in you? I think it was always obvious to me and everyone that knew me that I had a really significant engagement with language. I was always enormously entertained and fixated by the things you could do with language. People used to sometimes say I had an unusual way of describing things. I certainly used to use that in my work. So I suppose it’s that kind of thing. My father, who was from an Irish family, he had a remarkable way with words and I suppose it’s roughly the same kind of thing that people are probably talking about.

That’s your father on the cover of the book, isn’t it? It is.

And is that your sister? It is.

You’re cropped out, because in the poem about the photograph in the book you refer to yourself being there. I think I might be the photographer. That’s what the family thinks.

You can’t remember that? I can’t. I remember being there. And as you can see, my father has a camera around his neck, and my father was very much involved with photography and often had more than one camera when we were out, and he was always keen for us to be interested, too. It would have been quite a likely thing that I would have been taking it. But maybe not. I’m not sure.

Are your parents still alive? My mother is and my father isn’t.

What does she make of the book? She’s very proud of me. Even when your kids are in their fifties, a mother is still proud and that’s really wonderful. She has also given her permission for me to write about these things, some of which are very personal. Personal to her. And I guess in doing that she’s indicating her support for the creative project. And the fact it’s a thing she knew I wanted to do. Some of the things in the book, too, are from family archives. The letter on p33, for example, is the real letter from my grandfather’s mother to him [in 1917] and that’s something my mother let me use. And also the recipe for Double-X cough mixture on p9, that’s from the family archive.

Did you feel a weight of responsibility towards her as you were writing those poems very personal to the family? Yes, I did. I always showed her those pieces of work as they were developing and showed her them at different stages. I felt obviously that’s it’s not just my memory but it’s hers. And it’s also my sister’s. It’s like all of us were present in the picture. At the same time, I wrote it how it was for me, which is not necessarily how it would have been for any of those other people had they written it.

And how do they feel when they go into a bookshop and see their picture there on the bookshelves? Looking back at them. I think my mother feels the picture is a gesture of love and it is. So I think she likes seeing that.

And your sister? I think you’d have to ask her that.

I only ask because I know what people are like with pictures of themselves as kids. It looked like a good day out. It looks to me, to my eye - and [this is] the reason I was interested in using it – [that there is an] uber-realism to it that I find just remarkably strange. Leaving aside what we had in our sandwiches and everything, it has just always struck me as a remarkable image.

When you started writing, when you knew you were going to go for it, was it always going to be poetry for you? I hadn’t any idea what form I would be most attracted to. Poetry just kind of emerged from the teaching and doing of it. And in saying that, I think just lately I’ve been writing more stories. I think I’m always going to move around a bit in genre and sometimes be in poetry and sometimes not.

Dear Sweet Harry was a bold first collection – did it feel bold as you were putting it together? Did you feel like you were doing something a bit extra that a lot of poets might not have done with their first collection? No, it didn’t feel like that. It just felt like I was doing what it was inside me to do. I believe really strongly in the relationship of what you read to what you write. And so Dear Sweet Harry might be unusual for a poetry collection but it’s not at all unusual in the context of what I read.

So what do you read? I read quite a lot of European literature and non-New Zealand literature. For example, one of the books I found interesting in terms of structure that I read in the time not long before Dear Sweet Harry would be the writer Amos Oz. He’s written a book called The Same Sea, which is a story told sort of in poetry. It’s a story where sometimes the author is speaking and sometimes people in the story are speaking themselves. Sometimes it’s more prosey, sometimes it’s more poetryish. I wouldn’t say at all that I would set out to make something in that structure, but when I was asked in the MA class to take along something I liked, and show people, that’s what I took. And I guess that’s pinning my colours to the mast, really, and saying I’m interested in narrative as well as individual pieces of poetry. And I’m interested in the space between genres probably more than sitting comfortably in one or another.

The key aspect of the book would have been the ordering of the poems. You must have put an awful lot of thought into that. That’s an incredibly important way in which the book works, the way in which the poems flow. Yes. When I said to you earlier on that I was really just trying to tell the story how it felt to me, that’s what I tried to do with the ordering. I had a real strong sense of how things were talking to each other. And I just tried to sort of, I don’t know, I had them lying out on the floor in big long lines, and it was just sort of I could feel when it was right.

So there was a lot of shifting of those poems on the floor to get to the final point? Many dusty shiftings [laughs]. As it got nearer the end and there were more of them, I formalised them into themes, and there was a time when I assigned a colour to each theme and then tried to move them around in that way. But nothing really took the place of just the feeling of it.

You said you’re working on something that might be even more loosely described as poetry. What is it? I’m doing a PhD in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters and a PhD in that context has a creative project at the heart of it. So I’m about halfway through that next project. It’s on the broad subject of objects and people who are missing. It looks at the way people act and feel when something is missing.

Was there a particular prompt for that? I’m not sure. Some people say that all writers write the same story over and over again, don’t they? At some stage when I was thinking about that, I was thinking that in some ways this new project is the mirror image of Dear Sweet Harry, because Dear Sweet Harry is all about the things that are left, the little fragments of history that are left behind, and in this other one it’s about what’s gone.

How did you hook up with the Klezmer Rebs for the performance you did together last November? [Laughs] A number of different ways. I’ve known about klezmer music for a while. When I was writing Dear Sweet Harry, I always heard the music. I always had a strong sense that it could easily have music with it, and if there ever was to be music for Harry Houdini I think it would be klezmer. Then sometime after I’d written the book, when I had enough time to think about it, I approached them and asked if they would like to contribute to some sort of collaboration around it.

Was there just the one event? Yes. Three of the Klezmer Rebs did that collaboration with me around the stories. We put it in the middle of a Klezmer Rebs gig. We would also like now to develop it more and to perform it more. The person holding that up is me [laughs], because I’m finding it difficult to find time to work on it with the PhD.

So Dear Sweet Harry: The CD? I would like an opportunity to develop that musical side of it and the performing side of it more. I’m probably more interested in live performances, really, than a CD, but I guess it could have that. I would like also to think of it as a radio play. I think it would make a great radio play.

DEAR SWEET HARRY, by Lynn Jenner (AUP, $24.99).


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