Beauty that Happens in the Pause: Interview with Eleanor Jackson

Eleanor Jackson and her infant daughter graciously hosted me for this interview. Over tea and cake, we had a wide-ranging conversation about spoken word and its revolutionary potential.

One of the things I love about poetry is that it is deeply transgressive, precisely because of its anti-capitalist tilt. We live in a system that assigns a utility to every person and their time. To do something that is a ‘waste of time’ and makes no money — it is a revolutionary act.

I was listening to your performance of “Shave and a Haircut” at Slamalamadingdong. I was struck by the musicality, how it evoked the sounds and rhythms of jazz. I wanted to ask about musical influences. Is that a conscious thing for you?

Yes, spoken word and poetry is about musical language. There is so much resonance between the way that musicians and poets use language: for its rhythm, tonality and song. My earliest musical loves were discovered scrounging through my dad’s vinyl collection of 70s classics, including all of Joni Mitchell’s work. She is an incredible lyricist, a beautiful painter and writer, a phenomenally talented musician. Her sense of story and lyric form is just exquisite. I loved the standard folk troubadours like Bob Dylan or Elton John. The 70’s rock-folk classics almost seem daggy in their sincerity, but I think they are still really beautiful. They continue to influence me at some level, although I don’t use end rhymes the way that musicians seek to use them in their songs.

The other striking feature of your work is pacing, your modulation of both pace and emotion.

If there’s one thing I miss in Australian spoken word, it is space and silence. Pace is about finding the beauty that happens in the pause. The pause allows for contemplation and absorption, allows for the time and space to sit with a thought, to then decide if the words truly resonate. Poet and spoken word artist Anthony O’Sullivan said he thought my work had a “powerful quiet”. I thought that was a very generous description and I‘ve felt very flattered by it. But that is precisely what I strive for: I am looking for a space of quiet reflection. Maybe this is what comes through as pacing or modulation. So much meaning is conveyed by the pause.

What does that pause feel like for you when you’re performing?

Do you dance? You know the suspension you feel when you shift from one position to another? The pivot point when your body weight is about to shift? That moment of intention can be just as important as the actual gesture. It is a beautiful suspension. I take delight in that moment when it occurs in other people’s performances, and I delight in sharing it.

What kind of dance do you do?

Filipinos love to dance in a general sense. In high school, I was involved in tap dance, jazz ballet, the whole nine yards. I wanted to do musical theatre, I intended on being a singing dancing theatre star! My mum, in the typical migrant mum way would say, “Miss Saigon isn’t on every week you know.” I thought, crucial point. So, I enrolled in a law degree.

My mother’s a classic. She’s quotable and amazing, so pithy, with a beautiful turn of phrase that I love. But this was a source of shame and embarrassment when I was younger, because she spoke English differently from other people. She actually speaks excellent English but with a particular vernacular. It’s interesting, this sense of accented English. When I was doing acting, I would occasionally be asked to do accents in auditions. I remember one director’s feedback that he thought I sounded more authentic doing an American accent than when I was speaking in my natural voice.

A few years later I was doing voice auditions to be the voice of Microsoft (Cortana). It was a weird but lovely process. They wanted voices that were Australian but not too Australian for the American market. I didn’t get the job because apparently, I sounded too sexy. That was the first job I ever got fired from for sounding too sexy.

Accents are interesting to me too. I’ve been told I have an accent, and yet I don’t hear it. Inside my own head, I just sound normal. It seems to me the director’s comment comes from a desire to jam people into categories or boxes. If you don’t fit neatly, they jam you in anyway.

I think of my accent as having a very particular class and ethnic origin in Australia. There are some people who can be very “complimentary” about how good my English is, particularly when I was smaller and looked more Asian (hard fringe, great big glasses). I think learning to speak “properly” has an element of “passing” in Australia. Going to high school, I got a lot of stick for my accent. On some level, I wonder if my accent is an affectation, or at least a learned thing in order to sound more educated, i.e. not sound so “ethnic”. When I talk to my family, I use a different coding or inflection.

It’s amazing how much the voice can communicate. I think about the voice, the body and the person as having a textural communique. It’s like a book: when you read something on the page, the artefact of the book communicates to you. Is it an anthology? Printed on beautiful, heavy stock? The gilt edge, the weight of paper, all those things communicate to the reader. In the same way, the textural element of what you wear, what you look like, how you present, how you are racially read, your gender, the sound of your voice, all of these add qualities to the pure text. Words and ideas cannot be disassociated from these matters of presentation.

Australian culture experiences discomfort and difficulties with discussing race as part of these textural elements. We want to claim we are a classless society, that we are very egalitarian, that it is super-matey, that we are all migrants and get along. I think those are sometimes fallacies. Making those things present, articulating your gender or ethnicity, class, age, marital or parenting status, articulating those things in the way you present is sometimes seen as a very controversial act.

We pretend to live in a flat structure, but there are actually multiple hierarchies that are at play all the time. These differences don’t have to be pejorative. What if it is just interesting and real instead of boring and fake? Like Joshua Bell busking in the New York subway and no one noticing, context says everything to people. When people are told to designate something as important, they think it is important. It’s one of the things that are lovely and exciting about spoken word, that you are able to experience these textural elements.

Congratulations on your new poetry anthology, “A Leaving”, as well as your new baby!

Yes, two babies and one of them less painful than the other. No comment on which one. *laugh*

Hopefully I will have some copies to share at the performance and to read from it. It’s such a pleasure to work with Vagabond Press, and there are some great writers in the deciBels series. The series is edited by Michelle Cahill and other books in the series include Dimitra Harvey, Anupama Pilbrow, Anna Jacobson, Raymond Loyola — I really like their work as well.

Hopefully end of May I will be reading at La Mama Poetica and will be able to share works from the book and bring some copies.

You are going to be part of the inaugural Melbourne Spoken Word and Poetry Festival in that La Mama feature! We look forward to getting copies of the book.

Oh I’m excited about it, It’s been a while since there has been a festival in Melbourne!

How different has it been, putting together a book?

It isn’t totally different from putting together a spoken word set. As a performance poet, the thing I enjoy about poetry is when you read it aloud. I always write down my poems first, and in the main I read it off paper. So a book isn’t that enormous a difference. You just pay far more attention to some of the formalities: structure, layout, grammar, and the elegance or otherwise of how a line break looks on the page. I also think a lot about whether a line break truly reflects where you would breathe. Sometimes you write a piece one way, and then you read it differently. It is really interesting to see what things look good on a page and then feels very different in the mouth. Or things that feel good in the mouth but looks silly on the page.

For me the greatest learning has been about what time does to work. Slowness is a really lovely methodology. I wrote some of these poems as far back as 2010. There’s something really nice about embroidering over something you’ve done before. You don’t output as much new work but you get to revisit some of the themes. I hope that these themes interest people as much as they interest me. I hope they shape people’s experiences.

I’ve spoken to poets releasing books who have expressed some dismay at the time lag, the distance between the work presented in their books and their current progress.

The experiences in this book were about a very difficult time for me. I felt genuine despair and was unsure what I wanted to do in my life. Having passed that time of despair and loss, it is important to look back on it and take a little bit of distance — as a kind of forgiveness. I don’t want to look back and think, oh how silly and stupid I felt that way. Instead I want to think, “How much compassion can I offer to my previous self for those feeling? Did I feel them truthfully and with sincerity and can I revisit those thoughts?”

Yes, some people are like, “I’ve got to present my best works!” But I can only do the best work I know how to do at the time. There’s always someone who writes better than me. I don’t think of myself as some untapped creative genius, I think of myself as somebody who likes to share stories. I do my best and I do my worst. I try to respect my audience (reader or listener), and that seems to be enough.

Where do you stand on the page versus stage debate?

I wonder why there is sometimes this combative sense in the poetry community. Perhaps it is because poetry completely lacks commercial popularity. I love listening to film makers talk about their process — they explicitly talk about the influence of other film makers. They are explicit about the homage and thieving that happens in all art forms. Whilst in poetry we are sometimes protective of our niches. Maybe it is to counteract the lack of popularity and lack of money.

One of the things I love about poetry is that it is deeply transgressive, precisely because of its anti-capitalist tilt. We live in a system that assigns a utility to every person and their time: what are your inputs and how do you create the greatest return on investment in yourself? To do something that is a ‘waste of time’ and makes no money — it is a revolutionary act. To do nothing, to spend time in the filigree of beauty, in the contemplation of joy and love, in the ecstasy of noticing a tree. That is a moment where you have not made yourself a tool of work, money, and those more powerful than you. That’s one of the joys, there is really nothing to lose — so you’re liberated from that sense of “I need to profile my career with the people who matter.” Nobody really matters in poetry, so everyone matters. I met an accountant who does arts tax returns and he says there are probably only three people in Australia who earns enough from poetry to even need an accountant.

I wish that all those negatives can be inverted into positives and we can revel in the variety of forms. That we could take all comers because it doesn’t really “matter”. There are so few places in the world today where what you do doesn’t really matter in terms of utility, or the value that someone can extract out of it.

As someone coming into the art form late, whose life has been lived primarily outside the arts, I find it terrifying and liberating, that sense of not being able to value something precisely. There is an order and predictability that comes with the profit motive.

The corporate life is a well codified life. You know what it takes to be a good girl. In spoken word, it’s so exciting not to know, it means we can be a bad girl! We have so many well-meaning systems that surround us, that measure and codify. This is where we can be free.

I had this one piece called “The very best story I know”. I performed it at a venue, where the sound engineer approached me and said, “I really connected with this piece. I connected with the feeling that you love someone so much you want to erase any harm that has happened in their lives. My wife passed away from throat cancer 6 months ago, and I would do anything to erase any pain she’d ever experienced.”

I wrote that piece as an apology to a lover, the end of the piece says, “This is the very best story I know, and in it you are young and whole, and I love you and I don’t let you down.” He found meaning in it for a very different set of causes. This conversation would not have happened if I hadn’t shared my own story. If it weren’t for that, we would not have found the kindness or respect to share to this kind of depth. You can’t just invite people to share their pain, “Hey everybody let’s be real, and share your personal pain, and let’s not be assholes!”

To be vulnerable is to invite other people’s vulnerability. I’ve been lucky to experience this through spoken word. I find it is an outlet for my own vulnerability, and I seek it from the audience when it is offered. It is a way to cut through the social niceties. I know these are normal and I understand why they are there. But it is sometimes a kind of violence — a place where we feel lonely and isolated. We are sometimes so bound by social scripts that we find it impossible to say things like, “Did you know my wife died six months ago and I’m still sad about it every single day.” The opportunity to connect and cut through social norms is rare. So many signifiers of social meaning (how are you, how much are you making) change when you are frank and honest about yourself and the work that you do.

Do you have particular processes or technique you follow in preparing for a spoken word performance? Any standout performers or poets you love and get inspiration from?

I often refer back to Leonard Cohen’s “How to Speak Poetry.”

Everybody in the audience has experienced as much poetry as me: pain, beauty, loss, anger or revenge. Everybody is a mountaineer of their emotional landscape. You honour them by telling them about “the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it.”

It’s something I come back to a lot when I’m performing, and when I’m experiencing spoken word. Is the performer or poet in front of me telling me about the butterfly, or trying to be one?

You work a lot with cultural sustainability in your day job. I’m curious to explore what cultural sustainability means and your views on how we can foster meaningful change – especially in the context of poetry and spoken word communities.
One of my projects, the Melbourne poetry map came about after I had been in PNG for a while, doing community mapping and story mapping for various NGOs. I wondered, why don’t we think about place that way? The stories embedded in a place are so intrinsic to our understanding of what is important. As humans, we embed geography and place with story, but we don’t tend to think that way in Australia. I wanted to take my community of writers, poets and story makers, and invite them to a geography and explore stories and meaning with them. The project has had wonderful support from walking groups, the public and the Unesco City of Literature. To this day, people still write to me about it. It is a real connection point to enliven space that way.

I think all the work we do in sustainability is really about the kind of stories we tell ourselves and the communities we want to live in. I am deeply influenced by cultural sustainability, which is about an understanding of how culture is both a separate component but also a mechanism for achieving sustainability and a rationale for why we want to achieve it. Connected lives of purpose. If your life is meaningless then sustainability doesn’t matter. You don’t need the Great Barrier Reef to be around in fifty years if you don’t have a reason to connect around or with it as a community.

You do a lot of work in collaboration with other artists. What is your approach towards that?

When I talk about collaboration I always like to honour Betsy Turcot in the work we have done together. We worked together over multiple years on multiple poetry projects, we had the opportunity to tour them overseas and interstate. We received all sorts of amazing opportunities, but more importantly, it was a really sustained period of concentration on certain themes, which is such a luxury.

In honouring collaborators, there are many others but her most significantly, I have learnt more as a writer, person and performer. I feel such gratitude — it takes such generosity when someone will collaborate with you. It requires trust, openness, honesty and a willingness to be fair in conflict when you don’t like something. I think that is a very rare opportunity, and when someone is willing to do that on something as personal as poetry, it requires their self-esteem and self-worth to be robust enough to withstand that vulnerability and critique. I think there are plenty of people who don’t want to make themselves vulnerable in that way because they can’t find the trust within themselves and in another writer/performer to do it.

Yes, it would require a very good handle on one’s ego.

If there’s one thing that might switch me off some aspects of spoken word, its ego. I’m also on the board of the Stella prize and so I’m deeply interested in women’s writing. I am also involved in Peril magazine which is committed to sharing Asian Australian writing and voices. One of the things that makes me saddest is when we take on the affectations of a particular kind of male authorial voice. That voice for me is the archetypal preacher — the person who stands in front, has a microphone and says beautiful words and leads everyone in song — this deep and sonorous beauty is something I’m sometimes suspicious of.

We have to learn to appreciate women’s voices. It might be a voice that is booming, dominant and absolutely certain. Doubtful voices, curious voices, uncertain tones, those are things we have to recognise as powerful and interesting. Sometimes when people go to a spoken word workshop, when you ask them what their goals are, it’s often about confidence, better voice, learning to modulate. I would love for people to come out of this workshops with more confidence in their own doubt.

Control, dominance and power are all really illusory. It’s great when people learn not to be frightened, learn control over the breath and the ability to project. But really learning to know and love your own voice in a way that makes space for other voices is also very powerful. That kind of generosity is glorious. In the rare instances I’m asked for advice, I want to encourage people to find their own niche, power in their own voices and their own sensibilities.

I think that’s great advice. Thank you Eleanor.

Eleanor’s new book, “A Leaving” can be obtained from Vagabond Press.

She will be featuring at La Mama Poetica on 22nd May, as part of the Melbourne Spoken Word and Poetry Festival.

Waffle Irongirl