Playfulness and Gravitas: An Interview with Jillian Christmas

The following interview is the sixth in a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2020. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the second year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here).

An excerpt from “hard to tell if this is just the internet, or another dream where I am in front of the class in only my dirty underwear” – Jillian Christmas

Jillian is feeling … Jillian is … Jillian …
wasn’t the only one who got a little too excited
about a new facebook status “back in the day”
safe to say none of us knew any better
safe to say I was ahead of my time in the feeling-myself department
newly imagining me, a writer, with a reputation to create
I needed to appear busy, desirable, productive
what brilliant and profound statement could
be the messaging for this soon-to-be-published
high-functioning persona?
Jillian is … busy writing
satisfied with my own genius I sign out
presumably to watch reruns of judge judy
several hours later my best friend calls me
wonders if I know that “writting” isn’t a word

Reprinted with permission from 
The Gospel of Breaking by Jillian Christmas
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020).

Rob Taylor: In “Talking with Ancestors After the Show” you write “if there is a moment this is it / know better than to beg a minute’s sojourn // reminder to the artist: this is it.” I can imagine so vividly that line being delivered in a spoken word performance, and how it might resonate differently (and, in some ways, similarly) in that context. That Venn diagram between the “stage” moment and the “page” moment — their audiences, their performative spaces, their “voices,” their ephemerality.

As a writer whose background is in spoken word, how have you found the experience of putting your words, often first meant for public performance, onto the page? What have you been able to bring over with you, and what have you had to leave behind? What new opportunities has writing for the page granted you?

Jillian Christmas: I love that you frame them as opportunities. When I first approached the challenge it seemed to present itself as a fear of what would be lost, what eye contact or small facial expression would be missed and what emotional information would go with it. But your framing is absolutely correct, somewhere along the process, I discovered that it was in fact a great joy, almost a game, to figure out what choices I could make on the page that uplift the poem to a similar effect as I would have on the stage. In some places I learned that the voice of the page poem would be different, more concerned with shape, spacing, or a leaning, possibly tumbling word. In some places a more direct translation would occur, a long slender diving presentation, where my voice might have dipped or swayed (as in “But Have You Tried”). In the end I decided that there were no limits to my choices, allowing each poem to have as many lives as it needs, perhaps one for the page, a longer more lyrical or repetitive version for the stage reading, perhaps a third snappy edit for tucking inside the nest of the perfect song. A multitude of mechanisms to coax every bit of connective tissue from any given piece.

Rob: On this theme of connection, do you think about your audience differently when writing for the page than when writing for the stage? Does that distance — the loss of the aforementioned facial expressions; not hearing the crowd laugh or gasp or cheer — change what you want to say or how you want to say it?

Jillian: One thing I’ve learned from years of performance, is that you never know who might be in your audience. Who happened into the room that night? Who was led in, unexpectedly, by a poetically-inclined friend? Who might find your book or some recording passing across their desk? My audience is almost always a mystery to me, but you learn to read a room, to select the next poem or the movement of a rise and fall, depending on what the room needs, or what energy is being exchanged there. On the page, that immediate feedback is absent, but there is still opportunity to create an arc, a flow that moves the reader from one emotional landscape to another. As for the applause, I have an excellent imagination.

Rob: Ha! Yes, that comes in handy. I was certainly nodding along (the reading equivalent of applause?), and sometimes chuckling, as I read through The Gospel of Breaking.

In “Black Feminist” you write:

They said I could be a feminist too!
after all, they are going to need someone at the meeting
who knows how to tighten up
all those white girl dreadlocks

and in “Northern Light”:

what strange things are we creatures
of the Diaspora treasures
of the Caribbean Sea,
knocking our knees together in parkas

Poems like these are drawn from your perspective as someone who inhabits two distinctly different parts of the African diaspora: Vancouver and Trinidad and Tobago (where people of African descent make up 36% of the population, compared to 1% in Vancouver). Notably, neither of those places is the United States, which tends to dominate conversations about the North American African diaspora. How do you think the experience in each country have informed how you think about the other and, more widely, about what it means to be black in the diaspora in the 21st Century?

Jillian: I often wonder what people imagine when they think of the word “home”. I’ve used that word to describe so many places that I’m sure anyone listening could easily get confused. Perhaps that is the skill set of people who move and have been moved across great distances: the ability to make home within whatever is in reach, to call up history and memory from an unfamiliar skyline.

I can’t say what it means to be a member of the black diaspora in the 21st century, the experiences are vast. But I know that the land that I live on is not mine, that it has been cared for and considered sacred long before my arrival, and that I am grateful for each moment I get to call it home. I know that through solidarity with Indigenous communities I can work to excise the hovering feeling of displacement (mine and others), and locate myself as a useful piece in this moment in time, which is a kind of home that cannot evade me.

Rob: Speaking of hovering feelings of displacement, what has performing and publishing your poetry to largely white, Canadian audiences taught you about your role in the cultural and political life of the country?

Jillian: For certain it has taught me that I cannot allow whiteness to define or direct my role as a writer and creative, which is and always has been the same as any artist, to speak about what I experience and imagine, to question, to disrupt, to channel and unveil — to dream freedom where there was none.

If anyone has said it better than the great Audre Lorde herself, I have yet to hear it: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Rob: I love those responses — both yours and Lorde’s. When it comes to defining yourself for yourself, in The Gospel of Breaking you write honestly and openly about a number of subjects that would have been taboo a generation ago, or perhaps still are now, including sexuality, race and mental health.

The tension in trying to speak about these subjects with those on the “outside” is present in a number of your poems — I think here particularly of your poem about Robin Williams’ suicide (“do you know what it is to think of the thing a hundred times before coffee / to make the bed anyway”). How do you reconcile the range of readers for a given poem (the “insiders” who know it all and want to hear it spoken, the “outsiders” who know very little but hopefully want to learn, etc.)? Or do you not think about it at all? Do you prioritise a particular audience when you write, and simply let others listen in?

Jillian: That’s an interesting dynamic you bring up, between the insider and the outsider. I can’t say that it occurred to me quite like that, though I can see that it is present, hopefully not static or unmovable. When I think about writing those lines I’m reminded of how little we ever know about each other’s experiences of the world. Who is in fact an outsider, to the experience of loss, or mental illness? Who is an insider to the feeling of isolation? Some questions that appear to be asked hypothetically are, in fact, earnest. What do you know of rest or the needing of it? What do I know? Could we possibly speak of those things honestly? Can we unveil for ourselves and each other the losses we carry to discover understanding, and maybe even collective healing? I hope so.

Rob: I like how your answer here embraces the slipperiness of “knowing.” That’s a theme in a number of the book’s poems, where you write very insightfully about the plasticity of memory. At one point you describe depression as “the disease of our memories either we remember too / much darkness or we forget too much light.”

In addition to mental health’s ability to warp our memories, a writer is always rearranging their memories as they excavate them and turn them into art. What do you think the writing, performing, and publishing of your memories has done to them? Do you think you’ve made them lighter or darker? Do you see yourself in these poems, or someone adjacent to yourself, or someone different entirely?

Jillian: I’ve always been fascinated by the worlds we create with our memories, the alternate universes we all suspend. I remember hearing once that each time we remember a moment we change it just a little, we colour it with our current emotion or perspective, some new lens that wasn’t there in the moment of making. I’ve spent time worrying about that, called my own mother to check the validity of one recollection or another, found myself soothed when our stories map neatly onto each other. More and more often, I find myself surprised when they do.

I try in my writing to speak from my experience but to leave room for the experiences that I could only ever imagine. I most certainly have coloured memories with my own emotional imprints, some lighter, some darker, but all true to my experience of them — and hopefully none so etched in stone that I cannot make room to see the many versions of myself who have pressed them into story.

Rob: On this theme of “many versions of yourself,” the poems in The Gospel of Breaking about your time in Trinidad and Tobago often feature titles in parentheses (i.e. “(no gift like a loosened fist)” or “(sugar plum)”). Could you talk about this choice, and the distinction you aim for it to bring into these poems?

Jillian: As a child of immigrant parents, a first generation “Canadian” growing up on Indigenous land, the shaping of my cultural knowledge came both from the small everyday expressions of phrase or flavour, as well as the short trips that I took “home” to collect pieces of my heritage from the mouth of my grandmother or aunty. The pieces in parentheses all hold stories from these times. The parentheses are meant to illustrate what it is to carry only small pieces, sometimes compartmentalized, sometimes foreign even to myself, but still an integral part of the puzzle.

Rob: Sticking with formal choices, the poems in The Gospel of Breaking take on a wide variety of shapes and sizes — for every longer poem designed for three-minute delivery at a poetry slam there’s a very short poem; for every prose-like block of text there’s a thin, line-break-filled offering. Could you talk a bit about how you came to the shapes of your various poems? When you originally wrote the poems which were performed at slams, was the shape of the poem still important to you (even if no one would see it), or was that a consideration you had to come to later as you worked your way toward this book?

Jillian: I always consider shape when bringing a poem to life. However, the shape is important for different reasons. When preparing for the stage, I will study my poem from a page version that has been broken down into segments that will help to imprint and inform what will come next. It is a memorization tool. If I can create markers that make a visual impact in my memory of the poem, it will assist in those moments on stage where the next line feels stuck or frozen. I remember the page, the layout, the rhythm. In the book, those shapes are meant to stand in for my body, my face, my voice. The ebb and flow that the audience would hear are invisible on the page, so I try to offer direction, a structure that feels like a fit for each piece.

Rob: You use rhyme powerfully (and often playfully) in The Gospel of Breaking, especially in the longer poems. I often find that collections by poets with a background in spoken word show a greater facility and comfort with using rhyme than those by page-only poets. Even within a single book, the longer poems that most likely originated as spoken word pieces seem to use rhyme more frequently, and more playfully, than the shorter poems. It’s as though using rhyme is “ok” with a live audience, but should only be dipped into hesitantly on the page.

Why do you use rhyme? What effect do you hope for it to have on the listener/reader? Did you feel a need to dampen down your use of rhyme in The Gospel of Breaking compared to what you’d perform on the stage?

Jillian: Rhyme seems to me like a tool that shines especially bright on the stage. A mechanism for holding the audience in a trance, taking them on a long and winding ride, but offering a tether for them to hold onto. Something somewhat reliable. However my one rule for using rhyme has nothing at all to do with page vs stage, or with the length of the piece.

I love for rhyme to live everywhere, including everyday speech. My one rule, and the rule I often offer in workshop, is that if I can predict the rhyme that is coming next, it’s better to choose a new one. I use that lens for my writing, and I am not always perfectly within its scope. However, I think the worst offence a rhyme can commit is predictability. Certainly each of us is guilty of that on occasion.

Rob: Ha! Oh no, never!

You ran Vancouver’s Verses Festival of Words, which bridges the gap between Vancouver’s spoken word and page poetry communities, for a number of years. What influence do you think that work had on your writing/performance? Having built the Verses festival into such a success, what do you think Vancouver’s poetry community is most in need of next?

Jillian: I have been incredibly lucky, over years of curation, to connect with folks who have been inspirations and heroes to me. It has reminded me that I am one sparkling thread in this expansive weave of peers and mentors, friends and students, performers and organizers. It has encouraged me not to fix myself to any one role, but to move fluidly through the many iterations of myself, to foster playfulness and gravitas.

Vancouver has held and continues to hold an incredible wealth of creative energy. In this interesting time of isolation, I think that what we all need are reminders of how deeply and intrinsically connected we are to each other.

Jillian Christmas lives on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam people, where she served for six years as Artistic Director of Verses Festival of Words. An educator, organizer, and advocate in the arts community, utilizing an anti-oppressive lens, Jillian has performed and facilitated workshops across the continent.

No comments: