Amber Beilharz Interviews Jo Langdon: Revisiting SNOWLINE
I was so thrilled to see ‘Darling’ find its first home in ‘PULP’. That issue was published a little while before my 25th birthday, so I was almost but not quite too old to be sending poems to Voiceworks! As for the process, Voiceworks is very hands on, and I so admire the time and energy the editors put into their writers’ work, especially young and emerging writers. On the other hand, I’m inclined to feel that work should be accepted or not accept as is; that there’s something sort of tricky about accepting a piece of writing conditionally, with suggested edits, especially where such edits are extensive or significant. I suppose this depends on the writer and their experiences, and whether they’re looking for feedback, or to workshop what they’ve written. And honestly, who doesn’t love a reader—someone who will read your work closely and offer a detailed response of some sort? That Voiceworks also offers feedback to both successful and unsuccessful contributors is something else I really appreciate.
Thank you! Although I wasn’t 2012’s ‘feature poet’ as such — I was actually joint winner of the manuscript prize with Queensland poet B. R. Dionysius, whose collection is Bowra.In 2012 Whitmore Press also put out a chapbook by Luke Beesley, Balance, which is just stunning (and not only for its bright, lime jelly-green cover, which is so ace in itself!)—as well as a new full-length collection, Available Light by Graeme Kinross-Smith.
As for winning the prize, I was so thrilled just to make the shortlist, especially alongside so many amazing (and often-widely published) poets, whose work I admire. The email announcing the joint-winners came through quite late, from memory, but happily my partner lives not far from a bottle-o that seems to be open all hours, so we walked there to pick up a late celebratory drink. Most likely a bottle of cheap red wine.
Q: How does publishing your first collection feel? Does it change the way you see your creative work now?
It feels pretty surreal. Seeing and holding the chapbook was the first strange thing, and then knowing that people were reading the poems was even stranger; I’d only recently—in the last couple of years—started to try and publish my writing in a few journals here and there, so I was still very nervous about the whole thing. For a long time I didn’t know the opportunities that were out there, but what I was writing then wasn’t really publishable anyway.
I’m not sure if it changes the way I see my creative work, really, because I’m always quite self-critical. I also tend to want to put the things I’ve done behind me and move on to the next thing. But on the other hand, yes, of course it does—the prize and publication of SNOWLINE were of course so validating, and also, for me, kind of terrifying.
I also feel very fortunate that SNOWLINE has been reviewed a few times, less than a year on; I don’t know how much attention a chapbook usually gets, by comparison to a full-length collection, but I guess I thought I’d be lucky if it got just one little mention somewhere. As far as I know, though, it’s up to three reviews, and possibly a fourth coming up online, a bit later in the year. The first was in Metre Maids, with another in the September issue of the Australian Book Review, and a ‘review short’ over at Cordite.
Each one has been so positive and generous, which of course is validating again; and sort of surprising, too—part of me was so nervous somebody was going to say, ‘why’d they pick her?!’ So it’s been excitement filled with anxiety, but that’s probably not the worst thing. I tend to think self-doubt can often be quite useful.
Q: In reading SNOWLINE there are continual motifs of returning, shifting from awake to asleep and landscapes that evoke nostalgia. What other concrete topics surface when writing? What are you naturally drawn to?
You know, I was only vaguely aware of these recurrences and patterns before, because to begin with I was writing the poems as individual pieces, without a collection in mind. I never thought I’d be putting together a manuscript—or not any time soon—but then when it came to choosing and ordering the poems for SNOWLINE, I started to see the repetitions in another way, and started to think about them a bit more self-consciously. Maria Takolander, who launched the collection in May 2012, counted a few of them; I think human wrists appeared six times, for example.
So I suppose I’m naturally drawn to certain images, such as wrists and snow and glass and dreams, and also to memories made material and tangible. Having said that though, such memories aren’t necessarily personal autobiographical as such, especially not the later or more recent poems; I think it’s the image or the scene I’m drawn back to. Months after SNOWLINE was published, it was a very warm spring; my neighbours’ magnolia trees were flowering like crazy, and I live close to Geelong’s Eastern Beach, but I was still writing poems about snow, about wintery Austrian landscapes. So perhaps that says something about nostalgia too, and the way that memories or remembered spaces resurface and repeat.
It was really wonderful. Anthony Lynch (my Whitmore Press publisher) is great—I really respect him as a poet, short story writer and critic, as well as an editor, and really valued working with him on SNOWLINE.
Q: The poems ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Garlic’ are side by side, was this intentional?
Well, yes, but not in any meat and garnish kind of sense, if that’s what you’re suggesting! The ordering of the manuscript was decided over loose sheets of paper, spread out over my floor at home and shuffled around, again and again. ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Garlic’ weren’t intended as a pair as such, but I guess at the time I thought they would make good neighbours.
Q: Which poem were you most attached and why?
The answer to this question is always changing. Sometimes the poems I think don’t really ‘fit’ the collection, or the ones I’m not as fond of, are those people mention to me, or the pieces reviewers have cited (in a positive way). I must be very impressionable, because then I feel quite proud of—or at least okay about—that particular poem again.
I’m sure every writer feels his or her work change and develop, and it’s not such much that I think this or that piece is completely terrible, but more that some of them feel quite long ago, even if they’re not. It’s a sort of distancing effect, and maybe a feeling of ‘I don’t think I really write like that anymore’.
Q: Currently, what collection or poet/poem has you under its spell? What do you think we should be reading?
With poetry—and in fact, probably with other genres of writing too—I tend to be reading a few different things at once. New work by Australian writers, in various journals and magazines, is usually what sends me looking for full collections. Claire Potter’s Swallow was released a little while ago now, but it’s one I’m often returning to, and I’ve been excited to find new poems of hers here and there.
At the moment I’m also making my way through a borrowed copy of a Roy Fisher collection, and especially love a prose poem sequence called ‘Metamorphoses’, which is full of such spare yet beautiful images.
I was given Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Collected Poems for Christmas, which very much has me under its spell—I fall for a new poem of hers each time I revisit the collection, and most recently my favourites are ‘For the Spider who Frequents Our Bath’ and ‘A Reaction to Rings’.
Another gift, a kind of hand-me-down present actually, is a book Roy Fisher’s poems. There’s
a poem in that collection I love, which is short enough to cite in full (I have a bit of a thing for
short poems, and this one is a particular favourite):
A WHITE CITY
My thoughts turn south
a white city
we will wake in one another’s arms.
and hear the steam pipe knock
like a metal heart
and find it has snowed.
And then there are a few single poems I seek out in collections and anthologies, to read again and again. Barrett Reid’s ‘The Absent Heart’ is a beautiful and devastating poem, and one I go searching for quite often. It’s in a book called Making Country, which I should probably read in full, but each time I open it, ‘The Absent Heart’ is the poem I seek out.
Q: What’s your favourite space to write in?
I’m pretty pragmatic, and I write when and where I can, which is usually at home. I don’t have a desk, but there’s a round dining table by some big windows that let in a lot of sun and overlook the street, and that space usually does the job nicely. I love to read in the bath, too, but for writing it’s pretty impractical.
Q: Can you let us in on any secret projects, or not so secret things you’re up to?
I’m a bit hopeless at keeping my own secrets – and luckily, with writing at least, I don’t have many. My biggest project at the moment is my doctoral thesis, which I’m undertaking at Deakin University. Part of that involves working on a creative artefact, which for my project is a work of fiction. I’m not very good at talking about it yet; maybe ask me for a better description (or synopsis, even) once it’s finished. The dissertation, however, is looking at elegy, melancholia and representations of trauma in magical realist literature.
Q: Will we be seeing Jo Langdon stamped onto collections in the future?
I certainly hope so, but who knows?
Jo Langdon is the author of a chapbook of poems titled SNOWLINE (Whitmore Press, 2012). She is currently a PhD candidate at Deakin University, where she also teaches literary studies and professional and creative writing.