Jill Jones was still breathless with amazement when I spoke to her earlier this week, the day after she was awarded the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for poetry.
Jones is well known to SSO readers as one of our regular contributors and film critics. She was one of the founders of the 1990s queer literary magazine Cargo, she has published four volumes of poetry, has just completed a novel, and works for the literature section of the Australia Council.
It’s a kind of a weird hat trick for me. I was a judge of the award in 95, I worked at the ministry and administered them in 96 and now I’m on the other side as one of the winners, she told me.
The award not only carries with it enormous prestige -“ Jones hopes it may help her with convincing publishers to take on her just-completed novel -“ but this handshake from the premier also carries with it a $15,000 cheque.
It’s also the sense of acknowledgment in a very under-acknowledged area that’s important.
People don’t know what to do with poetry. Publishers have moved away from it. Educators feel they have to fit it into a curriculum where you say: -˜This means this,’ and be very objective about it. They never let kids just explore it and enjoy it, enjoy the sound and the way it feels and what it might conjure up for them, Jones tells me, echoing some of the points she made in her acceptance speech.
And every six months you get some stupid media story saying: -˜Poetry is dead,’ but poetry is not dead and it will never die, she adds, warming to her theme.
Although she’s now part of a broader Sydney literary scene, Jones acknowledges the place the 90s queer lit movement played in her development.
The support of fellow writers who knew you could be banned or put on the outer was very important but also more positively writers who were exploring different writing -¦ who acknowledged there were ways that we could write that didn’t have to be directly political or directly autobiographical, she says.
Jones is very catholic in her tastes and counts some obvious and some not so obvious poets in her list of influences: Eliot (the early more urban stuff), Hopkins (his sense of experimentation), Donne (the carnal and the spiritual), and even Wordsworth (he’s not just that pastoral stuff).
But the biggest influence was the major American, openly lesbian, poet Adrienne Rich.
She combined the personal and the political in very serious poetry that engaged a lot of people and she’s still out there doing it even though she’s in her 70s. She also wrote some wonderful essays about poetry, Jones says.
She was the one who turned me back onto poetry.
Jones will be reading from her prize-winning book, Screens Jets Heaven, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on Sunday at 2:30pm at the Bangarra Studio mezzanine at Wharf 4. Screens Jets Heaven is available at the Bookshop Darlinghurst.