Jessika Tong is an exciting new voice and one of the feature poets at the upcoming Poetry on the Deck event at Riverbend Books, on Tuesday February 24 (full details below). I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her debut collection, Anatomy of Blue (Sunline Press) and the place of poetry in our world.
Your debut collection, The Anatomy of Blue has just been published by Sunline Press. How long had the poems in this collection been in gestation?
The poems that appear within ‘The Anatomy of Blue’ were written over a period of almost ten years. For instance, Sixteen and 2e are what I now consider ‘old women’. They were written when I was eighteen and have barely been altered since they were penned whereas Moscow was written in 2008 but went through at least four to five transformations over a period of several months.
Poems do not just appear and it is a misconstrued idea that the construction of a good poem is effortless and requires the bare minium. It has been a continuing process of rewrites, brutal editing at the hands of myself and others and a continuing search for betterment in the way I use language to shape how I relate to the world.
How did you find the process of putting the collection together?
There were times that I did feel like a murderess having to pick apart the many poems I have written and clung onto over the years – there are the remarkable and the not-so-remarkable. The process of getting the collection ready for publication was constant and working alongside an editor was a new experience for someone who is very used to writing to her own rhythm as I had to take on criticism (which I am not too good with) regarding certain poems and alter their original voice or completely omit them. The collection and its coming together (with the devoted attention of Roland Leach) has allowed me to put a clip upon some stirring which has wanted this since it read its first Tsvetaeva poem.
Where do you see yourself moving creatively in the future?
All I have ever wanted to do was to write poetry and this is what I will continue to do even if that great word well dries up overnight. I never stick to plans so I am not going to make any. For a person who possesses my reckless disorganisation plans are a tragedy waiting to happen.
What is the role of poetry in our culture? We have so many media we can choose from – film, video, performance, etc… so what does poetry have that is unique to offer the human spirit?
Poetry is an immediate form to express what is truly human. It is a creation of the unique condition to our humanness and characterises what has no visual character. Spoken against the silence poetry traps not only the aesthetic but also the things which exist within our very nature, our world and gives it an immediate stage to be seen. As a poet I have never been satisfied with knowing the surface of an image. I would like to think that human beings are more than flesh and bone and this is what I believe poetry highlights, those pieces of our selves which are immaterial.
How will I describe a man to you?
Stirred from clay
Peeled from the old black bark of German oak
Curled inside my palm, his arms
Tucked back like new, featherless wings.
How will I describe a man to you?
Can words do him justice?
The bones pressed upon like envelopes,
The flesh salted and steamed.
And men, where are the women?
Where are these homes of children and kitchens?
These waist deep cauldrons,
The highways thick with winter lights…
Thinking that my hands were pearls you took
Them to meet your mother
She sniffed the city lights at my wrist,
As if slit and put us to work like rusted mules
Where they would bloom
Softly and out of place against the cold white steel.
I began to bleed bolts and axe heads.
To eat and live machinery.
Its hissing motor
A heart, my heart that turns over each hour
With a long, desperate cry.
Going home, we share an apple seed.
A chicken bone. We march on.
One red foot in front of the other,
The grinding of metal,
Finally a small child that throws up
Lightening each time I lend my breast to it.
My dear, we are producing terror
In that warehouse.
Do not look so astonished that
We no longer breathe love or its strange pollen.
That the whitewashed tongue of decency
No longer pricks our imaginations
But leaves brick dust on our teeth instead
Of those mythical fires.
Water froze during the night, closed up its
Clear, consistent arteries.
The war encrusted pipes screamed at our
Tea cups while we danced off death
Before the stove light.
The two of us, great wounds
Refusing to scar, to mend the tortured rhythm
Of arms that no longer hold the other.
The air froze right there.
We could touch it.
Pull it between our teeth like a blackened finger.
That month four people in our street
Killed them-selves just to be warm.
The landlords arrived and threw all of their things
Into the gutters.
Lovely in life
Now they are turned in leaves
Ferried from the canopy to the earth
With no right to privacy
The kind that we share in this room,
On this bed, across this kitchen table.
I ask you,
Has enough been sacrificed for you to be a whole and I a half?
When I first came to you long nights of whisky were the rage.
We sat up reading Chaucer by a kerosene lamp
Fingers melted to the orange bone of light,
Tingling with alcohol.
I got pregnant, what a disaster you said,
But it was an accident.
Buttoning your heart, scrounging for an axe in the empty pantry.
‘We can’t afford an abortionist. You will have to kill it yourself’.
Biting on a cloth, gas flooded the womb, ate out
The bonneted Eve that slept upon my wish bone.
The old woman from next door
Bent above me and I sunk into her arms
This old mother who smelled so much like my own.
She took it out, that sobbing seed
And feed it to the cat. Then
Knotted a yellow ribbon onto the door handle.
The deed is done!
She told me to get up, get up and dust your-self off.
Put on your best dirtiest dress, scrape mud onto your cheeks.
Trick yourself with perfume and bread my lovely thing.
Do you really want to be all alone in this old country?
You will die out there for sure if he does not come back.
A little Stalin
You are fat and clean while the
Rest of us are filthy.
We are plucking at the greased bones of God
Starving and sickly as he points us away
From his door.
One night you return to me
Rich with stories of your other wife.
Of how she soaked you with pig fat before
Taking you into her mouth.
The robes of a Cleric convincing us all of
Unfortunately for me,
I fill you with apologetic kisses.
Who is this woman before you with the pomegranate seeds
Crushed between her teeth?
For six long months I dwelled at this doorway
Between these four walls eating rat poison,
Wailing in my widow’s armour.
At this flickering apple tree that I have sat beneath
With blue copies of myself
Hot against your cheek.
I pasted that
Long four letter word to your crutch
In hope that it will seed and give off a
(previously published in Mascara Poetry #4 - www.mascarapoetry.com)
Jessika Tong grew up in a small pine village on the Northern Island of New Zealand and has spent most of her adult life in Central and South East Queensland. Jessika has appeared within various literary journals including The Age, The Australian Literature Review, The Westerly, Wet Ink and Verandah22. Her first collection, The Anatomy of Blue was released in December 2008 by Sunline Press. “Astonishingly powerful, her raw imagery says what is often left unsaid or couched in more genteel terms. This poetry drives relentlessly into avoided spaces and territory that remains a wilderness. Confronting and irreverent” (Roland Leach 2008). Jessika is twenty-six and is currently a student at QUT, Brisbane.
Poetry On The Deck:
Join Jessika on the Riverbend Deck alongside award winning poets Anna Krien (2008 Val Vallis Award) and Felicity Plunkett (2008 Thomas Shapcott Award) and global traveler, Alan Jefferies
Date: Tuesday 24 February
Location: Riverbend Books, 193 Oxford St. Bulimba
Time: Doors open for the event at 6pm for a 6:30pm start
Tickets: $10 available through Riverbend Books and include sushi and complimentary wine. To purchase tickets, call Riverbend Books on (07) 3899 8555 or book online at www.riverbendbooks.com.au
Spaces are limited so book early to avoid disappointment!