Jill Magi works in text, image, and textile and her books include Threads (Futurepoem), Torchwood (Shearsman), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse), Cadastral Map (Shearsman), LABOR (Nightboat), SIGN CLIMACTERIC (Hostile Books), a monograph on text-image entitled Pageviews/Innervisions (Rattapallax/Moving Furniture Press), and SPEECH (Nightboat). Recent work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2018, Boston Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Pheobe, and Rivulet. In October of 2017 Jill blogged for the Poetry Foundation, and in the spring of 2015 Jill wrote weekly commentaries for Jacket2 on “a textile poetics.” Her essays have appeared in The Edinburgh University Press Critical Medical Humanities Reader, The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-garde, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, and The Eco-Language Reader. Jill has been awarded residencies with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace program, the Brooklyn Textile Arts Center, and has had solo shows with Tashkeel in Dubai and the Project Space Gallery at New York University Abu Dhabi. For her community-based publishing work, Poets & Writers magazine named her as among the most inspiring writers in the world in 2010. Jill teaches in the literature/creative writing and visual arts programs at NYU Abu Dhabi where she joined the faculty in 2013.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book solidified my commitment to poetry and non-commercial writing, and that meant that I started organizing my life around writing and teaching writing. I stepped away from an administrative job I didn’t enjoy after my first book came out. And I made a friend in the process of publishing my first book—Jen Hofer was on the Futurepoem editorial team that selected my first book and we became friends as a result of her working on the book with me. What a great bonus!
I still write around themes and do a lot of research for each project. My most recent work isn’t composed page by page and this is because I now have longer uninterrupted stretches of time to write and revise, so I can maintain a pace and flow from page to page.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
One version of this story is that when I was a child I believed that reading the Psalms out loud had the power to change my mental and physical state. So I guess that was “coming to poetry” in a sense. But later, as an adult, it was in Laura Hinton’s “women and fiction” class at CCNY—and I was in fact studying and writing fiction at the time—that I was introduced to Leslie Scalapino and Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian and I knew that this was the writing I wanted to learn from and be in dialogue with.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
An idea for a project germinates for a while because it usually parallels an obsession or problem or joy that I am living at the moment. Like SPEECH, my most recent book, is about trying to navigate living in a place where I will never be a citizen, among other themes. So research and living accompany the “problem” at hand. And to sort through what I’m living, I write what seems to be poetry. It’s fast at first, and then revision is slow for me. Sometimes my first drafts, if composed by sound, tend to look close to the final version. Notes are always happening, and some get lifted and placed right inside the work. But it’s hard to trace what comes from what, in the end. At a certain point in composition, the work is telling me what it is and what it needs and then that impacts the notes I take.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m a project-based person and have a really hard time writing a “single” poem, so usually it’s a book from the beginning and often with visual work as addenda or accompaniment.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I can’t say I enjoy giving a reading—it’s an odd energy. I’m eager to do it, and honored to be invited to read, but then before it happens, I kind of dread it. While it’s happening, I’m OK with it. And then after it’s done, I’m glad I did it. Practicing for a reading—and I read and re-read my work a lot to prepare—is a good revision tool for me. So I like to read work that’s in-progress almost more than work that’s already in a book.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think a lot about pleasure—and how it pleases me to notice things, want to learn something, and use sound and lyric and language to make another kind of sense of what’s going on around me and inside of me and in relation to others. It’s engrossing, playful, pleasurable, and this is a theoretical underpinning. I will remind myself, often, “do what brings you pleasure.” Maybe it’s a praxis—so, theory and practice mixed. Even when things are complicated, difficult, and I don’t know the way forward with the writing, I find it extremely fulfilling to struggle in this way. I love how an idea or solution to a manuscript’s problems will come to me at random times. The whole process teaches me to have faith in waiting and to tune in to the joy of invention. In this way poetry teaches me about how to live, honestly. So maybe I use poetry and art—serious attention to its discourses, craft, histories, communities—to answer the question “how should I live?”
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I side with Toni Morrison on this. The writer is going to show us, through their writings, how to imagine new and different ways to be human. But the important thing is that a writer shouldn’t start out with this goal—that’s too hubristic. If you fall in love with the language arts, you’ll write, and you will know that it’s a vital activity. But you won’t do it in order to be told by anyone, “you are important to the larger culture.” I try to tell students something along these lines: “it is vital that you write, but no one cares if you quit.” I think it’s important to keep both of those realities in mind as we embark and quit, again and again, as writers.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
As I said in my first response, I got to work with Jen Hofer and Ammiel Alcalay on my first book. How lucky! I really value the way experienced and knowledgeable writers read my work so I truly enjoy listening to an editor who is also a writer with similar affinities or in the same kind of community. I think it’s really dangerous to hear from an editor who doesn’t edit or write work like the kind of work you write or want to write. I am also lucky to have worked with poet and publisher Stephen Motika at Nightboat on my last two books. Stephen pushed me, both times, to change the work. He wasn’t even very specific, and though at first his feedback was a little confusing and disorienting, it had to be this way. And it made the work better.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Poets publish other poets” was said to a group of us by Anne Waldman. I think this was at Naropa at a summer writing program event or something like that. One year later, I started a small chapbook press based on this mandate, and I learned tons about writing, revising, community, and service as a result.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to visual art to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t know if I would call it “easeful”—just necessary, just pleasurable, and very much a part of who I am. Before I studied writing, I studied sculpture and painting, and my first major in college was graphic design. I love the shape of letters, thinking about placement on the page, and I’ve even done modern dance choreography—where I see the stage as a page space and dancers’ bodies are writing in that space. It’s all kind of maddeningly connected for me. And working on visual work helps me to trust the non-verbal and the importance of the work of the hand. When I’m weaving, painting, quilting, I think I am probably, somehow, working out problems in my writing, even as I’m not writing.
About critical prose—this comes from my love of philosophy and theory and sociology. I thought my first life path was to do the PhD in social theory. I started down that path at the New School for Social Research. So I need to read this kind of prose to see how it is that others are putting into language a record of lived experience. When I write critical work, I’m taking a step back from making art to think through the “why” of my and others’ aesthetic choices. It’s an element of the reflective part of the art cycle for me.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
During the school year when I’m working full time I’m really conscientious about making “to do” lists for the days when I don’t teach. I try to put my essay writing, research, and revision work on that list and accomplish most of everything I set out to do on a weekly basis. I’m really good at working! So I apply the same kind of almost administrative thinking to those kinds of tasks.
For a project of poetry or painting, I tend to need intersession times to do this work. Because it’s really a privilege to be able to work two and three days in a row—it gives me a chance to actually address problems as they come up. I also find that my reading attention is much keener during semester breaks. So I’ll often work all morning, have a late lunch, and then turn to reading. I’ll sit with one poet’s book all week, as if it’s teaching me something—like a private tutorial. And it’s at that point, somewhere in mid-afternoon, that I’ll make a new list of experiments to try for the next day. Also I love to lay down on my bed at that point! I don’t nap, but it feels really good to rest and just simmer in what I’ve been doing. Depending on how I feel, I’ll get up at that point and do a couple more hours of work before dinner. I never work after dinner. I feel brain dead then and really feel like I need a break!
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go to writers I admire—Scalapino, Celan, Morrison, Povinelli, Moten. Or I tune in closely to friends and colleagues’ books: Jen Firestone, Deborah Meadows, Paolo Javier, Brenda Iijima, or I’ll tune in to interesting publishing ventures online—like Rivulet—or I’ll look on Jacket2 to see what’s going on. I walk the stacks of the library, in the visual art section, looking for any artist monograph I’m not familiar with and I’ll just sit and page through. Or I’ll return to my notebook and do some open-ended free-writing just to see what comes up. I time these writing sessions, so it doesn’t feel too taxing, and I know that just writing without any goal is simply good for my writing “muscle.”
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The wildcard number 13 question! Here’s one answer: a mix of Clorox bleach, rose hand lotion, and chocolate chip cookies. This combination takes me back to my beloved grandmother’s kitchen. Currently: anything with an oud or “woody” perfume smell takes me to the Emirates which I also call home and where many local people where fantastic perfumes. And the jetfuel and salty humidity smell lets me know I’ve landed at JFK: another home. Finally, the smell of pine takes me to Vermont where my sister lives and where it also feels like another home.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I think that a book is a container—so I think almost architecturally about this question. The desire to contain something, to draw boundaries around an idea or bit of matter or sound, is where books come from. To create space in order to share the space. Maybe the body is the first book? I don’t think I really answered your question, but anyway . . .
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In a guilty pleasure kind of way, I love anything that Jon Krakauer writes! When I want to be reminded that there are extreme personalities out there beyond those of us who choose, crazily, to be poets and artists, I read him because he writes about mountaineering and wilderness stuff and other seemingly inexplicable voluntary pursuits.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to visit Japan. For an uninterrupted two week period I would like to set up a desk and sleep in a room that opens up onto a beach somewhere. I would like to make paintings that are taller than me and wider than my arm-span. I would like to have a solo show of my visual work in a gallery in a major US city or maybe in the Netherlands somewhere. I want to publish a book of my collected essays, including the writings on textiles. I’d like to host four of my best girlfriends for lunch—they are, all of them, from pretty different walks of life and I’d love to see what kind of conversation would transpire if we all hung out together. I would like to find a very restful home to chill out in with my husband, Jonny Farrow—we’ve lived in apartments all our lives, and that’s been fine, but I fantasize about spending hours sitting on a porch somewhere with him, looking at the trees and maybe a trickle of traffic going past.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would practice gestalt therapy. I might still do that! If academia doesn’t work out for me, I think about retraining in this and then hanging a shingle. I would like to help people construct new narratives about their lives and narratives that help them toward happiness or give them the tools to face problems. I think I could have learned sign language and been a sign language interpreter. I almost wanted to do that. If I could do school all over again, though, I would study anthropology, for sure. The anthropologists seem to know where it’s at in terms of living life fully with complexities and with others and while remaining power-aware.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing was cheaper and more portable than painting and sculpture and I didn’t have to have studio space!
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang. The way she brings a poet’s training and sensibility to what I think is our greatest American problem is remarkable. Last great movie: Manchester by the Sea. That film does not look away from grief and refuses the usual Hollywood treatment of loss. Kind of unbelievable that it’s an American film.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m embarking on research and a little bit of writing for a book project called Some Sports. I love sports, and I think there is something really strange about being an athlete—kind of as strange as being a poet. I’m also curating a textiles and “textility” show for the university gallery where I work. Finally, I’m working out the kinks in an exhibition I am trying to pitch to a gallery space—the work stems from and feeds my current book SPEECH and I’d like to bring that project to a culmination soon.
Many thanks for these questions!