Jessica Moore is an author and literary translator. Her first book, Everything, now (Brick Books 2012), is a love letter to the dead and a conversation with her translation of Turkana Boy (Talonbooks 2012) by Jean-François Beauchemin, for which she won a PEN America Translation award. Mend the Living, her translation of the novel by Maylis de Kerangal, was nominated for the 2016 Man Booker International. Jessica’s most recent book—The Whole Singing Ocean (Nightwood 2020)—blends long poem, investigation, sailor slang and ecological grief. She lives in Toronto.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Everything, now was my first ticket to traveling for my work, which set me on an adventuresome course for a number of years, reading tours and various arts residencies. I still remember being on the train from Toronto to Winnipeg as I began my westward book tour, and making my very first book sale—Behailu was a former-filmmaker-now-accountant from Ethiopia, and we’d had a fascinating conversation about the support systems (community + financial) that either help or hinder artmaking. (That encounter also led me to my first published essay, “A Thinning in the Border” in TNQ 2016.)
In my inner landscape, the release of Everything, now into the world also represented, in some sense, the end of the first phase of grief (the book is dedicated to my partner Galen, who died in a bicycle accident when he was 29). So for me it was momentous on multiple levels. I remember dreaming about whales the night I finished revisions on the book—whale dreams had become potent, symbolic, for me. In all the other dreams I would see the whales from shore but that night, for the first time, I dove in.
The Whole Singing Ocean begins with these lines:
The whale dreams began when I was still a child
always from shore always racing to see them
leaping dark joy in waves
hurled through with light
Like Everything, now, The Whole Singing Ocean is a true story told in fragments. The scope of it feels very different, though, beginning as I do with someone else’s story—the boat builder’s—and weaving in so many disparate threads and voices. The Whole Singing Ocean felt ambitious in its reach and all it tries to contain—transgression, sailor slang, awe, rapture, family history, select theories of Foucault, ecological grief, binaries, a sense of something sacred that gets beyond duality. It is a book of many voices.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Ah, this never felt like a choice! I suppose it’s in a way of seeing (and feeling) things, isn’t it?
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?
I am a slow creator. The Whole Singing Ocean, for example, took fourteen years to emerge. When impatience or comparison rears up in me, I soothe myself by remembering that the Slow Movements (Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Tech) are all deeply inspiring to me. It also occurred to me the other day that the answer to nearly every snarl or upset or issue, lately, feels like it’s one and the same: slow down.
The first draft of The Whole Singing Ocean did occur mostly in one fell swoop (though I didn’t realize that until many, many years of tinkering, chiseling and carving later). Looking back, the essential themes and components were nearly all there from the start, though the journey to the final book still had a long, difficult way to go.
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 think because of the nature of my two books, which are more like long poems than collections of individual poems (Everything, now has been called a kaddish, or a love letter to the dead; and I’m most comfortable calling The Whole Singing Ocean a story in fragments), that the latter is true for me—I’m working on a book from the very beginning.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Oh how I miss being at a reading or a show, being able to engage directly and casually and coincidentally with people, passing by other tables or standing at the bar. I miss being in rooms with other people. How could any of us have ever predicted having to feel a longing for that?
It felt important to me to celebrate my book in person in some way, safely, during the pandemic, and so I hosted a series of three back-to-back, limited number, outdoor readings around a fire in the park near my house. It was a beautiful way to celebrate the book coming into the world. And having three events in a row was kind of perfect—I can tend to feel as though I haven’t even been there when a I’m hosting a gathering, so this gave me three big chances to remind myself to be present.
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?
With The Whole Singing Ocean, I was wrestling with something about binaries and the possibility of getting beyond them. It has been suggested that whales and other cetaceans may, because of the placement of their eyes (one on each side of their heads) be able to move past the limits of dualities, which so bind or limit us and our human thinking. I’ve worried this stone for long, long years, feeling like binaries can be such a trap (war/peace, sorrow/joy, pain/rapture). Sensing that the real answer was somewhere else… like, in a field no one had found the path to yet. So that questioning follows me into this book. In the last section, the writing begins to gesture towards something beyond, something greater, something still just out of reach. In the book, I also grapple with a similar but slightly different notion—of how we might become expansive enough to hold two things side by side (trauma and elation for example). How to hold them peacefully. How it might be possible to live with terrible things that have happened, and find a way to simply be with them.
I suppose another question the book explores is one around transgression—is transgression necessary? Do we need it to break new ground, to make new discoveries, to open vital doors? The questions themselves can feel quite dangerous. This was the tightrope work of writing The Whole Singing Ocean.
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?
This is another question that, for me, has been piqued or underlined by the pandemic. It’s a strange time to launch a book. I have wondered many times how anyone could possibly care about poetry at a time like this, when the world is in lockdown, when the ecology is ragingly endangered, when colonialism and racism are still violently rampant, etc. etc. Moments of meaninglessness. But then I remember the many times that reading other writers has pulled me out of a state of meaninglessness. One particular passage by John Berger saved me after a near-fatal car accident, for example. So I need to be reminded, periodically, about the vital-ness of writing, and each time I remember again, it feels so clear. We need writing, we need art, we need music. These are the good things in life. And even on a planet nosediving, we need them!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
No matter how cold the water is, you just dive right in!
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays)? What do you see as the appeal?
I suppose I love bringing a poet’s mind—attention to the line, to charged words, to rhythm—into creative nonfiction, which is what I’m working on now.
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?
Nothing right now is typical. Being a mother to young twins, and during a pandemic to boot, leaves me desperate for patterns as I’m dragged along in the ultimate present moment!
At the best of times, I light a candle, set my timer (with a nice full bell sound—I could never abide a beep) for 30 minutes, and write by hand until it goes off. I may re-set the timer a few times, but I always take a break to move my body or drink tea or anything else—acknowledge / celebrate the thirty minutes—before diving back in.
I also love to work with my pieces taped to the wall, so I can have a more physical relationship with a manuscript—locating patterns and themes in space, sometimes using coloured pastels to mark recurring themes. A more physical and also a more casual relationship, because every time I’m in the room with the wall of pages, I can move a chair around and sit down in front of different sections, reading from random starting points, seeing the thing from another viewpoint.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Dreams are often my beginning place. Maybe because I associate the space of dreaming with the liminal space of a flow state in writing. Maybe just because they are always there, waiting, at the edge of awareness, and when I sit down to the page they are the first thing to surface. Walking (alone) is also a nearly surefire way to work out snags and get the heartrate of writing up again. Same thing for music, for me—songs have often had their beginnings in a walk somewhere. It’s about rhythm but it’s also about not thinking. Sometimes not thinking is exactly what needs to happen for words (or notes or rhythms) to come together.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of 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 do often find myself turning to philosophy, without entirely realizing it at first. I don’t read a tremendous amount of philosophy but I nearly always find that it awakens my mind in a different way (than, say, reading other poets) and allows me a new angle on a subject. Similarly, reading in French gives me another angle on language – thinking and deciphering in my work as a literary translator gives me the chance to see English from the outside, at least for brief moments. I have often taken inspiration from work I was translating – the most concrete example of this is in Everything, now, in which individual poems are directly inspired by a phrase from my translation of Turkana Boy by Jean-François Beauchemin. These phrases appear as epigraphs or embedded in the piece, à la glossa (or sometimes just as ghosts of themselves, woven in invisibly to anyone but me).
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
At first I read the question as, “…or simplify your life outside of your work,” and that pleased me. I would like to think about what writings simplify my life! The Whole Singing Ocean considers Foucault and a very brief selection of his theories, and though I am by no means a philosophy scholar or expert, I do, as I said above, tend to find philosophy particularly inspiring. John Berger and Virginia Woolf have been vital. Anne Carson. Paul Celan. Leanne Simpson. Maggie Nelson. Lewis Hyde. And those who simplify my life. Ellen Bass. Vicente Aleixandre. Ursula le Guin. Writing to come home to.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
One day I will make a quilt!
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 am sometimes sad I was never a mushroom picker. I would be a good hairdresser, but I would want to give everyone a mullet.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Definitely the fame and fortune.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved Department of Speculation by Jenny Offil. Islands of prose are so exactly what I want to read right now, and I was astonished by how she managed to keep through-threads alive and afloat with such sparing words / paragraphs. Similarly, I was delighted by This Little Art by Kate Briggs, poetic and essayistic meditations on literary translation. The last book to move me to my core was probably My Conversations With Canadians by Lee Maracle, which I came to late, and could keep absorbing for months to come. She has this incredible way of delivering brutal truths with a touch so wry or slant. And, finally, in some ways I still feel that the last great book I read was The Search for Heinrich Schlögel by Martha Baillie—I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it, mystical and real, widely encompassing and grounded at once.
In film: Call Me By Your Name (I think it was also the first movie I saw in theatre since my twins were born, and thus heightened in specialness). Those lush Italian countrysides! and the most gorgeous portrayal of longing, and intelligent communication within a family. Plus superb soundtrack and terrific outdoor dancing scenes
20 - What are you currently working on?
A series of islands of prose about writing and motherhood… which will hopefully, one day, become a book.