The below is an excerpt of Andy Kuhn’s interview of Jill Bialosky. Full interview text is available in the book How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request
Andy Kuhn: Hardly anyone is a full-time, nothing-but poet, but seemingly you, more than most, have other major occupations any one of which, for a lot of people, would do nicely all by themselves. You’re a top editor at Norton, and an increasingly prolific novelist and memoirist. (Also a parent and wife). How do you decide when to pivot to poetry ? Do you intentionally carve out time for it, or does poetry and the urge to make it take care of that for you, by insisting, even when it’s inconvenient?
Jill Bialosky: Poetry is my first love, and I see myself first as a poet. Poetry made everything in my professional life possible. Through poetry I learned craft as a writer and I’ve taken those tools with me when I ventured into prose. I wrote an essay about it called “The Unreasoning Mask: The Shared Architecture of of Poetry and Memoir,” published on the Kenyon Review website. In that essay I argue that poetry and prose share a similar interior architecture. Not necessarily the structure, scaffolding, and formal issues of craft, though there can be similarities there as well, but thematic issues relating to intimacy of subject matter, tone, and connection with the reader. I pivot to poetry out of necessity. Between books, I wait until the urgency presses itself forward and I have grown to rely on that method.
AK: Poetry has many different registers, and so does prose; in an era of colloquial diction in much of poetry these registers can overlap. Similarly, now that everyday life is fair game for both poetry and prose, there is no subject or venue that presents itself as presumptively poetic. How do you decide that an idea or an image or a situation is the kernel of a poem as opposed to the germ of a story or novel?
JB: That is an interesting and provocative question and I’m not sure I know how to answer it. When I wrote my memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life it was a book I thought about at least for decade if not more, entered into, disengaged from over a long period of time, and then entered again. It was a book I wrote to try and understand an inexplicable event and it involved years of thinking about suicide, research and personal investigation. I may continue that investigation in a piece of fiction. Voice calls itself to form and as a writer I allow that intuitive process to happen. Form, whether a poem, novel, or prose is a vehicle for expression and artistic creation and ultimately it can’t be forced.