You write historical fiction, speculative and realist poetry and short fiction. You've been published locally and internationally in all of these areas. What currently has your creative focus in its grip?
Right now, it's poetry of all genres that has me in its stern grip. My most recent poem is totally realistic, taken from real life, with nothing supernatural, but the end is so creepy that it's arguably horror.
I've been cursed – or blessed – with versatility. My focus is a bit on the fuzzy side. I might be the only writer who's had sf stories in, for example, local Cosmos and international Penumbra, fantasy stories in HarperCollins’ Dreaming Again and plenty of small press anthologies, such as (soon) Phantazein, mild horror stories in Aussie Bloodstones and US Kaleidotrope, a YA-crossover historical novella, The Priestess and the Slave, commissioned and published by US small press Hadley Rille Books (and praised by feminist historical journal HerStoria), realist poems in Westerly and the School Magazine (both Australian literary journals, for adults and children respectively), spec fic poems in Strange Horizons and Star*Line (both US spec fic journals), and stories for kids in all sorts of genres in the School Magazine and various anthologies such as Random House's 30 Australian Ghost Stories for Children, plus any amount of literary criticism over the years, mostly published in New York Review of Science Fiction – and I was one of the Editorial Collective that published Australian Science Fiction Review Series II. And now Pitt Street Poetry, who publish high-profile poets such as Mark Tredinnick and Jean Kent, have published a collection of my cat poems, with gorgeous illustrations. So when I'm asked to introduce what I write, I find it hard to explain in a few words!
My awards are all over the place, too. I placed second in the Science Fiction Poetry Association poetry competition last year (with a horror/sf poem), but also in the 2013 Rhonda Jankovic competition for poetry with a social justice theme (and that poem was largely about the 5th Century BC Plague of Athens) announced earlier this year, and the 2013 WB Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia (for a realist poem that just happened to mention hunting mammoths), both announced this year. Most recently, I came first in the Humorous Verse section of this year’s Henry Lawson competition, with an absurd animal poem.
But, yes, it's poetry that I can't help writing these days.
I read your Power Men poem at Strange Horizons recently and thought it displayed the power of poetry to slip between rigid genre borders, to play with realism and fantasy, to be metaphorical or fantastical. What are your thoughts?
Thanks, Sean! Here's a link to the poem, so people can see what we're talking about: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2013/20131216/blackford-p.shtml
That's certainly one of the most wonderful things about spec fic poetry – that it allows us to play with a sense of wonder about the natural, scientific world.
I've always looked at those huge metal structures and though how much they're like giants who were striding across the landscape, then were somehow frozen in place. I sat down to try to express that, and the poem happened. Very little of the process was conscious. They wanted to be trolls, and to be free to dance just one night. I'm lucky that the spec fic world allowed a poem about these fantastic creatures to be published!
You've recently released a pamphlet of beautifully illustrated cat poems, The Duties of a Cat, through Pitt Street Poetry. Is poetry your future direction or is it a matter of finding the right form for the right project?
I'm very grateful that Pitt Street Poetry accepted my manuscript, and shaped it into such a beautiful tiny book – and that they commissioned those gorgeous cat pictures, many of them taken from photos of our own cat Felix.
You're probably right that poetry is my new direction. As we get older, if we're lucky, we become ourselves, and I'm apparently turning back into the poet that I was at 15.
But it isn't the only direction. My husband Russell Blackford says that The Priestess and the Slave is historical fiction written by a poet, with unusual density and imagery.
I find that, even with poetry, the genre of anything I start is indeterminate until it's finished. I never (or almost never) set out deliberately to write anything (least of all a poem) in a certain genre. For me, a poem or a story almost starts with a phrase or an image, and where it goes from there is totally unpredictable. Often, I don't know whether something I'm working on is speculative or not until it's finished – sometimes not even them.
Indeed, I find that each thing I write (not just the characters) has a will of its own. Several short stories demanded to become novels, some novels wanted to be poems instead. Right now, everything seems to want to turn into a poem – but a year or so back, I had a bunch of ideas that turned into picture book manuscripts.
By the way, there's a brand new audiobook version of The Priestess and the Slave available right now, and I have a few free promo codes to give away in exchange for HONEST reviews. I might be biased, but I think that Hollie Jackson has done a beautiful job of narrating it. Please email me at jennyblackford [at] bigpond [dot] com if you're interested!
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Just a few brilliant works of Aussie creativity, off the top of my head: Mark Tredinnick's Bluewren Cantos; Thoraiya Dyer's Asymmetry; Judy Johnson's Stone Scar Air Water; Jason Nahrung's Blood and Dust; Kirstyn McDermott's Perfections; Janeen Webb's Death at the Blue Elephant; Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter's Midnight and Moonshine.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
Poetry has been a cottage industry for a long time. The introduction of nimbler printing technologies has made the printing of poetry faster and cheaper, though sales are seldom stratospheric. It's also worth noting that poetry is a great fit for the internet. Poems work really well on a website – look, for example, at The Pedestal Magazine! (Note that that last link will take you to my poem "Their Cold Eyes Pierced My Skin", which probably isn't recommended for people much younger than 18.) I'm thrilled that this longish poem has been reprinted in the recent Australian anthology of speculative poetry lovingly edited by Tim Jones and P.S. Cottier, The Stars Like Sand – a book well worth seeking out, with a very wide range of styles – and a poem by you too, Sean!
I'm hoping that in five years I'll have a wide range of publications – more poetry, a poetic picture book or three, maybe a fantasy trilogy set in the Bronze Age, maybe a ghost story for 10s to 12s... I have quite a few projects simmering away, and I love all those genres and sub-genres, and more.
And I hope to continue reading widely and deeply all over the spectrum!
Jenny Blackford's poems and stories have appeared in Westerly, Australian Poetry Journal, The Pedestal Magazine and more. Pamela Sargent called her historical novel set in classical Athens and Delphi, The Priestess and the Slave, "elegant". Her first poetry collection, The Duties of a Cat, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in late 2013. Her website is www.jennyblackford.com, she blogs at http://jennyblackford.livejournal.com, and she tweets as @dutiesofacat.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and collating the links at SF Signal. You can find other interviews in this series at the links below:
- Tsana Dolichva
- Stephanie Gunn
- Kathryn Linge
- Elanor Matton-Johnson
- David McDonald
- Helen Merrick
- Ben Payne
- Alex Pierce
- Tansy Rayner Roberts
- Helen Stubbs
- Katharine Stubbs
- Tehani Wessely
- Sean Wright
- Nick Evans