At home with Andy Jackson

Andy Jackson is a poet of compassion and intellect. His 2021 collection, Human Looking, explores the voices of the disabled and ill with tenderness and love.

Andy's first collection, Among the Regulars, was shortlisted for the 2011 Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, and his 2020 collection Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold'was shortlisted for the John Bray Poetry Award.

Andy has featured at literary events and arts festivals in Ireland, India, the USA and across Australia, and has co-edited disability-themed issues of the literary journals Southerly and Australian Poetry Journal. He works as a creative writing teacher and tutor for community organisations and universities.

At home with Andy Jackson


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Andy. It is so lovely to have you here.

ANDY: Oh, lovely to be here. Well, to be here and to be where you are as well at the same time. It's great thank you.

ASTRID: Yes, once again, we are recording by Zoom. Now Andy, you are a highly awarded poet. Congratulations on your very recent collection Human Looking. This is I believe your sixth collection of poetry?

ANDY: Yeah, I was thinking about that this morning. And it's really hard to know which ones you count as a full collection. So, I think probably it's my fifth book with a spine. Let's put it that way.

ASTRID: Okay. Well, we'll call it your fifth book with a spine. And is that because you are leaving out That Knocking the very small collection with about seven poems?

ANDY: Yeah, I think so. And there are other chapbooks that I put out before any books were published as well. So yeah, numbers they're very complicated.

ASTRID: Look, they are. And we are not here to talk about numbers. We are here to talk about poetry and the wonderful things that you can do with words, Andy, before we go further, I feel I should also say that you are such a respected teacher and mentor to poets and writers around Australia. We both also teach at RMIT university in the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing. And although we have spoken before on a panel, we have never actually met in real life because that is not the way of the world these days.

ANDY: No, that's right. We meet via screens. Sometimes we meet by being in the same publication or yeah, this is how it is these days, but it's still good, it's beautiful.

ASTRID: It is wonderful and I'm really looking forward to Human Looking really made me feel things. I have said before in The Garret that poetry is one of my weaknesses. I feel, I don't know as much about poetry as I do about a lot of the other things that I read constantly. And I feel the last decade, my thirties, has been an education for me in moving beyond my really childish dislike of poetry that I picked up somewhere in my teenage years. And you are one of the people in Australia who is helping me do that. So, thank you.

ANDY: I'm glad to be doing that. Look, I'm so convinced that there's been something went wrong, or I don't know if it's still going wrong with the way that we teach poetry and the way that we kind of engage with poetry on a public sphere. I know so many people in your boat.

I think I was in it too. I don't remember reading poetry when I was a kid, but I got drawn into it because it's one of those forms that really does just go direct into you and it's bodily and it's complicated, but it's also, it can be really, I'm going to say the word accessible. It's often a bit of a swear word in poetry circles, but I think it's an important word.

ASTRID: When poetry connects with me, it makes me feel something, even if I don't know what in the form or what in the poem prompted me to have that feeling before we get into your latest collection, Human Looking, I wanted to ask your broad opinion on how poetry is received in Australia and how I think, but I'd like your opinion, how it might be changing now.

And I guess the prompt for that question was I recently spoke to Louise Ryan, who is the manager of Readings Carlton. And once we get out of lockdown, she's hoping to hold poetry readings, and everybody loves Readings Carlton, and people do turn up to those events and I'm thrilled that she'll do poetry, but I guess why is poetry becoming a thing again?

ANDY: Yeah, it's a complicated question. I think there's been readings and events and poets and chapbooks and books for generations. And so, it's always been happening. It's always been a little bit on the margin and a bit underground. I think what's been happening in the last probably five or 10 years is that the people that are writing and performing poetry it's broader than it has been before I think. And there's more of a space for younger voices for first nations voices for disabled people, queer voices who aren't always necessarily talking about their identity, but the aesthetics are different, and the audience is different.

And there's just more of a sense I think that poetry, what it's doing and what it's talking about actually can say something to our experience right now, rather than just being something that is an art form or a craft or showing off with language it's actually quite vital. And yeah, we see that in so many books that are out at the moment. It's important stuff that's being talked about.

ASTRID: You are known for being a very compassionate poet and most of your poetry is an exploration of your own experience, your own body. And you know what it's like to be a human and inhabit the bodies that we are in. How has literature of the body, whether that is novels or nonfiction or other poets who explore the body influenced you or changed the way you approach your own work?

ANDY: Great question. It's again, really complicated. I think for me when I was first starting out, I really wasn't aware of who was out there also writing about the body, especially in poetry. And I felt kind of I was just making it up and that was important. I had to do that. I had to feel I was just doing my own little weird thing, speaking my own voice, just doing whatever I had to do. And as probably the years have gone on, there've been more and more anthologies of poetry that are specifically body based and around disability and around illness.

And that has been kind of empowering because you really feel there is a community out there. And so, I guess what it does reminds you that you've got your own particular thing in that you don't have to do everything. You don't have to fill the huge void and there are other people who are going to come along and contribute their thing as well. So it makes you feel less alone. It makes you feel actually yeah, you are part of a community and you're doing something to be part of the choir I suppose.

ASTRID: My question was prompted because in your latest collection, many, I mean I didn't count, but I'm going to estimate half of your pieces in there are directly tied to what influenced by or an interpretation of, or a starting point for other works or images of all descriptions. And I'd like to get into that, but I guess you start. And the first one that really kind of, you got me thinking early in the collection you use or alternate lines with a 1911 poem from Randolph Bournes called ‘The Handicapped’. And directly after that, you kind of consider the final chapter of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in your poem ‘Born Away by Distance’. And there's so many, they're just kind of a couple of them, but this goes throughout the collection. And I found that your poem made me reflect on the beauty that is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in a way they hadn't for such a long time.

ANDY: Oh, cause I'm glad to hear that. There's something about that book obviously that has become such a mythological thing and the ideas around it have become bigger than the thing itself, which is very often the case with anything to do with otherness, someone who is other, whether it be a created monster or just those you and me or anyone else, their actual reality and their experience and their subjectivity is really kind of ignored.

For me what I will always want to do. I think I've done this ever since I started writing poetry, but particularly with this book, it is about exploring affinity as well and solidarity. So yeah, it's my voice and my own experience, but that's never alone. It's always in conversation with others. And so, it's partly about kind of trying to, on the one hand maybe unearth the voices that are quiet and amplify them and join in with them. But sometimes with some of their poems, it's also about critiquing some of the representations that have gone on in the past within poetry, within visual art, within mythology, all those things. So it's positive and negative at the same time I think.

ASTRID: One of your poems is called ‘Operations’. And I wanted to ask you a technical question. I don't know the name of the technique that you used, but also that is very much you critiquing much about the medical establishment and much about the language that we use and the way society treats people who are other or people who have illness or disability. What's the technique called and can you talk to this poem?

ANDY: That poem ‘Operations’, as well as the one that's inspired by Frankenstein, they're both using a technique called erasure. So all the words in both those poems are from the original source document. So you don't add any of your own words. You don't necessarily rearrange them. You just look at them and curve away all the bits that you don't want. And you kind of unearth a new poem, I suppose, within the original.

So obviously it's interesting in terms of a novel or a document from an archive or something, you can find something in there that yeah is already there, but you're kind of highlighting the things that stand out to you and that give it another voice.

So, doing it to Mary Shelley was much different to doing it to my own medical file because that was quite, I was a kid, I was a teenager. It was awful, it was sort of traumatic. And to go back over it partly you are revisiting it, but you're also having a sense of compassion for yourself.

ASTRID: Again, that word compassion, Andy, I have a chronic illness, myself and a bunch of disabilities that come and go. And I found myself feeling peace, reading Human Looking, because I felt by reading your words accepted, but also in conversation with literature, which I love through the ages, but contemporary everybody now, even though I don't agree a lot with doctors and the words they use and how society decides to make decisions that do not benefit all of us, including in the age of COVID.

But I found myself at peace and that was a beautiful morning that you gave me this week. So thank you. In addition to the idea of looking at kind of source documents or being influenced by previous texts mythology and the great Greek and Roman myths, I recognised kind of throughout, most obviously in the poem entitled ‘Hephaestus’, the Greek God of creation and destruction in a way, depending on how you interpret it. In Roman literature, he's a Vulcan. I loved that poem. Can you talk to me about why mythology will always be with us?

ANDY: Look, it's funny, isn't it? I think one of the great, I wish I knew the source of it, but there's a quote that I read recently, which effectively was saying that mythology is really just story that has become a model for us. So it's become big enough to be something that we want to take on for ourselves as meaningful. So yeah, I think mythology will be with us as long as we have story and story will be with us for as long as we are human.

I think that we want to create meaning we're sort of meaning making animals and mythology then is this way perhaps of there being a collective story that connects us beyond our superficial differences beyond time. But of course, mythologies are always changing and developing and being pulled apart and put back together. And that's part of what we do as poets and writers. I think we start kind of trying to introduce new little elements or unearth old elements that we think are worth revisiting.

ASTRID: Human Looking, as we said, it's your fifth or sixth collection, depending on how we count these things, but it is also the public creative output of your PhD. And I wanted to ask you about that. I work in university, I deeply respect PhDs, but I also have a question why?

ANDY: Two answers, one simple answer is I was able to find a university that well that I could work with a particular supervisor that I really respected and knew well as Jill Jones. And she was supportive and really great mentor in that time. But I also managed to get a scholarship. So practically speaking, I could live off not luxuriously, but I could survive for three and a half years and just write, which is an absolute luxury.

It's a giant arts grant. So that's the first half of the answer. The other half I think is really, I've been increasingly wanting to not just write poetry, but write pros that talks about the ideas in the poems and PhD gave me an opportunity to really dive deeply into philosophy and ideas and think about poetry in a different way.

ASTRID: We have the collection, which I am assuming is the creative component of the PhD. Will the public ever get to read your exploration, your pros?

ANDY: Good question. One of the chapters, well actually one of the chapters already been published in academic journal. Another of the chapters, a version of that looks it might be published coming up soon. Probably what's most likely, rather than people trolling through obscured academic journals is I am hoping to write more essays. So kind of converting some of that stuff into more readable, direct stuff and bringing in more memoir. And I still don't know what it's going to be, but I'm just hoping to write some more essays, maybe come out with a book in the next couple of years.

ASTRID: I love that idea, Andy. That is fantastic, so you've just released your latest collection. And obviously there is a lot of thinking behind that when you are putting together a collection, what is the process that you go through to do that? Because the order a reader reads your poems may influence how they interpret each poem. I mean, obviously it's possible to open up a book of poetry and read the poem that you open it up to. But also it's possible for a reader to start from the beginning and be taken on a journey that you map out for them. So how do you go about taking the reader through that?

ANDY: It's funny I really spent a lot of time on the order when I was doing a PhD and that was highly structured, but then I realised that I'm not going to publish all the poems and I'm going to publish a selection. So, when it came down to it, it sort of became more intuitive than cerebral. The book has four different sections. Each section is sort of discreet in that they are in a kind of world and there are some common themes within each section.

But really what I wanted I think is for there to be a bit of unpredictability about what's going to come next. So even though in each section, the world is kind of coherent. One palm is going to be autobiographical and then the next one is biographical and then another one is more abstract. And then, so I think I want people to feel a bit, I mean, you were saying before that it made you feel, was it comfortable or?

ASTRID: I felt at peace.

ANDY: At peace. Yeah, exactly. So, I want that, but I also want just a little bit of an undercurrent of, ‘Oh, what's going to happen next’, because that's the nature of being in relationship that no matter how close you get, there is some uncertainty and some kind of discomfort and it says it should be.

ASTRID: I should probably clarify why I felt at peace. I felt at peace because I felt part of a conversation and a community. And that brings me contentment and peace and safety, your work, individual poems and individual thoughts that you caused me to have were discomforting. You take the reader to hard places and dark places. The poem that I find myself actually remembering is ‘Clean Air’, which you wrote for the residents of Tsukui Lilly Garden Care Facility in Japan. And I remember that new story and I'm pretty sure I deliberately blocked it out because it was painful at the time at the time.

ANDY: Yeah, I think a lot of us were incredibly shocked by that, people can look up that event to where people in disabled home were killed and yeah, we were all very much aware. Most people who noticed that were kind of, how do you respond to that in a way? I think the only challenge of that poem partly too, was kind of around empathy and who do you belong to and who's your community. I wrote that feeling sort of sadness and anger and feeling, I identify as disabled and these are people who are disabled and are being killed because they were considered by the killer to be a burden.

And so, I thought of that and thought, oh, these are my people. But when I came to write the poem, I realised that it's important that I don't take their voices either because their experience, these are people often with intellectual disability who I can't speak for them. I wrote it in the voice of the killer, because to expose that I don't name him. It's not about sympathising. It's actually about kind of going well, let's have a look at that. Let's examine our place in that because yeah, it is horrific, but it's this is the structural nature of how we engage with otherness.

ASTRID: I'd like to talk about the autonomous poem, ‘Human Looking’. Now it was influenced, I think that might be the right word. It was influenced by medical photographs of the, late 19th century and the full first half of the 20th century and God, Andy, that prompted so many reactions in me, the idea of what the medical establishment, which I benefit greatly from has done to people like me at the same time. And I find those two facts, very difficult to hold in my mind at the same time.

ANDY: Yeah and I think I certainly do too. I feel that exactly the same. My dad had the same genetic condition that I do. He died when he was 48. So, I've just gotten older than him. And that's the nature of the medical establishment. It allowed me to live and to live pretty well considering the condition I have. So I'm hugely grateful for that, but I'm also so very aware of the sort of objectifying simplifying nature of that dynamic that people are reduced to sort of specimens. And so yeah that book, oh sorry that poem really immediately became, that has to be the title poem in a way, because it is about ‘human looking’ as in almost this sense of being human, but on the margins of it, someone who's quote unquote human looking.

But there's a question mark over their humanity because of how they're framed and how they're literally framed, but also how they're thought of. But it's also that looking it's about examining about how we see people. Yeah so very much the poem looks at the beauty of those photographs and the beauty of these people, but also this sense that why are we so interested and what is it about us that draws us to people that are different? So it sort of troubles that fine line between us and them I think.

ASTRID: You did trouble me actually. And I reflected on my response to the poem ‘Human Looking’. I'm a researcher, right? My first response often is to go Google an event, go read the book. And one of the responses I had was I should Google. And then I'm that's not the God damn point that's the problem. But also what does it mean to know and to witness you gave me a philosophical conundrum.

ANDY: Oh, look, this is the thing, isn't it? I think poetry, what it should do is erase those uncertainties. And yeah, recently I was writing and thinking about this idea of hesitancy as well. The word hesitancy has now become associated with vaccine hesitancy, but in terms of a quality of being in the world, it can be kind of useful. It can be powerful to think, ‘Oh, how am I affecting this person?’ If I'm going out into the world, I've got to bring my mask or is it okay for me to hug this person because they might not be comfortable with that.

What am I assuming about this other person and maybe I'm wrong. Do I really need to know? So to me a part of the thing about the book too, is that there's a lot of poems that kind of pull back from revealing everything that sort of try to say, ‘Oh, you don't need to know’. And part of the whole dynamic of people who are different or other is that everyone wants to know what the story is like, ‘What happened to you? What condition do you have?’ So, do we need to know? It's up to the person.

ASTRID: The public doesn't need to know, but people can choose what they share with the world.

ANDY: Yeah and it's a relational thing too. It's about having a sense of connectedness rather than it being, looking through a screen and finding something out, but engaging with a person and it being a mutual in encounter.

ASTRID: Andy, the act of writing and publishing anything, including poetry is obviously a choice. And it is a public statement of some kind. It is a gift to the reader on so many different levels and it can also be a challenge to the reader and it can be political. And I guess, how do you see your own work?

ANDY: I very often when I'm teaching and when I'm talking with other people, the poetry that I like is poetry where there's something at stake. And that's a really broad term because it can mean any sorts of things. It can be about someone's personal history, their trauma, their sense of who they are. It could be about the politics of the day, could be about the climate, the race relations in this country, the history of the nation, it could be all operating on many different levels. I mean, it could even just be that someone's deeply curious about an insect and really wants to examine the consciousness and meaning and so on of that insect.

So whatever it is, if there's something at stake, that's what I love. So for me, my own work is always something at stake for me, I don't write just to write something. I write to explore what it means to be in a body, to be vulnerable, to be visible, what it means to be stared at, what the different manifestations of otherness are and how we can connect with each other. So, yeah it's always about trying to give a voice to experience and trying to see how we can connect up with each other in a way that is more human and mutually supportive and having a sense of solidarity, which I think, God, this is maybe the theme of the era that, yeah we can't let some people slide off our radar and we can't let people disappear without being acknowledged.

ASTRID: A few moments ago you said giving voice to experience. That is a fantastic phrase.

ANDY: Yeah and it's curious to, there's always a kind of uncertainty around the experience. We really kind of don't know there's a mystery to it. And so you try to capture something about what you have personally experienced or what others have experienced and you try to articulate it, but it always slips away from you a little bit.

So hence you try again and you come at it from another angle and yeah, it's always evolving and that's probably why I'll be... I mean, I haven't written poems for a long time. I've written a couple in the last couple of years, so it's been very slow recently, but I think I will keep writing them because those questions are still there.

ASTRID: Slow because of what has happened to the world?

ANDY: Yeah because of COVID. Yeah my mom died about two years ago, so that kind of took a lot of words away from me. And the era is a time of uncertainty. Some people find uncertainty really fueling for their creativity, but yeah, I think I need a little bit more kind of stability or something to keep me going.

ASTRID: The only person I have spoken to Andy, who apparently found their creative impetus during the last kind of 18 months was Tony Birch who managed to get out two collections, one of poetry and one of short stories, everybody else has kind of been languishing. You were not alone.

ANDY: I'm very happy for Tony to be productive. I love that he's publishing, we want to read more of what he's doing. So that's yeah, it's great.

ASTRID: We do, but we also want to read more of you, Andy.

ANDY: There will be at some point, I don't know how, but we have this book and yeah like I say, I'm planning to sort maybe write some essays if I can, but yeah, I'm just really happy to have this to come out. It's so strange to be publishing a book in lockdown still, but you can't wait. You have to put it out and yeah, we'll celebrate it and it's already slowly getting out there. So I'm really excited for the ripples to start forming on the pool.

ASTRID: I am not good with poetry, but I encourage everybody who is listening to this episode to go find a copy of Human Looking. It will make you feel things that you want to feel. Andy, thank you so much for your time today.

ANDY: It's been a real pleasure Astrid. Thank you so much, it's been beautiful.