Conquering the Drought: A Conversation with Jane King

By Dr. Leanne Haynes Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 Categories: Artistic Horizons, Features, Interview, Updates

Jane King is a St Lucian poet, author of three collections: Into the Centre (1993), Fellow Traveller (1994), and Performance Anxiety (2013). Her poetry has also appeared in several anthologies in the United Kingdom, and literary magazines in the United States. She is Dean of the Division of Arts, Science, and General Studies at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in St Lucia. She was awarded the Minvielle & Chastanet Fine Arts Award for Poetry in 1990 and the James Rodway Memorial Prize in 1994. King was also a founding director of the Lighthouse Theatre Company.

Jane king

Photo credit: Cecil Fevrier

Leanne Haynes: Jane, firstly, congratulations on the publication of your new collection, which was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2013. From our initial conversations, I know this was a difficult collection for you. I wonder if I might be so bold as to dive straight in and address those feelings?

Jane King: Thanks, Lea.

I do find myself in a strange position with this book, because while I am absolutely delighted that it has been published, and very, very grateful to Peepal Tree Press, I have very ambivalent – and sometimes downright negative – reactions to some of the poems in the Performance Anxiety section of the text.

In order to explain, I think I need to go into how poetry writing works – or worked – for me. I need to say worked, because most of these poems have been sitting around for a while. For the last ten years or so I have not been much in the zone where I am able to write – my time and emotional energy has been devoted to raising a wonderful boy, doing a management job, and trying to ensure that I had daily visits with the various members of my family who were, sadly, so ill during that whole time.

When I was writing, the only thing that worked for me was to start writing as soon as I got up in the morning, when my thoughts and feelings had not yet been drawn into the business of how to deal with other people, with the needs and problems of the people around me. My feeling was that I was tapping into my own subconscious and that the only way to write was to allow it free rein – uncensored except for the actual shaping of the poetry. Of course, I was raised to be practical and useful and not to indulge myself in a lot airy-fairy self-indulgence, so my only excuse for this sort of lying around unwashed and trying to tap into dreams was to believe that at the very root of our beings, all of us are a great deal more similar than our everyday lives and beliefs might let us see. In other words, I can excuse my self-indulgence, because a poem I produce – if it is produced from my deepest self – may be of some use to you because at that very deep level, we are connected.

LH: I think this collection, particularly the ‘Performance Anxiety’ section, speaks to all of us in one way or another. You deal with a lot of very powerful themes and indeed you reveal – or rather should I say the poet-persona reveals – the harbouring of very difficult emotions. The question then is twofold: was the act of writing the collection ‘healing’ in any way at all? Or did it serve to aggravate the psyche?

JK: I wish I could say it had been healing. But I think again I have to go back to the idea of process – because I have tried to devise ways to write and to manage other things as well, and I have never been successful.  There was one summer years ago when I had planned to give myself full unwashed writing time, and I was then asked to do the administration to take a play from the college to Carifesta. I decided that I ought to be able to write till lunch time and do my theatre administration in the afternoons – but all that happened was that I felt blocked all morning and then fearful, anxious and stupid all afternoon. When I am able to let myself slip totally into poetry mode I enjoy it; I feel dreamy and relaxed and cheerful, but I must admit I am totally useless, the house won’t be clean and there will be no point expecting me to commit to anything. When I am in administrative mode I am really quite efficient and the poet persona annoys me to pieces – and I just can’t wear the two different hats and achieve anything at all, I just feel totally pulled apart. When I force myself to do it I find that the best I can get are Performance Anxiety type poems. They are frightening to write and I don’t enjoy living in that mode. Incidentally, I tried recently to get up very early and write before coming to my current job as a dean in a college. But all that happened was that I wrote a lot of very useful memos before I got breakfast for everyone.

Jane King with husband Kendel Hippolyte, John Robert Lee and Derek Walcott

Jane King with husband Kendel Hippolyte, John Robert Lee and Derek Walcott. Photo credit: Carleen Jules.

LH: Performance anxiety is a recurring theme throughout the first section of your new collection. Here I am thinking of: ‘Same Circus, Second Year’, and ‘The Performer’s Night Terror’ (p. 11, 12). In these you reflect on the panic, fear and gut-wrenching trauma associated with the act of performance. I wonder if you might talk about your experiences of performing your work: How often do you perform? Or do you avoid performing your work? How do your experiences relate to those created in your poems addressing this kind of anxiety?

JK: Basically I really do hate performing. Even when I am acting in other people’s plays, I have horrible stage fright, upset stomachs, panic attacks, all that good stuff. I hate reading my own work even worse. I avoid it whenever possible. But then I feel guilty about avoiding it, so I do force myself out every now and again. I have become a little better lately. Mostly since I went to the Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia, and had to do eight readings in seven days, the last of them to an amphitheatre with about 3000 in the audience – and probably well over 100 on stage. The Medellin Festival is an incredible experience. You perform in so many different types of venue, with so many different types of poet, and the people who come out to hear you are so attentive and so appreciative. They come up and hug you and thank you and more than one poet said it made them feel like a rock star. And perhaps even more importantly for a small island girl like me – I was never going to see them again, they were perfect strangers. When you live, work, perform in a place like Saint Lucia there are no strangers, perfect or imperfect. There’s a feeling that your every keystroke reverberates through your entire life. Maybe that’s why so many Caribbean writers work better overseas. Maybe I should move out for a bit… these thoughts are just coming to me as I answer your questions… Certainly it is true for our seventeen year olds, I remember that sensation of claustrophobia quite vividly, but have never before associated it with my fear of performing. When I first started performing I would literally collapse when I got off stage, my knees just wouldn’t hold me up any more. I begged two Xanax off someone in 2005 and kept them till 2010, now I have another two that go with me wherever I perform just in case I find I have such a bad panic that I can’t go on. I used one at Bocas, but usually manage without!

LH: I can relate entirely with what you are saying Jane. Not as a poet but more as a minor didn’t-make-it academic. In the academic sphere there are certain things you have to do although it’s dressed up in such a way as it’s totally your choice (i.e. an invisible gun to your head) so presenting papers was part of it and all the ‘good stuff’, like you state, that goes with it. And the guilt and avoidance….I hear you! But enough of my ramblings…..let’s move on.

Jane King, Nobel Laureate Week, 2011.

Jane King, Nobel Laureate Week, 2011. Photo credit J R Lee

You close ‘Same Circus, Second Year’ with the following line: ‘Oh, we’re frightened, we are weary / we are hungry, sick and sore / and the crowd calls out for more / always the crowd calls / out / for more’ (p. 11). Can you reveal more about your position as a poet and your perception of ‘the crowd’? I am interested to know more about your view of the performer-crowd relationship.

JK: People who have come to listen to me have always been very nice. One time when I read in Miami and had to reach for a glass of water, the crowd noticed how terribly badly I was shaking and tried really hard to reassure me… So the crowd in Same Circus really isn’t any of the crowd who’ve come out for any of my poetry readings. Thank God, or I don’t think I’d ever have done another one. But the circus performers of whom I wrote in “For Mikel” and “Same Circus” did make me feel profoundly sad, and I did start feeling that as part of their audience I was being somehow voyeuristic – that the audience/circus performer relationship is a bit like the zoo-goer/animal one. The circus performers seemed trapped and sad. As an unwilling performer I suppose there are times when I also feel trapped and sad, but I can’t blame the actual audience for that. Perhaps some of the sensation that feeds into those poems does come from the sense of being constantly on show, of living in the public eye, in a small place like this one.

LH: I’d also like to pick up on the sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment you so poignantly capture in ‘The Performer’s Night Terror’(p. 12). It seems there is no escape, not even in sleep. I am interested in the idea of poetry being a outlet for creative expression, healing, therapeutic even and yet on the other end of the spectrum it can be painful and traumatic.

JK: I can sometimes find a sense of healing when I read other people’s poems, but I am trying to remember whether I experience writing as healing. I suppose I do when I feel that a poem has expressed something that I have been trying to think out for a while. That happened a fair bit with the happier poems, seldom with the Performance Anxiety pieces. But when I am writing, I don’t decide what I want to write about. I just sit there with a mind fresh – or dopey – from sleep, and let what happens happen. The things in the room, the  noises and happenings outside – they feed in to the poem and become its metaphors and somehow lead the poem to its logical conclusion. And sometimes there is a tremendous sense of rightness and well-being when that happens. I just hadn’t thought of it as healing, but perhaps that is the right word. When I am in good poem space I enjoy dreams and writing from dreams. My first collection, In to the Centre, was very much based on dreams and lots of thoughts about Jung and dreams fed into it. Then when I went to Yaddo, and my intention was to spend the whole time writing dream poems, I just didn’t have any dreams. But Yaddo itself is such a dreamy space. Graves in the wood, huge old dark rooms with lots of little lamps that just create small lighted spaces making me feel my hair was going to catch fire if I put my head on the desk – all stuff that just fed the metaphors and made the poems, and yes, made me feel very pleasant.  Performance Anxiety, though, trips into nightmare territory.  I was trying to follow my usual prescription for writing – wake up, don’t talk to anyone, sit still and let what happens happen – and these are what happened. But they happened at a time when I felt I couldn’t really afford to sit and do nothing, felt that I ought to be doing practical, sensible things and so I suppose the nightmare space was the just the dream space I was actually in. I do have an actual real fear of falling asleep. That’s a constant in my life, and some of these poems do describe some of that. I don’t especially like reading those, and I don’t mean reading them publicly, I mean reading them at all, even silently in private.

Jane King and T'dad Theatre W'kshop, et al, St.Lucia,1993

Jane King and T’dad Theatre W’kshop, et al, St.Lucia, 1993. Photo credit: Carleen Jules.

LH: Performance Anxiety hits the ground running. As soon as readers open the collection, we are pounded with extra strong themes, overwhelming emotions, powerful imagery and…..’Possessed’ (!) (p. 13) There’s such a contrast here with this poem compared to the vulnerability we find in ‘The Performer’s Night Terror’ (p. 12). I wonder if you might talk me through the thinking behind this piece?

JK:  “Possessed” is a poem I really can’t bear to read. But I think it is an important piece for me. If I can preface some of this by going back to the idea of my poet persona, or the poet aspect of my personality being really completely different from and alien to my administrative self it would help, because I am answering these questions from my administrative persona, and I have to be aware that there is almost hostility between the two, and that this difficulty and tension is what produced the edgier pieces in Performance Anxiety. So the admin persona, the one I think of as the Dean, tends to find the poet a bit precious, wimpy and silly, and some of the poet ideas a little creepy and crazy. Like I said, when I started doing poetry, I was reading a lot of Jung, and doing a lot of dream analysis. I also began to feel that when I was writing in my early morning near to dreamy states I was actually able to tune in to actual happenings taking place around me of which I was not consciously aware. (By the way, the Dean thinks this is insane.) I once expressed it in a poem complaining about being made to come to work at nine. I felt it very strongly when I wrote a poem called “When you’re smiling” which is in In to the Centre. When I wrote that poem it was a very odd day: I went to a hairdresser who was singing to herself and drawing red mouths all over her face when I got there, and who annoyed me by dyeing my hair purple and wasting my time by making me wait while she did it over. But I did then write this poem, which seemed to pop into my head from nowhere. So I took it to show to her, and found out that she had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, the day after I wrote this sudden, unexpected poem about Gethsemane and crossings over. I felt very, very strongly at that time that the poem represented a deep subconscious understanding of happenings not available to me consciously. “Possession” is another of those. I cannot tell you where the poem came from, except that it did come out of an actual nightmare, and was written during one of the dream-laden mornings. But I did discover after writing it that while I had been writing it, the very loving son of a long term acquaintance of mine was, in an awful psychotic episode, killing his uncle in an intensely violent way. So, out of respect to that young man, his mother, CJ Jung, and the feelings of my poor vulnerable poet-persona, I had to keep the piece even if the Dean thinks all the thinking behind it is mad.

Obviously when I am writing there are times when I feel that I am connecting with some collective unconscious, it’s how I explain the sense I have in the poems I was speaking of in the answer about “Possessed” and “When you’re smiling”. It’s also my only real excuse for publishing these miserable sad poems – and for taking the kind of time out of being useful to actually write at all. It’s been a long time between Fellow Traveller and Performance Anxiety, and most of the poems in Performance Anxiety were written some time ago. I once met a very nice lady, who told me she kept Fellow Traveller beside her bed, and asked me when I was going to publish another book. I told her I had one, but was reluctant to publish because it was so dark. She said, quite crossly, “Well, other people get depressed too, you know!” And that has stayed with me, and encourages me whenever I think I shouldn’t let these dark and awful thoughts escape. When I read other people’s poetry that I really like, it can often be because I find the person has just expressed something I really was trying to think through and couldn’t quite. And I really do believe, whether in poet or Dean persona, that there would be no excuse for spending this kind of time and energy on navel-gazing unless it really is the case that the world as seen through my navel is deeply spiritually connected to the world seen through yours and everyone else’s. So when instead of giving me happy, cheerful visions, I get visions of horror, I suppose in the name of the collective unconscious I have to give them the same respect?

My favourite metaphor for the collective unconscious, by the way, is the one where we see each person as a house, where each room can be a metaphor for a persona or an aspect of a personality (so that the Dean probably lives in the sitting room and the poet in the bedroom) but that all the houses on the street have basements which are connected. Sometimes in my mind it’s attics that are connected too. But attics in my thinking have a lot of personal forgotten stuff stored in them (like trunks full of old letters and pictures, and lots of forgotten furniture) while deep down in the basement we find graves, with skeletons and snakes and scorpions and horrors that sneak out and try to get you if you are dumb enough to fall asleep… I think that’s how the collective unconscious sneaks into Performance Anxiety!

Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King, George Lamming - Trinidad, Carifesta, 1992.

Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King, George Lamming – Trinidad, Carifesta, 1992. Photo credit: J R Lee.

LH: How do you feel about the collection overall, including those earlier poems from the 1990s? How do your feelings for In to the Centre and Fellow Traveller compare to those associated with Performance Anxiety?

JK: I am much happier with the first two collections, so I am very glad that Peepal Tree decided to include them in this volume. Mostly when I read from the volume I read from the earlier two collections. There are a few poems in Performance Anxiety that I can read easily – “Geography for Robert”, for instance, is one, and “Manchineel” is one that the Medellin people loved. But these poems are closer in tone to the Fellow Traveller pieces and not quite as angst – and demon – ridden as the Anxiety poems.

LH: Is the whole world really a play? (‘Performers are Holy Side 2’) (p. 24).

JK: Nope.

I really just want to leave that answer just like that. Is it childish of me not to expand it?

LH: As you wish Jane, as you wish!

JK: Maybe living in small islands is a bit like having to perform every day. And maybe if I were to really think about the very strong differences in how personae function, I might have to think that there are times when I am playing different characters. Thanks for the questions, Lea, you’ve made me – well, at least the Dean in me! -  think some interesting things through!

LH: My ultimate favourite line(s) is found in ‘The Performer Gets Some Comfort From a Tree’ (p. 28). ‘What’s softest, most vulnerable, conquers drought’ For me this line, so short and simple, says 1,000 words. I don’t really have a question as such I just wanted to let you know that this line will now be forever imprinted on my soul much like Derek Walcott’s ‘If loving these islands must be my load, / out of corruption my soul takes wings’ (‘The Schooner Flight’).

JK: Thanks for saying that, Lea. And it’s so funny, because I keep finding myself thinking: did I write that? What I have in my head is something about most easily hurt bits. I need to read that poem again. But the “Performer” poems are among the ones I don’t like reading! However, I am very glad if they resonate and especially if the words can be at all helpful during tough times.

Exploring the world of anxiety and nightmare has been quite interesting to think about, and I have become quite good at getting rid of acute anxiety with quick forms of meditation, which is a useful skill. Also, at least I know now that it is foolish of me to attempt to write poetry when I can’t get my ideal conditions – because I will almost certainly trip into the nightmare territory. I am hoping that when I stop working my day job I will be able to spend some time back in a better writing space and get back to the happier sort of poem I used to be able to write.

Thanks so much for your questions.

Dr. Leanne Haynes
Dr. Leanne Haynes

Leanne Haynes has recently finished a PhD at the University of Essex, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis focused on St. Lucian literature and mapped out the island’s rich literary landscape. She also completed her MA (Postcolonial Studies) and BA (Literature) at the University of Essex. Haynes has presented material at conferences in the UK and Europe. She is a keen creative writer and amateur photographer, with publications in the UK and US.