Jill Magi works in text, image, and textile. Her sixth book, SPEECH, was published by Nightboat Books in September 2019. Jill teaches in the visual arts and literature/creative writing programs at NYU Abu Dhabi where she is currently working on a curatorial project called “The Textile Imaginary” for the NYUAD Gallery. With Shamma Al Bastaki and Sarah Al Mehairi, she is a founding member JARA Collective, a UAE-based publishing effort. Her current writing project, tentatively titled “Some Sports,” is both a celebration and a critique of sports as well as an extended comparison of art making and athletic training.
Ten poems from “Some Sports” appear in the twenty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “Some Sports.”
A: “Some Sports” is probably the name of my next book or writing project that will likely spawn some visual work as well. I grew up doing gymnastics and I was very athletic. I love watching sports on TV and I know a lot of Olympic trivia. I love being a kind of trickster—a woman artist and poet who surprises people by engaging them in full-on sports talk. I love the way sports gives people a way to talk to each other—phatic communication, I guess. I love how there is very little originality in sports talk and interviews with athletes. How strange that we keep asking the same questions and keep giving the same answers. What a ritual. I think there is something very irrational about sport and this reminds me of poetry and art. Why do it? What is it for? Luckily, no one can really answer that but we keep doing it. So, sport=art=worship. “Some Sports” will be some poems and writing about this with a special focus on odd sports--like mountaineering, curling, maybe falconry. I also think sports is quite critique worthy—there’s lots of oppressive stuff about gender, a capitalist individualist mentality, self-help and “fitness” rhetoric that accompanies sport. So it’s a ripe subject. And the visual part is probably involves taking a whole lot of trophies, making moulds of parts of them, and either casting these fragments in bronze or making clay replicas that are fragmented and displayed in this “deconstructed” way.
Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: I don’t think they relate at all! Hmm . . . everything relates, so let me see. I have been doing intense visual research lately and I’m continuing making weavings, quilts, and also making a lot of painting and even some sculpture. I am studying abstraction—of course beyond the mid-century US abstract expressionists and that movement—I’m looking for something more elemental, some sense of shape and color and design that has meant something by its shear force and not just in relation to an art historical lineage that has come “before.” In other words, I am not interested in rebelling against the image because I paint objects as well. So I’ve been looking closely at the paintings of Suzan Frecon. Or the tantric drawings of North India. Or motifs on mosque exteriors. Or Amy Sillman’s work. SPEECH, my last book, wants to exit the verbal field. It is about that even as it is very much about heteroglossia. In it, I write “I have said some things/now take a break from the mouthpiece” and I briefly mention “painting as bibliography” and “writing without words.” So that is where I am, for the most part these days. Yet, themes and the anthropological and even humor pulls me back toward words. Toward sports, naturally! So when I return to writing, it will probably be to expand out this very specific body of work. At least that’s the plan and you know how poets’ plans go: they change!
Q: I’ve long been fascinated by writers who also do other kinds of creative work. Do you see your artistic practice as a whole as a singular practice or even singular project, or does each form—poetry, paintings, sculpture, weaving etcetera—exist as separate threads that occasionally influence each other?
A: Sometimes I want it to all be one whole thing—and there’s an urge for that. I don’t know why. But I was fascinated by the write-up in Phaidon’s Vitamin P2, their painting anthology, on Etel Adnan, who you know is a poet, writer, and painter. The biographer suggested “what if they are just two different things” and described Adnan’s writing desk on one side of the room, and her painting desk on the other. Something about that felt liberatory to me—like I don’t have to have a theory of a unified whole. I will say that I started off making visual work and considered going to get an MFA in studio art but then I found out that writing was cheaper and more portable. So I went in that direction. And for SPEECH, learning to weave taught me the kind of attention and repetitive action that I needed to write the book. To continually shuttle back and forth and to not have to decide or settle on a “thesis.” Finally, about visual work, I just love to work with color and I love to render an object. It’s magical. And yet when it comes to “the art world” I get easily annoyed and find poets to be much more community-minded. So I toggle back and forth between both worlds wondering if I’m really expert at any one thing but just trying to pay attention to desire and following my desire.
Q: With six full-length poetry titles under your belt, as well as this current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: It seems with each new project I’m learning something new about language, about image, about paint, fiber, abstraction, storytelling. I often say “I know how to write a book” yet visual work still feels new to me. I’m still learning the qualities of paint and all of those choices, honestly. And I’m a beginning weaver. I’ve made four quilts and I’m in the process of making two more, but I do not feel like an expert quilter. I've embroidered lots of words, but I know there is more to learn there. So it is as if I am always trying to return to a beginner’s gesture somehow.
About writing, and poetry specifically, I feel that SPEECH is my most complex work to date. It is very dedicated to being open and inconclusive, yet I tried to be specific and sharp with the language, with the ethical problem which is really how to formulate a modern subject without being tied to western notions of freedom and human rights. But it’s strange because it almost feels like a good-bye to poetry. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but that book seems to have few readers, few reviewers. Maybe it has a big flaw, fault line, too much difficulty or obfuscation—or it’s too international for my poetry community who is North American, for sure. And I am not criticizing anyone here—I’m just thinking that maybe that book really has no audience. I don’t think I’d like to write another book like that again—where so much effort goes into its preparation and publication and then it seems to fall into the world with a silence “whoosh.” It has materiality for a moment and then it evaporates. Maybe a pdf that circulates widely is where it’s at? Maybe serializing Some Sports so that it gets into some kind of rotation—via the web and social media? Or making a podcast where I read the work out loud?
I am not sure that books are getting read. Yes, poetry books are being written. It’s as if we are in a generative phase—but I don’t know who is buying and sitting and reading and reviewing and teaching all of these books. Maybe we are swimming in a sea of writing and there are no fish there who are reading. Again, no criticism, just a possibility that I am trying to negotiate when thinking about new writing projects. It could be a generational thing as well—when I was in my 30s I really thought about sitting at the feet of elders and peers and learning from them: Alice Notley, Cecilia Vicuna, Susan Howe, Sonia Sanchez, Alan Davies, Deborah Meadows, Rodrigo Toscano, Alicia Askenase, Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman, Paolo Javier, Jennifer Firestone, Bhanu Kapil, Joanna Sondheim, Tisa Bryant, Claudia Rankine, Kamau Brathwaite. I thought it was my responsibility to read and review and teach their books. Now, in my 50s, I think that the younger generation is interested in writing—but maybe they are writing out of classrooms and maybe in various kinds of learning communities or activist or performance communities. I don’t know if they are writing in response to other books and authors. I may be really wrong about this—and again, it’s not a critique. It’s just what I have noticed and I want to acknowledge if there has been a shift and how I could shift in response. Maybe someone will read this and write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and fill me in, correct me, dialogue with me about this!
What do you think about this? You are doing something to actively engage writers and their books—do you do what you do because you also see a gap in readership?
Q: That is a fairly large question, I’d say. The simplest answer is yes, but the complexities and nuances abound. In the larger sense, everything I do as editor, publisher and reviewer works to connect between myriad writing bubbles constructed around geography, form/style and personality. There is so much interesting work out there, most of which deserves far more attention than it receives, so I wish to simply provide opportunities for new readers to engage as they can.
To your point, though, I think poetry books as units are still engaged. Just watch for a new book to emerge and the excited flurry on Twitter on a particular author, a particular title. At least north of the border between us there are far fewer venues for conversation around books over the past twenty-odd years, and a significant loss of sales through that time, so one works to figure out how to assist against those erosions and silences. I live in a country, after all, that hasn’t the same heft of creative writing programs shaping writing as you do in the United States, so a variety of communities up here are then forced to shape in different ways that have little or nothing to do with those classroom systems. Do you feel the classroom system is part of the issue?
A: I appreciate your perspective here. Thanks for sharing it. About the classroom and creative writing: I think that if there is a problem, it may have started with “English” and “literature” departments, where the analysis of literature is such a disembodied or economy-driven pursuit, and sometimes by necessity it needs to keep reinforcing canons (as in, “you’ll never land a tenure-track job if you keep writing about such an obscure author or poet”) that it has had the impact of pulling students toward classrooms where literature is a living thing: creative writing. From what I’ve seen, that’s where “alt canons” and literature comes alive. But then the emphasis, in the end, is on making one’s own writing portfolio, so that’s where the energy goes. And it’s then sort of natural, with those classrooms proliferating, that poetry is something to generate and not necessarily something to study. As I write this, I can hear the flaws in my thinking. But I’ll stop there!
Q: So then, to move perhaps in a different direction from this thread: how do and have you created your own sense of community? Where do you situate yourself and your writing within the context of other contemporary friends/writers and their works?
A: Another great question! When we lived in New York, this was very clear to me. I ran a small chapbook press called Sona Books. When we moved to Chicago for two years I continued it there. I went to readings around town—experimental venues like Poetry Project, Segue Reading series, and Belladonna. In Chicago I went to things curated by Jennifer Karmin and Laura Goldstein. In the Emirates, there is a very small poetry scene and it’s mostly “performative” and that’s cool but it doesn’t mesh with my leanings. Poetry is of course a big part of Arab cultures—and Indian cultures—so that’s all around me in who lives in the city of Abu Dhabi. But it isn’t necessarily accessible to me—either because of my language limitations, or because poetry is something activated in daily living and in philosophical questions that get asked and answered in families and among friends. So, not necessarily public. Does that make sense? To some degree, SPEECH was about this. How to navigate my own mutism around “being a poet” yet certainly feeling the poetry of that city, of its people. The art community is lively and public there—there is a small gallery scene mostly in Dubai and there are museums and more venues for visual art. There seems to be more that you can “say” through abstraction, conceptual work, and so on. So for my solo show at Grey Noise, I activated the space toward poetry. I exhibited an archive of paintings that accompany the making of SPEECH, and then I held “poetry school” sessions in the space—we got together and talked about “difficult” poetry and I held a reading. Probably the last public event before the quarantine! And I fashioned a “mobile micro-press”—a plexi box holding all the implements of writing and chapbook making, including a very small printer, and I invited friends, authors, artists, anyone who walked in the gallery to make a poem with me and publish it on the spot. And I’m working with two young artists and writers in Abu Dhabi, Shamma Al Bastaki and Sarah Al Mehairi, on a project we’re calling “JARA Collective” (“jara” is female neighbor in Arabic)—we’ll publish about four chapbooks a year, locally, and celebrate them in informal spaces like living rooms and possibly larger public spaces like galleries.
Q: What kind of effect, if any, have these interactions had on the ways in which you write or approach writing? Has anything of your own work shifted due to these projects and conversations?
A: Looping back to Some Sports, and my current studio work: I’m reconsidering the book as form. Thinking more of how smaller booklets or pdfs can circulate more informally and maybe more easily. And how I can bring writing projects into gallery space. I was talking to Brenda Iijima the other day about this—and she was articulating that a chapbook project of hers in the last handful of years yielded the most dialogue, the most interaction, and was almost more inspiring than books she had published. So a return to the small-scale project, perhaps. And in the UAE context, imagining how gallery space can also function as poetry space.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Hoorah for the chapbook! I appreciate all your work in publishing and editing. As for who inspires me or energizes my work—I return, often to Etel Adnan. Her two-volume set from Nightboat is a treasure and I teach her nearly every year to my introduction to creative writing students. She writes across genre and there is a deep politics in her work and it’s also extremely philosophical. There’s no need to say “the personal is political” in this work because the mind of her work has not made that split to begin with. I need this. I also keep returning to Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons. It’s a poetics in that it questions “policy,” a site of activity that is antithetical to the poem. It reminds me to “arrive wild” as I say to myself. In other words, if arrival is some kind of “success” or resting point, I don’t arrive all groomed, disciplined, and necessarily acceptable. I need, as Bhanu Kapil suggested to me once, the curriculum that is off campus and deep in the woods. I also return to Paul Celan for this lesson. And the philosophical/theoretical threesome of Povinelli/Delueze/Glissant. Finally, among the “younger” poets who are inspiring, lately, I am really drawn to Asiya Wadud’s work: for its lyricism and angularity. And there’s never the question, in her work, of whether we’ve left the political field. It permeates her poetry as a vibrancy.