Tiggy Johnson, Interviewed by Stuart Barnes

Our poetry editor Stuart Barnes interviewed Tiggy Johnson for Issue Seven of Tincture Journal. Tiggy’s poems “Douglas” and “Family Secret #7” can be found in Issue Seven. Additionally, her short story “Waiting” is in Issue Six and her poem “Waiting for Mary” is in Issue Three.

Tiggy Johnson

SB: For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?

TJ: Excluding limericks about everyone in my class throughout high school, I’ve been writing poetry for about ten years. I used to take short stories to a fortnightly writing group, and one of the poets there pushed me into having a go at poetry. I resisted for a long time, but eventually had a go and asked him for feedback on half a dozen poems.

SB: When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?

My first published poem is “Minutes”. It was initially published in Tamba, in 2006, and later in Kipple. Rather than tell you what it’s about, you can read it here.

SB: How and where do your poems take shape?

TJ: I’m not sure there’s a set answer to this. Sometimes I schedule writing time and the poems “happen” soon after sitting at my desk (or at least one might). I try to trust in this process and usually it works, but I don’t schedule the time in often enough. Poems sometimes come to me when I’m busy doing something else, like driving. Then, I try to repeat the words over until either I’m confident I’ll remember them (which I sometimes don’t), or I can write them down. My kids are used to me talking to myself in the car, and they think they’re pretty cute when they do it themselves.

SB: Reading for a BBC Programme, Sylvia Plath explained: “[‘The Disquieting Muses’] borrows its title from the painting by Giorgio de Chirico—The Disquieting Muses. All through the poem I have in mind the enigmatic figures in this painting.” (Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1981)

What art forms influence your poetry?

TJ: Actively, I don’t think other art forms influence my poetry. I don’t seek inspiration this way. But I do sometimes like having certain music playing when I write. Chris Isaak and Joe Cocker are a couple of faves. I did once try to use particular songs to inspire a story or poem, but I wasn’t happy with anything I wrote, so considered that project a massive fail.

SB: Tell me about “Douglas” and “Family secret #7”, your poems that appear in Issue Seven of Tincture Journal.

TJ: I caught the genealogy bug a few years ago and soon after, decided I wanted to write my family history in poetry. One of the first poems I wrote was a family story that I desperately wanted to share, but without divulging anyone’s personal details. I came up with the idea of the “family secret” poems at that point, and wrote the first of them, #8, which you can read on my website. I liked the effect of keeping certain stories secret, and the interest this poem received, so kept at it. There are about a dozen (so far), and “Family secret #7” is one of them. I can’t really tell you much more without ruining the whole “secret” aspect, though I do admit to some poetic license as far as details go. For instance, I don’t know if the floor was carpeted when the incident happened.

I can tell you more about “Douglas”. Douglas was my uncle, who died as the result of a car accident when I was nine. We’d been close and I still think about him. I’ve written about him before, and no doubt I will again. The poem speaks for itself in many ways, and after my grandmother’s funeral, I knew I had to write this poem. It didn’t happen straight away though. Rather, something Max Ryan said in the preamble to a poem at the Queensland Poetry Festival had me frantically scribbling in my notebook.

SB: How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By editing/publishing page seventeen, the literary magazine you co-founded in 2004?

TJ: There might be too many ways to answer this properly, including the poet who initially pushed me into trying poetry, and Max Ryan’s preamble. Actually, the Max Ryan type of influence happens a lot, and is one of the main reasons I love attending poetry readings and festivals. I always have my notebook ready.

Editing and publishing page seventeen definitely helped too. I wasn’t writing poetry when page seventeen was born, and at first it was a challenge to just select it. We (myself and Kathryn Duncan, who co-founded it with me) tended to choose poems that spoke to us, and after a couple of issues it occurred to me that we weren’t necessarily publishing the more “technical” poems, and suddenly poetry didn’t seem so hard, if that makes sense. So, editing and publishing poetry gave me confidence in my own work, though it took until I was accepted by Cordite (on two separate occasions) to include the word “poet” in my bio.

Tell me about Unlock the Past’s 4th Genealogy Cruise and “Writing poetry: different ways to present your family history”.

This comes back to that genealogy bug. And also that poetry isn’t the way most people record their family history. As a member of the Genealogical Society of Queensland, I approached the convener of their Writing (interest) Group about whether I would “fit in”. She responded by inviting me to present to the group about what I was doing, and in a moment of confidence, I approached Unlock the Past about taking it a step further. It seemed like the push I needed to book the cruise, even though I’d already decided to go. If Chris Paton, British genealogist (and the cruise’s keynote speaker), is to be believed, it was a great presentation that offered people new ways to think about their own writing projects.

SB: What are your thoughts on print vs. digital poetry publication?

TJ: I think there are pros and cons to both. I do still love holding a book and generally tend to forget that I have a Kindle and should use it. When I have to catch public transport, for instance, I always think of taking an old-fashioned paper book. Having said that, I have purchased poetry e-books, and I have enjoyed reading them perhaps as much as reading print books. I think one of the reasons I tend toward paper copies is that when I first got my Kindle, there weren’t many poetry e-books around and their reviews suggested the formatting was problematic, so I got it into my head that the type of writing I like to read isn’t really available as e-books, and then I forgot about it. It’s probably changed a lot since then. From a writing point of view, I think it’s great that there are opportunities for writers to be represented in print and digital forms. When submitting my work, whether a publication is print or digital isn’t part of my consideration of whether or not to send my work.

SB: What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?

TJ: Due to some research I’ve been doing, I’ve actually been reading poems written during World War 1.

One of my favourite poems, and it’s been a favourite for some time, is “Missing” by Rosanna Licari. It’s kind of haunting and memorable, which is one of the things I like about it, but it also helps bring my focus back to writing poems about history and family.

SB: You also write short fiction: Svetlana or otherwise, your first collection, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2008; “Waiting” appeared in Issue Six of Tincture Journal. Tell me about the relationship between writing poetry and writing short fiction?

TJ: Writing fiction came first and in many ways (especially using hindsight) it came fairly easily. As I’ve already said, I needed a push to start writing poetry, and it took a while to gain some confidence. I used to find it easy to flit back and forth from one form to the other, and seemed to “just know” whether a new idea was supposed to be a story or a poem. Usually my new ideas come already formed in words, in sentence, or stanza form, so I suppose this helps to explain that, though I haven’t written a lot of fiction lately, and I doubt that’s because no sentences appear.

I’ve always felt that my fiction came from my imagination, and my poetry was more personal, so I guess if I’m focusing on writing a family history, it makes sense that fiction has taken a back seat. (It may also explain why I used to think fiction was easy and poetry was hard.)

There are a lot more social opportunities for poets too, with readings, festivals and so on, and I’m sure this has meant I’ve been writing more poetry than fiction too. Being around others is an excellent motivator. But really, I’m not sure I know why I choose one form over the other at different times, though I do know it’s no longer so easy to switch back and forth from one to the other, so when I have an idea for a story, I have to really convince myself to write it.

SB: Thanks, Tiggy, for your time and continued support of Tincture Journal.

Tiggy Johnson’s poems have appeared in Cordite, Quadrant, Overland Audio II, Going Down Swinging, and Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems 2012. Svetlana or otherwise, her short story collection, was published in 2008. First taste, a poetry collection, in 2010, and That zero year, a poetry collection co-written with Andrew Phillips, in 2012. She is currently writing her family history in poetry and can be found online at www.tiggyjohnson.com. She has had poetry and fiction published in Issues Three and Six of Tincture Journal.

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