Jessica Wilkinson

Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book.

Jessica L. Wilkinson’s first book of poetry marionette: a biography of miss marion davies was published by Vagabond Press in 2012 and shortlisted for the 2014 Kenneth Slessor Prize. She is the founding editor of RABBIT: a journal for nonfiction poetry. In 2014, Jessica won the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and was the recipient of a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and is Senior Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Suite for Percy Grainger – Synopsis
Suite for Percy Grainger: a biography is an experimental poetic work on the life and times of one of Australia’s most innovative and diversely accomplished musicians and composers, Percy Grainger. Alongside his immense musical output — including original compositions and folk-song arrangements — Grainger was also a keen essayist, a voracious reader, a dedicated letter writer, and an eager archivist, establishing the Grainger Museum as a repository for over 100,000 items including correspondence, clothing, musical manuscripts, instruments and everyday objects (not to forget his infamous whip collection). Of interest to Wilkinson, as a poet with one eye wandering into historical archives, is how one might write a biography sympathetic to Grainger’s personality, lifestyle and philosophies.

Portrait of Jessica Wilkinson

Suite for Percy Grainger is a poetic biography. Who was Percy Grainger and why did you decide to write a book of poetry about him?

Percy Grainger was an Australian-born musician (pianist) and composer. Most people would ‘know’ of Percy via his arrangement of the folk tune ‘Country Gardens’ (I’m humming it now for you…), a song that he came to hate for its popularity. His original compositions are fantastic; they frequently sound awful on first listen, but then you grow to love them. I had this experience with ‘Arrival Platform Humlet’, which is part of a suite of works collectively called ‘In a Nutshell’. The program notes for ‘Arrival Platform Humlet’ are as follows:

Awaiting arrival of belated train bringing one’s sweetheart from foreign parts; great fun! The sort of thing one hums to oneself as an accompaniment to one’s tramping feet as one happily, excitedly, paces up and down the arrival platform – P.G. 

He would often compose music based on these little life encounters. Once, following a very jerky train ride in Italy, he composed a fragment called ‘Train Music’ that expressed the train’s jerky movements musically. I love that.

Another favourite (I could talk about his music for hours!) is ‘The Warriors’, subtitled ‘Music for An Imaginary Ballet’. Conductor Thomas Beecham requested music to be composed for a ballet to be danced by the Diaghilev Company. The ballet never eventuated, so that’s why the score is for an ‘imaginary’ ballet. It was an astonishing piece for its time, requiring an expanded percussion section, three pianos and three conductors!

Percy was many things other than an accomplished pianist and prolific composer. He was a collector, a prolific writer, an inventor of music machines, a lover of long walks, and a self-flagellant with a sizable whip collection.

Why did I write a book on Percy? I was collaborating with a composer (Simon Charles) to realise marionette as a performance work of voice, sound and music, and during that brainstorming period, Simon started telling me about Percy’s Free Music ideas. It was nothing more than that. I started reading up on him and was hooked.

Your first book marionette was also a verse biography. What do you think poems, particularly experimental poems, can lend toward the depiction of a life?

As a poet, I am interested in what happens when poetry and biography collide, or what poetry and its components and devices can offer to the writing of a life. Poetry is such a polymorphous form, and I wanted to take advantage of that in each of my ‘biographies’. With marionette I wanted to find a form that might adequately ‘fit’ a representation of the life of early cinema actress Marion Davies.

The form of marionette responded to the research that I did in UCLA’s Film and Television Archives, where I watched most of the films in which she starred. So day after day I was watching a screen and the frame seemed very significant. Some of the films were still only on delicate film reels and being repaired at an off-site facility. Watching those reels probably had the most profound impact on the final form of the book; each film was split into around 7-10 reels and had a ‘HEAD’ (start of reel 1) and a ‘FOOT’ (end of final reel), which can be seen in marionette. Further, each reel had ‘END PART X’ at end of the reel (unseen by the regular viewer) and you can see a version of those ‘END’ boxes at the end of each section in marionette. Some films had missing reels, which had disintegrated. This, to me, seemed apt considering the fact that it proved difficult to access reliable information on some aspects of Marion’s life, partly due to the nature of Hollywood gossip, but also because her long relationship with media mogul William Randolph Hearst came at a cost.

marionette is set out in 9 ‘reels’ (with the middle one ‘missing’), but there is no chronological life narrative to follow; the parts are discontinuous and collated according to theme. A reader will also notice much ‘disintegration’ and ‘stuttering’ in the poems, which demonstrates frustration I suppose, at trying but failing to access information; but Marion also had a stutter when nervous!

The research for Suite for Percy Grainger exposed me to very different art forms; I listened repeatedly—obsessively—to recordings of Grainger’s music, and not much else, for about five years. Those rhythms and tunes really ‘got in’ to my body and had a profound effect on the kind of poetry I ended up writing for that book—the rhythms and lines. Grainger was also a keen collector, as can be seen in the Grainger Museum on the grounds of the University of Melbourne, where there are more than 100,000 items including letters of correspondence, musical instruments, photographs, artworks, scores, personal items and more. So Suiteconstitutes a ‘gathering together’ also, of objects and items I encountered. Another huge influence on my work was Grainger’s turn of phrase, as could be gleaned from the many letters of correspondence he wrote. He says ‘So I inned & old-flannelled & offed’, meaning, I think, ‘I went inside, changed into old clothes, and set off’. Ha!

A book cover of a person's back covered in writing

In one of the opening poems is the line, ‘music is an artform not yet grown up’. How did you find the process of writing music into poetry?

That line is a quote from Percy, taken from his Free Music Statement, in which he outlines his wish for music to throw off the bonds of convention and the strictures of set scales, rhythms and harmony, and to enter a new phase that might, ideally, be free of the human performer. He spent a lot of his later life constructing machines to realise this vision (one of them is on permanent display at the Grainger Museum and takes up a sizeable chunk of space!).

There is an aspect of poetry that is, I think, shared with music, and that is the inarticulable part. We can be moved by music in a way that we cannot verbally express or capture; similarly, a poem can resonate from what is not said. I think a large part of my work is working with the inarticulable aspects of a life, how they might be conveyed without being represented in a traditional way.

Throughout the book you use musical symbols such as staves, rests, sometimes fragments of musical composition. How did you intend these symbols to integrate with the language, and how important are they in how the book is read?

Well, the book could be seen as a score to be sung. The symbols and the fragments of score are intended to be observed when reading. Although a reader doesn’t have to be musically proficient to enjoy the appearance of those symbols, I would hope, because they are such beautiful objects in themselves. As Percy was a great experimenter (his ‘Free Music’ ideas, for instance), there is also a resistance to conventional ‘life scoring’ in Suite. The book is, I suppose, a score for playing and for play in general.

Biography involves arranging or composing a life, similar to the composition of music. How did you decide what to include and what to remain silent on?

Any biography involves a process of selection and exclusion. In that sense, I see all biographies as reflections of the biographer, no matter how hard their attempts to conceal their ‘handiwork’. No biography is an authority on a subject, which is why I think it is silly to say ‘this is the authorised biography of…’. Understanding that a biography is just one among many frees up some of the anxiety regarding what gets included and what left out

There is a section of the book that is a play between Grainger, Walt Whitman, and yourself as author. In this play section, Grainger’s persona says that ‘dullness and lovelessness result if private lives are not fully disclosed.’ What do you think does result from the disclosure of a private life?

Grainger had some funny sayings. In this, I think he meant that he wanted to be open about all aspects of his life, including his sex life. He made of himself an anthropological study. In quoting him there, I’m being a little facetious, because he did write a lot (for people to eventually see) on private matters, but it was highly curated. So, what did he leave out?

Some of the poems are based on photographs and paintings from your research. What were the challenges of transposing these visual media into the written word?

I wouldn’t call them transpositions so much as they are poems responding to how the visual media collided with information I gleaned through the research. In other words, there are poems that take cues from a visual image, but in so doing, they start attracting particles of information from elsewhere. To give an example, the poem ‘Percy Grainger by Adolph de Meyer’ is based on photographic portraits of Grainger by de Meyer, but does not merely produce an ekphrastic response to those images; it refers to other portraits by the artist (Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, John Barrymore, Vaslav Nijinsky) and his artistic depictions of celebrities. Because of his use of soft light and expressive shadow, Cecil Beaton called him the ‘Debussy of the Camera.’

In an earlier section, the poem ‘Nr.3 Pastoral’ refers to that section of the ‘In A Nutshell Suite’, including cues in the score, but also to a cartoonish image drawn by Ulderico Marcelli in 1916 (graphite on paper), depicting a performance of that work. The rights to the image were sold to Rose Grainger (Percy’s mother) for $50. I like how a response to an image cannot exist in a vacuum, but attracts other information.

What are your current projects, and how do your collections marionette and Suite for Percy Grainger relate to your editorship of non-fiction poetry journal, Rabbit?

Simon Charles and I are just about to release (November 2018) Marionette as a CD/audio work, following several years of performing the work at various festivals. It features spoken word, voice, chamber ensemble and electronics. I’m excited about this as a ‘new dimension’ for biographical exploration – that is, the ephemeral, auditory realm.

Writing-wise, I am currently completing a third poetic biography, which will be released in 2019. This one’s on choreographer George Balanchine. Balanchine was born in Russia, defected as a young man, and eventually found his way to the U.S., where he co-founded the New York City Ballet. Now that I think about it, there are quite a few similarities between Grainger and Balanchine. Both were classically trained in their respective fields (in fact, Balanchine not only studied dance but music and specifically piano as well), both were prolific experimenters ahead of their time, and both settled in New York (Grainger in White Plains), finding good reception in a country with thriving artistic communities.

As I have been researching Balanchine’s life, I have also been working on a side project on Lucette Aldous, who is still alive, living in Perth, a former prima ballerina with The Australian Ballet. I am named after Lucette (my middle name), as she was my mother’s favourite ballerina. I am still unsure if Balanchine and Aldous will cooperate within the space of one book. We shall see!

You can purchase Suite for Percy Grainger from Vagabond Press.

Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.  

© 2022 Centre for Stories / Site by Super Minimal