Words Gather in the Air: Manahil Bandukwala in Conversation with Jennifer Lynn Still

Jennifer Lynn Still

Contributor Manahil Bandukwala talks with Jennifer Lynn Still, one of two judges for our 2023 Long Poem Prize contest. They discuss her winning long poem's transformation into a chapbook, time as the kindest editor, and how a long poem has space to make and unmake itself.


Jennifer Lynn Still composes poems with physicality in the Red River Valley, Treaty 1 territory, Winnipeg. She is the author of several handmade chapbooks and three poetry books, Girlwood (Brick Books, 2011), Comma (Book*hug, 2017) and Saltations (Thistledown, 2005), a meditation on her matrilineal Métis/European heritage. Her current project, an illuminated manuscript composed with pinholes, a light table, electric typewriter and carbon sheets, was projected inside The Star Factory Planetarium (University of Manitoba) and installed at The Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba and Aceart Inc.

Her long poem, "Legs," was co-winner of the 2021 Malahat Review Long Poem Prize. Legs is now a limited-edition chapbook with Baseline Press (fall 2022) and will appear as a video poem collaboration with artists Christine Fellows and Chantel Mierau later this year.

Your long poem, “Legs” co-won The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize in 2021. Legs also just recently debuted as a chapbook from Baseline Press—congratulations! How has Legs evolved into the chapbook it is now from the long poem that won the contest a year ago?

Thanks for these questions, Manahil. Legs, the bones of it, has held close to its original composition. It landed in long, unpunctuated, braided fragments and remains a non-linear, associative, memory-flash of a piece.

So the evolution for me is all process. My relationship with poetry has changed with this work. Legs has taught me to listen far more generously to my own writing. The year between the long poem prize and the chapbook offered me the kindest editor: time. Originally, when I composed Legs, I couldn’t see past the grief of losing my mother. But now I hear the celebration inside it all. Her life and her mother’s life and hers and hers and hers. The continuity of our particular lives going on and on and on in and through and around each other.

And this has been a revelation for me. To let go of all the disappointments of a piece, all a work is not and simply enjoy what the poem is. Layers and shapes have revealed themselves: circles, ovals, eggs, ellipses. A looping substructure that insists for an on and on and on, that speaks to a constant state of becoming. Words fray and morph. The body breaks down and reshapes. nylons nilons noruns nurons neurons. And so it’s not so much the poem that has evolved, but my hearing it in all its subtextual intricacies.

Publishing Legs lifted the poem into aurality for me. My editing process was mostly reading the poem aloud, which allowed the poem’s sounds to lift and secure new meaning. ie: the way soar whispers sore and dew whispers due and hers and hers and hers and hers whispers enters enters centers centers. These oral offshoots show me there’s fertility in the language. That the poem is ever making itself, ever emerging in slightly new ways. So yeah, allowing the original fragments to show me their own kind of angular whole is an evolution for me, a more generous and gentle way of listening to and trusting in what I have made. This letting a poem be more itself. It sounds obvious to lean this way, but somehow it has taken me 20 years to arrive at a kinder place in my process. Legs is the poem that asks me for more trust.

The opportunity to publish in chapbook form allows a long poem like Legs to be held discrete and whole. This notion of wholeness is something the poem works toward, in fragments, over a long run of unpunctuated, loosely-braided lines. Karen Schindler of Baseline Press makes these handsewn chapbooks individually with such grace and care and thoughtfulness. I can’t say enough about the collaborative publishing process she fosters—from her poet-editor pairings to paper selections, cover art conversations and typesetting details. Her vision is exquisite. Her books are exquisite. She creates community and conversation between poets with these chapbooks. I feel having Legs appear in this focused, beautiful form alongside new works by Jody Chan, Julia Lederer, and Laboni Islam extends the poem into yet another incarnation, one that is no longer exclusive to me, but ever expanding and part of a larger experience.

Your editor for the chapbook was Sandra Ridley. What does it mean to work with an editor, as opposed to self-editing, and how does that change (or not change) a project?

Editing with Sandra Ridley was illuminating. She heard and held my poem in a way that softly and clearly amplified it back to me and made me feel like I was hearing it all for the first time. From the inside. This editorial care means safety and freedom. Growth and understanding. Working with Sandra helped me protect the poem from my most critical self! Oddly, editing Legs asked something very different of me—a stepping back from the page and wearing the poem internally, as pure voice. We edited over the phone, with Sandra reading the poem in full out loud to me. Many times. As she read I closed my eyes and listened to the words gather in the air. Hearing the poem in her voice released the poem to new connection for me. Though we edited over the phone in separate cities, it was a physical experience. We would hear the poem in real time together and would feel where it caught us in our throats. Where it tripped our tongues. Where it landed in the gut. The chest. This aural editing opened space for new lines to whisper in. A word or a phrase would shiver in like a rhythm, a wavelength. I’d hear it as she read and make a note. Some were lines I had let go of long ago. Others, very few, a word here or there, were brand new. When I read the poem now I hear these lines as crucial moments. They are the joints the poem hinges on. Our final editing session involved me reading the poem back to her for the first time. We knew, together, when we crossed the finish line with Legs. It was as if together we felt the ribbon snap.

My editing experience with Sandra was deep, profound, buoyant work that I will carry forth into future projects. I’m a wider listener of my own work, a more gentle and playful listener, thanks to her. Mostly, I felt Legs had been heard and protected with care. With heart. It means everything to have an editor, a trusted guide, accompany you through those final moves.

Legs also appears as a video poem in collaboration with Christine Fellows and Chantel Mierau. What does the video form bring to the poem, and what was working with artists in a different medium like?

Oh you’ve caught us right in the middle of our process here, just entering post-production. It is an intricate, epic project. How to arrange words and image so they amplify and lift each other?

Again, it all comes back to orality. The vocal work I’ve done with Christine has been transformative for me. For the first time I can hear my interior, private voice on the outside. Christine’s openhearted, sensitive and bold listening is magic. She knows just how to guide someone to their natural register. I wish all poets could have this intimate experience recording their work. I can access a more performative range through visualization and gesture that is at the same time still interior. Capturing the voice is intimate and intense. I am no longer just reading a poem, but rather seeing it, showing it, singing it! All this vocal work has allowed me to hear Legs more like a musical composition. We’re discovering its movements and chapters and ways to excerpt a “run” of lines.

Video editing feels like writing on water. It’s a floating page now. And I love this fluidity and drift between image and voice. So much can live between a word and an image. It’s also daunting. But the greatest joy and discovery is in the collaborative process itself. Christine and Chantel are brilliant, sensitive, experimental artists who have internalized Legs so full-heartedly. Together we are learning how to embody a poem about the body. Which offers so much visual possibility. There is overlap in our practices—we all write and work in collage techniques and keep our makings close to the hand. Chantel’s textile creations are beyond our wildest imaginings. Fabrics, cloth and coverings are so important to the poem and she’s really run with this. Christine’s lyrical attention to everything—from light to lake waves to blue icing—well we’re following it all right to the wonder. There’s a humour I could never have anticipated in the project now. A levity. Also a solemn sense of celebration. Like every scene we shoot is a kind of birthday gone sideways. Who knew there was that? We bake a cake and shove it in a nylon. We fly a pantyhose kite. It’s like the video is turning the poem inside out. We’re seeing its inner stories. We are all in stride together. Sound and light move in where there used to be a page. A breeze on tissue pattern paper becomes breath. A run in a nylon is calligraphic. The whole thing is about listening to each other and our materials and following Legs through. The collaboration itself has become the poem in a way. How to capture this? We are skill-sharing, taking turns behind cameras and collab editing and gathering sounds and learning how to cut a jumpsuit pattern.

This process is the most thrilling artistic experience of my life and I already feel, just halfway through, that collaboration will be part of my ongoing practice. The opportunity to pool talents and sensibilities and to discuss a project and make discoveries as a collective—well this is a new level of artistic opening and risk and trust for me. I feel we have something quite special as a trio. We’re translating Legs into something entirely new. Our collective listening feels like a superpower. Our range of hearing is so much wider as a group. It will be wonderful to see and share whatever it all becomes.

The transition from contest submitter to judge of the same contest must be surreal. When you’re preparing a poem to submit to a contest, what is your process, and how is it different from submitting to a magazine’s general call?

It will be a joy and a surprise and an honour to listen inside long poems this winter. I’m grateful for the invitation and will read the poems with all my wonder. Saying this, I am most at home in the private world of my quiet poem-making. It’s my most natural home—note taking, observing, experiencing, reflecting, documenting. Poetry gives form to my most natural state—daydreaming! So when I am motivated to share my work in any way, say with my daughter, or a friend or submit it to a contest—I obsess. I sweat it out and edit/tweak/dream the piece right up until the deadline. This is stressful, but it also focuses my work to a moment of development. But the pressure is uncomfortable. Like jump squats. Never fun, but muscle-building. So mostly I listen for timing to line up between my poem and the publishing world, which is rare. If there’s a contest call (especially a rare one like the Long Poem Prize) or theme issue that feels aligned to a poem, I might use this opportunity to focus on a piece and try to get it into submission shape. I have a theory that when a piece is ready, as long as I’m listening for it, the poem will find its home in the world. Time always helps me see a piece in its best light. So patience and waiting is a big part of things. At least a year between composition and sharing is my general rhythm. This keeps my focus on creation. Moving forward and forward and forward.

How do you know this is the poem you want to submit? Do you have any practical or intuitive pieces of advice for poets submitting their work to this contest?

My experience is that a poem will never be totally ready. But it will evolve into a version of itself—full of possibility and disappointment—that might feel it is ready to take some pressure. Maybe if I can love it just enough, then it’s ready? I’m not sure about you, but when I seal the envelope or hit send I instantly hear something that I want to change! Which is always a win, right? Even if it’s uncomfortable—the point is to learn something.

As for what makes this poem the poem, and I’m thinking about the long poem here, I ask myself things like…. Can I locate its heart? Am I ready to learn more about this poem? Is there something in this poem to protect and discover all at once? Is it a poem I can hold in my imagination as its very own world? Can I sense its textures, shapes, colours—does it have physicality? Atmosphere? Motion? If I was a sculptor would I be able to sculpt it? Does it embarrass me just a bit? Does it surprise me every single time I read it and I can’t wait to get to that part I know will surprise me even though I wrote it? Is it raw enough and alive enough and curious enough and uncertain enough? When I read it aloud does meaning spur? Does it bypass logic and land in my chest? Does it make my voice quiver? Not always in the same place.

Meaning is aggregate in a long poem. Atomic qualities of language—sound, rhythm, association—gather and twirl, settle and unsettle into charged arrangement. A long poem has the space to make and unmake itself. It searches. It reaches. It doubles back. It sneaks up on you. My best non-advice is to simply love your process. Love how you’ve discovered this poem. The poem you share is a moment captured in time. Feel the potential in this moment. Its temporary ending/parting. Consider how you will continue to develop, learn from, and grow your poem. No matter what the outcome of the submission. This way you will only be informed by the experience. And it’s all “winning.”

To close up, what are you looking for in a winning poem?

I have probably reached my greatest poetic stride in not winning! Which is most of the time, right? Not winning lights a fire. It helps us “say you want more,” to quote a lyric from Christine Fellows’s new album Stuff We All Get. I’ll never forget Jane Urquhart’s keynote address at the Saskatchewan Book Awards many years ago. Her opening words were something like: “Most of us here will not win. Most of us will lose.” I love this camaraderie of losing. I think this is helpful, to keep “winning” in its place.

But to answer your question, when we write in the long poem form, a form of lyric endurance, I feel we are all cheering each other on. We long-poemers are marathoners! Together. In our own tracks. We go and go and go. With pounding hearts. I cheer for that pounding heart in the poem. Its paced and pressured breath. There’s a freedom in the long poem I’m listening for. Something followed far. And wide. Out and back again. Any which way. Every which way. I’m reading for this full stride in language. This freedom. The poet finding their way through language to set something free.


Manahil Bandukwala

Manahil Bandukwala

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