If Jessica Bell could choose only one creative mentor, she’d give the role to Euterpe, the Greek muse of music and lyrics. This is not only because she currently resides in Athens, Greece, but because of her life as a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist, whose literary inspiration often stems from songs she’s written. Her second collection of poetry Fabric was published through Vine Leaves Press in 2011.
Jessica is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and annually runs the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.
For more information, visit Jessica at her website.
The following poems are from Fabric.
My nails aren’t strong enough
to scratch you anymore,
I suppose you’re relieved.
The old maid’s weapons
are blunt; brittle – painted
with layers and layers
of pearl varnish,
I’ve spent years
trying to remove;
to hide from patrons’
when you said it grew
to match your blood stains?
You believed every time
I ripped your shirts,
the infection would reappear.
It was punishment
for not feeling, I guess.
I don’t watch the news
anymore. But I’d like you
to know, I will write
until you’ve lived
your thirteen lives.
I hope prison
treats you better
than I did.
PAPER & RIBBON
Carnival distorts moods, smiles, laughter,
must-eat food. Gossip hides the day’s woes
with oral wrapping paper, bows.
But below lipstick stamps,
that paint pretty patterns
on our cheeks, are memories.
They augment as tears;
as years nibbled by wit that never warns.
I am today’s personality;
an accent of death for those
still trying to live.
I’m scattered through
where stray cats
call my name
that now I live
like a fox skin tent:
I still bleed
I am not a mythical serpent.
I am what vegans
pretend do not exist.
TTQ – Do you consider yourself to be a singer/songwriter first and foremost and what inspired you to start writing poetry?
Jessica Bell – Actually I think I started writing poetry first. I must have been about eleven, sitting on a rock by the sea in a little place in Greece called Monemvasia. I was so inspired by my surroundings that I needed a way to express it. Not long after, I started writing songs. My mother had decided to sell her twelve-string acoustic guitar to get a bit of extra cash. I saw it sitting by the front door. I think someone was coming over to take a look at it. I remember opening the case and thinking that it just looked so beautiful, and why would Mum want to get rid of it? I think she was in the music room at the time and I interrupted one of her recording sessions to ask about the guitar. When she told me she was selling it, I asked her whether I could have it. She said that I could if I learnt to play. From that day I had that guitar in my hands every single day until I moved to Greece in 2002. I taught myself how to play. The first song I ever wrote was played on one string and sung in a very high-pitched awful voice. I hope that cassette never gets dug up!
TTQ – What are the differences between writing lyrics for a song and a poem, and which do you find to be the more difficult of the two, and why?
Jessica Bell – The only major difference between poetry and lyrics is that poetry has less repetition. I'm very practiced at both so I don't find either difficult. Once I'm in the zone, I'm in the zone.
TTQ – In your opinion, what constitutes a great poem?
Jessica Bell – Anything that evokes emotion.
TTQ – How would you best describe your second collection of poetry Fabric (Vine Leaves Press, 2011) and what message are you hoping your readers will take away with them after reading the book?
Jessica Bell – Poetry for those who don't read poetry. My poetry will not baffle you with phrasing that scholars award for academic genius and that can only be understood by those who wrote it. My poetry is for the everyday reader. Because it is real and stark.
The poems in Fabric explore specific moments in different people’s lives that are significant to whom they have become, the choices they’ve made. It’s about how they perceive the world around them, and how each and every one of their thoughts and actions contributes to the fabric of society. So, even if you do not usually read poetry, I urge you to give this one a go. Not because I want sales (though, they are fun!), but because I want more people to understand that not all poetry is scary and complex. Not all poetry is going to take you back to high school English, and not all poetry is going make you feel “stupid”.
TTQ – There’s a Canadian connection to Fabric with your publisher being based in Edmonton, Alberta. How did your relationship with Vine Leaves Press begin and to what degree have they helped you with marketing the book in Canada and Europe?
Jessica Bell – Actually, Vine Leaves Press is just my self-publishing platform. I run an online and print literary magazine called Vine Leaves Literary Journal with Dawn Ius, who is from Edmonton, Alberta, so I thought I'd name it after that just in case we actually did decide to pursue an actual small press affiliated with the journal. One day we hope to. But not yet. Though I do have a contract with a Small Press (eMergent Publishing, in Australia), I decided that self-publishing my poetry was in my best interests. Anyone who thinks they are going to make money out of poetry is kidding themselves. Unless you are one of the very rare lucky ones like Mary Oliver.
TTQ – What was the significance in using hints of numerology throughout Fabric and how large of a role does numerology play in your personal life?
Jessica Bell – I’ve always been a sucker for great symbolism. And I think when it is utilized in poetry it makes it all the more richer. The numerology in Fabric is not something the average reader is going to pick up, either, so that’s why I’ve talked about it in the Note From The Author in the back of the book. It’s a bit hard for me to talk about this without repeating what’s in the book, and it’s also something that readers should really only be aware of after they’ve read the poems, as I think it will offer them a whole new perspective on the work and inspire them to read it again with a fresh mind. Numerology doesn't play a significant role in my own life. I am just fascinated by it.
TTQ – How arduous a task was the editing process for Fabric, and did you have someone help you edit the book and was their input invaluable to you in completing the book?
Jessica Bell – It wasn't arduous at all. I had a brilliant time putting this collection together. I probably write one poem a week, sometimes more, and store them in a folder under the month and year. Initially, I don’t write with a specific theme in mind, I just write whatever I’m inspired by in that particular moment. I let myself at it for about a year, so that at the end of that year I have a decent amount of pieces to consider. Only 20 out of the 60 poems I wrote in 2011 made it into Fabric. The remaining eight I wrote for the collection specifically.
Anyway, once I had the 20 poems I wanted to include, I tweaked them all to fit the theme of ethical and moral philosophy, i.e. the fabric of society. There are a lot of references to different fabrics in the collection, and I love that the textures and weights of these fabrics, their durability and/or fragility, also symbolize the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals that are represented.
No one helped me edit it either. I find if I'm too influenced by other people's ideas it will skew my own. So I only ever seek an opinion once I'm confident about the final result. And I will only ever change something, then, if the suggestion completely resonates with me. Of course, I always keep an open mind. Nothing is ever set in stone.
TTQ – How has living in Greece changed you as a person and in what ways has it affected your songwriting and poetry?
Jessica Bell – Oh, in so many ways I'm not sure where to start. Let's say I don't take many things for granted anymore. Life can be a bit taxing here. The bureaucracy is a nightmare. Patience. I think that's what I've learned the most. Patience. And I suppose that has had an effect on my creativity too. I think I feel less pressured and have learned how to enjoy the process more than the possible result.
TTQ – How significant a role has social media played for you in getting your poetry out to the masses?
Jessica Bell – Huge. I need to scream that out as loud as possible. HUGE! I couldn't live without it. Being an ex-pat writer is hard. VERY hard.
Without social media I wouldn't have a career.
TTQ – What’s next for Jessica Bell?
Jessica Bell – Well, I've just put out a novella called The Book, which was inspired by a journal my parents kept when I was a baby.
Here's the blurb:
This book is not The Book. The Book is in this book. And The Book in this book is both the goodie and the baddie.
Bonnie is five. She wants to bury The Book because it is a demon that should go to hell. Penny, Bonnie’s mother, does bury The Book, but every day she digs it up and writes in it. John, Bonnie’s father, doesn’t live with them anymore. But he still likes to write in it from time to time. Ted, Bonnie’s stepfather, would like to write in The Book, but Penny won’t allow it.
To Bonnie, The Book is sadness.
To Penny, The Book is liberation.
To John, The Book is forgiveness.
To Ted, The Book is envy.
But The Book in this book isn’t what it seems at all.
If there was one thing in this world you wished you could hold in your hand, what would it be? The world bets it would be The Book.