In Conversation: Jennifer Zilm Discusses Waiting Room

Take a seat in (the) Waiting Room, the first full-length collection of poetry from award-winning writer Jennifer Zilm. Featured in the CBC Books Spring 2016 Books Preview Selection, and named one of 49th Shelf’s Most Anticipated Spring 2016 Poetry books, Zilm’s work takes us into waiting rooms of all kinds.

Featuring a mélange of styles and forms (including sonnets, erasures, unsent emails, footnotes, session notes, CVs, tweets, and other disparate source materials), Zilm’s engaging and observant writing invites readers to investigate the curious boundaries of various therapeutic terrains-from an exploration of the esoteric world of graduate school, where the subject is religion, to a mash-up of Dante’s vision of purgatory and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), to the improbable written intersections of van Gogh’s doctors and Sylvia Plath’s therapist-subverting, sharing, and repurposing the all-too-familiar vocabularies of psychiatry, dentistry, the Bible, and academia in a humorous investigation into what it means to wait, to be a patient and to be patient, to be a student and to be a teacher, to be a healer and to be healed.

BookThug intern Stacey Seymour sat down with Jennifer Zilm to discuss her writing and her new book of poetry. Keep reading for a brief excerpt from Waiting Room.

Stacey Seymour: What’s one thing you want to tell readers about your book?

Jennifer Zilm: It has four sections. The first is about the dentist, the second about the academy, the third is about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the fourth is about therapy. There are a lot of doctors in it.

SS: What inspired you to write this book?

JZ: In 2012 I decided to give up working on my dissertation on gender, angels and prayer in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I made the decision at the Vancouver WORD Literary Festival which made me happy because the word became flesh etc. So I determined to write a book in lieu of a dissertation. The book is also an elegy for that lost dissertation but it’s also an elegy for some people and a celebration of a neighbourhood. I wrote the book in 2013. I gave up reading novels that year and read only poetry: that was pretty inspiring.

SS: How does Waiting Room compare with what you initially thought it would be when you started writing it?

JZ: I was studying with the poet Jen Currin in 2013 and she had a policy of “only new work for three months.” Once I started this pattern I got addicted to newness and continued. So there is nothing in the book that was written prior to 2013, with the exception of an erasure in the book of part of my thesis. But this section—which is in the section Academy of Fragments—was arranged differently and so felt new. Then in one sense, I guess, it’s all just word arranging. The dictionary contains all the books, right?

I was influenced by a lot of stuff I was reading as I was writing. So I wrote a chunk of the section Singular Room Occupancy: Cantos from Main and Hastings while reading Dorothy Sayers translation of Dante’s Purgatory while working at the front desk of a single room occupancy hotel in Vancouver. I found a copy of Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne at the Value Village (that fantastic acre of garbage and fluorescent light) on Hastings Street and around that time my partner gave me a copy of the Letters of Vincent van Gogh and both of those books really influenced the poems What a Queer Thing Touch Is and Dr. Gachet’s Walk which are in the final section of the book which is This Holy Room/The Great Listeners. I didn’t imagine that I would end up writing so many poems about my dentist but the dental office I go to often wins consumer choice awards and maybe that’s why.

SS: What one word embodies this book for you and why?

JZ: Here are some key words:

  • Nouns: Fragment (though I’m not sure if this isn’t just a French adverb masquerading as an English noun); Room; Attention
  • Verbs: Wait; listen; attend; turn
  • Participles/Gerunds: Waiting; Listening; Attending; Turning
  • Adjectives: softest

SS: How did you decide on Waiting Room as a title and what might an alternate title be?

JZ: The book was originally called The Appointment. Then it was Waiting Room: Appointment Poems because I am a sucker for subtitles. I was talking about the manuscript with a friend and she said “waiting room is better.” And since waiting is the meta-activity of life, I realized it worked. Plus, there are a lot of rooms in this book and they are all waiting rooms in a sense. And Stanza is the Italian word from room (this is a title of one of the last poems in the book) so each poem is like a little collection of waiting rooms.

SS: What are the most rewarding and most challenging aspects about writing for you?

JZ: I don’t like to talk about the “challenging” parts because I am superstitious and it seems bad luck. The most rewarding is when you’re writing so much you can look in a mirror and you don’t even recognize yourself. It’s like the part in Cecile B. De Mille movie The Ten Commandments when Charlton Heston/Moses comes down after meeting God (the “I am”) and his eyes are manic and he has a strange Technicolor tan. When I was writing the book I ran into someone I know and she said to me “Oh I didn’t recognize you… you look so happy!”

SS: What song is definitely on your writing playlist?

JZ: Old Time Religion by the Jamaican gospel group The Grace Thrillers.

Excerpts from Waiting Room: 

Waiting Room pg. 30

Page 30 of Waiting Room, from “Dead Sea Scrolls: A Dissertation Erasure”

 

 

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Order your copy of Waiting Room here.

Photo Credit: Melia Sorenson

Photo Credit: Melia Sorenson

Vancouver-based Jennifer Zilm received a B.A. and an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of British Columbia and was a doctoral fellow at McMaster University, where her (unfinished) dissertation focused on the liturgical and poetic texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. A graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio and the Humber College School for Writers, Zilm’s writing has been published in numerous journals, including Prism International, Prairie Fire, Grain, CV2, The Antigonish Review, Vallum, and Women in Judaism and Poetry. Zilm is the author of two chapbooks: The whole and broken yellows(2013) and October Notebook (2015). Zilm has been a finalist for many contests, includingThe Malahat Review‘s Far Horizons Award and CV2‘s 2-Day Poem Contest. A draft ofWaiting Room was shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Waiting Room is her debut book of poetry. Learn more at www.jenniferzilm.com.

 

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