“That rare moment of being so awed by a combination or chords or lines that it stops us. We want to be stopped again.” (An Interview with Jill Mceldowney)

As we begin the new year, Half Mystic craves warmth, brilliance, stampede. Issue V and VI contributor Jill Mceldowney delivers this and more in her new collection Airs Above Ground from Finishing Line Press, and we couldn’t be more excited and honoured to celebrate this stunning new book. Please join us in turning towards an inferno of ferocity and movement by welcoming Jill Mceldowney to the blog!

HM: Airs Above Ground is heavy with truth, confession, and powerful language. If we’re correct, the title itself references a series of horse’s actions. What is your relationship with horses, symbolically and literally? How did that shape your writing process?

JM: Yes—this chapbook is very closely tied to horses and various disciplines of horseback riding including racing, hunter/jumper, and dressage. Dressage is often called ‘horse ballet’ and the ‘airs above ground’ are a series of classical dressage movements in which the horse is trained to leave the ground.

I’ve been around horses most of my life. I rode when I was younger, took an almost six year break, and began riding competitively again during my first year of grad school. In a way, I knew returning to horses meant returning to violence, to trauma. An animal that large, that emotionally sensitive can’t help its own violence. It is inevitable. They are inevitable. They are so beautiful, romantic, so capable of hurting themselves or others when they are afraid, angry, upset. When I was first getting back into riding, I had a horse trainer say to me: “It’s not if you’re going to fall off, it’s when.” I find something liberating in that cryptic uncertainty—the idea that you love something so much you keep returning to it even though you know, eventually, it is going to hurt. I titled the book Airs Above Ground after that feeling of uncertainty, or rather, the repeated yes to the horse rising into the air, the uncertainty of if, of how it will descend.

My own writing process is definitely shaped by that unpredictability. I love that feeling of sitting down to write, not knowing what’s going to come out, and being surprised when what does come is so much better, wilder, than what I originally intended.

Besides horses, fire appears to be another aspect of the cohesive imagery. What role does fire serve in depicting the exploration of identity and/or relationship(s) in the book?

When someone intentionally sets something on fire, there is a point of no return, a point where the firestarter realizes that what has been lost cannot be gotten back. My intention with the image of fire throughout the text is that the speaker experiences a similar effect throughout the nonlinear narrative of the chapbook. The imagery accelerates and becomes more saturated, increasingly intense as the book gathers toward its close. It is reflective of both the speaker’s relationship with themself and the relationships they have with others.

In poems like “Paradise Woods” and “Blame”, the form helps capture a vivid array of emotions in utmost sincerity. Was your experimentation with form intentional, or aimed at a specific purpose? How do you hope readers will interpret this?

Form is definitely an important aspect of my work. I believe that form informs content and vice versa. Both “Paradise Woods” and “Blame” are high energy poems that create and maintain their energy from the leaps that they make from image system to image system, and from point to point across the page. In part, that’s what carries the chapbook through— the energy that is created in those spaces. It keeps the reader going, moving through the book. These jumps are also reflective of the overall title of the chapbook and of the performance of the airs above ground themselves.  

Name three songs of fitting atmosphere that ought to be played while reading Airs Above Ground—a soundtrack of a sort. Are any of these specific to certain themes or poems?

I love this question (and totally cheated by including more than three songs!). I often make playlists when I first begin larger writing projects and find that certain songs echo throughout the work. These songs have remained influential and important to the poems in this chapbook: 

  • “Honey & I” by HAIM

  • “Mama’s Room” by Under the Influence of Giants

  • “Poison & Wine” by The Civil Wars

  • “Paper Planes“ by M.I.A.

  • “The Habit” by Lissie  

What was most difficult about this book, whether in conceiving or finishing it? Would you do anything differently?

The most difficult aspect of writing this book was, quite simply, allowing myself to write it. I first heard what became the voice of this project about five years ago, while I was still an undergrad at Columbia College in Chicago. I remember very specifically writing the first poem for this project (that actually became the final poem in the chapbook, “Roses in May”) and seeing what I wanted it to be, what I wanted it to do. At that point in time I did not posses the proper experience or knowledge of voice or craft—in short, I wasn’t mature enough to approach the project in the manner that it deserved.

I still don’t know if I am mature or well-read or well-versed enough to do justice to the material, but I think if I was ever going to write this story, I was going to do it at this point. If there is a time and place for everything, I think I wrote this in the exact space in was meant to exist in. So, no. I would do nothing at all differently.            

What is music to you? Where does it live? How does it play into the raw and honest pieces in Airs Above Ground?  

Music is an essential part of poetry. Sometimes I think that the two are interchangeable. That’s what keeps us coming back to poems and poets we love—we want to rehear and relive a specific line. Part of me thinks that the reason for this is that we have to remind ourselves it was real—that rare moment of being so awed by a combination or chords or lines that it stops us. We want to be stopped again.

Because dressage tests are often paired with music, I can’t help but think that music has been built into the very foundation of this chapbook. I think that the pieces “Airs Above Ground”, “Terre à Terre”, “Shared Belief”, and “Mezzair” vibrate with music most honestly.

The book sings with visceral voices and often, a very direct stream of consciousness. How does this prominent sense of tone lead readers to a realization? Do you intend for readers to arrive at their own kind of revelation through reading the poems? 

The poems are personal and specific, but I do believe that they leave room for a reader, and for that reader to ‘fill in the gaps’ with their own traumas and experiences. I intended for the work to be open enough for a reader to insert themself into the scene and the atmosphere of the poem. The book is personal, but I would hate for a reader to feel closed off from it and unable to access it. One of the ways I’ve tried to achieve this is through the portrayal of the speaker: for me, it would’ve been easier to write something that was one-sided, that placed blame specifically in one place and on another person. But our speaker is multifaceted and responds to violence instinctively—which is to say, they respond to violence with violence. I think that is human, truer, more relatable, that a reader can feel themselves reflected in the different facets of the character.  

Describe Airs Above Ground using only verbs.  

Sawing, exploring, seizing, rising, full-gallop, dragging, breaking, living, breathing. Biting, kicking, changing, colliding, rising, accepting, realizing, immolate, suffering, dancing, listening, believing, attack, look, waiting, waiting, waiting, led.

What brought you to telling this story through poetry? How has your understanding of the craft shifted from the start to finish? 

I do think that poetry was the only way to tell this story. There is a dichotomy that exists in poetry that allows both intimacy and distance. I tried to emulate the way trauma is usually relived in that it comes back in flashes. When it is happening, it never feels as serious as when it is replayed back, over and over.

I had a conversation with an ex-jockey friend with whom I currently ride horses. She told me about a three-horse wreck she experienced during a race—how, when she watched the video playback of the race, she couldn’t believe it was her. She had to watch the tape through three times before it made sense, before she realized, oh, that was me under all those horses. I think this chapbook works a lot like that. Poetry has afforded me the ability to work in a nonlinear narrative mode that mirrors the way trauma is actually lived and experienced. Rewatching the tape.  

What projects are you currently working on? What are some concepts or ideas your writing is leading you towards?

Airs is part of a larger, full length manuscript that I just recently stopped working on obsessively. The full manuscript is more specific and more expansive in its portrayal of the world in which the speaker exists. In the full-length version, I think I’ve created a clearer juxtaposition between the speaker’s experiences with horses and the speaker’s relationship with others.

I am also working on a secondary project. I almost want to call it a psychoanalysis—but the project is still very much in its infancy, so I can’t say for sure where it’s going yet. I am focused on the results of trauma, and what comes after it.

Bio: Jill Mceldowney is the author of the chapbook Airs Above Ground (Finishing Line Press) as well as Kisses Over Babylon (dancing girl press). She is an editor and co-founder of Madhouse Press. She is also a recent National Poetry Series Finalist. Her previously published work can be found in journals such as Muzzle, Fugue, Vinyl, Prairie Schooner, and other notable publications.

Explore more: Twitter | Airs Above Ground from Finishing Line Press | Airs Above Ground on Google Books