An Interview with Jenny Blackford

2021 Rhysling Award Winner, Jenny Blackford, sits down with SFPA member, Lauren Renee Frausto.

Lauren Frausto

The SFPA would like to congratulate poet, author and classicist Jenny Blackford on her 2021 Rhysling Award! Her poem, “Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London,” first published in Strange Horizons, won first place for the Long Poem Category on July 18th. Her award-winning poem can be found in The 2021 Rhysling Anthology along with the poetry of other winners and nominees. Blackford frequently writes in the speculative genre, with previous Rhysling nominations in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019. Blackford’s second speculative children’s novel, Fil and Harry, was published earlier this year and her latest poetry collection, The Alpaca Cantos, came out in March 2020. Site:

Jenny spoke from her Australia home via Zoom on July 26th to SFPA member Lauren Renee Frausto.

LRF: What was your initial reaction to receiving the award? How did you feel when you got the news?

JB: Look, I’m still somewhat stunned. I didn’t believe it. I really did not think I would ever win a Rhysling. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to wake up and be told it is all a dream. The news came in my Facebook feed, and I thought, yeah that can’t be true. That’s not right. Something’s gone wrong. I kept expecting the news to evaporate the whole time. It just seemed so unlikely. As we in Australia of a certain age would say, I was gobsmacked, or flabbergasted. Flabbergasted is probably more comprehensible and more poetic.

Jenny Blackford-from author website

LRF: Can you tell me a little about the poem that won the Rhysling for the Long Form Category, “Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London.” 

JB: It came about because of my husband. My other muse, Felix [Jenny’s cat], is not sufficient as a muse, though he is my “mews”. A couple of years back, my husband Russell and I were in London on our way to the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, and our activity for the day was visiting the Natural History Museum, London, which is a wonder of the world. Because it was a public holiday, we were standing in the sun in a line that just snaked around and around going nowhere for hours and we started talking about what we were going to see when we finally got inside. My husband said something like, well there might be an emerald the size of a whale, and it went from there. Since he threw up some possibilities and I elaborated, he gets 10% of my sales for this. You’ve got to reward your muse.

LRF: How do you think “Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London” relates to other speculative poetry that you write?

JB: Not deliberately, but just because my brain works this way, I do tend to look at things in the real world as if they could be more interesting, more fantastic. In “A Different Britain”, published in Star*Line 40.1, January 2017, the Queen has a sacred unicorn and there are Royal griffins up in the air protecting the country from the attacks of the European mages. And my poem “A Better Ancient Olympics”, published in Polu Texni in 2016, has people hunting the javelins, men race the discus, and there is octopus wrestling. I like thinking about the ways that the world could be different.

LRF: What do you recall that first drew you to speculative poetry?

JB: I’ve always loved speculative fiction. My sisters and I were brought up in a fairly no-nonsense way. The fairy tale books we read were the ones where the stepsisters cut off their toes or heels to fit into the shoes. I gather that’s been redacted out of practically everything these days. These days I hear people saying, oh gosh, did you know this was in the original German? I thought, that was in the version that we were given in the 1960s! I think I read every single book of speculative fiction of any stripe in the local library. It was kind of the glue that held my little group of friends at school together, and it was the glue that got my husband and me together: you know how they say that relationships are built on how much experience you share. The fact that he also had read every single one of those books in the speculative fiction section of the same library means we can always speak shorthand to one another. From the beginning, we both knew what all of those Bradbury and Heinlein references were

LRF: Is there some advice you can give to someone who is new to writing poetry?

JB: Carry a notebook. Scribble things in your phone. Every time something occurs to you, like a phrase, just write it down, because you will forget it otherwise. Sometimes I just go through the notes I’ve written on my iPad, or even on stray bits of paper around the house, and I can’t even remember writing them. It’s like it’s some other bit of the brain thought of it, which is really good, because the bit of the brain that’s down there is the creative bit. It’s the bit that’s off with the fairies. So, what you want to do is follow what the fairies are telling you. At least that’s how it works for me. I’m not great at sitting down and doing writing exercises. 

“Carry a notebook,
scribble things in your phone.
Every time something occurs to you…
just write it down.”

LRF: In addition to poetry, you’ve published in fiction and nonfiction. Do you have any advice for any other speculative poets who are working in multiple genres at the same time? If you are moving in and out of that speculative and poetic space, does that take a certain kind of skill?

JB: My advice is to go with what you want to write and don’t overthink it. If you want to write poetry one week and prose the next week, don’t let somebody tell you can only do one. It’s not an either/or choice. Though if I’m working intensely on editing a novel, I don’t have a lot of space in my head for poetry. It’s like there are different modules in your brain, but my writing always has a poetic tinge. I just don’t do very plain Hemingway-esque writing — this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened — there is always something a bit strange or spooky, sometime quite funny too, because I do like a joke, even in something quite intense. One of the reasons I like “Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London” is that it is funny in spots. 

LRF: In a similar vein, you also engage with speculative fiction as an active part of the community in several roles. For example, as one of the judges of the World Fantasy Awards in 2009, as a member of the Editorial Collective of Australian Science Fiction Review Series Two, and as a frequent reviewer for the New York Review of Science Fiction. Does being involved in these speculative spaces impact you as a creative artist?

JB: I used to do a lot of reviewing back when I was working as a systems engineer. I was at IBM doing data communications. Back then, I couldn’t write a creative word, but I did write reviews. It took a year and a half after I stopped work and quite a lot of just pottering around in the garden before I managed to write a few consecutive sentences of something actually creative. And it took longer to get back into poetry.

LRF: “Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London” seems to speak strongly to your background in the study of classics and your interest in history. How does your study of classics influence your relationship to poetry, or the speculative in general?

JB: It influences a whole lot, not everything, but I’m sure my writing would be very different without that background and having a grounding in actual history and actual ancient literature. Huge amounts of what I write and how I write is very dependent on that background information from the Greek and Roman history and literature, and also having read the Bible (and having sat through endless sermons).

LRF: What literature are you most excited to recommend to people right now? Or, rather, if you could peer pressure me into adding something to my must-read list, what pops into your head?

JB: I absolutely love The Murderbot Diaries, a wonderful ongoing series by Martha Wells. They are brilliant, and mostly novellas. I’m keeping one unread for when I really need a treat.

LRF: Last, I’m wondering If there are any new projects that we can expect to see from you or if you can identify any writing goals that you’ve set for the future.

JB: Oh, there are always goals. I’ve written two books for children, which have been published by Christmas Press, and I have a third that I’m working on currently which involves an ordinary girl from the suburbs being chosen as the new witch caring for mythological creatures who are under the protection of a magic circus. For quite some time I’ve also been working on a retelling of the Medea myth. A couple of the episodes have been published as standalone stories. Medea was very hard done by, I believe. If you actually look at the sources, she did all the work; Jason took all the credit and then after she’d had a couple of babies, he divorced her so he could marry the Princess of Corinth, who was younger and wasn’t a foreigner. It just wasn’t fair. I gained a whole lot of sympathy for Medea after studying Euripides’ wonderful play Medea in the original Greek, and also Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, which was unbelievably tedious. But I will always keep on writing poems as the spirit leads me — always follow the fairies to the bottom of the garden.

[We are excited to report that since being interviewed, Blackford’s “Eleven Exhibits in a Better Natural History Museum, London” has been reprinted in an imagined histories poetry anthology: Tell Me Who We Were Before Life Made Us, from 3 of Cups Press, edited by Maz Hedgehog.]

edit note: a previous version of this post misspelled the author’s name. Our sincerest apologies!

Lauren is an enthusiastic interdisciplinarian in her creative and academic pursuits, with a focus on the combination of science and poetry in both realms. Her poetry, written for the page and the microphone, is influenced by her dedication to her work in research, education, writing practices, and intersectional feminism. She is excited to create and collaborate at such intersections as STEM and the humanities, science and literature, and technology and art. She greatly values incorporating science fiction and the speculative into art and scholarship. Her recent science poetry can be found in Yemassee and she works with other science poets as an editor of the science poetry journal Consilience.

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