Flash Frontier

Interview: Adrienne Jansen on the new poetry anthology, Somewhere a cleaner

Interviews and Features

Eds. Adrienne Jansen, Te Rongomai Tipene-Matua, Joan Begg, Wesley Hollis, Nicky Subono

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve all been thinking about essential services. Including cleaning. Cleaning is universal. It’s steeped in tradition and culture. It’s essential, it’s ordinary and it’s surprisingly poetic.

“Having walked the corridors of hospitals for more than a few years, I can tell you that cleaners can sometimes be the best doctors of all. And now I find they can write some great poems too. This book is wonderfully democratic. The art here is in the work done before and beyond the writing. The endless picking up, mopping, smoothing and shining. And always, it seems, for someone else. These are poems with strong forearms. My deepest congratulations to every poet in this collection – and my long overdue thanks. I will never walk on a neatly mopped floor again.”
– Glenn Colquhoun

Flash Frontier: This book includes poetry that tells the stories of cleaners. How does poetry, for you, bring out the most in voices, even around a topic such as ‘cleaning’?

Adrienne Jansen: I think poetry is a great medium for capturing the voices of writers/speakers, in small bites which can illuminate, open a small window, tell a small story. Change our perspective a little.

FF: You saw more than 200 submissions for the anthology. Can you tell us a bit more about the contents, and how you went about selecting the pieces that are included — and which submissions surprised you most?

AJ: We selected about 80 poems from that 200. We were interested in the quality of the work, in pieces that were about the experience of being a cleaner, and we wanted a range. For instance, we received a lot of good poems about people cleaning on their OE. But that’s a small part of the whole picture, so we could only select two or three of those.

Those submitted poems were a great basis for the book. But they didn’t represent the diversity of the cleaning population. So we went out looking! And we worked closely with a lot of cleaners in writing their work for this book. About a third of the work was created specifically for the book.

Mele Peaua

FF: Your work with immigrants/ migrants is the place you often start from, the thing that inspired the earlier Landing Press anthologies, All of Us and More of Us. In this volume, we hear the voices of newcomers to Aotearoa as well as established poet-citizens. Could you tell us about some of the experiences of newcomers to our shores, as reflected in this anthology? And what surprised you about some of the more known poets in these pages?

AJ: Our starting point for this anthology wasn’t immigration. But we knew that a lot of cleaners are in fact migrants. Here, it’s often the story of migrants working very hard to give their children a good start,or working hard because it’s the only work they can get.

Or cleaning to get back into a preferred profession. But that’s the story of some established writers too. One writer says it explicitly – she cleans to support her writing habit!

Landing Press team with Ibrahim Omer

FF: There are wonderful quotes that begin each section and help set the ‘mood’ of what’s to come. What themes emerged as you were reading submissions and considering contents, and why were these most important?

AJ: It’s a big collection, and we felt that it needed to be broken up, to help the reader. The poems naturally gathered around practical themes – hospitals, offices, cleaning products, housework, ritual cleaning etc. But we didn’t want to be too pedantic about it. So we introduced each section with a quote that leaves something to the imagination. We also introduced each section with a cleaning hint, and all those hints came from the writers.

All the writers

FF: The introduction to this volume suggests that the year of COVID had a lot to do with the inspiration behind this book. Could you tell us how and why this book is so timely in 2020?

AJ: This book is largely coincidence. We had the idea for a book of poems by cleaners at the end of 2019 – having no idea of how 2020 would unfold. Then we couldn’t begin it until June 2020, expecting to launch it in March 2021. But increasingly we felt that this was the year to launch it. So – crazily – we did it in six months and launched it in November. It’s just luck.

FF: You launched the book recently – and at Parliament. Is there a political element to this book? Tell us how the details of the launch came about — and what the location means for you.

AJ: We launched the book on 29 November in the Grand Hall at Parliament. Because cleaners get very little recognition and have no status, we wanted to give them a very prestigious launch. And where’s the most prestigious place? Parliament. So the choice was deliberate. It was launched by Labour MP, Ibrahim Omer, who came to NZ as a refugee from Eritrea, worked as a cleaner to put himself through university, and worked for the union E Tu before being elected. A perfect person to launch the book.

And yes, there is a political element to this book. Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s implicit. But poor pay, the need for the living wage, lack of recognition, underpin this book.

FF: Anything else you’d like to share?

AJ: We never wanted this book to be a literary anthology. We wanted it to bring together a lot of diverse voices of cleaners, to be a book that many people could enjoy, and maybe a book that might make us all pay more attention to cleaners. One woman who had been at the launch at Parliament, was on her way home when she saw a woman cleaning public toilets. She stopped and thanked her for her work. Then she gave the woman her copy of the book. What more could we want than that!

Somewhere a cleaner (Landing Press, 2020); Eds. Adrienne Jansen, Te Rongomai Tipene-Matua, Joan Begg, Wesley Hollis, Nicky Subono

More about the book – and how to purchase it! – at the Landing Press website.

Adrienne Jansen writes fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children, but for her, poetry is where the magic is. She has published four collections of poetry, and is the lead editor for Somewhere a cleaner. She is one of the founders of Landing Press, and lives in Titahi Bay, north of Wellington.


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