An Interview With Larry Levis Post-Graduate Stipend Recipient Jenny Johnson

Posted on Jun 3, 2016

johnson_photo1Jenny Johnson (poetry 2011) was the recipient of a Larry Levis Post-Graduate Stipend in 2014. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2012, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, New England Review, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, among others. Jenny received a Whiting Award in 2015, a 2016-2017 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and won Beloit Poetry Journal’s Chad Walsh Poetry Prize for her poem “Aria.” She currently lives in Pittsburgh and is a Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh. Her debut collection of poems, In Full Velvet, will be published in 2017 by Sarabande Books.


In your discussion of “Aria” on Beloit Poetry Journal’s Poetry Forum, you said, “as a poet with queer and feminist sensibilities writing a blank verse sonnet, my impulses err on the side of disruption. I want to break a meter much more than I want to write within it. However valuable this impulse, I found that I had to first fool around with what’s ‘normal’ before I could effectively trouble my metrics.” At what point in the revision process do you decide to depart from the “normal”? And what do those first steps in the direction of disruption look like, as your drafts progress?


Such a great question! When I said that I have to “fool around with what’s ‘normal,’” I meant that when writing in a fixed form I work first to establish a pattern. So when drafting, I might begin by setting rules. Such as, when writing in blank verse, no more than two substitutions per line — rules to help me hear and feel the pattern in the writing, whether I’m working within a pattern that’s part of a poetic tradition or a pattern of my own devising. As for the disruption, I’m not sure how to describe that part of the process, except that at some point I find that the poem starts singing to its own tune. I think learning how to listen — realizing when to trust a poem’s sudden sense of authority — is key. But I find listening in this way to be such difficult work. It’s like a whole other muscle you have to build, a kind of intuition about knowing when to trust the poem’s autonomous intelligence. 


Your first collection of poems, In Full Velvet, is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in 2017. Exciting! Did anything surprise you during the process of collecting, writing and revising your poetry for In Full Velvet? Were there any new lessons in craft that creating your book has taught you?


I didn’t know it was a “book” until the spring of 2014. Rick Barot had given me the following advice during my MFA, “All you have to do is focus on the poem at hand.” And so after graduating from WW in 2011, I took his advice to heart. Rather than trying to write poems for a first book, I worked instead for about three years on just trying to write good poems — one by one. A hard enough feat! When the book comes out in 2017, it will have taken 8 years to write. So, here’s what I learned: If I’d been too focused on making a book, working in a macro sense, I know I would have written poems with less range that took fewer risks. I would have tried too consciously to write poems about certain obsessions, instead of letting the poems arrive at their own slow-poke pace, teaching me how and what I needed to say in my first collection.  


In “Souvenirs,” people who are no longer alive (or no longer in a relationship with the speaker) are still very much here — through objects, via a request, and inside a casket. What inspired “Souvenirs”? For you in your writing process, what is essential when it comes to honestly and compellingly depicting an absence?


In 2010, I was at a Larry Levis Celebration in Richmond, VA, and Larry Levis’ black boots were there in the VCU library on display, slouched on a pedestal. His boots! The boots of a poet, whom I had been reading and feeling as if I was talking to — talking to in that way that when someone else’s poems start to impact your work you begin to feel as if you’re having a conversation whether they’re living or dead. The poem started there. Also, I had been reading On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection by Susan Stewart. And so, I was already interested in the strange, and, at times, distorted scale between grief and the souvenirs upon which we transpose feelings of longing and attachment for those who are absent.


How do you end up expressing that “strange, and, at times, distorted scale” through diction, syntax and/or rhythm?


What I was thinking about with regard to scale is expressed primarily in the poem’s images, the “souvenirs,” which embody longing or attachment, but have what Susan Stewart calls a kind of “failed magic” because they exist out-of-context, signifying a present that has passed. Something about the image of Levis’s empty boots not on the ground, instead at eye-level on a pedestal, seemed strange. As an object in the present tense the boots allowed me to feel as if I was paying witness for a moment to a poet’s life, but because the boots are empty, they are simultaneously incongruous with the life the poet lived. To capture this tension, I tried to describe the boots as objectively as I could, at first, but I also wanted to call attention to this private gazing — which is why Levis suddenly appears, halfway through the first section, nudging the speaker and the reader. I suppose this move was a way to play with perspective, so that we have another presence in the poem, catching us seeing and helping us see the out-of-scale, intense subjective attachment that’s involved in any act of looking that is also filled with longing. Later, the poem plays with scale more literally by juxtaposing the giant and the miniature in lines like: “after I’d moved / thousands of miles away, she called to ask if / she might build out of sugar cubes a replica of my house.” So we have a great distance being measured, a move of “thousands of miles,” positioned alongside a small yet painstaking way of quantifying loss, in which the unit of measure is sugar cubes.


So, how was your AWP? And your readings? What poems did you share and where, and why did you select what you chose to read?


AWP was a bit of a whirlwind. It was a pleasure to see friends and to meet new people. I had the honor of participating in the tremendous WWC MFA 40th Anniversary Reading. I read my poem, “In the Dream,” in part because I knew it was under the 3-minute time limit that Deb gave each of us! But also, I wanted to share a newer poem that friends and former teachers hadn’t heard before. Later that day, I read in the Trans and Genderqueer Poetry Offsite Reading at Pop Hop books. Another powerful event. I read “In Full Velvet,” the title poem of my book.


Your poetry has an extraordinary sense of movement. In “Late Bloom,” the speaker intends to name a spotted apple, but not before recalling the FM stereo and country station loved by a girl crush. Only then does the speaker circle back and name it (it’s a gall), before guiding us to experience, for example, an arctic fox becoming snow, the speaker’s muscles contracting like moth wings, the speaker prepared to say “...Tim, Charlie, Luke, Jason / every name but my own” when calling in a song request to the radio station. These recollections and assertions are vibrant, and we intuitively understand the connections between them. Can you tell us about the decisions (or, y’know, manna-from-the-sky strokes of creative guidance) that go into creating a sequence like this — one that combines a relentless flow with inclusiveness and close observation?


Thanks for the close consideration of “Late Bloom.” Because I was writing from memory, the images in this poem came rather quickly, but the movement between images came less fluently. The very first draft of this poem opened with a short halting sentence: “The name is gall.” Cringe! The longer, more suspensive sentence that now opens the poem is much more engaging. When I’m drafting and working through ideas, I often have to overwrite the relationship between images. Later, I am able to cut, rearrange, and experiment with syntax, striving to strike a balance between legibility and surprise.


At one point in “Little Apophat,” the speaker directly addresses the child of her ex-girlfriend. There are references to “the courting rituals of macaques / playing hide and seek / behind tree trunks” and seals that stay out in the water months after mating, causing a fertilized egg to remain undeveloped and in “suspended animation.” Biologist Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity” influenced your work, you told The Rumpus. When doing background reading, how do you typically let your research metabolize so that it can enter your poetry in an organic (so to speak) way?


I like how you use the word “metabolize” to talk about research, because being curious, reading, and learning from other disciplines can be wonderfully generative, but finding ways to integrate all sorts of new information into your own stream of thinking is an equally important part of the writing process.


I read much of Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity obsessively over a few weeks, taking notes by hand, so that I could remember phrases like “suspended animation” — though this phrase didn’t find its way into a poem for months. Often I write things down without knowing if I’ll make any use of what I’ve transcribed.


I used to teach public school, and I remember attending an unexpectedly riveting workshop about how to teach vocab to high school students. The presenter taught us that it was important to always have students repeat new words out loud, even if it felt silly, because doing so leaves an auditory imprint on our brains. And then she made all the adults in the room do it – repeat new vocab words out loud. Ever since, I love trying to picture a word sonically imprinting itself somewhere in my brain. And I love thinking about how sharing new information orally is a way of building a more complicated and lasting relationship with what I’m learning. So, to answer your question about ways I metabolize research: Apart from the note-taking and the poem-making, it’s important to me to talk about what I’m learning and thinking with the people in my life. And in doing so, I think I hold onto and engage with researched information in a new way.


As for the writing process: When I was writing “Little Apophat,” I got half way through the poem, and I thought — oh, no, I don’t know how I’m going to end this poem. So I didn’t. I waited about six months, forgot about the anxiety of trying to end the poem. And then — boom — one day, while I was walking, I suddenly remembered that phrase “suspended animation” and I could see my way to an ending. So I got back to work.  



Chantal Aida Gordon received her MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College in 2016. She lives in Los Angeles, California.