PictureKimberly Johnson. Photo courtesy of Ryan Johnson

Wildly Whipsawing Lexicon: An Interview with Kimberly Johnson

Interview Conducted by Karen Schubert

Kimberly Johnson’s poetry, translations, and scholarly essays have appeared in The New Yorker, New England Review, Slate, The Iowa Review, Milton Quarterly, Modern Philology, and other publications  She has published three collections with Persea Books: Uncommon Prayer (2014), A Metaphorical God (2008), and Leviathan with a Hook (2002).  Her poetry is muscular and cerebral, playfully wrought, with an exquisite control.

With her partner, poet and essayist Jay Hopler, she edited Before the Door of God, An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (2013 Yale UP).  In 2009, Penguin Classics published her translation of Virgil’s Georgics. She edited a collection of essays on Renaissance literature, and an online archive of John Donne’s complete sermons. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Utah Arts Council, and the Mellon Foundation.  She holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in Salt Lake City, where she is a Professor at Brigham Young University.

Her Renaissance literature scholarship grounds her work with a structure and deep understanding and love for language, and language as epistemology.  In praise of A Metaphorical God, Persea Books notes that “Johnson showcases her gifts for mining language for its hidden gems and its gospel.”

Poet Linda Gregerson adds, “She’s a polyphonic prestidigitator, a virtuoso of the vibrant heart, and —stunning in our fallen world—a genuine metaphysician, with all the healing aptitude the word implies.”

These poems are physical, looking out through the eye of a pit bull, bug zapper, or close other, as in “Nonesuch.” “Not this: you the urge and I the page./Not this: you the harrow, blades sharp/to turn the fallow field of me. Not the wheel/that turning winds the carded wool of me./Not you the pick and I the Rickenbacker/cherryneck with the humbucker pickups./Not you the piston whose combusted thrust/shoves the rod that drives my crankshaft.” It is impossible to read Johnson’s work without reading it, feeling the gutturals stomp and pop in your throat. Swallow it down. Now how does that feel?

I was in Kimberly’s poetry workshop at the Imagination Conference at Cleveland State University in 2009. She had a great energy. Someone had a Segway and she was curious, and as I walked in one day she was zipping around in the rotunda, grinning. In our workshop, she was focused and generous with her thoughtful assessment, and also carefully inclusive. Her feedback was terrific—I remember her advice—and peppered with stories. In one, she impersonated Allen Grossman, scrunching up her neck. “Now Miss Johnson…” she growled. In the summer of 2013, I was in residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, and that gave me the opportunity to begin our conversation by email. I read her answers, as well as the poems in Uncommon Prayer, to my fellows at the Writers House.  This conversation took place by email between July 2013 and January 2014.

Karen Schubert: At Imagination, you gave a craft talk about your love of the roots of our blended language. I remember saying mulch, mulch, after your talk, and I still think of that when I’m hands deep in my garden. Can you talk about why you’re drawn to these mouth sounds and linguistic footfalls?

Kimberly Johnson: I’m so delighted that you’re beginning our conversation with a question about words. I’m deeply committed to words themselves as the raw materials of poetry—the stuff of which poems are built. Words are things worthy of consideration in and of themselves. Each one has heft and texture, and it moves around in the ear and the mouth with real force. I mean, we experience words as material, sensually perceptible objects; even though we may not think of them that way, nevertheless, we experience them as sound waves in the air or as black marks on a page. Words are the reason that poetry is, for me, so very much a physical mode of literature.

Poetry foregrounds the physical qualities of language, asks us to register the drawn out moan of a long O sound or the shrillness of a short I as constitutive of our interpretive encounter with the poem. Those sounds inflect the poem, determine how we perceive what it says denotatively. I’m not suggesting that there’s any set correspondence, of course—not arguing that long vowels are more dramatic or that trochaic meter is inherently depressing because it falls (though pretty influential readers have made similar claims over the last few hundred years). Rather, I’m casting my lot with the body’s role in poetic reading.

I love reading really good prose, and I love how a great story seems to vanish from before me as a text and leave me with the illusion that I’m living in the world it offers me, absorbed completely into its narrative. But poetry everywhere discourages that kind of readerly transparency, disrupts that kind of absorption, by asserting its surfaces and by asserting the word as a substantive thing. That’s probably the quality of poetry I most value, which is why I end up being drawn to poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edward Taylor and Virgil. I want to spend time with words that flaunt their substance, to dense and chunky words and lines that are ostentatiously a mouthful. I want to feel a poem sound by sound, letter by letter, as an embodied artifact.

KS: It’s so multi-layered. The sound densities themselves, felt by the body in reading, also lead to the body in many of your poems. In “Love Song” (A Metaphorical God), the sibilance made by the reader’s mouth puts the adder right into the room. And the snake makes sounds with its body, on purpose, sssssss, and by its body, moving through the only place it can move through, the noisy underbrush:

…Adder stay–, lissome syrinx,
temptress of my underbrush. Slither not
so swiftly, though in slithering you dazzle,
scales scintillant under noon.

Do the ideas for poems sometimes come from sounds themselves, or always from ideas that you infuse with sound?

KJ: I am embarrassed to admit that I rarely have any ideas to speak of—at least, not in the sense in which many writers intend that term, which is to indicate a theme or experience or observation that motivates a poem into existence. I would say rather that I have impulses, impressions, connections that occur to me based on my sensory engagement with the world around me, and that my poems are efforts to engage with those impulses until they reveal whatever suggested them to my awareness in the first place. I began writing “Love Song” out of the word “lissome,” which I found so delightfully slithery and snaky. I didn’t know exactly where it was going to go, but the pleasure of those sounds on my tongue urged me forward, and perhaps inevitably into the contemplation of a snake.

But I think it’s to the point that it is precisely the pleasure of those sounds that produced the pretty outrageously sexy and seductive snake in this poem: all the usual cultural associations with snakes got subverted by the whispering, tongue-flicking S sounds, and made a very different kind of garden tempter.

So again, I’m not sure I can disentangle whatever “ideas” my poems explore from these kind of embodied effects. In my new book, Uncommon Prayer, there’s a poem called “Cowpunch,” whose first line reads, “Unhobble your hardscrabble horses, soul.” This line was a conscious attempt to replicate the gutpunch I feel when I listen to the opening three bars of this one particular song (“Fireroad [For Two]” by the late, great Chris Whitley). It’s like an airplane drop, like a low-pressure system moving through the middle of me every time I hear that passage of music, and I wanted to see if that effect was possible in language. My line has nothing to do with the song’s lyrics, and there’s no overlapping language—and indeed, I’m really just talking about a three-chord progression, so it’s perhaps hard to imagine what correspondence there might be between the abstract “meaning” of music and the semantic function of words. But something about the low-throated vowels, the resigned sigh of those h-sounds, and the caesura managed, for me, a lurch through the pit of my stomach with a resignation and desolation that was commensurate with the sound of that guitar. And then that line opened onto a poem of resignation and desolation.

KS: It’s a devastating poem. It leads me to a question I was wanting to ask. The book as a whole performs wild swings of diction, as here, with a title like “Cowpunch” followed by the grounded, tough words “Unhobble your hardscrabble horses,” a line that ends with the ethereal and often misused (though not here) “soul.” That’s hard to hold together. Later “…the steers won’t drive themselves. They moan/In the gloaming.” Again, it’s a wide range of pedestrian chatter and lyric portraiture. I think that in this poem the metaphor holds it together, echoing May Swenson’s “Body my house/my horse my hound,” the horse here standing in for the mind, the soul, the self, rounding up the cows whose “nerves are barbed wire.” And the collection includes poems titled “Matins,” and “Crepuscular” but also “Bug-zapper” and “Corpse-flower.” Are there rules for mixing diction?

KJ: Wow, I hope not—otherwise, I’m bound for the slammer!

It seems to me that the poet’s responsibility is to promote the argument of her poem. My poems tend to be interested in interpretability and illegibility and the difficulty of communication—you might say that these have been the unifying concerns of my work writ large—and so it makes sense to make use of a lexicon that foregrounds those considerations for the reader. A wildly whipsawing lexicon is one tool for emphasizing the linguistic surface of the poem. And to be fair, these words are all mine: that is, by profession (my other profession, I mean: my gig as a scholar of early literature and religious history) I spend a lot of time rooting around in rarified rhetoric, and I’ve incorporated its vocabulary and its cadences unthinkingly into my own self-expression. I also happen to be a person who lives and traffics enthusiastically in the vernacular. My own voice contains all these registers, and so it’s probably inevitable that my poetry naturally does as well.

KS: In what other ways does your scholarship in early literature and religion arouse your poetry? As you move through your life, how does it frame what you see?

KJ: Well, beyond the obvious extravagances of vocabulary that I pick up from my reading, I would say that I’ve become more and more willing to play with syntax and grammatical structure, to depart from the conventional orders of spoken language. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were such a hotbed of experimentation and innovation, the lyric surging up into the language to become for nearly two hundred years the dominant literary mode and over the course of that period flexing and inverting and expanding itself beyond expectation. All those lyric poets seemed to be one-upping one another, seeing what they could torque out of this short but supple poetry, putting pressure first on syntax, then on rhyme, then on meter, then on lineation, then on the rhetoric itself… it’s thrilling to watch their boldness as the period develops. I think many contemporary readers would dismiss those earlier English poems as being staid or conservative or conventional, but they were not any of those things.

And that aesthetic revolution was finally inseparable from the revolutions in philosophy, science, and religion that were going on at the same time. They were all rethinking the very nature of reality, and such an endeavor put so much pressure on the way language was understood to interact with reality. To borrow a line from George Jones, they were Postmodern before Postmodernism was cool. And it it’s undeniable that some of the aesthetic developments of the period inform my own work. That influence happens in part because I feel a peculiar sympathy with them: they’re so freaked out about what the world means, what materiality means, how the universe is organized, how we can know anything….again, very Postmodern, and to my mind very familiar company.

So how does my immersion in this stuff frame what I see, how I perceive? I think it equips me with a sensitivity to representational play—like many of my contemporaries, of course, but perhaps with a historical remove. That is, when you’re living in the aesthetic of a particular cultural moment, it’s sometimes easier to be borne along by it without being fully aware that the aesthetic is a constructed and deliberate response to stimuli, because it’s just part of the air. But more importantly, I’d say, it gives me some perspective. It’s easy, as a human being, to think one’s concerns and traumas and outrages are the universe’s default setting, easier as a poet because we’re sorta invested in introspection and in manifesting the concerns of the self on the page. I find it soothing to be reminded that there really is nothing new under the sun, that all the crises we can come up with have been grappled with before, though sometimes in an unfamiliar accent.

KS: Uncommon Prayer opens with two epigraphs: “Man builds a Cathedrall the better to hear him selfe,” attributed to Christopher Wren, and “But when men saye Matins and Evensong privatelye, they maye saie the same in any language that they themselves do understand,” taken from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. What is prayer? In this collection, is prayer working as a force for gathering in [the poems?] [ourselves?]?

KJ: It’s not prayer per se that attracts me as a poet. I’m fascinated rather by the way that the topos of prayer lends itself so easily to the conventions and investments of the lyric—that is, of solitary utterance with the expectation of being heard but not so much the expectation of perceptible response. That dynamic transforms the utterance into speech for speech’s sake, and I’m keenly interested in the ways that such an antiteleological approach to language redirects interpretive attention from what the piece is saying to how the piece is saying. If nothing happens as a result of speech, if communication isn’t the priority, it seems to me that the utterance becomes pure experience, which dovetails nicely with my sense of poetry as a corporeal event.

KS: You frequent the first person in this collection, taking up the voice of a recognized contemporary, also such non-humans as apple tree, bug zapper, pit bull. What are the pleasures and considerations of this point of view?

KJ: I suppose it allows me to explore the possibilities of that I-position a bit more imaginatively. If I’m interested in the conventions of lyric, and the speaker is one of those conventions, how can I increasingly separate out the fact of the utterance from its communicative payload? A bug-zapper’s utterance cannot be consequential, at least not as we imagine the consequences of utterance, so I could begin with the bare fact of speech as astonishing in its own rights. And there’s also a real exploratory indulgence that becomes possible in blowing the fiction of the I as a refraction of the self. It pushed me to explore perspectives and desires that I might not naturally have arrived at.

KS: Many of the poems turn or touch on elements of the natural: iris, honeybees, orange trees, or situate the speaker inside a thickly domestic natural world, an urban boscage, the landscape serving as a springboard or backdrop for an internal question.

Another hummingbird needles the bloomswung
branches of my plumtree, his bleeding
heart of feathers beating at such speed
it seems unbeating, and in the sun’s unclouding
the tanager’s intemperate plumage
flickers at the tree’s equator…
…So fierce
these early-season stirrings that I envy
them, the dead, whose ardor is dispersed
What can a controlled nature teach us?

KJ: It’s interesting—until you formulated your question this way, I’d never considered the natural stuff in my poems as particularly controlled. But you’re right to note that many of the natural images are not so much “wild” as gardeny or cultivated, and now that you’ve prompted me it seems to me that such imagery aligns with a more pervasive tension in many of these poems between control and wildness. I think the relationship between these two terms is probably fundamental to my poetics as a whole, whether it manifests itself as a fascination with that which flouts signification, or the see-sawing back and forth between some kind of formal regulation and a fealty to a forceful musicality that would defy regulation, or even some thematic investigations into control and refractoriness. Perhaps I’m drawn to that dynamic exchange between carefully modulated mechanisms and crazy excess because it seems like a concern that is finally constitutive of poetry itself—this endless push of what can be said against the pull of what cannot be said. It may be that wildness and control, in their mutual jockeying for predominance, bring poetry into being.

KS: The section Siege Psalter is an abecedarian of prose poems in the NATO phonetic alphabet table. The juxtaposition of WWII slang (foxhole, foxtrot, B2 bomber) and medieval accoutrements (Charlemagne, timbrel and harp, selah). How did these moving parts come together? How is the prose poem format a different writing practice?

KJ: Let me begin by talking about the form of those poems, because it has everything to do with the other recurrent features you mention. I have been thinking for some years about how unlineated verse accomplishes the function of poetry—or, in other words, what makes a piece of writing a “poem” if it dispenses with the identifying structural signal of the line? My own position on this question is that a poem will ever emphasize self-consciously the made-ness of its own artifact; its primary argument will be the structure of its own speaking, regardless of what that structure is. Lyn Hejinian’s marvelous book-length poem My Life certainly communicates a developing narrative, but the poem ever emphasizes the complex repetitions of its grammatical structures, the forced revisions of its syntax, its numerical principle of organization to our awareness. As readers we experience those patterns as prior, I think, to content.

As I turned my attention to this question in my own poetic practice, I wanted to devise a set of interlocking structural components whose organizational principles involved patterns of speaking, and patterns of image and ideational development, or associational logic. That is to say, I set myself rules, and the accomplishment of these various rules would serve in part as the structural self-consciousness of the long poem as a whole: each section must have something to say about a disjoined relationship with an auditor who is simultaneously imagined as a romantic partner and as divine; each section must make an argument about failed communication; each section must offer war imagery; each section must include language borrowed from biblical tex