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 dr