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