Stay tuned all month for poet interviews in honor of National Poetry Month.
1) Why poetry?
Poems, for me, are sustained and devoted engagements, a way of talking back to someone or something, so as to try and work through or think through difficult questions or seemingly inexpressible feelings or situations. In this way, the work of writing poems and reading poems has made me a better person, can make us better people. In this way, since the personal is political, poems can be catalysts for change.
2) Do you feel like poetry is more or less important & relevant today?
I think we always need poems urgently. I like how Adrienne Rich responds to this question in her essay “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman”: “The necessity of poetry has to be stated over and over, but only to those who have reason to fear its power, or those who still believe that language is ‘only words’ and that an old language is good enough for our descriptions of the world we are trying to transform.”
3) Tell us about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and a thinker.
I know you asked for one poet, but I have been especially impacted by a few artistic exchanges. I am thinking of the interview/conversation between Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde published in Sister Outsider, or Lorde in conversation with James Baldwin published in Essence Magazine in 1984, or this recent conversation published in Sublevel between Rickey Laurentiis and Solmaz Sharif. As I mentioned before, I often hear poems as conversations with others. So it feels invaluable to me to witness writers and thinkers, who are also contemporaries and friends, in conversation, speaking across differences, listening, learning, challenging, and transforming language as they hear one another.
4) Tell us about one lesser-known contemporary poet who you’d like more people to know about.
I am a big fan of the poet Tommye Blount, whose book What Are We Not For was published by Bull City Press in 2016. His physically and psychically charged poems stay with me for days after I read them. Here’s an example in “The Suit,” where a tailor’s pin becomes “a small improvised explosive device.”
5) Share with us one of your recent poems and tell us a little bit about its context.
There’s a chapter in Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, where Tomkins, a psychologist and theorist, talks about body image and phantom limbs, and then mentions a specific exercise he did, where he asked people he worked with (his “subjects”) to close their eyes and draw a picture of themselves. As a genderqueer person who experiences a dissonance between my material body and my felt sense of my body, I attempted to do this visual exercise using language. This poem was the result: “Summoning the Body that is Mine When I Shut My Eyes.”
Jenny Johnson is the author of In Full Velvet, published by Sarabande Books in 2017. Her honors include a 2015 Whiting Award and a 2016-17 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. Her poems have appeared in New England Review, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, Waxwing, and elsewhere.