Jenny Johnson talks about embodied poetry
and writing In Full Velvet
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
Honestly, it’s always been a preoccupation—how do I live inside this body? Since I was a kid, I felt at odds with my material body. And yet, I often found joy, clarity, or release in capturing the felt sense of my body through language, initially by writing fictional stories. As a closeted teen, too— filling pages of composition notebooks with journal entries and poems—however, confused, awkward, and ashamed I was to speak about my queer desires and my genderqueer body, I loosened shame’s grip by finding language to describe ways of feeling and being.
In Full Velvet is amazing! What is most astonishing and beautiful to me, is the joy writ throughout its pages. I wanted to read every poem aloud. They feel like ecstatic odes. Even the places where violence is alluded to (I’m thinking of the hunters stripping the buck’s velvet antlers), it is relatively subtle, and the overarching feeling from the book is celebration. How and why did you make the choice to take this path?
Thanks for the generous words. I think of celebration as a radical act. Writing an ode—a form of address that some might fear verges on the sentimental—for me is a method by which to critically affirm lives and experiences that are regulated, dismissed, and threatened by the dominant culture.
I’d add that I consider many of the poems in the collection to be simultaneously joyful and aching. I was thinking consciously about how to oscillate between the ode and elegy. What I wanted to contain in these poems was that often concurrent sense of ecstasy and grief that one can feel. Specifically with the opening sequence “Dappled Things,” I wanted to write a poem that celebrated an ecology of difference, but in the writing I found that I couldn’t celebrate biodiversity without also mourning it, and implicating myself in its erosion.
One of my favorite poem pairings in this book is “Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” immediately followed by “Tail.” These poems feel like two sides of the same coin. They both evoke a sense of the speaker’s identity as she is coming into her power. Please say more about these particular poems—the process of writing them, what they mean to you, anything you like.
No one’s ever asked me about these two poems side-by-side. So thank you for this question. You’re right that they are in conversation. One is a kind of summoning forth of a shadow body via language and the other an attempt at actualizing this body via the imagination.
In “Summoning the Body That is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” I summon forth what I describe in the poem as a “second heartbeat,” “familiar spirit,” and “private imposter.” I was reading 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. When writing this poem, I attempted to do this visual exercise using language. Unexpectedly, `I spent as much time working on the poem’s sonic texture and rhythm, as its imagery. Viscerally, I felt that I needed it to sound right, so I read it over and over to myself. I feel I should confess that it’s a very private prayer that snuck its way into a book that I now share very publicly. For this reason, I never read “Summoning…” aloud when I give readings. And if I ever do, I can only imagine sharing it with my eyes closed.
“Tail” meanwhile is a poem that’s all about possibilities, about picturing and rejoicing in the ways that a body’s parts signal, flex, and flash in space. In a conversation about my book that I was fortunate to have with writer and friend Christina Crosby (whose book I recommend below), she told me that for her “Tail” is a poem of “subjunctive transformation”— I love this description.
SUMMONING THE BODY THAT IS MINE WHEN I SHUT MY EYES
Come second heartbeat sounding in the breast
Come prismatic light dissembling
Come familiar spirit Come bare-chested in the weeds
Come private imposter Come hidden ballast
Come sudden departures Come stress without shape
Because belief is odd Come swaggering answer
Come invisible ink Come beatific scrawl
Come as squirrels are climbing backwards
Come as dogwood blossoms come apart
Come strumming an unspeakable power ballad
Through a torrent of rain with cheeks flushed scarlet
Come down the rusty metal slide
Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Because there are too many poetry books to name, here’s a list of some of my favorite poets currently writing about the body: Meg Day, Natalie Diaz, francine j. harris, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Rickey Laurentiis, Ari Banias, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi.
Other nonfiction and theoretical works about the body that have been important to me are: A Body, Undone: Living on After Great Pain by Christina Crosby and Assuming a Body by Gayle Salamon. As for what’s currently on my nightstand, I’m reading The Life and Death of Latisha King: A Critical Phenomenology of Transphobia, Gayle Salamon’s latest book, which was just released this spring.
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
As someone who has often felt like an imposter writing in an imposter’s body, the best advice I can give is: Trust each poem and its strange authority.
Also, because shame keeps us from talking to each other, when you get stuck, be brave and go talk to someone about what you’re writing about. I especially would advise having an intergenerational conversation. Go talk to someone whose perspective might surprise you. I have learned so much about my subjectivity as a queer person from conversations with people I admire who are younger than me and older than me.
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. She was recently named one of the "Ten Poets Who Will Change the World" by Poets and Writers Magazine. She has also received awards and scholarships from the Blue Mountain Center, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in The New York Times, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, New England Review, and elsewhere. After earning a BA/MT in English Education from the University of Virginia, she taught public school for several years in San Francisco, and she spent ten summers on the staff of the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. She is a Contributing Editor at Waxwing Literary Journal. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and at the Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program.