The Poem at Hand: A Profile of Jenny Johnson
I need to tell you about the seeing that goes on between two people,
around two people. Not the touching. The watchfulness.
____—“Vigil” by Jenny Johnson
Getting to read a book or collection before its release feels like being let in on a secret, and when I received a galley proof of Jenny Johnson’s poetry collection In Full Velvet in the mail, I left it bubble wrapped until I got home, handling it as one would a glass slipper, a vial of blood, or stick of dynamite. When I opened the package with its cheerful note from the publisher, Sarabande Books, I paused to admire the artifact. Even the cover was luxurious, matte and soft, the pages delicate, textured, the negative white space holding the text motionless in a shared embrace.
I read the collection in a single held breath, one stormy afternoon at the Oregon coast. I thought of poets such as Elizabeth Bishop (I have since found out others have beat me to that connection already), Mary Oliver, and Jane Hirshfield. Jenny Johnson’s use of poetic form creates tension as the poems reveal themes of natural elements, time, the physical body, allusion, life, love, and death. Osprey. Whitetail. Apples. Joan of Arc. Guts. Dyke bars. Cacti. Skin.
In Full Velvet is now available, and RWW warmly welcomes Jenny Johnson to its faculty this coming summer. Jenny is the winner of the 2015 Whiting Award in Poetry and the 2016-17 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. She earned a BA/MT in English Education from the University of Virginia and an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College.
Her poems have appeared in such publications as The Best American Poetry 2013, New England Review, and Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. Johnson’s poem “Aria” was selected as the recipient of the Beloit Poetry Journal’s Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, and she has received awards from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and Virginia Center for Creative Arts. In addition to being an incoming faculty member at RWW, she teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
Although busy with the launch of her collection, Jenny graciously agreed to answer a couple of questions about her book and joining the RWW community.
Sydney Elliott: Could you say a few words about the book’s publication? Are you thrilled? Relieved? Both? How long was the process/journey?
Jenny Johnson: I am thrilled. The journey was long. During most of it, I wasn’t sure I was writing “a book.” I just knew I was slowly accruing a pile of finished poems. In Full Velvet took eight years to write. Rick Barot, who was my teacher some years back at Warren Wilson, said to me once when I was mid-manuscript, “All you have to do is focus on the poem at hand.” I still think about this statement when I’m feeling lost within a body of work.
SE: As someone who lives in a very rural, natural area, I was curious about the animals and birds that pepper the collection. Where does your interest in nature spring from? How does it inform you as a poet?
JJ: I grew up in rural Virginia. So, spending time in the woods encountering other creatures was a part of my childhood. I think images that are formative have a way of showing up in our work, whether we intend for that to happen or not. It’s like a palette you’re not always conscious you’re painting with. Once I became conscious that animals and birds were showing up in my poems, I became interested in what that might mean. I started thinking about how animal humans are, and then I started having fun playfully resisting phobic assumptions about what kinds of bodies are “natural” and what kinds of acts are “natural” for any species.
SE: How does it feel to join the RWW faculty and community?
JJ: Joyful. Humbling. It’s such an honor to join such an extraordinary community of faculty and students. I can’t wait to meet everyone I’ve been hearing so much about this summer.
SE: What are one or two things (outside of being a writer) that reflect who you are? Are you a dog person? Have an unusual hobby? Food favorite?
JJ: You should all know that I am a cat person. My partner and I have two sister cats—Minnow and Shrimp. I confess I stole the name “Minnow” from Elizabeth Bishop, who had a cat by the same name.
I also love to cook, especially breakfast, because making brunch always feels so indulgent. I love the precision involved in poaching an egg or perfectly guesstimating when it’s time to flip a pancake.
RWW is thrilled to have this talented poet in our midst at this summer’s residency. I personally can’t wait to get pancake tips as well as a signature on my new treasure. Welcome to the RWW family, Jenny!