Interview with Sara Eliza Johnson
Author of Bone Map
Interview by Kallie Falandays
Your book Bone Map was published by Milkweed. What was the writing and submission process like for you? Was it smooth and easy, or was it full of long hours? What was it like when you got the notice that your book was going to be published?
It took me about five years to finish the version of Bone Map that was published. The process was slow and incremental, in that over the years I gradually excised poems from my MFA thesis until it was unrecognizable. Bone Map was written by essentially ruining my first attempt at a book. I’m the kind of writer who wants to constantly demolish her own work, who is always dissatisfied with some element of the poem or book. I realized that the book would never feel quite “done”—that I needed to just let it go and see—so I submitted it to three or four book contests, the last of which was The National Poetry Series. When the coordinator called to say Martha Collins had chosen my book for Milkweed, I was obviously thrilled, but also so surprised—surprised that it had been taken so quickly, in its first round of submissions, but also surprised that it had been accepted at all given the flaws I still perceived. I eventually did end up re-adding some MFA-era poems that I’d cut from the book, despite the naiveté I saw in them. It took me a while to understand that my perfectionism endangered the animism of the book, and that some anomalies can be generative, either because they provide space to breathe or create friction.
How has publishing Bone Map changed either you or your life? Are there any changes?
It hasn’t been very long yet since the book launched, so I can’t quite say it’s changed my life, but it has been transformative psychologically, in that feels as if some weight has been lifted, that I am somehow free of the project and so free to experiment with a new language and within a new space of mind. Of course, the publication of one’s first book came with its own anxieties.
What was the first poem that you wrote for Bone Map and did that spur the collection? How did you know when your collection was complete?
The manuscript itself never quite felt “finished.” I knew I was finished with the book when I found myself excited to start experimenting with new work. The world of the book inhabits a unique and coherent place in my brain and I knew the book was “finished” when I felt ready to leave that place. But it is also difficult to determine when and where the book began. I suppose the earliest poem written in Bone Map is “View From the Fence, on Which I Sit and Dangle My Legs.” I wrote that poem in graduate school around 2008, and it was one I had originally cut from the collection. In that sense it was actually one of the last poems I wrote for the book, because it was re-added during the publication process. But the first poems I truly wrote with the manuscript in mind—which was originally envisioned as a seafaring narrative—were the Letters from the Ice Field, composed during a cold winter in Provincetown, Cape Cod. Eventually I realized that the book needed a broader scope, that it needed more tension and a more complicated arc. And moving away from the ocean helped me to stop writing obsessively about the ocean. And then I watched this gorgeously brutal Czech film called Marketa Lazarová (made in 1967). The film plays out against a savage and bleak medieval dreamscape of relentless snow, dotted with wolves and reindeer and human corpses. The imagery is dense, the suffering intense. Bone Map likely began in the dreamscape of that film.
What advice do you have for poets who are submitting their first books or chapbooks?
Be patient with your work and honest with yourself during the process of revising and submitting. Any rejection of my work always makes me self-doubt and reassess, and feel tempted to revise, and while it is important to be vigilant and reflective, it is possible to revise the life out of a poem or a project. Revising can become unhealthily obsessive. It can also become a defense mechanism to rejection. Aside from that, I would say: only submit to contests and presses that excite you. Don’t be too picky, but don’t blindly submit to every single call for submissions out of impatience to be published. Do some research first. Does the press make books that you love? The book’s presence as a physical object, the support your press provides its authors, a healthy relationship with your press—those things will likely matter to you in the end.
My favorite poem in your collection is "Deer Rub," which I first read in an issue of Crab Orchard Review. How many revisions did this poem go through and can you talk a bit about that process?
“Deer Rub” is a poem that underwent more revisions than is typical for me, so it’s heartening to hear you say it’s a favorite! The first version of the poem was very different than the final: first-person, domestic, overwritten. It suffered an especially rigorous workshop, after which I overhauled the poem, divested it of its excesses and focused on developing that animal moment. In that sense I suppose the writing and revision process imitated that of the deer rub; I gradually stripped away the layers, and what remained was stark, bare—the essence or pith of the poem, which had been buried.
Can you talk a bit about some of your influences? What were you reading, watching, and thinking about when you compiled this collection?
The materials that particularly influenced Bone Map—aside from Marketa Lazarová—were not poetry books but historical texts. For the seafaring sequences I read the Voyage of Saint Brendan—he was a 6th century Irish saint who embarked on sea-voyage to find a mythical island of Paradise—as well as journals and logbooks from seafaring explorers, such as the journal of Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed with Magellan and who recorded some spectacular observations (like how “the holy body appeared through the pitchy darkness”). I was also reading Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the Psalms, the Exeter Book, and looking at photographs of the Arctic ice fields—anything that would give me access to the kind of lonely, dark regions that would help me cultivate the landscape of the book, and to continue to live in it for the years necessary to complete it. But the particular poets to whom I am indebted for the book are Lorca and Celan, who I think influenced the book tonally, helping to imbue it with both the brutal and the miraculous, as well as some of its strangeness and surreality.
What was it like working with Milkweed on this book?
I feel very lucky to have worked with Milkweed on Bone Map. They make beautiful books and mine was no exception. The designer they hired for the book, poet Mary Austin Speaker, is extremely talented and developed a striking, elegant cover that not only attracts eyes but reflects—or converses with—the book’s insides. The solution she found for my blank section breaks—to fill the white space with different iterations of the Stubbs horse featured on the cover—was also smart, and overall I am thrilled with the way the physical book turned out. I am also so grateful that they allowed me some input in the design; I know not all presses invite author participation in that process.
If you could only write about one animal for the rest of your life, what animal would you choose and why?
Bone Map featured mostly pastoral and forest animals—horses, deer, and wolves—because I was channeling that medieval dreamscape I mentioned earlier. But if I were allowed to only write about one animal for the rest of my life, I think I would choose an animal with some attendant mysterious to explore: an extinct animal, or a deep-sea creature that is rarely seen, or a cryptid such as the chupacabra, or an animal that challenges its own taxonomy (for example, the tufted deer, native to the forests of Burma and China, has long canines that make it look vampiric and carnivorous!). The rainbow-emitting comb jelly—which is the oldest known animal species on earth (around for 700 million years)—is another one that fascinates me. But an animal I have always loved, and yet about which I have never written a poem, is the thylacine (also known as the Tasmanian Tiger), last seen in 1936 and deemed officially extinct in 1986. The thylacine was a strange manifestation of evolution: a marsupial that looked like a canine and was striped like a tiger. It is not so much the animal itself that interests me, but the last footage shot of the last known specimen—the last moments, presumably, of the entire species—which I happened across one day on YouTube. The thylacine paces back and forth along the bars. The thylacine pulls flesh from an animal carcass. The thylacine scratches the back of its ear. The thylacine is anxious. Not long after the footage is shot, the specimen dies and the thylacine disappears from the earth forever. Did it know? Could it sense it? What a lonely end.
Okay, I lied. My favorite poem might be "As the Sickle Moon Guts a Cloud”—if not for the title, then for the line "a sickness grows inside the moonlight." What is your favorite poem in this collection?
That’s hard! My favorite poem is probably “Fable,” which is in part why I opened the book with it, but “Letter from the Ice Field, December” was the most challenging to write—mostly because it deals with a private, personal pain—and for that reason also the most satisfying to complete and release.
What are you currently working on?
Though the next manuscript is still inchoate, these days I am most often working on poems preoccupied with our apocalyptic moment. As Roy Scranton wrote in his piece for The New York Times, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” the “biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead.” These days I often find myself writing poems that entertain this notion, that consider ways in which humans as a species may be considered not only violent but a force of violence upon the earth and ecosystems, as well as a series of poems that occupy realms devoid of humanity: the primordial, the extraterrestrial, the post-apocalyptic world, deep space.