IN CONVERSATION WITH
LESLIE CONTRERAS SCHWARTZ
With her debut collection of poems, In Full Velvet (Sarabande Books, 2017), Jenny Johnson examines the queer body, the state of being in and with a body that is natural and indefinable, vibrant in its complexity. Through technically rigorous poems that use form and sonic texture, and pushes against those techniques, Johnson writes in a manner which Brenda Shaughnessy calls “erotic, sublime, dappled and riven with ripe fruit, wild body and full-on fauna.” Johnson received a 2015 Whiting Award and a 2016–17 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and 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. 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 Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, New England Review, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and elsewhere.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz: In many ways, the more I thought about and took in the poems In Full Velvet, I found the poems had a conversation with each other, and singularly—especially the opening poem, “Dappled Things, (and the fact it drew a connection with Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”)—I found an urgency to redefine godliness in the body. As a person of faith (who also admittedly struggles with what that means), I found this poem extremely compelling as an act of faith—in the power and beauty of the body. It’s irregularity, its natural signs and indications of something holy (which I see as not perfection but made exactly of this markedness you describe.)
In this poem, I also saw the speaker’s need to be seen as this holy being, being made tender and shown tenderness. I also appreciated your rejection of exaltation, the reference to the animal in us, the obscene calls, the white hair on the head, the belch, and the play of tenderness and erotic magnetism between the lovers in the poem. Can you tell me about the writerly impulse that pulled you through this poem, the things you edited out or added in? What were you thinking about when you wrote this poem?
Jenny Johnson: My primary impulse was to celebrate difference, now as Earth enters its sixth extinction with forms of biodiversity disappearing at an alarming speed. I knew when I started writing “Dappled Things” that because of the poem’s scope it was going to need to be a sequence, so I started from my subject position: being here on this planet in a queer body, an animal body, a body as “natural” as any other body. Talking back to Hopkins literally and formally gave the poem a discrete shape. I wrote the first full draft during a ten-day residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. After a period of not writing but reciting the “Windhover” to myself, reading Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl, and feeling creatively sapped by a hectic teaching schedule, the poem arrived in a sudden rush. I felt a bit like the gastric-brooding frog that appears at the poem’s climax, burping out one fully formed sonnet a day, feeling the whole time like I was writing something unusual and important, but not entirely sure what I was building or where it would swerve. It turned out to be a rather sturdy first draft. Most of the edits I made were for clarity.
LCS: I loved the technical strength of your poems, the mimetic pressure to capture, especially, in “Aria” through divergences in breaking the sonnet form to reveal the speaker’s struggle to call forth the body, the body within the body, that “rustling open,” into a “cry stretching beyond its range.” How is this strain to release and free the body within both forceful yet nonviolent (or a different kind of ferocity, a self-inflicted action that involves pushing and reshaping ourselves)?
JJ: You’re right there is a lot of sonic pressure that builds and bursts throughout this sonnet sequence. When writing “Aria”, I was interested in bodily limits or how the felt body can be at odds with the material body. It’s this tension that’s responsible for the “pushing and reshaping” you describe. Music in the poem becomes a method for stretching or breaking free from the material body; it becomes a way to reimagine and defy its limitations. One of the moments, for example, where I felt particularly conscious of sound as a way to mimetically push was in the second section, the part that questions what sorts of sound come out of a prohibited body: “Just a thrust of air,/just a little space with which to make this thistling/sound, stretch of atmosphere to piss through when/you’re scared shitless.” I experience a little sonic rush when reading all the sibilance in those lines. It is moments like this one, where I hope the reader, too, can feel a self momentarily fleeing and freeing themselves from the body’s container.
LCS: This book also looks at trauma and violence, the possibility of danger under the layers of daily life, something crucial when people who are trans, genderqueer, gay, lesbian, nonbinary (both in gender and sexuality) continue to be at great risk of being hurt, killed, discriminated against, ignored. Tell me about the process of writing In Full Velvet, and what you were thinking when you had this image to use of the taxidermist dissecting the velvet coat of a whitetail. How did this image help you to form the rest of the poem, where you talk about the tenderness of the body, its fragility, the way the speaker sees themselves, the way the speaker sees their lover. It becomes a poem about the love of self, one’s body, it’s revealing that prayer-like (that last stanza!) Can you talk about this? What were the thoughts you had in shifting away from otherness to love of the body, the body in its plainness, both its “stench of pheromones” and its “dandelions in the thick grass / growing stamens growing piston”?
JJ: In Full Velvet took a few years to write. For the longest time, this one just felt like a failed mass of long lines in a notebook that I kept patiently and stubbornly returning to: some lines about Greek philosophers, thoughts I’d jotted down after reading Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, notes I took after speaking to a 100 year old taxidermist in Nebraska. None of it seemed to add up. I didn’t really know what I was writing about. But then you’re right—there was this image of a deer’s velvet that I decided to give space to. I decided it was important that the poem faced a specific story of violence done to a body. I wanted to tell this violence slant. So I decided to write a section in the voice of a taxidermist, as a short monologue, so you don’t so much see the dissection physically described as hear it physically implied by an instructive voice. After writing this section, I started another that begins, “It’s also true...” and then goes on to describe the deer again, but this time as a hunted being, fully embodied in the wild. Finally, a line of inquiry began to emerge. I could see suddenly that this unwieldy poem was negotiating the many kinds of knowledge that inform and distort the phenomenological experience of living in a body. Still the poem lacked structure, until I tried balancing the poem’s disparate threads beside a steady address to a lover. From there, I just kept arranging and rearranging lines and sections, until that tenderness that you described fully emerged and became the most important thread of intelligence in the poem. Ultimately, I wanted the poem to self-implicate the speaker’s body, too, and so in the end, it does: the speaker’s body becomes one with a blur of fellow animal bodies through a kind of ecstatic self-affirming prayer.
LCS: I want to ask you about safety, the importance of safe places, both physically and emotionally, in relation to the poems “In The Dream,” “Spaces,” and “Vigil,” and what that truly means. It is not metaphorical, to be safe, to not just be free of harm, but to be protected, allowed to flourish, to be free to be. Can you tell me about the importance of this theme in your book and how it came to mind when you started putting the collection together? Did this happen organically as you were writing poems, in terms of theme?
JJ: Indeed, it is not metaphorical to be safe. In terms of intentions, I don’t think I ever set out to write about safety explicitly. That said I am not sure that I am ever not on some subliminal level thinking about safety in public spaces as a queer person living in the U.S. Perhaps the book’s obsession with seeing and being seen is tied to your question about what safety means in the book. I think the fear of otherness that so often leads to harm (in forms such as homophobia or transphobia) can be mediated, when we are able to see one another reciprocally and dynamically embodied in space and time. People who see me make me feel safer. Just as maybe you, too, feel safer, if you sense that I see you. In the poem, “In the Dream,” the dive bar changes—shifting from capacious to claustrophobic—as the faces that populate that space change from familiar to cruel. In the poem, “Vigil,” the speaker’s joy and sense of security, while cycling through a city with her lover, is tied to the way the two keep looking at each other and catching each other looking at the world.
LCS: I like the way you explore tenderness, the tender curl of the great-aunt in “Severe” who was butch (although the term was used pejoratively and you make it a term of beauty) and cut sharply by this adjective by people who knew her. I loved the description of the photograph of her younger self, its idiosyncrasies, the raised eyebrow, the graceful smile, and the knowledge of her as both tender and butch, a masculinity in its own category defined by nothing but the individual—a shimmering and singular kind of beauty. Can you explain some of the layers of this poem, and some of the speaker’s own reckoning as they view this photograph?
JJ: In “Severe,” I wanted to open up space for the invisible to be made visible. Stereotypes flatten and hide the nuances that make us complex human beings. They leave no room for surprise. When my great aunt was described to me as “severe,” an adjective that I heard as a coded, pejorative euphemism for butch, I had an inspired urge to challenge, question, dig into the layers of meaning buried in the comment, and uncover an alternative interpretation. Some of the interpretive work in this poem I did by freely associating, thinking through what being butch (or masculine of center) means to me. The rest of the work I did by studying a photograph. I realized that there was one version of this person, my great aunt, “the old maid,” who had been statically described to me. Then in a yearbook I found on the shelf of a public library in Cleveland, there was a photo of another person, someone who I could see with my own eyes was my great aunt and my kin. Sure, she was “severe,” if by that word you mean gorgeous and handsome with idiosyncrasies.