Wednesday Feb 28

johnsonsaraeliza Sara Eliza Johnson’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the New England Review, Best New Poets 2009, Boston Review, Crab Orchard Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, a Winter Fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a work-study scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her first book, Bone Map, was selected for the 2013 National Poetry Series and will be published by Milkweed Editions.

Sarah Eliza Johnson Interview, with John Hoppenthaler

Your first book, Bone Map, was recently selected by Martha Collins as a winner of the 2013 National Poetry Series, and it will be published by Milkweed Editions.  Can you tell us about the process and experience?  How did you learn of it and what are your thoughts as you move forward into the land of the “booked” young poet?

I am thrilled to be part of the National Poetry Series, which I have considered one of my dream-routes to publishing my book for some time now, as well as to be working with such a wonderful judge and press. At the same time, I am nervous to be the “booked” young poet, since, as you’re aware, a book can feel like a kind of surrogate child—you care and worry for it as it moves through the world, away and apart from you. I worked on the book for several years after completing my MFA, gradually excising the thesis poems as I continued to write and mature on my own. Being that I began my MFA immediately after undergraduate study, it was very important for me to see the writer I was and could be outside of school, and, luckily, through the generosity of two fellowship and grant programs—the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Rona Jaffe Foundation—I had the luxury of time to experiment and take risks with my work, to try and fail, without worrying too much about “production.” After some years of post-MFA writing—and lots of cutting and second-guessing—I finally felt I had a manuscript that I wouldn’t be mortified to publish. I sent out to five places in late 2012 and early 2013, and received the good news from the National Poetry Series in September. I was extremely fortunate to have the book accepted so quickly for publication, given the labor and expense of entering book contests, which can seem, at times, like a form of gambling, given the costs of entering and the strength of so many manuscripts in the pool.

I think it is more difficult to risk failures and push yourself beyond your comfort zone when you are writing within a tightly structured schedule, because failed poems can seem like precious time wasted. I consider those now-shelved failures to be as integral to my artistic growth as my more “successful” endeavors. And so one thing I learned from the process of writing, assembling, and submitting a manuscript is that “letting go”—experimenting, relinquishing control—is essential. I cut some poems of which I was initially proud, and that others admired. Without the expectation of the writing workshop in the back of my mind, I learned how to better focus on the process of writing itself, rather than on the end product, and how to challenge my own preconceptions about the poet I was in the moment of writing. To, perhaps, be the poet I happened to be, rather than the poet I wanted to be, or that others insisted I be. In that sense I learned the important of risking failure and embarrassment. Eventually, too, I learned that overworking a poem or the manuscript could be just as disastrous as underworking it—that I needed to let the book and its poems go into the world, and trust my judgment, rather than continue to obsess over minutiae (though of course, even at this stage in its production, I am still obsessing).

I’m wondering about the origins of “The Last Przewalski’s Horse.” 

The Przewalski’s horse, as the epigraph to the poem notes, is considered to be the last remaining species of wild horse on Earth. Other “wild” horses—including the mustangs still roaming the American West in small numbers—are feral descendants of domesticated species, but the Przewalski’s horse, which likely diverged evolutionarily from the modern horse about 160,000 years ago, is a different animal. The Przewalksi’s horse is the modern species that best resembles the horses that were painted on cave walls, and they seem ancient in that way. Native to Mongolia, they were determined to be extinct in the wild in 1969, when the last individual horse—sans herd—was spotted; the last herd was recorded in 1967. After years of captive breeding, they have since been reintroduced to areas in Mongolia, as well as to (oddly enough) the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where they still thrive despite the residual radiation there. Now classified as Endangered, the only true threat the species faces there, it seems, is poachers. It both saddens and fascinates me that even in an irradiated environment deemed hostile to human life—made so hostile due to human activity—the human being still trespasses with the sole intent to destroy, and still remains the ultimate destroyer. That the world would be so savage, that perhaps someone’s only way to make a living, to put food on the table for his or her family, is to actively and relentlessly destroy such a rare and vulnerable thing. When writing the poem, I was thinking about that final horse sighting in 1969, about this lonely herd animal without its herd, the last of its kind, and the last moments of its life—of that body as a foreign thing in its wildness, a history of unknowns that perhaps the human mind could not ever comprehend.

Three “archipelago poems” are featured here.  A video of you reading another for Southern Indiana Review is available online.  Is this part of a larger project?  Part of the book?  Where do these poems come from?

The archipelago poems are part of a series (of five) in the book, loosely inspired by the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, which is the tale of Saint Brendan, an Irish monk who, according to the hagiography, embarked on a voyage around the world sometime in the first half of sixth century. After building a fragile boat of wattle and hide, he and his group of pilgrims sailed north in the name of God, encountering beasts, supernatural visions, and Biblical figures (including Judas, who stands chained to a pillar of rock in the middle of the ocean), eventually reaching the Promised Land of the Saints, an Edenic paradise that was to serve as a refuge for exiled or persecuted Christians. Two of the poems here are based on islands Brendan visited: an island of enormous sheep, which the men eat, and an island of birds that glow “corporeally” with the “incorporeal” fires of the Holy Spirit. However, Ultima Thule, the impossibly pure and nightless “location” of the final poem in the series, is not an island Brendan visited, and here is a very different and far bleaker landing point than the paradisiac Promised Land that concludes his voyage. I think of the series as a secular version of this endeavor. The seafaring framework becomes the landscape of elegy, a psychological or emotional space in which to consider the aftermath of loss, trauma, brokenness, violence. In some sense, as I wrote them, the elegized entity came, for me, to represent “God” as much as any person or life, that is, the absence or void that will never answer you back, and that remains infinitely inexistent, no matter how much you want to speak to it.

I find that some of your poems have an almost ethereal quality, as if they exist in some alternate world to which you’ve given me access.  As I mentioned to you in an email, in this way, they rather remind me of some of Traci Brimhall’s poetry.  You responded that you were a fan of Brimhall’s work.  What other younger poets do you read with gratitude?  Do you find yourself being influenced more by younger poets, or by poetry from previous generations?  What poets from previous generations have impacted your writing?  In what ways? 

Yes, I love Traci Brimhall’s work, particularly Our Lady of the Ruins, for its strange beauty and the depth of its vision. I am lately drawn to poems that move somewhere between the unreal and the real, that embrace oddity, and that encourage their own terrible scientific and(/or) visceral fascinations. Several young poets I admire published books in 2013 that operate somewhere within that realm of the odd or discomforting: Farnoosh Fathi (Great Guns), Sasha West (Failure and I Bury the Body), Emilia Phillips (Signaletics), Corey van Landingham (Antidote). Other recent first books I loved are Love, An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg and Interrobang by Jessica Piazza. But I suppose I would say that I am influenced more by poets of previous generations, only because I have had more years with them; their work has come with me through so many moments of transition (both artistic and otherwise). Federico Garcia Lorca, Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Charles Simic in particular have shaped the poet and person I have become. All of these poets have written such poetry that makes me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off,” and that addresses difficult, sensitive, and vital material with linguistic, emotional, and intellectual complexity. Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Gertrude Stein have also influenced me greatly, for the ways in which they deepened (and, at times, dismantled) my understanding of language and its powers. Also: Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, Larry Levis’s Elegy, Carl Phillips’s Cortège, and Jean Valentine’s Dream Barker are some of the 20th century American collections that most notably transformed my work during my MFA—that, perhaps, helped me to embrace that “ethereality” you noted, rather than fight or “correct” it—but the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book, with its symbolic vocabulary and apocalyptic dream visioning, is probably the book that most influenced Bone Map.

I’m led to believe that you’re a fan of Bob Dylan (I read somewhere that you have a large Dylan collection) and Leonard Cohen, not the sort of music most folks your age are into.  How does music play a part in your writing of poetry, if it does?  How is it that you are a fan of these classic musical artists?

Yes, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan through my father, and his music was essentially the soundtrack to my childhood. I suppose I would say, beyond its presence in the formative periods of my life, so much of his work—especially live performances from The Basement Tapes, and at the Gaslight—taught me about the value of cacophony, imperfections, anomalies, and rawness in poetry. Poetry, like these performances, can have holes in its fabric and strange warbles and sing off-key. Sometimes the most cacophonous note in the poem, the sound that grates against the ear or the image that seems misplaced, is the most important one to the poem’s life. There is one track from The Basement Tapes called “I’m Not There,” which became the foundation for the biopic of the same name, in which Dylan (clearly intoxicated) sounds at moments to me so in pain, so close to death, hovering in the area of Lorca’s duende, that I feel a swell, a chill, listening to it. You can’t always understand what he’s singing in the song, but you feel his voice somewhere in your body; you develop a physical relationship with it that depends in part on its “imperfections.” I listen to music (familiar songs I love and can half-ignore, but also classical pieces and film scores) while writing, and always with headphones. Often the silence of a room can be stifling and stagnant for me in the moment of writing, and so the music gets my brain moving, and sometimes becomes a catalyst for the movement in the poem itself.

Additionally, Dylan has influenced my poetry in his melding of the anonymous traditional, visionary “folk” material with his unique artistic vision. His reworking of Child Ballad 12 (Lord Rendal) into “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is a particularly brilliant example of this: the old song about a young man poisoned by his lover, a song with origins so unfindable it might as well be primordial, becomes the framework for the contemporary moment, in that the folk-refrain comes to relentlessly further the song’s cycle onward, heightening the anxiety in the song as it drives itself towards apocalypse. I incorporate traditional lyrics at times; “Archipelago: Ultima Thule” ends with a variation of the refrain “I’ll be true to my love if my love will be true to me” from Child Ballad 10 (The Two Sisters), and other poems in my book incorporate bits of folklore and fairy tale. In an early interview with Playboy, Dylan says he is drawn to such traditional music because it “is about hexagrams. It comes from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death . . . All those songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels, they’re not going to die.” It’s a bit exaggerated, but there is still truth in what he says: I think that some of the oldest traditional material—whether folk ballad, fairy tale, or nursery rhyme—does seem to carry with it some otherworldly aura, and invoking it within a contemporary work can sometimes imbue the work with that aura, and deepen its sense of mystery.

I think we have, in most intelligent people’s minds, moved beyond the period of slamming writers as “MFA poets.”  Clearly, there are hundreds of wonderful writers out there who have made their bones via the MFA route.  You are a case in point, having earned your MFA from the University of Oregon.  Oregon has also recently graduated such outstanding younger poets as Major Jackson, Keetje Kuipers, Jeff Schultz, Elyse Fenton, Brian Turner, and more.  I wonder how you’d respond to this statement from an interview with Edward Hirsch inbigthink: “I think that the dark side of MFA programs is that they’re generating more poets than the culture can absorb and there are more people writing poetry than possibly read it or can certainly earn a living around it and so that’s a stress on the system and I think a painful thing for many young poets who are looking to find a life in poetry that they’re not going to be able to find.” 

I think Hirsch is right if we consider that an academic appointment is the way poets “earn a living” these days. As an assessment of the academic job market in poetry, this is accurate: there is a surplus of MFA and Ph.D holding poets and writers and not everyone deserving—in talent or teaching ability—will be able to find a tenure-track job teaching writing.  However, while the MFA (and, sometimes, the Ph.D in creative writing) is often treated as a mere prerequisite for an academic appointment, I also think we should also entertain the notion that the MFA does not serve for everyone as this means to a professional end, and that, in fact, it might offer a place of refuge and artistic transformation for (primarily young) talented writers who might otherwise put creative work on the back-burner—perhaps for the rest of their lives—to more immediately begin demanding but lucrative careers in other fields. I am not of the opinion that there is too much poetry being written these days. It is difficult in this culture to find time, space, and support for your writing or art, especially if you work forty-plus hours a week at a demanding job, with an hour commute in each direction. It is also hard to find your community, your people, particularly if you do not live in an urban environment with many colleges, libraries, and independent bookstores, or are not extroverted, not already “in the loop.” Some poets continue to write in law school or medical school after completing their MFA. Some write as they work as baristas, or teach high school. Some never write at all afterward. But the MFA—especially a fully-funded one—allows many emerging writers to experiment not only with their creative work but also with their own lives for two or three years, to see what they are capable of doing and making if gifted the breathing room to work and think as an artist for more than a few exhausted hours a week. Certainly the MFA system isn’t perfect. It does, I think, encourage some degree of conformity (though that does not necessarily mean it prohibits difference), as well as cronyism and “careerism.” But perhaps, for better or for worse, the MFA system is the only circuit cultivating a demand for poetry in the country at all, and, in that sense, may be the only circuit cultivating poets in a capitalist culture that’s so hostile to poetry—or to the pursuit of any endeavor, really, that does not directly and immediately lead to financial stability or profit, or that has no real presence in the national market.



In the forest, the owl releases a boneless cry.
I know the names of things here
and I can hold them.
I hold your hand:
a matryoshska opening deeper
until I can hear your bones
singing into mine
and feel the moon in you.

The moon rolls through you
like a great city before a war
where it has been night for so long
that everyone sees
with their hands,
and then somewhere in the city
a newborn animal

shakes the dust and stands,
makes a thimbleful of sound,
and a boy standing in the square
turns toward it,
and his father, not knowing
what his hands will be made to do
to other men,
places a hand on his head.

The Last Przewalski's Horse
the last remaining species of wild horses

The bullet cleaves a path through the tongue.
The bullet carves a glow in the skull, a black hole
in the brain, and the eyes roll into the head.
The animal falls, a tangled, fly-bitten moon
the hunter kneels beside, unsheathing his knife.
He slices the breastbone, up the abdomen,
then splits the pelvis, rolls organs from the opening:
little planets gone soft with blood. Cuts away
the glistening red web of matter around the heart
then rinses the cavity clean as, many years
from now, a flood will wash the valley of corpses.
One-by-one, he pulls each cuneiformed tooth
from the still-hot mouth, still smelling of grasses,
and plucks each hair from the tail for his violin.
Before dragging the body back to this house,
he ropes the legs, as if it could rise
from the dead.
               All night, the hunter boils the bones.
He breaks open a radius, sucks out the sunlight.
At dawn, he cooks the brain into a stew
that tastes of fog. Sells the hide to a soldier,
the teeth in a jar to a curious boy,
the curdling blood in bottles to the wolf herder.
Left the too-gristly heart in the field.
Left the eyes in the field, unable to close, and no use
to anyone but the last flies of the season
which, a day before the snow kills the last of them
consume the retina piece by piece, photon
by photon, to see what the bullet erased:

Archipelago: Island of Sheep
after The Voyage of Saint Brendan

First: darkness and nothing. 
Then, a swell of darkness,

my hands so small inside it.
Ahead, I see the sheep,

tiny cathedrals
glowing on the island.

They walk their night
like a blindness,

their island an eye 
plucked from its socket,

and its pasture
the way earth tries to see 

in the world of water.
These are the lambs

that shepherds once carried 
across their necks.

They wait here, listening 
for their return—

for they know
their masters’ voices—

and so when I step
they do not come

nor scatter; they hover, 
little clouds,

motes in the eye
that cannot assemble me.

I lay down—
I lay among them

and slept like a shadow
as you sleep in the night

of my skull, among
the soft-bright bodies

long dead, and the whirring
black flowers.

Archipelago: The Paradise of Birds

How can an incorporeal light burn
corporeally in a corporeal creature?
The Voyage of Saint Brendan

I come to a series of lights in the fog. 
The lights fly in a halo over an island.
One light lands on the mast, cleans soot

from its feathers: a simple bird.
Nearer, they seem stars crafted in a furnace:
loaves for a hand to break, 

as my god broke me. If you could see
how these miracles drag my eye 
through the fog, singing We endure

no suffering, you would understand
why I anchor here, notch an arrow
and step into them, braced to ignite.

Archipelago: Ultima Thule
island farthest north, in perpetual daylight

Terrible continent no one has ridden, I come from a country
near ruin. I come from a forest lit only by rifle fire,
where leaves are torn tongues grown from plucked-out eyes,
where a boy, fallen from a tree, lies bleeding for the wolves,
where men kill, and then wash the blood from their hands 
into the rivers. I drank that water, washed my feet
in that water. Now I rinse my face in this light, drink 
this snow, this primordial moment I can cup in my hands,
so cold they’ve begun to blacken from frost. The bones 
of the island moan as I walk across them, opening 
malignant flowers of sound across the ground; wind deepens 
the wounds I leave with my boots. Nothing is well.
Even death's bones have broken so many times they have no 
symmetry. But still death is dutiful, still I will be dutiful—
I will excavate the artifact, sift shadows from the shadowless.
I will still be true to my love if my love is not true to me.