Jenny Johnson is a poet of deep compassion and mesmerizing range. Her work probes the complexities of queer identity and the body, weaving in the unexpected reaches of intimacy and communion found in nature, dreams and lost family histories. The transformative power of community in the face of discrimination and intolerance is also felt throughout much of her work. Jenny was recently honored with a Whiting Award, and judges compared her poetry to “the virtuosity that characterizes a master like Elizabeth Bishop.” Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, The Best American Poetry 2012, Troubling the Line: Trans & Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics, New England Review, and she was the recipient of the Beloit Poetry Journal’s Chad Walsh Poetry Prize for her poem “Aria.” She has also received awards from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Johnson is currently a lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jenny about her debut poetry collection In Full Velvet, forthcoming in 2017.
The Rumpus: The presence of animals serves an important role in many of the poems from In Full Velvet. They convey a real sense of playful wonder, even vulnerability, at the unexpected reaches of intimacy in the natural world, while also exploring more complicated themes of identity and belonging in a world so often fraught with intolerance. What inspired the use of nature in your work?
Jenny Johnson: I didn’t realize initially that animals were an obsession. But then the speaker in the poem “Tail” started waving her tail! So I started thinking about and attending more consciously to all the ways in which humans are animals. I have found so much joy in playfully resisting phobic assumptions about what kinds of bodies are “natural,” and what kinds of acts are “natural” for any species—human, killer whale, or marmot. While writing these poems, I learned a lot about how queer our environs are from reading biologist Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.
Rumpus: The assumption of what behavior is “natural,” and therefore, “normal” is certainly projected through a society’s dominant narrative, making it all the more important to counter those limiting beliefs, as you do through your work. As a poet, have you always found yourself responding to “phobic assumptions” and discrimination against queer people?
Johnson: Writing for me is an ongoing practice of facing and countering fears. And so, in that sense, I have always been responding to phobias. I am often most surprised by the writing that comes from facing fears that strike closest to home, poems that explore internalized phobias about gender identity, sexuality, and the body, poems that struggle with a question like do I deserve love? I’m thinking of a line in an older poem of mine called “Mirror Box Visions” that instructs, “Come because her mother says you’re no good.” That line took courage to write.
Rumpus: I was particularly intrigued by your focus on phobias connected to the body. The vulnerability of the body, its tender imperfections and limitations, is conveyed through images of taxidermy in the title poem of the collection. The poem includes a haunting description of deer whose antlers never shed their velvet coating, growing askew as a result. The speaker later remarks that “we are more than utility…/some phantasms about our bodies in relationship to gender and sexuality / are idealized, some degrading, some compulsory, some transgressive.” I absolutely love these lines, though I am curious about the relationship of the physical body to queer identity. Is the expression of gender and sexuality more hindered by our limited understanding and control over biology?
Johnson: Thanks for the close read of “In Full Velvet.” I want to respond to a number of your observations. I think normative or binary lenses for seeing bodies often crush or delegitimize other felt physical experiences of being and desiring. I’ve found that such inadequate ways of understanding bodies can be—but aren’t always—based on biological perspectives. As I mentioned earlier, there are biologists who are hard at work complicating those fixed scripts for sexuality and difference. As for the line, “we are more than utility,” I do think that our bodies are capable of many magical and inexplicable things that have nothing to do with reproduction. I have read that some birds may sing just for pleasure and not for any other Darwinian imperative. Birds singing because it feels good—that’s the kind of biology that helps me understand this diverse world.
As for the image of the deer in this poem, some scientists call certain white-tailed deer ‘velvet horns’ because they never lose their velvet during mating season. Learning that velvet horns exist changed the way I pay witness to deer in the woods. I wanted to learn more. So, I read hunting articles and message boards. I interviewed a taxidermist. I wanted to learn how else people talk about deer that differ from the rest of the herd. I listened and noted the layers of meaning in their language choices—antlered doe, monster, shirker, raggedy horn freak.
The vulnerability of the body is (as you mentioned) conveyed through a range of images in this poem. The speaker of “In Full Velvet” is ultimately juggling many different forms of knowledge or ways of seeing bodies, whether that be through neurology, queer theory, biology, taxidermy, etc. While I was drafting, I was reading Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter and V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain simultaneously, and it struck me that both writers use the word “schema” to talk about how a person imagines their body. I like picturing the little map that lies across my cortex that allows my brain to see my body. And I like thinking about how everyone has this little map that affects and complicates their ways of seeing and experiencing themselves, too.
Rumpus: Perhaps also with how they see others. In the poem, “Severe,” relatives describe your Great-Aunt Dorothy’s features, and her suspected sexuality, as something harsh and undesirable, “as if to be butch is to be made of mythical perimeters, / and not the sky revealing itself between storms / in sudden naked flashes.” Dorothy becomes a reoccurring presence throughout the collection, as many of your poems wrestle with the complications between family politics, loss and myth making. In “Elegy at Twice the Speed of Sound,” the speaker remarks that “where there is no lineage, no record, no quantifiable proof, there are myths, and where there are no myths there are traces.” Dorothy’s voice is later reimagined, creating a new personification. To what extent does the reshaping of family narratives influence identity? Especially in the face of those narratives intended to damage and disempower?
Johnson: So many of the poems in this book are attempts at seeing a queer self more fully. How could I see myself or recognize myself in the affirmative while growing up as a genderqueer dyke, when dominant narratives consistently blocked out images of difference? What burns me up the most is the fact that many of the images I most needed to see growing up were often in plain view. Like what if I’d known that there might have been gay deer in my backyard in rural Virginia? Or what if I’d known before they died that the “old maids” in my family, my Aunt Peg and Aunt Dorothy, were lesbians who’d been living together for fifty years and traveling the world?
Rumpus: Certainly having that affirmation and knowledge is so valuable and comforting, especially for one who may feel alienated in discovering or embracing their own identity. I can’t help but think of your poem, “Vigil,” where the speaker remarks that “I am a woman who forgets sometimes that she is a woman. / So I always slip my shoes off and knock, at least three times / before crossing a threshold, before presuming I’m welcome here.” Was it important for you that readers be immersed in that sense of vulnerability and tension that the speaker reveals?
Johnson: While writing “Vigil,” I was thinking about the unspoken vigilance that goes on between queer lovers, the pleasures and anxieties of always being conscious of your surroundings, and the desire to protect someone you love while being vulnerable yourself. I wanted to reveal these tensions. In the lines you mention, the speaker has the dual consciousness of being a butch woman. For example, not having to negotiate catcalls walking down the street, while simultaneously being in a body that has navigated the ways in which women’s personal spaces are disrespected daily. In that sense, the speaker is a woman constantly being, forgetting, and remembering different ways of being a woman, while wanting to protect her lover from sexism and homophobia. Later in the poem, there is a scene where a man yells “dyke” out the window of a speeding car and the lovers just sort of lose it. My favorite part of this poem is the erotic twist in the final lines, where the speaker concedes how strong her lover is with or without her in the lines, “Not that she ever needed me to guard her. Her biceps are firm / when she folds me over in the dark.”
Rumpus: One of my favorite poems in the collection, “In the Dream” is one of solidarity in the face of homophobia and conflict. The constant threat of violence and discrimination takes form in the subconscious and plays out in a surreal “intergalactic composite,” where “all our friends or exes” gathered in relative harmony until three strangers, “who were straight / or closeted? but most importantly angry” stand on bar stools and shout insults. The speaker shouts back, “and with one finger I called our family forth / and out of the strobe lights, they came.” Even with the legalization of gay marriage in the US, there is still the constant tension of being in a world that continues to be hostile against the LGBT community. How does a poem itself offer a space to confront these issues and serve as compelling means for greater social activism and awareness?
Johnson: A poem is a liminal space that can offer a sensation of belonging. A poem won’t bring you a cold beer, but it may offer you a stool where you can sit down and feel momentarily at home. LGBT folks need intergenerational spaces where their lives and experiences are foregrounded. Getting married is a whole different enterprise of family-making than the one I’m thinking of in “In the Dream.” Family to me is the guy on his bike last Sunday night, who asked my girlfriend and I, “Which way to Cattivo?” (the bar where we’d just left a queer dance party). And then, because it was funny the way he read us and we read him back, we stopped on the corner, shared our names, and hugged. Three of the historic lesbian bars I mention in “In the Dream”—The Lex, Sisters, The Palms—have recently closed their doors. It’s no secret that lesbian bars are disappearing. JD Samson and Drew Denny recently made an insightful short film called “The Last Lesbian Bars.” In The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman talks about how when we lose such spaces, we lose the context for what happened there; that frightens me. So on one hand, “In the Dream” is a narrative of solidarity in the face of homophobia and conflict. But at the same time, the poem is importantly a dream. When I first moved to the Bay Area, The Lexington Club was where I went, not so much to find a date, but to be among friends after teaching, playing pick-up soccer, or attending a protest. I’ll never forget the time I brought three straight co-workers there for a drink and the bartender carded everyone but me. I realized in that moment how rare it was that I felt like a regular in a space. I think poems can remind us of how necessary that feeling is.
Rumpus: Absolutely. You revisit this again in the poem “Aria,” which opens with the speaker and friends burning a bra in celebration of a transgender friend’s top surgery. This gorgeous sonnet utilizes the dissonance and repetition of language to reflect the painful longing for social justice, community, the basic desire to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. In an essay on “Aria” in the Beloit Poetry Journal, you described an interest in “playing with the sounds and restraints that emerge from a queer body, the sounds that emerge from a queer collective, a body or voice that has the potential to be unified by its disjunctions.” Yet this dissonance also gives beauty and power to what first might be perceived as strange and unordinary. Might this be a response to a sense of trauma that a queer community shares in being marginalized by society?
Johnson: I love that you sense continuous patterns in “Aria.” I have always thought of this sequence as one that creates music by pushing against the received form of the sonnet, like it manages to sing or sound with a muzzle on. But I hadn’t thought before of the ways such a muzzling might create its own patterns in pitch. As for your question about the poem as a queer response to trauma, I’ll say this: for me, writing a poem that experiments with whatever music emerges from this poet’s queer body has been an antidote to shame. I’m wary of speaking for a queer community, since there are so many different queer communities. I’m also wary of generalizing about queer trauma. But I do think people can experience trauma collectively or inter-generationally. Also, when I was writing “Aria,” I was reading Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, which is a great book.
Rumpus: The use of poetry as an antidote to shame, or even as a place to explore the collective trauma of a community, is a rich but volatile prospect. Do you find similar themes or concerns appearing in your current literary projects?
Johnson: I am not entirely sure where I’m going next! I do have Shame And Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader edited by Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank in a stack of books I want to read, so there might be more for me to say about this affective experience. I have also been thinking, reading, and writing about ecology. As land just outside of Pittsburgh is fracked and temperatures rise, more and more people globally become climate refugees. Over the summer, I read an incredible book by Robin Wall Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer’s book has been challenging me in the best ways to think about how language can restore relationships, starting with our grammatical decisions. I love this piece she recently published in Yes Magazine, “Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching ‘It.’” Lately, I’ve been asking myself questions like this one: How might poems, written in this ecological moment, strengthen kinships between all living beings?