Interview with Featured Poet
Jonathan Johnson

Photo by Amy Howko

[TCP]: I notice a lot of narrators in your poetry are willfully isolated. Neither misanthropic nor sad, they nonetheless choose to consider the ins and outs of their existence from a distant vantage point—often alone in a natural setting. Do you find this sense of isolation—self-imposed or not—obligatory for your poems?

[JJ]: I do, but then, so do most poets.  No matter how interpersonally warm or engaging, pretty much every poet I know requires some sort of remoteness, as a practical matter for getting work done, of course, but more generally as a way of being.  A poem (of any kind) is a new experience, created out of an interplay—some contest or dance—between perception and imagination.  Perception is always surrounding and pressing in on us, and like all artists, poets train themselves to be even more attune to perception, to be even more open to its power and subtlety and influence.  How is imagination to stand a chance then, how can it possibly rise to and meet and make something with perception?  Time helps.  When we meet perceptions distilled into memory, we’re meeting experience already selected and partly shaped by imagination.  That’s one reason poets tend to write better about loves and places and lives we have lost than those right before us.  Distance can help as well.  I live a rather migratory life in part to be perpetually renewed in my relationships with the places that are so important to me and my work.  I’ll keep some wind-shaped pine on a shore in my mind, and then there it will be, with all the beautiful certainty of its presence!  Then I’ll go and once again it will take up residence in my mind. 
           But perhaps even more important for me than time or distance is stillness.  For me being still often requires, as you say, being alone with nature, whether that’s a wild mountainside or a window box of flowers beside a café table.  Every once in a while when I am able to be still, the distinction between imagination and perception, between the reality I am given and that which I create, dissolves.  There is only the moment, and in the moment I am at home.  From this home I can “consider the ins and outs” of my life with perspective and with empathy and find the poetry in my existence.

[TCP]: Often your narrators focus on the natural world as a poetic guide, a Wordsworthian approach to be sure. Do you consider place a character in your work? How would you say these particular places—often the wintry Northwest and Midwest—enter into the dialogue of your work?

[JJ]: There are places with which I feel deep sympathy and even personal rapport, so I suppose these places must be characters in my work.  The places where I spend time in the inland Northwest are often places of enormity and expanse by which I feel absorbed.  I run long distances alone through the pine and sage of eastern Washington and often forget I am running.  I forget a great deal of my identity when I’m in the mountains of northern Idaho and Montana.  The deep, timbered slopes and silvery rivers take what I usually walk around thinking I am. 
            The personality of Marquette—an upper Michigan town on the Lake Superior coast and my truest home—is much more intimate, more like a confidante.  There is wildness, to be sure.  The lake spreads like a sea to the north, and hundreds of miles of deep woods begin before the edge of town.  But town, lake, and woods are embracing.  They are containing and close.  And the mythic amount of snow that, falling, brings the sky right down to the rooftops and trees only makes the place more intimate.  There I feel accompanied. 
            There are other places, too, that I check in on.  I’ve been traveling through the plains between Marquette and the Northwest a couple times a year most of my life, and there the sky feels about as far away, and the earth feels about as open to that sky as anywhere I’ve been.   Standings there, I feel a corresponding openness.  Then the dry wind will stir a little dust at my feet and remind me where, exactly, I’m standing.  Chastening is what it is.
            And then there’s Scotland.  Nowhere have I been more productive or more awake to the world than along its coast and up in its Highlands, which drew me at last out of a long period of grief.  I have many hundreds of pages from there, poetry and prose, so hang (as they’d say) anyone who calls it personification; it would be ungrateful of me not to feel personal affection for the places—the lochs and glens, a certain ruined cottage, a moonlit seawall, the windblown morning waves out a specific window—that gave me that work.
            But to be perhaps a little less rhapsodic and more schematic about it, the physical world at large is something beyond me to which I make myself artistically responsible.  Its reality is a force, a resistance—not unlike poetic form—with which the imagination and language must contend.  It is an other besides myself to which the poem must answer.  In this, it is a partner, a muse, a co-creator.       

[TCP]: Do you feel any particular notions or executions of poetry especially wrongheaded or beneficial in today’s literary climate?

[JJ]: I think poets should keep generous hearts about one another.  We all search for the next right word.  We do so with widely varying skills and capacities, sure, and according to often radically divergent notions and convictions, of course.  But look, in the broad spectrum of all human endeavors—from laying landmines, to performing surgery, to long-haul truck driving, to nursing a baby—the ways in which any two poets spend their time and attentions are pretty damn close.  Any two poets—Jim Harrison and John Ashbery, Mark Halliday and Adrienne Rich, Dean Young and Gary Snyder, Jorie Graham and a nine-year-old girl.  The disregard, or even distain with which we too often allow ourselves to think of our fellow poets seems to me what is perhaps most wrongheaded in today’s literary climate.  Yes, I suppose it has always (and in every art) been thus, and sure conflict can breed innovation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to transcend our impulses to enviousness, territoriality and insecurity. 
           As for me, I read and write poetry to more fully inhabit my existence, so engaging poetry meant to press the edge of the Avant-garde, or to play, or to confound, or to treat its medium—language—as its primary subject requires me to suspend my aesthetic, to try to adopt other values and principles.  But that’s okay.  It’s even good for me, once in a while.  It can be another kind of exercise in empathy.  And I would add, for a teacher of poetry, maintaining a capacity for empathy with aesthetics quite other than one’s own is absolutely essential.    

[TCP]: What do you think poetry should do for the reader? What is poetry’s purpose, particularly in a time when the art is considered “dead” or obsolete? 

[JJ]: Poetry’s purpose can be to offer wisdom and company in our deepest solitudes. I confess I don’t set out to write poetry with the intention that someone else will find those things there.  At least I don’t when I’m at my best, my most sincere.  At my best and most sincere, I write poetry as a call, an invitation—sometimes a plea—for wisdom and company in my own life, something not unlike prayer, I suppose. If the result is helpful and companionable for someone else, if it does this for another person as others’ poetry has done for me, wonderful.
           Modern skepticism has done much to free us from the tyranny of assumption, has given us the era of individual experience—democracy, religious reformation, scientific empiricism, the emergence of human rights, artistic Romanticism, all of these developments have a shared root in the notion that an individual’s experience is a fundamental, perhaps the fundamental basis for knowing reality.  But that same skepticism, that same privileging of individual experience brings with it a certain loneliness, doesn’t it?  A void where common wisdom used to live.  It’s one reason there are so many people eager to roll back the Enlightenment, people eager for leaders and preachers and beliefs that defy skepticism.  They seek a common wisdom; they don’t want to feel alone.  Who does?
            But what if your trust remains in your individual experience, what if you find truth and even divinity in your own life as you live it?  John Keats wrote, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.”  What are you supposed to do for common wisdom and company if you’re like him?  First of all, you seek them in the days and nights you’re given, in birdsong and art and seasons on the land, and—if you’re lucky—maybe even in the kisses, embraces and words of the people you love.  And when you need to know you’re not alone in having sought wisdom and company in the depths of your one, solitary life, there is poetry.  There, in the most private space of your own mind, is the voice of someone else, Keats or Sappho or one of the anonymous poets of the Kokinshū, saying, “Yes, me too.  I also lived.  These are my experiences.  This is my imagination’s vision.  This is what I came to believe.”

[TCP]: Do you maintain a particular writing process, or does each poem necessitate a different approach? How often do you revise? Take us through the life of one of your poems, from gestation to final draft. 

[JJ]: These days I’m lucky enough to write often in a bright, quiet study at home.  I’ve left the walls blank so I can tape poems up on them, which is how I selected and ordered the poems for my latest collection, In the Land We Imagined Ourselves.  But I also tape poems to the walls simply to live with them out in the open for long periods of time.  Every so often when nothing’s happening at the desk or out the window, I’ll go to the walls and let my eyes roam until they settle on something—a line or a phrase—and sometimes changes present themselves quite readily and agreeably.  When I can I also write in a secluded little cabin my wife and I built on my family’s ranch in the mountains of Idaho, which is about an hour and a half from our house in eastern Washington.
           These are fortunate places to write, but a lot actually gets done out in the world.  Back when I was in school and forming my habits, I very intentionally decided to broaden rather than narrow the conditions in which I could work.  I trained myself to write at all different hours and just about anywhere, in the car on the roadside, sitting on a log in the woods, in coffee shops and cafés.  Especially in coffee shops and cafés.  I have favorites all over the place with big windows or sidewalk tables where I can settle in and feel right at home again in a few minutes.  I write by hand, using only pens and legal pads or pocket notebooks my wife and daughter give me—that’s the one exclusionary, precious little rule I allow myself (and so far, they’ve been good about not letting me run low).  The idea is to keep everything as portable and visceral and at-the-ready as possible.
            That’s not exactly about my line-by-line process, I know, but it’s all very much about the role writing plays in my life. As I’ve said, poetry is my way of being in the world, of inhabiting my existence.  I can’t imagine what someone who doesn’t have it, or have some sort of art, does about his experiences.  How does such a person cope with the eternal loss of everything that transpires? 
            But, a specific poem—.  Okay.  It’s a little tough.  A big part of me wants them all to exist as they are, without the marring of further explanation or account.  But you guys at Town Creek Poetry have been kind enough to give one of my newer favorites, “Glen Coe,” a good home, so I’ll do that one.  
            Last July (2009) my wife and daughter and I returned from a year living in Scotland.  For my birthday when we were over there, they gave me (in addition to the usual pens, legal pads, and pocket notebook) a few nights alone in a hill-walkers’ inn in Glen Coe, which is perhaps the most dramatic, steepest, most storied glen in the Highlands.  People’s notions about beauty in places are as varied as their notions about beauty in other people, but to my way of seeing, the Scottish Highlands are the most beautiful place on earth.  The land is sensual.  It slopes and curves with heartbreaking grace down through vast, open heather and bracken and woods.  There seems to be no distinction between flora and geology, everything exudes fertility as the mists and rains move through and close and open again to the tilting sun.  
            I wrote the first draft of “Glen Coe” sitting at the tavern window in the inn.  It was winter and the hill walking was bad because of wind and intermittent snow and risk of avalanche, so I had the place pretty much to myself. The day before, I’d foolishly climbed to the summit of Meall Mor on the opposite side of the glen and gotten caught in a squall on a rather forbidding slope, so I was feeling pretty good to be safely cozied up with my view and a hot tea. (My feelings of foolishness and relief were compounded later when I learned that three mountaineers were killed the following day in an avalanche seven miles up the glen.)
            The poem began as a letter poem, a little like Richard Hugo’s letter poems—“To so and so, from such and such a place.” It was addressed to a close friend who’d recently separated from his wife.  This friend is an Indian from Montana.  His ancestors and their places are very important to his identity, as is the horrible displacement, oppression and violence those ancestors suffered in those places.  I was thinking about him because I’d recently learned of his separation, and because my great grandparents and ancestors before them were from the Highlands, and because Glen Coe was the sight in 1692 of a massacre in which men were murdered in their beds and women and children were driven from burning cottages to die in snow and wind just like that out my window. 
           Now, my friend isn’t me.  His ancestors’ suffering was not my ancestors’ suffering.  I don’t even know if any of my ancestors were at Glen Coe.  But here I was.  He would understand.  He would understand how this place was like a lover, or a muse.  How the ghosts of children seemed obscured somewhere in the flurries that moved through and smeared out the mountains again and again.  I often wonder about the person who might have been born in my stead and lived here if my ancestors hadn’t left.  Like the place itself, I imagine her a woman.  My friend would understand that, too.
           This friend and his wife and my wife and I are all the greatest of buddies, the kinds of friends you hope for when you’re young and you imagine your later self married and raising kids, in sweats, laughing and flipping grilled cheese sandwiches in each other’s kitchens.  And now, my God, he was sleeping somewhere away from his family, in a kind of other-land.  But what about me?  I was up here away from my own family, walking up into the slopes and cloud swirl for what, exactly?  And I do this sort of thing all the time, take off for hours or days alone.  I have to.  But I also have to return to them, my family.  Would my friend?
           All of this came to the page quite readily in images and language.  Some poems are a struggle, phrases wrought word by word, but the poems that start as letters often come more easily.  Like many of my poems, “Glen Coe” also spent some time in form, as a would-be sonnet, if I remember right. But pretty soon the usefulness of the form for eliciting surprise, music and eloquence played out, and the poem moved on.   I worked at it off and on for the next few weeks, thought it finished (which is rarely the case in a few weeks, even when I convince myself otherwise), and sent it to my friend.
            But as the months went by, the poem troubled me.  Whatever its merits, it seemed like what it was, a private letter to my friend.  And it strained to make its connections between my friend’s Montana and Glen Coe, his ancestors and mine (and perhaps, also, between the two of us).  Time can be counted on to bring—if not objectivity at least a measure of dispassion about one’s page.  Still, there was something there.  Who was the guy who’d written it?  From my study at night in Cheney, Washington, a year later, he seemed like someone else.  And that was the breakthrough.  I cut everything directly about my friend (whose forgiveness I must remember to ask before this appears) and recast the entire thing using the third person as a way of trying to get to know who I might have been.

[TCP]: Are there any poets you’d consider forebears, and are there any particular poets you revisit to energize your own writing?

[JJ]: You mentioned Wordsworth before, and I can’t tell you how gratifying that is for me.  For most of my childhood, my mother was a graduate student specializing in British Romantic poetry, and she was full of joy and passion and purpose about what she was reading.  I don’t remember a time before she would quote Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” to me in the spring, and inside the birthday card she gave me when I turned seventeen, she wrote from The Prelude, “My seventeenth year was come, and . . . I at this time saw blessing spread around me like a sea.”  Like Wordsworth, she was an orphan who found spiritual company and grace in nature and who believed in humanity, in the human mind’s potential for goodness and beauty.
           And like Keats—the other poet whose words were gospel in our house—my mother had an intense, quite personal awareness of mortality, an awareness that deepened her gratitude for the daily world and empathy for those, human and otherwise, with whom she shared it for a while.  Not only did she give me these two great poets, who remain my most important artistic influences, she taught me to seek to live in my days and world with something like the attention and gratitude with which they, and she, lived in theirs.
            The first living poet in whose work I found myself was Galway Kinnell—the reverence and fascination, the gravitas in sound and image.  When I was nineteen I typed out his poems and taped them to my bedroom wall, the origin of that particular habit.  Soon after came Mary Oliver, then Phil Levine and Donald Hall.  If I am anything, I am a sincerist.  We’re only here for a while, and we’re a part of the whole.  Given these two facts, I can’t imagine being anything else.  So of course, many of the poets whose words I have find most companionable over the years—poets like Richard Hugo, Jack Gilbert and Jim Harrison—are those who share that sensibility. 
           I also go back to Mark Halliday, whose poems I’d describe as extraordinary monologues made, mostly, from very ordinary speech and thought.  Reading them puts me convincingly in the presence of another person.  Of all the poets out there working now in this ultra-vernacular mode, I find Halliday’s poems the most consistently familiar.
           Though I read their poems mostly in translation, there are several European poets of the last century or so who have been important to me in recent years.  I love the feel of thought unfolding in Cesare Pavese’s poems, as well as the warm sensuality of the body and Italian landscape he evokes and then holds.  Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s ability to be at once focused and broadly implicit fascinates me as she explores a notion or concept, often to arrive at a deeply emotional, even spiritual insight.   For all the persecution he suffered, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet is delightful, wise, life-affirming company.  He’s there, speaking.  “Hello, everybody,” he even says, quite earnestly. I love that. “Hello to all of you. . .”  Every time I go back to his book, there he is, in his life as I’m in mine, and I’ll be damn if he doesn’t say it again. 

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