Tuesday, February 20, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jill McCabe Johnson

Jill McCabe Johnson’s third poetry book, Tangled in Vow & Beseech (MoonPath, 2024), was named a finalist in the Sally Albiso and Wheelbarrow Books poetry prizes. Honors include an Academy of American Poets prize, the Paula Jones Gardiner Poetry Award from Floating Bridge Press, two Nautilus Book Awards, plus support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Artist Trust, and Hedgebrook. Recent works have appeared in Slate, Fourth Genre, Waxwing, The Brooklyn Review, Gulf Stream, Brevity, and Diode. Jill is editor-in-chief of Wandering Aengus Press. https://jillmccabejohnson.com

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first poetry book was a collection of persona poems, all written in the imagined voice of the sea. It allowed me to write from a persona that felt to me as though it were innocent, wise, and brimming with love. Subsequent books and chapbooks, including the latest book, Tangled in Vow & Beseech, have fewer persona poems. Even when the pieces aren’t about my life, they feel far more personal and therefore risky. At the same time, I hope readers will connect with them in a more intimate, meaningful way. I don’t know if the writing changed me or if changes within me changed the writing, but I do feel more confident in myself as a person and poet, and that allows me to expose my vulnerabilities more in relationships as well as on the page.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Lo, so many years ago, when I started at the wonderful MFA program, the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, I wanted to study poetry because I believed it would provide a foundation for writing in prose, too. The attention to image, music, form, diction, and even, at times, narrative teaches a kind of precision but with unlimited wildness, too.  It’s contradictory, but it teaches a person to work without constraint despite constraints—basically doing the impossible. Who could resist?

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I wish there were one, predictable way. Sometimes the writing comes in an unexpected gush, other times it emerges as a complete package, and too often it flops into the world, a floundering, unwieldy mess.

4 - Where does a poem or essay usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

For me, poems almost always begin with an image but are written from sound. It took me a long time to trust the sounds bubbling up and onto the page. Now, I do my best to get out of the way of what the subconscious wants to say. Easier said than done, of course. The essay writing process is similar, except that it usually begins with an unusual incident or situation, for example, getting laid off from a job or sitting with my father’s dead body. Like so many have said before me, I don’t know what I have to say until I begin writing. That takes its own form of trust and getting out of the way, too. With enough smaller pieces and momentum, I finally see what a larger manuscript is working toward. If I try to force things, the writing isn’t as good.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Readings are fun, and I do find it informative to see how audiences respond to narrative pieces. Mostly, I just love when authors and readers connect during a live reading, regardless of whether I’m in the audience or on the stage. 

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

In the last several years, I’ve been writing my way through trying to understand gender violence. I don’t really even want to write about it, but the subject won’t let me go. It’s frustrating because there are so few answers, and I don’t like most of them, anyway. But the subject has me in its grips for now. We’ll see where it leads.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Do we have to have roles? Can we simply write what matters to us?

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

All praise for editors! I can’t be objective about my work. I can’t reread it and hear it for the first time. Editors help us clarify and refine. That doesn’t mean their suggestions should always be taken. We still have to be discerning about how we revise, but editors help us see when there’s need to revise and ways we might do it.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Stan Sanvel Rubin said to read widely, even work you don’t like, because you learn from it and might even grow to appreciate it.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

It’s hard for me to go immediately between working on poetry and prose. With a little time between—a walk, for example—it’s easier. There’s a different mindset required, at least for me, to write in one or the other. Even from essay to essay or poem to poem. It’s as though my mind needs a palate cleanser. That said, I love writing both. Some things are better suited for an essay or a poem, and I like being able to go between.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My husband and I have a bed and breakfast. Summers are insanely busy, so my writing routine doesn’t follow a daily schedule. It’s on a yearly cycle, with only short work and revision in the summers and longer works in the winters when I have time to immerse myself more deeply.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Any good writing will inspire me to write. Also, writing just after a nap or when I wake in the morning, assuming I don’t reach for my phone and read the news.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The scent of a briny seashore.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Books come from the rattling sound of the hoola-hoop at your ninth birthday party, from the bully who broke your glasses playing dodge ball, they come from the coffee-flavored candies in your grandmothers crystal box, from how it felt to tear the necklace your first boyfriend gave you from your 14-year-old neck when he broke up with you and started dating your sister, from oysters roasted open over campfire coals, from the ache in your lungs hiking Mt. Si and being too embarrassed in front of your athletic friends to stop and catch your breath, from kissing your dead mother’s forehead, from apologizing to your son for shaking his shoulders when he forgot once again to turn in his homework, from listening to a flock or red wing blackbirds singing winter inside-out. Books come from books? Don’t make me laugh.

To be fair to David W. McFadden, books absolutely inspire and influence the creation of other books. I also like to look at the structure of things and make correlations to writing, for example, is the work like a nautilus, a river, a pair of lungs, a branching tree? Good standup comedians are experts at shaping story. They know how to setup a situation and seed an idea, as well as how to convey a story specifically and concisely, and how to close in a satisfying yet surprising way.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I read so widely, this is a tough question to answer. There are too many writers I love to even attempt to list them, though Rebecca Solnit would be very high on my list.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Skydive. Live in Paris. Hike in Patagonia. Master bread-making. See both my husband and son grow old. Be kinder to everyone. Forgive. Listen. Accept.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Botanist. Cheesemaker. Marine biologist. Jazz singer. Weaver. Chimney sweep.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

How else to connect with humanity and express wonder and try to make the world a better place?

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: All the Light We Cannot See

Film: The Square

20 - What are you currently working on?

Lyric essays as well as essays on gender violence.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Lita Kurth said...

Thanks for posting this!
I really loved your answer to "books come from books?" I'm sharing it with my class. And I know you add that, of course, books play a precious part, but in my view, nothing can top direct sensory experience.