Kimberly Johnson is the author of two collections of poetry, Leviathan with a Hook and A Metaphorical God, and of a translation of Virgil’s Georgics. Her poetry, translations, and scholarly essays have appeared widely in publications including The New Yorker, Slate, The Iowa Review, and Modern Philology. With Michael C. Schoenfeldt and Richard Strier, Johnson has edited a collection of essays on Renaissance literature, and she has served as the editor for a fully-searchable online collection of John Donne’s complete sermons. Recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Utah Arts Council, the Merton Foundation, and Sewanee, Johnson holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from the University of California at Berkeley.
Statement of Poetics
A poem usually begins for me with a word, or a few words
that suggest themselves as having some bearing on one another. I roll the word
around on my tongue. I write it on the page. I look it up, and then read the
definitions of the six words nearby in the dictionary. I take it running with
me, so that it can live in the rhythms of the body for a while. And I try to
figure out what it is about that word that has caught my attention. Slowly, my
awareness of how the word is registering for me leads me to other words, other
associations, and my job is to figure out how to connect all the dots. How to
draw a line between, for example, “pornography” and “spathe,” in a way that
makes sense of why those two words seem to belong together in my head,
illuminates that relationship on paper?
Ultimately, very little about producing a poem is, for me, about being true to some emotion or experience. My interests and concerns, the obsessions that exercise me, are largely representational: how does language work? what are its limits? its possibilities? I’m drawn to sources that reflect, either implicitly or explicitly, on these issues. Thus: Texts turn me on. Poems. Dictionaries. Translations. Dead languages. Music. And, on the other side of the equation, I’m intrigued by the stuff that flouts the dictionaries, exceeds representation, what Hopkins might have called inscape and Benjamin might have called the aura. I love the tension between these two poles, and spend a lot of time worrying about it, and worrying it. So, yes: a tree in the backyard, but only insofar as the tree challenges any effort to record it accurately and precisely and thoroughly. I’m really more a language poet than anything else, at the end of the day, though it may be hard for a reader to see that aesthetic for the trees, so to speak.
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