Monday, March 20, 2023

Q&A with Jessica E. Johnson



Photo by Becca Blevins


Jessica E. Johnson is the author of Metabolics, a new work of poetry. She also has written the poetry collection In Absolutes We Seek Each Other. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


Q: What inspired you to write Metabolics, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: Quite a few inspiration moments fed these poems—a line in my friend Phil Sorenson’s collection Solar Trauma, a writing group I was facilitating with students at the community college where I teach, close observation of my fierce, beloved cat—but overall, I was writing into my fascination with the shape of biochemical pathways, something I’ve thought about since I was a cell and molecular biology major in college.


If you Google, for example, the Krebs cycle, you’ll see a circle that both produces and consumes, a self-regulating cycle that ultimately generates energy.


I wanted to enact this shape in poetry—while working through political despair, a changing climate, and a sometimes incoherent self within family.


I needed to believe that the microscopic motions of life—the dailiness we can’t step outside of—could contribute to macroscopic transformation. I needed to locate the circular patterns of routine existence in relation to forces that we are all—as interrelated beings—part of. I needed to imagine a permeable and interconnected self as part of a larger body.


I wrote the pieces of this book-length poem in short increments of time between other projects and responsibilities, sometimes alone and sometimes with students. I thought of each one as “a metabolic,” a step or two in an energetic cycle. Before I had any sense that they would amount to a whole book, I called the document that held them “metabolics.”


By the time I submitted the book to publishers, I’d given it a different title, one more related to region and place. It was a great title, but then another book of poems came out with a very similar one, so I worked with my editor at Acre, Lisa Ampleman, on retitling the collection. This was quite the effort!


In the end, we came back to my first name for the poem--Metabolics. I’m glad I had an editor who understood and supported my vision, which sometimes includes technical language.


Q: What role do you see the Pacific Northwest playing throughout the collection, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: I’ve lived in this region my whole life, as have several generations of my family. And when I was really young, my family lived with very basic shelter in remote places, so from my earliest memories, the outdoors was it—besides a few books and an occasional trip to town, it was all my imagination had to go on.


Though I’ve moved around within the Northwest, I’ve never lived outside of it for more than a few months at a time, and this place and my relationship with it has always been close to the heart of my work. As a writer who is often looking outward—or looking inward by looking outward—I’m often looking at (and smelling, hearing, touching) ferns, moss, cedar, soil, crows, and water.


Even as my relationship with place feels fundamental, like all settlers I’m here because of genocide, and it’s vital for me to remember the inseparability of the land and its people, and to work toward better relationships with both than those I inherited.


One thing I hope I’ve been able to do in Metabolics is defamiliarize some classic Northwest imagery and also layer it with technological and sociological details of Northwest urban life. All of this is the place, and all of it is a part of “nature.”


Q: The writer Eleni Sikelianos said of the book, “These poems do just what we hope poems will do: they wake us up to our lives. Clear-eyed, they trace in loving micro-attention how the day happens in our bodies, our minds, our devices, our plastics, our politics, our dreams. They are about mothering, and they are about mothering attentiveness. Through such care, language transforms into ‘CO2 wafting into an open leaf pore,’ and we breathe again.” What do you think of that description?


A: When other people write about my work, the best-case scenario is that they say something that feels deeply true in words I couldn’t have come up with. That’s what happened here. I felt seen!


What I love about Eleni’s description is that I write—especially poetry—to wake myself up to life; writing poetry is my way of mothering my own attentiveness. If the book is evoking this response in readers too, that connection is all I could hope for. I’ll add that these thoughts are especially meaningful coming from an incredibly accomplished poet whose work I’ve admired from afar.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: A deep sense of interconnection across bodies and species, comfort with the unceasing nature of change, and a palpable sense that systemic transformation is possible starting with the smallest motions of here-and-now, wherever that is for you.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been working on a memoir that interweaves my transition to parenthood with the story of my early childhood in mining camps and towns. It’s about motherhood as an inherited role, the shape of minerals, and the formation of self in relation to writing and memory. I am many drafts into this book, and it’s still very much a part of my writing life.


Though I know I’ll always write poems, I’m finding that essays are more often the default genre of my curiosity. I’m definitely a poet first, and I’ve struggled with the process of writing nonfiction. I’m happy to say that it’s finally feeling more fluid and flexible. Right now I’m working on an essay about returning to in-person teaching on a barely reopened college campus that feels a little bit like a ghost town.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about Metabolics. I look forward to sharing this book with readers. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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