Interview: Sara Eliza Johnson

Sara Eliza JohnsonSara Eliza Johnson’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of places, including Best New Poets 2009, New England Review, and Boston Review. She is the recipient of a 2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, a Winter Fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and a Work-Study Scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She has also been a finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Stadler fellowships. Johnson is currently a doctoral student in the Lit & Creative Writing program at the University of Utah. Her first book, Bone Map, was selected for the National Poetry Series and was published by Milkweed Editions in 2014.

TCJWW: I love the idea of a poem (or a collection) as a map and am intrigued by the title of your book: Bone Map. How do you see this book as a map?

Johnson: A “bone map” is a map paleontologists make of dig sites: the points in the terrain at which they found which bones, and in which positions. In some sense, the bone map they create allows them to “read” a prehistoric moment, to gain access to the alien animal’s moment of death. Also, physicians do bone scans of patients to make “bone maps,” and we can also map patterns in the human brain. I liked how the title could simultaneously refer to both a kind of destruction and reassembly of bodily material. But the term is used in the book—“clouds shift their bone map”—to give visceral shape and sound to something ethereal: the clouds as a map of bones, scraping against the silence. To me, this is similar to the way poetry operates: the incorporeal silence of language suddenly moves across the page like a resurrected body, comes alive.

TCJWW: Bone Map is separated into three sections: the forest/pastoral/memory in Section I is separated from the archipelago/ice field of Section III by “Pathfinder,” the single poem in Section II. How do you see these sections working together?

Johnson: The easiest way to think of “Pathfinder” is as a hinge, but perhaps a more productive metaphor for the poem sequence is a dream-tunnel through which the reader emerges. Have you ever had a dream and thought you’d woken up, but had only “woken” into another dream? Had one dream morph into another? I think “Pathfinder” works this way, almost hypnagogically, to facilitate that kind of transition between the two landscapes and pseudo-narratives of the book. As in any individualized series of dreamscapes, certain images and notions from the first half of the book reemerge in altered forms in the second half. I wanted the space of the book to be cohesive without becoming static or monotonous. But thematically I think the poem operates like the post-apocalyptic lull, that immense silence, before a world begins to remake itself.

TCJWW: The series of “Letter from the Ice Field” poems vary from prose blocks to very airy stanzas. How do you see form informing the content of these particular poems?

Johnson: I see in those poems the psychoemotional progression of grief, and the formal choices in part reflect different states in that process. While I would consider all the poems in the book to exist outside of my “self,” that series errs on the side of personal; our grieving is unique, and that was the landscape of my own, cultivated gradually over the course of many years. Sometimes you feel like a ghost yourself in that state, and your thinking is foggy or airy; other times you feel lost in the density of it, in the nightmare of it, and feel you won’t ever wake from it. But there was also this sense that I was writing the letters to someone lost, some version of dead, on the other side of a veil, and that the material of the letters—typically in prose—could be warped in transmission.

TCJWW: Bone Map opens with a poem called “Fable.” Is there a moral to this poem? Did any particular morals shape the work in this collection?

Johnson: I don’t think there is a (intentional) moral or moral direction to the book, or to that poem. “Fable” in particular is a poem that moves associatively from one figure to the next, a kind of tangled thread of fabular material that asks much of its readers, without instructing them what (and how) to think. The title is a misdirection, an attempt to disorient rather than lead: the fable with no moral, like the riddle with no answer.

TCJWW: In “When There is Burning Instead,” the speaker professes that her blood is bitter, her marrow is rancid, and her “skin is a linen of bees.” We see a speaker as other, as beast. What was your process of writing this poem—creating this voice—or others like it?

Johnson: This poem arose from a response to phrasing in Isaiah 3:24, “when there is burning instead of beauty.” In that poem I was channeling that Biblically apocalyptic voice, but also the voice of a corpse, of a ruined body in transformation. Not quite human—maybe not quite anything. I think most voices in Bone Map are “not quite”; they are often liminal, somewhere between human and nonhuman, desperately isolated and in the state of becoming landscape or animal or corpse. For me, the key to channeling this complex quality is to let go, relinquish the desire to control the direction of the poem and allow the brain to enter (and embrace) an associative state, and in turn to allow the poem to reflect that state of liminality, to affect or resonate while still evading certain clarity of argument or feeling.

TCJWW: “Elegy Surrounded by Water” says “Listen—I am/ trying to send you// a human sound,/ which is bones//cracking to bend an arrow/ back,…” There seems to be a distinction between the physical body and the spiritual self. Do you believe in such a separation? How do you think this poem (or another poem) exemplifies the relationship between the physical and spiritual world?

Johnson: I don’t personally believe in such a literal separation, no, but I think that regardless of the virtual fact of mind-body fusion or interconnection, most of us feel a separation between consciousness (or spirit, or soul) and the body, or else often experience a struggle between the two—an internal sensation of violence. When we are forcefully separated from someone or some entity for which we desire intimate contact, whether that be through death, physical distance, or broken faith, we feel the pain of futility—that we cannot astrally project, that some severances are eternal. “Elegy Surrounded by Water” arose from a longing to connect across the void left, and to resurrect an absence. In regards to your question, perhaps this particular poem culminates in the realization that each time we try to extricate the mind from the body in the grieving process (to commune with the lost across space and time, to send a piece of ourselves to them), we cause damage to ourselves. This is the not-unfamiliar notion that grief, despite its inevitability, is a brand of self-inflicted psychophysiological violence. Profound loss consumes us, piece by piece, until we are ruins.

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