L. A. Johnson

“Let yourself be led by joy and heat.”

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Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2017)

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

An obsession with California, where I’m from and never want to leave again. All of the landscapes in my chapbook are of California, mostly of northern California. Sometimes the landscape isn’t directly stated, but it’s always secretly California. Despite being a “lifer,” I never really knew southern California landscapes well until I moved down here for school, so some of those come up in the newer poems in the chapbook. Also, an obsession with twins, mirrors, and everything that happens after midnight.

What’s your chapbook about?

Only after writing the poems of the chapbook did I realize that the poems are all about the human desire for mirroring: of the self and the lover, of the self and the landscape; even the mirroring of one’s expectation of oneself vs. who the self can sometimes be. I think there’s a deep rooted desire in most people to see themselves twinned in the world, in whatever ways matter but perhaps particularly in intimate relationships, and I think the poems investigate the times/places where there isn’t reflection but fracture. The poems get pretty stuck on this idea of failed mirroring and the speakers try to grapple with this impossibility.

Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

Hush

In these green hills, there’s no longer time
for sleeping, for condolence notes.

Like a face, the sky looks back, with longing.

Another life, holding ice
in my mouth. Another life, leaving

my body out to be burned by the sun.

I had a lover once, with the eyes
of a monster, blue as a flood.

I felt the water lapping at my door.

I had a horse once, with the buck and gallop
of a stallion, that I lead carefully

to graze on the cliffs above the Pacific.

*

Twilight arrives and I tremble—

doubt sleeps among the stars,
tucked neatly into rows of twin beds.

This evening could go on forever,
like the plastic cord of a telephone

I used to wind around my wrist,

as I listened to your voice,
a miracle echoing out of the dark.

Tonight, I am witness to misshapen things,
the coast live oak growing coiled in our yard.

When the night decides, I won’t see

them anymore, shielded by ghosts
and shadow. Only then do I want to stay

close to you, like animals in a wet field,
huddling awhile, saying each other’s names.

Why did you choose this poem?

I chose to share this poem because it directly engages the larger theme of the impossibility of twinship, here for the speaker with the lover and also for the speaker with the landscape. The poem is also about desire, and is just a little bit sexy. I often like to open readings from the chapbook with this poem, even though “Hush” comes at the exact middle of the chapbook. Also, I’m drawn to this poem because it enacts this failed twinship formally, with the two sections of this poem seemingly similar, but not at all alike. The two sections of this poem are, to me, inextricably linked but also needfully separate.

How do you decorate your writing space?

I don’t have a dedicated writing place, but I will instead tell you a little bit about my bedroom, where I write most of my poems. I like to write reclined because I have chronic spinal problems that make sitting irritatingly painful and distracting. My bedroom has a large window that overlooks a small powerplant that overlooks the 5 Freeway that then, at quite a bleary distance, overlooks the mountains. I live in Los Angeles now and I love this view. I like to write at night and there are always a surprising amount of cars on the freeway, even very late. Aside from the window, across from my bed there’s a drawing of a flowered cactus that that I find very soothing.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

Hard to know exactly, but I’m pretty sure it’s the poem “Silvering.” I wrote this poem when I was at maybe the height of my obsession with silver, both its practicalities as an element and its less-practical beauty as a precious metal. I was reading a lot, too, about the mythologies and symbolism that surround silver as an object. In researching silver, I read all about how to make mirrors, though I’ve never actually made one. The word, silvering, is actually a verb that means to coat a surface with a reflective material.

There’s something about this poem that is still mysterious to me. Since writing this poem, I’ve gone on to write two more “Silvering” poems, each with the same title, although very different in content. I guess they’re triplets, but I think there’s something there I’m not done with yet.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I don’t remember where the title, Little Climates, came from—it has no particular reference within a poem in the book. I know I was playing around, making up titles; when I first put the book together, I did it for fun—a way for me to experiment and play with my poems—and that was a title I liked. Even after revisions, however, the title stuck, as it speaks to the personal and geological microclimates these poems address.

The arrangement was a far trickier business. When my editor, Ross White, originally accepted the manuscript, the chapbook was in two sections, but later when I added some poems, I felt we had to change the order around. This was actually one of the most fun experiences of working with Ross: at one point I came to two strong possibilities of order and let Ross guide the final choice. I’m quite pleased with the arrangement, particularly how closely placed together the twin-poems, both named “Shapeshift,” are. Their strange sisterhood filters and refracts the rest of the book. Having the pair placed so close together towards the opening is a bit uneasy, in the best sense.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back-story to you? What’s the back story?

The opening poem, “Epistemology,” has the most meaningful back-story to me, although the back-story lives alongside from the poem. I wrote this poem after having a long conversation with my friend the poet Eduardo Martinez-Leyva—we used to stay up all night talking, walking the streets in New York—and the subject that resulted in this poem, a subject Eddie and I frequently discussed, was the notions of other lives. In the simplest idea, it meant discussing other lives we could have been living or other lives we might have chosen in the past. This is one of my favorite things to discuss. More elaborately, this conversation was endlessly fascinating as our friendship formed during our shared MFA and was intense in the way that only new adult-friendships can be—because we’d both lived entirely separate lives for many years, we had so much history, so much self, to cover. But our friendship was also a harbinger of a new life & our friendship changed my life. There really is nothing like talking to someone so entrenched in your life, who’s had a whole world of experiences before you knew them, about different choices you both could have made, which may or may not have prevented you from meeting at all. These sorts of conversations are extremely meaningful to me, but also are meaningful to my writing.

I came home from being out walking and talking with Eddie, probably at 4 am or some other ridiculous time, and wrote this poem and watched the sky lighten. This poem is about some of the ideas of different lives we discussed. The ‘thou’ of the poem is not Eddie, but Eddie revived the mind that wrote this poem.

Epistemology

I never had quiet times in the kitchen
making an icebox cake.
I never inspected the back of the box,
folded wafers up with cream.

In the morning, you fix whatever
needs fixing. You make eggs
with toast. And in the afternoon, I walk
out far past the end of the acre.

Only then do the strays come
to the porch, looking for a dish of milk,
a can of fish left open. No arguing
or crying can be heard nearby.

In the evening, the walls confine
the regular angers. We listen
to the kettle sing on the stove
that nobody bothers to stop.

In the freezer, always, only the notion
of an icebox cake—its layers
softening to be like the real thing.
The icing, milk and smooth.

Stranger, if only things had been
a little different, I could be
old-fashioned in my happiness,
blushing and easy to love.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

The last poem in the book was the final poem I wrote for the chapbook. When the chap was originally accepted, it had a different poem at the end that I wanted gone for a variety of reasons. The now final poem, “Continuum,” came from the group of new poems I presented to my editor to include in the book and it was one that I almost didn’t send to him, as the poem embarrasses me a little. After some back and forth about the order, we realized this was the closing poem. Perhaps that’s why it’s embarrassing: it’s filled with all the heat of the whole book.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it? 

Try putting the words in the wrong order. I naturally have a problem putting words in the right order in the first place (even in this sentence, I’m unsure if the first clause is “right”), so this is a revision strategy that is borne out of necessity. So what I mean is, take a sentence you’ve already got and mix it all up. In English, we have unspoken rules about what sorts of words come before or after. Adjectives, for example, typically precede a noun. But what does the poem look like if the adjective is now in the place of the noun? What happens when what you’re talking about isn’t Noun, but actually Adjective? Once you’ve got a hang of simple switches, try reversing the order of whole clauses. Maybe then the sentence can crack open and you find you’ve actually been writing about something else all along. Maybe abandoning rules can allow an average sentence to become something unique.

What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

My experience working with Ross White and the whole Bull City team has been amazing. I’m worried I’m going to be too spoiled going forward, frankly. I actually love working collaboratively and bouncing ideas off other people, so perhaps more than normal I asked Ross for his feedback on everything from titles to arrangement. I admire his work as a poet and his work as an editor, so this seemed very natural to me. But Ross was never heavy-handed and always tried to lead me to my own decision. I think this was a dream editorial experience!

My friend from Vermont Studio Center, the artist Boyang Hou, made the painting featured on the cover and Ross did the gorgeous design. I feel very lucky. My favorite thing Ross came up with was to reflect the painting on the back cover—nobody ever really realizes that the front and back are mirror images, but it is this type of attention to detail BCP always brings to the table. We did a lot of collaboration on the look of the chapbook, but Ross was always the guide-star.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on finishing my first full-length collection of poems and also passing my qualifying exams in my PhD program so I can be ABD!

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Let yourself be led by joy and heat. I write poetry because I love writing poetry; I read poetry because I love reading poetry; I support other poets because, at the heart, I love poetry. Don’t overcomplicate things. This can be serious business, but it can also be governed by passion and excitement and fun.

Also, keep a private Boneyard. This is the place where abandoned poems, scraps of writing, napkins of ideas, all go to wait. This allows you to have the freedom to write a lot of trash, but not have it be throw-away; this allows you to ruthlessly cut whatever’s not working in your poems. The Boneyard is not an abandonarium, but a place of preparation. Sometimes things wait there, approximately forever. Sometimes something wicked blooms in a place where no things are supposed to grow.

*

L. A. Johnson is from California. She is the author of the chapbook Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2017). She is currently pursuing her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California, where she is a Provost’s Fellow. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Narrative Magazine, The Southern Review, and other journals. Find her online at www.la-johnson.com.

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