“The poems respond, in part, to social and political extremes and our reactions to them, and apparently my ethics have a bit to say about these pendulum swings we find ourselves in.”
Pendulum (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I grew up in the south side of Seattle, the last of nine kids. Although we were poor and my parents had no formal education (my mom graduated high school, my dad had an eighth grade education), our house was filled with books. I constantly pestered my parents, grandparents, and older siblings to read to me, and when I could read on my own, there was practically always a book in my hand. The public library was my home away from home, and my parents ensured my reading was never censored. I read mostly what were called classics at the time. Plus, my teachers turned me onto fabulous contemporary poetry. Despite our socio-economic status, in literary terms, I was rich.
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?
I guess we all know an author’s values and concerns can’t help but infiltrate and inform the work, and that’s certainly true of most of my poetry and other writing. The exceptions would be fiction or persona poetry, where an author writes from a perspective other than self. For example, I have a short story, as yet unpublished, about a sociopath who abandons her kids. I wanted to see if I could write in the voice of a sociopath, so this story took shape. When writing in persona or from a character’s point of view, that’s a chance to speak from another set of ethics, and yet it’s probably still informed by my own. In my chapbook, Pendulum, the poems respond, in part, to social and political extremes and our reactions to them, and apparently my ethics have a bit to say about these pendulum swings we find ourselves in.
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?
“Packing for Peace” was a finalist in the Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry Prize and published in Tishman Review.
Why did you choose this poem?
In the last decade we’ve seen a huge increase in suicide bombings as well as mass shootings, which often end up being the equivalent of a suicide / mass murder, too. In reading Matt Hohner’s “How to Unpack a Bomb Vest,” I love how he moves the poem away from violence, and I wanted to take that even further. Instead of unpacking the bomb and all that leads up to it, what if we started out by packing for peace. This poem opens the chapbook. To me, it offers hope. An alternative to the narratives of violence that moves us in a less destructive, more beautiful and natural direction.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
What might these chapbooks suggest about your writing?
Both of these chapbooks concern unspeakable loss. In Passings, Holly Hughes writes about birds that are now extinct, and in 21 Boxes, Linda Malnack writes of discovering boxes of letters between her husband and his long-standing lover. Each grapples with the pain of the loss, but also moves us beyond it. And I guess I aspire to a kind of grace in my writing. In the past, my poems were often little opinion pieces, which seems a bit arrogant to me now. Their judgments served as indictments and were more likely to shut down any attempts at discourse. In recent years, my poems have gone a different direction, opening up to possibility. These chapbooks have paired the amazing possibilities of language with the amazing possibilities of life. They are hopeful in a situation of hopelessness, and that seems fitting right now, when we need hope more and more.
What’s your chapbook about?
When we’re in the throes of extreme situations, whether political or personal, it can be hard to remember that the pendulum always comes back to center. The poems in Pendulum ride out some of those wild swings from major societal issues such as authoritarianism, racism, mass shootings, and climate change to more personal matters, such as the shifts in a romantic relationship, loss of loved ones, and the legacy of sexual violence.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Apnea.” A few years ago, my brother Mark died suddenly in his sleep at age 56. The cause of death at first seemed to have been heart failure. He had recently quit smoking and lost a significant amount of weight. Later, we learned his sudden weight loss may have created a situation where the loose flesh in his neck might actually have exacerbated his sleep apnea and suffocated him. The poem is a mosaic of memories related to breath and fire.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Probably “For Immediate Release.” Most of the poems in the collection deal with difficult situations that swing into extremes but always seem to come back to center, even grief that softens somewhat over time. However, “For Immediate Release” addresses climate change, specifically, melting glaciers, which are unlikely to swing back to their frozen state, at least not for millennia, if ever. The implications are catastrophic, but many people don’t seem to listen to the warnings. I thought about advertising spin and how people respond to promotional pieces. What if the consequences of melting glaciers were announced as though the glaciers were a famous music group going on tour?
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?
Ron Mohring at Seven Kitchens Press has been wonderful. His Summer Kitchens Series chapbook covers all feature antique quilt fabric patterns (he’s a quilter). We talked about the aesthetic of the chapbook and he sent me several options to choose from. The one we decided on reminded me of those patterns one would see in old movies from the 1940s and 50s when someone got hypnotized or swept into a different mental plane. With any difficult situation, I believe our pendulum thoughts and attitudes go through a similar, almost crazy-making series of mental shifts as we consider all sides, all options, and eventually come to the core of what matters and what we choose to believe. I liked the playfulness of those spiraling triangles and their implications as we come to center with all our challenges and issues, and it might be a little crazy-making along the way.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Q: Is there a single line that for you represents the writing in this chapbook?
A: (Quickly paws through book scanning poems…) Hmmm. Maybe “tangled in vow and beseech, the unkempt music” from the poem “On the anniversary of the first time we kissed.”
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Other than my two full-length poetry collections, I’ve had one other chapbook published. Sweet Publications selected my essay, “Borderlines,” to become a chapbook by the same name. I was really honored when Editor and Founder Ira Sukrungruang picked it for the journal (Sweet: A Literary Confection) and later to be one of their chapbooks. The massively talented Canadian visual artist, Corinne Duchesne, designed a stunning, beautiful—and disturbing in all the right ways—cover.
What are you working on now?
My memoir, tentatively entitled Learning to Spar, is in the final edits stage, so I’ll be looking for a publisher for that soon (fingers crossed!). A second memoir in interrelated essays is also in the works. Two poetry collections, each on very different topics, are coming together. Plus, I’m co-editing an anthology with Andrew Shattuck McBride about endangered orca whales and their main food source, Chinook salmon (also endangered), and the state of their entire ecosystem. Our hope is to raise awareness and also funds to help save both species. Proceeds will go to the SeaDoc Society.
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
The woods are my respite. The shoreline my reprieve. Language cleanses me. A long, slow swim through the works of poets I love, diving deep where their words buffer sound, the assault of everyday living, the yadda yadda voices of despots and kleptocrats, only the sweet sonar echoes of metaphor and melody, till the saturation is of another sort entirely. Then I can lift my head into bright air. Then I can breathe again.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read widely and ravenously. Break rules. Have fun. Don’t expect to make a worthwhile living for the time you invest writing, but do expect writing to make the living worthwhile.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What non-literary activity most inspires or influences your writing?
Jill McCabe Johnson is the author of Revolutions We’d Hoped We’d Outgrown, shortlisted for the Clara Johnson Award in Women’s Literature, and Diary of the One Swelling Sea, winner of a Nautilus Book Award in Poetry, plus the chapbooks Borderlines and Pendulum, Rane Arroyo Poetry Prize finalist. She is the founding director of Artsmith and teaches for Skagit Valley College in the San Juan Islands.