Sara Eliza Johnson’s first book, Bone Map (2014), was selected for the 2013 National Poetry Series. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Boston Review, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Meridian, the Best New Poets series, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, two Winter Fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and an Academy of American Poets Prize from the University of Utah, where she is currently a Ph.D. student in the Literature & Creative Writing program.

Emilia Phillips, 32 Poems Interviews Editor: “The horse lives in my eye without drowning,” you write in “View From the Fence, On Which I Sit and Dangle My Legs.” After reading the poem, I have had to go back to that line several times and reckon with it. For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how our visual experience with the world is entirely made up of reflected light, something that is concrete through our translation of its experience but is intangible in that it can’t be held in our hands. In some ways, it makes sense that the horse—or rather the image of the horse—does live in the eye, and the line in a way seems to suggest that we have some sort of perceptive agency over the world. In a time when objectivity is valued in journalism, how does subjectivity compel poetry?

Sara Eliza Johnson: I tend to see the human being as a complex system of intersections, as fluid, so I don’t quite believe in objectivity, but I don’t quite believe in humanistic ideals of subjectivity or consciousness or soul, either. I’m not sure we have any perceptive agency over the world, only that we often think we do, or else wish we did. Writing a poem—playing the “agent” of perception for yourself and others—feels in some sense both an enactment of that wish fulfillment and a reflection of its futility, much as the world we see is “made up of reflected light.” We have no power over the world, or even over language, which so often gets away from us (in ways that sometimes hurt others, for example), but we can manipulate that material to create worlds that seem to live and breathe on their own, conjure alternate futures and histories, new dreams and nightmares; or we can take language apart until it no longer conveys the visible world in any coherent sense. Perhaps poems are “places” (I say that loosely) through which we can explore new physics, new psychophysiologies, new ways of being, and in my own work I like to trouble and complicate vision, to reveal perception as unstable by warping the familiar logic of sight: treating vision as synesthetic, shifting or mixing metaphors, letting association generate intricacies and impossibilities.

I think part of the pleasure of writing for me comes from the psychological push and pull between my desires for agency and escapism. There is pleasure in creating a universe of language that loses you, even erases you, and in which you somehow find yourself oddly and newly alive. The world of Bone Map is an amalgamation of early medieval and folkloric literary spaces. On an intellectual level, I found those spaces compelling lenses through which to view our contemporary condition(s), but I am also intuitively and inexplicably drawn to those spaces, and I wrote poems I wanted to live inside. I constructed the poems not as an engineer or architect would, but as if I were the catalyst for their momentum.

When I was growing up, we used make snowballs at the top of the hill and roll them down, and kept doing so until they were massive. The beginning of the (good) poem for me feels like the first few rolls in the snow to accumulate some weight before letting it go. My (best) poems get away from me, and my own sense of “agency” or power over them and thus in some sense my own vision or perception.

“View from the Fence” is the oldest poem in the book. I wrote it during the second year of my MFA and I remember writing it (where I was, the time of day, that it was raining) because writing it felt like a breakthrough for me, in that it was a poem that got away from me, that I wrote in a kind of partial-fugue state. The early version started with “O,” that familiar lyric incantation — “O, the horses” — which was like the first roll of the snowball, when it is small and frail and somewhat unsure of itself. After the first few lines, the poem seemed to take over, and “I” felt suddenly inside it. I was the poem, and then I wasn’t, yet the poem consumed me as I wrote, and thus in some way I consumed it. So I suppose part of my practice of writing is relinquishing my agency, or else embracing my lack of agency, and letting the text write itself, letting it extract itself from my mind and then rewrite itself back into it. The writing of poetry for me is also an exercise in fluidity, in eroding boundaries between your “self” and the text, your world and the one you are in the process of creating (or destroying), your mind and no mind.

EP: Even if the poems erode the boundaries of self, are there ever poems you return to and think, “I couldn’t possibly have written this!” And is this healthy? Can they still be good poems if you feel distance from them?

SEJ: There are certainly poems in which I frighten myself—that I return to and think that maybe my imagination slipped away from me and took on a life of its own, and that induce that feeling of surprise—which I consider to be an achievement of sorts. The poem in Bone Map that most frightened me to write was probably “Parable of the Flood,” which ends with the speaker kneeling down to be dismembered and repurposed into a boat before the storm—with the reveal that the head would be taken first, as well as the implication of sexual violence. Another that frightens me is actually “Beekeeping,” which draws out a subtler horror (the image that “scythes” through the eye, for example), and one that prefigures the bees that enter the speaker’s ears to “begin their work” inside the body in “Archipelago: Tabula Rasa” (confession: I have a slight phobia of stinging insects and will yelp and flee if one approaches me, so it was especially strange—or maybe not strange at all!—that I allowed myself to get so close to bees, imaginatively speaking).

But I wouldn’t say, exactly, that I feel distance from those poems or others. When I read many of my poems again, they do feel “mine,” especially those in Bone Map, some of which are consciously elegiac, or else emerged from a very personal place. Yet the “I” in the poems does not feel like “me,” but some other entity that has emerged from my subconsciousness, something not quite human but not quite inhuman. The “I” in some ways feels the vessel through which the visual and visceral world funnels itself and thus in in some ways created by its “perception.” Much as that “I” has both human and inhuman qualities, it straddles contemporary and ancient or primal spaces; it’s liminal. Thus, the entity of the “I” is a No Man’s Land, a wilderness in itself, that, in some ways, I have come to see to represent the loneliest and darkest parts of my imagination. So the “I” is not exactly distanced from me, but it is nonetheless an aspect of my person, like the sawed-off (and opened, halved) limb in the poem “Purgatory.”

During my MFA, I read a statement by Lucie Brock-Broido—called “Myself Another Kangaroo Among the Beauties”—in which she features a Dickinson quotation that approaches my feelings on my particular “I”: When I state myself, as Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person. Brock-Broido says she considers herself “the Supposed Person.” I suppose I might amend that to say that I consider my own “I” to be a non-person, amorphousness, assuming the role of a person: a fabular human, or maybe a “person” you meet in a dream.

Whether poems can be “good” if you feel distance from them, I think so! And sometimes I think poems too close to us (to our experience, and/or our sense of identity) can read as navel-gazing or myopic in scope. And, anyway, distance isn’t fixed: some days I feel distance from the work in Bone Map, and some days I feel close to it. It’s somewhat tidal.

EP: I’m glad you mentioned the transformation in “Parable of the Flood” because I wanted to ask you about metamorphosis in your poems. Do you see poems as the perfect lens through which to look at a moment of great—if not cataclysmic—change?

SEJ: I’m so glad that you phrased it that way: “cataclysmic” change. That’s the perfect way to characterize it. I see the poem as a site of metamorphosis, yes, but violently so (in the Ovidian sense): transformation as cataclysm, even apocalypse—as evidence of perpetual and pervasive volatility. It is transformation as the end of a moment, of a state of being, of a world, underlining the instability (and combustibility) of mind and memory and body. I think my poems are invested in the old sublimity, in that sense—that simultaneous experience of pleasure and terror in the face of magnificent force, which alters the mechanisms of the brain, the way we process the world forever after our encounter with it. My own favorite poems (other kinds of art, too) are, as Annie Dillard wrote of the total eclipse she witnessed, like “wave[s] of shadow [that] move 1,800 miles an hour.” I try to treat the poem as a space in which such a sublime miracle could occur. And when we write in lines rather than in paragraphs, it is as if each moment contained within the line becomes epigraph to itself, and the linebreak a force of amputation, a tear in the fabric of the unique reality you are creating. I think poetry is the ideal literary mode to generate a sublime moment because that gap (sometimes void) between one line (or linguistic moment) and another presents the best opportunity to startle us with that instance of cataclysmic change, like the dip in the ocean before an enormous wave rises in front of us.

EP: Damn, Sara, what an evocative metaphorical rendering of poetry’s metamorphic capabilities! I’m especially interested in this idea that a line break is a “force of amputation,” as this image and, indeed, the discussion of the cataclysmic sublime reminds me of a book I’m reading: Joyelle McSweeney’s The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, and Occults (University of Michigan Press, 2015). In “Strange Meetings in the Necropastoral,” McSweeney discusses Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting,” a gory excursion to the battlefield, and says:

Death and Art and the Poet and War and the Corpse and the Landscape wriggle into one another via the properties of the lyric, its digestionlike enjambment; they go on shitting, eating, decapitating each other like so many worms. The poem hosts a strange meeting in the necropastoral, never reaching an end to its necrotic conversions; its amputations; its eructations; its excrementations. . . . thus temporal qualities, “before,” “after,” “during,” and even “event” itself, are also spasmed and distended. So, two questions here. Do you see poetry as kind of composition or decomposition of its subject matter—or, both? With your focus on the cataclysmic sublime, do you believe that your poems play into the (necro-) pastoral tradition?

SEJ: Oh, I’m so happy you brought up the Necropastoral, which is one of my favorite things to think about these days—as one way of thinking about the poem(s) of our particular apocalyptic moment, but also as a way of thinking through my own considerations of the human condition as (always and ever) contagion, virus, violence. Some of the work I’m doing right now is invested in the idea of the human species as a force of violence both upon the earth and itself en masse, as if we are a waking nightmare the planet is having about itself. The inverse of this violence is the Romero-esque zombie most recently adapted for The Walking Dead: the walking human virus that consumes the rest of humanity while simultaneously slowly decomposing into the earth: the human violence finally turning exclusively on itself, allowing the rest of the planet’s living things to evolve beyond us in a vast Exclusion Zone.

I suppose I do generally see the poem as a process of composition and decomposition of language, in the sense that a poem is always “dead” on the page—static, corpse-stiff in its unmovable print—but the dynamic poem, the living poem, the poem wherein words grow from and through each other, still manages to move in all that white silence, to “revive” itself visually, sonically, imagistically (etc.). That, too, is a zombification of sorts: the poem as the living dead.

And yes, I do think my poems work somewhere within the realm of necropastoral imagining(s). I think they have for a long time, in some ways, though I now I think I may write more (self-) consciously toward it, in part because I am so, so enamored by so many of its potential manifestations: the Death-infected poem, the parasitic poem, the poem as permeable, the poem as Exclusion Zone, the “purely” idyllic or pastoral space as an impossibility even for the imagination. And how the Anthropocenic atmosphere, oozing contamination, infects the poem’s material down to the very roots of its language (as it infects our bodies, our organs, right down to the nucleus of the cell). Probably the most “literal” iterations of the Necropastoral in Bone Map are “Deer Rub,” the ending of the poem “Let Us Consider Where We Might Have a Home,” and “Purgatory.”

I recently acquired McSweeney’s new book, too, and I haven’t yet read that first chapter from which you quoted, but I did read “Eye Wound Media” immediately because I am very interested in the relationship between linguistic violence and cinematic violence, and if a poem can ever approximate the moment the eye is sliced open in Un Chien Andalou. I even wrote a tiny homage to Buñuel’s eye in “Beekeeping” (“scythe through the shadows through my eye”)—as for many others, that moment was a visual revelation for me. McSweeney so insightfully writes of it,

Here the cut eye works two ways: the woman’s sliced-open eye collapses, spilling fluid, which fluid is the matter to follow, the stuff of the film. And the watcher’s eye is of course initiated at that moment, vitiated, cut open. The wound of initiation (hymen). The viewer’s vision is changed.

I love this passage because it suggests that a moment of cataclysmic change—both within the poem and within its audience—can be initiated by a rather minute gesture, like a flick of a knife.

EP: If a minute gesture in a poem can initiate a cataclysmic change within the world of the poem, can a poem, a relatively minute gesture in our greater lives, initiate cataclysmic change in the mind and life of a reader? I, at least, hope so.

SEJ: Oh yes, definitely. I think even a small moment (a line, a phrase, an image) in a poem can initiate that kind of metamorphosis. And I think that’s probably true of any art form that asks the audience to engage with the process of its construction, or to invest their own imaginations into the work, to participate in its creation as they explore it and their unique relationship with it. When I think of a “cataclysmic” moment of reading like this for me, I see myself at seventeen, reading Lorde’s poem “Coal” on my bedroom floor. I had decided to buy the book after flipping through it at the local Barnes & Noble one night (the only bookstore we had around that stayed open after 5 p.m.). At that time, I was working through some family-related trauma and very lonely in it; it was a pain I could not quite share with anyone, and that left be feeling isolated and anxious. There was so much I didn’t know about contemporary poetry, but that was the poem (and the book, really) I had been waiting to reveal itself—the poem that found me and showed me what language could do, and which left my brain tingling:

Some words are open

Like a diamond on glass windows

The kind of imaginative movement—a challenging one in its contortion of sense and syntax—that these two lines required my mind to do awoke in me a desire to write beyond the meaning of the words, and beyond narrative, beyond my “literal” experience in the world and language. There was another line in particular that hit me: “There are many kinds of open.” I tried to write a line like that forever, it seemed, because of the inexplicable effect it had had on me at the moment I encountered it. And my love for the line prompted me to seek out more of Lorde’s work and writings, which are, of course, brilliant and gave me more contextual access points for the poem (and in turn highlighted some inevitable and necessary points of inaccessibility for me). I suppose in my experience the key to the cataclysm is the surprise! that pinpricks a hole in your understanding, through which a new understanding begins climb—and grow, if you choose to engage and explore it.

David Tomas Martinez*: Discuss your process for creating an image in a poem. What is your favorite image in all of poetry? All of. Just one.

SEJ: It seems to depend on how I’m working that moment, or on the particular poem I’m writing. I have a difficult time writing “into” a poem through an intellectual idea or conversational cue; an image is typically my entrance into a poem, and the rest of the poem is born from it. To make the first image, the one that starts a poem, I sometimes begin with an evocative group of words and try to feel my way toward a unique confluence. Once the poem starts, I think the process becomes more associative; metaphors are born of metaphors are born of metaphors in an interrelated chain of images (and sometimes that gets too complicated, or over-saturated, and I need to pare back the imagistic layers to find the “real” poem). Images are how I “think” poetically, and sometimes they are exploratory and other times intuitive. Picking a favorite image is obviously very difficult! I wouldn’t say I have a favorite image in all of poetry. What I might say is that I have a favorite inspiring image for each book I’m writing, an image that I will return to again and again as stimulus. The prototypical image for Bone Map is probably Plath’s poppy: “Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth. // A mouth just bloodied.” The prototypical image for Vapor might be Francis Ponge’s sky in “La Mounine” (as translated by Lee Fahnestock): “like the result of an explosion within a sealed chamber of a million blue violet petals.” Such images are anchor images for the work; when I write, I sometimes tap them for fuel.

EP: Now, Sara, provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

SEJ: Pick an animal or plant that you think epitomizes your poetry and/or poetic process. That is, what animal or plant is the best metaphor for your poetics and why?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming March 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:


Hanging a Poem on the Wall

October 19, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Rick Bursky
on “Everybody’s a Picasso” by Rebecca Morgan Frank

I was in a bank in Hollywood, California. Standing in line next to me, a man with a white painted face, red rubber ball on his nose and shoes that extended six inches past the toes and curved up.

“the scalp, the nose. Parts of the body relocated”

Other than that the rest of his clothes were typical—khaki pants and white collarless shirt. In most other cities the police would have been called. I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to write a poem about this on at least three occasions.

“into Picassos. I’ve had my eye transferred
to my chin so I can read the fine print. My foot
moved to my ears so I can hear myself walking”

I wonder if a clown, after reading one of my poems, ever attempted to perform in the smaller ring at a three ring circus while a man poked at a lion with a chair in the largest ring and a chimpanzee juggled in the other. Clowns seems to exercise better sense than poets. And unlike poets, most clowns have little to say. Body language, expressions, and props carry the performance. The narrative is based in image.

“home at night. My lips are now on my forehead”

Before becoming a poet I was a photographer. Though I still thought of myself as a poet of sorts. Instead of writing out my poems I photographed them. Later as a poet I decided I really was still a photographer, just too lazy to go out and take photographs, so instead I would write them out. If I had a camera with me in the bank I would have taken a photograph. But I didn’t. I’ve made many attempts to turn the image of a clown in the bank into a poem; unfortunately, unsuccessfully.

“like a two-headed cat with one of the heads missing.”

Poem are images.

Images are poems.

The great images were the inspiration for moving poetry from religion to art. If you believe the Bible is the word of God, disagreeing is difficult. If you don’t believe, it remains a beautiful poem.

“I have been looking at it ever since. I am waiting.”

People today are keeping more photographs on computers. So now there’s now room on walls to hang framed poems.

Rick Bursky lives in Los Angeles where he works in advertising and teaches poetry at the UCLA Extension Writers’Program, and occasionally copywriting at USC. His most recent book is I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, BOA Editions. His  previous full-length collections are Death Obscura (Sarabande Books 2010), and The Soup of Something Missing (Bear Star Press 2004). He has a BFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and an MFA from Warren Wilson College.


Here Shabbiness, Here Halo

October 12, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Cate Lycurgus on “Midafternoon” by Anna Lena Phillips Bell On most days by midafternoon, no matter which way I slice the light, I find it lacking. Rooms feel stale, or maybe I do; it is a time when whatever I have failed to do looms, everyone is busy with something else, and worst of all—I’m getting […]

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October 5, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Rebecca Morgan Frank on “Completion of the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower” by Corrie Williamson I’ve always loved the term “word-music,” because to me it encompasses what I love most in poetry, the way the music of words can carry us with its tune, linking our bodies to the poem while the words by nature ground their own […]

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Be A Man

September 28, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Benjamin S. Grossberg on “Halloween” by Chad Abushanab “For Halloween this year I’ll be a man.” Why does the poet want to “be a man”? Isn’t he one already? What I love about Abushanab’s “Halloween,” a poem which is half elegy for his father and half criticism of him, is its understated emotional complication. That complication is […]

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