Prose Feature: Tradition of Transcendence: An Interview with Kimberly Johnson by Cate Lycurgus

October 24, 2016

Kimberly Johnson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Uncommon Prayer (Persea Books, 2014).  Her translations include Virgil’s Georgics and the works of Hesiod, and her scholarly study of seventeenth-century poetics appeared in 2014.  With Jay Hopler, she edited Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry.  Recipient of fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, she has work recent or forthcoming in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: I think it’s common to turn to poetry for answers, or open a collection for some sense of illumination, but to me the true test of a lyric is whether it also sings. I’ll never forget first reading some of the lines of your piece “Blanks:”

Glory be: my lucky day, flush and prime
as a fresh dime, as if the world had been spit-shined…

…Who’d blame if I sublimed
each raw thing into a revelation—
the big-rig flipping its rockchip stigmata,
the naugahyde peeling an unction
from my thigh.

Can you speak first about your lexicon—from where does your treasure trove of words emerge, and how do you begin to so expertly blend rhythms of argument and play?

Kimberly Johnson: I’ve always been a little bit of a word nerd, fascinated from an early age with the capacity of the English language to express the slightest gradations of experience and the nuances of objects. I remember being dazzled as a kid that there were different words for different kinds and textures and colors of rocks—that one could talk specifically about scree as opposed to shale as opposed to shist as opposed to silt. I learned those fine distinctions from my parents early on, and the fascination led me to immerse myself in language as if it were a collectible commodity. In high school I started studying ancient languages so that I could start to tinker around under the hood of English, to see where its gears were and how it moved. And then I ended up pursuing an academic field—Renaissance literature—in which language was both rich and various and in flux. There are so many words that meant one thing in the Medieval era and mean something different now, but in the Renaissance, in this period of transition, such words often carried both meanings simultaneously. So the Renaissance is kind of…not a cradle, but the nursery in which our vast, supple language flourished.

One effect of attending obsessively to words as words is that one becomes aware of them as objects—they have contours and cadences, edges and heft, and they each have this long usage history. They become things as such, and not just transparencies that point to some meaning that lies elsewhere. I think that makes words into these things that can be sensed, that assert themselves as aural entities, textural entities, and writing poetry becomes something like cooking or arranging music: finding harmonies between the materials, sensing resonances and affinities. I think that for me verbal play has been one consequence of experiencing words as objects. Of course words are signs and their referentiality opens up into arguments, into meanings. But to see them also as things encourages play.

CL: The idea of rich paradox inherent in words themselves has always made me excited about English (or language more broadly) as well—I too think of words as a commodity, as an antique collection of plumbless depths that I am in the process of acquiring. Maybe the best reason for an iPhone, in my opinion, is the various dictionary and language apps. In your second collection, A Metaphorical God, the piece “On Divination,” which includes the collection title, begins:

Why does the haruspex eye the entrails? Why
mutters the dog pacing the porch, the red sun
eclipsed to a filament in the sky’s belly?

The Ouija board jolts and will not spell.
Perseids, Leonids. Red skies at morning
Two-headed calf. Blood in the well.

Even the tea leaves look bad. They slosh
at me balefully, stick against the cup
a flat khaki message in capital letters…

Many have called you a modern-day Donne, operating in the metaphysical tradition. To me your poems operate in the hyperphysical, as well; if the tenor is the divine or our relationship to it, you drive the world as vehicle so well. Can you talk some about the ways you see your work as flush with or also upending metaphysical tradition?

KJ: I love your designation of these poems as “hyperphysical.” I’m not sure I would be willing ever to separate out what we call the “metaphysical” from the “hyperphysical.” And I think that, in this regard at least, there are continuities between my own work and Donne’s. Donne’s method is to engage the material world in all its glorious and refractory particulars because, for him, the material world is not extricable from the numinous. He insists, for example, on a method of reading metaphor that refuses to separate out the tenor from the vehicle, asserts instead that “a figurative sense is the literall sense” (from his Easter 1624 sermon). That’s a provocative theological proposition: that this phenomenal world isn’t something to be transcended but something to be attended to for its own sake. It’s also a radical rhetorical assertion: that a reader shouldn’t imagine that meaning exists in some rarified elsewhere, glimpsed through an interpretive glass darkly, but rather should attend lovingly to the word itself. I feel the truth of both propositions pretty deeply, which probably explains why my work seems flush with Donne and his fellows. In fact, “On Divination” plays with this very distinction in its litany of failed omens, questioning the notion that what’s here correlates imprecisely with some True Meaning somewhere else.

CL: And a proposition that, if taken seriously, would require us to attend to the world with a different sort of mindfulness, a different sort of intimacy. This desire to suffuse oneself with world propels many of your poems, and, in Uncommon Prayer, emerges through a new type of holy irreverence, as well. I love this especially in some of the persona poems in the middle of the collection (the wrecking ball, the corpse-flower, my favorite bug-zapper, etc.). How did these pieces emerge?

KJ: I remember one night I was out for a run—I usually write when I’m running—and I passed a house with a bug-zapper that was just swarmed with bugs. It was cracking and popping and buzzing and flashing, and I was struck by that image of it fulfilling, I suppose, its purpose in life. I remember musing, “I wonder what a bug-zapper would pray for?” And then it was off to the races. I started writing this series of what ended up being twelve poems, each of them trying to inhabit some perspective alien to mine, mostly non-human: an orange tree, a metronome, and the ones you mention. I was trying, I think, to get inside the idea of desire, of what longing is, and for some reason I felt that inanimate objects were a good set of instruments to use to think about that idea. That move allowed me, a little, to separate myself from the question. I know what I desire, what I long for, but I was more interested in thinking about the urgency of longing toward something absent. And since the preeminent term for absence in western culture is God, these strange attempts to inhabit other kinds of desire took the form of prayers.

CL: To get inside desire seems a different thing than to fulfill it, which is the goal of most ways we spend our time, or money, or energies. I know for me, a poem is a place I want to sit a spell, to unknot and savor, not unlike a labyrinth, or a long-rambling run. The being in it is better than the terminus—is the point, in fact. Yet questions of how we enter and how we emerge inevitably surface. So I guess my question is twofold—how are the structures of devotion—prayers, liturgical seasons, etc.—uniquely suited to house this wild urgency of longing, and at the feet of what audience do they rest?

KJ: I think that your question has suggested the aptness of lyric poetry to these matters. Lyric is, in many senses, a kind of suspense: it doesn’t propel us toward a narrative climax and it doesn’t cling to chronological progression but rather holds the moment of apprehension in a kind of fermata. So your sense that reading or writing lyric is sitting a spell with attention maps pretty neatly onto the idea of occupying desire without forcing one’s urgency toward fulfillment. It’s a matter of inhabiting rather than an anxious or even mercenary scrabbling toward the moment when you don’t need to desire, or pray, or attend, any longer. This is one reason, I think, that the histories of lyric poetry and devotional practice are so entwined—the earliest lyrics were ritual utterances, and the tradition of lyric poetry has lent itself vigorously to devotional utterances. And I think you’ve identified precisely why these different modes of engaging with stuff outside the self (whether that object of desire is earthly or divine) should overlap: there’s a profound sympathy between the suspense of the utterance of lyric and the suspense of prayer; both acts of speech whose auditor is absence or deferred must stand as self-sufficient artifacts, suspended in their own being.

CL: So much of the way you speak about poetry suggests music—fermata, the auditor, etc. Is music required for a lyric? Does music influence your poetry, and from where does your distinct music emerge?

KJ: Music informs my everything, I’d say. The minute they invent the mp3 jack for my cerebral cortex, I’m having one installed. I’ve always thought of myself as a failed musician; if I could only make my fingers do the things I can hear, I’d be able to flourish into my true rockstardom. But I can’t, and I’m stuck with words as a kind of compensation for my lack of digital dexterity. I think of words very much as musical units, each one having its own shape and timbre and pitch and resonance. I try really hard to write with my ears fully engaged, and when I write lines of poetry I make a pretty conscious effort to shape the sound of a line with the tones and cadences of its words in mind.

As to the question of whether music is required for a lyric, I suppose that I’d tweak the wording a little bit to say that an awareness of structure of some kind is required for a lyric. Poetry seems to me to be built out of recurrent structures—of sound, of sense, of grammar and syntax, and in that way it displays an awareness of the nonsemantic features of language—which might easily be called music. That would include all the features of poetry that are involved in communication without being directly representational, all the stuff we learn in third grade to identify as poetic: rhyme, meter, spatial organization, line, etc.

CL: A poet-gardener mentor of mine, Ross Gay, first introduced me to your work via Virgil’s Georgics, describing them as translations that “make a bang in your ear and jangle your teeth with all the whacking and clanging of sickles clipping wheat and plows breaking up the rocky earth, with a syntax to match vines winding and writhing into the topmost branches of the trees.” After reading them I learned you worked line-by-line, a rather unconventional strategy for Latin-to-English conversions. In shaping the sounds of the translated lines do you have particular considerations to make?

KJ: Thank you so much for mentioning the Georgics. It’s a poem I love very much, and it often slips under the radar of contemporary readers. It’s a poem that revels in the visceral, that wants every sense to be alert and attuned, and it deserves hungry readers like Ross Gay.

I do work line-by-line when I translate. As a translator, I try very hard to replicate as closely as I can my experience of reading the poetry in its original language. And as I said, poetry is for me so much more than the semantic sense of the sentence. Part of the difficulty of bringing especially poetry from one language to another is that so many of the poetic effects of the work, of the line, get occluded by necessary but sometimes slavish attention to content. I don’t want the poetic effects to get lost in translation. If there’s a pun in the original, I want to try to find a cognate pun in English. If there’s alliteration, or a rhyme, or a syntactic surprise, or a breathless pause in the middle of a line, I want to try to render some taste of it in English. I try to be aware of how lines organize their structural repetitions. It’s related to what I was saying about how vital the nonsemantic features of a poem are to our experience of it as a poem. A translation will never manage to achieve all the things a poem does in its native language, because the target language will inevitably operate differently, use different grammatical and syntactic structures, different sound families, be grounded in a different referential matrix, and so forth. But I want to hear as much of that ancient music as I can through the translated lines, approaching, in the absence of true equivalence, something like an honorable analogue.

CL: Poems that revel in the visceral world but also feel good in the mouth, sonically, make the most impression on me. They hit where it hurts, at that intersection of body and world—which seems an innate and also ancient opening for music. I’m so glad to have found the poem, but sometimes I’m frightened by all that slips under the radar of contemporary readers, myself included. How do you choose what to read? And how does scholarly work influence your own poetry?

KJ: It’s true that so much of what gets read in our undergrad and graduate creative writing classrooms these days skews toward the contemporary. On one hand, that’s appropriate; this is the milieu in which rising writers are developing their voices. But the range of possible techniques is more limited in any given period than it is in the long sweep of literary history, and so readers who don’t read back in the tradition—in any tradition, Anglophone or otherwise—prevent themselves from learning all the things that might be possible in a poem. The consequence of such limited reading is a very tonally or technically narrow palette.

I’m fortunate indeed that my scholarly work forces me to take some less beaten paths in my reading. The work I do involves the appropriation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of much older texts and ideas, so I have to spend a lot of time not only in all the weird cul-de-sacs of the Renaissance but also in all those various and sometimes erratic notes of textual generation that preceded the period of my primary specialization. I think my poetry benefits from having to brush up against radically different and ostentatiously weird, foreign, idiosyncratic ways of communication, especially in those distant eras long before language became standardized in any way. It’s not just a matter of stealing vocabulary, though I certainly do that, but also learning to inhabit syntaxes and cadences that sound unfamiliar in our modern idiom. The effect of all these cross-historical encounters is to defamiliarize language itself, to make its contours and dynamics more opaque. By extension, all language becomes more marmoreal, more malleable.

In my reading of contemporary work I have more freedom to choose, really, because my reading in earlier period can be constrained a bit by the arguments my projects are making (though of course I love to fall serendipitously into unexpected texts when I’m in the middle of research). And when I get to choose, I suppose it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I gravitate toward works that seems to perform a wider range of technique and tone and language, that incorporates more of the expressive capacities of language. I tend to like work that seems conscious—technically if not in its content—that it’s participating in a very long aesthetic conversation, like the poems of Josh Bell, Jill McDonough, Cecily Parks, D.A. Powell, Douglas Kearney, and Paisley Rekdal, among others. And I love seeing younger poets coming out of graduate programs with manifest fluency not in what we might primly call The Tradition but in the range of poetic possibility—Meg Day, Christopher Kempf, Natalie Diaz, to name just a few.

CL: Your most recent book ends in a third section, “Siege Psalter,” which consists of 26 prose poems that follow the NATO phonetic alphabet. This section does, like you say, expand the range of poetic possibility through upturning the concept of a psalm. Throughout the poems you utilize familiar phrases, idioms, forms, religious texts, etc. but make them static and echo anew. I quote from “Sierra,” one of my favorites, here:

When I sang Ain’t no mountain high ‘nough/ Ain’t no valley low
‘nough, I didn’t know you’d take me at my word. I didn’t know
I’d find myself bivouacked on barren ground, a thousand
miles behind me trudged, a thousand more to hike, the water
scarce, the chiggers fierce, and everything ashimmer with
illusions. I’m marching for that patch of green asplash at the
horizon, where I’m certain you await me with soft linens and
peeled grapes. The ridgeline juts above it like a saw, the kind
that cuts a woman in half.

Do you have thoughts on the way poems surprise or instruct us by seeming familiar, but upturning or upsetting us in some way? Do you surprise yourself when you write? Do poems make things new, or our knowledge of them new?

KJ: I love the way your last question gets at the relationship between perception and art. I think of them as so entwined as to be essential to one another. In other words, I think art arises out of perception carefully attended to until it reveals something that wasn’t previously apparent, and then, in turn, the aesthetic object as informing the way we perceive the world. I’m thinking, for example, of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sandpiper” poem, the one that describes the little bird frenetically running along the seashore, back and forth, the roar of the water on one side and the sand between its feet. That poem enacts so beautifully the way that perception informs art and then art informs perception, as the bird concentrates first on the “dragging grains” of sand as opposed to the misty world, and then, with greater, intensity, scrutinizes those grains into a new perception:

The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

The grains reveal themselves in the details of perception: the various colors, then the coruscation, then the transformative breaking into the heavily symbolic “rose and amethyst,” which transports us to a kind of redemption, inscribes the bird in this long tradition of transcendence. And now when I’m on a beach, I see the grains of sand not as a generalized field of matter but as Bishop instructed me to see them: particular, changed, even charged.

I think that my favorite poetry works this way: it invites me to see things differently by overturning my expectations. As a writer, I hope for those moments when the language or the attention that the poem requires of me results in this kind of transformation. Sometimes it’s a transformation of perception, or of understanding, or of my sense of how a word interacts with or challenges the thing it’s supposed to represent. I live in eagerness to be surprised.

CL: As do I. And when I’m not, the failure might well be mine, for not looking closely. I hunger for that transformation continually, and so much wish there were a way that everyone could experience such overturnings. Given someone who has no previous experience of poetry, or maybe an experience that reinforces rather than challenges preconceptions, what piece would you share with him or her?

KJ: Oh, my—so many great poems in the world. But if I had to pick just one, I’d probably point that person toward Gerard Manley Hopkins, if only because he challenges and overturns and delights syllable by syllable. Maybe “The Windhover”? That poem has all the hallmarks of Hopkins’s magnificent quirkiness but it remains diagrammable, comprehensible. And it describes what it enacts, yes?: that is, it is in part about being changed by what one sees. And then it asserts to our perception these radical changes of sense and sentence, of word and world. That poem exemplifies what I love so much in poetry: it undoes me into disorientation and beauty, defamiliarizes the world, and then gives the world and me back to one another transformed. That capacity of a poem to work real change in the world is, it seems to me, what makes it consequential, urgent, and humane.

CL: What are you working on now? New poems? Or translations, or critical work, or all of the above?

KJ: All of the above!—but I am embarrassed to admit how slow a writer I am. I have a few poems trickling out, and I try to remind myself that even if I’m not putting words on paper writing is happening. I have a translation of Hesiod’s poems coming out shortly from Northwestern University Press, and my spouse Jay Hopler and I are going to begin work on some old Italian sonnets. And I’m working on a scholarly study on lyric materiality. Always something cooking, but in the style of a slow cooker!

CL: And worth the wait. Thank you so much, Kimberly!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit

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