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FROM INSPIRATION TO PUBLICATION
The first time I read Roxane Beth Johnson's poetry collection, Jubilee, I was left breathless. I couldn't put the book down. I read slowly through each poem, reciting it aloud, delighting in the delicious sound of the captivating world she had created.
That was a year ago, about the time Johnson's collection won the 2005 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, an annual national contest put together by the Master of Fine Arts program at Fresno State. I've now read Jubilee several times, and like all good works of contemporary American poetry, I've been surprised by something new each time I've come back to it.
The Levine Prize, named after the famed Fresno poet, has created lots of opportunities for Johnson, a writer and editor based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in the journals Chelsea, Zyzzyva, American Poet, Parthenon West, and elsewhere. She has won an AWP Intro Award in Poetry, and was a finalist for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.
Levine himself called her poetry collection, "so perfect it is almost invisible -- altogether, an amazing debut." I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Johnson by e-mail, in advance of her debut reading in Fresno.
To start, what's the brief timeline of your career as a writer? How did you start writing poetry?
I started writing when I was 4 years old in a kindergarten class. Since then, I've always worked on something -- mostly little "novels" with bad drawings that brought me a great deal of pleasure, and convinced my mother I was a genius.
I started seriously writing poetry when I was a sophomore in college, inspired by Sylvia Plath (of course). I took a class with the poet Samuel Maio (The Burning of LA) at San Jose State. He seemed to think I had some talent and that spurred me on. That was almost 20 years ago.
What writers and artists have influenced your poetry and your life?
Rilke, Wallace Stevens, W.S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, ee cummings, Nabokov, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Kim Addonizio, and Paul Hoover. I'd say the last two, both teachers of mine, inspired my life as well.
As for artists, I am very inspired by Mark Rothko, Georgia O'Keefe, Van Gogh, and Modigliani. I'm also inspired by various musicians, especially Tom Waits, Thelonious Monk, and Keith Jarrett.
Then, there are filmmakers, and I am a huge Woody Allen fan. Watching his movies inspires me to know that it's OK to take myself as my primary subject. As annoying as Woody is, no one ever tires of the myriad ways he keeps telling his own personal stories.
Your 2005 collection, Jubilee, won the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry, sponsored by the Fresno State MFA program. How did you decide to submit your collection for the prize? What does it mean to you that you won the contest, judged by the acclaimed poet Levine himself?
I decided to submit to the contest simply because I was trying to submit to as many as possible. That's the best way for a poet to get a first book published, after all. I was quite discouraged, having submitted for a couple of years with no luck, not even a finalist position. However, I had just re-edited and re-ordered the manuscript and felt it was in particularly good shape. I think that final work on editing it is what made the difference.
[Winning the contest] helped me feel like a legitimate writer in a way that simply publishing or getting an MFA could not. It has opened doors for me. For example, I was awarded the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference this past summer. Those awards are generally only given to writers with a book out or forthcoming.
Also, it has allowed me to do more readings, which I love. It's sad to say, but very true, no one really takes you seriously when you say, "I like to write," or, if you have more courage, "I am a writer," until you have published a book.
It was a great honor to have Philip Levine choose my book. He strikes me as a very no-nonsense man who knows what he likes and what he does not, so it is very flattering to have him choose my book.
Jubilee is mainly made up of prose poems. Why did you decide to use the prose poem as your main form? Do you write other forms of poetry?
Jubilee started off as a traditional memoir, written in prose, which I quickly began to tire of. I just couldn't keep up with a traditional narrative because the memories were coming to me in rapid bursts, all out of order. So, I decided to write it in brief prose vignettes, inspired by Peter Orner's Esther Stories. Then, I decided that I wanted them to be poems, after all.
I wanted the poems to be musical, so first I wrote a sonnet ("Week-Night Services") and then I wrote "Spider Man," and then "Company," "Mulatto," and "Hell." All [of those were] prose poems, which I stuck with because it allowed me to move faster with the writing and to create a sense of speed that I like.
I do like to write in other forms. I am working on a crown of sonnets right now. I hope to write 14 of them, with the end line of each sonnet the first line of the next one and so forth. The last sonnet will take the first line of the first sonnet as its close. It should be interesting.
I have also recently been writing in an 11-line format, poems about God, love, and death. What else is there? I've written about 40 of those. They are pretty good, I think. I like them a lot. I just made up that form. You can read three of them in the current issue of Chelsea.
Several of your poems seem to be about family, an often delicate subject for many poets. For the aspiring writer, what advice can you give when writing about family members? How do you negotiate between facts and privacy?
I didn't negotiate between facts and privacy much because I just didn't want to. I wanted to be free to write about what happened, not feel worried about my mother's reaction. This has been a double-edged sword. I got a good book out of it, but my mother is not speaking to me at this time.
This is the risk any writer takes when you attempt to tell a story that involves other people. So my advice would be to not negotiate between facts and privacy, and just write. Otherwise, you'll stifle yourself and be miserable as an artist.
Many of your poems utilize sound devices, such as repetition, and have a bluesy vibe. How important is sound in your poetry? How much attention do you pay to how your poems will sound when they're performed or read aloud?
I just wrote the poems, I never paid any attention to their sound until people started pointing out what you just pointed out about their being a lot of sound work in them. Then, I started working with sound a bit more, about the time I wrote Blues for Almost Forgotten Music, which is the last poem I wrote for Jubilee! Now, I work with it all the time. I was really inspired by the poems and live readings of the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis (Maverick Room), an African-American poet who uses sound as the carrier of meaning in his work. Everyone should get the chance to hear him read.
I've read that you've just finished your second book, Blues for Unburied Slaves, and that you're working on a third collection. When can we expect to see these in print? And how do they compare to Jubilee?
Blues is finished, but needs quite a bit of editing. Probably another year's worth. My third book is almost done, and also needs some editing. That one will be ready first, so I'll start sending it out in the fall.
Blues is like Jubilee in the sense that it is mostly prose poems that tell a novelistic kind of story. It's very dark, very sad. It's about slavery, after all. My 3rd book is comprised of prose poems about various subjects, the 11-line poems about God, love and death, and other kinds of non-prose poems (hopefully, it will conclude with the sonnet crown).
What do you hope readers will gain from reading your poems and from poetry in general?
I hope that readers of Jubilee will be visited by old relatives, some dead or forgotten, and realize the power of those relationships and maybe write about them. I also hope my writing will articulate something that the reader has been unable to articulate for themselves. I hope my writing will inspire others to write, give them an idea, etc. Poetry is always about the interior life, the stuff going on beneath the surface of a life. I hope that readers and writers of poetry will realize this, and see the power of their own internal landscape (dreams, memories, personal images and ideas). That that has more meaning than anything going on in daily, material life.
Johnson, who holds an MFA degree from San Francisco State, will visit Fresno State for a reading on Friday, Feb. 16, at 7:00 p.m., in the Alice Peters Auditorium inside the University Business Center on campus. For details, visit the MFA website.