Alumni Feature October 2012

Member Interview: Heather Taylor Johnson

Varuna poets and their poetry have long been neglected here at the Alumni News Desk and your editor only has herself to blame. Sorry, chaps. Happily, Heather Taylor Johnson agreed to be the subject of this month’s Member Interview to help me redress this gross imbalance.

Heather Taylor Johnson This American-born, Adelaide-residing poet, poetry editor and soon-to-be published novelist has some thought-provoking insights into the world of verse (without much vice!).

DJ: Heather, welcome to the interview suite. When and why did you first begin writing poetry, and when and why did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?

HTJ: I have a very clear idea in my head of when I started writing prose, but the poetry seems to be something that’s just always been there. I remember writing poetry in primary school and thinking that I was pretty good at it and I won awards for it in high school. I suppose the pivotal moment would have been when I was 16 and I joined the Georgia State Poetry Society. I took a friend with me to a meeting and we were the youngest by at least 35 years! I read a poem at that meeting and when the other poets applauded I felt proud of myself in a way that was new to me. Then I entered all of their contests. I didn’t win any but I still remember how important it was to me, stuffing those envelopes with my writing and licking all those stamps. In some ways, life for me hasn’t changed too much.

DJ: What are some of the chief themes driving your poetry, and why do you think they preoccupy and inspire you so?

apricot tree HTJ: It always comes back to home for me, so there’s a lot of memory, geography, domesticity and travel involved. Lately I’ve been writing about the apricot tree in my backyard and my dog.

I think it’s very difficult to call two places home because ultimately you realise neither of them can ever truly be home. It makes sense to me that I try to make sense of what ‘home’ is. This paves the way for love poems, too, which I sometimes feel embarrassed to say are my favourite poems. Why should I be embarrassed? Love is not simplistic, nor is it cliché.

DJ: How technically pedantic are you?

Exit Wounds cover HTJ: I don’t know about technically but I’m very pedantic in my process, no question. I tend to work in project-mode, so I get something in my head and that’s what I’m doing until it’s done. My first book, Exit Wounds, was written over a five-year period while I was heavily involved in writing prose. It began as a series of death poems - death of family and strangers, my virginity, ova, etc. I got pregnant during that time and the collection became poems of death and birth. I rarely veered from the theme during those five years (and had two babies during that time!).

My next book (which will actually be my 3rd book, to be published next year) took shape at a migration conference in early 2008 at Flinders University. Someone had given a paper on the importance of objects in accessing memory and giving us a sense of home, and at the lunch break I stole off to make a list of things which brought me ‘home’ – my fooseball table, shipped from the US in 2000; a necklace my father gave me when I was fourteen; a piece of fabric I cut from a blanket (which is a long story…or poem) and framed. My list expanded over the week and then I began to check off each item as the poems were written. And I didn’t stop until ALL of the objects were ticked.

Letters cover My next collection, which is my second published book, Letters to my Lover from a Small Mountain Town, came out of a poem-a-day exercise. Each day I sat outside on an old ski-lift chair in our temporary backyard for a year in Salida, Colorado. It was a passionate year of poetry and I love giving readings from that book because it takes me back to an amazing place and time in my life.

The collection I’m working on now is told from the voices of some of my favourite female literary heroines who were written by male authors – so I’m giving them a voice beyond that which was in their books. Aside from the four poems I’ve written recently (because I’ve finished a first draft of the manuscript), I haven’t written a single poem in the last year and a half which wasn’t for the manuscript. Having said that, how wonderfully freeing it felt to write those four new poems and not have to question how Caddy would have written them! The project-mode process comes from a very logical place within my creativity: I write novels with a strong outline in my head as a starting point. The outline might veer, but it’s a clear beginning.

DJ: Who are some of your favourite poets and what is it about their poetry that attracts and speaks to you?

Michelle Cahill HTJ: My favourite Australian poet at the moment is Michelle Cahill. I think she’s incredibly rich with her imagery and her language is really sexy.

I once told her that, after reading ‘Vishvarupa’, I’d discovered new ways to use commas in my poetry; even her punctuation affects me! She’s very careful, and so I think she’s a fantastic editor of her work. That’s something I feel like I’ve only come to get a grip on in my own writing with my fourth manuscript – the literary heroine one.

I also love Libby Hart for her gentle drawing back of layers, and Ken Bolton for his rambling thoughts and persistent call-outs. Susan Hawthorne is very interesting for her academic approach – the footnotes, the definitions and teachings – and Cow was a very big influence on my fourth manuscript. Mark Tredinnick stuns me again and again with the way he uses the turn in his poetry and with his respect for nature. Along those lines, a new poet who has yet to publish a full-length book, Rachel Mead, touches me deeply with the way she accesses nature. I think poets who are close to nature are lucky because they work with a powerful connectedness.

DJ: Studying poetry at school and later university unfortunately sabotaged much of my own desire to read it and certainly annihilated any ambition to write it - how rigidly attached are you to specific interpretations of your work?

HTJ: I’ve yet to have my books reviewed, so that’s difficult to answer. My reviews, however, have been reviewed in round about ways – only recently my style has been reflected upon both favourably and with disdain. The negative comments, which were very negative, are still affecting me. I took them very seriously and questioned how I might fix what some would say was broken and now, with every review I write, I seem to have those critics sitting on my shoulders. Where are the critics who spoke positively? It’s such a shame we forget about them so quickly. It’s played havoc on my insecurities of not being smart enough or talented enough and I feel I’m slowing down quite a bit because of it. Is it productive? I’m not sure yet. I hope so. I want to come out on the other end emotionally and professionally more aware and resilient.

DJ: You're poetry editor at Wet Ink magazine - please share your thoughts on the job and the general state of poetry in Australia today.

HTJ: I love that gig! It’s one of the best things I do, professionally, on a regular basis. I get to see who’s writing now and what they’re writing about. The fact that so many people submit their work to magazines is really invigorating. Wet Ink is really more for the readers than the writers and so I feel it’s not bound up in any incestuous academy – poet relationship. It is, of course, because so many of us on the WI team work at universities but I think what I’m trying to say is that the magazine has managed to avoid coming across in that way.

What do I mean by the incestuous academy – poet relationship? Who reads poets but other poets, and where are other poets working but at university, and who is on the board or editing team of the magazines who publish poets but poets, who work at universities, and who are writing the reviews and giving the awards but… You can see where this is going. We’re all in bed with each other. We’re writing for each other (sometimes about each other), publishing each other, reviewing each other, awarding each other and one has to wonder if our ‘best’ are our best because one of our ‘best’ said they were. We have very few outsiders awarding us accolades, or rejecting us, and so the poetry scene feels fairly closed-off. That sounds so negative. It’s sad that poetry is not part of our larger culture. I think there are some people who work very hard to rectify the situation but the problem is huge and the number of people working to bring it to the masses is very small.

DJ: Tell us about the challenges you face as a poet trying to earn a living wage in today's climate.

HTJ: I’m very lucky to have a supportive husband who has a solid job. Dash is a high school English teacher so he sees the value of literature. And he thinks I’m great! It’s also very convenient that I have small children, so working outside of the home is not fully desired at this point in my life. I do teach Creative Writing at university but only casually, no more than two days a week. Most of my money comes from writing reviews, publications in journals and sales of my books through readings. Because of my domestic situation, this is enough for the moment. I’m not sure where I’ll be when our children are older, but what I’m doing now is really quite ideal, so I’d like to think things won’t change drastically.

woman at desk DJ: Please tell us about your writing practice - how and where you work, how you manage to write on top of working and parenting, how easily or reluctantly the words come, how you edit your poems and so on.

HTJ: I’ve always been an extremely productive writer, so when I sit down to write, I do. When I have a day without any children, I generally only have about three hours of creative writing time. That’s time enough for me to write a poem in my journal, do a first edit as I type it into my computer, and then review other poems linked to that poem (because I work in ‘projects’ remember!). I write at night sometimes – probably 2 nights a week – and those are editing sessions. If I write something new too late at night, I can’t sleep! I get too pumped up and insomnia takes over. But I love editing – probably my favourite process, really – so I’m fine with ‘only’ editing at night. If it’s a lovely day outside, I can even write while my children play around me. Generally the poem will be about children playing or the leaves or happiness or something corny – but the editing will kick in soon enough and I’ll at least have something to work with.

DJ: You've won a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development; how much does your approach to writing change when you are writing fiction instead of poetry? Please share with us the experience of working with HarperCollins on your MS.

HTJ: I’ve always said that poetry is what I write for fun, because I love it, and fiction is what I write seriously, because I think I’m good at it and want to make sure that one day a heck of a lot of people know about it. I’m [definitely] more successful with publishing poetry and people often introduce me as a poet, but I desperately want to be known as a novelist. It’s the strongest desire I have and I think when you feel that strongly about something, it will happen.

The HarperCollins Varuna Award was one of the most amazing weeks of my life. I had no idea how useful and affirming concentrated writing time could be. I worked with a freelance editor for HarperCollins, Jody Lee, and she was just wonderful. I also had no idea that working with an editor could be so relaxed. I felt we worked in such an organic manner together that ideas for the edits just fell into place and, as a result, I JUST received a phone call, literally an hour ago, from HarperCollins saying they are publishing my book.

DJ: Excellent news - congratulations!

HTJ: Obviously it was a life-changing experience. Very much worth the toll it must’ve taken on my husband at home with our three kids and feisty dog that week!

DJ: So how does being a poetry editor yourself adjust your critical optic when it comes to assessing your own work?

HTJ: I’m definitely more aware of WHY I send a particular poem to a particular journal or contest. I research who the editors or judges are and discover what their own work is like, so I can begin to make a decision on which of my poems might grab them. I think the question you ask really fits more with how reviewing poetry has adjusted my critical optic when it comes to assessing my own work. I read more poetry now. More new poetry. And so much of it is good, which is why it’s getting published. I think reading poetry is so important in a poet’s growth, and reviewing poetry allows me that luxury.

DJ: How significant a role has Varuna played in your development as a writer?

HTJ: So, so much! Like I said in the answer above, until then I wasn’t aware of how important concentrated time to write is, simply because I never had it. Now it is something I think I’ll seek out regularly (well, maybe once or twice a year). It can be a week at Varuna or some other fellowship very hard-won, a weekend at a beach house with a few writing friends, or even a day and night at an empty house owned by friends who are away overseas! It might sound indulgent, and it is, but it’s also about taking yourself as a writer and your work seriously. It’s taken me a very long time to take myself as a writer – and my work – seriously. I think the hard part is rationalising the luxury of it. But they can get by without me cutting their fruit for a little bit. I know this.

poetry covers DJ: To what extent is there a community of poets with whom you talk shop?

HTJ: I’ve always been a social writer. I need contact. I’m currently in a poetry appreciation group, for lack of a better name. Myself and some close friends, who are gorgeous poets, get together once a month and if it’s my turn, I’ll bring a poet to everyone’s attention. I’ll discuss her career and share some of my favourite poems by her. We’ll all go away, armed with the new poet, and write poetry inspired by that poet’s work. Then the next month we’ll workshop those poems and talk about a new poet, brought in by someone else. We also meet before or after a poetry reading, so we’re basically dripping of poetic inspiration and very high when we get home. Our meetings go for hours and it really does seem like all we talk about is poetry. It’s probably the best writing group I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in a lot.

DJ: Your second poetry collection came out in February and you have another slated for 2013 - tell us about these volumes and what they represent in terms of your development and creative fulfilment.

HTJ: My first book is just that: a first book. It needed stronger editing and many poems are indulgent in that they’re just sort of fun. That said, it is a pretty fun book, and important to me. It was published by Picaro Press and I so much support Rob Riel and what he does for Australian poetry, particularly with the Wagtail series and reprinting significant books which have long been out of print, so I’m very happy I was able to work with him.

I’m really in love with my second book because it was written feverishly while I was living in the Rocky Mountains for a year with my family on a teacher’s exchange. I was so lucky that year to fall in love with my husband again AND to fall in love with my home country again, so I was in a fantastic place, and I think that comes through in the writing. It’s very joyous and reading from it now just transports me to that time and place again. I feel very lucky to have that book as an enduring memory of 2010.

My third book is called Thirsting for Lemonade and it is actually the second collection I wrote. So it’s a funny thing, really, to have something so old coming out AFTER something so recent has come out. I’m very afraid it will prove itself to be not-so-hot in comparison, because I still feel fairly new at writing poetry seriously and I’m still evolving in what I feel to be very crucial ways. It is always difficult to look at old work and feel good about it, for me anyway, so I’m not sure how I’m going to feel once it’s public property.

DJ: How often do you read your poetry aloud to an audience and how important do you think the aural experience is in conveying a poem's essence to a reader/audience member?

HTJ: Adelaide isn’t as jumping as Melbourne or Sydney with spoken word but it has come a long way in the last few years and, with the rise of university programs and Slam competitions, there’s a lot happening these days. I read probably 6 times a year – definitely more when I have a book out and I organise something myself at a bookstore or interstate.

I’m not sure I think reading a poem to an audience is of great consequence to furthering the life of the poem and I suppose I think it almost unfair to say it helps the relationship between poet and audience because not all poets are good readers, but I do think that it’s important to give readings for the cultural livelihood of our hometowns. Along with encouraging non-poets to partake in something literary and, perhaps, different, readings bring poets together. I can’t think of a single negative – wait, yes I can, the fact that poets commonly go unpaid. But aside from that, I’m all for readings. I participate in them as a reader, as an audience member and as an organiser.

DJ: What are some of your vices? C'mon - you're a poet. Where does the anguish reside?

HTJ: Vices…a friend of mine suggested we get t-shirts which read ‘Edit when Sober’. I like that one, and I live by it. I have no problem in letting ‘creative juices’ flow if it’s flowing, but I think to edit under influences is just lazy and shows very little respect for one’s talent.

Anguish…I’m not so sure I follow that line. My poetry tends to be fairly celebratory and as for the process, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ached. If I’m feeling blocked with poetry, which can be frustrating, I write prose, or work on a review, or do business-related things like search for grants, send poems out, etc. Writing is something I would always put at the top of my list for ‘things to do on a perfect day’. If I get to write regularly, daily, I’m a better partner to my husband, a better mother to my children, and I actually WANT to walk my dog (he’s a feisty puller, so that’s a big call!).

Mick Jagger DJ: Do you have a favourite line of poetry, a verbal touchstone?

HTJ: This might say more about me than I want it to but I’m going to put it out there: I love the Rolling Stones’ lyrics to ‘Rocks Off’ when Mick screams, ‘The sunshine bores the daylights out of me’. There. I said it. Best line ever.

Phenomenal Woman Okay, so clearly I don’t have a favourite line of poetry, a verbal touchstone, but I do have a touchstone poem and I probably share it with hundreds of women: ‘Phenomenal Woman,’ by Maya Angelou.

It’s the kind of poem I’ve passed onto my female friends off and on throughout my life who I felt could use it at certain times in their lives – and these are not all women who write poetry. That’s one of the wonderful things about Maya Angelou’s poetry: you simply don’t have to work to get it, so everyone can access it. It’s given me strength plenty of times, particularly after having my babies. The body is not a forgiving thing to women in their thirties making small human beings and this poem has always put things back into perspective for me:

Maya Angelou It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

DJ: It occurs to me that you could Haiku on Twitter...How significant is the rise of social media in your efforts to connect with peers and poetry lovers?

HTJ: I have used Facebook, typed in a few lines I’d penned on the day which made me particularly proud, and I’ve promoted readings I’m in, also, but I’ve always done it begrudgingly. It feels like boasting to me and honestly I find it quite tiring when people post all of their accomplishments. I don’t do Twitter, I don’t blog and I prefer to comment on other people’s statuses on Facebook. I’m not very exciting there, sorry.

DJ: The Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize was worth a cool $20,000 this year, and it went to the same poet who won last year - what are your thoughts on the role of competitions and prizes?

HTJ: I always say that I’m no prize-winning poet but I do enter [competitions] pretty religiously (and I have won some minor ones). If I have to pay $5 or $10 to get a chance to win $100 - $500, I don’t do it. I’m not sure why I don’t do it but I only enter the prizes which are anything over $1000. I never expect to win so maybe it’s simply a chance to prove to myself, while going through the process, that I’m worthy enough to give it a go.

I’m not very familiar with the majority of the winners or shortlisted poets of the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize so I’m thinking it’s judged fairly. As in my extended answer to your question about the general state of poetry, I’m a bit suspicious of some of the prizes.

DJ: What advice would you offer to unpublished poets who dream of seeing their stanzas in print?

HTJ: I would immediately tell them to get themselves a poetry group, or at least find someone they can share their work with for reasons beyond affirmation. A first draft poem without critical feedback can sometimes be a wasted effort and isn’t it sad to think of the life of a poem being stunted because the poet couldn’t see beyond his initial rapture?

DJ: Yes, indeed it is. Finally, you're an American living in Australia; how important is this notion of the writer as Other to your own output?

HTJ: Thematically, it’s extremely important. But not because I’ve encouraged it to be that way: it is what it is. I write about dislocation in my poetry, in my prose, and feel as though I have to allude to my background in certain reviews when it’s culturally relevant. I feel I am grounded in the Australian industry, though, and the idea of ‘breaking into’ the American market feels as daunting for me as it probably does to any native Australian. I review for a few American magazines and occasionally try to get published in an American journal, but the thought of one of my books NOT getting lost among the millions of others from Americans who are making themselves known much more widely than myself, feels ridiculous.

Novels seem to be a more straightforward way into that scene and I’d love to [think] HarperCollins has that in mind for me. Poetry just seems too, too hard. Yet whenever I go back for a visit I make sure I give readings or workshops and try to sell books. For me, in America – well, in Australia too, but especially in America – selling books is never about money but about envisaging someone I don’t know reading my book. Perhaps that says how Other I am in my own home country, that selling books is romantic, not a financial opportunity.

DJ: Heather Taylor Johnson, thank you for playing.

Please be encouraged to comment on this feature.

NEXT MONTH: stay tuned in December for the latest member interview here at the Varuna Alumni News


Read all about exciting new release Alumni titles at Varuna Books.

Read 6108 times

Leave a comment