An Interview with Nell Johnson
"I love the intimacy of reading about a place you know and can visualize. It’s naturally interactive."
We just published a new poem by Nell Johnson on the map. When I first heard it, I laughed out loud, recognizing immediately the parking lot that she was writing about. How could a place so frustrating be rendered as inviting, or thought-provoking rather than simply provoking many emotions? That’s the power of a good poem. We’ve included the poem below, along with a short writing prompt that Nell developed to encourage you to get your pencils out (or your Notes app) and consider how places you know contend with one another. We’re excited to interview Nell about poetry and place in this month’s newsletter.
Why do you write poetry?
Like many others, I think, I have a lot of time-related anxiety. I record things obsessively and take a lot of pictures. When I write a poem, it comes out very distinct, and helps me fill in details about my life at the time or even the day in which it was written. I love, love, love hyperspecificity in poems, especially in my own, because it serves as proof of my own experience, and slows down time for me. I think I favor poetry because of those archival elements I mentioned, (notebook filled with poems=a box of Polaroids that spills when slightly shifted), whereas writing prose often becomes an extended, over-researched exercise for me.
How did you develop your writing voice?
Killing the cop in my head. Also, I read primarily living poets, which helps my confidence, because these people I’m reading are human beings living in New York or wherever and also feeling bad about things, and I’m seeing the world with clarity similar to theirs. I feel that I’m early along in my life with poetry and I hope my voice continues to change. I don’t feel any pressure to have a unique voice; I want the work to get to the bottom of things, and I hope others digging into the same feelings find something valuable in the speaker.
How does place inform or manifest in your writing?
I love the intimacy of reading about a place you know and can visualize. It’s naturally interactive. Everyone who spends time down by UNM campus can recall the Weck’s there on Lomas before it moved, and I like that “The Most Poorly Designed” cements its presence as a site of conversation and comparison after its relocation. So, it creates a community from a body of readers. Of course, the great work to be undertaken is writing poems about places no one has ever cared to before. In New Mexico, there is a wealth of poetry about specific parks and places; there is this wonderful project Amaris has created. But for my hometown, Oklahoma City, there is considerably less. I like using place poetry to make things distinct. Middle America is an inhospitable place filled with people, and so how do you use poetry to tell their stories, your story? By contaminating places intended to be meaningless with meaning—intersections, parking lots, on-ramps, empty fields, collectively defined makeout spots, convenience stores (especially those).
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m mainly promoting other poets in my work as a library programmer. I am collaborating with Red Dirt Poetry, an organization here in OKC, to bring community showcases and give local poets the opportunity to be paid for readings. For my personal projects, I’m trying to start a local astrology poetry zine, which will be weird and Jungian and fun. My most recent publication was in 45th Parallel and I have a few poems forthcoming in the fall issue of Rundelania, which is run by the Central Library in Rochester, NY.
The Most Poorly Designed Parking Lot in Albuquerque
What makes a city walkable?
I don’t know. I like 6 lane highways,
Texas turnarounds, and long on-ramps.
I haven’t ridden a bike in 8 years
and I’m scared to try, scared of my Chaco straps
catching on the pedals. Even if we could walk
on paths dotted with ferns like Danish hikers,
we’d probably just stand here like we are now,
trying to talk over cars and motorcycles,
holding up our hands to block the sun,
sneezing under the Bradford Pears.
After months of dead Albuquerque
winter all pell mell yellow gray,
these unwalkable colors are inviting:
honking Camaro shiny blue,
fertile Sprouts green, T-Mobile pink,
“We’re Moving!” Weck’s flyer red.
Get your pencils out…
…and write a poem about two places contending with one another. It could be an individual from one place living elsewhere, a spirited dialogue between two people, or even a battle between personified cities/states/regions. How do the places differ visually, and how do those visuals hint at their clashing values?
Nell Johnson (Aries Sun, Capricorn Rising) holds a B.A. in English and Russian from the University of New Mexico and works for her hometown public library. She has had prose and poetry published in Bending Genres, Cordella Magazine, and 45th Parallel.
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