In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Will Johnston
1. Tell us about your poem in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
The heart of “The Wild Plum” came from an actual experience I had, probably at age five or so, of coming across a wild plum tree while out walking, and my dad picking plums for my sister and I. It may be my oldest concrete memory (although who can say how many of the details I remember were true and how many were warped or invented over time) but for many years it was completely out of my mind. At some point last year, it popped back into my head like it had never been gone, and I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia and longing. What made that experience worth remembering, more so than so many other childhood experiences? I don’t know. What makes any of the poetry, paintings, films I’ve seen worth remembering? Hard to say. How do I make my own poems worth remembering? I don’t think that’s something I can control.
2. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
For as long as I can remember I loved reading, and when I was a teenager I planned to become a fiction writer. The experience that converted me to poetry, though, happened in my first year of college. In the textbook for an English course I took “just to get it out of the way,” I happened upon a poem by Li-Young Lee called “Eating Together“. Lee’s language is plainspoken, rich, and beautiful, and even at twelve brief lines it’s an emotional sledgehammer. I read it and thought “I want to do that with my life. I want to make people feel like that.”
3. How has writing shaped your life?
That’s a big question! It’s hard to say, since I haven’t tried living without writing. I suspect that writing has made me more attentive to the world around me, and that writing for an audience has increased my capacity for empathy and for relating with others, but those are dubious claims at best. The most probable effect (and perhaps one of the less consequential) is that I tend to reconceptualize events, relationships, and happenings as if they followed the “arc” of a poem. That is, there is an unconscious mental process that helps to shape my poems, and when I look at the real world I have sort of a sympathetic response that tells me “if this were a poem I was writing, it would have this shape and be organized in this way and follow this progression.” I sometimes find myself acting in ways that “complete the poem,” that just feel right, even though they are not necessarily in my best interest.
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
I mentioned Li-Young Lee above. Two other poets I admire are Alice Oswald and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Both are masters of the long poem, and both create rich worlds with incredible depth that continue to grow and change for page after page. While I don’t quite have the knack of sustaining that, I do strive to reach the same kind of depth in my shorter works. There are too many others to name, but I will mention Bill Holm as well. Growing up not far from where he lived in southwest Minnesota gave me what you might call a cultural affinity for his work. It almost feels like one of my uncles talking to me. But there’s a surprising amount of wonder under that “tell it like it is” veneer. He reminds me that I can be a poet and still be true to my roots.
5. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
At the moment, I’m working on a series of poems that deal with the ways that language and memory change our relationships with people, places, and experiences. Especially the way that memory mutates over time, and the ways that naming and describing things alters our perception of those things. I’m trying to pick apart some of the narratives I’ve built up surrounding my own life and get closer the truth of my experiences.