Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Interview with poet Donna Johnson: Author of the poetry collection Selvage

Poet Donna Johnson: Founding Member of the Concord Poetry Center and author of the poetry collection Selvage
           With Doug Holder   
From Donna Johnson's website:  
"Donna Johnson is a daughter of the south. She was raised in Tennessee and spent summers visiting extended family in Texas. Her poetry intertwines her rural southern roots with provocative themes that engage readers regardless of their backgrounds.
Ms. Johnson’s poetry seeks to explore themes of loss, betrayal and redemption, both through the personal lyric and by the recasting the experiences of characters from myths, fables, and the Bible – Cinderella, Cassandra, John the Baptist, Lazarus and the Celtic heroine, Branwen. 
Her poems and reviews have been published in Birmingham Poetry Review, Blue Unicorn, Café Review, Green Mountains Review, Ibbetson Street, Marco Polo, Perihelion, Tulane Review, Two Rivers Review, and others.
Her first full-length collection of poetry, Selvage, was released in February 2013 by Carnegie Mellon Press . "
I had the privilege to speak to Donna on my Somerville Community Access TV show  Poet to Poet Writer to Writer.

DOUG HOLDER: So I looked up the definition of the title of your new poetry collection Selvage . And I found that it means the end of a piece of fabric that keeps the garment, etc... together. So what keeps you, your poetry together?
DONNA JOHNSON: I think many people write not as therapy but as a way to understand the world. And if they can write it well enough they could share their understanding with someone else. I think a lot of my exercise of writing  is to pull together stories, memories, voices, accents, and to try to make it whole. That, along with the fact, that my mom used to make my clothing and I spent a lot of time in fabric stores. Thusly, the title Selvage.
DH:  You are a founding member of the Concord Poetry Center. Tell us a bit about the beginning of this important literary venue.
DJ: Yes it started out with me, Joan Houlihan and a number of others. Many of us at met at Lucie Brock-Broido's poetry workshop in Cambridge, Mass. I became friends with Joan there. She and I both had worked in high tech, and I admired her because she managed to pull her life as a poet together as well. She now teaches but she does many other things.
DH:  You are originally from down South.  How was your reception in the Northeast?  Any snobbery?
DJ: My first venture up to New England was for graduate school at UConn. And people used to stop me and ask me to say something because they thought my accent sounded strange. I looked at it with good humor. I always found it interesting to live somewhere you are not from. I didn't go back South...I am still up North.
DH: Your poems deal with themes of betrayal, loss, and redemption. Do you think most of men and women experience redemption?
DJ:  If you read my poems you will probably conclude "no." I don't know if we can truly know what redemption means. Generally I am positive. I like people. I have been the beneficiary of many acts of kindness.
DH: So why do many of your poems' tone appear to be dark?
DJ :I can't sum it neatly I am afraid. I have always been attracted to ballads. And I remember liking ballads that were creepy, sad or bittersweet.
DH: Your poetry is accessible.
DJ: Yes. I remember reading an essay by the poet Mary Karr about obfuscation in poetry. It wasn't against subtlety, metaphor, etc...but she felt that poets shouldn't deliberately be obtuse or confusing.
DH: One of your poems in your new collection "Photograph of My Father at Six" deals with a picture of your father when he was very young. You wrote about how he appeared sad even then. Are photographs good fodder for poetry?
DJ: Yes photos are good.  The photo I wrote about was a photo of my Dad. He came from a family that didn't have a lot of money.  His father was an alcoholic. I asked my father why he drank, and my father replied " He was just tired." I can't imagine the financial problems they had--living close to the bone. But my grandfather did what he could.
Yellow is the Color Of West Texas

Grandma claimed it was the color for whores.
The closest city to her town they named Amarillo,
perhaps for the clouds of Monarchs, high
on milkweed, or for homesteader’s cloth,
dyed with the boiled hulls of butternut.
Each spring, coneflowers line
the interstate. Lone patches of green
sprout along irrigation pipes and ditches,
under heifer slosh from windmill barrels.
No roses bloom of their own accord,
yellow, or of any other kind.
Our family loads into the El Camino,
heads down to Palo Duro canyon.
Grandad does not bother brushing
ocher-colored grit from ragged cracks
in aqua vinyl seats and dash. A sign greets:
Here, they sell 64-ounce Pepsi colas;
landscape is severe relief.
To ravage such a canyon,
even God must tire of level plain—
to split the earth this deep
for sulfur water, for gypsum.

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