INTERVIEW WITH MEG JOHNSON
What was your early life like? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. Dance and books… Both were important to me from a young age. I had a lock on my bedroom door from the time I was six years old. Having my own space was very important to me. At any age, in any state, in any city, I always have a longing for more space. I can’t remember ever not having that longing. Most of my life I have had reoccurring dreams about finding more space. Apartments, houses, streets, cities turning out to be much bigger than I thought. Areas I previously didn’t know existed that continue unfolding. I also have performance dreams and nightmares, but those are more literal with dance being such a huge part of my life. My parents, brother, extended family, childhood friends, and adulthood friends are extremely kind people, and not in the arts (except for some friends), so I don’t know where my compulsions about space/privacy, and the performing and literary arts come from.
What made you want to write?
It’s a feeling I’m not sure can be put into words. The need to create… It’s similar to the feeling of needing to perform, and at the same time, it is such a different need.
What are your writing habits like? Are you always working on a story or poem?
Short answer: Usually…
Long answer: Usually… Do I take breaks? Yes. Do I take long breaks? No. I’m not in as much of a rush as I used to be. For most of my life, until recently, I had this sense of extreme urgency. When I was growing up, I danced with a college dance department, then I left undergrad early to be in a dance company. Obviously, modern dance isn’t lucrative so in addition to teaching dance, I got certified in Pilates and taught mat work. I also signed with some agencies and through agencies mostly acted in some really cheesy industrial and promotional videos. After taking a year of college creative writing classes (when I returned to school), I started submitting poems for publication. Having individual poems published felt amazing (almost like a high at first) so I wanted to write a book. My first poetry collection, Inappropriate Sleepover, was accepted by The National Poetry Review Press when I was halfway through an MFA program so I had to start writing a new thesis which was an earlier version of what became my second book. My second book manuscript started being a finalist in book contests before the first book even came out. My second book, The Crimes of Clara Turlington, was released about a year and nine months after Inappropriate Sleepover. I’ve been writing poems and essays and I hope to have another poetry collection published eventually as well as a nonfiction book, but the focus of both projects…not clear to me yet… After adjuncting and teaching a lot of classes, then being hospitalized because I had Guillain-Barre, then making a full recovery from Guillain-Barre… I learned sometimes you have to slow down. That I don’t have as much control as I would like. I haven’t even been able to do all the readings I wanted to do for my second book so I’m not in a rush for another book. I do still feel a sense of anxiety though. Where are the poems and essays for new manuscripts going? What is this time period in my life about?
Can you discuss your literary influences, or at least name some writers whose work you greatly admire?
I recently read The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. (Published by Other Press. Translated by Marlaine Delargy.) I think it is a must read. It’s the type of book that could be on a reading list with The Handmaid’s Tale and When She Woke. It also reminded me of the short story “Reeling for the Empire” by Karen Russell. What makes The Unit so scary is that Holmqvist makes the situations so believable. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that the way people try to live a regular life through routine even though they are in an unfathomable situation reminded me of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. If you are sick of misogyny, ageism, and capitalism, you should definitely read The Unit. It also touches on a lack of respect for the arts. Seriously, you want to read this.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
I think the business of writing is what exhausts me. Writing can be hard work, some days are harder than others, but writing is exciting. (Well, creative writing.) I feel more fatigue with the aspect of promoting publications on the internet through social media, etc. I even feel more adrenaline during the submission process than with the social media part. There are some good things about social media, especially all the pictures of puppies and kittens.
How important is community among fellow writers, do you get along with other writers?
Community is so important! That might sound weird since I just admitted I don’t always love social media. Emails and in person conversations with many other writers have helped me so much. I am so grateful. Mary Biddinger and Jennifer L. Knox have spent a lot of time listening to my problems, and reading and responding to my emails.
If you haven’t already, do you think you will ever write a novel?
I haven’t. I don’t know. I would like to.
Do you feel a sense of home? Is there a place like that to you?
Central Iowa because that’s where I’m from. Also, Madison, Wisconsin feels like home to me. I lived there for six years which is the longest I have lived anywhere as an adult. In general, Midwestern cities. I used to live in Chicago. I was in Milwaukee a lot for work. I’ve spent a lot of time in Minneapolis for dance performances and readings, and hanging out with friends.
Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions, before you start to write?
I usually listen to music before I write, but not when I’m writing. I have caffeine every day, and if there was a day I didn’t have caffeine, I probably wouldn’t want to write, and would probably think the writing was terrible. I’m a superstitious person, even though I understand that it’s silly to be that way. Does it have anything to do with my Czech heritage? I don’t think anyone who is related to me is a fan of the number thirteen.
Are you a science fiction fan? If so, what attracts you to the genre?
I like speculative fiction in general. The possibilities of speculative fiction are endless.
Do you think literature can help readers make sense of their lives?
How autobiographical are your stories/poems?
What I want to say about this is in regard to persona. Gabino Iglesias recently wrote an article for CLASH Media called “Female Writers: A Guide for Dudebros.” I think section four on writer personas is much needed:
4. Women Authors Have Personas
I know you thought only fellow dudes had personas, but women also have them. Sometimes more than one. This means that they perform versions of themselves in the context of their art. If you see a woman crying while reading a poem, maybe she’s not really crying. You never know. Likewise, if you see a woman online dressed like a sexy vampire, maybe she took off the costume after taking the photo and climbed a mountain or shot a gun or punched a bag or fed six kids or performed surgery or fixed a meal or went back to being a CEO. You should respect all personas. Always. A sexy persona means sexy personas maybe sell the kind of books that author is trying to sell. A sexy persona doesn’t mean you can treat an author disrespectfully or send them a pic of your junk. In fact, an author can put on a microscopic bikini and perform oral on a cucumber as part of a performance and your response to that, regardless of the tightness in your pants, should be to applaud, buy the book, like the video, or just shut the fuck up.
I would be remiss if I did not ask. What are your favourite films and TV shows?
I love old movies like Stage Door. I saw All About Eve (for the third time) at a movie theater a couple of years ago. (Swoon.) I wish Cinemark’s Classic Series showed more movies per season. Many years ago (actually only five, but it feels longer than that) I saw The Seven Year Itch on the big screen. I don’t feel as excited about current movies. I want to see Ingrid Goes West, but it hasn’t been playing anywhere near me. I’m a huge fan of the podcast You Must Remember This. I think it’s one of the most exciting things happening right now. It is described as “the podcast about the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century,” which in many of the episodes means learning about the history of feminism. It’s really informative and entertaining at the same time.
In terms of TV, my favorite shows are always changing. I think current TV shows are more impressive than current movies. There seems to be more diversity in TV.
I recently finished watching season one of Imposters. If you want to watch an escapist show that is soapy, but not too soapy, you might like it. The main character in Imposters, Maddie, is a bit like Emily on Revenge.
The only reality show that I consistently watch is RuPaul’s Drag Race, and when I watch it, I’m like a crazy football fan watching a game. David Sedaris and Amy Sedaris were the best guest judges ever.
Are you political? What do you think of the current political climate?
I think it is dangerous not to be political right now. It’s extremely dangerous. Keep contacting your senators.
How do hope your stories/poems will affect people?
I hope my writing affects people, but how it affects people… Depends on the book or piece and the individual…
Meg Johnson is the author of the books Inappropriate Sleepover (The National Poetry Review Press) and The Crimes of Clara Turlington (Vine Leaves Press) which won the 2015 Vignette Collection Award. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in BUST, Hobart, Ms. Magazine, Nashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Verse Daily, and others. Visit her at: http://www.megjohnson.org
Categories: Poetry Video