Elaine Johanson is a Philadelphia based writer and artist. She recently published And And, a chapbook of poems and photographs, with photographer and designer Jan C. Almquist.
Katherine Hollander: Elaine, thank you so much for talking with me about your new book, And And!
Elaine Johanson: Hi, Katie! I’m so happy to share this project.
KH: Your book is I think the most beautiful and really aesthetically or sensorially pleasurable—the images, the texture, the design, all of which are so clean and quiet and powerful—that I’ve held in my hands in a long time. It’s not only a book of poems but a book of photographs, which float together seamlessly. Could you talk a little bit about the process of collaborating with photographer Jan C. Almquist?
EJ: First of all, thank you for that beautiful description! That was what Jan and I had hoped for when we started this project. Both of us are very interested in how texts and images work together. Once we decided to collaborate on a book of poems and photographs, we shared what we were working on independently and what we had created inspired by the other’s work. Eventually, my poems shifted into a more cohesive collection exploring my family’s experiences during the Korean War and after. Jan had been making nature and studio photographs alongside this project for a while, and together, we selected ones we thought would bring out aspects of the poems. Jan also designed the book, which meant that both the poems and photographs are given a lot of space to breathe and play together.
KH: The poems and images breathing and playing together (I love how you’ve put that, because it really captures how the book feels and seems to operate) is something I want to ask more about. First, though, I wanted to ask more about how the book reckons with the consequences of the Korean War, the division between North and South, and the ramifications for families—your own mother and grandmother seem to appear in the poems. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
EJ: I grew up very much in the stories of my family’s experiences during the Korean War, but it has taken time to feel as though I understand and own the stories enough to write about them. The Korean War was devastating for my family, and the stories of strength and perseverance that I have absorbed are also stories of unbelievable loss. The book is an attempt to reckon with the consequences of war, even seventy years later.
KH: You balance these very personal poetic images with more official language. For example, the poem “Damage” includes language from the 1953 Armistice Agreement for the Restoration of the South Korean State. How do you think about these juxtapositions? Similar to the juxtaposition of poetry and photography in the book, or is something different going on there?
EJ: I took a Government seminar about the Korean War during my freshman year in college. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it spoke about the war entirely from a military perspective, but it was jarring to hear about the war with only a passing mention of the human toll it took. When writing these poems, I wanted to explore how language that aims toward impartiality – in the news, in government documents – still has biases that have consequences. Actually, bringing in found text came later in the process of the project, and I wonder if working with Jan on the images gave me the idea to bring in other elements, as well!
KH: Although the poems are quiet and somewhat formal (not choppy or jangly like a collage), they do feel to be drawing on different kinds of speech, different modes. And use the space in intriguing ways. For example, the title poem—one of two poems that seems to be called “And And”—or maybe it’s three poems, “And And” and “And” and “And”? I especially love the “And And” that takes up two full facing pages. It’s a really beautiful and angry poem, and it has the feel of a motto or an aphorism in places: “Until spring comes/it has never come,” the poem says, and this: “it turns out,/the solution to killing is nothing.” I love those lines. But also, I’m wondering how you would read them out loud? Are they one poem or two? Maybe that is a resonant question–the question of division and reiteration...?
EJ: I had thought of ‘And And’ as one poem, but yes, I wanted it to work as individual poems and as a collective! So it is, in a way, three poems. It mimics how I think of Korea, which was one country for so long and was forcibly split in two. The division of facing pages that can be read as a whole was a device to explore that. As far as reading it out loud... perhaps the way to read it would be to read both sections at the same time, on different ends of the room.
KH: Oh I love that! The performance of it. I would like to hear that very much.
In that same poem you say “Family, edited.” Would you like to say anything about how these impositions or divisions made impact on your family?
In the meantime, thinking about divisions, I want to tell you that I think my favorite poem is “DMZ,” which gives us this image of this almost Edenic space, where, because of the nature of that “demilitarized” border, animals live free from the encroachment of humans, deforestation, industry, waste—but it also includes the disaster of mines. It feels like the book is holding spaces for hope and then collapsing them. And then maybe doing the opposite as well–breaking open space for hope, or suggesting that hope itself is, as one poem argues, “exhausting.”
EJ: For my family and so many families, the border solidified so fast that families were trapped apart from each other. They didn’t know then that in many cases they would never speak to or see each other again. That was something I have felt strongly: the paths that hope keeps opens, and the slow devastation of hope sustained and unfulfilled. The DMZ is an incredibly tense space, but in the quiet of that tension a sanctuary has opened up. I still don’t know how to make sense of that! Trying to hold all these things at once is, to me, exhausting.
KH: Yes. These poems seem at home with complexity and with things sitting side by side in ways that don’t make sense. They seem not to want to force the making of sense in places where no sense can reasonably be made. They are humane in that way–and in that way also, to me, poems of mourning.
Shifting just a little bit, our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. Your book is already pulling from the personal, political, historical—does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently?
EJ: Writing this book allowed me to think about the Korean War from a broad perspective as well as an incredibly intimate, of-the-moment one. But the events I wrote about were almost entirely decades in the past. Today, I think about: what story am I writing with my actions? How can I add to the thread of strength and perseverance lived by my mother, grandmother, and ancestors? Writing this book was about understanding and owning the story I belong to. I want to continue that story in a way that honors what has been lived before.
KH: Thinking about that “thread of strength and perseverance”…Right now it seems as if people are turning to poems more than ever. What single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why?
EJ: Whenever I’m struggling to find the right words, I remember that my relationship with my grandmother was almost wordless. We didn’t share a spoken language so we communicated in gestures and acts of love. The poem, “You Can Hold Something and Let It Go at the Same Time,” is about that wordless communication. There are so many vital words right now for what’s happening in our world, but there can also be vital quiet in which loving actions can take place.
KH: What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss?
EJ: The book is so visual that it’s best understood when you hold it in your hands! Jan’s photographs are incredibly beautiful, and together they form a narrative arc alongside the eleven poems. It functions as a single, uninterrupted experience rather than as a book you put down and take back up again. I would have loved to see people read through it for the first time. I have not found any good ways to counteract that loss! I had been too optimistic about the pandemic ending sooner.
KH: What’s a question you would want to be asked about And And, and how would you answer it?
EJ: I’m so curious about how poets shape their collections, and the choices that go into that. So maybe a good question would have been, “Did you choose a theme before you began, or did you discover a theme in what you were writing at the time?” For me, it was a deliberate choice to write about my relationship to my family’s history, which felt more possible to tackle as a project than as a single poem.
KH: That’s fascinating. I was talking with Dora Malech earlier about the ways that themes come to inhabit books or the ways that books deliberately take on themes. I’d be curious to know more about how you came to this deliberate choice–is there any more you can say about that?
EJ: Ordinarily, I think a project chooses its form! In this case, though, the form came first. Trying to fill it opened a space for me to write about something that previously seemed too daunting.
KH: And one last thing. The book is from a brand new press—maybe you could tell me a little bit about Elm Twig Press, its genesis, its mission?
EJ: Yes! Elm Twig Press is a project out of Jan’s design studio, aajdesign. They’re committed to fresh ways of approaching images and text, in any form. With this particular project, we wanted to create a book that’s an art object, in which the poems and photographs have equal standing. It reflects our creative process, as well, since we truly developed the project together at every stage. The whole process was a pleasure!
KH: Yes, the book feels very integrated. Maurice Sendak talks about picture books as needing to have that, and, although your book is not for children (and neither, of course, were all of his) it feels like a whole experience in a very pleasurable and captivating way.
Thank you so much for talking with me about it!
EJ: Thank you, Katie, for these thoughtful questions! I loved talking about the book with you.
Find Elaine Johanson’s And And here.