Women in Form: Katharine Johnsen


Katherine Johnsen

TJ: Do you actually sit down to write a sonnet, ghazal, or villanelle? Or is it a more organic process related to the content?


KJ: I think it depends on the poem. I try to be aware of any and all opportunities for form and I’m often looking to see if there are any words or phrases that might bear repeating. Before I sat down to work on what would become “Montdevergues, 1943,” I did know, because of the content, that it had to be a villanelle. I’d been working on these Camille Claudel poems set at the turn of the century and it felt dishonest to not see her very difficult demise, not to see where she wound up. Her brother had her committed—against doctors’ recommendations—to a mental asylum where she lived for the last thirty years of her life. Given the nature of the villanelle, given that the poet must return to those refrain lines, it seemed the perfect form to imagine Camille in her final year.


TJ: Is there ever a thought, even a fleeting one, about where a poem you write ‘fits’ within the history of the forms you choose?


KJ: I don’t think about the origins of the form too often, though my Turco is rarely beyond arm’s reach if I need it. I tend to read before I even begin to write, so I hope that the poems take after those poets I’ve learned from. If by history you mean the poets who precede me, then yes, I’m aware of where these poems fall in with those I’m writing after. I only try to do them justice.


TJ: Do you find the structures of form liberating or constricting when you employ it for a poem?


KJ: So liberating! A while ago, I read about this child development study (and I will now butcher the science by paraphrasing it). Teachers took their preschool students to a playground on a field that had no fence. During recess, the children were to play as usual. On another day, the class then had recess on a playground in which a boundary was defined by a fence. On the first day–without the fence–it was observed that the children barely explored the area. On the second day, they used the entire enclosed space for their play. Form is like that for me. With boundaries and rules, I have more freedom to explore other avenues and opportunities the poem might give me. And I certainly play with the flexibility of those rules, but I want them there to begin. I need that sense of structure to subvert my tendency to explicate too much. Form allows me to play with the narrative.


TJ: How often do you look outside English language poetic forms? Do you feel it to be a sort of vacation when you visit them, either when writing them or just reading them?


KJ: Rather frequently. For me, though, that vacation comes out of the research more than the form itself. I was a French major in college and my interest in Camille Claudel came out of my time studying abroad in Paris. I began writing these poems about three years after that semester, so the research was, in many ways, a psychological vacation.


TJ: Which writers are your touchstones when you find yourself in a rut?


KJ: I often read to preempt those ruts. I keep a stack of books near me that I spend time with before I even begin to write. Sure those books rotate, but I often find myself returning to the same favorites: Edward Hirsch’s Special Orders, Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, A. Van Jordan’s MACNOLIA, and Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. The Camille Claudel poems were particularly helped along by Andrew Hudgins’ After the Lost War and Margaret Gibson’s Memories of the Future: The Daybooks of Tina Modotti.


TJ: Which contemporary poets do you envy? Exactly what do you envy?


KJ: Once I found it, I carried Sharon Olds’ “The Father” in my bag for years. I love the focus of that book, how each poem is a snapshot. She takes the tiniest moment, splits it open, and examines it poem after poem. The narrative comes by stringing those moments together, without unnecessary explication. That book taught me so much. I think I’m a bit obsessed with grief. I’m always trying to learn how other poets examine loss. I envy whatever it is that makes me cry.


TJ: Did you have a mentor when you began your writing career? What characteristic would you most like to emulate as you move forward?


KJ: Absolutely! I’m still very much in the beginning of my writing career, but I wouldn’t be writing poems without that support, encouragement, and guidance. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is to always go to the books, to learn from the poets who have come before me. I love the term “literary ancestors.” I subscribe to the idea that poetry is familial and we all have a lineage or genealogy to discover.


TJ: What do you feel about the current state of the writing community?


KJ: There is a wonderful aesthetic diversity among writers as well as a multitude of mediums and venues to experience the written word. The writers themselves are a fabulous bunch. I was reading recently about the debate over literary citizenship and I fall very hard in favor of it. We are all better for supporting each other. I’m so happy to be a poet writing today.


TJ: I put writers into two categories: writers who make me want to write and writers who make me want to throw up my hands and give up because they are just that amazing.  Can you pick one writer for each category and can you explain the choice?


KJ: Oh no! Do I have to pick one? I’ll do my best. In addition to “The Father” and those touchstone books, Donald Hall’s “Without” always makes me want to write. And I always throw my hands up in the air after reading Galway Kinnell’s “Prayer.” That poem is something special. And it’s so complete and compact: “Whatever happens. Whatever / what is is is what / I want. Only that. But that.”


TJ: If you could go back in time and talk to your wide-eyed 10 year old self, what would you tell her about your choice of writing as a vocation?


KJ: Poetry is not the worst thing ever and poets aren’t writing to be vague or confusing on purpose. If ten-year-old me could swallow that (and she probably couldn’t), I’d tell her, too, that her practice and appreciation of other arts disciplines will lead her to writing (and then poetry, specifically). I’d also tell her to not be too surprised when she finds herself reading the OED for fun.




Read Katharine Johnsen’s poems “When We Dead Awaken,” “L’Âge mûr,” and “Montdevergues, 1943


Read more of TJ’s interviews in Women in Form



Katherine Johnsen earned her MFA in Creative Writing as the Bernice Kert Fellow at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and her BA from Emory University. She is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere.