“Maybe a voice from the ancients whispers to Jenny Johnson how to sing of love and death and joy and reality in as many registers as they come in life. Or maybe Johnson is just a genius.” —Brenda Shaughnessy
“The sheer joy of Jenny Johnson’s poems finds fuel in the work of poets she loves (Hopkins, William Carlos Williams, Larry Levis), in the wild variety revealed by botany and zoology, in the insights of queer and gender theory, in dyke bars and dancing, and most of all in love and desire—that imperative to which, directly or less so, every other element in this list is in service.” —Mark Doty
“Jenny Johnson is a poet of deep compassion and mesmerizing range. Her work probes the complexities of queer identity and the body, weaving in the unexpected reaches of intimacy and communion found in nature, dreams and lost family histories. The transformative power of community in the face of discrimination and intolerance is also felt throughout much of her work.” —The Rumpus
A 2015 Whiting Award recipient, Jenny Johnson is the author of In Full Velvet (Sarabande Books, 2017). In its starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection: “In this stunningly lyrical debut, Johnson probes issues of queer culture and love from an array of existential perspectives, creating a melodic and thought-provoking symphony on queer identity…. A miniature opus, alternately joyful and heartrending, achingly bittersweet.” The Judges Citation for the Whiting Award states: “The rigor and formal poise of Jenny Johnson’s work creates an astounding emotional tension. There’s a sinuous, shape-shifting quality to this work that makes her poetic explorations of sex and selfhood all the more resonant. That subtle mastery of line and rhyme is a powerful complement to the poems’ organic commemorating, interrogating, searching. The judges were reminded of the virtuosity that characterizes a master like Elizabeth Bishop; of the profound and active depths, and how her poems ripple with need, and the desire for unity, communion, transformation.” In an interview Johnson offers this more personal understanding: “A poem is a liminal space that can offer a sensation of belonging. A poem won’t bring you a cold beer, but it may offer you a stool where you can sit down and feel momentarily at home.”
Johnson’s poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2012, New England Review, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and elsewhere. After earning a BA/MT in English Education from the University of Virginia, Johnson taught public school for several years in San Francisco, and she spent ten summers on the staff of the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. In 2016-2017 she was a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University.
She currently teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program, and the University of Pittsburgh.
Jenny Johnson is the author of In Full Velvet (Sarabande Books 2017). She is the recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award and a 2016-17 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2012, New England Review, Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and elsewhere. After earning a BA/MT in English Education from the University of Virginia, she taught public school for several years in San Francisco, and she spent ten summers on the staff of the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and at the Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program.
IN FULL VELVET (2017)
“Johnson’s first book of poems takes on subject matter such as growing up queer in America and how politicized the queer female body is. Her imagery is sharp, and she consistently brings us into liminal and charged spaces…reminding us that states of transition and what is considered in between have always been a part of human experience that is in constant relationship to change and flux, as gender is.” —Academy of American Poets
Sinuous and sensual, the poems of In Full Velvet interrogate the nuances of desire, love, gender, ecology, LGBTQ lineage and community, and the tension between a body’s material limits and the forms made possible by the imagination. Characterized by formal poise, vulnerability, and compassion, Johnson’s debut collection is one of resounding generosity and grace.
SUMMONING THE BODY THAT IS MINE WHEN I SHUT MY EYES
Come second heartbeat sounding in the breast
Come prismatic light dissembling
Come familiar spirit Come bare-chested in the weeds
Come private imposter Come hidden ballast
Come sudden departures Come stress without shape
Because belief is odd Come swaggering answer
Come invisible ink Come beatific scrawl
Come as squirrels are climbing backwards
Come as dogwood blossoms come apart
Come strumming an unspeakable power ballad
Through a torrent of rain with cheeks flushed scarlet
Come down the rusty metal slide
Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening
IN THE DREAM
I was alone in a dyke bar we’d traversed before
or maybe it was in a way all our dives
merging together suddenly as one intergalactic composite,
one glitter-spritzed black hole,
one cue stick burnished down to a soft blue nub.
Picture an open cluster of stars
managing to forever stabilize in space
without a landlord scheming to shut the place down.
Anyways, I was searching for someone there
whom we hadn’t seen in years—in what
could have been Sisters, Babes, the Lex, the Pint,
the Palms, or the E Room? but the room
had no end and no ceiling.
Though I could see all of our friends or exes
with elbows up or fingers interlocked
on table tops zinging with boomerangs.
Maybe the tables were spinning, too. I can’t be sure.
But just as a trap that trips before
hammering a mouse is not humane
the dream changed—or the alarm
that I carry in my breast pocket in my waking life
was sounding. Because in the dream,
three people on bar stools, who were straight
or closeted? but more importantly angry
turned and the room dwindled
like a sweater full of moths eating holes
through wool. Or they were humans, sure,
but not here to love
with jawlines set to throw epithets like darts
that might stick or knick or flutter past
as erratically as they were fired.
You could say their hostility was a swirl
nebulous as gas and dust,
diffuse as the stress
a body meticulously stores.
Like how when I was shoved in grade school
on the blacktop in my boy jeans
the teacher asked me if I had a strawberry
because the wound was fresh as jam, glistening
like pulp does after the skin of a fruit is
peeled back clean with a knife.
I was in the dream as open to the elements,
yet I fired back. And I didn’t care who eyed me
like warped metal to be pounded square.
I said: Do you realize where you are?
And with one finger I called our family forth
and out of the strobe lights, they came.
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