Poet Spotlight: Meg Johnson on Illness, Persona, and the Performance of Poetry

Meg Johnson

Meg Johnson is the author of the books Inappropriate Sleepover (The National Poetry Review Press, 2014), The Crimes of Clara Turlington (Vine Leaves Press, 2015), and Without: Body, Name, Country (Vine Leaves Press, 2020). Without: Body, Name, Country was nominated for the 2020 Goodreads Choice Awards. Her writing has appeared in Bust Magazine, Hobart, Ms. Magazine, Nashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Sugar House Review, Verse Daily, and others. 

Without: Body, Name, Country by Meg JohnsonYour latest book of poetry is Without: Body, Name, Country. Tell us a bit about the project and how it came into being. 

Without: Body, Name, Country is my third book. It was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2020. Vine Leaves Press had previously published my second book, The Crimes of Clara Turlington. My first book, Inappropriate Sleepover (The National Poetry Review Press) came out in 2014, and my second book came out in 2015. I had Guillain-Barré syndrome after my second book came out, and it was a long recovery process. I was writing throughout the entire recovery process, but I didn’t stress about writing a certain amount because I was focused on my health. I think because there wasn’t very much time between the first book and the second book coming out, I didn’t feel the need to rush the publication of the third book. I waited longer to submit the third book for publication after finishing it than the first two books. 

Your book is split into two sections, with the first offering free verse poetry and the second memoir as a series of poetic vignettes. Why did you choose to blend poetry and memoir into a single book? How are the two sections meant to balance and communicate with each other? 

The first section, Vaudeville, is more performative, playing with persona. I see the second section, Diagnosis, as offstage/backstage/behind the scenes. While the first section is poetry and the second section is flash nonfiction, they both address topics like illness, identity, and politics. I wanted the two parts to be in conversation with each other, but in a subtle way. I wanted the sections to be two distinct experiences about the same world. Two ways of looking at things. I think the two sections of short forms support each other, but not in overly obvious ways. I wanted to keep surprising the reader, but also keep the overall manuscript cohesive. I wanted the reader to find their own way through material that isn’t linear without getting lost. 

You mention that Vaudeville, the first section of the book, is more performative. How do you approach expressing performance or persona in a poem? To what degree do the performative aspects connect to your own personal experience? 

I worked in the performing arts for many years before I was a writer, so I often approach poetry with that mindset. Since poetry feels so much like performing to me, I feel unafraid writing most poems. There is a nervous energy to it, but it’s mostly positive energy. Embracing the idea of performance as a poet makes it easier for me to generate poems. It doesn’t matter if the poem is revealingly autobiographical or if the voice of the poem is odd and the opposite of my personality. Taking risks with poetry feels good because there is a sort of buffer. I feel keenly aware of the absence of such a buffer when writing nonfiction, but I have worked to become more comfortable with it. 

How did you first connect to poetry and what drew you to becoming a poet yourself? What keeps you writing?

I have always been drawn to how quickly a poem can create an entire world. I liked writing poems when I was in high school, but I never thought it was something I could aspire to until I was in my twenties. I took undergrad writing classes and then went to an MFA program. I think the longer you are a writer, the more you realize the compulsive nature of it. 

What was your MFA experience like for you? Is seeking an MFA something you would recommend to other writers? Why?

Deciding to pursue an MFA or not is such a personal choice. Earning an MFA was right for me. I have to mention two obvious points. People can become writers without an MFA, and sometimes people who earn MFAs in creative writing don’t become published writers. In the NEOMFA, the program I graduated from, students have an official concentration, but we were also encouraged to have an unofficial secondary concentration. I think the unofficial secondary concentration helps with being productive when the program ends.

My official concentration was poetry. The NEOMFA is a three-year program (six semesters) and about halfway through the program (during my third semester), my first book, Inappropriate Sleepover, was accepted for publication by The National Poetry Review Press. I had to start writing a totally new manuscript for my thesis which eventually became The Crimes of Clara Turlington. Inappropriate Sleepover was released during my last semester in the program, and that last semester was also when the second book started being named a finalist in book contests. With poetry, I was able to be more productive during the program than I had anticipated, but I wasn’t where I wanted to be yet with my unofficial secondary concentration which was nonfiction. So, I knew some of the things that I would be working on after graduating. Being around people with fiction concentrations and playwriting concentrations influenced me as well.

Tell us a bit about your process as a writer. Do you have any rituals for writing? Any particular materials you prefer to use (paper and pen, computer, notecards, etc.)?

I usually like to get into a word document as soon as possible. Sometimes I write notes by hand. I have always had messy handwriting so maybe that’s why I like to see things typed out. The nerve pain I have in my hands sometimes after GBS is worse holding a pen than typing for some reason. People can’t tell visually that I’ve had GBS so I think some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that I sometimes have nerve pain. I can write in public places, but I much prefer to be in a room by myself with the door locked. I pace around a lot.  

What advice do you have to offer to emerging writers?

People have really different circumstances and I think it’s helpful to remember that your own individual experiences will be different from other writers. I think you can be more productive when you don’t expect to have the same life and writing life as anyone else. 

Also, dealing with rejection is a skill and something you can get better at. Being as comfortable as possible with rejection is an asset.

Name a poet (or few) you would like more readers to know about.

I think Marie Marandola is definitely a writer to watch. Her poem “Oh, Wendy” is one of my favorite poems of all time. 

Obviously, people already know about Jennifer L. Knox, but if you haven’t read Crushing It (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) yet, I definitely recommend it. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Pretty” which is a poem that keeps moving in directions you don’t expect it to. Jen and I recently did a reading for Raven Book Store and I was so excited that she read it. You can watch a replay of the reading online to hear her read the poem, and I really recommend also reading it on the page. 

What can the world expect from you in the future? 

I’m working on a fiction manuscript, but I get nervous talking about works in progress so that’s all I’ll say about that. I took a break from writing poems and just recently started writing poems again. 

With the pandemic, things are definitely a one day at a time situation.