July 18–24, 2022
Danielle Johnson is a poet in Phoenix, AZ. She writes poems with Blossom Poetry Workshop and works as a barista at Hakiri Coffee on the weekends. During the week, she works in construction—which teaches you that about ninety percent of any project is just making things up. This past fall, Johnson was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Rosebud Ben-Oni’s Burning Down the House workshop on rethinking poetic form.
I spent so much time being beckoned
which means someone had control of me
enough to make me come like a dog
I never saw my brother rest under the hand
of my father only I stood next to that man as
I was assessed by another as he rattled off my cross country times
or for further proof of my beauty
pulled a school photo from the linty folds of his wallet
Humiliation can feel in some lights like pride
and so I swelled with something as I was appraised
for anything deemed opposite a weakness
If you are a girl you know this feeling
how it exists over you and how you have
no control over it
All he had to do was cup the air with his fingers
waving me forward and as he said my name
dutifully I brought my body to sit in his lap
and to smile so vacantly as if to prove I was
there and not there to begin with
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem very quickly after I’d been ruminating on my girlhood while working on a longer project. I didn’t really feel like a girl for most of my childhood but wasn’t given the opportunity to explore my gender identity. I twisted myself into a gender pretzel—pretty but not slutty, bookish but not too smart, sporty but not masculine-presenting. I learned that the men in my family liked passive women, so I became passive. I learned that the best thing a girl could be was pretty, so I straightened my hair and wore a bikini. I accepted whatever happened to me. I came as I was called. Writing this poem was very cathartic for me because I finally feel like I have captured a feeling that I struggled to name. The line I’m most proud of is “humiliation can feel in some lights like pride.” Growing up, I wasn’t taught to trust my instincts. Now I have that kind of discernment which makes it possible to write a line like that.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on a long essay about growing up with a White supremacist. I’m also putting together a chapbook that grapples with some of these themes and topics. After I finished my MFA and when the pandemic coincidentally started, I decided that I was going to take my time with my work and focus on quality. I’ve been working, slowly and steadily, on a collection of poems that feels really true to me and my experience.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is a day with a plan. I love to spend the morning reading and writing with my dog and then packing up on my bike to go out with friends. I’m pretty easy to please—my partner and I go to yoga together and make dinner together. That’s a good day. The only thing that would make any day better is being with my two closest friends who live in Georgia.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I grew up in Michigan and thought of Michigan as home for a very long time. I moved around a little bit in college and always felt a lot of pride being from such a beautiful state. I lived in Georgia for three years during my Masters program and made a lot of friends who feel like family now. When I think of home, I often think of Georgia. Right now I live in Phoenix. I have all the usual gripes that others do about the heat and the politics but I LOVE the people here. I’m a pretty private person, so having a group of people I can share my vulnerabilities with feels really sacred and special to me. I feel very confident about my place in the community of things here and that feels like home.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I’ve been lucky in life to have many poetry communities. I went to an incredible undergraduate program and have friends that I trust with my work. I also have a close friend and reader that I met in my MFA. I created a small poetry workshop called Blossom here in Phoenix. We’re on summer break now and are planning a lot of new and cool things for the fall. I wanted to create a place for people to express themselves without judgment. Sure, we critique each other’s work, but it’s in an exploratory way that, to me, feels really special. I live in downtown Phoenix and the community is bursting with love, acceptance and creativity. I know that sounds cheesy, but in a world where everything feels like a competition, it’s nice to have a place where I feel I belong.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I read Nick Flynn in college and was lucky enough to meet him in grad school. Flynn’s work was really important to me as I figured out how to write about my complicated family dynamics. There is a lot of shock value that comes when you say you grew up with a White supremacist and it’s not always comfortable to admit. I found a confidant in Flynn’s work—like, Damn, I think he would get it.
I took a course with Rosebud Ben-Oni and really enjoyed working with her. She was so vulnerable, kind and open to possibility. It was a real treat to be in her class and to work with someone whose subject matter is so different from mine. I wrote a lot of poems in her class that I wouldn’t have written otherwise.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My ninth-grade cross country coach encouraged me to keep writing. I had a high school English teacher give me a comic about getting homework done that I still carry with me to this day. I’ve been very lucky in my life to have adults who stepped in where my parents couldn’t. If it weren’t for those very early mentors (pre-poetry mentors!) and their care for me, I don’t think I would be an artist.
Laura Newbern has been an incredible poetry mentor to me. She taught me how to care for my work, how to revise, and how to improve a poem. For a long time, I was pretty proud and self-righteous when it came to my poetry. I thought I could get by on talent and luck. Laura taught me how to navigate the ninety percent of poetry that is not talent—time, care, attention, revision. A therapist told me that you know therapy is working when you hear a therapist’s voice in your head. I have Laura’s voice in my head during revision and I am really grateful for that.
Not all of my mentors are people I know—I’ve spent a lot of time with CA Conrad’s work and videos and have (embarrassingly) sent them a lot of fan mail. I really do feel indebted to Conrad for keeping me interested in poetic work after I moved to Arizona. It was the middle of quarantine and I was teaching middle school on Zoom. It was nice to feel connected to another world through Conrad’s work.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka and still can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a book that grapples with aging, Alzheimer’s and losing a parent. I have many people in my life who are aging and do not have children. I will one day be a person who is old and does not have children. I hope that we will see a more compassionate world for our elders. I’ve also been reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell which has given me a lot to think about when it comes to attention and art-making.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve had Olio by Tyehimba Jess on my shelf for three years now. I have such an appreciation for how smart those poems are but I always read one and then put the book in a stack. Maybe I’ll get through it this year!
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
My friend Isabel reminded me about the public library about a year ago and I’ve been requesting tons of physical books. I love knowing that there are many others who have read the same things. I’m a little mad at my library for being so good at cleaning out books—I’m always hoping I’ll see little notes or receipts that others have left between the pages.
I’m not much of a digital reader but (don’t tell my boss) I found a PDF version of Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews that I would read on my lunch or when things were a little slow. FYI: not as sexy as it seemed to me when I was in the fourth grade …
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve never used a collective voice in a poem. I grew up with nine siblings and have been wondering what it might be like to explore a time from childhood with a collective voice instead of my singular perspective.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I always want to read at the bar with a glass of wine or out at a coffee shop but I have to say that my number-one place to read is at home. Winters in Phoenix are incredible and I live really close to a park. I’m hoping to get out to the park this winter to read.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate every person,
And what I see in you, you see forever,
For every delight in me as good as every sweetness I give you.