Stephanie N. Johnson: Mother-Poet-Extraordinaire


Kinesthesia, by Stephanie N. Johnson

Since becoming a mother who writes (or a writer who mothers? Hm!) I have found myself becoming little weirdly obsessed with other mom/writers, wanting to seek out each and every one and grill them (the way undergraduates always want to know what time of day writers write and with what sort of pen or computer) on, well, when they write. And how.

Which is why I imposed on Stephanie N. Johnson, a graduate school classmate of mine whose luminous poetry collection, Kinesthesia, was recently released.

Here is a little bit about Stephanie, from her website: “Stephanie N. Johnson’s first book of poems, Kinesthesia, was published fall 2010 by New Rivers Press as a winner of the 2008 Many Voices Project. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Borderlands, BPJ, Massachusetts Review, Water Stone Review and elsewhere. She holds a BA in English from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota with a graduate minor in Complementary and Alternative Therapies (CAM). Stephanie’s poems and essays are concerned with the relationship between imagination and the natural world, how human-imagination crosses a field of realization and possibility, leaving tracks.”

Stephanie N. Johnson

In grad school, Stephanie wrote an amazing essay about bow-hunting caribou in Alaska and holding a heart in her hands. It was seriously the best thing ever.

And voila! Our interview:

How has being a mother affected your writing?

I don’t worry about my writing like I used to. I don’t worry about losing inspiration. I am more efficient. I receive line edits in my dreams. I feel all of life conspiring so that I can continue to do my work. I celebrate the poems as they come, and I am writing much more broadly. Fiction, nonfiction, young adult and children stories too. My writing has matured as I have, growing in the deepest of ways from the challenges and the joys of being a mother. I love to experience the unfurling of a little human being, to have these girls grow and meet me with a language all their own. They remind me that my artistic (and interpersonal) evolution is never complete.

Many of these poems have to do with relationships between females. Did having two daughters inform the subject matter at all?

Interestingly, most of these poems were written before my daughters were born. Sometimes I feel like I had daughters because my writing is so often female centered. It seems appropriate somehow that I would have two girls. Since the book has been published I’ve found the poems instructional, a stanza coming to me in a moment of indiscretion when I’m floundering to decide what to do next. I have the sense that these poems have always been alive, which is how I feel about my daughters sometimes. It’s almost impossible to think that at one time these girls (and these poems) were not alive. There is a mystery to all of this that softens and inspires me. I feel like life is inherently benevolent. In short, I feel blessed somehow.

How long have you been working on this book? When do you find time/energy to write, with all the other responsibilities in your life?

I put a lot of dedicated work into this book in 2006-2007, between the first and second child. This was after the manuscript was basically “complete.” Most of the poems themselves were written in 2003 when I was traveling in eastern Europe where I stayed in a monastery for a time. I basically downloaded the poems straight out of the air, air that the Catholic nuns breathed in and out on their way to morning prayer. I used to get ice cream from a particular ice cream stand where all the nuns also bought their vanilla cones. I’d sit at the picnic tables near them and listen to them speak in Polish with one another. Late summer and nuns and vanilla ice cream. It was delicious.

After my first daughter was born there was a mental test period where I wondered whether I would be tenacious enough to keep writing with all the cloth diaper washing, nursing, late nights etc. It was a wary time. And then miraculously I found plenty of opportunities to write in that first year. I was a “stay at home mom.” But I was also a “poet finding inspiration in any free moment.”

The busyness increased after my second was born, but I have stayed committed to snatching stolen moments and the late nights of writing, even though I frequently have bags under my eyes. My friends will say, “You were up late writing last night, weren’t you.” Also, my husband and I bought a TV this past year. I admit it. I let the girls watch Dora the Explorer while I revise and send submissions. Thirty minutes a day of work like this goes a long way in the grand scheme of things.

Your family semi-recently moved from Minnesota to New Mexico – how has this affected you as a family, and you personally as a writer?

I grew up in Minnesota, and I appreciate this fact more now that I live in New Mexico. But I needed to leave to carve out some space for myself, to define my life in my own way.

I consider myself to be a very spiritual person. Not religious, but connected. I am inspired by living closely to the earth. I believe in the magic of the imagination. I deeply believe in human potential. My writing has always been a location in which I’ve been willing to risk being myself. But in Minnesota I hid a lot. When I wasn’t sitting at my writing desk I was stingy with myself. I felt confined by other people’s real or imagined definitions of me. Self-judgment! I had to leave my self-judgment behind. I had to drive and haul an entire household of goods 1,400 miles cross country to symbolically leave it behind. Such work! We all have to leave self-judgment behind if we want to dream big. This physical move has facilitated an internal shift within me that has made all the difference in my life. It has strengthened my relationship with my husband and my children. And the skies the limit where my writing is concerned. I am of the general opinion that it’s good to shake things up a bit (for one’s writing & livelihood), and a good, strenuous move to another state or county will certainly do this! I expect new horizons are before us in the future. But where? Who knows.

I’d like to note that at the end of her email, Steph wrote: “(I apologize for any editing flaws contained herein; I’m getting some flack for not helping with dinner. time to go).” That’s life as a writing mother for you.  Thanks so much, Stephanie, for finding the time to answer these questions and write those poems!

Check out her book.  It’s wonderful.





2 responses to “Stephanie N. Johnson: Mother-Poet-Extraordinaire

  1. These poems are so full of wisdom and heart and dark thoughtful humor — every daughter should share this book with her mother and every mother with her daughter. Well, maybe not your 2-yr. old daughter… yet.

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