From the Archives: The L Austen Johnson Interview
Back in June of 2018, I finally had the chance to meet up with my long-time collaborator, L. Austen Johnson. At the time, she had just released a new book of poetry called Burning the Bacon. The collection was published by GenZ Publishing, which is also the home of my books, The Smoke in His Eyes and The Boy Who Kissed the Rain. As I have continued to work with this talented writer (and graphic artist) on a variety of projects, I can truly say that I'm lucky to know her, and as a fan of poetry, I can say that the world is better for having this collection of poetry in it.
This interview was conducted in 2018 as preparation for a series of joint public appearances that we held in Virginia to support our recent releases.
Shane Wilson (SW): Let’s get the basics out of the way. Can you tell us the name of your book(s) and give us a 2-3 sentence run down?
L. Austen Johnson (LAJ): My book is Burning the Bacon. It’s a poetry collection that’s a bit realistic a bit fictitious, but all personal. It’s somewhere in between confessional and narrative.
SW: What’s the backstory for Burning the Bacon? How did it come about?
LAJ: I’ve been writing (mostly bad) poetry since I was thirteen or fourteen or so. I was drawn to the density of meaning that poetry affords; as someone who gets caught up on particulars, the ability for me to be so nit-picky in my poetry appealed to me. Like most poets, I was also “inspired” to write by my emotions (maybe “forced by my heart” to write is a better way of putting this). At a certain point, I didn’t choose to write, but was more looking for a way to deal with life and living.
SW: Did the collection end up like the one you pictured in your mind?
LAJ: My poetry style has definitely shifted over the years. While I could’ve imagined a collection of love poems, I think what I ended up with is more diverse than that. I talk about religion, science, chronic illness, food, growing up, along with love and heartbreak.
SW: Do you read a lot in your genre? If so, can you talk about how that influences you give us some examples of your favorite writers in that genre?
LAJ: I try to. I’m studying poetry and poetics in my Master’s program, so hopefully I read a lot of poetry. I do tend to read older poetry (Victorian and Early Modern are two of my favorite periods). My favorite contemporary poet is Eavan Boland. From her I learned that you can take one personal moment and make it about something larger—the symmetry of the universe, the weight of living, our shared experiences of being human. That’s what the titular poem “Burning the Bacon” means to me, and I hope that’s something that readers get from my collection. I also liked reading poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Clementine von Radics. In general, I am more drawn to contemporary women authors, but I like older poets like the Brownings, Walt Whitman, Christina Rossetti, and John Keats.
SW: What is your writing process like? I mean all aspects--from how you actually write a novel, to your workspace—the room, the music, the ambiance. Where do you do your best work?
LAJ: I think I’ve done some of my best work at 3AM when I’ve woken myself up with an idea. I jot a note to myself on my phone and then re-visit in the morning. Usually, I have a word or phrase that echoes in my mind and I know I won’t be able to fully sleep without putting the proverbial pen to paper. If I’m actively trying to write, I like playlists that fit my mood—this can be anything from southern gothic to hip hop to medieval instrumental music. Usually when I first write a poem, I’m caught up in the emotion of it, and then I go back and edit it for sense, word choice, and tone.
SW: What are three things that you can’t live without when writing?
1) Tea — makes every idea flow more easily 2) Alone time — I am easily distracted in company 3) Music —see above
LAJ: What distinguishes your writing/writing style?
I think my poetry is fairly accessible. I don’t purposefully try to trick my readers or use overly latinate language. Even still, the poems tend to be longer in length than some other “instapoetry”-style contemporary writing.
SW: Can you tell us a little about any other creative endeavors you’ve got going on?
LAJ: I feel like I’m always dabbling in something. I write songs and have a few novel WIPs going on. I also like to dabble in graphic design and photography. You can see my book photography on the Instagram @girlfriendofbath and on GenZ Publishing’s pages.
SW: What’s next for you? Are there any exciting projects you’re working on?
LAJ: Grad school and more poetry, of course. You can keep up-to-date on my writings on my tumblr @laustenjohnson. I post a lot of poem drafts and behind-the-scenes of my writing process.
L. Austen Johnson has continued to be a literary force in the years since we had this talk. To catch up with everything she's been up to, visit here at www.laustenjohnson.com.