Voracious readers might make the greatest writers-so says poet Kimberly Johnson, the inaugural speaker in this year's Visiting Writers Reading Series. An English literature and creative writing professor at Brigham Young University, Johnson's writing has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Slate and The Iowa Review. Her poetry collections include Leviathan with a Hook (2002), A Metaphorical God (2008) and Uncommon Prayer (2014), all published by Persea Books. In advance of her visit, she answered questions about the craft of writing. Edited excerpts follow. The English Department sponsors the Visiting Writers Reading Series with support from the Mabel Groseclose Fund.
What advice would you give to aspiring creative writers?
It's said so frequently that it's almost become a cliché, but it's a cliché because it's true: to write well one must read voraciously. Read everything. Read literature, to see what techniques are possible and what techniques haven't yet been attempted, and to internalize the thinking of centuries of other minds. Read the cereal box, so that the world around you doesn't get taken for granted or become invisible. Read medical journals, National Geographic, Greek lexicons, to expand your base of knowledge. Read advertisements and political statements, to gain an appreciation for the ways in which language manipulates readers (for good or ill). Reading exposes a reader to alien ideas and novel and apt ways of putting those ideas into words, and anyone who wants to write must be willing to gather evidence and examples from far and wide to understand how words work.
What do you consider the key to great poetry?
I love words. I love how each one of them has a different texture, a heft, a history, and I love how a great poem keeps me alert to all the idiosyncratic and individual qualities of each of its words. And I love that a reader doesn't require a magic secret decoder ring to unlock the pleasures of a poem: one needs only to be able to read to apprehend all the cool ways that a poem puts words together to communicate. Words seem like such casual, throwaway tools, but poetry reminds us that far from being disposable, words are consequential things that make our minds and bodies have experiences. This is all a long-winded way of saying that words are the key to poetry—which is an empowering realization for readers.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a teacher or a writer?
I was a biology major in college until pretty much the last semester of my undergraduate career. In that capacity, I had the opportunity to teach human anatomy—to spend time in the anatomy lab dissecting cadavers and sections of specimens and then to acquaint students with the marvelous structures of the human body. It was because of that experience in the lab that I came to see how quickening I found teaching, particularly the pleasure of sharing discovery and its excitements with other minds. And I realized that the same habits of mind I was using in the anatomy lab transferred well to the study of literary texts, which like the bodies in the lab rewarded close attention to detail as well as the relationship between minute details and larger systems. So I'm no believer in the separation of disciplines or the segregation of learning into the sciences on one hand and the "soft" studies of arts, letters and humanities on the other; whatever we study, close study accustoms us to think carefully, and that practice transforms our understanding of the world around us no matter the object of our study.
Whitman hosts an array of guest speakers and educators. Many also offer on-campus workshops or engage with students in the classroom. We ask them to give us a brief insight into their area of expertise. For more information on upcoming events at Whitman, go online to the campus calendar.