INTERCHANGE: Abby Johnson on Voice, Drawing, and Vulnerability

MS: So, if I had to describe the two pieces that we published in our second issue, one word I would use is transformative. I’d also say they’re very introspective, and they have this reluctant honesty about them that I think is really unique. You’ve honed in on your own voice. I guess I want to know where you pull that from.

AJ: Right. So, these originally started as an assignment that one of my nonfiction professors assigned to me in undergrad, and originally it was just one. She had us read some pages from Fun Home, and other graphic memoirs,and she said “Okay, make one of your own.” At that time, I wasn’t really writing nonfiction, I was writing poems. But I tried to pull poems that came from specific moments. And then, I liked doing it so much—it was very relaxing for me. So I made a graphic poem for each of my friends for Christmas. And actually, the two in Turnpike are gifts that I made for specific people, so it’s interesting sharing them with people and having them be generally understood.

But, I think it all comes down to that idea of finding your audience or finding who you want to write to. And I’ve heard a lot of poets recently talk about having a couple people in mind when writing a poem. Like, Angel Nafis and their partner were talking about this on Twitter a couple of weeks ago—they were talking about how they have one person that they write towards, that they respect, and that they know is generous for the first draft, and then they kind of go back after to look at it. And that’s sort of what I was doing—it’s not about those friends, but it was writing towards those specific friends, and saying, like, I want to make a piece that reflects our shared experiences in some way, and hope that it reflects true life in someway.

That’s cool, it reminds me a little of middle school, where they say,like, you need to know your audience. And you take that to heart really well.So, would you say the kind of poem you’re writing changes from person to person, or is it usually a pretty consistent voice?

I would say it’s usually a consistent voice at this point, but the goal is for me to sound more like me in conversation with them than me speaking at them. So, I want it to be something consistent and—I mean, to be cliché—to be more true to myself, or whatever.

But it takes away from journaling for me, to like, imagine me sharing it with someone, but it’s also easier to imagine sharing it with someone that I know intimately as opposed to just someone somewhere.

Well, I think a lot of poetry is really vulnerable. You kind of have to get into that space, and it’s definitely easier to be vulnerable with your friends than just a piece of paper.


So, I guess moving into process, it seems like in the two pieces we featured, you really established the physical space—the box where narration goes, I suppose—really clearly. Now, did you write that out first and have that set as the space where you would put your text, or did you write your text first?

So, the poems existed first. And then in terms of filling into the space, how I draw is I look at pictures I’ve taken and sketch from that.

Oh, that’s very Alison Bechdel,

Yeah, and so I chose the pictures that I wanted, and imagined the boxes that way. And then I had specific lines that I wanted to fit with each image, and some of them break much like a line break, but others don’t,and they’re end stops.

So, was it kind of like compiling a different poem from picture to picture, then?

Sort of, yeah. A lot of it was thinking about how each piece worked, like a machine. Like, is this box a separate unit from the whole?

It’s almost like an extended line. So, lately, have you found yourself going back into graphic poetry, or do you usually work with the more traditional line?

I usually work with the more traditional line, not from alack of desire to do more illustrated poetry, but it definitely takes more of my time, because I’m less natural at drawing. But I want to do more in the future. I have about six or seven graphic poems at this point, and I’m very interested in doing more, but it requires a little bit more time than I have currently.

Right. It sounds suspiciously like a chapbook.

Oh, that’d be so much fun.

So, to take a departure from just process in general, going into the more broad sense of your work, you often cite the Midwest as an influence in your writing, but are there any other topics aside from the Midwest that kind of worm their way into your writing, too?

Yeah, I think a lot of it has to do with my experience in the world, so, the Midwest is one facet of understanding myself, because all place is—you are always a person in relation to a place, whether it’s somewhere you’ve been, or somewhere you are, or where you’re going. That all plays into your texture as a person. But I would say other layers of texture of my identity are being a woman, being white, having two parents who are still married, having two brothers.

So, I find myself writing about these things. Specifically, some of the gender experiences I’ve interacted with in the Christian church,and in my experience there, or my experiences with my friends and family. I think I write about them a lot in ways that I’m still trying to figure out.Those are just some things that show up time and time again.

It’s nice how much thought you put into the external parts of identity—like where we come from, who we’re related to, anything that happens before us or around us. So, getting into the more generic questions, I guess, what art, or poetry, or fiction or bathroom wall graffiti are you taking in right now? What’s your obsession?

I would say currently—I just read a Jericho Brown book, The New Testament, which was just amazing, but also, I’m pretty into photography right now. I guess it’s fitting with what’s been published in Turnpike,but I’ve been looking at a lot of photography of wildlife and things like that,but also of family scapes—and kind of seeing how well photographers can capture just a single moment and being very interested in that still life sort of situation, in a way that I don’t think I do in my work, but I am very interested in it.

So, I could see myself trying to do that in the future. My best friend Jackie Durbha does a lot of photography work, and she’s been sending me pictures that she took on a family reunion. I’ve just been looking at them at least twice a day.

That’s cool, it’s like, sociological almost. And I also think that still lives are a good way to describe your work in Turnpike—it’s like, the still life of the anxieties around a specific relationship with someone. And I think what makes it so universal is that even though we don’t know what person a poem is for, we can still find ourselves in it. Because you’ve worked extra hard in translating these photographs through drawing, and then you’re putting your poems in there as well to make something that is applicable to everyone.


And last question—where can we find more of your work?

I’ve been published in Sixfold Journal, I have five poems in their 2018 summer issue. And then I was published in Revolving Door Journal.

Alright, and did you have anything else you wanted to say? Any shoutouts or anything?

Um, shoutout to the cohort!

Ha, and Alison Bechdel right?

Yes, and of course, Hanif Abdurraqib!


Abby Johnson is a poet and a Hoosier who is proud of the local art scene that fostered her. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing through Butler University. She is interested in the affect of Middle America on the voices of those who live there. She has work published in Sixfold Journal.

Author: turnpikemagazine

Turnpike is a literary and art magazine devoted to positive themes and underrepresented voices.

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