Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chapbook Chat: Sonja Johanson Discusses Trees in Our Dooryards

Trees in Our Dooryards
Author: Sonja Johanson

PublisherRed Bird Chapbooks
Publication date: 2016

Maple Triptych II, Introduced
by Sonja Johanson

Acer platanoides

Those maroon lollipops, they looked so crass
Lined up along the manicured lawns
In their perfect circles of orange mulch,
Dressing the landscape in middle class uniforms.
They seemed so vain and garish
Wearing button down shirts and ties,
Pinstriped suits of bark, chartreuse nosegays.
Leaving their poor relations to scrape by
In abandoned lots and waste places,
Pock marked with nasty black spots
Scarred carriers of tree measles.

Acer pseudoplatanus

No known maple could ever grow,
Much less thrive, so close to salt spray,
On that moonscape of scree and broken pavement.
The only plausible explanation
For this fat, vigorous trunk
Weaving through the fence like a python
For those broad, rippled leaves
Like the great polydactyl claws of some predator
For the bizarre samaras, not proper pairs
But triplet seeds, strange as a third eye,
Must be that some distant planet exploded
Sending debris hurtling through the galaxy.
Somewhere in the meteorite that smashed into this shoreline
Nestled one alien seed
Which found favor with this new soil,
Forgiving atmosphere, fortunate distance from our sun.

Acer palmatum

At first, I felt sorry for them-
Those kept plants, the geisha trees.
Too thin skinned and delicate to stand a real winter
Without breaking out in frost cracks.
But, over time, my own blood thinning
From this milder latitude
I began to notice the painted patterns
On their long fingers.
Their modest way when leafing out.
I could see how a sponsor
Might shape their development.
Here, cull a reverting limb.
There, place a thinning cut
To open the gracious form.

originally appeared in The Dandelion Farm Review

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Sonja Johanson has work appearing in or forthcoming at BOAAT, Outlook Springs, and The Writer’s Almanac. She is a contributing editor at The Found Poetry Review, and the author of Impossible Dovetail (IDES, Silver Birch Press, 2015), all those ragged scars (Choose the Sword Press, 2015), and Trees in Our Dooryards (Redbird Chapbooks, 2016). Sonja divides her time between work in Massachusetts and her home in the mountains of western Maine.

Author website:

Author Facebook page:


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[This interview was conducted via email in November 2016.]

Please tell us a little bit about Trees in Our Dooryards.

SJ: Dooryards is a selection of poems based in my home state. Underneath the placed based stories, and the desire to connect and write poetry that would be meaningful to people I know, I’m also writing about a sense of loss. Those rural areas, and those lifestyles, are passing us by, and I want to capture them while I still can.

You mentioned that your chapbook is a love letter to your home state of Maine. I imagine aspects of place feature prominently your chapbook. Maxine Kumin wrote “In a poem one can use the sense of place as an anchor for larger concerns, as a link between narrow details and global realities. Location is where we start from” (In Deep: Country Essays). Does this ring true for you? Do the poems in Trees in our Dooryards tend towards the geographical-location and natural-environment aspect of place? Or are they more engaged with the history of the area or its current cultural or political landscape?

SJ: Yes. Yes. Yes. Chuckle. That’s kind of an unfair way to respond, but human ecology teaches us that humans are not separate from the environment, we’re part of it. Our landscape shapes us, geography shapes our culture, history affects our politics, and our politics in turn affect the environment. So the poems touch all of those areas. One poem begins with the history of itinerant painters and ends with the loss of species we are currently experiencing. Another imagines a (quite fanciful) solution to the storm destruction occurring on coast lines everywhere. A childhood spent outdoors plants the seeds of a future environmental ethic; years spent working in the tourist industry ensure a connection to people, as well as place.

I see you’re a Lifetime Master Gardener of the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association. Poet Stanley Kunitz was also a passionate gardener. In The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, his collections of essay on poetry and gardening, he wrote:
I conceived of the garden as a poem in stanzas. Each terrace contributes to the garden as a whole in the same way each stanza in a poem has a life of its own, and yet is part of a progressive whole as well.

The form provides some degree of repose, letting our mind rest in the comparatively manageable unit of the stanza, or terrace. Yet there is also a need to move on, to look beyond teh stanza, into the poem as a whole.

Often, when you finish reading a poem, the impulse is to revisit the beginning now that you’ve been all the way through it, and then each subsequent trip through the poem is different and colored by having seen the whole thing.
Does Kunitz’s parallel consideration of poetry and gardening resonate with you? How does your love of gardening impact your writing and your poetry?

SJ: What a lovely way to look at a poem! Classic estates were often set up with garden “rooms”, each distinct, yet connected and contributing to the grounds as a whole. Not only does this metaphor work for a poem, I think it extends perfectly to a set of poems within a book – each discrete, with its own focus and feel, and yet related and falling under a unifying theme.

As to gardening and poetry, there’s no better meditation than weeding, and the quiet time is often when a lot of writing happens in my head.

Oddly, despite being a Master Gardener, it isn’t really gardens that I am passionate about – it’s individual plants. I’m fascinated by their survival and reproductive strategies, and I’m somewhat more drawn to wild plants than domestic ones. It’s anthropomorphizing, of course, but I’m charmed by the oak’s preference for squirrels as a reproductive partner over humans. The apple made a different decision, and threw its lot in with us, but oak trees retain some wildness for not using us as seed dispersers. It’s the same with weeds over our tame garden plants – they choose the hardscrabble, the unwanted liminal places, and the strategies they use to be successful in doing so are varied and amazing. I know weeds and trees much better than the inhabitants of your average perennial garden. This does make me reflect, though, on a particular difficulty I have with my writing; it’s different all the time. My form, my voice, my subjects can be all over the place, which is like my gardening – one summer I’m into growing heirloom watermelons, another it’s peanuts in New England, another summer I decide I just have to have a forest pansy. So my gardens are a patchwork of whatever catches my interest, and my writing can be that way too. It’s fun, no regrets, but it takes me a while to acquire enough cohesive material to pull together a themed book.

You also mentioned that most of the poems in Trees in our Dooryards came out of a 30-poems-in-30-days event sponsored by The Writer’s Digest. What was that experience like for you? How did you come to realize that you might have a chapbook? Tell us a bit about what you did to shape the poems into a cohesive whole.

SJ: That was the first 30-30 I ever did, and I found it to be exhausting! I’m a very slow writer; I’ve been told it’s called “bathtub writing”. I’ll mull something over in my head, work on it while I’m driving, or running, or gardening (apparently some people do this in the bathtub). Then one day I’ll sit down and write the whole thing out, in what is pretty close to its finished form. With the 30-30 I would wake up in the morning, read the prompt first thing, spend the day ruminating on it, and write it come evening. It was a lot less time than I was accustomed to having, and quite a few of the pieces were not really worth saving. The ones that were, though, were in a very plain voice, and tended to be memories and observations.

Writer’s Digest does two Poem-A-Day Challenges every year, and the November one is a chapbook challenge, so that was already the idea. Fifteen of the poems that ended up in the final chapbook were from this project; I could hear that they had a similar tone and related to one another. As time went along and I found others that seemed to fit in as well, they went into the file, and eventually I had enough pieces for a full chapbook.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

SJ: My personal favorite in this collection is the closing poem, “Back to You”. Each line takes me to a very specific place and moment, though those are pieced together from disparate years – the top of a mountain on a winter day, that same mountain from below, streets and fields I’ve walked in forgotten farm towns. For me, it’s a love poem to my home, and then simply a love poem that anyone might relate to, and finally it’s about coming back to writing after almost twenty years of thinking that part of my life was over.

Back To You

Days, I smile endlessly out the windshield
looking up, those on the bright
mountain looking down to where
this bridge splits the water

Stone walls stumble along corn-liquor lines
I keep watch for wedding maples – both trees
hardly ever survive the crush of asphalt
or the salted winters, so we plant again

Seeing the land fall away
while the sky opens up
before the road, now I know
my heart does more than beat

In a Feb 2014 essay “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s “The Secret of Light,” James Galvin offers as one reason why a poet would write of specific place: 
[T]he poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as in were, inside out, so that the center of “knowing who you are” becomes the circumference of uncertainty. The poem as locus mirrors this dynamic, since it is a measured place, possibly with stanzas (rooms), which has an infinite capacity to contain everything outside it, including the poet. To have identity means to be alone. Loneliness is the anxiety that compels us to identify with an other or with otherness. To disappear into a place. To empathize.
Many poets live in one area for years, yet don’t write about the place where they live. What do you think of Galvin’s comments regarding why a poet would write poems rooted in a specific place?

SJ: Hmmm…my first response is that writing from place is very much “write what you know”, and with our increasing awareness of the problems around cultural appropriation, it’s critical to do that. I may be deeply concerned with Native American rights, or inner city class struggles, but those are not my stories to tell. I get to tell about the loss of culture or environmental connection from where I stand, and if I do it successfully, perhaps it will remind the reader of your place and the changes you are experiencing – maybe you know how that feels even if we’ve never seen each other’s homes. So in that sense we do have death of the author, which I think is what Galvin is talking about.

I do really like the line “to disappear into a place”. I think we all know that feeling, when immersed in the landscape, of being both irrelevant and indescribably large. It is absolutely a moment of deep loneliness, but also one of profound connection. We matter, and we don’t matter in the slightest, and it’s all very wonderful and humbling.

In addition to the motif of place, what are some of the other themes, metaphors, and elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

SJ: Themes of the environment and class are inescapable for me – that’s my particular set of filters. All these poems are simple free verse, and as a writer I place tremendous importance on accessibility. That’s not to say that all poems, or even all writers, need to be accessible to all readers, but some definitely do if we want poetry to succeed more widely as an art form. One of my most meaningful experiences as a writer actually happened during a reading. I opened my reading with a piece about/not about ice fishing, and a man at the table near the door stood up at the end and said “I been there” in a heavy Maine accent. I wanted to hug him; I was incredibly nervous, but felt instantly reassured by that familiar voice offering support. At the end of the evening, the host told me that he and his friends sometimes came to the reading series to heckle the poets – but instead, I reached him, and he reached me. We have to find a way to do that if poetry is going to connect with an audience outside of ourselves.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

SJ: The editors at Red Bird Chapbooks did ask me if I had preferences regarding my cover, but I don’t happen to know a whole lot of artist, so I let them offer up suggestions. They sent me two, and I have to say that I’m quite in love with this one!

Is there a poem you consider to be a “misfit” in your collection? If so, why is it a misfit?

SJ: That’s such a good question – I really do have a misfit in there. It’s “North Alder River Pond.” I included it because it’s about a pond where my family has a small summer camp, and which also makes an appearance in some other pieces, but the voice and tone are profoundly different from any of the other poems. That piece was probably my first foray into found poetry. I was reading a history of the pond, and used a lot of found language from that little history in the first part of the poem; in particular I would select family names from the area and use them simply as words in the text – Rod, Linwood, Ransom, Reward, Warr. It’s the one poem in the collection from which I, as the narrator, am really absent, and it’s just the place talking.

What are you working on now?

SJ: Well, I’m working on applications for an MFA, which is kind of dry, but I’m also working on a couple of different poem series. The first is a series of poems which personify people in my life as body parts – "My Stomach Gives Me Honey", "Binge-Watching Netflix with My Spine." The second is a series of prose poems about social justice couched as “spells” – "Spell for Giving a Selfish Person Empathy," "Spell for Putting the Shape of a Wife in the Wall," etc. These are a far throw from my place based poems, so I guess I’m still working out what my voice is!

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