Amanda Johnston will be the featured reader Thursday, December 13, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. She is the author of two chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key, and the full-length collection Another Way to Say Enter (Argus House Press). Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Callaloo, Poetry, Kinfolks Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Muzzle, Pluck!, No, Dear and the anthologies, Small Batch, Full, di-ver-city, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism.
The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Johnston is a Stonecoast MFA faculty member, a cofounder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts. She serves on the Cave Canem Foundation board of directors and currently lives in Texas.
CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?
AJ: Reading. When I was a child, my mother gave me Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I believe it was the risk he took to be daring and surprising in his poetry that pulled me to the page. His subjects and narratives in his work was at times naughty and out of the ordinary. I loved it! I can’t say that I wrote outside of school then, but those poems still excite me today and I turn to them when I forget to have fun with the lines and turn to the unexpected.
CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
AJ: I lived in Kentucky from 2000 to 2005 while my husband was in the Army. I worked at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College and started writing with a group on campus and helped with the campus journal, The Heartland Review. That’s when I felt the drive for more. I wanted to read more, write more, and learn more about poetry and the literary world. Shortly after that, I was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets and was awarded a Cave Canem fellowship. These communities encouraged me to continue writing and to publish professionally. This is when I started ‘doing the work’ seriously on and off the page.
CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you decide on the University of Southern Main?
AJ: The Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine was the only program I applied to. My friend and Cave Canem faculty, poet Patricia Smith, attended Stonecoast and taught there after graduation. She encouraged me to apply. I learned a long time ago that if Patricia tells you to do something you do it because it will probably change your life for the better. It did! Stonecoast has an incredible faculty, and as a student, I was able to work with Joy Harjo, Tim Seibles, Aaron Hamburger, Ted Deppe, Jim Kelly, Alexs Pate, and Annie Finch. I also took advantage of their study abroad program and attended a summer residency in Dingle, Ireland. Most of all, the program allowed me time to selfishly focus on myself and my writing. I needed that uninterrupted time to listen to the voice within and learn additional tools to help it rise to the page.
CH: How did the MFA program change your approach to writing? What was its biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?
AJ: During the program, I took traditional form and cross-genre workshops that broadened the scope of my reading and writing. I wanted more and I needed to understand prosody and apply the study to my work so I could break it down and build it back up. I learned scansion and meter. I learned form. I love to break apart forms and mash them up with others in new ways. The freedom to take control of form and structure, along with time, was the greatest gift. I gained this whole world where other writers were just as curious and focused on the work as I was. That gave me strength and support to continue writing and push my work.
The biggest drawback? It is a financial expense, but one worth making. My husband and I discussed it like buying a new car. Do we need it? Yes. Why? To get to work! I certainly got to work and I would advise anyone considering their MFA to really consider the work they need to get to and how the program as a whole will help them accomplish their goals.
CH: When did you decide to become involved in Cave Canem? How has your experience as a Cave Canem fellow influenced your work?
AJ: I applied to Cave Canem in 2005 and was offered a fellowship that year. I applied because Nikky Finney, a founder of the Affrilachian Poets, encouraged all of us APs to apply. I didn’t know much about it, but again, Nikky is one of those people you better listen to if they give advice.
After attending my first Cave Canem retreat, my life was truly changed. I moved back to Texas that summer and only applied to jobs that would support me creatively as a poet. The home my family chose had to have an office and quiet spaces where I could read and write. Being a Cave Canem fellow reinforced my commitment to poetry and broadened my community in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
Over three years of retreats, I studied with Elizabeth Alexander, Yusef Komunyakaa, Afaa Weaver, Cyrus Cassells, Marilyn Nelson, Kwame Dawes, Erica Hunt, Patricia Smith, and founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Guest poets during the retreats included Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove. My life changed. My world changed. I couldn’t get enough.
I stayed after graduating to work as retreat staff and served as retreat coordinator until 2017. I now serve on the board of directors. My life is dedicated to Black poetry and supporting marginalized groups across the literary landscape. Becoming a Cave Canem fellow lifted me up in such a way that I can’t image not having this opportunity for others. My writing is stronger because of this house and my dedication to the community is unwavering.
CH: Tell us a little about the Affrilachian Poets. How does this community nurture you as a writer?
AJ: The Affrilachian Poets is a collective of poets from the Appalachian region. Poet Frank X Walker, a Danville, Kentucky native, coined the term in the ‘90s when he didn’t see people of color included in the definition of appalachians. He didn’t see himself. Along with other founding members, Kelly Norman Ellis, Nikky Finney, Crystal Wilkinson, and others, they formed the Affrilachian Poets to give voice to their experiences and the experiences of other people of color from the region.
In 2004, while living in Kentucky, I was inducted into the APs as part of the second generation, the first group of inductees after its formation. As an AP, I was able to explore my writing and history wholly without restraint. I felt free writing in community with others who looked like me and understood what it means to be Black in America and daring to write about it. Because of the Affrilachian Poets, Kentucky will always be my poetic birthplace. My time there with them gave me the foundation I needed to carry my work forward with pride and purpose.
CH: Tell us a little about Another Way to Say Enter. How would you compare the experience of putting this full-length collection together vs. that of composing your chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key?
AJ: Another Way to Say Enter is the gathering of many years of writing into a meditation on my personal journey of womanhood. It’s not soft. It’s not pretty. If anything, I hope it’s honest and carries the places that hurt toward healing. I hope readers find the poems in this collection and know that they are not alone.
It took time and the support of an incredible editor, Teneice Durrant founder of Argus House Press, to see this book become reality. It didn’t follow the business of production. Putting this collection together took patience and compassion and I’m thankful she was able to offer that to me and my book.
GUAP and Lock & Key were personal projects that I arranged and produced. I had complete control. Each of these projects were necessary to make way to grow and enter the next phase of work. AWSE is only a year old, but I can feel the seeds starting to take root for what’s to come. It’s all part of the process of listening and staying present with the work.
CH: How has your experience teaching at Stonecoast influenced your writing?
AJ: Being that I attended Stonecoast, I want to provide the same experience I received as a student for my students. This means I read a lot! I dive into what they are interested in and that often opens up a new world of work to me. Creating coursework for workshop and individual intense study requires I offer my knowledge and experience, but stay open to the riff and flow of each student’s own needs and growth. It keeps me on my toes and I learn so much in the process. They inspire me and it makes me hold myself accountable to them and my own work. I fully believe you must practice what you teach!
CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?
AJ: Anything by Lucille Clifton because she gives me permission to write short poems that cut and love deeply. And anything by Sharon Olds because she gives me permission to write the personal, intimate, experience through my own lens without blinking.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
AJ: On my desk right now are Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez and Monument by Natasha Trethewey