When I first sat down with Jessica Johnson’s Metabolics, it moved so quickly, I started at the beginning and read it again. A meditation on the metabolic cycle, it felt fitting to read a book that so embodied its subject. I was enthralled by the nuance of a poetic text that explores climate catastrophe and motherhood with the gentleness and care a seasoned writing teacher brings to a workshop. I immediately wanted to know more about the process and pedagogy that led to Metabolics. I sat down with Jessica Johnson to talk more about the fuel that fed this poetic meditation on motherhood, climate change, and metabolism rooted in the Pacific Northwest landscape.
Amy Bobeda: As a reader, my experience of Metabolics expands and contracts through each poem, and one of the most striking and relatable moments in the meditation on feed/feeding is when the feed is going off in the instructor’s pocket. I’m curious how awareness of the relationship between the body and technology informed the writing of the book both in this sequence and the equally relatable calorie tracking. What fed the writing process of Metabolics?
Jessica Johnson: I’m of the X-ennial micro-generation, so my childhood and early adolescence were before the internet, and I experienced a good chunk of adulthood before smartphones. And I was maybe a late-adopter of the cell phone and the smartphone because I was always striving for low overhead and minimal personal distraction. However, I got a smartphone at approximately the same time I gave birth, which was also the same time I became a full-time teacher so that my family could have health insurance, so my experience of the information feed is, biographically, related to (1) the feed as biographically related to breastfeeding because it was easier to hold my phone and read my phone than anything else; (2) personal overwhelm stemming from simultaneous time demands and physical changes and hormonal fluctuations; and (3) in not too long, a flood of images of murder by police and other forms of violence and political emergency—in my hand. That sense of the un-holdable world-horrors and calls to action alongside pictures of scarves that my friends knitted and soup that they made and thirst traps and flowers and trees and cats, the sort of simultaneity and unprocessability . . . vibrating in your pocket, definitely fed Metabolics.
Also, there was a point about seven years ago where I really started to struggle with visual migraines that sometimes included vertigo and aphasia, related to my menstrual cycle which became increasingly present, and that sort of led me down the garden path of all kinds of—I’m going to call it almost folk metabolic awareness—because it was basically just stuff I was finding on the internet in order to seek holistic, lifestyle-based solutions to what was becoming an increasingly debilitating problem. Like, the feeds were feeding me all these little suggestions about my metabolism, frameworks for metabolism, linking my migraines to many other aging-related changes via . . . metabolism. Very meta! (None of it worked robustly, by the way, but I found a good doctor and just take meds now, for which I’m really grateful.)
I know you’re coming to the page with a background in science education and poetry. Do you feel framing a book through a scientific lens could suddenly spark an interest in poetry for people more often drawn to prose? Is there a sense of accessibility writing across curriculums and disciplines for you here?
A couple of my mentors at the University of Washington (where I got both my BA and MFA, as well as a BS in cell and molecular biology), Linda Bierds and Richard Kenney, were definitely writing into science and technology. I was working in a plant genomics lab at the end of my undergraduate degree and before my MFA and wanted to write poetry about it. So it’s possible and I think this has been sort of part of my relationship to poetry since I started being serious about it.
And yes, I do think there are probably people for whom there’s something interesting about the juxtaposition or connection—the idea of poetry and science in some kind of conversation. I imagine the conversation is sometimes counterintuitive—and therefore interesting—for people because there’s often an association of poetry with the emotive, inexpressible, or soft, and science with the rational, reducible, and hard, but I guess I would trouble those distinctions.
Can you speak a little more about the relationship between poetry and science?
At a reading in Minneapolis, my longtime friend, the poet Sara Wainscott, talked about how Metabolics uses everyday life to think through the forms with which people make meaning. That seems deeply true to my impulse in writing about science, here and in the past. I think I’ve been writing about science—or trying to—since college, as a way of thinking about it as a means of knowledge production and understanding.
But I don’t think about it uncritically. One thing that I think doesn’t sufficiently come into conversations about “poetry of science” or whatever you want to call it is discussions of both disciplines as expressions of social power, and as operating within a social and political context. How both are situated in the academy—though differently—and outside of it. I think sometimes when poets approach science, they do it in a way that doesn’t allow consideration of context or systemic issues. And science is definitely for me very much in that both/and space of being really important and useful and also implicated in patriarchy and colonial logics and all of these things. (As poetry can be, too, of course.) It’s both—it’s all of these things.
So I feel like it is important for me both as a non-scientist and as someone who attempts intersectional feminisms to sort of play with the aesthetics, idioms, and tones of a discipline that is stereotypically considered rational, serious, and sort of unassailable. I appropriate its language and visual forms for my own purposes, as a recognition or acknowledgment of its power, but also as an act of resistance against its cultural primacy.
I guess when we talk about poetry and science together as disciplines in conversation, I wish more social and political lenses could inform that conversation.
Something I admire, diving deeper into the world of the section “Plasticland” you create in the text, is that you’re writing about our relationship with plastic in consumer culture that as a reader doesn’t just leave me feeling guilty.
I’m happy that people have commented a lot on the humor in the book. And I think there are elements of humor because the everyday lived experiences in the book are common and also funny, not funny, right? I think the speaker is speaking within a space where there is an awareness of climate catastrophe and pollution and also a loss of control over a lot of personal consumption. I’m trying to approach all this with awareness and compassion for myself and other people. I guess that’s where hopefully some of that comes from is like the combination of awareness and compassion.
I’m intensely grateful for the public and private discussion around this book, including this one, and one piece of conversation I keep thinking about brought up the connection between care and grief, which I think is also part of this complex tone the book lives in (and that I think I also live in).
It was part of my conversation with Jay Ponteri and Janice Lee, which was live, where we touched on Metabolics as a grief book, like Janice’s Separation Anxiety. This activated my thinking around the inherent twinning of care and grief, which I think underlies Metabolics more than I’d considered.
To care for a being is to recognize its constant changing, witnessing the constant passing away of who they were and making space for who they might be, starting in the earliest weeks of a child’s life when the way they look and what they can do for a period of time is really transient. Even to intensely love one’s children is to become painfully vulnerable to even the possibility of their loss. And then there’s the grief for the self that can be lost in caregiving. And then, in a more topical sense, there’s a lot of climate grief in this book that’s connected to parenthood, to having this very direct connection to the notion of the future through one’s children. There’s a lot of grief, even in these very normal kinds of love, and I think the cyclical aspect of the book—the too-muchness, the turning—evokes this in ways I wasn’t quite aware of.
Tell us a little more about the conception of Metabolics.
I had the idea of the metabolic poem—in which components are consuming, converting, generating, and generally enacting the motion of metabolic pathways, wherever the poem happens to take place—that I’d tried out in my student writing group. And I’d sit down in the very early morning, light a candle, put on some theta waves, put on a timer, and write for fifteen to twenty minutes through a couple of cycles on a legal pad.
In hindsight, I remember the process as magical. I was writing a memoir at the time—it was really hard. It was difficult material to work with and the transition to prose was hard for me. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, like I was trying to make art out of a room full of wet, emotionally charged spaghetti. And Metabolics was a side project from that book [Homemaker], which is coming out next year [from Acre books]. The early draft of Metabolics was a place where I was able to play and experiment in a genre where I felt a little more confident, and where I could allow short pieces to accumulate rather than laboring to make a long piece work.
I tend to ritualize the composition part of writing as much as possible, and what I loved about this project was that the concept was flexible enough that I could stay with it for several months and allow the pieces to pile up. I could return to the scene. I didn’t have to pause and think. I just stopped when I’d hit a hundred and twenty chunks, or something. Organizing and editing them—deciding which to leave out and how to order them—was quite a bit of work, but the composition part was fluent and, in my memory anyway, a delight.
The two pieces titled “Herein” that bookend the collection were written after, as were the diagrams. At that point, I also spent time researching to make sure I was on relatively—playfully—solid ground with the science content.
I’d love to get back to a process like this! But currently, I’m editing the memoir, making a lot of notes toward several possible projects, and fitting in the odd poem or essay if one comes to me. Also doing a fair amount of reviewing, which is fun but always takes more time than I think it will.
Both teaching and motherhood play as large a role in the collection as metabolic pathways and the PNW. I’m curious how your pedagogy—both teaching philosophy and day-to-day experience—influenced the work both in content and form.
My teaching context and philosophy are really important to who I’ve become as a writer—and in my life teaching and writing and being a parent are deeply entangled. This entanglement itself I think is deeply reflected in Metabolics.
I’ve been teaching at an urban community college for the past decade-plus, an open-access institution. I teach creative writing, composition, and environmental literature. When I started, it was during the post-Recession community college enrollment boom, and I taught many “remedial” classes—basic writing and college reading. I got really into learning theory and studying various models of how people make sense of things and letting these shape what I do in the classroom. I also spent a lot of time examining my own relationship to hierarchy, especially in an educational context.
I think the true gift and challenge of teaching at an open-access institution is that there is a true diversity of preparation, background, investment, and goals. The opportunity—the gift part—of my teaching is the opportunity to cultivate a pedagogy of recognition. How can I help students recognize their intentions, with respect to a received curriculum or otherwise? How can I recognize the moments when they’re moving toward them? How can I help them recognize the gaze they bring to writing? How can I regard their writing in a way that honors them and where they come from and what they’re trying to do with this particular piece of writing but also in the larger sense? I think Metabolics brings this kind of attention to daily life, one which sometimes includes teaching. How can I recognize this moment and what it contributes to?
As with parenthood, there’s also a real immediacy to teaching in this context. What we have is this time together—I don’t know what’s going to happen after they leave the room, and I don’t have much control over it. Who we are to each other in the room is important. There’s an ethic of care that can, in the best case, pervade these spaces. I think this close-upness, the insistence on finding meaning and making art out of the right now, informs Metabolics.
Relatedly, in a conversation to prepare for an event in Seattle with Kathleen Flenniken, I was really grateful for Kathleen’s read of Metabolics as reflecting the way so many of us have to write, if we’re going to write at all, in the brief pieces of time embedded in tasks—waiting for water to boil. I think she said the poems felt “an intelligent response to a fragmented life.” This felt true to the way they were written, but it was also really gratifying to hear . . . not just that the book was written despite the domestic/occupational conditions of my life, but that the fragmented life that comes from doing so much disconnected labor could be seen as intrinsic to the work.
Are there prompts, readings, and forms you practice with students that influence your own approach to breaking form both in your use of text and image as well as your use of prose block stanzagraphs as we’re calling them. How does your own approach to the writing process impact your teaching and vice versa?
One thing I do as a casual activity in a lot of different contexts is have students represent something visually. If you had to diagram your writing process, what would that look like? If you had to draw your experience of this essay we just read, this poem we just read, this experience we just had—how would you represent it? In other words, what parts are important in your telling? What relationships do you want to show? What motion do you want to show? Though I wasn’t thinking of it at the time I made the diagrams in the book, when I made the diagrams, I was basically doing this with my own life.
Another question I always have in my pocket is this one: What do you notice? We can go a lot of places from there, but if we don’t slow down and spend time with what we noticed about a text, a reading, an experience, a conversation, our analysis will be thin at best. Especially if things aren’t going well, we need to back up, and have a slow and open-ended encounter, where we notice and notice some more, and maybe pay attention to the way that noticing is embodied, pay attention to what we’ve been taught to notice, what kind of noticing comes quickly, what kind of noticing arrives more slowly, what kind of noticing arrives through others.
For me, writing in general and poetry in particular is a practice and also a structure and also sometimes a community for this kind of noticing, this looking and looking again. It’s one of the cultural forms that holds this practice, and the particular practice that gave rise to Metabolics was its own method, its own discipline for noticing.
Another form I use with students is the Rolfe model of reflection: what, so what, now what? What do I want to pull from this text, experience, or conversation, what do I want to consider significant about it, and what do I now want to do with that? I think there’s something of this too in my fascination with the form of the pathway, the conversion of one thing into another, the notion of uptake.
One piece of conversation that relates here was with Anne K. Yoder in Chicago. I appreciated Anne’s thinking about the “unmoored fragments” in the “Two Writing Lives” diagram as being important to an overall reading of the book. If I think of the future as liminal and more associated with encounter than a narrative of progress, I can see the way the poems themselves reflect the unmooring that the diagram describes really logically, and then the arrangement or the overall metabolic concept reflects the creation of a framework that allows experience to be felt and comprehensible while also giving full weight to the unmoored fragment. That’s another connection that was right there, but that I hadn’t quite made. I think that sense of unmoored encounter is probably informed by the immediacies of both parenthood and immersion in a radically horizontal educational environment.
I know that by the time a book is in the world, we are not really the person who wrote the book anymore: Are there reflections, comments, or ideas you see now in the book with some distance?
This is so true. I can really hear my overwhelm in some parts of it, now that my children are older. I’m in a different phase of parenting, and I can hear that the kids were smaller in the book. I’m able to be more intentional about my path through the day now and so I’m less ridden with anxiety, actually. For example, the printer isn’t humming right now—I didn’t forget to turn it off. I’m able to drive a lot less. I just have more basic control and generally feel more like myself—like a coherent self. That idea of a self doesn’t seem so painfully fictional on the level of daily lived experience, even if I can still easily get to that idea philosophically.
Also, the world has moved right along since I wrote this book! There were some sequences of events here—seasons I guess, that felt, in the moment, crushing, but that now I anticipate while hopefully not becoming desensitized. I’m talking about climate chaos mostly, wildfires and ice storms and power outages in the context of ambient political threat and not being able to meet children’s social and developmental needs because of the pandemic. And the pandemic is not really in it, so that’s huge.
I’d really like to write a sort of follow-up that is largely about tech, the limitless and the limit. I think the limit, the boundary, is actually the key to the kind of connection that can ultimately heal, and it’s what some kinds of exposure to tech can jeopardize.
Amy Bobeda holds an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where she serves as director of the Naropa Writing Center and teachers pedagogy and processed-based art. She’s the author of Red Memory (FlowerSong Press), What Bird Are You? (Finishing Line Press), mi sin manitos (Ethel Press), Self Guided Walking Tours (forthcoming from Ghost City’s summer micro-chap series), and a forthcoming project from Spuytin Duyvil. She’s on Twitter @amybobeda & @everystoryisamenstrualstory on Instagram.
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