“Slipperiness and Simultaneous Revolt”: a conversation with Ivy Johnson, author of ‘Born Again’

“Born Again is a book about the redemptive power of the singular voice, arising from the mixture of a multitude of voices, coming together as a single flame to light the way through a landscape of sorrow, evil, extreme beauty, and extreme feeling. The book teeters between definitions of poetry and the essay form to come upon the right way to say the unsayable, telling us things like: ‘I am nothing like a tree/ You think I’m in a drought/ You think I’m shriveling up/ You are wrong.’
Ivy Johnson is a poet who believes that the I and the spirit are intertwined forever in the act of the poem. She gives the poets of today and tomorrow the permission to gain strength from the force of the persona, with its ability to surround trauma and alchemize it into the sort of language that sustains. Johnson tells us: ‘I am free I am free/ Believe me I am.’ And we do believe she is free. And we believe, in her poems, we are, too.” — Dorothea Lasky

[Born Again, by Ivy Johnson. Forthcoming from the Operating System, July 2018. 110 pp. Selections appear at This is Paradise Now, Apricity Press, and Wanderer Poetry.]

THE OS: Greetings comrade!
Thank you for talking to us about your process today!
Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?

IVY JOHNSON: I am a poet and performance artist in Oakland, CA. My earlier book, As They Fall, is a collection of 110 notecards for aleatoric ritual and was published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2013. I am co-founder of The Third Thing, an ecstatic feminist performance art duo. You can find our self-titled chapbook on Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs’ website. I’m so excited that my book Born Again is being published by The Operating System this July!

Why are you a poet/writer/artist/creator?

I started writing poetry as a child as a way of processing both the world around me and my relation to it. For most of my life I haven’t felt real; I’ve felt more like a floating apparition, so writing myself and my experiences in journals helped anchor me to the earth. Writing for me has always been the place where it is imperative to tell the truth, no matter how shameful, blasphemous, or incriminating. I’ve always been pretty bold in these matters. Growing up immersed in the Bible, I had a deep understanding of metaphor at a very early age. Most of my early journal entries are letters to God and then in my teenage years, they grapple with questions of faith, patriarchy, and the politics of religion, though I didn’t have the words to describe that at the time, which led me to poetry. In this way, Born Again stays pretty true to my original intentions towards writing.

As a child, I remember thinking that poetry was magical. Somehow, I could read a poem without understanding it in any concrete way but still have these dynamic emotions stirred up within me. That is ever present. Growing up in an ecstatic religion, I spoke in tongues at an early age, the first experience of which I write about in Born Again. When speaking in tongues or bearing witness to another engaging in this spiritual act, I felt changed by the indecipherable words, which according to Pentecostal doctrine is literally the language angels use to communicate with god. Still, as a child, I questioned the directness of this purported relationship and the motivations behind people’s public display of their spiritual gifts. The manipulation of power was and is ever present, even in these seemingly sincere communities. In this sense, poetry has become to me speaking in tongues, but my relationship to language has, of course, become much more complicated as I have grown. I think about the title of a Susan Howe poem, “There Are Not Leaves Enough To Crown To Cover To Crown To Cover.” Words have a way of simultaneously delineating and obscuring whatever they attempt to signify with myriad power dynamics playing a significant role. This is why I choose poetry, because the form allows for this slipperiness and simultaneous revolt.

When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?

I have called myself a poet since elementary school and really didn’t question that until other people that came across my path as an adult looked at me twice for making such a claim since poetry doesn’t pay my bills. This has been part of the draw of poetry for me, that it isn’t commodified in the way the rest of my life is, beyond escape. I’m a poet because looking back at the choices I made in my early twenties and beyond I have always chosen poetry. I never questioned it. I don’t see how it could have gone any other way.

What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?

It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that I should feel confident in trying out other art forms. For several years I had all these ideas that pushed beyond the page, yet I kept trying to write them. (I’m a Taurus so can take a lot for me to break a routine.) Being an artist means that you’ll most likely find many different forms or genres to communicate what needs to be said. Teaming up with Kate Robinson to form The Third Thing, a feminist performance art duo, is what it took for me to finally pursue what had been haunting me for years. If you would like to know more about that experience, you can read an interview we did with Cosmo Spinoza at Open House here.

What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?

I don’t think that poetry can effect political change by itself but rather can serve as part of a radical community to confront and challenge systems of oppression. There are books I have read and art I have encountered at times in my life that were the only voices to legitimize my experience of duress under a system that upholds the actions of rape culture as biologically determined and its expression as the test of “true masculinity”. This is just one example. Often, it is through the art that we find each other and for the expression of that art that we create safe spaces that push against capitalist modes of economic stability, racism, classism, heteronormitivity, patriarchy, ableism, etc.

Of course, many of us have watched these havens of art and activism become threatened and close down. I was fortunate enough to live in an artist live/work space in Oakland called Lobot Gallery for around three years. We held music shows, art shows, community meetings, poetry readings, sign making parties, and provided affordable studio / show space for numerous musicians, dancers, poets, activists, visual artists, and the like. In the Spring of 2017, after surviving literally having the roof torn off and rebuilt while inhabiting the space, numerous threats from developers disguised as neighbors, and a sixty percent rent increase, we were evicted. After housing a roving art collective for over ten years, the building formerly known as Lobot is now a storage space for Ford Gobikes.

I have said all this without mentioning the immense tragedy that swept DIY scenes across the country but effected the Oakland community in particular. If gentrification and start up takeover weren’t enough, developers disgustingly used Ghost Ship as means to shut down even more warehouse spaces. With all of that said, I personally don’t have the answer of how to move forward. What I do know is that these types of spaces are integral to building artistic / activist communities, organizing, strategizing, and fighting systems of oppression. Ted Rees’ piece, “Against a Beige Vision” published online at full-stop.net provides a snapshot of Oakland’s poetry scene post Ghost Ship.

This space full of poets, full of people whom I’d marched with, read with, laughed with, argued with, drunkenly caroused with — every single person was aching, and was trying to hold every other person up despite their own ache. I rue the events that led to that moment but will always think of it when I think of what solidarity can look like, what poetry’s radical potential can be, and what Oakland is really about: people who will stop at nothing to care for each other while resisting the forces and circumstances of unwavering brutality.

Ted’s quote captures what I think the role of artists is in social life. Though I don’t think poetry can enact meaningful political change by itself, the solidarity generated amongst these groups of people who are struggling against a beige vision at the least and systems of oppression at the most is what helps keep me alive.

Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?

To be born again is to be ecstatic, to stand beside oneself in fear, rage, or grief (Judith Butler, Precarious Lives). It is simultaneously in the body and out of body. It’s fucking God, then forming the words with the goo from that encounter. Born Again is my bildungsroman. All these themes, the etymological link of rape and rapture with the disembodying effect of consumerism, trauma, heteronormative white patriarchy, could not be separated. Once I got started, I didn’t want to stop. I wrote until I felt Born Again was complete.

What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

When reading Saint Teresa of Avila, I was struck that she was writing a confessional. As a young poet in the literary world, the word confessional meant domestic, melodramatic, pedestrian, and wreaked of the so-called insipid thoughts of teenage girls. To be called “confessional” in a workshop was the ultimate embarrassment. In my early twenties and on into graduate school, my writing suffered as a result of this taboo upheld by dude culture in the literary scene. There are several books that helped me to personally debunk this misogynistic attitude towards confessional, or personal writing. I hold many debts to these writers of the books who went on to influence me to write Born Again, though I don’t consider my book or the following a list of confessional writing per se. Some of these books include The Fast by Hannah Wieners, Killing Kanoko by Hiromi Ito, Rome by Dorothea Lasky, Marjorie Kempe by Robert Gluck, Early Linoleum by Brenda Iijima, Sabor Ami by Cecilia Vicuna and selected works by Wendy Trevino.

While writing Born Again I also felt myself returning again and again to Passolini’s Medea, thinking of Medea’s disconnection from her grandfather, Helios, and concomitantly her powers of sorcery as a way to parse Luckas’ ideas about modernity (The Theory of the Novel). He writes of how the novel expresses a break from the epic where the hero’s meaning is intrinsic to their action “because the soul rests within itself even as it acts,” (29). In modernity we have literary characters whose plight is a rift between inside and outside, a separation of self from any intrinsic home. “Philosophy is really homesickness,” (as cited in Luckas, 29). As a lapsed Pentecostal and as one who could speak in the tongues of men and of angels, I greatly identify with Medea in the moment after she has killed her brother, stolen the golden fleece, and while fleeing with Jason and the Argonauts she screams, “Speak to me earth! I can no longer hear your voice!” In this sense, Born Again is much more than a separation from God; it’s primordial desire.

Ivy Johnson is a poet and performance artist in Oakland, CA. Her first book, As They Fall, is a collection of 110 notecards for aleatoric ritual and was published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2013. She is co-founder of “The Third Thing,” an ecstatic feminist performance art duo. They have a self-titled chapbook out with Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs. Her book, Born Again, is forthcoming from The Operating System in July 2018. https://ivyjohnsonblog.wordpress.com

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

What is it for? Who is it for?

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

the operating system

Written by

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. Join us!

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.