Monday, June 23, 2008

June Featured Artist: Amanda Johnston

Author Bio:

Cave Canem Fellow and Affrilachian Poet, Amanda Johnston has performed across the country for various causes and events. Honors include a 2003 and 2004 Artists Enrichment grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the 2005 Austin International Poetry Festival's Christina Sergeyevna Award. Currently, Johnston serves on the board of directors for the National Women's Alliance, is an ensemble member of The Austin Project Performance Company (TAPPCo) and is the founding editor of Torch: poetry, prose, and short stories by African American Women.

Work Sample:

First Song
for Ahyana

She wailed and my heart stood still
as the doctor dangled her
head down and bloody like a fish
caught between the muck and pull
of my churning water and vine
creeping awkwardly up to this
blurry life of tears and loose soil.
The delivery room held fast
while her silence echoed off
defibrillators, nursing hands
and her father tending my
hollow earthbound body waiting
for his daughter's first solo
in a chorus of furrowed brows.
We wanted to hear her wail
with a quick slap on the ass
desperate breath then sound
at least a whimper of newness
breaching our anticipation
not this eternal pause of her
wide eyes questioning yes or no
to a world of uncertainties.
She wailed and my heart stood still
in that resounding yes, yes she would
stay in this imperfect place
with all of its cobwebs and stars
here, in the shit and pain of birth,
she wailed and her song began.

June 14th, 2008 Salon Sit Down Discussion

Amanda Johnston is a Poet, Mother and Daughter, and when she arrived, she brought both her mother and her daughters with her, embodying the multi-generational nature of her own work within the space of the Salon.

This month, Amanda brought us into her circle by reading her work and having us riff off of it - to enter her work and allow it to give us new words. She said it clearly, "I'm going to read you a poem, and you write a story from something that you hear. And if you want, then you take a line of your story and write a poem, and it can go on." She had first learned of the exercise from her mentor and friend, Patricia Smith.

As we moved from our own writing into a discussion about Amanda's process and writing, we began to engage questions of craft, of vulnerability, and of dialogue. Questions that were asked included:

What is your relationship to form?
What was your first poem?

Amanda answered candidly, speaking of her own sense of intimidation, of her own perception of form as a "white man's imposition". It was at Cave Canem that she truly allowed herself to explore form and what it has to give to her work, regardless of the end result of her exploration.
What was fascinating is that Amanda's first poems were at age 10 and were raps - a form that is defined by music, by life experience, by set rhythms and words. Her early explorations were the foundation to her later work, developed when she first learned about the connection between words and intention as a young poet living in Kentucky.

The artist's fascination with the whole person, and the people behind things led us into a discussion about the architecture of language. One person named Tapies, and his own inquiries into the life of material objects, which then led us to ask Amanda about her own relationship to objects and their stories. What, if anything, do they have to tell us? And Amanda answered very clearly: the ancestry or timeline of a body or thing tells us about who we are today. Who designed this room that we're sitting in? Who made the panels for the walls, and installed them? Who are we today bringing ourselves into this space that was designed with intention?

When asked what form her aesthetic takes, she responded, "It is a wagon wheel, in which the spokes are the different manifestations of the self - and questions about the self." Amanda went on to describe how she reads a book, as a metaphor for how her poetry falls in line with her aesthetic - she reads it in pieces, wherever it may open to when she picks it up. Her aesthetic is closely aligned with her process in which she multi-tasks, writing a poem as she has to, "getting the bones down" and then returning to it to pile on the flesh of it all. She spoke of being obedient to the poem, when they come, she must heed them. And being accountable to her community: making sure she writes them down and develops her work, because after all - she is a poet.

Which led to questions about joy and inspiration. One participant asked, "What is the intersection of fun in your work?" to which Amanda replied: "Fun should always be in my work." She spoke of the need to laugh, especially in tedious or serious moments, quoting Nicky Finney who said, "You are as writerly as the last poem you've written." Amanda insisted that in order to write, we must also enjoy life so that we may nourish the work we create. And of course, this means that for Amanda, inspiration comes from people, from listening to people, from remembering what people have spoken, from the day outside the window. She mentioned the names of poets she goes to when she needs to find her voice, or her own words: poets Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, Nicky Finney, Afaa M. Weaver... and her community.

In this way, we can understand Amanda as an architect of language: a person who understands language as a landscape from which to design and develop buildings of memories and sound, and meaning. And creating poems that require the reader's active participation, and reflection on their own lived experience. Amanda, who also loves and is inspired by photography and video, aptly describes her own perspective as only one in relationship to others: each person has their own perspective on language, much in the same way the camera has its own perspective with relationship to what's in the frame.

She left us with the questions that form the basis of her inquiry: what angle is this image speaking to? What is it that we're not supposed to see? What is out of context? How can we present multiple perspectives? And how do we make it possible for all of us to have our own experiences with written and visual work?