getting to know terry s. johnson and her new book coelescence

Available now from Amazon.com

Terry S. Johnson has explored careers as a newspaper advertising clerk, a library assistant and a professional harpsichordist before serving as a public school teacher for over twenty-five years. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  She has published in many anthologies and journals.  Her first book entitled Coalescence won an Honorable Mention in the New England Festival Book Awards and was published in June, 2014 by WordTech Communications. You can find her website at www.terrysjohnsonpoet.com.

Terry S. Johnson has explored careers as a newspaper advertising clerk, a library assistant and a professional harpsichordist before serving as a public school teacher for over twenty-five years. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  She has published in many anthologies and journals.  Her first book entitled Coalescence won an Honorable Mention in the New England Festival Book Awards and was published in June, 2014 by WordTech Communications. You can find her website at www.terrysjohnsonpoet.com.

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I very clearly remember my mother reading me A.A. Milne’s Now We are Six when I was about four. I began writing rhymed verses in elementary school and continued a bit in high school.  While in graduate school for music performance, my posse was a group of MFA students in poetry so I started writing just to be a part of the gang.

When my very best friend died early at fifty and left her house a holy mess, I decided to go through my college notebooks in order to “straighten up” and “clean out.” I found the poems from my twenties, re-worked them, and I was hooked! I took some time off from my public school teaching job and graduated with an MFA from the Vermont College of the Arts.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I think it’s very important to try to write every day. Writing is like practicing a musical instrument.  One day builds to the next.  When I was working full time as a sixth grade teacher, I tried to write an hour after dinner before completing lesson planning. I tried to write a marathon stint on the weekends. 

Now retired, I write in the mornings.  I’m fortunate to have a “room of my own.” I prefer routine but even, or should I say, especially in retirement, it’s better to go with the flow of each day. If you finally have some flexibility from a rigid schedule like public school teaching, then take it.  Of course, coffee is always a necessity! 

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
My poems arise from many places – a phrase when reading, an image when stuck on a bridge, the layers of sounds outside, listening to a piece of music, wallowing in a piece of art.  And don’t forget smells!  Ah, the curry in India, the pasta in Italy.

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I’m an eclectic reader -- Paul Celan, Martha Collins, Baudelaire, David Wojahn, William Carols Williams.  And since I lived in Amherst, Massachusetts for over thirty years, Emily Dickinson. When I sit in her yard and look at the maple tree which was very young when she was alive, I think of the roots of her work nurturing us all.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? What was the process of assembling it? 
My book is entitled Coalescence for many reasons.  Employing both narrative and lyric styles using a variety of received and invented forms, my book blends personal themes with the history, language, science, mathematics and music.  The collection is also organized by sections with an opening poem that riffs on a particular vowel sound. In phonetics, “coalescence” is a term used when linguistic features of two segments merge into one. In addition, the “vowel” poem beginning each section introduces some of the subjects in that section.

I used Annie Lamott’s suggestion for organizing my poetry book from her classic Bird by Bird.  I cleared the living room (vacuuming first!) and put all the poems on the floor in an initial sequence. I kept rearranging them until the poems sang to each other.  Often I felt that I was playing hopscotch!

Terry reading a poem from Coelescence:

Time Change

Spring ahead, fall back,
back and forth.  Set the clocks
for a new season.  Tinker
with the time that’s left.
Twist the body, left,
then right, our flexibility
one advantage over the earth’s.
Terra firma stuck in its tilt,
the acute angle causes glacial
melts and melanoma.  The sun’s
corona spews  photons in seven
second joy rides, signaling
seeds and cells to start working.
Whirl around!  The ground
ready to catch us off balance,
springing ahead, falling back,
back in time to our own
beginning.  Not and the word
became flesh, but that slap
on the rump, the first gasp,
a cry, sound bouncing off
the delivery room walls.
Mother, Father, sighs of joy,
relief, anticipation.  Maybe
the baby will learn from our
mistakes and never get it
wrong.  Left, right, right
wrong.  Wrong foot, wrong
step, wrong way, only one 
way, weigh the body at birth 
and just before and after death,
that twenty-one missing grams,
the weight of a few paper clips
in the hand.  A lot?  A little?
What’s your point of view?
First person, third?  A noun,
which verb?  Action usually
most definitive.  Fulfill, kill,
execute, behead, be ahead.
Spring ahead, a newly-hatched
cricket.  Fall back, a khakied
army, blood of the wounded
making camouflage difficult
in retreat.  Move those feet.
Each of us tries to make
the best of it, our world
a terra incognita, even
though we know it’s no
longer flat.  We remember
the sun also rises, always 
in the east, no matter what
the time zone.  The sun’s rays
raw, we wake with squinting
eyes, taking time, getting used
to the idea of another day.
Sunrise, surprise, surmise.
Spring ahead!