Poet Elizabeth Johnston reimagines historical portrayals of women in new book
If you open Professor Elizabeth Johnston’s new book of poems, Wild Things (Main Street Rag 2021), you’ll come face to face with Greek goddesses and famous women of the Bible. Fairytale princesses share space with historical women from the distant past and with those that grace the pages of People magazine. She tells their stories from a wholly new perspective, one that gives these scorned, hurt, and dismissed women a voice.
One that gives them power.
Johnston is an English professor at Monroe Community College and is a founding member of the Straw Mat writers’ group. Her first chapbook, Wild Things, is available this October. She also recently won the 2021 Rattle’s Chapbook Prize for her collection Imago, Dei (forthcoming March 2022).
In this debut collection of Johnston’s persona poems, we meet characters such as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, and Eve of biblical fame. But Johnston also introduces us to more obscure and less well-known women: a mother jumping off a bridge, an elderly woman unknowingly carrying a stone fetus in her womb, a naked woman dancing in Texas traffic.
“A lot of the stories about [these] women are stories that are told by men,” says Johnston. “So, there are stories that are about men’s perspective of women and the ‘crimes’ that they commit or the ways that they live or don’t live. And I wanted to re-see the stories.”
The beauty of Wild Things is in the details that bring each woman to vibrant life. She makes an epic character like Persephone feel relatable when she’s pressured to buy something she doesn’t quite want at the farmer’s market (ripe uteri anyone?). Or when Medusa tries to tame her tangles before a blind date. Conversely, “The Ugly Girl” at the bus stop whom everyone makes fun of becomes holy, sainted even, and the dancing Texan becomes a goddess demanding that the masses pay homage.
Johnston often pulls ideas from newspaper and magazine headlines. “I’m a response poet, so I’m responding to stories about women, mythological figures, but I’m also always obviously reading the news and always attuned,” she says. She then poetically connects archetypal and mythical characters like Eve, Medusa, or Persephone to real historic women or women in today’s news. Those important connections help her understand her own life as a woman and mother of two daughters.
“I’m raising daughters. So, what’s happening in the world that’s going to impact my daughters? I’m trying to deal with that.”
MCC English professor and fellow Straw Mat writer Maria Brandt has this to say about Johnston’s poems about legendary, historic, and newsworthy women:
“We kind of have this impression that these figures like Eve or whatever are this static something, but her poetry explodes that idea that any of these are static. These icons are formed by us and can be reformed by us, too. And she has got this wonderful back and forth between being incredibly dark, and really piercing cultural critique but then also really witty and funny and light even, sometimes.”
Angelique Stevens is also a member of Straw Mat and an MCC English professor familiar with Johnston’s poetry. She, too, is impressed with her level of insight and skill.
“I just don’t understand how brilliant she is. Those persona poems, some of them, she writes within a day. We’ll be up at a retreat, and it’ll be in an afternoon and there will be this poem that she just wrote, and I don’t understand how that happened. I really don’t. Sometimes it takes me months just to get through a page. But she has an idea in her head, and then there it is.”
Johnston doesn’t just write poetry, she loves to read it, too. One of her favorite places to read it is in Rattle. “Rattle is this literary magazine that every single time when it comes in my mailbox, I stop everything, I love it so much.”
Over the years she submitted to the magazine time and time again with no luck. But last year when their chapbook contest came around, she thought, “what the hell,” knowing that they get more than a thousand submissions every year.
She put it out of her mind until one day she glanced at an email from the editor of Rattle.
“I opened it up, and it said something like, ‘Congratulations you’re a finalist.’ I started screaming, like just screaming!”
Imago, Dei, a novella in verse, was one of three winners chosen from 2,119 entries.
“I wanted to write about growing up in an evangelical household with a lot of emphasis on purity and virginity and how my father—who was very traditional—had three daughters first and then a son. [He] really wanted a boy. And really, the boy is the favorite and so how did three girls navigate that growing up and then what happens to them over time.”
Johnston’s book is an intimate look at life in a fire-and-brimstone home where a daughter can only end up disappointing a father who longed for a son.
“That book pulls together so much for her in terms of old family stuff—the relationship with her church, with white evangelical Protestantism in the Midwest, and a little bit more specifically, her own raising of her own children. That’s something that permeates a lot of her work,” says Brandt.
Latin for image, “imago” is also the sexually mature stage of a moth after metamorphosis. In psychology it refers to the idealized concept of what a person is, often a parent. Johnston’s poetry weaves these themes together to form a collection that is both heartbreaking and triumphant.
“I remember reading some of these poems, and they devastated me,” says Stevens. “I remember reading some of them and being just in tears.”
Brandt feels emotional, too, when she reads Johnston’s work.
“One of the most powerful things about her work is the way that it’s so deeply connected to real-world stuff; I cry almost every time I read her, especially her poetry,” she says. “And it just reminds me … how whatever happens out there does impact people.”
Johnston lives in Rochester with her two daughters and partner. She has been published in several magazines and journals, including The Atlantic, The Sun, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
She is an academic scholar of Medusa and was recently contacted by a Hollywood filmmaker regarding her expertise. While she is not officially consulting on the movie at this time, other, future films were discussed.
Find Wild Things at mainstreetrag.com. Keep an eye out for Imago, Dei in 2022 at rattle.com.