Lit Hub is excited to feature another entry in a new series from Poets.org: “enjambments,” a monthly interview series with new and established poets. This month, they spoke to Tatiana Johnson-Boria, the author of Nocturne in Joy (Sundress Publications, 2023). Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, and Pleiades. She is a recipient of distinguished fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, MacDowell, the Brother Thomas Fund, and other organizations. She teaches at Emerson College and GrubStreet.
Poets.org: What was the inspiration for the book’s eponymous poem “Nocturne in Joy?”
Tatiana Johnson-Boria: I’ve been incredibly inspired by Danez Smith’s work and read crown, a crown of sonnets in Granta, and was in awe of the way Smith was able to build momentum, narrative, and beauty across a long sequential poem. This is something I aspired to but never felt like I could create.
I had been writing an essay about the Southern folklore surrounding sun showers. It’s something I learned from my mom as a child. She used to tell me, “When it rains while the sun is shining, the devil is beating his wife.” I remember being jarred and intrigued by that statement, and it felt like a true narrative for my life as a child. I wanted to build a narrative surrounding that folklore through a form (a crown of sonnets) that could traverse time and generation.
I found the courage to attempt a form that I felt could best convey this journey. The poem chronicles the speaker’s experience with trauma, while also serving as an ode to survival. This poem also felt like the crux of the collection as a whole and couldn’t be named anything else.
Poets.org: This collection showcases a wide array of forms and structures, from the engagement with blank space in poems like “Ars Poetica” to the sectioned boxes in “Triptych in Black and Blue.” What is your relationship to form in conveying the complex subject matter within this collection, particularly familial dynamics, illness, racism, and sexism?
TJB: I love playing with form and the capacity for poems to be written in an infinite number of ways. I have a background in filmmaking and remembered being very consumed by montage. I loved the idea of images being side-by-side while being able to tell a story associatively. I approach poems this way, because they feel like vignettes and/or short films that happen on the page or in speech. Blackness is not a monolithic identity and I wanted to convey the depth of that by engaging with various forms.
I loved the idea of images being side-by-side while being able to tell a story associatively. I approach poems this way, because they feel like vignettes and/or short films that happen on the page or in speech.
I also wanted to be in conversation with other artists, like Carrie Mae Weems, and poets, like Lucille Clifton and Elizabeth Alexander, whose work reverberates. I approached a poem like “Triptych in Black and Blue” with a curiosity for how I could create something cyclical and endless as a way to affirm and protect against a larger societal context of violence, neglect, and hatred. By engaging with forms that allow for a different engagement with the text, I was able to construct a poem that yearns to echo beyond its first reading, allowing for multiplicity when it’s being read.
I think caesura does something similar; there’s so much possibility in blank space. What’s unsaid? What’s withheld? In a different way, I found blank space as a way to encourage the reader to sit in the potential for depth and an awareness of the larger societal context that guides the book—the context of being a Black woman in the United States.
Poets.org: Numerous Black American poets, notably Ross Gay and Robin Coste Lewis, have discussed the importance of joy in their work. Are there any personal elements of joy that inspired this book, and what aspects of joy do you seek to reveal in this poetry collection?
TJB: I am continually stunned by the work of Ross Gay and Robin Coste Lewis, along with the larger community of writers and artists who unravel the beauty of Black joy. I find that in the midst of deep difficulty, I’ve witnessed the capacity for my ancestors, my friends, and my loved ones to find a lightness that heartens the self to survive. It often feels like a miracle to know that joy is accessible amid white supremacy, misogyny, and the other –isms that continue to oppress. What a beautiful thing to know that cultures of music, art, books, and moments of pure laughter can exist at the same time.
This is what has guided me in this collection. I also recently gave birth and found that, during one of the most difficult experiences of my life, I had and continue to have the privilege of witnessing joy embodied through the life of my son. I hope this collection reveals this possibility—that joy is very much possible in the wake of great difficulty, and it is the potential for joy that may help us live.
Poets.org: “EMDR” is a tour-de-force of found poetry, and yet, much of its material appears to be completely original. Like a symphony, it operates in terms of movement, refrain, and scale, incorporating copy from the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Institute’s website to multivalent, gut-wrenching effect. How do the practices of collage and erasure intersect with lyric subjectivity in this poem, and how did you go about orchestrating that intersection?
TJB: EMDR was incredibly challenging to write, partly because I was engaging in EMDR while writing it. The process is incredibly intense, and I found myself only able to write a couple of words each time I attempted to write about it. There’s this interesting relationship between thinking about mental health and mental health support logistically, and the actual experience of being unearthed emotionally during the treatment process. There’s this recognition of what a treatment can do versus how the experience of the treatment feels in the body.
I wanted to explore that relationship. Lyricism, for me, often feels like a “gliding through” and I sometimes felt like that during EMDR sessions. I wanted to access that feeling on the page and sit in what comes up during a session that often uses repeated or methodical tapping, sounds, or vibrations to access very unmethodical and scattered emotions.
Poets.org: What are you reading now?
TJB: Not too long ago I finished Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants after much encouragement from my students. Since becoming a new mom, I’ve been listening to books more, and her reading of the book is incredible. The book and its call to action to be more generous and protective of the natural world continues to stay with me.
Lyricism, for me, often feels like a “gliding through” and I sometimes felt like that during EMDR sessions. I wanted to access that feeling on the page.
I also recently read The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, a poetry collection that reclaims and gives space to Phillis Wheatley-Peters. I learned so much in reading that collection and revisiting Phillis Wheatley-Peters’s work.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
TJB: I’m always revisiting Sam Sax’s “Post-Diagnosis,” especially as I continue to write about mental health. I’m constantly in awe of Yesenia Montilla’s “a brief meditation on breath” and her reading of the poem, as well as Camille Rankine’s “Inheritance.” Lately, I’ve also been reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems, especially “Moon Over Gaza” and “How Palestinians Keep Warm.”
“enjambments,” a monthly interview series produced by the Academy of American Poets, will highlight an emerging or established poet who has recently published a poetry collection. Each interview, along with poems from the poet’s new book, and a reading by the poet, will be published on Poets.org and shared in the Academy’s weekly newsletter.