Interview with Johanna Skibsrud

In her new poetry collection Medium (Book*hug Press),
Giller Prize-winner Johanna Skibsrud interprets in a series of performative poems the voices of historical women: Helen of Troy, Anne Boleyn, Shakuntala Devi, to name just a few.

Johanna talks to us about the captivating cover art from Nikki Berger Martinez’s Ghost Walk series, which sets a striking parallel to the poetry within; the serendipitous selection of voices; and the fluidity between poetry and fiction.


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All Lit Up: Congratulations on your new poetry collection with Book*hug! Can we start off talking about the gorgeous cover art from Nikki Berger Martinez’s Ghost Walk series (photographed by Riley Salyards)? It’s very striking and sets up a haunting parallel to the poetry. Can you tell us a little bit about the series and how it relates to your book?

Johanna Skibsrud: I met Nikki shortly before I left our shared hometown of Tucson, AZ to study clowning in France, back in 2018. There weren’t a lot of people I could talk to about what I was doing back then without their eyes glazing over in nervous confusion…but when I told Nikki about the plan, it was the opposite. Her eyes immediately lit up and we’ve been friends ever since. As an actor as well as a visual and performance artist, my interest in exploring vulnerability and audience-contact through clowning made immediate sense to Nikki—and she was already familiar with the pedagogy and history and performance strategies I was especially keen at the time to learn more about. When I got to know more about how all of that informed and, in various ways, manifested itself in Nikki’s work, I felt the resonances between our different projects and approaches even more clearly. Even though we work in different mediums, we share, I think, an energetic—fairly “un-disciplined”—curiosity about the world, as well as an interest in finding new ways of paying attention. Because of this, I really can’t imagine a more representative image for Medium than what you see on the cover: one image from Nikki’s ongoing, multidisciplinary The Ghost Walk series, featuring costumes Nikki created from found materials—mostly garbage—collected from “liminal, transitory and forgotten” urban spaces. She says: “the purpose of using garbage is to transform a discarded and weathered object, revealing it as a thing of beauty that evokes shared memory and transcends the ordinary.” Nikki’s Ghost Walk series is an effort to recognize, first, and then to explore, what she points to as “our vast capacity to weather tragedy and trauma through transformation. It is my aim,” she writes of the project, “to create work that touches on this innate understanding of what is shared by all of us. The ‘ghosts’ reclaim power through myth and ritual; giving the residual energy left from history a new voice.” I couldn’t ask for more—or better—for my own “ghosts.”

The cover of Medium by Johanna Skibsrud

ALU: Medium is a collection that reimagines the often-silenced voices of vilified women in history: Helen of Troy, Anne Boleyn, Shakuntala Devi, to name a few.  As a whole, the effect is like a poetic chorus that underscores the work. What went into choosing these specific women, their histories? How did you decide which voices to include?

JS: At a certain point, I really just had to give into (or—better—do my best to embrace) the role of chance in deciding the specific figures and histories that began to emerge for me, and—therefore—to form the content and structure of this book. I had to check my feelings (fears) about the work’s inevitable inadequacy by reminding myself that the poetry’s power—its particular capacities—lie not in its being “representative,” but in its being suggestive and evocative—a way of conjuring. I wanted to honour the fact that this poetic capacity actually exists all around us—even when we don’t recognize it—by looking at how specific historical figures (mostly real, but sometimes imagined) have variously constructed and now continue to create bridges for us, between the past and the future, and between self and other. Once I started thinking about the structure and function of the “medium” in this expanded sense (to include not just spiritual but also intellectual, physical and material bridges), the sky was really the limit…I had to accept—embrace—that the book was going to be far from exhaustive and, necessarily, driven and shaped by chance. I also had to accept chance as (far from an anonymity-producing, or objective force) strictly determined—in this case, by my own personal, subjective frame. The women whose voices are evoked in Medium are those whose stories I encountered through my readings, listenings, and other happen-stances of the last ten years. More than any other form of record, then—it occurs to me now—they constitute a sort of journal, or reading diary. They track a personal path of discovery, and association.

ALU: The format of your book is interesting with vignettes preceding poems. What was the creative decision to frame the poems in this way?

JS: I was inspired by the vida form employed by the troubadours as a way of introducing and contextualizing the author or voice of a given work and, like many early vidas, my own are less interested in historical detail than in materially and historically grounding or situating the lyric voice. It was a constant struggle throughout the writing process, I found, to try to balance—on both sides—the powerful, abstracting forces of symbolic suggestion and lyric identification with the grounding historical specifics the vida form is so well-suited to contain. I didn’t want the two forms to seem to be disparate, even at odds, but instead to seem, somehow, to co-extend…For that reason in particular, I’m grateful to my friend, the poet Kate Hall, who read a lot of these poems closely in their early stages and really challenged me not to let the abstract, universalizing “voice” reside on one side of the page with the embodied detail and historical context residing on the other.

ALU: What do you hope readers take away from Medium?

JS: In my preface to the book I write that the poems are “intended to be read out loud; to be donned like masks. Also like masks, they’re intended to be playful conduits for magic, and for the voices of others.” I guess I hope that I’ll be taken at my word…that these poems might become more than words by being spoken out loud—inhabited. And that, in being inhabited, they might make room for new perspectives and ideas and relations—ones I didn’t write and can barely even imagine. I’ve mentioned that these poems are necessarily limited in terms of the history they cover and what they ultimately give voice to by my own subjectivity—my personal circumstances and experience. But my hope is that as poems they can “serve to amplify the voices of their readers and performers, while at the same time—in a choral, rather than a rhetorical mode—ask: Who is speaking, really? And who isn’t? Who, or what, is being addressed? Finally, what new possibilities or relations might potentially take form in the space of that address: in the space between “I” and “you,” or between speech and silence?” I was talking to Nikki the other day about some of these questions and ideas and she observed how strange and dissociative it is that we tend to think of creativity in our culture as available only to a privileged few, or as a specialized skill. We reserve a dedicated role for “creatives,” for example, in our production lines…As a form of resistance to this tendency, and in the spirit of Nikki’s Ghost Walk series, my hope is that Medium might help to remind readers and listeners of the essential and shared nature of creativity, and therefore of our connection, not only to what we produce, but also to what we discard or refuse.

ALU: For readers who don’t know, you also write non-fiction and fiction (Giller Prize–winning novel, The Sentimentalists, among them). As a multi-genre writer, what’s it like to switch between writing poetry and fiction? Do you prefer one form over another?

JS: I came across this wonderful line from Lyn Hejinian’s My Life the other day (last Saturday—February 24th—the day after she died). Hejinian wrote: “Back and backward, why, wide and wider. Such that art is inseparable from the search for reality.” Hejinian and other artists like her—Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Clarice Lispector, to name just a very few—artists whose work seems to me so boundless—have been an inspiration. I remember reading Woolf’s The Waves and feeling this total rush—this thrill of realization—thinking, “Oh, so this is possible, too!” The book wasn’t either one thing or the other, poetry or prose; it was hardly even a book. It was just…this process, this way of being in relation to—in search of—the world. The literature that really speaks to me is like that, and I like to think that I write in that tradition. So that even while I’m aware of what different genres tend to offer, I think of them very much in and as a continuum. Sometimes, I think about the differences in terms of different lenses or ways of seeing. A poem can allow you to really zoom in on particular images or moments or words or sounds…as with a microscope. A short story is sort of like walking up onto a small hill and looking at the view from there, where a novel lets you really see the larger “sweep” of things. But I also think there’s something of a difference in how poetry and fiction tend to “search for reality.” Where fiction searches through invention and imagination, poetry (I think) tries to make little openings, to be a real point of contact with what, though we sometimes don’t see it exactly, already exists, or is just about to—what is.

ALU: Lastly, what’s on your reading list these days? Is there a book you recently read and loved?

JS: Speaking of genre-defying: The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark. At once a work of non-fiction, a naturalist notebook, an elegy and ode, it won the National Book Award in 1965, and is totally brilliant.

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Johanna Skibsrud is the author of three previous collections of poetry, three novels—including the Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning novel, The Sentimentalists—and three nonfiction titles, including The Nothing That Is: Essays on Art, Literature, and Being, and most recently, Fool: A Study in Literature and Practice. An Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Arizona, Johanna divides her time between Tucson, Arizona, and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.