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Talking with Betsy Johnson

Betsy Johnson’s work has appeared on Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Columbia Poetry Review.

Betsy’s poem “a ripe wilderness” will appear in the Summer 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder to reserve your copy or subscribe at a discount by June 30.

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"a ripe wilderness" does a lovely job of encompassing the beauty in nature's simplicity. What inspired you to write this piece?

A piece of land behind a house I lived in a few years ago was my first inspiration for this. I called the field my sanctuary. Bordered by brambles and scrub, fireflies hovered there every June, and no matter what life brought, walking through the meadow never failed to soothe me. The second inspiration is the fact that in the past year, I have had to face breast cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, and an unexpected divorce. The idea of “traveling” has been my attempt to move through this with as much grace and lightness as I can summon. Hence, the idea of luggage, beauty, and the question as to whether it is enough to carry me or not.

This poem has an interesting way of zooming in on a few brief moments that occur in nature. How did you go about collecting these instances for the poem?

I tend to pay a great deal of attention to the light and the winged. So they often appear in my work. My daughter is studying Botany in college, and she has started to tell me about different plants and herbs growing in the wild, so it was a delight to include her expertise in this. And then what is adulting except hard work? Okay, that isn’t true, but it often feels that way, and ants seem like the workhorses of the natural world—the way they keep going, carrying their heavy loads, always inspires me.

What subjects are you obsessed with writing about right now?

Because I can only bear to write about the cancer and divorce so much (and goodness, has my writing taken on an edge I didn’t expect), I am also writing mini-meditations for my new website ahitofhope.com (for when life gives you too much sh!t, and not enough shovel).

Are there any writers you've recently read who have influenced any of your recent work?

The two writers who have influenced my work recently are Jean Valentine and Jane Hirshfield. Their poems land in a place that is both lush and simple, sparse and spacious. That’s what I aspire to in my writing.

Is this poem part of a larger project?

This piece is a part of a manuscript of a hybrid memoir that chronicles my cancer and divorce. It’s called, “Right Now, It’s Like This.”