Visiting poet Kimberly Johnson might well be called a Renaissance woman, and not just for her 17th century-focused scholarship.
Johnson has not only written several collections of poetry including “Leviathan on a Hook,” “A Metaphorical God” and “Uncommon Prayer,” but she has also translated Virgil’s “Georgics” and published a monograph on post-Reformation poetic developments.
She holds a master’s from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctorate in Renaissance Literature from the University of California at Berkley. She teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at Brigham Young University in Utah.
If she had been a little more skilled with her guitar, Johnson says, she might have become a rock star.
Johnson had originally planned to become a cardiac surgeon as an undergraduate biology major, and used to teach courses in human anatomy until she realized she loved teaching more than biology.
“It was a new experience to have conversations open my brain in ways I didn’t expect,” Johnson said at a poetry reading held in Lynch Auditorium Monday night.
Her experiences in the sciences as well as her father’s work as a scientist likely helped develop what Associate Professor of English Dr. Andrew Osborn, who invited Johnson to the University of Dallas, called the corpuscular pleasures and sounded sense of her work.
“I seek to play around with this tug-of-war between the material and the linguistic,” Johnson said. “[I make] this linguistic bridge between the material and the socially communicable text. I’m drawn to writers whose poetry is deeply physical and aware of … the embodied experience of reading poetry.”
The deeply physical nature of Johnson’s work inspired Osborn to invite her to the university.
“In the English department, we strive to remind students constantly of the physical body of language,” Osborn said. “We care about the body and the spirit of words.”
Osborn met Johnson at a poetry reading in Trastevere a few weeks into his first year teaching at the UD Rome campus in 2011. He found common ground with her quickly.
“She also did her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so we had the same influences in poetry,” Osborn said before adding that he and Johnson both study poetic difficulty in lyric.
He appreciated not only their shared interests and her work but also her ability to read and speak about her craft.
“It [was] hard to choose among so many poets [to speak at UD], but when you go to the trouble of bringing someone [on campus], you realize some don’t even talk about their own work articulately,” Osborn said. “[She’s] well-spoken, aware of controversies and where she situates herself.”
Johnson’s work as a scholar and translator likely supports her self-awareness and articulacy concerning her poetry.
She studies John Donne, John Milton and George Herbert professionally, but she is also drawn to Virgil in her work as a translator.
“I feel a great deal of aesthetic sympathy [with him],” Johnson said. “It feels natural, and I can speak that language without being too invasive into his aesthetic.”
Johnson said her favorite poet is Gerard Manly Hopkins, but she avoids reading many of his poems at a time because he begins to influence her too much.
“I start to smell too much like him,” Johnson said. “I can only take him in small doses.”
Johnson read from her poetry collections at the Monday event. She also read poems written after her most recent collection was published, including “Familial,” her only autobiographical poem.
The English Department, Sigma Tau Delta, the Journalism Department and the Office of Personal Career Development (OPCD) co-hosted a panel with Johnson and other writers Tuesday afternoon after Johnson spoke to students and visitors during the Junior Poet class in the morning.
Finally, OPCD hosted a breakfast with Osborn and Johnson Wednesday morning for students interested in creative writing.
Osborn hopes to bring other writers to campus, although the university’s lack of a creative writing program may complicate this endeavor.
“There’s no obvious vehicle of maintaining enthusiasm,” Osborn said. “You have to breathe energy into the system.”