Jim Johnstone obtained his MSc in Reproductive Physiology from the University of Toronto, where he is currently a doctoral candidate. He is a two-time winner of the E. J. Pratt Medal and Prize in Poetry, the recipient of a 2008 CBC Literary Award and his work has been broadcast on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers and published in Canadian periodicals such as The Fiddlehead, Grain and PRISM International. Guernica Editions published his first book of poetry, The Velocity of Escape, in 2008. Currently he edits Misunderstandings Magazine, a literary journal he co-founded with Ian Williams and Vicki Sloot.
Alex Boyd interviewed Jim Johnstone in summer, 2009.
Your poem “Lines of Communication” would seem to suggest a mistrust of technology (a “dialtone snakes out”), or am I reading that the right way?
Mistrust of technology is certainly an interpretation of “Lines of Communication.” More specifically I’m interested in how technology has altered communication, and by proxy social constructs. My trust issues are deeply routed; one of the unifying themes in The Velocity of Escape is the unreliability of language, regardless of how it’s relayed.
The poem “Conjoined Dreams,” is a strangely beautiful one, but also appears to be proof poetry doesn’t need to be based on personal experience. How do these kinds of poems come about for you?
“Conjoined Dreams” isn’t autobiographical, but it does contain elements of personal experience. The Siamese poems in The Velocity of Escape are an extended metaphor for my relationship with my brother, and how time and space pull family apart. Despite the fact that my brother and I were never physically attached, we were rarely separate as children.
There’s a great deal of physicality in your poems — references to skin, or lips, or white blood cells. Can you elaborate on what compels you to include these details?
I feel a strong sense of ownership over my own physicality. One of the reasons I chose to become a Physiologist was my inability to focus outside of my own corporeal environment. After a while I thought of my body as an advantage; I would use it as an aid during exams. Understanding what I could see directly came easily. From a creative standpoint my views are similar: the tangibility of the human body is universal.
Your line that a puncture “hemorrhages / rough ink,” suggests writing as a difficult, physical process. Am I right, or should I go back and take English class all over again?
Good writing should be challenging for both reader and writer alike. I struggle to reinvent myself from poem to poem, often taking a scientific approach to change; I don’t enjoy staying in a comfort zone for long.
You’ve edited Misunderstandings Magazine for at least a few years now — has it had an influence on your work?
I don’t know if MM has influenced my work as much as it’s influenced my sense of Toronto’s literary community. The primary goal of the magazine is to provide opportunities for young writers, and over 12 issues (and counting) I feel confidant that we’ve been able to do that. MM has led to my involvement with a group of contributors in a more hands-on sense, editing chapbooks for Cactus Press. This past year we published poetry by Mark Laliberte (It looks like rain), Edward Nixon (Free Translation) and Josh Stewart (Invention of the Curveball). A new chapbook by Matt Rader is forthcoming this fall.
Name three poets that have had a strong influence on you.
Earle Birney was a strong formative influence. I attended elementary school in Uxbridge, where Birney spent his final years, and his presence loomed large in the community. Since it’s difficult to limit my influences to three, I’ll choose one classic and one contemporary poet to round out my choices. Classic = John Milton. A better pure poet than Shakespeare. Contemporary = Ken Babstock. Every time I pick up Airstream Land Yacht it ruins me.
What’s next for you?
Other (and sometimes rather) than completing my PhD thesis, I’m working on two books: the follow up to The Velocity of Escape (which contains a suite of poems that won a 2008 CBC Literary Award) and a booklength poem titled Sunday, the locusts (which was recently shortlisted for the Matrix Lit-Pop Award). Sunday, the locusts has been especially challenging, and is a collaborative project with an artist/friend, Julienne Lottering, who has pushed me to expand my poetic voice. It’ll be a few years, however I’m excited for both projects to see the light of day.