Jessica Johns is a nehiyaw-English-Irish aunty and member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. She is the Managing Editor for Room Magazine and a co-organizer of the Indigenous Brilliance reading series. Her debut poetry chapbook, How Not to Spill, co-won the 2019 BP Nichol Chapbook Award, and her short story “Bad Cree” won silver at the 2020 National Magazine Awards and is longlisted for the 2020 Writers’ Trust Journey Prize.
Jessica Johns is interviewed by Hope Lauterbach.
Hope Lauterbach (HL): “How Not to Spill” implies containment and movement, as well as the emotion and depth often associated with water. How did you arrive at the title?
Jessica Johns (JJ): I was actually doing my MFA at UBC at the time and was taking a poetry class with a real hardass and wonderful poet and professor, Sheryda Warrener. I wrote a poem about my parents that was pretty boring and didn’t have a great title, and Sheryda pushed me to work on the poem, to open up the parts that needed opening, and to play with its form. She was big on titles, and suggested I think about titles in a way that would work for the poem, as if the title is as crucially a part of the poem like any of its lines. We arrived at “How Not to Spill” for the title of the poem, and then when I was putting the chapbook together six months later, my editor, Shaun Robinson, also noted that so many of my poems held themes of water, containment, and movement, like you said. We both agreed it felt right, so we landed on that poem’s title as the overall title of the chapbook.
HL: In the titular poem, “How Not to Spill”, you wrote about your parents and their different approaches to this concept of spilling, of what to give and what to hold back. When writing this book, how did you decide how much to spill?
JJ: Ohh, I love this question. Honestly, I tried to strike a good balance of giving and holding back. This chapbook holds so much about my family, and though it’s from my own experience and viewpoint, it’s still a bit exposing. Both of myself and of them. So each poem has a different level of spill, depending on some internal negotiation with myself. But I never spilled all the way, no matter what. There are still some poems though that seem to push it. They’re the ones I will still never read out loud at an event.
HL: What’s one thing you learned about yourself during the process of creating this chapbook? What advice would you give emerging writers?
JJ: I learned something I felt I hadn’t been taught, which is that writing is a collaborative process. It was really essential to putting the chapbook together that I had input and help, either from my friends and peers who helped me with the poems, or from my editor who had great edits and feedback. Putting together something to share with the world is actually quite terrifying. It was made less so with people around me to support me in those moments where I was unsure, needed advice, or just a second set of eyes.
HL: Before the poem “Cree Dream in Warnings”, you quote a couple lines from Samantha Nock’s poem, “micihciy”. Similar themes from that poem are woven throughout your book. What drew you to that poem? Who are some of your other influences?
JJ: I heard Sam read at an event when I first moved to Vancouver and she read beautiful and funny poetry about her aunties, her family, and Treaty 8, which is also my home territory. I could have cried with relief and excitement. I missed home, and she was reading me poetry about it. So I started following her work closely and she’s been a huge influence on me ever since. I also love the work of jaye simpson, Emily Riddle, Dallas Hunt, Selina Boan, Brandi Bird, Arielle Twist, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and so many more (just the Cree-est list of poets). But right now I’m mainly writing fiction and I just finished reading A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown which has left me truly inspired to write magic into everything.
HL: Dreams are referenced quite often throughout the book. How do dreams inform your writing practice? How did they guide you with this book?
JJ: Dreams inform much of my life, which definitely includes my writing practice. When I received “formal” writing training in the form of an MFA, I had been told over and over never to write about my dreams. It was like this commonly known fact: if you write about your dreams, you will lose your reader. Dreams are boring, no one else cares about them, etc, etc. But I had been raised to believe dreams were important, so this information didn’t feel right. But I listened to it, because I was an emerging writer in a very white institution (and program) and thought everyone knew better than me. So it wasn’t until my final year in school that I realized the utter nonsense of it, and I started to intentionally write about my dreams and the importance of them. That’s where so much of the work in this chapbook came from, to be honest: it was a deliberate pushback against this thing people had been telling me not to do. Even though I knew in my gut that it wasn’t true to begin with. I’ve been paying attention to my dreams ever since.
HL: Family is a prominent theme in How Not to Spill. The book is dedicated to several members of your family. In your poem, “Nehiyaw Iskwewak”, you wrote, “all i want is to make this / a future / they would recognize”. What does that future look like?
JJ: That future looks like their family practicing their language, even if it’s choppy and imperfect, like love between an aunty and her niblings, like everyone eating together around a kitchen table. It looks like laughing, and safety. It looks like sovereignty.