How does a poem get started for you, and is that something that has changed over time? Do you begin with a loose structure, a phrase or a word, or the kernel of an idea?
There is not one way poems get started. Sometimes I have an idea of an overall shape or narrative, other times it's a mood, or just a combination of words, a sentence structure. My most recent book, POETRY AGAINST ALL, were diary entries I originally wrote for my book The Sugar Book but then I took them out of the manuscript and, later, I realized they were their own book, a kind of diaristic account narrative. My most recently completed piece, Summer, started with a sentence in translation - "The rabble is at the door," translated from an early poem by Mats Söderlund - but what that sentence meant to me kept changing. I also started letting Swedish words pop into the poems which gave it a glitchy rhythm that I liked and that gave a for me interesting spin on that sentence. Like language could function like a rabble that wants to enter into the pure space of the lyric. Since I finished that sequence (it's about 100 pgs) a couple of months ago, I've been working on sci-fi stories, one of which grew into a kind of novel-poem of sorts, in large part because I felt I had done everything I knew how to do with Summer. I had exhausted myself, had put it all in there and then I had nothing left. So I figured I should write some sci-fi stories in part to try something totally different.
Are you prompted by the work of other poets, or, say, something you read in a newspaper?
Yes definitely from other poets. Often it's poets who have something in common with me but are significantly different - for example Alice Notley always makes me want to write. That difference inspires me because it creates a creative counter-pole for the writing, a force that draws my writing out of its normal orbit. But also non-literary stuff - paintings, the letters of serial killers, movies, ads etc. For the same reason I like poets who are somewhat different, I like the idea of approximating a work in another media (say a painting by Basquiat) because the difference in media creates a counter-pole that pushes my writing into new shapes and ideas.
Do you start at the beginning, somewhere in the middle, or work from a scattering of notebook entries? Do you utilize notebooks, and how does that help?
I start at the beginning but by the time I get to the end it may no longer be the beginning. My writing is I guess itself vert notebook-like.
How are line-breaks (or the choice to ignore them) chosen? Etcetera. Maybe even focusing on recent threads in your work, or even a recent (and/or recently published) poem? Are there other writers at the back of your head as you work?
I feel like my poems choose the linebreaks for me based on the rhythm and shape of the poem. Many of my books are in prose because I often don't like line breaks, preferring poems that keep going. Or often - like in The Sugar Book - the line breaks are awkward and weird, throwing off the very idea of musicality or rhythm. In Summer, the rhythm is very important and the enjambment of the lines is crucial. Often the enjambment functions as a hinge between sentences, languages or images.
Born in Lund, Sweden, Johannes Göransson now lives in South Bend, Indiana, where he teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He’s the author of eight books, including POETRY AGAINST ALL, The Sugar Book and Transgressive Circulations: Essays on Translation, and the translator of several poets, including Aase Berg, Ann Jäderlund, Helena Boberg and Kim Yideum.