Audio

Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson

March 8, 2022

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Srikanth Reddy in Conversation with Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Jay Hopler:

(READS EXCERPT from “The Canonization”)

let death upon my life
& life’s work choke

i’m done

Srikanth Reddy: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor Srikanth Reddy. I’m honored today to be let into the world of two poets, Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson. Jay and Kimberly have shared a life of art together for many years now. They’re married. And they’ve also shared the difficulties of Jay’s cancer diagnosis in 2017, when he was given two years to live. When he heard his diagnosis, Jay thought to himself, “I have to finish a book in twenty-four months.” And he did. And I’m grateful that he’s with us today, because of his perseverance in the face of this challenge, to talk to us about writing this book. Kimberly persevered, too. And she has a book coming out titled Fatal in the same spring as Jay’s new book, Still Life, is coming out. I’m very grateful to have both these writers with us today to share their experiences, their perspectives, and their poems with us.

Jay Hopler: How shall we begin?

Kimberly Johnson: Maybe we begin in 2017.

Jay Hopler: Okay. Well, okay, so, I was diagnosed with terminal cancer on July 12, 2017, at exactly 6:35PM, whilst the Muzak version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Boys Just Want to Have Fun” was playing. (LAUGHS)

Kimberly Johnson: (LAUGHING) Girls.

Jay Hopler: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” right! (LAUGHING) And I get the shivers to this day when I hear that song. But so, the doctor, and Kim was there. And so the doctor gave me two years to live at that point. And I thought, well, I actually had two thoughts. My first thought was, “Oh, fuck you, that’s not right.” But my second thought was, “Alright, assuming he is correct, I’ve got twenty-four months to write a book from beginning to end.” And, and that has, I’ve never done anything like that, because there’s a poem in my first book that literally took me twelve years to write, and it’s two lines long. So I thought, but I gotta give it a shot. So, he’s still talking to me about what I can expect from hospice and whatnot. And I turned to out the window, to look out the window. And here in Utah, it was most beautiful, sort of late afternoon, and the wind was rolling through the rye grass, and it was just absolutely gorgeous. And I just started writing a poem at that moment, before he even stopped talking about, like, what I was in store for. And, unlike my other books, I couldn’t count on getting the next day. So I couldn’t, I couldn’t think, “Well, I’m going to revise this later.” So each poem that I wrote, I had to hit it right the first time, because I didn’t have time to stick with it. I had to go on to the next thing, just to make sure that I had, you know, something amassed. So if I passed away before it was finished, there would at least be something that I could leave behind.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Jay Hopler:

(READS POEM)

The Canonization

no man convinced he was going to die
    on an island would on an island live
unless he wanted to die
    on that island & i did

talk about an end rhyme
    but my life’s a poem my death’s
been writing for a long time

& death abhors a well-wrought urn
i’m done

& they will burn me where i fall
    the aspen clapping ashes
against the sky’s blue wall
    & they can burn these verses
too send us all to naught

let them revel in the smoke
    let death upon my life
& life’s work choke

i’m done
i leave death to work what urn

it will

my father was a sack
of ash my mother kept
    on a windowsill for years after he passed
    it didn’t seem to cause him much distress
        i left him on the island
    when i left

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Jay Hopler: So, luckily, the treatments at the hospital have been working, up until this moment, really fantastically, so. So, the two years that I was given turned into almost five years at this point. So we’re still in the midst of the battle, but at least we got, you know, our books, our books done.

Kimberly Johnson: And Jay was an overachiever. He, he could not tolerate the notion of two years. So at the very least, he’s gone to five.

Jay Hopler: (LAUGHING) Yeah, that’s true.

Srikanth Reddy: That’s amazing to me, to hear that the moment that you have kind of time stamped of receiving this news plunged you into a kind of real time of making a poem. And that that time has become stretched. And it sounds also like one thing that you were dropped into at that moment was elegy as a literary form. You know, one of our oldest poetic forms. And oftentimes, almost always, we think about elegies as poems, on the death of a loved one, or of another person, but your book is kind of shot through with elegies for oneself, which is an incredibly powerful and urgent experience for me as a reader of the work. There’s the line in the poem you read, just now, “my life’s a poem my death’s/been writing for a long time.”

Jay Hopler:

(RECORDING REPLAYS)

my life’s a poem my death’s
been writing for a long time

& death abhors a well-wrought urn
i’m done

& they will burn me where i fall
    the aspen clapping ashes
against the sky’s …

(FADES OUT)

Srikanth Reddy: Kimberly, in your book, I also feel that gravitational force of elegy that you are writing, in many ways, for Jay, but also for yourself and your own life with Jay. There’s this beautiful passage in your poem, “Funerals”: “There is no form for what I’ve become,/Half-widowèd/So long before my widowhead://Unfutured. Uncondoled.” I wonder if you could talk about what it’s like for you both to write these elegies and what elegies mean to you individually? And what it means to write elegies together with someone?

Kimberly Johnson: Well, I would start to answer that question by acknowledging that this book seems to me to be a turn into a new poetic register. I think that I have comforted myself for a very long time with the notion that a poem is a—what’s the phrase—a machine made of words. And that my goal was to make a really functional machine, as opposed to, to try to reflect anything autobiographical. One of the surprising revelations that this book offered to me as a writer is that I was able to continue to pursue this kind of abstracted linguistic experiment and have it dovetail with something that seemed closer to home.

Jay Hopler: Well, for me, it was weird, because my last book was an elegy for my father. And I was like, “Wow, I just wrote an elegy.” I hoped to have a little, a little variation in my life. (LAUGHING) I actually poke fun at myself in one of the poems in the book about how I am the constant elegist. Like, no matter what I try to write, it ends up being an elegy for something. For me, I wanted, to quote Robert Lowell, I wanted words that were “meat-hooked from the living steer.” Like, I wanted to put my blood on the page, so that there would be some kind of record of the journey and the toll that the journey was taking. I mean, I’m an intuitive writer to begin with, but I wanted to turn off the editorial part of my brain and just receive whatever the universe was going to give me and do what I could with it. And writing an elegy with a person—well, first of all, writing an elegy about the person who’s dying when you’re the person who’s dying is like a weird, like, writer’s workshop. It’s like, we’re trying to get my life as beautiful as possible, or something, before I check out. But it was a weird, a weird undertaking, some of these poems, because they were so much a conjoining, because we’re both living it, it’s sort of a joint undertaking.

Kimberly Johnson: And that introduces one of the questions, which is, to what degree it seems appropriate to talk about somebody else’s physical decline, and some of the challenges that attend upon that. If you are the spouse of somebody who’s going through something like this, your instinct is to protect them. And it feels a little bit invasive, to presume to own that experience in language. Like, there’s a poem in the book that I was very anxious to have written. And I talked to Jay about it because it felt to me perhaps a little bit too invasive. So, we talked a lot about whether he felt that I was intruding over much on the privacy of his own body.

Jay Hopler: Right, but actually the intrusion, when Kim brought that poem to me, and this one particular part, was very, I guess, sensitive. My questions were simple. I asked her, “Number one, is it accurate?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Number two, does the poem require it? Like, would that poem be the same or better without it?” And she said, “No.” And I said, “Well, those are the only two things that I care about.” Because, love is love. But poetry is poetry.

Kimberly Johnson: (LAUGHS)

Jay Hopler: And, you know, there’s, you got to put the love over here for a second, and you got to serve the art. And I’ll be honest with you, it’s hard to hear. But it’s also beautiful. And I would never have asked for an inferior poem. Oh, that would be—that should be in, like, every poet’s marriage vows, that you will never require of your partner an inferior poem so that your ego could be soothed.

Srikanth Reddy: (LAUGHS) It is, I think, one of the most beautiful poems in your book, Kimberly, and most, the most painful. You hadn’t even named the poem, but I know exactly which poem you’re both talking about. It’s “Foley Catheter,” I would imagine.

Kimberly Johnson: Yes.

Srikanth Reddy: I wonder if you might read it, because—if you feel like that would be a good thing to do.

Kimberly Johnson: Sure, happy to do it.

(READS POEM)

Foley Catheter

I clean its latex length three times a day
                      With kindliest touch,
           Swipe an alcohol swatch

From the tender skin at the tip of him
                      Down the lumen
            To the drainage bag I change

Each day and flush with vinegar.
                       When I vowed for worse
            Unwitting did I wed this

Something-other-than-a-husband, jumble
                       Of exposed plumbing
            And euphemism. Fumble

I through my nurse’s functions, upended
                        From the spare bed
            By his every midnight sound.

Unsought inside our grand romantic
                       Intimacy
           Another intimacy

Opens—ruthless and indecent, consuming
                        All our hiddenmosts.
            In a body, immodest

Such hunger we sometimes call tumor;
                       In a marriage
           It’s cherish.  From the Latin for cost.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Srikanth Reddy: When I hear that poem, and when I think about it, I think about what Jay was saying about, does the work serve poetry? And, you know, it’s a poem about actually serving another human being. It’s about providing a form of care. I wonder if you can—you or Jay—can talk a little bit about the kinds of forms of care that you find yourselves engaged in, not exclusively in your household daily lives, you know, going through treatment, and the toll, the cost of that, but also, care for one another’s writing and voices that I’m hearing in these kind of parallel books. The dedications to the books, in some ways, talk to each other.

Jay Hopler: (LAUGHING) Yeah.

Kimberly Johnson: (LAUGHS) That’s true.

Jay Hopler: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that. But that is true.

Kimberly Johnson: What’s your dedication?

Jay Hopler: “This book is for Kimberly Johnson, as is everything else as far as I’m concerned.” (LAUGHS)

Kimberly Johnson: And mine is, “In memory of.”

Jay Hopler: Yeah.

Kimberly Johnson: Well, can I talk practically for a moment? I mean, some of the forms of care that are involved in our current situation are just like, the physical caretaking on a day-to-day basis, and the emotional caretaking on a day-to-day basis. But we also have a child still at home. And there are the various exertions to ensure that he is able to have as normal a teenage life as possible, and to have a kind of shield between that normality and various disruptions that may come into our lives. And there’s the care of our professions, which involves being—trying to be present for students. I mean, those are just some practical things that occurred to me. I don’t know if you want to add anything to that, Jay.

Jay Hopler: That sounds about—practically, yeah. But also to create an emotional space, a creative space where we can both go and, in a way, shut out what is currently happening, so that we can, we can create. That’s also important.

Kimberly Johnson: Being custodians of one another’s time, to some degree. The pandemic made it possible for Jay to teach remotely, which meant that our long marriage, which had been for years divided between one home in Utah and one home in Florida, on our different teaching positions, we were able to blend those households. And so we had to build an addition on the house to make sure that Jay had space to be and space to put his stuff. And I mean that both materially and emotionally. And so, that was one of the large gestures that we did to preserve the creative process for Jay. And for years, he has gifted me what I call the Solitude Nordic Center Writing Retreat, which is a season pass to a cross-country ski trail that I escape to whenever I can. So, that’s a way that he has protected my writing space.

Jay Hopler: Kim can only write when she is physically in motion. And I can only write when I’m sitting in front of a huge window.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Srikanth Reddy: So, I hear that you met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which is actually where my wife and I met when we were graduate students many years ago. I’m just wondering if you can tell me a little bit about that.

Jay Hopler: Yeah. Let’s see, we met, well, I was—actually it was in Marvin Bell’s seminar, I think.

Kimberly Johnson: I think that’s right, Marvin Bell’s seminar.

Jay Hopler: Yeah, right. So, I walked into, uh, Marvin Bell’s seminar, and there was one seat open, and it was next to Kim. So I just sat down and started just chatting. I wasn’t really looking for anything, I was just looking for my seat. (LAUGHS) But it became, it became clear that the two of us were doing different things than our classmates were doing. This is back in ’95, I think, so mid nineties. And we sort of had like a, sort of a kindred spirit thing going on. So we became fast friends. And we were, I would say best of friends for twenty years?

Kimberly Johnson: It wasn’t twenty years.

Jay Hopler: It seemed like twenty years, but it was, it was a long damn time, but—

Kimberly Johnson: (LAUGHS) A dozen years.

Jay Hopler: A dozen years. Yeah, a dozen years before we actually got together, yeah.

Srikanth Reddy: Wow. That’s amazing.

Jay Hopler: Yeah, we went off and had lives. I got a PhD at Purdue, and you went off to Berkeley and did your PhD. And my PhD is in hit men. So, not even poetry. I went in a different, different track. (LAUGHS)

Srikanth Reddy: (LAUGHS) Your doctorate is in assassination, or the study of hit men?

Jay Hopler: Well, it’s—

Kimberly Johnson: (LAUGHS)

Jay Hopler: Yeah, the study of hit men. It was, it’s an American Studies degree from Purdue, and I focused on hit man fiction, particularly short hit man fiction, and why Americans seem particularly fond of it,

Srikanth Reddy: Like hit men who are short, or—

Jay Hopler: (LAUGHS) That’s really, talking about academics’ overspecialization. Yeah, so that was, that was a fun degree. Yeah, we had complete lives before we actually got together and had a life together.

Kimberly Johnson: And I went to Berkeley and did a PhD in Renaissance literature—

Jay Hopler: You had two children, and—

Kimberly Johnson: And had two, two kids, and here we are later.

Srikanth Reddy: That’s funny, I just, I and my wife just missed you, because we met in Iowa at the Writers’ Workshop in 1998. So you must have just left the year before.

Kimberly Johnson: That’s right.

Srikanth Reddy: But we didn’t meet in the classroom, we met at the bar.

Jay Hopler: At the Fox Head?

Srikanth Reddy: At the Fox Head, exactly.

Jay Hopler: (LAUGHS)

Kimberly Johnson: You know, Jay and I never went to a bar. We both avoided bars studiously when we were at Iowa, so we would never have met you there anyway.

Srikanth Reddy: That’s the only thing to do at Iowa!

Kimberly Johnson: I know.

Srikanth Reddy: Yeah.

Kimberly Johnson: Well, he wrote.

Srikanth Reddy: You must have gotten a lot of writing done.

Jay Hopler: Yeah, a lot.

Kimberly Johnson: He would wake up at 5AM in the morning and write for hours. And I would stay up late at night running and go out and explore and hike around during the daytime.

Srikanth Reddy: Yeah, well, let’s all meet up at the Fox Head someday.

Jay Hopler: (LAUGHING) Right. That’d be great. I want to see it before I die.

(ALL LAUGH)

Srikanth Reddy: I’ll buy the drinks.

Kimberly Johnson: Sounds good, we’ll both need ’em.

Jay Hopler: I’ll be drinking, then, so—

Kimberly Johnson: (LAUGHS)

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Srikanth Reddy: Do you read each other’s work? Have you always read each other’s work?

Kimberly Johnson: Oh, he’s my favorite poet.

Jay Hopler: Yeah, and she is mine. Yeah, we’ve always read other’s work.

Srikanth Reddy: And as you’re, as you’re writing, as you’re making it? I know, you shared “Foley Catheter” with Jay while you were putting it together, but is that oftentimes something you do?

Kimberly Johnson: That’s a good question.

Jay Hopler: Yeah.

Kimberly Johnson: I think Jay would agree that we are one another’s first and last readers. Our process tends to be different. So, Jay will talk things through in process. Would you agree?

Jay Hopler: Right, yeah. Kim will wait until she’s done completely before she’ll let me see anything. But I’ll get a good line in my head, and I’ll just like walk through the house saying it over and over again. And then I’ll say, “What do you think?” And then she’ll give me her opinion. Then I’ll say, “Well, I changed it.” And then I’ll give her the new one. And we go back and forth like that. (LAUGHING) So, I don’t think she likes that. But that’s how I—

Kimberly Johnson: I like it just fine.

Srikanth Reddy: Those are such different ways of working. I mean, your books are really different books, but I do feel them kind of speaking to each other or maybe facing in the same direction as, like, two people, two different people facing the same direction. And I mean, one difference—this isn’t to say that your book isn’t without humor, Kimberly, I mean, your book is really funny. I remember there’s a moment where you talk about planning a funeral, and the nurse in the room, like, shushes you and Jay because you’re kind of raucously deciding who you’re going to not invite. I laughed when I read that line, and then I instantly felt bad about laughing. But Jay, your book begins with the epigraph, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” That’s George Bernard Shaw. And I’m wondering if you can talk about your relationships to humor, you know, as a response to fear and tragedy and loss. I imagine sometimes it must be maddening to hear someone make light of something that you’re scared of, and vice versa, or, you know.

Jay Hopler: Sometimes, but my relationship to humor is odd. I was blessed with a father for whom straight conversation was impossible.

Srikanth Reddy: (LAUGHS)

Jay Hopler: So, we had many, many wonderful conversations, but they were never about what we were talking about. So, I became adept at a very early age at expressing a whole human range of emotion in a joke, because that was the only way my father would hear it. So he and I would just joke back and forth, and some of the joking got really very dark, very gallows humor. But so now, when I, when something really bad happens, my first inclination is to go for humor. I mean, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna kid ya, when I was being diagnosed, and looking out the window, writing the poem, my other half of my brain was filling in all these jokes about dying, like, you know, “there’s lotsa dead space to fill up,” or “I was dying to hear that.” And I’m like, you know, “don’t say that out loud, you gotta be appropriate.” Like, if there’s one time in your life you can’t cut loose is when you’re being told you’re gonna die, right? So, like, I’m trying to, like, maintain a straight face, but it was difficult. So, the poems that are funny in the book, I mean, they’re funny, but I’m laughing because I’m terrified. But I don’t know how to, I don’t know how to express that terror any other way than to make a joke out of it.

Srikanth Reddy: Do you feel like there’s something of feeling like a bad joke is being played or that, like, one is inside of a bad joke that brings that out?

Jay Hopler: Oh, yeah! (LAUGHS) I feel like a horrible joke is being played. And, you know, on the one hand, I’m thinking like, that’s really, that’s not fair, and all that. On the other hand, thinking like, as jokes go, not a bad one. I mean, honestly. (LAUGHS) It had all the features of a wonderful story, you know, like, diagnosed with this old man’s cancer, like sixty years before I was even supposed to think about it, that kind of stuff. And trying to come to terms with the absurdity of the whole enterprise of dying and trying to die well, that it’s, it’s difficult not to see the funny side of it sometimes. And there are, there are plenty of hilarious things about dying. (LAUGHING) Although, at the moment, I can’t list a single one, but I’m sure I have that list somewhere.

Srikanth Reddy: And I’m really grateful to hear you think about this, Jay, because I, myself, was diagnosed with melanoma about twelve years ago. And I didn’t, wasn’t planning to kind of bring that up in our conversation today, but it did feel—I’m out of treatment and things look clear—but that feeling of like a deeply absurd joke, because, you know, I’m brown-skinned. I’m South Asian. People can’t see that in the podcast, but people with my skin color don’t get skin cancer. So, you know, the doctors couldn’t believe it. And yet, I think there’s something about the absurdity. You mentioned that, you know, your own diagnosis was a cancer that wouldn’t normally afflict someone your age and, yeah.

Jay Hopler: Yeah. We’re also blessed with a wonderful oncologist who is a very funny man. A lot of my clinic visits are just the bunch of us just cutting up about impending surgeries or different treatments, but I think we all at this point can laugh about it, at least enough to tell a few jokes.

Kimberly Johnson: I think from my perspective, well, I have long said that I, in person, I’m funny, but I’m not witty. And on the page, it’s the opposite, on the page, I’m witty but I’m not funny.

Jay Hopler: (LAUGHS)

Kimberly Johnson: And so, Jay gets to be funny on the page. I think that the jokes—I mean, I don’t know what it says about me that this is true, not anything good—but a lot of jokes that I insert into these poems are buried deeply in, like, etymologies or in allusions. And so, I wonder if, by sublimating humor into those registers, it’s one place I can exert control, in the face of an uncontrollable situation or circumstance.

Srikanth Reddy: There’s so much that that response opens up, especially thinking about like, what the difference between being witty and funny, and being witty and funny in a poem versus in real life. But it also makes me think about, you and Jay collaborated on an anthology of poetry, devotional poetry, called Before the Door of God a few years ago. It covers a long span of English-language poetry, but, in some ways, I think of the religious and devotional aspects of poetry when I’m reading your work as kind of writers like John Donne, who the poem, Jay’s poem, “The Canonization” is riffing on. But also, thinking about devotion as another response to mortality and life, as opposed to humor and laughter. I wonder if you, it’s a big question, but I wonder if you both might think a little bit about your connection to poetry and the divine? How that’s changed, and—

Kimberly Johnson: So that’s a really interesting question, because this book, Fatal, which we’re talking about today, of mine, is really the first of my collections of poetry that is not in some way aligned, or doesn’t align itself with that long tradition of devotional poetry. I feel like Fatal is a fairly secular book, for lack of a better word. That is to say, it doesn’t really adopt the devotional stance. And I have thought a lot about this. And I wonder whether there’s something to be said about the enormity of the present circumstances making, like, even a gesture toward the idea of divine succor sometimes feels … ridiculous. Ridiculous at worst, and maybe, I’m not sure which word I’m looking for here … inappropriate at best.

Srikanth Reddy: I’m hearing succor in two different ways. When you say divine succor, right?

Kimberly Johnson: Yeah.

Srikanth Reddy: S-u-c-c-o-r and—

Kimberly Johnson: Yeah, I think that pun might characterize the pivot that I am describing here. Yeah. Do you have thoughts about poetry and devotion?

Jay Hopler: No, not really. Not so much. I mean, all my poetry is devotional. I kinda think all poetry is devotional, because poetry is an act of attention, right. And so, the act of attending is a devotional act.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Srikanth Reddy: I wonder what it’s like for you both to talk together about such intimate and unsettling questions, with these books coming out soon. I imagine you may be doing more of this, you know, moving forward, or maybe you’ve already done it. I’d love to hear what it’s like for you to be here, now, talking to me about these things.

Jay Hopler: Oh, this is the first one, I think, right, that we’re doing. I think it’s, so far, so good. It’s pretty fun. (LAUGHS)

Kimberly Johnson: We, we historically have found it mutually useful to be in one another’s company. I mean, that’s one of the reasons we got married. But there’s something about talking in conjunction with one another that makes it feel more comfortable and less intrusive, less personal, because we’re not speaking for one another. We’re speaking with one another. But for a long time, we have given readings, joint readings, where we’ve done what we call tag-team style. So he’ll stand up and read a poem, and then I’ll stand up and read a poem that I think is in conversation with it, and then he’ll pick up that concept or something from that poem and respond to it, and we’ll just kind of ping pong back and forth over the course of forty minutes or something. I don’t know if audiences find that interesting, but we enjoy it a lot. (LAUGHS)

Jay Hopler: We do.

Kimberly Johnson: You know, it is a confusing period of time. And I think that, for us, as for many writers, the process of composition is a process of clarification, coming to understand by having to find words to describe what the experience is like. And so, there’s a way in which we become better at talking about the private life by virtue of our joint and separate efforts to articulate it into public or generalizable idiom. Yeah. Because, without the impetus to find the right words, a lot might go unexamined or unsaid or uncomprehended. It is the process of putting it into words that gives us a more mature facility with the experience, I think.

Jay Hopler: Yeah, I would agree.

Srikanth Reddy: Poetry is your marriage therapist.

Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson: (LAUGH)

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Kimberly Johnson: Oh, that’s so painful, but it may be true.

Jay Hopler: That could be true, yeah.

Srikanth Reddy: Jay, your book, your poetry. I’m always kind of left at the end of your poems like, I have this Wile E. Coyote kind of feeling where, I look down, and there’s nothing under me. And, you know, like, your book does this too. You end with a piece of sheet music.

Jay Hopler: So, when I was in Rome, about 10 years ago, I met a composer named Paul Rudy. He had perfect pitch. So, whenever a truck backed up, or like, a seagull screamed, he would be like, “Oh, that’s an A flat.” You know, (LAUGHS) it was wonderful. So when I started to work on the book, and I thought, well, I’m going to have to write my own obituary. And I thought, you know, if I was a piece of music, like, if Paul could hear me, what would that, what would that be like? So I called him and I gave him the idea and he got to work on the music. So, so that is, that’s me. That’s Jay Hopler if I were a piece of music. It was important for me to end on music because, to me, writing poetry is music. I look at punctuation as though it were musical notation. And I score my poems as though they were, uh, pieces of music. Seems fitting in my imagination, if I could become my own, become my own music that other people could play.

Srikanth Reddy: I was hoping we could end this conversation with another poem related to music from your book. It’s one of my favorites. It’s called “Honky-Tonk Sonnet.”

Jay Hopler: Oh, yeah, the Johnny Cash duet.

Srikanth Reddy: Yeah, would you read that?

Jay Hopler: Yeah. Okay, this is a sonnet that I wrote. Basically, it’s a duet between me and Johnny Cash if that had ever happened. I’m sort of sorry that that didn’t ever happen. He was one of the three people that I’ve wanted to meet and couldn’t. So there’s Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, and Kurt Vonnegut. But I thought, well, in a poem, I could, he could still sing with me. So, so I wrote this poem. At the end, there’s some italicized lines and they have to be sung, so I’ll do my best.

(READS POEM)

Honky-Tonk Sonnet
A duet with Johnny Cash

Before cancer, I was a country.
Now—, I’m a fucking country
         Song: job gone, house gone,
              Wife diagnosed w/ Post-Traumatic Stress—
          I’m missing more organs
                            Than a looted church.
              Even my dog’s been repossessed!
              Know what I got left?
         2 years. The lifespan
              Of an average rat. My wife’s therapist
       Tells me I can use this time to find
                           Out who I really am. (SINGS) Lord help me Jesus,
                           I’ve wasted it, so/help me Jesus,
 I know what I am
: squeak.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Srikanth Reddy: I really want to thank Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson for sharing their poetry, their perspectives, and their time with us today. Jay’s book Still Life comes out this June. You can read his poem, “The Canonization,” in the March 2022 issue of Poetry, in print and online. Kimberly’s book, Fatal, comes out this May, right around the same time as Jay’s. If you’re not yet a subscriber to the magazine, there’s a special rate for podcast listeners. For a limited time, you can get a full year of the magazine for $20. That’s 11 book-length issues for just $20. Visit poetry magazine.org/podcastoffer to subscribe. That’s poetry magazine.org/podcastoffer. This show is produced by Rachel James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thanks for listening.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

When Jay Hopler received a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2017, he was told he had two years to live. He thought, “I have to write a book in twenty-four months.” We’ll hear two poems from that book today. Still Life, out in June from McSweeney’s, is a “violently funny but playfully serious fulfillment of what Arseny Tarkovsky called the fundamental purpose of art: a way to prepare for death, be it far in the future or very near at hand.” Poetry guest editor Srikanth Reddy takes over the helm of the podcast this week, and interviews both Hopler and renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson. As a literary couple, Hopler and Johnson have shared a life in art for many years, and Johnson’s new book, Fatal, traces her experiences since Hopler’s 2017 diagnosis. Out in May from Persea Books, Paisley Rekdal writes, “Fatal examines how we live poised between terror and delight, stasis and transformation, ever bewildered by how even the simplest objects and events can change everything in instant.” Despite the heavy subject matter, the conversation between Hopler, Johnson, and Reddy contains plenty of laughter.

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