Suzi F. Garcia in Conversation with Taylor Johnson

December 14, 2021


Taylor Johnson:


When the trees were leafless, I put my voice,
O Tenuous Air, among the barren places, among even the
nothingness of frost. 

Suzi F. Garcia: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m guest editor Suzi F. Garcia. Getting to know Taylor Johnson and their poetry has been a highlight for me this year. Their debut book, Inheritance, absolutely blew me away. Inheritance is described as “a black sensorium, a chapel of color and sound that speaks to spaciousness, surveillance, identity, desire, and transcendence.” And I really relate to something Fred Moten said about the book: “I’m singing. I’m singing with them, about them, because of them.” That’s also how I felt reading Johnson’s new poem, “Hymn.” That’s H-Y-M-N, which you’ll hear from today. We start with the story of how Johnson began writing the poem in their DC apartment.

Taylor Johnson: You know, those brown butcher papers, large brown butcher papers?

Suzi F. Garcia: Mm-hmm.

Taylor Johnson: I’d gotten a roll of that that also had an attachment that I could put onto the wall. And I had just moved into a new apartment. And I realized that the wall didn’t have the correct studs in the place where I wanted to put it. So I just began writing on the wall. I mean, the poem kind of began in that way. It was just like the first line, “Begin again, O song,” had been in my head for, you know, some days. I just wrote it on the wall in my room. And that’s kind of how it started.


Suzi F. Garcia: So you wrote straight on the wall.

Taylor Johnson: I wrote on the wall with my pen. Yeah, like a child.


Release me, O Redeemer, from the tyranny of my desire
for that which has been weighed against, has killed my people.

Place in my path, O Architect,
the bitter green medicine that reaches for me,

that leans as I do towards the sun,
that huddles together as my people in praise of you,

your name—a sharp taste in my mouth, a righteous sound
I can lean against. O Transformer, whose blessings multiply
before me as yarrow by the train tracks. I trust in

the givenness of things. I trust in the wind and the ache in my knee.
For it is thy hum at my center, O Witness, that breathes me.


Taylor Johnson: It was interesting, because I didn’t write it in my notebook, it was something that I began on this wall. And you know, the length of the line, the length of a lot of the lines in this poem, they are long, and I think that I had this idea that this poem was going to be this meditation on the painter Andrew Wyeth’s painting called Grape Wine. I thought it was going to be some kind of ekphrastic meditation about this painting. But it’s kind of turned into something more about, about my breath and my being,

Suzi F. Garcia: I think writing on the wall must have created some sort of organic ideas of how the lines work. That is very different than writing it like you would in your notebook. And, like you said, involves so much more physicality into your writing.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, because, you know, I often think that that remove can be so stark, you know what I mean? We receive words that are on paper that were once trees that had a physical body, and we receive words that are written by people who have bodies, you know what I mean? So I think that I’m trying to get more in touch with that, that transfer, with this poem.


I trust in

the givenness of things. I trust in the wind and the ache in my knee.
For it is thy hum at my center, O Witness, that breathes me.

Suzi F. Garcia: There are a great deal of devotional texts for you to pull from, but you seem to blend some of those ideas with your own poetic voice seamlessly. What texts are you feeling influenced by?

Taylor Johnson: Well, you know, with that particular section of the poem, I had written it as kind of like a hymn against eating processed sugar. That was kind of the impetus for that part. I was kind of stuck in this motion where I was eating sugar that felt like it was kind of like a balm against feeling things, you know what I mean? I kind of just went to the corner store, would grab a certain kind of candy that I liked, and would let that take my feelings away, you know? And so I wrote that as kind of a balm for myself, to prevent me from doing that. But more on the devotional texts, I think, I mean, I really dig the poet John Donne. He was one of my influential poets, I guess in my youth. I read him when I was fifteen for the first time, and I—The Holy Sonnets I read, and I really dug them. Just in, in their, their physicality, their boldness of their desire for connection, and their questioning of the presence of, you know, divinity of God in some way.

Suzi F. Garcia: How difficult was it to strike the balance between like, what hymns are expected to sound like, and your own voice?

Taylor Johnson: Mm-hmm. You know, I don’t really have an expectation about hymns. One thing that I love is congregational hymns in the Christian church. I tend to go on these long, late night YouTube binges of just looking at people singing in church. So I think more than anything, I’m interested in how to funnel through my own language, my own body, the choral experience of, of devotion, in some way. To take in the sound of a crowd, that becomes one voice, you know what I mean? So I’m interested in that. I don’t really have a set understanding of what a hymn is, you know what I mean? I think that taken out of the secular—taken out of the sacred context, rather, I think that there are many songs like “Swag Surf” for instance, that are like, kind of like a secularized hymn, where people are embodied in this way and kind of moving in one, in one direction. Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: I love that idea. I think that that’s really cool to kind of make the idea of the hymn polyvocal, just bring in all of these voices together. I think, especially in the poem you just read, we kind of see this conversation moving into community at large. You zoom out and directly address a faith that reminds me these are poems of devotion. Would you call these secular poems? Or would you call these poems of faith?

Taylor Johnson: I think they’re poems that are trying to ignite, reignite my faith in myself or the faith in my interior. I think that they share devotion to the word as it is, you know what I mean? That all poets seem to have in common, the inherent sacredness of something spoken and passed, and then, you know, another person speaking, I think that it shares that devotion, but it’s not wedded to a particular kind of faith, if that makes sense.

Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah, I think that you’re doing something really interesting, where you’re bringing together like, multiple forms. So even though it might be called “Hymn,” it’s also ars poetica as well.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think that, I don’t know, you’re a poet as well, so I think that there are always these moments where we’re kind of struck with what it is that we do, you know what I mean? And not making it like a precious thing, but just like, I feel grateful every day to be among the people who are speaking in this way. You know what I mean? Like that that’s what I’ve pressed my time into, is this language, and imperfect as it is, I’m grateful for it.

Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah, I think what you’re doing here is just so cross genre. It’s not just secular, and it’s not just faith based. It’s both. It’s meeting many of these places in the middle and kind of—it feels like it’s not making statements against things as much as it’s just inclusive of other ideas instead.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, I’m interested in the beingness, you know what I mean?

Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah.

Taylor Johnson: I’m interested in the, the idea of being with all, you know what I mean, again, that John Donne poem is kind of ringing in my head now, “Lovers’ Infiniteness,” because he has this idea of, of talking to and with the all. Yeah, so I’m interested in existing in that way.

Suzi F. Garcia: Well, I’m really kind of obsessed with this idea of the choral voice. It’s Greek, but not Greek, right?

Taylor Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Suzi F. Garcia: It’s beyond Greek in some way.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, I mean, it’s Greek for sure in that in classical, you know, Western thought, but it’s also like, very Black. It’s just kind of the sound that I grew up in. I’m from DC, and I grew up listening to, and, you know, still listen to go-go music, which is a complete choral sound and an immersive sound that implicates the person who’s listening and participating to join in, you know what I mean? So, and similarly, like singing a hymn in church, it’s like someone might take up a song that everyone then joins in with. So that’s, that’s kind of where I’m coming from.

Suzi F. Garcia: Well, let’s hear another poem. This one written as a prose block is in a very different form than the one we previously heard. Could you read the poem that begins, “How long had I suffered”?

Taylor Johnson:


How long had I suffered, white-knuckled, anchored to my name, wanting clearly to walk to wide avenues wearing ornate buttons, wishing to be loved by the god of syntax. Had gone mad and gone, tonguing out my name. This nothingness, I’d proved it upon my pulse. Realized the self was daily. One moment into the next, as turning the corner I expect everyone I’ve known to appear with my other name, a coin in the mouth, a rotten tooth. As if I’m nothing when not regarded, as light is, as is the ancient tongue buried below perceivable language, its many tessellations into sound. I want to be called as you call yourself, I say to the unfolding blooms. How they hold perfection and not announce. Do not announce on the wide avenues, the mountain’s grandeur. The bloom takes part in the mountain. The mountain is my true lover who, before the road, humbles me when I set out trying to know. To understand what is below knowing. Love the mountain. Whose blue face I rise toward, who does not betray, who is mist-clothed, whose water I gather as breathing. Who has been one tree. Who has been a seed. Who stills itself in battle. Who cannot ask, “if then thou gavest.” Whose oath to the bloom is unreachable. O Joiner, let me among that private communion. Let me be all as if I had all.


Suzi F. Garcia: Thank you so much for that reading. Something I want to pick up on in that poem is the discussion of the flower in the bloom. You’ve lived in a lot of large cities, I know, New Orleans, DC, now you’re in St. Paul. But your poems, I wouldn’t say they’re pastoral, but they invoke nature. I think there’s a lot about them that if someone described you, or described these poems, as being in some respects nature poems, I would have to say, “Yeah, I can see that as a large part of it.” Within your poetics, what about nature calls to you?

Taylor Johnson: Well, I think it’s just what I’m always around, you know what I mean? Like, it’s calling because it’s here, you know, and I think that there are a lot of things that can distract us from that calling. But because it’s present, because it doesn’t speak as we do, I want to listen, you know what I mean? And sometimes that listening leads me to write something about it. I grew up in DC, going to Rock Creek Park, which is, you know, just full of trees. But I also spent a lot of time in the Tidewater region of Virginia, with my grandparents, and in the pine forests, in particular, you know, is where my imagination began. So, I think that there’s a lot of my interior world that is connected to being alone, and with others, in nature. So I often speak from that place and speak from that place of wonder, because it’s like, the place where I can kind of toggle my mind out of this industrial existence for lack of a better term.

Suzi F. Garcia: No, I think that’s a really, yeah, interesting way of changing what the perspectives are of some of these cities, too, right.

Taylor Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Suzi F. Garcia: You mentioned Virginia as well. And there is something about your writing that I find resonates with me as a Southern poet that I can’t put my, my finger on. But something about it that’s to me distinctly Southern. Would you agree with that categorization? Or is that something that I’m imposing on you just because I’m like, it just feels that way to me?

Taylor Johnson: You know, I wouldn’t say you’re imposing it on me. I think what you’re hearing is correct. I will say that DC is often misnamed as a Northern city. It is below the Mason Dixon Line. It did enslave African people, and it did destroy the lives of indigenous people. So it is a Southern city in that way.

Suzi F. Garcia: Mm-hmm.

Taylor Johnson: And so, in that sense, geographically, I’ve lived most of my life in the South of this country. But I’m also connected to the legacy of people who were transported from Africa to the South of this country. So, whatever you’re hearing there is the resonance of what is inescapable for me, you know?

Suzi F. Garcia: Yeah.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: And I do think it’s related to the nature as well. I think that there’s something in the South about the unruly nature of nature. You know, we have kudzu, we have just plants that grow all year long all throughout the South. So, this insistency of nature in your work reminds me of the insistency of nature that I see in the South.

Taylor Johnson: I mean it’s again the same thing, like, I’m a descendant of people who worked this land, so the land is in me as much as it is, you know, in the land itself, you know. My people are there so I’m there.


Taylor Johnson:


Song in secret, Song of  spite and
spirit, Song in the temple, temple of Song
and perpetual farewell. Sudden, O
Song, fallen on me as a passing wind,
naming as the wind names—absence, farewell.

O Shadow Song, whose hill is green and leaving,
right my walk in glory, begin.

When the trees were leafless, I put my voice,
O Tenuous Air, among the barren places, among even the
nothingness of frost. Thinking I knew myself. O Fortifier,
O Hidden-in-the-weeds, going green. A green concert, hollow green.

O Ship, your going on without me is my résumé entire.
Thy keel floats on, O Possibility. If  I anchor as you.
If I set my anchor here. If I can hum through.
The necessary masterpiece. If I can respond in kind
to the loneliness of Wyeth’s Grape Wine, recognizing, turning the corner
in the great museum, that I am the drifter, O River,
with his back turned to his fashioner.

Suzi F. Garcia: So, this poem refers to the painting that you earlier mentioned was a large part of the series, the 1966 painting Grape Wine by Andrew Wyeth. For our listeners, Grape Wine is a painting of a Black man of indeterminate age, maybe mid forties, in a gray sweatshirt against a dark rust-red background. The Met describes this painting as “a striking portrait that depicts Willard Snowden, a drifter who lived in the artist’s Pennsylvania studio for several years, and sat for several paintings in the 1960s.” Can you talk about why this painting in particular stood out to you?

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, so, I love this painting. I saw it first in I believe it was 2016, Kerry James Marshall had a large retrospective at The Met. And he was able to pull from The Met’s permanent collection as well to put things in juxtaposition with his own work. And one of the paintings was Grape Wine. I’d never seen—I’d seen like, you know, other Andrew Wyeth paintings before, but I’d never seen this one, and I was coming around the corner, and it was the first time that something had made me, something visual, that is still, like a painting, had made me tear up. Like, it made me very emotional, and I didn’t know why. And I sat with it for, I guess that was like, you know, four years thinking about this particular experience in the painting, and what about this figure spoke to me. And when I think about it now, I wonder about the weight of sitting for someone and having to be realized in someone else’s image. And what that, what that did to the person in the painting, how they saw themselves, and what that, the weight of being realized in someone else’s vision did to them. And then also, I think about how, you know, this person was given shelter and food in different parts of his life, for sitting, you know, in exchange for sitting for the painting. So just like the, the burden of that exchange also. Yeah, I mean, I guess I’m thinking about the value of, of the Black image and of this person’s beauty, and what that, you know, added to Andrew Wyeth’s body of work, and what this individual got from that exchange, other than being able to eat, being able to be somewhere warm.

Suzi F. Garcia: I think it’s interesting that you chose this painting, because The Met also describes some of the way that it’s painted as being reminiscent of Renaissance. And so I do think that there’s like this, this unexpected nature of who Willard is painted in a Renaissance style, as far as like, he’s painted in a style that’s out of time with where he is right?

Taylor Johnson: Hm.

Suzi F. Garcia: There is some sort of like sacredness to the way he’s painted as well, by giving it that.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, there’s a lot of light around him. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I think in a lot of Renaissance paintings, you, like I at least notice the light, mostly. There’s a lot of light around him, which I guess is probably what drew me to it, too, is just like, this figure is presented in this way such that he is illumined. You know what I mean? And, and holds some knowledge, so there’s something in the color there that gestures toward his importance as a person, Now not knowing so much about him, I want to know, you know what I mean, what his interior life was like, what he did outside of sitting for this, for this famous painter.

Suzi F. Garcia: It’s interesting, because he does it several times over several years.

Taylor Johnson: Right.

Suzi F. Garcia: And lives in the artist’s studio. So you have to imagine he does have a relationship that would allow him, even if he doesn’t become an artist himself, which I don’t know, he may have art that we don’t know about, but that he must have picked up on what he likes about painting, and have had some of those conversations, you would think with the artist, since they lived together.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: Or he lived at the studio. So, there’s definitely some reverence in the painting. But at the same time, it does draw to mind all of the ways that it’s not a traditional relationship, and what that means for the person who’s sitting because they need to find a home for the night or for the week, or whatever.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah. You know, it kind of reminds me of this other piece of art that I used to walk to in DC at the Portrait Gallery. And it’s called The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly. And it’s by this guy named James Hampton, who was a custodian at the Smithsonian for a long time. And he was building in his, I think it was a storage unit that he had rented, this tinfoil, gold tinfoil sculpture, that kind of depicts all these like, intricate, I don’t know if they’re deities, or just like these sculptures that are incredible. You should look it up. But he passed and someone found in this storage unit, this whole sculpture. And to think about, like, this man who had worked in this place of art as a custodian, while being an artist himself and devoting his time off from that work to creating this big thing. And then being in the place where he worked, but not being able to, to see his work honored in that way. I just wonder about that, you know? Like I wonder what, you know, what Willard would think of me thinking about his portrait right now. And maybe that’s, like, self-absorbed, but I just, I wonder about that.

Suzi F. Garcia: I think that I know I would be amazed and ecstatic if sixty years from now, somebody was like, “Hey, I was thinking about your poem.” I’d be like, “What?” But I mean, like, what are Willard’s like, expectations for the art, right?

Taylor Johnson: Well, yeah, I mean, I think that that’s, that kind of gets into the territory of when, when you or I are to put a book of poetry into the world, we don’t know how it’s going to be received by anyone. You know what I mean? Like, we have no intimate knowledge of that, unless someone is next to us reading our book. I remember I was on a plane from New Orleans to Virginia, and there was a guy sitting next to me. We just kind of struck up this very quick friendship that lasted the length of this plane ride. Essentially, he began by like, sharing his headphones with me. You know, saying that I should listen to this music, because he saw me reading a book. And then he was like, “What do you do?” And I was like, “Oh, I make art, but I’ve written this book.” And he was like, “Oh, no way!” And so I pulled it out, because I had a copy with me, just my personal copy. And he began to read my book next to me, and kept turning to me and being like, “Yo, bro, did you write this?” And I was like, “Yeah, man, this is my book!”

Suzi F. Garcia: (LAUGHS)

Taylor Johnson: You know, my face is on the back. So that’s like the, you know, the only experience where it’s like, oh, yeah, I know how this man feels about it, because he is next to me experiencing this thing. Now, I don’t look for that experience. But it was given to me, you know what I mean? But I think as artists, we’ll never know, really, you know what I mean? Yeah, what someone is thinking about what we’re making.

Suzi F. Garcia: I’ll tell you my personal history with poetry when I was young was really difficult. I found it hard to enter. I think the first book I tried to read was when I was very young, and it was Wordsworth. And I just could not enter the text, but you found John Donne accessible for you. I guess, what about Donne—I see the through line in what you write now, but as a young reader, what about Donne stood out to you?

Taylor Johnson: Well, you know, I think it was something about—and I couldn’t name it such at the time—but I think it was just the erotic nature of his devotion and the erotic nature of his language of devotion. That piqued my interest. I mean, I think that at that time, you know, you’re fifteen, sixteen, you’re learning things about your own desire, my own desire. And I think that putting those things into language in the way that he was able to muscle those things out, it just really struck me. So I read George Herbert, and found Carl Phillips and Dawn Lundy Martin after that. I was just interested, you know what I mean? I’ve read my whole life, I’ve loved reading and have felt very, like, held in the space of others’ language. And have looked to it to understand the world and myself better. So finding their, you know, those poets who I mentioned, finding their language was very, you know, it was expansive. It brought me a lot.

Suzi F. Garcia: You know, I thought of Dictée a little bit when I was thinking about this interview, but I hadn’t thought of Donne, maybe because I don’t have that kind of relationship with Donne. But I will tell you, I am very much going to go back and read some more Donne after this. I’m like, you know what, I could use some erotic Donne in my life.

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, “Lovers’ Infiniteness” is, it’s incredible, I mean, yeah.

Suzi F. Garcia: If I had thought about language as a way to express myself, instead of as a way of escapism at that age, I might have come to it differently. So, I think that yeah, that really changes the perspective for me. So I appreciate it. And I’m very excited to go back and read more Donne.

Taylor Johnson: Well, let me know what you find. You know, it’s—

Suzi F. Garcia: You know, my partner’s birthday is coming up. It’s always cute to do like, grab a little poem. Yes, I just admitted that I’m going to send my partner maybe erotic John Donne poems. (LAUGHS)

Taylor Johnson: John Donne would probably appreciate that.



A green concert, hollow green.

O Ship, your going on without me is my résumé entire.
Thy keel floats on, O Possibility. If  I anchor as you.


Suzi F. Garcia: Your debut book Inheritance came out in 2020. And in Inheritance, you ask, “What gender should I be in the sound?” And sound is just a driving force in the new series. Particularly the declarative “O,” the sensuality of “O,” the invocation that comes behind “O.” Can you say more about your relationship to sound in your life and in your poetics?

Taylor Johnson: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s everything. That’s how I learned language. I mean, we learned speaking by listening, so I try to stay close to that knowledge that I’m always informed by what I’m listening to. And I try to be careful about what I listen to, too, for that, for that reason. And like I said, I grew up listening to go-go music, and still listen now as a disciple of that sound, which I think is a sound of the expanding collective breath in a way. So I think that the “O,” the sensualness, and the sense of that “O,” the invocation of that “O,” is trying to pull from this collectivized breath, if it can be collectivized.

Suzi F. Garcia: The way you talk about your writing, it feels as though you are not creating an author voice, you’re cultivating the voice that you have, you are caring for the voice that you already have. And again, I go back to the nature poetics of your writing. And it reminds me of that kind of care. That you’re not trying to build a garden the way that you want it to look, you’re trying to build the garden that you have, and make it like the healthiest garden and honor the garden that is there.

Taylor Johnson: I really dig that, Suzi. I really dig that, because I think it is like about caring for what I know is within me and trying to express that outwardly. Yeah, so thank you for that.


Suzi F. Garcia: A big thanks to Taylor Johnson. Taylor Johnson is from Washington, DC. They are the author of Inheritance, out from Alice James Books in 2020 and winner of the 2021 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. You can read the poems you’ve heard today in the December 2021 of Poetry, in print and online. 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 to subscribe. That’s 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.


For guest editor Suzi F. Garcia, getting to know Taylor Johnson’s poetry was a highlight of 2021. Garcia says Johnson’s debut book, Inheritance, absolutely blew her away. The book is described as a “black sensorium, a chapel of color and sound that speaks to spaciousness, surveillance, identity, desire, and transcendence.” Fred Moten said about the book: “I’m singing. I’m singing with them, about them, because of them.” That’s also how Garcia felt reading Johnson’s new poem, “Hymn,” which you’ll hear Johnson read from today.

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