Lisa Anne Johnson: Art and and the Reality of Nature Today
Lisa Anne Johnson is a haiku poet, science editor, environmental steward, and former experimental biologist living in the Great Lakes. Her haiku have been published in a number of publications including Mayfly, Kingfisher, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Heron's Nest, The Mainichi, Akitsu Quarterly, Tricycle, and #FemkuMag. In 2021, she created and launched the haiku and micropoetry journal Trash Panda to provide short form poets with a contemporary forum to express the reality of living in the destructive era of the Anthropocene.
What inspired you to write poetry and make it part of your life?
"I discovered haiku by accident in my early twenties. While browsing books about Buddhism, I stumbled on Clark Strand’s Seeds From a Birch Tree. I picked it up and carted it around with me for about 20 years, but in all of those years I only wrote about three poems. Eventually I looked Clark up on social media and began taking his class. Spending time interacting with the wonderful community of poets that I met there is what made haiku a real part of my life."
Does your work inform or interact with your other vocations?
"I’m a retired biologist, and I was freaking out about climate change decades before it was much in the public eye. Every week I sat on a therapist's couch and cried because I could see the writing on the wall. We are in the midst of a horrible, era-defining extinction event of our own making, and I knew things would continue to get much worse during my lifetime. I went through all of the stages of grief. In order to survive emotionally, I took up two practices: art, in the form of haiku, and habitat restoration in a nature area within walking distance of my house. It’s particularly satisfying to rejuvenate a piece of land that has been logged, farmed, mined for gravel, and then used as a dump, and transform it into a place where kids play, oven birds nest, and foxes raise their young. It's a type of therapy you just can't buy. Haiku and my restoration work both force me to focus on my immediate environment and community, and not on the sensationalism and conflict in the news and in the world as we grind our way towards a self inflicted demise as a country, as a culture, and as a species."
Do you have a favorite haiku poet?
"I have a particular fondness for poets who love bugs! I have a doctorate in biology, but long before that, as a kid, I was digging up slugs and roly polys and keeping them in jars for observation. I'm particularly fond of Issa, who devoted many of his poems to lowly flies, mosquitos and fleas, and to J.W. Hackett, who wrote a book titled Bug Haiku. Both of them really appreciate bugs and don't shy away from the ugliness and pain of the world. To quote Hackett:
the playful kitten —
how calmly he chews the fly's
For living poets, I am a particular fan of Lori Minor, a pioneering feminist poet who’s changed the game with her groundbreaking haiku journal #femkumag. If you’re reading this and don't know Lori yet, go to her website right now!"
What type of haiku do you enjoy writing the most?
"My poetry can sometimes be unfashionably brazen. I write traditional poems too, but as an American poet, I sometimes get fed up with subtlety and usually prefer to tell it like it is. This 17 syllable senryu, eventually published in #FemkuMag in a shorter form, is a good example. It is pretty straight forward about how we are raping our home planet for resources and profit:
forcing her open
and shaking her upside down —
our piggy bank earth
This kind of "in your face" poem is gaining greater acceptance as contemporary poets struggle to express their feelings about the some of the ugliness we face in the 21st century."
Would you share a favorite haiku you’ve written and unpack it for us?
"This poem, published in The Mainichi in 2020, was inspired by a friend who had recently taken up cigarette smoking. The potential effects on his health worried me, even though it was only occasional. He tried to explain that smoking had become a sort of ritualistic, fatalistic treat. At the end of the day, he and his wife would sit on the porch, smoke a couple Virginia Slims together, and really savor the experience, like a delicacy. They’re in their seventies and have a sort of 'oh well' attitude—like 'no matter what, we’re on our way out, so why not?'"
cigarette evening —
the sky to the stars
Your haiku journal, Trash Panda, has a very contemporary vibe. Tell us about its genesis and its unique contribution to the haiku canon?
"Trash Panda came out of my frustration as a poet and biologist that "modern" haiku did not really reflect our modern reality particularly well. We are living in an era when every part of the natural world is in decline as a result of human impact. As poets, we need to be honest about that, but too often contemporary haiku poems read like they could have been written in preindustrial times. Poems with plastic bags tangled in cherry blossom branches herons standing in polluted water needed a home. Also, I was, and am, fed up with erudite arguments about whether haiku in English could or should deviate from the 5-7-5 form. It was difficult getting my 5-7-5 poems published in modern haiku journals, and my shorter poems were sometimes met with “mansplaining”—pressure from white male editors to change them. Creating Trash Panda allowed me to offer to others the sort of change I wanted to see. It welcomes poems that acknowledge the declining state of nature that are 17-syllables or less. Period. There are no rules or judgement about what is or isn't a "proper" haiku. My tent is big enough to include any type of short form poetry that reflects what’s happening today. Trash Panda focuses primarily on poems that could not have been written in any other era, or that combine with other poems in the journal in a way that has a distinctly modern feel. I try to respond to the poems that are submitted each time, and choose not only the ones that particularly resonate with me, but that seem to resonate with each other."
The journal’s name is delightfully unique. What does it mean?
"'Trash Panda' refers to a raccoon. It's a sort of a joke about the common raccoon being a crappy version of the much rarer and more exotic giant panda. It’s also a self-derogatory term that indicates someone who is not particularly refined or distinguished. I thought that made it a perfect name for an upstart journal edited by a person with no literary pedigree but a lot of nerve, and the truth is, I hate pandas. When I say “I hate pandas,” you might think I’m a horrible person, but everyone fusses over pandas while I just see them as uniquely suited for extinction. Their coloring is such that they are quite visible both day and night. They’re slow moving and relatively defenseless. They eat exclusively one single plant species, and the females only ovulate for about 48 hours a year, even though they tend to separated by long distances from other pandas. I also find them behaviorally boring compared to so many other more fascinating animals. Raccoons, on the other hand, are opportunistic survivors. They live anywhere, eat anything, reproduce easily, live in drainpipes, and thrive near humans. In short, raccoons will make it in the future we are currently forcing into being, and pandas will not. 'Trash Pandas' are the future."
This interview was adapted from an interview by Susan Polizzotto for 17-Haiku in English Newsletter in 2021, and has been used with permission. All Rights Reserved.