Poet Spotlight: Christy Karefa-Johnson

Christianne Karefa-Johnson is a young poet, vocalist, and creator. She grew up moving from city to city all over Southern California. She has landed in Seattle for the time being via love affair. She is one of five children and a fraternal twin. She gets a lot of her ideas for poems by staring into space, having conversations with thin air. 

How do you start a poem?

I try to listen very hard.  I usually hear it. It’s already a thing that’s kind of floating out there. It doesn’t even feel like it’s totally mine. Really, it’s channeling. I just try to listen for the words and catch the wave. 

What does your process look like?

My process is a lot of listening. So there can be a lot of time in between lines. I edit as I go. I don’t write it down unless I think it’s just right. It’s a lot of trying to think less and listen more. I like to write with background noise. The TV, or music, or a movie. Sometimes the room is silent and I imagine my own mental background noise. I like stuff to lift moods off of. 

At what point did you consider yourself a writer?

There is a picture of me when I was 2 or 3 years old and I have this pen in my hand and I am scribbling gibberish shapes and lines that kind of look like some sort of code. It’s like I was really trying to write words but I didn’t know how to. So I guess ever since then. Pens and paper and ink and thinking have always been some of my main things. 

Which of your own poems is your favorite and why?

I love all my poems like family. Not because they’re good, but because they’re people too and they rep me like family. Usually the last poem I write is my favorite for a while. And then I write a new one and I like that more. But so much of the time I’m dissatisfied. Like a lot of folks, I have set an almost impossible standard for myself. But I’m not gonna be a party pooper so I’m gonna have to say “The living of it.” It’s my favorite because of the last three lines. I like these lines because I feel like my sensitive empathetic child self and my equally sensitive existential young adult self are meeting and understanding their influence on one another. I’m kind of obsessed with little Christy, and the first books she ever had was about the lives of manatees. I loved them so. And it deeply hurt me to learn from the book that often times manatees got cut by boat propellers.

The lines are:

There is something that knows the earth as an ant
maybe the manatee that tries to swim
and just gets cut

How do you know when a poem is not working, what do you do about it?

Well I really go line by line. Not so much poem by poem. If I feel like a line isn’t working I’ll just write it over and over again until it is. And that way I don’t ever have to deal with a whole poem that isn’t working because I sort out all the kinks as they come. 

How do you know when a poem is finished?

As soon as I start a poem I want it to be over haha. I like shortness. And I can’t stomach mediocre fluff lines. I want every line to hit. So usually the poem ends up being a couple stanzas of whatever I felt hit the hardest in the moment. Whatever lines best understood the moment.

How do you accept critiques?

I can accept a critique but I rarely ever heed the advice or take them too seriously. This stuff is so subjective you know? Nobody is right and nobody knows. Might as well just do what you like instinctually? That makes it a poem by me and not by my teacher and the folks in my workshop. 

What’s the hardest part about writing for you?

The hardest part about writing is how much you think you suck sometimes. How much you think you’ll never be a Toni Morrison or James Baldwin or Emily Dickinson. They try to teach the young generations that we can’t be like them, that the golden days are over. The hardest part of being a writer is having to convince yourself of the truth, which is that you ARE the next one. If you want to be.

What do you do when you’re facing a writer’s block?

I’m facing a writer’s block right now. Well it comes and goes. But when it’s here, I have no idea what to do, actually. I have so much on my mind and maybe it’s hard to clear it, which makes it harder to listen and hear as clearly as I used to.  I just suffer through doing some writing that is not-so-exciting to me until I catch that wave again.

Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?

I think my ideas about poetry are constantly changing and morphing. It’s in so much. So much is poetry. And everything has the potential to be. I guess it’s really just energy moving freely. It’s just another way energy moves and transforms. Just like spending money, or singing, drinking, eating, having tourrettes etc. I’ve always understood it as that. 

You can read more of Christianne's work in the first issue of Pelorus Press