The 2015 Whiting Awards: Jenny Johnson


Jenny Johnson



From “Souvenirs”






The boots of the dead poet were size 11,

licorice black with a stitch of blue up the calf.

Without the long legs that once filled them,

sent them scuffing through the San Joaquin valley,   

they slouch on an oak pedestal in the university library

next to a white placard that tells an anecdote

about the writer’s irreverence at staff meetings,

his casual drop of the f-bomb. Standing this close,

I wonder if my ogling is offending him,

or, if he might nudge me, gently,

longing to make a joke out of  the strangeness of the scene,

the way absence blinds us to the scale of

our attachment to someone else’s objects.





I loved a woman who curated loss.

She was a sculptor. After we had parted

in rage at the corner of 16th and Dolores,

after our old bed frame slid off the car roof,

splinters flurrying down I-80, after I’d moved

thousands of miles away, she called to ask if

she might build out of sugar cubes a replica of my house. 

She said, for herself, she needed to see it

but didn’t know the measurements.

I cannot explain my consent

that evening, alone in my bungalow,

the yellow tape unspooling, I measured closet widths,

calculated the feet between hedges—

I wanted her to craft it perfectly to scale.




When my grandmother died, my aunt

lifted her camera at the small funeral,

toggled the zoom button and started taking

pictures of the blue-veined hands,

fingers draped along the blue 

polyester dress, clasped across a plump

body in a mahogany casket.

When someone asked her why

she was doing it, she mentioned

the macramé, the doll parts, the needlepoint,

all the things her mother used to do

with those hands.

Someone sitting beside me

wanted to stop her then, beg her

to sit down, to leave the body be.


Jenny Johnson’s poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, Troubling the Line: Trans & Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics, New England Review, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, and Waxwing, and she has just completed her first collection, In Full Velvet. Johnson was the recipient of the Beloit Poetry Journal's Chad Walsh Poetry Prize for her poem “Aria". She has also received awards from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She earned an MFA from Warren Wilson College. An educator as well as a poet, she taught public school for several years and spent ten summers on the staff of the University of Virginia Young Writer’s Workshop. Johnson is currently a lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.