My bodily experience is my writing. Being in this body is where I first catalogue and investigate the writing long before I write it. It excites my body and allows me to reclaim it. A lot of my writing process and my living process have been small acts of reclamation. These small acts tend to land me squarely where women just aren’t supposed to go, someplace ultimately barred, but I’m here, so now what?

Brianna Johnson Off the Marginssm

Angel Factory / Am I Experimental (Or just Psychotic)?

Are you willing? That is “willing to travel in darkness” (Nin 153). Whatever it is. It blows up in my face. I never sought to handle bombs. I did not enlist. I wasn’t looking for a name. I set out to talk. I got in trouble. These devices. Click. I like that.

I started calling myself experimental, because you kept asking. I am incapable of formal mastery – my mastery is of another sort. A mastery of the hefty, kinky energy of bombings. Disarmament is a shame.

I am a neglectful woman. I neglect the fear of failure. The fear of rupture. Or eruption. Or better yet: psychotic break. Many: have an enormous fear of this. So much so to not even approach. Some still: come too close, idolize, and fall into silence. In the not having fear of these things: I have no mastery of living as a woman writer in this culture.

Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman speak of the genius imbibed when we drink long and hard from failure: “Note: failure in this sense serves to irrupt the work, violating it from within. Note: this invites the reader to redress failure, hallucinate repair” (27).

“I have no fear of failure. Let failure annihilate me, I want the glory of falling. My crippled angel who contorts all
                              elusive, my angel who fell from the heavens to hell where he lives savoring evil” (Lispector 66).


To “hallucinate repair” is to hallucinate an order, a life without fission or rupture, a life schematic. Yet you are hallucinating. Yet we are the same now. Yet there are many things realistically beyond repair. Hallucination is the laceration of the everyday. The meeting of the unreal and very realistic violence.

Hallucinatory behaviors are akin to evil. Play is not always happy, but processes life on another level. This writing is a sort of enhanced childhood when we could absorb the most enduring pain without a second thought. Then, return to the game.

Dipping into psychic rupture is not the allowance – a free for all – of psychic disturbance. But rather the interviewing of psychic anomaly, psychic phenomena, and psychotic beauty. A dalliance in psychic exploration which leads to a realm beyond psychosis while remaining in a society of [female] deviant typecasting.

This writing is: unavoidable, lonely, necessary, and causes anxiety. Childhood is: unavoidable, lonely, necessary, and causes anxiety – like the ruptures of the earth. Imagine the process of growing up not knowing what you would become. I remember distinctly the destruction of my face. Scissors. Photos of me. Perhaps this work is a process of reclamation – of destroying the destroyer. Of mastering the destroyed. How women become lions.

“Women’s bodies [like their texts] must be bound so that the constraints will make the demons come out [. . . .] The
                                                                     girls are not released, the demons are: the girls are bound” (Clement 11).


So . . . who gave me permission? [body and text and all]

The psychotic has no material value, besides the material of their rags and ravings. This is the way I want it. To be outside. We cannot then – be stitched shut. Not be positioned so near, so sweetly, to masculine markers.

There is an assigned loneliness in being crazy. We must create between us an aesthetic understanding, otherwise we murder one another, otherwise we are in “antilove” (Cixous 1:68).

Who loved me? And who killed me?

Lyn Hejinian says, “A reader’s encounter with a difficult (impenetrable or impervious) text can produce a sense of frustration or even of outrage, a sense that he or she is being barred from knowledge and from the meaning that flows from it. Unwilling to surrender to alienation, the reader, when experience fails, tries reason” (114). Reason, aligning itself with paranoia of a very secret secret, lands on destructive principles and sees no need not to follow them.

Now, are you my murderer? Is my knife bothering you? It’s not meant for you.

Karen Finley says, “Art as transgression, or any transgressive act, becomes a Rorschach test for the culture it comes out of. In one sense, transgressive art is a kind of psychic problem-solving, at the cultural level. It looks head-on at unresolved hostilities, humiliations, traumas. It offers catharsis – and you could say it’s only in the aftermath of catharsis that healing is possible. But if the culture is not ready to face those hostilities, humiliations, traumas, then it responds with tremendous anxiety – anxiety which is expressed as hostility toward the artist” (79). The artist/destroyer/a lion acts out a “tremendous reservoir of fear” (79).

“Try to look for the worst in yourself and confide it where there is no process of erasure, where the worst remains the worst and you will see that
the worst will turn against you and, treacherously, will try to veil the worst. For we cannot bear the worst. Writing the worst is an exercise that
                                                                                                    requires us to be stronger than ourselves. My authors have killed” (Cixous 3:42).


I am somewhere between the killed and the killing. I own a “happy instinct for destruction” (Lispector 68). I recall a moment when I had to assert my vocation in the world and how I could barely answer the question first and the real question second.

I said, “I am a writer.”

The boy asked, “Are you going to kill yourself?”

Alissa Nutting says, “The avant-garde Grosses Them Out. The avant-garde gives TMI. The avant-garde confesses long after Audience has begun to yell, shut up shut up shutupshutupshutup! The avant-garde lays the text, the author, the character so bare, so internalized, so unclothed far deep below any nude surface layer of victimhood, that readers and viewers, no matter how hard they might recoil, know that what they’re looking at could be nothing other than human, though Empire wants to reject it as human. But the avant-garde is engendered by rejection” (244).

I found myself reading a biography of Anne Sexton, because I was depressed. Because I was alone. Because when you are alone and depressed, you read biographies of Anne Sexton. I found myself becoming sure: I was psychotic. Until Anne did something awful alongside her daughter. Then, I felt better, because I have no daughter. Do male writers question their own knack for violence or extremity or their faltering maternal instincts while they read biographies or while they engage in dangerous practices or hunt endangered species [loose women] or do male writers call other male writers psychotic for putting those skins out to dry and display? Am I among them [in skin], because I have no daughter?

Muriel Rukeyser writes that the “offer of perfection or death is one sign of impoverishment in the artist;” how acutely do we feel that same systemic “offer” as women (53). By psychoanalytical standards, we have nothing more to lose.

The medical management and classification of women is lasting. Naming psychosis/hysteria is a form of control which immortalizes and idolizes suicide. I find this alarmingly alive in creative women. I find it alive in myself. As the method in which a creative woman can distinguish her freedom with all the famous dead ones.

                                                         “A despondency, a prostration of an animal that knows itself promised. To the sacrifice” (Cixous 2:13).


Now we can handle her. Now she is gone.

This writing was never going to make me holy. I am talking of genius. Of death as filter for female genius. We have to earn our death or give way to it – an Angel factory.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis quoting Joan Retallack says, “Our best possibilities lie in texts/altertexts where the so-called feminine and masculine take migratory, paradoxical, and surprising swerves to the enrichment of both,/n/either, and all else that lies along fields of limitless nuance [. . .] something post binarist and possibly post gender” (46). Possibly, yet further, posthysteric. A hysteric form, a form of psychotic brevity, the eruption of psychological extremity.

The writing itself is not suicidal – rather what drives the writing to psychic extremity/physical suicide is the society which condemns it. Thus, a patriarchal society kills. Thus, a psychotic society. Classifying the “too sensitive” only divorces the Them from the Desensitized.

“You join the Dead Girls when you are wrecked and ruined and reanimated by Art. In fact, this seems to be the primary Vengeance” (McSweeney).


It is joy. It is the work of self-“possession.” It is anti-fear. It is the work of Angels.

“There it is: they are bound by the symptom just as the sorceress and the possessed are bound by material cords; and
                                                                                like them, they are ready to break loose, release lions” (Clement 11).



Works Cited

Cixous, Helene (1), Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Cixous, Helene (2). Stigmata: Escaping Texts. London: Routledge, 1998.

Cixous, Helene (3). Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Finley, Karen. A Different Kind of Intimacy: the Collected Writings of Karen Finley. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000.

Hejinian, Lyn. “Sun on the Avant-Garde.” The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde. New York: Nightboat, 2015.

Lispector, Clarice, and Stefan Tobler. Agua Viva. New York: New Directions, 2012.

McSweeney, Joyelle. “An Army of Dead Girls: Art’s Avant-Garde.” Lana Turner Journal 7. <>.

Nin, Anais, and Gunther Stuhlmann. The Diary of Anais Nin, 1944-1947. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1971.

Nutting, Alissa. “Our Wrong Parts.” The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde. New York: Nightboat, 2015.

Place, Vanessa, and Robert Fitterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 1996.



off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?

In what way(s) do you identify yourself as a woman writer?

My bodily experience is my writing. Being in this body is where I first catalogue and investigate the writing long before I write it. It excites my body and allows me to reclaim it. A lot of my writing process and my living process have been small acts of reclamation. These small acts tend to land me squarely where women just aren’t supposed to go, someplace ultimately barred, but I’m here, so now what? Or, these small acts will be incredibly personally painful and personally magnifying.

In a crude way, I identify as a woman writer, because I have balls.

Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?

Helene Cixous, Clarice Lispector, Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, Maggie Nelson, Virginia Woolf, Lidia Yuknavitch, Bhanu Kapil.

 What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?

Never settle/always sacrifice for your art. It became clear fairly early on that I was going to have to fight to do this. It wasn’t an option to stop, because I came to it from the beginning with this sense of holy vocation. I was naively under the impression that I would write and arms would open to me. Arms have opened to me, but only after a gauntlet of punishment and neglect. I never stopped believing that arms would be there. Eventually and if all at once, this thing you have done matters. It is a deeply heroic journey. It could almost be glamorous if it wasn’t so dirty along the way. I am grateful for that messiness. It was all in my circuitry.


More information about Brianna and her writing can be found at: