Poet and #58 contributor Julia Campbell Johnson writes about why she uses three names when she publishes and offers the stories of Julie Wakeman-Linn (PR’s own Three-Named Editor) and that of Karen Salyer McElmurray, co-editor of STILL: The Journal, whose decision to use her three names reflects a poignant moment in her life.
When I wrote my first poem at seventeen, it had neither title nor attribution. I didn’t write it for anyone to read. I wrote it because I was compelled to. Today, having a readership is important to me. I want to be recognized for my work–my name, my identity, my voice. When I started publishing my work in 1994, after that first poem, I gave a lot of thought as to how I would present myself. I’ve used several names in my lifetime, and after looking at all the options, I chose my given first name and my married surname: Julia Johnson. Pleased with my choice, I did some on-line research and discovered that another contemporary poet was already using that name.
There were options –- Julia C. Johnson, J.C. Johnson–but I didn’t want to use initials. I decided on my full legal name: Julia Campbell Johnson. It was unwieldy, maybe even a little pretentious, but probably not one that would be duplicated. A poet friend liked it, said it was poetic.
Without changing my name, he said, I now had an unsanctioned right to the other Julia’s body of work. Not only could I swipe her two poetry collections, I could lay claim to her academic credentials. And while I’m recklessly raiding other poets’ collections, why not pilfer one or two from, say, Sharon Olds or Mary Oliver?
All this hubbub because my middle name was omitted in the Potomac Review. In the end, the publisher posted a correction which, when I read it, made me wonder what was of real importance. Of course, recognition and reputation matter. But to some degree, the work is as much about witnessing and writing about the culture of our times, of showing readers new perspectives, of stimulating discourse and contemplation. These are grand goals, and not ones we think about daily, but ones to consider from time to time as we continue to put it out there
About this whole matter, I can say that I’ve neither met nor spoken with the other Julia Johnson, who most certainly has no knowledge of me or the extent to which her name has been so stringently discussed these last few days. In the end, there are two Julias, with only a middle name differentiating them:
Julia Johnson is associate professor and director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of two books, The Falling Horse, 2011, Amherst: Factory Hollow Press, and Naming the Afternoon, 2002, Baton Rouge: The Louisiana State University Press;
Julia Campbell Johnson is the author of The Tea of the Unforeseen Berry, 2008, Finishing Line Press. Her work has been featured in Potomac Review, Southern Poetry Review, Poet Lore and STILL: The Journal, among others.
Someone with another take on the subject is Potomac Review’s Julie Wakeman-Linn, who sympathizes with other writers who choose to use three names.
Wakeman-Linn likes the elegance of three names, but finds it proves difficult in ordinary routines such as dry cleaners and credit card companies. Not so easily handled, she says, by some relationships, such as with distant cousins. “One said once, ‘How do you pronounce it or even remember it?’ ”
Wakeman-Linn’s reasons for using three names are different than Johnson’s. Both she and her husband share the name. Their decision, she explains, was to honor their partnership. It was the product of a time in the depths of the Midwest in a decade when combination names were hardly done. “It was true to Midwestern style,” she says, but was a very personal decision and one that proved to be “unchallengeable.”
“He loved my family, and I hated his, so the combination seemed like a good solution.”
As for challenges in the academic world , she is known by her students as Professor WL or, more directly, Professor.
Like Julie Wakeman-Linn, family issues figure into the three-name story of STILL: The Journal’s co-editor, Karen Salyer McElmurray:
“The McElmurray is actually my married name from when I was sixteen,” she says. At that time, she had a son whom she surrendered for adoption during what she calls a “chaotic tangle of a time.” It was important for her to keep the McElmurray name in case there came a time when he might want to find her.
That time came. “I actually found him, partly because of the birth and adoption records, also under the name McElmurray.”
For a while she chose to publish by the name Karen McElmurry, but at a point chose to include her family name, Salyer. “I had increasing interest in family history, the place I came from.” Today, Karen Salyer McElmurry teaches as Core Faculty in the Low Residency MFA Program at Reinhardt University and is regular Guest Faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan College.