Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Robert K. Johnson: Writes “From Mist to Shadow.”
Robert K. Johnson is a retired English professor from Suffolk University in Boston. Johnson has been widely published in the small press. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, his latest being: “From Mist to Shadow” ( Ibbetson 2007). Johnson has also written two critical studies, one of Francis Ford Coppola, and the other of Neil Simon. He is a winner of the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award along with other notables such as: Robert Pinsky, David R. Godine, Louisa Solano, and Jack Powers. He is currently the submission editor for the literary magazine: “Ibbetson Street.”
Doug Holder: Bob, I read somewhere that you do anywhere from 10 to 30 drafts of your poems. The late poet Robert Creeley told me he did very little revision. If a poem didn’t work he simply trashed it. Your view on that?
Robert K. Johnson: That kind of response to work habits run the gamut. Thomas Hardy would refuse to go over a certain low limit of revisions. He felt if he didn’t hit it right after a certain amount, well that was it. E. E. Cummings I read revised almost endlessly.
DH: I hear constantly from writers of all stripes, “Revise, revise, revise.”
RKJ: Yeah and that’s what I do. It gets up to a lot of drafts. I make just a few small corrections and type it up again. That’s in order to keep the whole poem fresh in my mind. If you bog down in just one section, and then suddenly reintegrate, you can have all sorts of problems. Dylan Thomas is the one who tipped me off to this particular work habit. He revised all the time. So I can have up to 20 or 30 revisions before it’s done, sometimes even more.
DH: The title of your new collection “From Mist to Shadow” sounds rather ominous. How did you come up with it?
RKJ: Well its not meant to be ominous. It’s meant to dig deeper from say “Morning to Night” or from “Sunrise to Sunset.” There are just more connotations with shadows and mist. The phrase or title comes from the poet Dorian Brooks. Dorian is an editor for the Ibbetson Street Press and an accomplished poet.
DH: How would you describe your style of writing?
RKJ: My style is: you read it through and you think you have the whole poem. On the first level it’s totally comprehensible. If you reread it you find that it is more than some kind of narrative. There is usually something else I am going after. Sometimes the narratives are parables, such as my "Prodigal Son" poem which centers on the deepest kind of love.
DH: You have been the submission editor at the literary journal “Ibbetson Street” for years. What do you look for in a poem? You are known as one tough bird.
RKJ: We get mostly free verse, or accentual verse. We get very little traditional verse. I don’t get a lot of poems that are blank verse; we get very little traditional verse. So I look for something that lifts the material above chopped up prose. When I get stuff that doesn’t lift above chopped-up prose, it doesn’t make the cut. A lot of poets feel that if he or she uses irregular right hand margins that they are writing a poem. You have to have some kind of cadence and rhythm. I look for some kind of sound lift. I sometimes look for alliteration. Poet Ellaraine Lockie is wonderful with this. I like loose rhymes and internal rhymes. I also look for fresh phrasing and fresh language.
DH: You have written books of criticism of Francis Ford Coppola, as well as playwright Neil Simon. As a poet do you have any favorite playwrights who are similar to poets?
RKJ: Tennessee Williams certainly. Wonderful lyrical stuff. Eugene O’Neill had to strain to get his lyrical stuff. Williams did it with great ease. And of course Shakespeare.
DH: You have the handicap of hearing loss. How has this hindered your work?
RKJ: It probably has an adverse effect in only one way. I use less descriptions of sound than other poets might. I use visuals all over the place. And of course I use some sound because of a hearing aid. It has its advantages—I listen more attentively. I have to.
AGAIN IN MAY
by Robert K. Johnson
Day after late-spring day,
from my maples’ lowest limbs
to the tips of their top branches,
swarms of caterpillars
eat the leaves’ green spans
with so much passion that I,
almost asleep, can hear them
in the darkness. And my greed
matches their hungry mouths.
I want to taste every food
and wine, book and film,
mountain, city, ocean—
devour everything displayed
on the long buffet of riches
the dawn light offers me
day after day all year.