Saturday, December 24, 2011

Poet Robert K. Johnson: A Smiling Norman Rockwell With A Knife Behind His Back.

Poet Robert K. Johnson: A Smiling Norman Rockwell With A Knife Behind His Back.


Robert K. Johnson is an avuncular presence....but don't be fooled. Behind the folksy voice and courtly manner is a poet with a dagger. Johnson often harks back to wholesome familial memories in his poetry, but behind these benign scenes there are surprises, and some tragic, well... just like... life. Johnson is a retired Suffolk University (Boston, Mass.) professor of English, and is retiring from his 13 year stint as the poetry editor at Somerville's literary journal Ibbetson Street. He is the author of a number of poetry collections, the most recent Choir of the Day ( Ibbetson Street Press). Johnson has also written critical studies of Neil Simon and Francis Ford Coppola, and has been published in countless small press publications. I talked with Johnson on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: After being the Poetry Editor of Ibbetson Street for 13 years you are stepping down.
Any amusing anecdotes?

Robert K. Johnson: It was fun from the start. I do remember that. I recall you giving me folders with submissions wildly cascading--- spilling out. The real adventure back then is different from now. Now the magazine is getting poets like Ted Kooser, X.J. Kennedy, Marge Piercy and the like. But in 1998 the fun was working with poets that nobody knew about. I worked with them. Some I corresponded with. Poets like Ellaraine Lockie and Patricia Hamilton--good poets. It was lively.

Of course in 1998 I was a lot younger, and I was a full time editor. I still have a good amount of energy about not as much. It is a very demanding position. I want to concentrate on my own work now.

: How do you feel about the small press and small literary magazines and journals?

RKJ: I celebrate them all the time... magazines like Ibbetson Street. Sam Cornish, the Boston Poet Laureate, who blurbed my latest collection, attests to my background in the small press.

: You are a student of literary history as you have often told me. You realize that their are trends in poetry but there are always the eternal values.

RKJ: It is always a crap shoot. Nobody knows what is going to linger on as poets of a certain generation fade into the past. The two biggest poets of the 1800's were Emily Dickinson--she was almost totally unknown in her lifetime and of course Walt Whitman. He was printing his own stuff with his vanity press, writing reviews of his own work--all the bigger poets of that day have been forgotten. I mean who reads James Russell Lowell? I say do what you want; write what you want to say; do it because you love it; and let the chips fall where they may.

: If I was to characterize you, as a poet, like a smiling Norman Rockwell with a knife held behind his back--what do you think I would mean?

RKJ: I think you are close. I think a lot of my poems, the endings come out of left field. You don't expect it. So yes there is a smiley thing--then the last two lines--whew!

DH: Yeah-- I remember in one poem in your new collection you have the image of the kid with a baseball mitt--you know that iconic image of the All-American Boy, and then a stanza down or so--he's dead. You celebrate life but there is always that hook at the end.

RKJ: Yeah--I agree. You published a couple of poems of mine in a little volume. It was titled "The Latest News." In that volume I explore how people are surprised by life--they explain it away--and then are invariably surprised again. You know during 9/11 I was a shocked as anyone else. And yet--I wasn't surprised. Because that kind of thing can happen--out of the blue--anywhere. I grew up in New York City and when you went on the subway you never knew who was going to get on. There were some crazies there. You were stuck with them.

: Is a poem really ever finished? Or is it like many a life--in a state of loose ends--many questions unanswered?

: A lot of poems are like you described. If they try to reflect reality they are ambiguous and ambivalent.

: Is your latest collection Choir of Day your defining work?

: I hope it is a good definition of what I've done. Hopefully it is not the last collection I write. I think there is a lot of sameness in this book because my first book was published in 1975 when I was in my early 40's. There hasn't been an immense change of style--like there would be if my first book was published in my 20's. Now I am more concerned with form--but content is still a priority. You honor content by enhancement with stanza breaks, rhyme scheme, etc.. But you don't want to overshadow the content.

DH: I know you try to get to that instinctual moment in your work.

: I love to get down to the bone. I like to get as deep as I possibly can. I go right to the essence. You need to get to the emotions. I remember viewing a river in Colorado--its intensity and drive. That rushing of the water---well, I thought that was a metaphor for me in a way. I had an intuitive feeling about it.

A Matter of Time

I am punched breathless by the fear
a moment from now some country’s first strike
will blow up the street where I live, cracking
the ceiling into flames, crumbling
the walls into heaps of plywood and plaster
my bleeding fingers will fling aside
as I try to reach the twisted leg
of what was once my wife.

---Robert K. Johnson

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