an interview with michael lee johnson
When did you start writing poetry and why?
I have been scribbling at paper and later restaurant napkins (while in Canada referred to as serviettes) since I was 16 or 17 years old. When I was about 11 or 12 walking toward the wooded area in rural South Bend, Indiana, I "saw an Easter bunny" that I was convinced that it was as tall as the telephone pole it was beside. Before I understood that completely, I wanted to write about it, long before I really knew what writing was about? Due to a severe disease as a youth, I barely made it through grades two, three, and four in grade school, thus missing basic phonics, grammar, and syntax. So I have struggle throughout my life with these elements of writing. I also failed creative writing class in university. Fortunately, my conceptual skills and imagistic mind, coupled with the eccentricities of poetry have allowed me to survive these shortcomings.
What is your writing process?
I’m not sure, but without a great deal of gasoline thought, I think it comes in three somewhat disjointed notions:
Stage # 1: I think it has something to do with life experiences and interpretations of those experiences, plus locating where my conceptual and imagistic ability derive from: right or left hemisphere of the brain.
Stage # 2: For me inspiration is often found in nature and expanded to reflect a human condition of sunshine or rain. Sometimes it is a few moments lying in bed before sleep and recording on a tape recorder; sometimes it is driving along with that tape recorder and re-listening over and over making changes. Sometimes it jumps at me over a few shots of Vodka.
Stage # 3: I don’t think I have a schedule: in between running a small demanding little promotional business (www.promoman.us), that affords me the luxury of writing time, sliced between editing four poetry sites and averaging about fifty to eighty five emails a day.
Which poets throughout time have influenced your writing?
I have been heavily influenced by: Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, and Allen Ginsberg; especially Carl Sandburg. I was able in 2010 to visit Galesburg, Illinois, his birthplace and the Carl Sandburg State Historic Site.
What do you consider your poetic style to be?
I write primarily imagistic poetry free verse with storytelling elements, some limited form poetry such as Japanese poetry since I love the short imagery and lingering feeling. I tried fiction a few times but so far have failed miserably; which is unfortunate since fiction does pay. “The Lost American: from Exile to Freedom,” was originally intended to be a novel but evolved into a book of poetry.
What topics do you tend to write about?
Like many beginning writers I think I wrote about romance, intimacy, lost love; as time and age climbed upon my back I labored down to social setting, social incidents, storytelling, ekphrastic poetry, (That is conversation between two pieces of art. The writer interprets a work of visual art and then creates a narrative in verse form that represents his or her reaction to that painting, photograph, sculpture or other artistic creation), natural nature oriented themes, quiet moments.
There is a large community of poets on the internet these days. Which "internet" poets are your favorites?
I could toss some big names out there, but I have become familiar with small press and poets I have rendezvoused with admiration. To name a few I have published (I run and edit four poetry sites): Tobi Cogswell, from California, Joanna, M. Weston from western Canada, Ray Succre from southern Oregon,
Phillip Ellis, from Australia, because his style is academic and mine is blue collar free verse, and, yes, our own Sandy Benitez editor, Flutter Poetry Journal, and poet.
What do you enjoy most about being an editor for several online journals?
Making mistakes, misjudgments, and not knowing what I’m doing. Often editing is a subjective business, we have our own prejudices toward styles that often resemble our own, and reject over and over those we don’t feel fits with our guts. But on the positive side: it keeps me fresh and in tune with the world of words, it gives me ideas and fresh images to absorb, it helps me establish friendships with poets and editors I would never had the opportunity to meet in any other forum.
What advice would you give to a novice poet?
It is imperative you support local and international small presses, without them, poets and others would be screaming in cornfields and no one would be answering. They are a God sent, support them! The editors work hard to edit, format, select, review, emails many hours each day. They are like writers, and many of them are or were writers. Since poetry pays little, requires much, I see my personal story writing poems since 16 years of age, now 63 years old as an example of determination. Most of my publishing has come in within the last four years-I had/have poems dating back as far as 1967. Now, forty seven years later, by poems are getting published all over the world, and most of them came from yellowed papers, wrinkled napkins and such, they wait for the hand of revival. Never give up hope and always remember a power greater than self is driving the life vehicle home.
What advice would you offer to someone who is frustrated because his/her work is constantly being rejected by journals he/she submits to?
Know yourself through experiences as it reveals itself to you, weight the positive against the negative and ponder on your own spirit and sense of self for motivation. It sounds like babbling but it comes down to your spirit, your desire, your needs, your convictions. In the beginning, I met a man in a local restaurant in Marion, Indiana sitting at the coffee counter. He asked what I was writing; I covered my work and said, “just a bunch of words on paper.” He said, “Do you share it with others?” I said no. He said, “You are a very selfish person.” I never forgot it.
I don’t take rejection too seriously anymore less someone is having a bad hair day, or just being a jerk out of tune. I have learned being an editor and a poet that so much depends on: style acceptance or rejection, timing, overload of work to the editor leading to a quick rejection, themes that your poem didn’t fit, out of reading period for a publication that you didn’t realize, etc. When I got my first acceptance I cried, and drove home, thanking Jesus…I have continued to thank Jesus and build on it since.
What is your ultimate goal as a poet? Are there any specific awards or prizes you strive for?
A long term project is to gather all my initial works with all the new ones hitting the market now plus many not exposed to small press yet, collecting them all into a large book of poetry likely called “Electric in the Sun.” My dream is to be published my Poetry Magazine, Chicago: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/, where Carl Sandburg got his start. It’s also a dream for me to be nominated or to win a Pushcart Prize in poetry. My ultimate goal is to be a legend in time, to take a place near my idol Carl Sandburg.