Joel F. Johnson grew up in Georgia and lives in Concord, Massachusetts, where he is a self-employed businessman. His poems have been published in Rattle, Blackbird, Salamander, Grey Sparrow Journal and other journals. Tupelo Press included one of his poems in its anthology, Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke. His first book of poems, Where Inches Seem Miles, was published by Antrim House. Kirkus Reviews selected Where Inches Seem Miles as one of the best books of 2014 in the Indie category. Video versions of his poems are available on his website, joelfjohnson.com.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
Joel F. Johnson: I feel like I was born wanting to write, but it took me 50 years to get up the courage to do it on a regular basis. In 2004, I began writing poetry by writing sonnets. I figured even if it was bad, I could still tell myself I was writing poetry as long as I followed the rules: 14 lines with an alternating rhyme.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write “Jesus and the Snowman”?
Joel F. Johnson: I was walking home one night around Christmas-time when I saw a plastic snowman. It occurred to me to write about an illuminated snowman in the middle of nowhere. I chose west Texas, and that choice led me to the dramatic events which form the second half of the poem: the story of the man who finds the snowman, what brings him there and what happens to him. For me, this poem illustrates the benefit of online journals. It was published in 2010, but it is still available on the Blackbird website. A friend of mine has had one of her poems carved in granite. The rest of us will have to rely on the Internet to keep our verse eternal.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any reason why you chose the title “The Hurricane of ‘38”?
Joel F. Johnson: Forget what I just said about being eternal. “The Hurricane of ‘38” was published on the Internet, but now it seems to have disappeared. I wanted to write a poem about “pillows and cradles,” which is a term a naturalist may use for the mounds and holes left by fallen trees. In 1938, a very destructive hurricane moved through New England, blowing down trees and, I’m told, blowing the chimney off the house where I live. In the poem, the storm is remembered by the ghosts of those it drowned.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?
Joel F. Johnson: I enjoy writing about adultery, murder, cutting the heads off snakes, dying at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, burying Shakespeare with his plays and deciding to bite the apple when Eve offers it to me. My poetic life is much more exciting than my real one. It’s impossible to write without revealing something of yourself, but I avoid autobiographical poems. For me, it’s easier and more fun to write about what I imagine than to write about my own experiences.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever encountered as a writer/poet?
Joel F. Johnson: Deciding what to write about next. When you think about all the experiences life offers, it seems absurd that anyone would ever run out of ideas, but I do. I look at a blank page, and I can’t think of a thing to say.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Joel F. Johnson: My book, Where Inches Seem Miles, received a generous review from Kirkus Reviews, which made me very proud. The reviewer said that my greatest influence is James Dickey. I confess to being from the American south, as Dickey was, but I haven’t read a lot of his poetry. When I started writing, I was hoping to sound like a combination of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. In retrospect, that feels a bit ambitious.
Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?
Joel F. Johnson: I start the day by pouring a cup of coffee and writing at the kitchen table. I’m sure it must irritate my dog, because she has to wait for me to finish before she can have her breakfast.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best poem you’ve ever written?
Joel F. Johnson: My best work consists of dramatic monologues. It liberates me to be able to speak in the voice of someone other than myself. When you’re speaking through the voice of a character, you can take it to extremes. For nearly every truth I know, I can think of an opposing argument. An imagined speaker doesn’t have those inhibitions. He or she can rant, and a full-throated rant can be a lot of fun to write.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?
Joel F. Johnson: My first sonnet includes phrases like “something vast but lost” and “the heart’s last home.” As writing goes, it is completely awful, but hey, you have to start somewhere.
Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often write on?
Joel F. Johnson: Anyone who claims to live a life of no regrets will never make it as a poet. The month of April tortures Eliot and Maud Gonne torments Yeats because, as poets, Eliot and Yeats are awash with regret. I don’t think regret and guilt are the same thing. Guilty or not, it’s difficult to watch all that happens in life without experiencing some form of regret. That feeling of loss and longing for what might have been is pretty fertile ground for a poet. There is also a lot of irony in my poems, which just reflects the way I see the world.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you get your first piece of work published?
Joel F. Johnson: One journal accepted a poem then decided to hold it for a year before publishing it. Another sent an acceptance by email which was lost in my spam filter. Another accepted a poem then forgot to include it in the published journal. Getting work published is not a glamorous process. I got published by sending out poems. I don’t waste my time sending them to The New Yorker, but I do look for journals that will make me proud if they accept a poem. The most supportive editor I’ve found is Timothy Green at Rattle. He invites the poets he publishes to give readings, and he features the poems online as well as in the printed journal.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you often get rejections from publishers?
Joel F. Johnson: What I hear from poets much better than myself is that everyone gets lots of rejections. I don’t mind getting rejections as much as I mind how long it takes to get them. You send a poem out and by the time you get an answer, you’ve forgotten about it. Being ignored for months and then rejected is not a great formula for a happy relationship.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any ritual you do before you sit down to write?
Joel F. Johnson: I prefer to begin by writing long-hand then editing on a computer. It has to be a pencil, never a pen. A quiet room is essential. It’s good to have a dog nearby as long as she’s sleeping and not hungry.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write love poems?
Joel F. Johnson: I’ve written love poems and lust poems, but they tend to be 20% personal and 80% imagined. I’ve written one 100% personal love poem. That was for my wife, and it has never been published.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best response you’ve ever received from a fan of your work?
Joel F. Johnson: Being asked for an interview is not so shabby. Kirkus Reviews selected my book as one of the best of 2014. Susan Glassmeyer included one of my poems in her “little pocket poetry” selection as one of her poems of the day. I’m proud of these accomplishments, but the best response is when a reader mentions something to me about a line or an image from a poem. It’s intoxicating to hear that someone has actually responded something you’ve written.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the relevance of poetry?
Joel F. Johnson: Last summer, I was asked to write one poem for a wedding and another for a funeral. A lot of people don’t read poetry, but when there is a milestone event, such as a wedding or a funeral, they feel a need for elevated language. Poets are like secular ministers. Whether successful or not, poets are trying to find a little meaning in our daily lives.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?
Joel F. Johnson: I enjoy doing poetry readings, and I also enjoy hearing others read my poems. A fearless friend joined me at a poetry reading and read one of my poems. I will always be grateful to her for that.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most boring part of writing?
Joel F. Johnson: Without a doubt, the most boring part is sending poems out to journals. It’s pure secretarial work, and it’s not challenging secretarial work at that.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you begin a poem?
Joel F. Johnson: A poem begins for me with an image (an illuminated snowman in a desolate place) or with a phrase (“pillows and cradles”). Some of the best poems are the ones you begin with no idea of where they will take you. Sometimes, you end up with a poem that doesn’t even include the original image. Speaking of beginnings, I’m a believer in poems with strong opening lines. I’m not a John Donne scholar, but I think of him as a master of first lines. When he begins a poem by calling the sun “a busy old fool” or by inviting the reader to “mark but this flea,” he’s using that first line to grab our attention.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you end a poem?
Joel F. Johnson: Ending the poem is often the hardest part. I’ll be chugging along writing it and then start feeling anxiety about where it’s taking me. The question of “so what?” starts looming larger and larger. I tend to want to end with a crash of lightning, but sometimes a quieter ending is better, a little light rain instead of a major storm. Some of the old poems with drum-pounding finishes sound pretty dated. I don’t think a modern poet could conclude a poem the way Kipling finished “Gunga Din.”