Intwerview Of Poet Michael Lee Johnson

 

Question:

I am entirely unfamiliar with Itasca, Illinois, and was curious, are there any distinct characteristics about Itasca that stand out to you (as someone who has lived there for a while)? What are the notable differences between living in Itasca vs. previously Canada? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

Itasca, Illinois, is a quaint small community one of many western suburbs away from Chicago. It is slow-moving but lovely. The main population doesn't consider you to be a "real person" here unless you were born here or 25 years living here plus, LOL, otherwise you're just a "newbie." They are either unaware of me or ignore me; I'm not sure which. Ironically, having over 224 poetry videos on YouTube at this point, they gain more from me than I do from them. When my video or videos finish, they naturally move on to other videos about Itasca, the local mayor message, whatever. The question about notable differences between living in Itasca, IL. and previously Canada doesn't really apply; it compares noteworthy differences between the United States and Canada at large. A topic for another time or hinted at in other questions below.


Question:

They say where one lives always has an influence on their work. Does living in Itasca have an impact on your writing, the themes you choose to steer towards? Or do you need to detach from your environment when you approach a poem?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

I do think living in a small community does have a settling effect on my disposition. I prefer quiet times, quiet places. I love looking out my living room condo balcony and feeding the birds, the damn squirrels, and the Canadian geese below my balcony window. I have a lovely open space of trees and land between my condo building and the next one, more than a football field. Between my deceased cat Nikki of 22.5 years, the birds' feeding, the geese, the damn squirrels, I have created many nature and animal poems from sitting at my computer desk and gazing out my balcony window during the day. Due to five Facebook poetry groups, I am the administrator of nearly 35,000 combined members. Some overlap from group to group, and I seldom have time to write my own poetry. I often start at midnight and go into the morning's wee hours working on my own creative efforts when it is quiet. These night poems usually are about street life, live events, current events, humor, etc. I do my poetry videos at night since I only use a video maker, my mic, and a cam, and I don't need to hear trains and planes roaring outside nearby.


Question:

Is there a clear difference between the poetry you've written from your time in Canada vs. in the United States? If there are any, what are these differences? Is it merely progression as a writer?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

It is more of a simple progression as a writer and poet. Outside events did affect my poetry in Canada, Vietnam War, self-exile, a different country, a different culture heavily influenced by England. Canada was more conservative overall in culture and education but more liberal when it came to politics. The difference between the United States and Canada was not radically different than what I was used to. I'm sure if I would have gone to Sweden, the cultural transition would have been more difficult. My poems in Canada dealt more with isolation, wilderness, aloneness, love relationships, mental states, etc. Once I returned and finally settled back into the United States, I started to stabilize after amnesty over time. With more steady work, a condo of my own, a loving cat of 22.5 years, and a long-term relationship. I also started investing in mutual funds for financial security reasons long-term. This affected my writing. I no longer wrote out of insecurities, mental health issues, or fear. Instead, poetry became a friend of my development, not an enemy as before.


Question:

How did you first discover poetrography? What drew you towards photography to incorporate imagery with your writing? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

I first started incorporating photos and poetry together with a new digital camera and looking at sunsets and sunrises out my balcony window. I was shocked by how many lovely pictures I could create without going anywhere. Poetrography is a problematic word and hard to even find in Google search. With nearly 500 published poems at this time, it was reasonably easy to locate a poem of mine that fit onto the photo image or view the image and create a poem from it. I do write many ekphrastic poems (Ekphrastic Poetry is the 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). I also enjoy finding funny pictures of my own or online and turning them into 1-liner epigrams.


Question:

I noticed that nature profoundly influences your writing; when did your connection with nature begin? How do you stay in tune with nature during these trying times?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

My love of nature started with my father, who was totally rough around the edges, a welder, a fighter, but a coon hunter, fox hunter, as well. He had many hunting dogs. On occasion, he would take me on his coon, foxing hunting weekend trips to southern Indiana. Eating the donuts, longhorn cheese, and drinking black coffee in the middle of the night, hearing the sound of the hounds on chase, the midnight after natural sounds was a starting point. As a child, I grew up in a wooded area of South Bend, Indiana, and with both parents working back then, I had plenty of time to self-explore the woods around me. This was back in the days when leaving your children at home at 8 or 9 years of age was normal and not criminal while parents worked. I was an only child, born in September, and always curious and getting into trouble. During these Covid-19 isolation times my, newly found parakeet & my forever imagination become my nature, my reality. As reflected in this recent poem:


Virus in the Air, Spasms in my Back

By Michael Lee Johnson

 

There's a virus in the air, but I can't see it.

People are dying around me, but I can't save them.

There are spikes pierced in my back,

spasms, but I can't touch them.

Heartbeats, hell pulsating, my back muscles,

I covet in my prayers.

I turn right to the left, in my bed, then hang still.

Nails impaled, I bleed hourly,

Jesus on that cross.

Now 73 years of age, my half-sister 92,

told me, "getting old isn't for sissies."

I didn't believe her—

until the first mimic words

out of "Kipper" my new parakeet's mouth,

sitting in his cage alone were 

"Daddy, it's not easy being green."


Question:

As a writer, how have you maintained your sense of motivation/inspiration during a pandemic?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

It has not been a problem for me. I stay in my condo about 90% of the time and enjoy it here. I like quiet, even though I'm in sales and still run a self-employed business at 73 I don't like it when the phone rings. I go to the grocery store, an expensive quick stop at 7-11 convenience local store for snacks and gas, and see my lady friend of 30 years plus. We order pick up and go eat privately and together once a week. No changes for me; it's normal except for the masks, the fears, this crazy part of history.


Question:

Are you engaged in contemporary poetry? How do you think this generation of modern-day technology has an influence on writers? Has adapting to technology affected your writing methods? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

Contemporary poetry is now, and the beautiful talents I have on five different Facebook poetry groups. Technology has totally changed and turned methods around. Submitting poetry in the old days was a nightmare starting with no payments as today, for the most part. The dinosaur finger typewriters, ripping pages out every time you made one mistake and starting over again. Snail mail was expensive, typing 5 separate poems on different sheets of paper. This doesn't include counting the ripped-out sheets on the floor, the cost of envelopes, the stamps. Then envelopes were needed so editors could send back rejected poems back. Then those costly international coupons (IRC) sending poems to foreign countries. The worst part was you seldom ever heard back from an editor at all; or, he would send you a photocopied rejection sheet rarely with comments. Ironically, publishers would demand of you not to submit photocopied poems rather originals. You would have to buy publications with publisher locations and contact points yearly to keep updated. All this for no payment to speak of. This is why I got discouraged and had gaps in my writing history, and focused more on "a real job." Nowadays, with computers, corrections are simple; most submissions are to emails or directed to platforms like Submittable submission managers. Searches in Google find plenty of new publishers coming online and some dropping off. Some love books like I do, but know your poems can be found on online poetry sites. Poetry organizations around the world are easier now to access. 

A downside side is more poets out there, but those of merit always drift to the stockpile's top. As large as the poetry world is, I'm amazed at how few are near the top quality-wise, and as a poet, editor, publisher, it doesn't take long for me to recognize their names, their works.


Question:

What makes a good poem? Is there such a thing as defining good poetry? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

Poetry is one of the most subjective forms of expression I know of, thus the mystery of meaning between the images. It would be easier to define what a good poet is than what a good poem is, but most good poets know what to them, as an editor, constitutes what they believe a good poem is when they read it. Editors often have their own style, preferences, tastes, or elements that appeal to them personally. The problem is what one editor determines is trash; another finds it stately.   


Question:

You have been published in many countries; have you ever been drawn to traveling and exploring one of the nations? How does it feel as a writer to know that your work has reached so many places overseas, touching the hearts of people you possibly did not imagine it could reach?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

This is an emotionally touching question. Legacy is the ultimate goal of making sense of our time on earth, finding meaning for ourselves, and hopefully leaving something of merit behind those who follow in our footprints. I have been published in 40 different countries and published many times in each of those countries. It is meaningful to me since I keep track of new countries I have entered with my words. When my poems are taken by others of different native language tongues and converted from English to another unfamiliar language, I enjoy it. 

It's even more touching to hear the poems in a foreign tongue in audio presentations. 


Question:

Your favorite book is the Bible. What drew you to spirituality and religion? How does this affect your writing, the themes, the tone?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

My mother was a fundamentalist member in her early days, Church of the Nazarene. She later said she had become a "backslider" into sin. But my mother always believed in Jesus Christ all 98.5 years of her life. So, I'm sure some of it wore off on me. I also had faith healing as a youth having a form of cancer in both my legs. I went with my mother at about age 8 or 9 to Calvary Temple, a Pentecostal church in South Bend, Indiana. I was prayed over, and several days later, our atheist doctor did x-rays, etc. The problem was gone, and for the first time in a year or so, the cast was removed from my legs. I walked on my own will from the second-story stairs out to my mother's car. Many of my poems have spiritual overtones to them or even direct reference to Jesus Christ as a result; none of the spiritual poems preach or try to convert anyone. I have had one atheistic poetry publisher state, "I like your poems, but will you send me something that leaves Jesus out of it." Not all of my poems are spiritually related by any means; many sounds more like Charles Bukowski (an atheist) than Jesus. Example on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPjtwNp-ZbA 

This actual poem: 


Jesus Knelt in Grief 

Over the Death of Children (V2)

By Michael Lee Johnson

 

Breaking out of silence,

Jesus knelt to his knees

in the moist desert sand,

wrote messages 

with his fingertips

to children-

"water is water, toys are toys,

but by my fingers burn with life,

although I toil over tombs with grief and tears-

I am the living, and I am the dead.

I was born to life to bring

new hope into the death of children.

I am the messenger of the morning sun

the prayer book between the morning dew,

the playfields of your daily adventures.

When I kneel here again,

the end will be the end.

Fire willed into my words.

Driftwood and sand will turn to stone.

I drag my fingers across hot sand once more

morning will come without daybreak.

Birds will no longer sing, and crickets

lose their songs."


Question:

What drew you to YouTube as a platform? Do you feel that when the poem is read by its author, more bought out from the poem? Do you think the tone it is read in has a significant effect on the poem's interpretation? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

I used to listen to the voice of Carl Sandburg; I loved it. The way his voice created rhythm added reflections and meaning to his poetry. Through the exiled years in Canada, I had a few opportunities to be on local radio and television due to being a program director for something similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters here in the United States. It was the Canadian version. I enjoyed it. I'm not the best speller, often poor grammar and syntax, so I found writing the poem was one thing but hearing it out loud helped me find silly problems and errors. For me, this was the start of YouTube. I would write a poem, feel it excellent, make an Mp3 audio file and find mistakes. Once I clear up the errors, I turn the Mp3 into an Mp4 audio file, find pictures to fit, and enjoy the puzzle of putting frames time well together with words to match. I love books, but many are actually read? I love online poetry sites, but they come and go. Audio as a media form may be around longer than the rest or converted into yet known formats.


Question:

Describe your ideal space to write in; what environment would best suit your mood and bring out the most in you as a writer?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

Simply put, looking out into nature from my balcony window or on a quiet night and a few shots of Vodka. Don’t tell my lady friend about the drinking part.  I always say, edit sober, create drunk.


Question:

What drove you to create websites for other poets to display their works? How do you approach running 11 websites?


Michael Lee Johnson Response:


It eventually drove me crazy with so many sites to attend to, all with different rules, formatting issues, cut and paste options that often didn't work as expected. Most of them have been idle for some time due to the 5 or so Facebook poetry groups I'm the administrator for. Helping others with their poetry is a significant priority. I sacrifice a lot of personal time to help others succeed; I just hope my life cycle doesn't end before I get to my own poetry books. I now have 225 poetry videos on YouTube of my poetry. A few are poems by my Facebook poetry group members. I create the videos and use my little voice talent to make them a reality.


Question:

How does it feel to have witnessed and lived through two globally altering events within your lifetime? Do you see any similarities between the news surrounding the pandemic vs. when the information was always about the Vietnam War? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

These represent threats to self-existence, but the nature of these beasts is different. It is hard to compare gaps of time between events to look for similarities. Vietnam War was a daily death total, just like the current pandemic. The Vietnam War directly affects this country's youth, while the pandemic tends to destroy older individuals. I was young, and I was threatened; now I'm old, and now I'm intimidated.


Question:

What drew some of your poems to indigenous Indian native culture? What was the inspiration? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

While in Edmonton, Alberta, I witnessed firsthand the native people in that area drift into the "big city" and found abandoned streets, drunks, and alone. They didn't like being stuck on the Indiana reserves. Still, they found themselves unable to find work or be part of the culture of the "big city." So many turned to drinking and fighting and spending time in jail during the harsh winters. I detested them and felt sorry for them at the same time. The Indians near Edmonton were mostly Métis, a mix of indigenous and primarily French ancestry, and most were poor. This poem represents the reality of the hard life they live.


Harvest Time (V8)

By Michael Lee Johnson

 

 A Métis lady, drunk-

 hands folded, blanketed as in prayer

 over a large brown fruit basket

 naked of fruit, no vine, no vineyard

 inside-approaches the Edmonton,

 Alberta adoption agency.

 There are only spirit gods

 inside her empty purse.

 

 Inside the basket, an infant,

 restrained from life,

 with a fruity Winesap apple

 wedged like a teaspoon

 of autumn sun

 inside its mouth.

 A shallow pool of tears mounts

 in his native baby blue eyes.

 Snuffling, the mother offers

 a slight smile turns away.

 She slithers voyeuristically

 through near slum streets

 and alleyways,

 looking for drinking buddies

 to share a hefty pint

 of applejack wine.

 

Question:

Why poetry to convey your ideas and to express yourself? 


Michael Lee Johnson Response:

Why not? I'm more right-brained than left. Thus, I'm creative, perceptive, intuitive, a freethinker with an aging sense of rebellion that still ferments at times. I never was good at math, and my IQ is borderline retarded since IQ tests bored the hell out of me.  Oh, what the hell, I barely got out of high school.


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