Melissa Fite Johnson came to poetry reluctantly. She grew up with a love for storytelling and reading, but she wasn’t a poetry fan. When Johnson enrolled in a creative writing course at Pittsburg State University, she expected to suffer through the poetry unit until it was time for “the good stuff – fiction.” It turns out that for Melissa poetry was the good stuff. She just didn’t know it yet.
“I’d never read contemporary poetry before,” Johnson said. “Learning about Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Naomi Shihab Nye, David Lee, and so many others changed my life. Most of my poetry is narrative–it became another way to tell stories, only in a short space with no wasted words. I fell in love with distilling a story into a moment.”
In Melissa’s poetry, truth and life experience are big themes. She notes that stories and art help us process real life truth in a way we can understand.
“I’m fascinated by the idea of authenticity, of being as real and honest as possible,” Johnson said. “Because it sounds easy, and it isn’t. One of my very favorite works of fiction is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, in which he explores the difference between ‘story-truth’ and ‘happening-truth.’ He says we have to make up a few things to get at the real truth, which sounds like a paradox, but I believe it.”
Johnson is drawn to work that helps her understand what it means to be human. That’s also the work that she wants to write.
“I want to read other people trying as hard as they can to make me understand what they’re feeling,” Johnson said. “I want to try as hard as I can to make others understand what I’m feeling. That’s what I aspire to do every time I sit down to read or write a poem.”
She’s done a fantastic job of it. Her debut collection While the Kettle’s On manages to balance depth and lyricism with accessibility. These are poems you’ll understand instantly, but you’ll want to read them and consider them again and again. Melissa Fite Johnson invites readers into a world both familiar and new with poems of family history, coming of age and married life. These honest poems reveal the poet’s unique insight and experience. They don’t rely on shock value to hook readers. Instead, they engage us with a fresh perspective on the memories, stories, challenges and blessings that so many of us share. You’ll find yourself nodding in recognition, tearing up in sympathy and laughing out loud. The reader can feel their truth.
Examining our truth can help us write better work, whether we’re writing poetry or prose. Johnson wants to help writers write the sort of work that makes an impact on readers, work that shines a light on individual and universal truths. On March 16 she’ll lead writers in an interactive workshop at our library from 12:30-1:30 pm, to examine honesty and truth in our writing, whether poetry or prose. You’ll find examples of “slanting” the truth into art, hands-on activities and exercises to practice after the workshop. Register today.
Stick around for a reading with the poet from 2-3 pm. Kansas Notable Book Award winner Johnson will share insight from her writing journey and read poems from While the Kettle’s On, A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky, and the collaborative work Ghost Sign. Q&A and book signing to follow.
An Interview with Melissa Fite Johnson
Every hero (and every writer) has an origin story. Tell us a bit about how you came to be a fan of poetry, and how/why you started writing.
I love the idea of having an origin story! To go really far back, my earliest memory of writing was sitting on my father’s lap when I was five, narrating stories about kittens’ birthday parties for him to type on his Commodor 64. In fifth grade, I read installments about a kidnapped girl named Tiffany Hunter to my classmates (whether they wanted me to or not) every week during show and tell. I always loved telling stories, and that’s why I took Intro to Creative Writing at Pittsburg State University in 2001. I figured I’d suffer through a quarter of poetry before we got to the good stuff, fiction–and instead my professor (and later mentor and friend) Laura Lee Washburn convinced me that poetry was the good stuff. I’d never read contemporary poetry before, and learning about Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Naomi Shihab Nye, David Lee, and so many others changed my life. Most of my poetry is narrative–it became another way to tell stories, only in a short space with no wasted words. I fell in love with distilling a story into a moment.
Truth is a theme in your writing, and a theme that shapes your reading list, as well. Why do you feel that your drawn to true, human stories? What about those stories resonates with you?
I’m fascinated by the idea of authenticity, of being as real and honest as possible. Because it sounds easy, and it isn’t. One of my very favorite works of fiction is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, in which he explores the difference between “story-truth” and “happening-truth.” He says we have to make up a few things to get at the real truth, which sounds like a paradox, but I believe it. I give my students the example of the Titanic. When I was a kid, I read about people dying in my textbook, and I wasn’t nearly sad enough. It didn’t register as something real that happened. And then I saw the movie where one fictional character tells another, “Promise me, Rose,” and I finally got it. I got the reality of that tragedy through fiction, and that’s what stories do.
I’m drawn to the truth because life is short. That sounds dramatic, I’m sorry. But life is short and I want to read the stories that help me get closer to understanding what it means to be human (to paraphrase a favorite poem, William Matthews’ “A Poetry Reading at West Point”). I want to read other people trying as hard as they can to make me understand what they’re feeling, and I want to try as hard as I can to make others understand what I’m feeling. That’s what I aspire to do every time I sit down to read or write a poem.
You teach high school English. How does teaching affect your creativity? Do you find inspiration in working with young people?
The hardest thing about teaching is the caring. In college I had these retail or office jobs where my biggest complaint was boredom, or the fear that what I was doing with my life didn’t much matter. With teaching, it’s the opposite. I care too much. I worry all the time that I’m not doing enough for my students, even though when I take a step back, I can objectively and confidently say that I’m an excellent teacher. It’s just that there’s always more I could do, always, and then work-life balance becomes hard. Sometimes it’s hard for me to write a poem at the end of a school day because I gave that job all the creative energy I had.
As for being inspired by my students–yes. Absolutely. They are brave in ways I wasn’t brave. They apply to schools that wouldn’t have occurred to me, are much more comfortable in their skin than I ever was at their age. My students are warm, vulnerable, hilarious people, and I honestly love spending my days with them.
I’m a huge fan of your collection While the Kettle’s On. Can you describe how you felt when your collection was chosen for a Kansas Notable Book Award? Did the win open doors?
Thank you so much, Miranda, first of all. That book contains 50 of the poems I wrote over the course of a decade (2002-2012), and while sometimes I squirm thinking about what I’d change, I’m honestly so proud of it. My friends Meryl Carver-Allmond and Jai Johnson designed the cover, and my friend Katelyn Roth did the layout. Laura Washburn wrote this beautiful introduction, and my high school teacher Al Ortolani is the one who published it. It’s this handmade project that willed itself into being a book, or at least that’s how it felt at the time. If Al hadn’t approached me about publishing it, I don’t know that I ever would’ve tried to put a book together. For the longest time, I downplayed my writing. I called it a hobby. The book–and especially winning awards (it won the Nelson Poetry Book Award as well)–allowed me to feel legitimate in a way I’d never let myself before. That book changed everything–well, it changed my mindset, which is everything. After that success, modest as it was, I began sending work out and taking risks and feeling genuinely comfortable with rejection.
You have observed that you never know where life will take you. You recently moved from Pittsburg to Lawrence, though relocation was not part of your long term plan. What’s next? What are your poet goals? I’d love to hear some short terms goals or dream publishers/journals as well as longer term goals.
It’s funny. Friends of mine have moved to Alaska and New York City and even Poland, and here I am feeling brave for having moved two hours away. But I thought I’d live in my hometown forever. I was at peace with that future life in Pittsburg; in many ways I feel like I’m still living that life and this other one is the imagined one. I’ve wanted to live in Lawrence for literally half my life now, though, and my husband wanted it, too–I’m really proud that instead of it being something we’d always wished we’d done, we actually did it. I’m trying to be that bold as a writer, too. I’ve gotten a lot of personal rejections, a lot of maybes, from some dream journals (Ploughshares, Waxwing, Pleiades), so I keep pacing myself and trying again. I never thought I’d win a manuscript contest, but my chapbook, A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky, won the 2017 Vella Chapbook Award through Paper Nautilus last year–so I keep sending my current full-length manuscript out to contests, because who knows? I’d love to be Kansas Poet Laureate someday. Beyond that, who knows? I’ve honestly accomplished more than I ever thought I would. This is all bonus.
Recommended reads for a list? Who are your favorite poets and authors? Do you recommend any guides on the craft of writing in particular?
As for books on the craft, I absolutely loved Natalie Goldberg’s books when I was first starting out–we read Writing Down the Bones in one of my workshop classes, but then I read Wild Mind and Thunder and Lightning on my own.
It’s hard to make recommendations because I don’t know where to stop, but here are a handful:
I first read Sharon Olds’ The Wellspring in the summer of 2002 when I felt completely unsure of myself and my place in this world, and in many ways that book saved me. I love David Lee’s The Porcine Canticles because it was the first book that taught me I shouldn’t try to sound like anyone else, just myself. Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats brings me to tears in a way nothing else does. I am grateful for Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies because it sometimes inspires my pro-wrestling loving husband to read poetry to me. If I’m doing a top five, Linda Pastan’s The Five Stages of Grief is one I turn to again and again.
Many of my friends write such beautiful poetry, and I worry if I start mentioning them I’ll leave someone out, so I’ll just mention one. Allison Blevins and I were part of the same workshop group for a decade in Pittsburg, and her first chapbook–A Season for Speaking through Seven Kitchens Press–just came out today (Feb 11). I’ve worked with those poems intimately, and they are stunning.