While the Kettle’s On is a rare collection of poetry that manages to balance depth and lyricism with accessibility—these are poems that 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 are honest poems that reveal the poet’s unique insight and experience, but 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.
Read an original interview with Melissa Fite Johnson below to learn about her connection to Kansas, find out who and what inspires her, and get the scoop on her recently released second collection, Ghost Signs, written in collaboration with four other Kansas poets.
An Interview with Melissa Fite Johnson
What is your connection to Kansas? Has your connection to the landscape or culture of Kansas influenced your writing?
I’ve lived in Kansas since I was two—specifically, in Pittsburg, KS. Living here has completely shaped the course of my life. For example, I teach English at my old high school. My first book was published by Al Ortolani’s Little Balkans Press, and Al was the high school English teacher who inspired me to become one as well. My second book was also possible because of Al, because it was a collaboration with him and two other Kansas writers.
I love the writing community I have here in my part of Kansas. I was introduced to poetry as a fluke at Pittsburg State University when I took a creative writing course to study fiction in 2001. The professor, Laura Lee Washburn, is a poet, and she completely won me over to her side. Since then, I’ve taken about a dozen poetry classes from Laura (I’m in one now!), and she’s become my mentor and one of my closest friends. She started a workshop group at her house in 2004, and we still meet every other Sunday. She wrote the introduction to my book! Through Laura, I have met so many other writers. Honestly, if I hadn’t gone to Pitt State or met Laura, I have no idea if I ever would’ve discovered this passion for poetry—which is crazy, because it’s something that now defines me.
Who are some of your favorite authors or poets? Who influences your own writing?
My favorite dead poet is Walt Whitman. When my husband and I exchanged rings at our wedding, we recited lines from “Song of the Open Road”: “I give you my hand. I give you my love more precious than money. I give you myself before preaching or law.” Whitman’s words are so beautiful in their simplicity. I love his philosophy that poetry should be for the common man (and woman). I believe that. In the creative writing class I teach, I try to change the minds of students who think poetry is pretentious or stuffy or impossible to understand or relate to. I actually used to think that, too, before taking that first class from Laura—but I just wasn’t reading the right stuff.
In the creative writing class that I teach, I use a book Billy Collins edited, Poetry 180. I once got to meet Billy Collins—one of my favorite contemporary poets—at a poetry reading in Kansas City, and I used that time not to tell him about my own writing (I feared how many times he’d had a similar talk with other aspiring, admiring poets) but to thank him for that book and tell him how much my students love it. We had the most delightful conversation about teaching, so that was a total highlight of my life. Poetry 180 is meant for high schoolers, but it pretty much embodies what I love about poetry—simple language, but deep ideas; accessible stories, but gut-wrenching and beautiful and thought-provoking ones.
Probably the poet who’s had the most impact on my life, though, is Sharon Olds. In 2002, when I’d only been writing poetry for a year, I was going through a hard time, so I decided to stay with my best friend in Lawrence for the summer—my first time living away from home. Every day, I went to La Prima Tazza on Mass Street and read all of the books Sharon Olds had written so far. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her words saved me. They got me through those months. They inspired me to write so many bad poems. Embarrassing as early poems were, they were a start. As Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, you have to give yourself permission to write the worst junk in the world, and that summer, I did. I cried openly in that coffee shop as I read The Wellspring and The Father and The Dead and the Living and The Gold Cell. Olds writes with such unflinching honesty, so I tried my best to do that, too.
What inspires you to write a poem?
I’m lucky when it’s about inspiration. That summer in Lawrence, when what I was writing wasn’t very good, I was inspired—by heartbreak, by uncertainty about my future. I poured all that raw emotion into so many notebooks. Over the years, as I learned more about the craft, as I became a stronger writer, it became less about inspiration and more about dedication and deadlines. It’s not as romantic a concept, but now I write because I need to take a poem to class or to workshop group. However, I’m so glad that it turns out I don’t have to be mildly depressed to want to write. As a 35-year-old happily married woman with a stable career, it’s less about catharsis now than it used to be, you know? That said, now and then something will happen—to me personally, or to someone I know, or in the news—that moves me to write.
You won a Kansas Kansas Notable Book Award and a Nelson Poetry Book Award for your first published collection of poems, While the Kettle’s On. Did the recognition bring you increased attention from fans, or result in opportunities?
I feel incredibly lucky that While the Kettle’s On won those awards. I have Laura to thank for encouraging me to enter the book in contests. I’ve heard it said that if a book of poetry sells 500 copies, it’s practically a best-seller (sad how underappreciated the form is), and because of those awards and the increased publicity that came with them, I believe the book has sold more than that many copies.
And, yes, the recognition has definitely resulted in some unbelievable opportunities. This author fair is one of them! Another was being invited to the governor’s mansion the night before the Kansas Notable Book Award ceremony—that whole weekend was incredibly special. Last April I facilitated a workshop for Poetry Café, which is part of Gatsby Days in Excelsior Springs, MO; past facilitators were William Trowbridge and Denise Low, both of whom were state poet laureates, so talk about being in amazing company. I think the best part of winning those awards, though, is that it has extended my writing community so much. Everyone I’ve met—whether it’s through online writing groups, The Writer’s Place in Kansas City, Kansas bookstores and libraries, book fairs—has been so warm and encouraging.
You collaborated with three other poets for your second book, Ghost Sign. Can you tell us a bit about the process of working with others for a collection with a common theme, and a bit about the book?
Al Ortolani emailed me in January of this year and said that he, J.T. Knoll, and Adam Jameson were collaborating on a book (published by Jason Ryberg at Spartan Press) and they wondered if I would like to be part of it. Of course, I said yes. The theme is Southeast Kansas poems, old and new (ten of my 33 poems in Ghost Sign were also in While the Kettle’s On, and all of Al’s poems are from previous collections). All four of our sections have titles (mine is Backyard Universe, a phrase from a poem in my collection) and their own style and feel, but they all really feel like a cohesive collection. I think that’s because all four of us grew up in Pittsburg. We name-check a lot of the same places and experiences; heck, three of us even mention watching Wheel of Fortune, which is a total coincidence. I love all three of my co-authors; we just did an incredibly fun, un-stuffy reading together last night. They are much more spontaneous and laid-back than I am—I usually have a set list, but when I do a reading with those guys, I throw out the idea of knowing what’s going to happen. Last night, they decided we should end with an improvised poem, which horrified me, but I like to think I went with it and held my own. Those guys have been reading and writing together for a long time under the name “White Buffalo”—the name comes from a now-defunct coffee shop in Pittsburg—and I’m honored that they’ve let me in. I like to say that I’m crashing their boys’ club, but really no crashing was involved. They welcomed me with open arms.
Melissa Fite Johnson’s first collection, While the Kettle’s On (Little Balkans Press, 2015), won the Nelson Poetry Book Award and is a Kansas Notable Book. Her second book, Ghost Sign (Spartan Press, 2016), is a collaboration with fellow Kansas poets Al Ortolani, Adam Jameson, and J.T. Knoll. Her poems have appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Rust + Moth, Broadsided Press, Midwest Quarterly, velvet-tail, and elsewhere. Melissa teaches English and lives with her husband in Kansas. Connect with Melissa online at melissafitejohnson.com.