Michael Lee Johnson
The act of living in exile, of fleeing the country rather than fighting in a war you don't support, can be viewed in two ways, either as an act of fear or an act of protest. The men that went to Canada during Vietnam were either running or standing up for their convictions. Regardless of the motivation, exile, adventure, travel, all of these things lead to creativity. I can only imagine a pack of writers roaming Canada in search of refuge and muse and just a place to stay. With notebooks in one hand and a peace sign displayed on the other, it all sounds quite romantic. However, I really have no idea what that time in history was like, but Itasca poet Michael Lee Johnson does.
In fact, last year Johnson published his first book length collection of poems entitled The Lost American: From Exile to Freedom. A collection of poems written while living in Canada, Lost American documents the fear and courage of the time. Through just a few interactions with Michael I can clearly see that he is a man of convictions and principles, and it was these convictions that had pushed him to seek exile. Johnson is also the editor of several on-line lit journals, and has a true passion for the art of poetry.
Recently, Michael Lee Johnson was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
Orange Alert (OA): Last year you published a full length collection of poems entitled,
The Lost American: From Exile to Freedom, what can you tell us about your collection?
Michael Lee Johnson (MLJ): It was a accumulation of poems dating back to 1967 that I had carried on my back in Canada, in exile, during the Vietnam War era. Many of the poems remained in a cardboard box for many years untouched. With the advent of the internet to supplement the snail mail approach I decided to try to publish them off napkins, tainted yellow paper, etc.
OA: Having been published in both print and on-line formats, do you feel one carries more weight or is more legitimate then the other?
MLJ: This is an interesting question. I love print format; but, I realize on-line is the wave of the future due to little profit in the poetry artistic world to the poet or the publisher. Traditionally, print publications lasted longer and you had a solid piece of "hardware" in your hands. Many internet publishers come and go and are replaced as quickly so I keep a detailed credential list of both. But, as times change, print publications are disappearing one by one and the net is the wave of the future. I only wish I knew how it will evolve so I could be a mind reader into the future of God's plan for us all.
OA: You also record audio version of your poems. Do you feel poetry is meant to be heard as well as read? Do you feel your poems are more effective in an audio format?
MLJ: This is a question I love. I have a good audio voice and for many years practiced the wonderful voice of Carl Sandburg, my idol. I think Mp3 and other variations of technology to come will, in fact, be the future; but, I'm almost 61 years old what does an old man know about the future? I'm all for it.
OA: You are publisher of four different literary sites. Why four sites, and how did you decide to enter the world of on-line lit publishing?
MLJ: These are wonderful questions since they challenge my sanity. I work full-time, self-employed to survive, I run 4 individual poetry sites, try to write, keep up with my long-term lady friendship, a brilliant lady--Carol Marcus, (a wonder photographer-volunteer of her time for over 40 years to the community of Villa Park and a good writer herself), love my cat Nikki, and pray a lot to Jesus Christ my Lord when I'm not swearing too much! But to the questions: I have grown to love editors (for the most part) and poets who devote their spare time out of "love not money" for the advancement of literature in a society that doesn't read that much anymore. I also learn from others writings and enjoy the angles of their words and thoughts-they stimulate me...a mutual recipical relationship. Why fours? Partly due to different formatting of the websites themselves; but, mostly due to the different themes and levels of submissions, including content. I tend to place poems according to the way I feel. If natural poems come in about willow trees and nature, they go one place; if they are love and romance related they tend to go to another site; if they are science fiction oriented or mystical they tend to go to another place, and so on. Put simply, I'm happy with the four but I don't want anymore!
Skinny Indiana Boy
With a heart once as big as Texas
or Alberta where he came from,
the draft resister tries to erase
the memory of his sordid past;
coming out of the Rockies,
down over the slate, out of self-imposed exile,
he leaves the northland shaking his bandaged fists at the prairie sky.
He was robbed of his own conviction
by a war that ended, others forgot,
there was nothing left to die for, to wait for,
no more signs to carry in the dark -
only the chill of the northern winter left
to remind him of what he once felt,
once talked about.
The night looked long in his deep green eyes
robbing his faint life away.
The scream of loneliness has turned
his innards inside out to pity.
Non-religious accept for those
weakened moments, empty nights,
vacant lots, he leaves behind lightless
ten years of those silent wars
He no longer speaks with bullets bleeding
from his mouth, he no longer searches
the quiet whispers that echo in the pines.
Now he is at home near the land of Indiana lakes
where in his childhood he created the vision for his now dead dream,
content to say nothing radical anymore-
just glad to be alive.
OA: You were recently included in an anthology called "Crossing Lines" which sounds fascinating. Was there a community of writers that traveled north at that time? Did you write about your experience at the time?
MLJ: Yes, I wrote many poems in Canada in exile. I love Canada even though I was somewhat deranged at the time. Who in their right mind can deny the advantages of universal health insurance when you have 54 million Americans without access to a hospital? But war resisters didn't tend to hang together but did find refuge with many fine Canadian families who believed in the anti-Viet Nam movement at that time. Writers tended to cluster in the Vancouver, Victoria Island area and the islands in-between the mainland and Vancouver Island. But I was not a joiner. I went my own way, and I don't regret it. I was not a joiner.
OA: What's next for Michael Lee Johnson?
MLJ: I'm not a good writer. My spelling is terrible, my grammar is worse, my syntax is beyond belief. I actually failed creative writing in undergraduate school at Lethbridge University, Lethbridge, Alberta. It was a pass, fail course-I failed. I find it ironic now that many professors are sending me their work. I'm not into poetry for money (damn it!), but I'm into poetry for legacy. It's my desire after I have left this world, in the name of Jesus Christ, my Lord, (when I'm not swearing so much) that I leave a body of work that will be shined upon after I have left this world. I can think of no greater contribution; but, I would only be laughed at this point.
OA: Coffee? If yes, where can you find the best cup in Itasca? How about the best cup ever?
MLJ: Damn, I love these questions! No, not Starbucks, just down the road to the East on Irving Park Rd. The best cup of coffee, in Itasca, is at Michael Lee Johnson's condo. I blend, I pour, I mix all kinds of Coffee Mate disasters as Carol, my friend, reminds me of each Sunday morning! Creme Brulee, etc. full of bad unhealthy things!
OA: What type of music do you enjoy? Do you listen to music when you write?
MLJ: I listen to nothing when I write but God, myself and my spirit. I love music, mostly old time rock and roll and Patsy Cline exemplified my friend John Balaskas, Fifth Avenue band. If you need a good band call for wedding, engagements, etc, they are the best: 847-297-2463. Good old and new stuff! Wonderful female singer, Kris.