Saturday, 11 April 2020

Jim Johnson: What Connects Us All

Virtual Final Thursday Reading Series returns on April 30. On that date, this site will be updated with a featured reading by Jim Johnson, who was originally scheduled to read at the Hearst Center for the Arts.If you would like to contribute a video "open mic" reading, please email a link to jim.oloughlin@uni.edu by Wednesday, April 29.  Click here to see examples from the March Virtual FTRS. 

April's featured reader, Jim Johnson, is the author of the poetry collection One Morning in June: Selected Poems (Red Dragonfly Press) and over nine other collections including The First Day of Spring in Northern Minnesota and Driving Gravel Roads: 50 Prose Poems. Much of his work draws upon the physical landscape of northern Minnesota, where he lived for many years. A former Poet Laureate of the city of Duluth, he now splits his time between Cedar Falls and Isabella, Minnesota. 

FINAL THURSDAY READING SERIES: As a selected collection, One Morning in June involves that difficult challenge of choosing from among previously written work. How did you make decisions as to what poems to include?
JIM JOHNSON: When I began writing, I took a workshop from Sigurd Olson and I was inspired to write about the wild. I wanted to write poetry but found it difficult to publish my early poems of the wild. I had more success writing about my Finnish-American heritage. A few years ago I noticed an increased awareness of climate change, extinction, etc. and realized I needed to write again about plants and animals. So after publishing The First Day Of Spring In Northern Minnesota, Yoik, and Text For Our Nomadic Future, I wanted to pull together into one volume poems that relate to how we, as humans, observe our interconnectedness to, rather than dominance of, the natural world.

FTRS: You grew up in northern Minnesota and have embraced being a midwestern writer. However, what it means to be a “midwestern writer” can vary a lot from person to person. How do you define the distinctiveness of midwestern writing?
JJ: I once was told that Minnesota poets were disciples of either Robert Bly or Tom McGrath. I don’t know if there is a formula for Iowa poets. Though I was probably more of the Sigurd Olson school, I think I found a midwest voice, as have poets like Dave Etter, Bill Holm, Louis Jenkins, Bart Sutter, Connie Wanek, Joyce Sutphen, Tom Hennen, and Ted Kooser.

FTRS: A lot of your writing evolves from careful observation of the landscape. Can you talk about your process for writing about the natural world? Do you go outdoors with the purpose of writing or does inspiration come to you? Are you taking notes or relying on your memory of experiences? Do you find yourself needing to do research to supplement what you see?
JJ: The poem “River Otter” was inspired by skiing across a frozen lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I once wrote fifty poems from notes taken while picking wild blueberries. So experience is important to me as a primary source, when it works out. I use and recommend research. We can only go so far.

FTRS: You’ve written a lot about ecological issues and the interconnectedness of humans with the environment. Has the current COVID-19 pandemic changed or confirmed any of your thinking?
JJ: I understand that technology, especially in this time of coronavirus catastrophe, is critically important and that technology makes this presentation possible. Yet we must realize this pandemic has taken out of the newstream the issues surrounding our effect on climate change. This virus lets us know, as a species, we do not control nature, it controls us. We are fortunate if we can get out into the natural world, and it is important to our mental, as well as physical health.

-- Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin

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