MICHAEL LEE JOHNSON: I was just a typical kid, and a basketball star at Niles High School, Niles, Michigan. I was considered for a basketball scholarship but my grades were too low, my dad never went to a track meet, a cross-country run, or a basketball game. My loving mother and dad had been divorced and Mother moved to Florida. No one told me I would have to find a job or mentioned college. I was in the lower ¼ of my graduating class. I ran into the law, ended up in the calaboose a few times, then the Vietnam War. I sneaked into Bethel College, unaccredited at the time, on probation after getting wife #1 pregnant. I ended up with a 3.0 average out of 4.0. After a failed marriage I continued going to small private colleges, ending up at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, but I had 2 years of a language requirement still left to graduate and lost my 2S deferment. I drifted into Canada as a Vietnam War resister in exile for 10 years, ended up with a 3 year B.A. degree from Lethbridge University in Lethbridge, Alberta. I had over 6 years of undergraduate work but many courses did not transfer to the Canadian/British criteria. I got in the backdoor of an M.A. program in Correctional Administration as a deviant and barroom beer slinger. I came up 2 courses short of a Master’s Degree and 3 pre-PhD courses toward a degree in sociology and quit. I was bored. I had worked at Cape Canaveral, Florida with the moon mission, I was an instructor at a community college in Supervisory Management and got fired, a probation officer, child care therapist, counselor at a Federal penitentiary day release program. I lost 2 more marriages and figured out I was not good at them. I eventually started my own business (with advertising experience) and have been there since. At 69 years of age I still work my custom promotional product business since my social security check is small. Fortunately I like my advertising business: www.promoman.us. I’m able to work my business 85% of the time from my condo the same place I work on all my own and joint poetry efforts. The real difference comes from the way I experience the world's small and large events around me. The extreme sorrow of a beloved pet passing -- the grief in the eyes of the owner -- capture that moment.
DV: How in the world did you ever decide to be a poet, of all things?
A poet is an engineer of experiences, a babbler in the brooks and streams. Often one has no intent to be a poet with stress, trauma, spaces alone, coupled with anxiety and a pinch of depression. One discovers these events have opened an avenue for the poet's ‘I ‘eye’ to interpret these emotions and events in a slightly different manner than the average person. I used to walk around a nature park nearby in Itasca, Illinois, with my lady friend. There are many trees and streams along the walkway. I would always pick out a detail in nature, a broken limb in the stream, whatever, and ask her “what do you see.” Her responses were rather mundane, while I would create poetic images of everything my eyes came in contact with -- it came easy for me. When I was young my father used to beat me, hit my head, etc. Later I had brain scans and have damage on the right frontal lobe -- I don’t have the best memory and struggle with math. Perhaps in compensation more development happened in my left frontal lobe, where emotions, personality, poetry etc. likely come from. Since childhood I always sensed something special, a God gift, and the desire to leave a legacy behind.
DV: Were you writing poetry in childhood, or was that a more mature endeavor?
MLJ: No, I was no genius born to genius parents. My mother washed dishes in Memorial Hospital, South Bend, Indiana, and my dad was a welder at Oliver’s farm equipment in South Bend who loved going to southern Indiana for fox hunting events and barroom playgrounds. I was an average kid with no real direction. However, having said that, I am a Virgo/Libra mix on the cusp, September 22nd, a combo package of intellectual and artistic. As a child I was left at home while both parents worked before it became illegal. I did not know what poetry was then but I roamed the woods behind our pink house on Bob-O-Link Drive, and on Easter one year I didn’t see Jesus Christ but I saw a bunny rabbit as tall as the telephone pole it was next to. I also spent a lot of time on an old oak stump preaching the gospel of George Wallace and believing I would be the president of the United States someday. Ironically, I spent 10 years in exile during the Vietnam War era. Poetry developed in my emotional brain when I was about 17 or 18. My first poetic mutterings had to do with aimlessness, deviancy, combined with the mounting daily pressure surrounding the death toll pouring in from Vietnam news stories. Increased feelings of isolation led to a certain introversion. Later in life I was forced into sales as an occupation, along with a social worker background, so the extrovert merged with the behind-the-curtain introvert. Poetry was the result.
DV: Poetry can be a fickle mistress. Once you discovered poetry, did you ever forsake it?
MLJ: I had a gap when I wrote little or no poetry for several years while in a boring marriage in exile in Canada, realizing I was never going to make a living writing poetry. I finally accepted that reality and set it aside along with my beloved Smith Corona Electric 220 typewriter.
With the advent of the internet it was easier to submit poems than with my old typewriter, ripping out page after page after one error and starting to type all over again. Back in that day, photocopies were not allowed (though editors sent back photocopied rejects), stamps for sending and for returns were expensive, an extra envelope with a stamp for returns were expensive, international coupons for postage outside of the country were expensive, and you were very lucky if you even got a rejection notice or on very rare occasions a sentence or two about your poetry attempt.
DV: Yes, I remember those days all too well. And even when a poem was accepted you'd get (maybe) a copy of the journal. Once I got $50 for a poem, but that's the only monetary advantage I've ever got. But the need to write, and the need to be read, persist. When did your publication efforts start to be successful, psychologically if not financially? When did you regard yourself as a "poet"?
MLJ: I regarded myself as a "poet" a few years after my mother thought for sure I was going to be a preacher of the "Lord," I don't remember the exact date. After my father came out to my car parked for one night in his lawn and said, "Take your alarm clock and miniature Bible, and get the fuck out of here." Maybe the poet started there. Or was it after that time at Andrews University, when I was on the run to the border of Canada during the Detroit riots of 1967 or a few years later? Then there were the hitchhiking experiences in Ontario, Canada, living in Farmer Joe's barn with the sheep and cattle under the hay. Or was it in about 1973, in Canada when I roamed the restaurants for waitresses to get off duty, knowing their schedules, or that female lover in my apartment, Edith Barton, where I played cassette tape recordings of my poetry to 78 rpm stereo records of "All by Myself" by Eric Carmen and "Sometimes When We Touch" by Dan Hill. Or was it my wife #3, French Canadian, Giselle, the only lady I ever really loved, or have I forgotten how to spell her last name after all these years? Tell me where my poetry began, where it started, where it will end?
DV: Good point. Do you have any poetry you would like to share derived directly from any of these experiences?
MLJ: If I posted all the poems that related to experiences above plus 150 more it would take a small book. Originally, The Lost American: From Exile to Freedom, was to be a non-fiction travel of my experiences in exile. I tried over and over to make it work but it came each time to a simple dead-end, but ultimately it became my first full-sized poetry book. It can be found here:
For brevity's sake, I will pick only two poems. "If I Were Young Again," originally written in 1985 with minor revisions in 2012, is a summation of my feeling about being in exile for 10 years a result of emotional impact of the Vietnam War.
Piecemeal summer dies:
Long winter spreads its blanket again.
For ten years I have lived in exile,
locked in this rickety cabin, shoulders
jostled up against open Alberta sky.
If I were young again, I’d sing of coolness of high
mountain snow flowers, sprinkle of night glow-blue meadows;
I would dream and stretch slim fingers into distant nowhere,
yawn slowly over endless prairie miles.
The grassland is where in summer silence grows;
in evening eagles spread their wings
dripping feathers like warm honey.
If I were young again, I’d eat pine cones, food of birds,
share meals with wild wolves;
I’d have as much dessert as I wanted,
reach out into blue sky, lick the clouds off my fingertips.
But I’m not young anymore and my thoughts tormented
are raw, overworked, sharpened with misery
from torture of war and childhood.
For ten years now I've lived locked in this unstable cabin,
Inside rush of summer winds,
outside air beaten dim with snow.
My poem, "I Edit my Life," is a brief summation of 47 years of life, a movie flick, a theater experience, of passages, of events, of movements, of experiences, traveling through the years. Everything that I found dirty needed cleaned but not always at that exact time. Sometimes when you're dirty your do not realize you need to be clean. You live your selfish life and are the actor in the active event. That is what I meant by "hedonistic in my early 70's." A distressed young adult making decisions of right or wrong, my country right or wrong, so you make the leap from involvement in the Vietnam War to exile in Canada, but you are hung out to dry reviewing your sorrows, regrets and joys along the highway. After 10 years in exile and review on a jagged return to the United States, I hang out to dry, clothesline pins and clips. Even now still troubled and getting in trouble, I hang to dry. After years of instability, I start to arrive into a new jungle of technology, the internet, my condominium paid for; my Nikki cat19 years old and we have hung together with love sticks. For years, the stability sticks a new business of my own. After three failed marriages by 1978 I figured out I am not doing well with intimate relationships. Recognizing that sex is not the real core of a relationship I compromise for companionship and a long-term friendship. I still live alone knowing the border boundaries are separate dwelling places. Though I am on a new journey, a new time machine, a developed new human product distant from the past I lived, life is but a blinking eye a journey where the breathing stops and we look with hope for a new planet, another new beginning. "I Edit my Life" can be viewed on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dh5cGYOo6tI.
I edit my life
clothesline pins & clips
hang to dry,
I turn poetic hedonistic
in my early 70's
reviewing the joys
and the sorrows
of my journey.
I find myself wanting
a new review, a new product,
a new time machine,
a new internet space,
a new planet where
we small, wee creative
creatures can grow.
DV: Thank you very much for your time, Michael. Vicariously sharing your varied life has been an interesting experience, and I hope you keep at it for a long time to come.