An Interview with Michael Lee Johnson

1. Can you tell our readers your technique for writing a poem? Please explain.

I don’t think there is a technique for writing a poem since they usually start from different places. The concept of a poem can come from anywhere. That is the beauty of poetry; it has no limits. The idea for a poem may evolve from a memory, a work of art, or an old unfinished poem. A poem doesn’t come from a single technique; it usually comes from a movement of thought. Once the flow starts, images appear, and alliteration comes with repletion rather naturally. One strategy I depend upon is a “kicker line or lines” bringing the poem together at the end, creating an ending with a mystical twist.

2. What in your opinion makes for an excellent or good poem?

To me, a good poem reflects a symptom of the author’s effort to make sense of the world we live in. We think of ourselves as so necessary as human beings, but the truth is we live, then we die. Does that make sense? I have always hated crossword puzzles. Ironically, I often think of a poem as a condensed puzzle, perhaps an idea that can’t be well expressed in regular prose writing but does well as a strong image or images. I would say I am an image-based poet. A good or great poem often expresses itself in clean, simple language that is memorable, concrete with its images, not abstract, and to the point with a magical effect on the psyche. An element of any good poem consists of an excellent and unique perspective of an idea. Using the best form to convey that idea. In my case, free-verse usually is, though not always, my form. Making wise word choices is essential and cutting out unnecessary words. Often, I find the best poems have ambiguity, evoking images and ideas that are hard to pin down. All good poems must elicit a strong emotional and hopefully intellectual response.

3. Can you tell us some of the best-known poets who impress you? Who are some of your favorite authors? Why do you like them?

Contemporary poets impress me the most. I developed a distaste in grade school and high school for poetry in general and the “great masters” in particular. I never liked William Shakespeare, Blake, Milton, Byron, etc. My first influence was Carl Sandburg, then Leonard Cohen. Many other poets, songwriters, writers, and philosophers inspired me: Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, Kahlil Gibran, Gordon Lightfoot, Margret Atwood, Irving Layton, Sylvia Plath, Sara Teasdale, and Charles Bukowski.

4. How often do you write? When, where, and how do you write?

I don’t set a schedule. I write when the moment hits me to write. I have always been a non-conformist. I find my placement when the movement hits me, and then it flows, but my rebellion ends there, and the revisions start. I am a revision freak. I have one poem I have corrected and made changed up to version nine. How do I write? I learned a long time ago to write drunk and edit sober. I am a poet, an editor, and a publisher.

5. Do you read poetry much? What or whom do you read?

I’m so involved with my six Facebook poetry groups which I administer, that I have little time left. I’m slowly editing and collating over 550 published poems into separate chapbooks for publication. I’m 74 and experienced a severe auto accident and now shingles, so time is critical to focus on my remaining goals. Now, the only poets I read are from my Facebook groups.

6. Throughout your life, has your poetry changed much? In what way?

Yes, it has changed. When young, my poetry was depressing and a way out of my own hell. Mostly lyrical simple poems. I started writing poetry in 1968, now 54 years ago. Poetry is no longer depressing but therapeutic and a passion. My simpler lyrical poems now use more complex arrangements of word imagery while remaining mostly within free-verse form.

7. What do you like about fiction novels? Non-fiction?

I seldom read pure fiction. I’m not much into speculative or experimental poetry, though I do dabble into mythological themes at times. Conversely, often some of my poems do have fictional components in them but more often based on factual content. I do read the occasional short story. Years ago, I read small books such as The Prophet, The Old Man and the Sea, etc.

8. What do you think is the role of poetry in today’s world? Throughout history?

Today, and throughout history, really are not comparable. Today there is mass and social media, and anyone can say they are a poet. The challenge is getting published by your editorial peers. In the old days, getting published was difficult. There were old clumsy typewriters, no internet, snail mail, stamps, and libraries the meaning of life is the purpose of poetry.

9. Who is producing the best poetry today? Where can it be found?

I used to think “Poetry” published in Chicago was number one, the holy grail, globally in poetry. However, with the left-wing shifts in local and national politics, staff changes to fit the concept of “Black Lives Matter” quality, variety, and esteem has slipped. Accordingly, I have been published in 2,250 plus small press publications over the years. I’m like Charles Bukowski; I’m a small press lover. A small press, just like The Beatnik Cowboy, is the heart of contemporary poetry. Small presses offer their hearts as a labor of love to poets keeping poetry alive. Anything else you’d like to tell our readers? Why have I always been good at those things that pay so little? Below are a few YouTube links to samples of my poetry. I started to write poems in 1968. There was a gap of 12 years when I realize little money was available to poets and I was forced to focus on making a living. Most poets reach “stardom” after they pass. This first poem, In the Moonlight, is a simple lyrical poem from 1969: This second poem, Flower Girls (V2), is more reflective of my poetry today turned into song, my poem, voice Dale Adams: The poem below, Deep in My Couch, has also been converted into song by Mike Turner:

The full version of a recent poem in full is below.

Deep in my Couch (V2)

By Michael Lee Johnson

Deep in my couch

of magnetic dust,

I am a bearded old man. I pull out my last bundle

of memories beneath

my pillow for review.

What is left, old man,

cry solo in the dark.

Here is a small treasure chest

of crude diamonds, a glimpse

of white gold, charcoal,

fingers dipped in black tar.

I am a temple of worship with trinket dreams,

a tea kettle whistling ex-lovers boiling inside.

At dawn, shove them under, let me work.

We are all passengers traveling

on that train of the past—

senses, sins, errors, or omissions deep in that couch.


One thought on “An Interview with Michael Lee Johnson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s