If one was a poet-watcher, instead of a birdwatcher, he or she would most certainly go out to the literary bush to view this rare breed of poet in action. Johnson, an accomplished poet of a certain age, has a decidedly boyish enthusiasm for little magazines and small presses. Johnson was a professor of English for over thirty years at Suffolk University in Boston, and is now currently an editor for the Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville, Massachusetts. In his long and varied career Johnson has penned multiple poetry collections. In the 1970’s he wrote a full-length study of the films of Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola had been an editor with the Hofstra University student literary magazine, at the same time Johnson worked there. Johnson could have sat back in his retirement and enjoyed the rarefied environs of an upscale literary milieu. Instead he chooses to be in the trenches, championing the little magazines, emerging poets and editors that provide life to an often stuffy poetry world. I talked with Johnson on my Somerville cable access TV show, Poet To Poet/ Writer To Writer….
What most impresses me about you Bob is your unabashed enthusiasm for the small press.
THAT’S A TOTALLY GENUINE ENTHUSIASM. There are really two worlds for printing and publishing. One is the “biggies,” and that world is closed off. It’s hard to get in to, the styles are limited in range, and if you are not an editor related to it, it can be much harder to enter it. The other world is the world of the “little” magazines. I don’t mean the Paris Review and such. I mean the Ibbetson Street Press, Pegasus, Poesy, The Aurorean, Pine Island Journal, and many others. These are much more open. They take a variety of styles, but most of all they are open. They take from people they know and don’t know. A stranger should have just as good as a chance to get in. It keeps things fresh and lively.
Bob, you told me in 1960 when you were a graduate student at the University of Denver, you were influenced by the small press legend Alan Swallow. Can you talk about this?
YES. THIS WAS IN THE 60’S. Swallow taught in the English Department at the University of Denver, where I got into the Creative Writing Program. The University had started a press and Swallow took it over. Later the University cut the funding, so Swallow funded it and ran it himself. At this time, almost all writers west of the Mississippi were getting shut out by the Eastern Establishment magazines. Here was a welcome outlet on the scene. Funny, I never worked for him. Alan wanted to do everything himself. It finally did Alan in. Literally killed him. He did not delegate responsibilities to others. This is the downfall of many small press editors.
When were you first exposed to poetry?
I WAS EXPOSED TO POETRY AT A VERY YOUNG AGE. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She was very literate. She had a good private school education. She taught me how to write before I went to school. So it just evolved. I just kept reading. I got Rheumatic Fever when I was a kid, and I had to stay in bed for months. Luckily this was no problem, because I just read and read. I met my first great poetry love, Walt Whitman. He was lighthearted, and he took to the open road. I was ready to go along with him.
What is your philosophy of writing for publication?
WELL…YOU HAVE TO MAKE A DECISION. If you want have the best shot in the prestigious, closed-off magazines, you have to read them over and over again. You have to see what style they want, and you write it. I have never gone that way. I simply write about what I am most excited about. What excites me is the everyday. I am a great people watcher. This goes back to my childhood in the Bronx, when we leaned out the window and people-watched. Everyday things in nature still excites me, and still does. Nature poetry is out these days. The emphasis is on rhetoric and being clever. For me the content is what you honor. The subject excites you and you want to enhance it.
How does it feel to be an editor for Ibbetson Street?
IT’S THE FIRST TIME I HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN EDITING since my undergraduate days at Hofstra University. I worked on a magazine with Francis Ford Coppola. Funny…he was spacey…I didn’t sense his genius then. I thought you were really on to something with Ibbetson Street. I didn’t want the magazine to suffer because you were overextended. It is an interesting other side of the fence experience. I am on the receiving end now.
Any advice for young poets?
READ EVERYBODY. Not just the New Yorker, Paris Review…go back in time too. Go back and read literary history. When you read the history you see how reputations are up for grabs. It’s good to know what is the hottest poetry now, is not necessarily for you. If you see something in it, use it. If not, go your own way. Be your own boss.