Devin Johnston is a professor of English at Saint Louis University. He's also a poet whose fourth book, Traveler, is out this month. Johnson will be reading from it at Left Bank Books at 7 p.m. tomorrow, September 27.
Johnston's poems are short, but that doesn't mean they're not complex. The poet Forrest Gander wrote of his first collection, Telepathy: "While his lexicon is rich and particular, Johnston's line is severe, unadorned, and keenly cut to measure out the subtle, counter-pointed music which so strongly marks these poems."
Last month Johnston took some time to chat with Daily RFT about poetry in general and Traveler in particular.
Daily RFT: Based on the title of your new books, it sounds like traveling has been on your mind.
Devin Johnston: I mostly write poems one at a time, and then when I have a collection, I look for the one thing that draws them together. For this one, travel kept appearing. "Traveler" has an older usage: It was used for migratory birds. Particularly since I've been living here, I've been watching the birds coming through. It's a way to experience the region, by marking time by what's coming through and knowing what's coming.
And you wrote a poem about prairie chickens!
I went to see them in northwest Missouri. It's a remarkable lek where they dance around. Twenty years ago, they cleared the place again and the birds came back. It was like they had a collective memory of where they'd been before. The poem ["Early April"] came very quickly.
I guess you don't have else much to do at five in the morning.
That was part of the appeal, being up at a time you're not normally. Lately I've been watching warblers. It's the more esoteric end of birding. They're high up and so small. My friend says it's like the trees are carbonated.
What about the other kind of travel in the book, the one humans do?
I like to write about one place in relation to another. Oddly, it's a way of grounding myself. Sometimes I imagine places. The Mongolian steppes keep coming into my poems. I'm not sure why they appeal to me so much. I'm fascinated with open, bare landscapes: Kansas, Scotland. Part of the appeal is that it's strange to see that much.
You've never lived in a place like that, though.
No. It's been North Carolina, Chicago and here. I've been writing more about this region, though, the Missouri area. It's very subtle to me. I couldn't get a handle on it, but as I explore more, it comes into focus. The rivers and the history are appealing to me. It [the history] leaves traces that are visible. It's not an economically strong region, so there's no incentive to pave over a brick structure from 100 years ago. I like the Cahokia Mounds, too. There's a strong imaginative pull.
What are you working on now?
I wrote mostly lyric poems, short poems. I recognize what I'm writing midway through. Before that, I'm caught up with sounds and images. The great thing is, I'm starting over every couple of weeks. But socially, I never have much to say.
Your poems are very short.
It's a lot of work to condense and reduce. I'm less interested in commenting than trying to give an immediate or visceral experience. It's best if the language is compressed. There's more energy.
What poets inspire you?
There's a poet from the north of England named Basil Bunting. He's a model of how to condense. I love the idea that work can be making something smaller.