Christopher J Johnson likes to write poetry on buses and in cafés—locations where he must maintain intense focus to tune out the bustle. We met for coffee at such a place one morning last week. Downtown Subscription on Garcia Street is one of Johnson’s haunts, though he couldn’t tell you which poems from his recently published collection took shape here. Words migrate from notebooks to his phone to word processing documents over the span of years, shifting like sediment.
"It's a subterranean thing," says Johnson of his process. "A lot of the work is somewhere in my subconscious. It's out of control, and works away at itself beyond my awareness of it." He's been writing poetry since he was in third grade and has published poems in the American Poetry Review and Bucknell University's West Branch. Only now has a body of work settled into striations suited for a book—at least by Johnson's standards. "It's more than 10 years worth of poetry," he says. "For me, to finish a manuscript for a book, each poem has to be the best it possibly can be."
Johnson reads from his debut poetry collection, &luckier, which he published late last year with University Press of Colorado, at Collected Works on Tuesday. The Santa Fe writer, who moved here from his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, in the early aughts to study creative writing at College of Santa Fe, spins fantasy narratives for Meow Wolf. He's penned plays and book reviews and is currently finishing up a novel, but nothing quite compares to the process of extracting poetry:
"In a certain way, poetry is very similar to philosophy," says Johnson. "Poetry often represents an act of thinking, as opposed to a novel where you're describing a scene from life." He's an avid reader, and follows trails of thought that crisscross through the arts and sciences. In our conversation, he quotes Heidegger and Sappho, and mentions recent studies of Earth system science. The collection's title, &luckier, is a nod to a line from Walt Whitman's "A child said, What is the grass?": "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
In Johnson's poetry, these diverse influences hardly ever emerge as direct references. They form undercurrents of thought that help him structure his poems, which are rarely longer than two dozen lines. "Poetry is an interesting medium, because you can have layers of meaning," Johnson says. "There might be a direct message, an esoteric message, and some sort of reference to literature that nobody needs to know to understand what's it's about."
Johnson calls his themes "preoccupations," and he's determined to communicate them to his readers. It's an obsession that sets him apart from contemporary poets working in the postmodern mode, and he's acutely aware of this. "American poetry in particular has gotten to a place of abstraction, of over-intellectualism," he says. "There's nothing worse than telling someone I write poetry and having their response be, 'Oh, poetry is difficult.' We should never have gotten to a place of feeling this way."
That's where Johnson's fascination with spoken and written colloquialisms comes in. He liberally employs ampersands, drops spaces and abbreviates words, as in the finale of his poem "Godlet Ants in Their Herculean Tasks:"
my cones& rods, yr cones& rods collapsing,
our contour& of baser things; pleasure,
argument, graffiti on the streets& walking.
These lusty lines, with their playful distortions of the rules of modern grammar, evoke modernist poets such as Gertrude Stein—though Johnson seeks to elucidate where Stein often obfuscates.
Johnson's study of abbreviation and phoneticism in the English language dives far past the 20th century. "The English language was entirely phonetic up until the 16th century," he says. "This side of England and that side of England could spell a word in completely different ways, with 500 variations in between." Johnson's abbreviations are intended to bring his poems in tempo with speech patterns, carrying the reader's eye across the page at the rate of a verbalized thought. The ampersand, a word that is compressed into an abstract symbol, is his purest tool.
"The rhythm that moves the poem forward is almost a stream of consciousness," says Johnson. "When you're working with thought instead of action, that thought has to move forward."
&luckier's ever-expanding universe of themes includes sex, death, social decorum, primal urges, depression, guilt, and the exquisite flaws of the body and mind. Increasingly, Johnson has taken an interest in writing about the complexities of communication itself.
"Poetically, my preoccupation has become the extent to which words and the process of thinking limit our ability to understand one another and our relationship to the universe," he says. "I want to use language to show how words are failing us, how they're preventing us from understanding the ways that everything is interconnected."
In Johnson's view, the only way to accomplish this is to take back poetry from the ivory tower. He notes that one of his favorite contemporary poets, Sophie Cabot Black, maintains a day job at a New York City YWCA and has written poetry about not being able to pay her mortgage.
"All of these ancient Greek poets, what did they write about?" he says. "Love, drinking, having sex, terrible dreams, insomnia. They're not hard to understand, and they're really powerful."
When Johnson's clear stream of intellectual ideas runs into the briny ocean of everyday life, he knows he's onto something. It starts with a bus ride.
Christopher J Johnson
6 pm Tuesday April 25. Free.
Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse,
202 Galisteo St.,