Saturday May 5th, at the Anacostia Branch of the DC Public Library, more than eighty poetry lovers listened to DC Poet Project finalists John Johnson, Monica Leak, Jeffrey Banks, Shaquetta Nelson, and Aiy’ana Ford, and voted to select one winner. When all the votes were counted, and the dust had settled: John Johnson is the 2018 DC Poet Project winner.
Day Eight will be publishing a book of Johnson’s poetry, and we’re looking for artwork by a dc artist to put on the cover. Submit an image or your whole portfolio/website for consideration using the form here.
Below is a brief interview with 2018 DC Poet Project winner John Johnson.
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Robert Bettmann: Congratulations on your success in the DC Poet Project! This isn’t the first time you’ve emerged, though, right? My understanding is that you were part of a project with WAMU called Anacostia UnMapped. Can you tell us a little about that?
John Johnson: Anacostia Unmapped is a project in which neighbors interview other neighbors in Anacostia. I was one of the primary interviewers and sat down with about 20 folks on their porches, and in their living rooms and kitchens — and while they cooked bacon – so they could share stories of the beauty and challenges of Anacostia and life East of the river. I learned quite a bit, particularly from the older residents; they are living history books. My interviews were cut into small segments and played on American University’s NPR radio station, WAMU. Some of the stories are also online at AnacostiaUnmapped.com.
RB: You’re also involved in the world of theater, and as an arts educator?
John Johnson: I’m a Native Washingtonian, and a graduate from the University of the District of Columbia. I love telling the stories of DC new comers, old timers, and in-betweeners, using poetry and theatre. My BA is in Theatre Arts, and over the last two years I’ve gotten very involved in a type of improvisational theater storytelling called “Playback Theatre.” With Playback Theatre, I’m able to help visualize for audiences the stories of seniors in the community, and to help preserve the culture of the African Americans that still live in this rapidly changing city of Washington, D.C.
RB: I know you consider yourself a performer as much as or maybe even more than a traditional poet. When did you start writing down your poetry?
John Johnson: I remember not being the best with grammar and from a young age found poetry liberating, because it had fewer rules and regulations. Run on sentences could run marathons as long as they had meaning and conveyed emotions. I liked seeing fewer red marks on my paper (in the 6th grade) and find poetry a more concise technique for expressing human emotion. I think Twitter is like a modern day form of a Haiku that has broken the 5/7/5 structure. My theatre background also influences my writing because I’m super focused on telling a story. Beginning, middle and end is the cadence of every piece I write. Performance is like the second half of building a poem, like the drywall and paint on the walls of a poem.
RB: I know your family is important to you – your wife, and your girls – and some of your poetry relates to that. How does being a father influence your work as a theater artist, poet, and educator?
John Johnson: Being a father has definitely influenced my poetry. My children and family are my life, and they motivate me in ways I am still discovering… they bring out my creativity, and require my full attention. When my girls look me in the eyes I see my reflected image in them, and the confidence and trust they have in me. This is the fuel of Fatherhood. Piggyback rides are the fun part, returning emails and creating proposals and sending invoices at 1 am because everyone is finally asleep is the challenging part. A father is who I am, and it bleeds into all aspects of my life as an artist, poet and educator. My children now come and listen to me at poetry events, and participate in some of my workshops at schools. They are truly a blessing, as well as an echo into the future I will never see.
Through his DC Poet Project win, this summer Day Eight will be publishing John Johnson’s first book of poetry. Check back on our site soon for more information about his book and connected book launch events.