D.C.-based poet Brandon D. Johnson shared with Abdul Ali his thoughts on poetry and some insights he picked up along the way. His recent collection of poems is Love Skin.
What makes good poetry (to you)?
I want the contemporary work that I read to feel new. It must be something that doesn’t remind me of someone else’s poems directly. It is something that makes me want to write. I love work that causes me to go ‘I wish I’d thought of that,’ or that makes me say, ‘I wish that I could do that.’ I like poets with distinctive voices and work from which I learn. I’ve learned a great deal from these poets’ work: Yusef Komunyakaa; Henry Taylor; Philip Levine; Ai; Patricia Smith; Gwendolyn Brooks; Sterling Brown; Cornelius Eady. I have to stop there. I go back to their work over, and over, again.
Can you talk about the ideas that went into your recent book Love Skin?
What did you set out to do with that manuscript?I always work to tell stories. I want to get a reader involved in a person’s character. I want to tell tales. I love movies, so my mind works from images, like stills. The greatest compliments I’ve gotten are that someone liked my images; that they knew someone like ‘that’; or, that a piece sounded like a movie.
What was the greatest word of criticism you received, and how did it make you a better poet?
"What you cut out of a poem is as important as what you leave in.” But notice that I said cut out, from editing. The first thing is to write down everything, then later concern yourself with what can come out. That was advice given me, that I’ve used. I can’t remember the greatest word of criticism, but I can remember the first day someone critiqued one of my poems. It was Joel Dias-Porter (DJ Renegade). He looked at a poem of mine and he said, “Can I write on this?” That’s when I first started learning about poetry. That continued among the larger group of poets I’ve workshopped with over a span of time. They are now the ‘workshop’ I carry around in my head. I’ve often said that I can’t figure out what I like most, the initial writing of the poem, or the subsequent editing. I think it is more the editing, because that’s when I really figure out what my ‘mission’ is with the piece. There is no such thing as a couple of edits. It is something that goes on even after the piece is lucky enough to be published.
Any advice to all the emerging poets who will read this in blog-o-sphere?
Read everything; everything and everyone. Maintain a writing thought process, even when you’re not writing something. I always wonder what something I hear, or see, would look like on paper. Read more poetry. If you read, or hear, someone you like, ask the writer who they read. Anything that you do write must be edited; even email.