NATHAN JOHNSON was active as a drummer in Seattle from 1987 to 1995 (i.e. the heyday of ‘grunge’), after which he spent two years in New York working as a letterpress printer. Relocating in 1997 to Budapest, Hungary, where he still resides, Johnson pays the bills by working as a publications editor, but moonlights as a rock guitarist and freelance writer. He has produced a volume of ‘found’ poetry about drumming titled Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day (unpublished), and collaborated with poet Steven Farmer for an ‘Others Letters’ exchange published in 2011 on Thom Donovan’s blog, Wild Horses of Fire.
After ruling out at a pretty early age the possibility of playing Major League Baseball, I set my sites on being a professional musician. I played piano for a few years before finding myself much more at ease behind a set of drums. By the time I was midway into my college education, music―assisted by an increasingly ‘bad attitude’― was winning the battle for my attention, and I didn’t return to finish a degree, but bounced around instead between Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul in search of a band to play with. It was during these lean years that I was forced to find work to sustain myself, and I wasn’t very good at it. I was always broke, but I had good friends―and a killer LP collection.
Things improved in the late ‘80s when I settled in Seattle and was pretty active musically. I still had to work a day job, but was much better at holding one down. I worked mostly in the food service industry: barista, dishwasher, pizza slice dude, prep cook. The band Flop, of which I was a member, came together in 1990 and had a pretty good five-year run, and from ’93 to ’95 I was, for the first (and only) time, making a living solely from being a musician.
Everyone in Flop liked to read, and I have fond memories of being on tour and parking the van in a strange town and trying to find the nearest used bookstore. I read mostly novels at the time, but did have a fondness for poetry, and I should mention how this came about. After I dropped out of school and was living in St. Paul, I shared a house with a young photographer by way of Detroit named Peter Mittenthal (Robert Mittenthal’s brother, by strange quirk of fate), whom I didn’t really get to know until just a few weeks before he moved out. I think I got on Peter’s nerves a little bit, but he liked (or pitied) me enough to give me a really early edition of Charles Bukowski’s Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.
So there, I’ve said it: Charles Bukowski got me into poetry. What was it that made me respond with such enthusiasm? I know now, having thought long and hard about this, that Bukowski helped me to come to terms with what I believed at the time were my deep personal failures. His writings made me believe that I could blossom late in life, and that other ‘failures’ were just people who hadn’t happened yet.
In 1993 Flop was negotiating with Sony Records. Up to this point, I had spent many hours at home drinking beer and writing hundreds and hundreds of really bad poems on a manual typewriter. Bukowski was turning into a pretty self-destructive muse, so I started reading some other people. I had just started reading William Carlos Williams when I got hired to wash dishes and prep food at Seattle’s Beeliner Diner. The kitchen manager there was a really neat guy named Steve Farmer. We talked about baseball and poetry during breaks, and one day Steve brought me a handful of chapbooks: his own (Tone Ward, Coracle), Michael Anderson’s Vrille and spectacular Prate City, some Kit Robinson, some other stuff. These books opened my mind to a lot of fresh, exciting possibilities.
I decided I’d had enough of rock’n’roll in ’95 and moved to New York, determined to do anything but music. I apprenticed at the Manhattan Center for Book Arts and learned letterpress printing. Steve had a short manuscript which I developed into a chapbook (Standing Water), and I met lots of poets while I was there (Rob Fitterman, Kim Rosenfield, Tim Davis, Bill Luoma, Judith Goldman). It was a good time. I was doing a lot of writing as well, when a cousin invited me out of the blue to come and visit Budapest. I said: ‘Why not?’
I traveled to Hungary in 1997, just for a summer visit. Right before I was due to fly back to New York, I was offered a job―despite having zero qualifications―to teach English at a bilingual kindergarten. My accepting the offer led to my staying in Budapest longer and longer, getting a bit of work here, a bit there. Nearly all the work I was able to get was related to a high demand at the time for English writing and editing skills. It was a lucky situation for me, as I was able to acquire work experience without the sort of formal training that would be required in normal market conditions.
It’s now 15 years later. I’m still in Budapest and working in publishing. I’m married to a Hungarian woman, and we have a young son. Against long odds, I have achieved something close to stability, and am happy about that.
Thus there are two dominant periods marking my adult life. In the first, I abandoned formal education and a proper career path to pursue music, but during my musician years maintained an active interest in literature and writing. In the second, having moved away from a musical career while taking up residence in a foreign country, I was able to parlay my regular engagement with writing and literature into steady employment. But it’s only in the past five or six years that I have begun to develop anything like a deeper social understanding of the world, and this has come about mostly through reading more socially engaged writing.
So, what have my experiences taught me?
I’ve never been career-minded, so a job for me is really a means to an end. It’s not something I mind doing, but I always look forward to indulging the ‘life of the mind’ when I have spare time. It’s a wonderful thing when a person is able to get paid to do what they love doing, but this isn’t the case for most people. A society of people that have time to relax, reflect, converse and create is, to my mind, a far healthier society than one in which members engage reflexively in exhausting, poorly remunerated competition with each other.
Many people are obviously struggling in the United States. On my side of the pond, working Greeks are reeling from Troika-imposed austerity, and Portugal is being administered a stiff dose of neoliberal medicine as we speak. I have Hungarian friends with two or three university degrees that can’t find work, or are being paid a ridiculously low wage. Clearly, the mantra of ‘personal responsibility’ is entirely inadequate for explaining―let alone justifying―widespread economic misery in many parts of the world. More and more people need to join in peaceful solidarity across all conceivable social lines, and that includes national boundaries.
‘Democracy’ is such a frequently abused word and concept, but it might be helpful to limit our notion of a ‘pure’ democracy to as large or small a group of people as we can imagine in full control of its political and civic destiny through the full participation of each individual concerning any issue of substance to the community. Necessarily, when we expand the size of the group, the more diluted the demos is likely to become. I’ll leave it to the reader to infer anything he or she likes from this, but my point here is to suggest something about poetic production in society.
When poetry works for me, it’s because I pick up on something utterly unique in the poet’s work. I don’t often know what’s working, but there’s something on an aesthetic and emotional level that gets through. Somehow, the writer has worked toward and found an original means of communicating a ‘type’ or ‘quality’ of imagination--something extraordinarily singular. What can’t be stressed enough, however, is that work of this nature also requires considerable effort on behalf of the reader.
The popular cultural products absorbed and consumed in our ‘mass democracies’ make no such demands; rather, they appeal to manufactured consensus and seek mostly to entertain. In such an environment, something like a personal poetry is of necessity consigned to the cultural margins. But this does not speak to the inadequacy or irrelevance of the craft of writing poetry today. On the contrary, I think we can take such exchanges as one means among many to reestablish communities based on personal contact, on efforts to communicate and understand, and on commitments to freeing up greater amounts of time and space for everyone to do as they please.
Poetry, in so many words, is great work if you can do it.