Denfeld News

April 11, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

Duluth’s new poet laureate celebrates Finnish roots, looks to future
By Ann Klefstad

Duluth’s new poet laureate came to writing gradually, led there by his family history and a recognition of the transforming power of words.

“When I was younger I wanted to be a writer, but I never did much with it,” Jim Johnson said. “And then I realized that I had these stories to tell — my grandparents were pioneers. And when I read the ‘Kalevala’ [the Finnish epic poem about rival poet-sorcerers] I realized that Finns were interested in the magic of the word. That you can build a cabin or a house by saying it into form. My parents were a little more practical — but there is a truth to that magic, too.

“The word is powerful.”

Johnson has been chosen by a Lake Superior Writers’ committee to serve as the city’s poet laureate through April 2010. He follows the first laureate, Barton Sutter.

While the quality of Johnson’s writing was one factor in the decision, “Jim’s deep experience as a teacher was significant,” said Jim Perlman, a committee member and publisher of Holy Cow! Press in Duluth. “Also his heritage as a Finnish writer. We want the laureate to be able to explore more minority cultures.”

Johnson will be officially crowned at “Noteworthy: Writers and Musicians Collaborate for Peace,” a performance of new music and poetry at7 p.m. Saturday in Sacred Heart Music Center, 201 W. Fourth St.

Duluth’s poet laureate was the first in the state. Spurred by Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2005 veto of a bill creating a Minnesota poet laureate, Perlman approached the Lake Superior Writers about creating a local post. Sutter’s selection in 2006 garnered national attention.

Red Wing and St. Paul now have poet laureates. Minnesota created the post last July, and Robert Bly was named the state’s first poet laureate.

A blend of several worlds

Finnish culture and history share space in Johnson’s poems with the natural world and human relations with it. His work is approachable and full of specific details: porcupines and dirt, children and Arco coffee cans, alder clumps and gravel roads. But deeper resonances run through the work as well.

Johnson has published five books of poetry; the latest is “The Co-op Label,” with photographs by Marlene Wisuri.

Johnson represents a blend of several worlds. He taught English in area high schools for 30 years, the last 15 at Denfeld before retiring five years ago. The bookshelves in his house on Duluth’s Central Hillside hold hundreds of volumes of poetry — some popular, some arcane, some rare. The spines are well worn. On tables and shelves sit kanteles —Finnish stringed instruments tuned in different scales — and traditional birchbark flutes. The instruments are played by his wife, Barb Hanka, and their children.

Johnson grew up with this blend.

“All four of my grandparents were born in Finland. My mother was born in Finland,” he explained. “I remember the Finn Hall. The activities that they did there were of a high cultural level, plays by Shakespeare and Moliere, poetry, music.”

They were working-class immigrants who believed in the power of art, music and poetry.

Looking to the future

“People, I’ve found out, do like poetry, but some people don’t know it,” Johnson said.

The local laureate’s mission, according to Lake Superior Writers, is “to raise awareness and appreciation of poetry in the community through readings, appearances, workshops and other initiatives.”

Johnson said he likes what Sutter did to popularize poetry by bringing it out of the university and holding readings in labor halls and parks. He’d like to do more themed readings, but also has his own plans.

Johnson wants to use his experience as a teacher to involve young people in poetry. He wants to work with schools, and perhaps set up a literary magazine for youth like the one he did at Denfeld.

While Sutter convened a panel of longtime local poets on the history of poetry in Duluth, Johnson wants a panel to look into the future of poetry. He’ll ask people of all ages to collaborate in exploring poetry’s possibilities locally.

Working with Duluth’s Sister Cities program also intrigues him. “Other cultures are more involved in poetry than we are,” Johnson said. “Maybe we can learn from them.”

Johnson plans to do a poetry reading at Finn Fest, a national festival of Finnish culture that will convene in Duluth on July 23-27.

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