April 11, 2008
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
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,
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
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.