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Written on the Water

poet’s debut collection has elemental inspirations

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by Barbara Arnold

“It might seem odd for someone who has lived virtually his entire life in Northwestern Wisconsin to write a book of poetry and prose about the sky and the sea,” writes Kevin Johnson in the introduction to his first published book, The Sky and the Sea: Poetry and Prose. The forty-something writer admits that he isn’t entirely sure himself, but “I have decided to let the words … speak for themselves. Hopefully, you will enjoy them.”

Following the dedication is a page-and-a-half of acknowledgements to family, friends, and many teachers. One of the teachers is Wisconsin Poet Laureate Max Garland, who brought down the house with his debut reading of “For a Dedication by the River,” written for the inauguration of UW-Eau Claire’s new chancellor, James Schmidt. Johnson shared that Garland insisted that his students write in different forms of poetry, for example, an ode, or a sonnet, or a villanelle. Johnson soon discovered that writing within these structures unleashed his creativity.

Born and raised in Rice Lake, where Johnson has worked as a bartender for Lehman’s Supper Club for the past 14 years, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UW-Superior, and just came short of a master’s degree in English at UW-Eau Claire. The book has three sections for works written in each city.

Many of Kevin’s poems deal with nature, such as “Winter Stars,” a modern sonnet that he wrote for Garland’s class. Johnson initially describes the stars as “pin pricks in the peppermint night” which by the end are “snowflakes, just refusing to fall.” Others touch on everyday objects, such as “The Magic Box” and “The 10 p.m. News.” “Neptune’s Hand: Ode to Elaine Morgan,” is dedicated to a Welsh feminist who proposes that our ancestors (unlike those of other apes) evolved for a time in a primarily aquatic environment, and that this period can expain such adaptations as our hairless bodies, our large brains and our complex vocal communication – things we share in common with dolphins and whales.

Garland’s poem spoke of education and knowledge: “to keep it coming, you have to pass it on.” From Max to Kevin, and from Kevin to you.

The Sky and the Sea is available from Amazon in paperback ($11.66) or for Kindle ($3.99). To order, go to http://tinyurl.com/theskyandthesea

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