Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ten Minutes with Visual Poet Melissa Johnston

I am continually amazed at the range and variety of creative expression. In the old days you would go to art museums and galleries to see works of art. But today, the Internet can bring us almost anywhere in the world and to some very exciting spaces.

I discovered Melissa D. Johnston through the fledgling Art-Walk online community of which I am a part. Her visual poetry intrigued me and I inquired about it. I was impressed by her transparency and very human quality that came through her words, and the manner in which the words were Incorporated as both graphic elements and content vessels into a visual effect as well. I have included a few examples here and at the end of this interview links to both her Art-Walk page and personal website. Her depiction of the creative process applies equally well to learning how to play a harmonica or practicing photography.

Ennyman: Can you tell us a little about your writing, how you got started as a writer?
MDJ: I’m fairly new to creative writing, although it was a desire of mine to write for years. I didn’t take my desire seriously until after I got divorced, in 2005. That year I attended the Prague Summer Program in Creative Nonfiction, on scholarship and also financially supported by Emory. I’d won a scholarship to the program based on an essay I wrote for the Word and World doctoral essay contest (for which I’d received publication and $1000 prize). What made this academic contest different was that it was to be written for the “lay reader,” not written in technical language for academics. I’d published one article before this on Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Simone Weil’s concept of attention, an academic piece. Even given the exposure to creative writing at the Prague summer program and encouragement from friends, I still only wrote in my journal and some free-flowing poetry written in five or ten-minute spurts, which remained, for the most part, unedited. I started a novel in longhand that I dropped after 60 pages. I began a long poem and dropped it as well. It wasn’t until the last half of 2009 that I began to complete projects, encouraged by fellow writers and artists on Twitter. I began visual poetry in July and began writing flash fiction in October. I now have a story, “The Painting,” coming out in The Best Of 2009 #fridayflash. (I think it’ll be published this spring.) Honestly, I’ve not tried to publish anything else.

Ennyman: You call the work you are doing Visual Poetry or Vispo. What are the origins of Visual Poetry?
MDJ: The origins of Visual Poetry, or VisPo: Some say that as long as humanity has been writing, visual poetry has existed in some form. But most consider the tradition of modern Western visual poetry birthed around 1914 in the work of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti.

Ennyman: How long have you been making visual poetry and what things have you learned through the process?
MDJ: I’ve been creating Visual Poetry since July 2009. I’ve learned so many things, especially technical skills and about my creative process. I knew nothing about image editing software when I started. I didn’t have money for Photoshop and found about an online program, Pixlr, which I’ve used for every poem so far. Pixlr didn’t have a manual, although they had some answers to FAQs online—most of which were not very helpful to me. (Now there are some tutorial videos-I wished I had them when I started!) I didn’t know what the icons in the program meant. I didn’t know any of the terminology. I’d never seen anyone use a program like this. So it was all experimentation—and was learned incrementally as I created more visual poems. I actually like that I learned this way because the “limitations” forced me to be more creative. I had to use what I knew how to do. I still am learning and don’t know what some things mean—and know I haven’t fully exploited the possibilities of the things I do know how to do. As for the creative process, even more than in traditional writing, I learned to rely on my intuition. I would pick images and text based on it. Sometimes I wouldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing—would only discover several layers later—or even after the whole thing was finished. I learned to trust leaving things behind. I work in layers and many times the first layer or two are not included visually for the viewer, even though they were integral to me in being able to go on to the next step conceptually in the making of the poem.

Ennyman: Do you have finished works that can be framed or is the art totally virtual (in that it is all online or on a monitor)?
MDJ: All of the work is virtual right now, although many have suggested that I not leave it this way. I’m playing around with the idea of printing some to make available to those who would want them.

Ennyman: Where did you get the inspiration to turn poetic words and thoughts into art?
MDJ: The first inspiration I got to turn poetic words and thoughts into art was exposure to the work of an ex-boyfriend, someone I dated soon after I divorced. Among other things, he would produce magazines and stickers filled with visual poetry—although at the time I didn’t know what it was. It hit me forcefully. He was an incredible poet and a master at manipulation of images. (He had been a graphic designer at one time.) The two together were mesmerizing. Later I found the anthology Writing To Be Seen and loved it and how the artists thought. But I thought most of them were “true” artists and never thought I could do visual poetry. I’m still not quite sure what possessed me to produce something for July 2009’s #artwalk. Maybe because the artists are so friendly and supportive of each other and don’t seem to be snobby about what art is. And because I knew what I did would be different. I created “When” and it had such a great reception that I just kept going.

Ennyman: I really like the Grace series, especially the first line in the third one, "fly, fly, fly said the bird to its shadow." It conveys such urgency to me and a certain pathos. What's going on in this particular story?
MDJ: The entire Grace series in general is about redemption of things we see as negative, particularly our colonization and destruction of the natural world (Grace IV is somewhat an exception—it’s about human beings colonizing one another.) I see redemption as taking place through creativity, the most powerful form being love (hence the overlay of color/artistic features over manmade things—the cigarettes littering the ground, the manhole cover, the stop sign in the parking lot. The point, though, isn’t to cover over what’s there and “candycoat” it and make it pretty (which is why I leave the images purposely ambiguous—redemption is not here, at least not yet—and it’s not simply in producing art with no relation to nature other than to use its form—but to come up with creative ways to live in cooperation with and as part of nature--and to live in cooperation with each other—a transformation yet to be seen on a large scale. But seeing beauty in our current creations and our messes can be one of the first steps in moving forward…). Creativity—love—allows vision, which can bring transformation and redemption. Grace III is adamant that that redemption can and must take place through love and in time. In time (that is, “over time” and “in time,” as in finitude) we can transform things, redeem them. The mention of the bird and “echoes” as well as the phrases “time present, time past, time future” hearken back to another poem about time and redemption, the first poem of T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets: “Burnt Norton.” There’s a lot going on in Grace III and I’m sure different viewers will take away different things (and I want them to), but for me the basic point is that transformation can only take place through love, in finitude, and will only do so when we face our shadows—transforming them so they fly—which will transform our relation to the natural world as well. The urgency you sense is perhaps the very real need we have for this in relation to the state of our planet and each other.

Ennyman: Where do you see your work going from here?
MDJ: I’m not sure. I do these for fun, so I will continue to do them as long as they’re fun. I do want to get much more technically proficient. I have a long way to go-especially in that sense--and I think the journey will be fun. One day I’d like to learn to work with video and music in creation of poetry.

Ennyman: Thanks for your openness here, and we wish you the very best as you explore your life path.

To see the Grace series and more of Melissa's Visual Poetry, visit

For an ongoing journey, visit Melissa's personal site, visit

Visit my own #artwalk gallery pages here: where art is a way of life.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Ed, thank you for this blessing--your interest in my work and your publication of this interview. (And from one who is such a powerful artist himself!) I cannot tell you how much this means to me, an artist beginning her journey.

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