Update 12/25/21: Caroline is currently at work on a manuscript about breast cancer and hopes to publish it in 2022.
by Caroline Johnson
Henry says the Lakota called it black medicine.
I can imagine Black Elk drinking from a gourd,
huddling around a teepee with a peace pipe
sometime in July when the cherries are ripe.
Henry looks at each customer with green eyes
full of gourmet hot chocolate and caramel mochas.
He moves his arms across the espresso machine,
steaming milk, whirling words with a smile.
His eyes sail through you like a windjammer,
as if you’ve been caught by a cool island breeze.
He hums as he scrubs stubborn stains off of soup
kettles, stocks the pantry, or pours steamed milk.
He shakes his head and his braids rustle round him.
I work the register, exchanging money for drinks.
The smell of French Roast perfumes the air.
You can hear the crackle of beans as they grind.
The line is long: a mother with a stroller, a boy
in a wheelchair, two ladies with Gucci bags.
Two wealthy ladies talk of sconces in their new
living rooms, a young couple orders hot chocolate,
and a lone man with dark black hair stands at the back
of the café wearing a T-shirt, his arms exposed to reveal
a green tattoo: “I-R-A-Q” neatly printed across his skin.
Henry talks to them all as they huddle around, waiting
for their black medicine. Henry makes everything look easy.
He can do three things at once. Yet Henry’s not easy.
He’s just trying to figure life out before it passes him by.
First appeared as the winner of the February 2015 Poetry Challenge on Wilda Morris’s Poetry Blog.
Caroline Johnson has two poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork, and more than 100 poems in print. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, her first full-length poetry book, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018), was inspired by years of family caregiving.
Caroline says of her style, “I was told I write mostly narrative poems, but I think of myself as a work in progress. I have written lyrical and form poems (sestinas, the occasional sonnet or villanelle), but I do think I like to tell some kind of story.”
Bekah and Caroline’s work, including the poem above, recently appeared together in Highland Park Poetry’s Summer 2018 Muses Gallery: Coffee, Tea and Other Beverages. We wanted to know more about Caroline and her work, so here is our interview with her.
Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Barista.” The poem won Wilda Morris’s blog challenge. Did you write to the prompt or did it just happen to fit what she was looking for?
A~I did not write to the prompt. In general, I do not like prompts. I did, however, revise the poem to make it better before submitting it. “Barista” is a narrative poem that gives a portrait of someone I really worked with when I was a barista at Borders. I was motivated to write the poem because of Henry, who worked so hard and had such a good attitude. Working as a barista is hard work, and you need to be cheerful as well as you constantly work with customers. I wrote the poem 15 years ago, and I actually gave him the poem at that time as a sort of gift when I was leaving. I significantly rewrote the poem two years ago and added the bit about Black Elk as I was reading Black Elk Speaks.
Q~Did the poem come easily to you or was it hard to write?
A~The first draft came fairly easily as I just thought of Henry…however, when I rewrote it two years later and inserted the part about Black Elk, that was more difficult. I find significantly revising a piece is sometimes more difficult than writing the first draft of the poem, but it is a very important part of the poetic process.
Q~What’s your writing process usually like?
A~I sit down with an idea. I generally don’t do as well with prompts. Luckily, I usually have no problem coming up with ideas. I write the ideas down when I get them, and return to them when I have the time to write the poem. Luckily, I really have no problem hashing out a first draft. More often than not, I need to revise the poem. Sometimes I do it immediately; sometimes as I type up the poem I edit it; and sometimes when I’m getting ready to send it out I work on seriously revising it.
Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?
A~LIKES: Fresh imagery; occasionally, unique rhymes; any poem that makes you think profoundly, or feel compassionately; an unexpected turn in a poem. DISLIKES: Trite rhyming or meter; abstract poetry that is unapproachable; poetry written just for shock effect.
Q~A poem from your latest collection was the inspiration for the June blog challenge on caregiving at Wilda Morris’s blog. How did that come about? Also, please tell us more about your collection.
A~Wilda is a colleague of mine and a terrific poet. I’ve learned a lot through her about how to take my work seriously, how to revise, and how to critique other’s work. She was one of the earlier reviewers of my manuscript, The Caregiver, before it got published. The collection was written over a 15-year span of time when I served as family caregiver to both of my parents, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Encephalitis. The poems are narrative and tell their story, but I believe they speak to anyone who has seen their loved ones age, or suffer from debilitating illnesses.
Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene? What’s it like?
A~YES. I am currently president of Poets and Patrons of Chicago, and have been involved with the organization for more than 10 years. We provide critiquing workshops, writing workshops, and two annual international contests. See our website at www.poetsandpatrons.net for more information. In addition, I am a facilitator for a bi-monthly critiquing group as part of the Illinois State Poetry Society. Both of these groups provide wonderful stimulation and motivation to write and submit. I also have my own private weekly poetry writing group that I value immensely. It is very important to find a group that you trust. I think something that has really expanded my work a lot in the last 5 years is staying loyal to a small committed writing group, and reading a vast number of poets who interest me. I also have challenged myself to write in the style of some of these famous poets, and thus their writing rubs off on me.
Q~Who are you reading now?
A~I love Philip Levine, James Wright, William Stafford, Amy Clampitt. I have a book of sonnets written by Terrence Hayes and another book by Tracy Smith on hold at the local library right now. Every week I check out different poetry books. All the librarians know me, lol.
Q~Who was your poetry first love?
A~I don’t necessarily have a “first poetry love,” except that I will say I fell in love with John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in high school, and when I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” for the first time in the 1990s, I felt transformed. I felt the power of poetry. I tried to emulate that feeling in the last poem of my book, The Caregiver, which is dedicated to Ginsberg and written in the style of “Howl.”
Q~What do you believe is the poet’s role in society?
A~I believe in Carolyn Forche’s philosophy to be a “poet of witness.” You have to write about what you see, what you witness. We have to be voices for those who can’t speak. It is a vital role, and I am still working on it.
Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?
A~My new website, www.caroline-johnson.com, has a page with many links to poems I have published online. It also has information about how to order my first full-length poetry book, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018). You can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.