Nick Johnson on Detaching Yourself from Your Work and Holding True to Yourself and Your Voice
nick johnson hails form the brackish Chesapeake Bay but now calls Oakland home. He’s good at telling long-winded stories, making spicy curries, Instagraming, and drinking whiskey; typically in that order, but not always. His work has appeared in Black Renaissance Noire, Brilliant Corners, The Cincinnati Review, Metazen, sPARKLE & bLINK, and other fine places. His book music for mussolini is forthcoming from Nomadic Press. Find him on facebook at facebook.com/Nick.J.Lee and twitter @wordsfromnickyj.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
It really depends. I kinda read the person and guess what they are getting at…if they’re asking how I make money or if they’re asking what my passion is… and I base my answer on that. I’ll typically say something like, I’m a poet… but you can’t make a living as a poet so I work at a Media Technology Startup. The Media Tech job is a new thing so sometimes I lead with that because I enjoy the work. I guess it really depends on whether I wanna talk poetry or business.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I struggle with self-editing poems before I actually commit them to paper. I really don’t like writing things until I feel like they’re “good” so that means not writing a lot… and most writers will tell you write, write, write… you know exercise those skills. But when I try to force myself to write I just end up saying this is crap and I toss it out. It’s a serious struggle.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Develop a thick skin, and try to detach yourself from your work; and at the same time try to hold true to yourself and your voice. I think they are things that you can never really master but the practice will teach you about yourself and your craft.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Absolutely, this year has been phenomenal. My manuscript music for mussolini was accepted for publication by Nomadic Press and is slated to come out in February of 2016. Publishing a book of poems has been a life long dream so seeing this manifest has been amazing; and J.K. Fowler, Michaela Mullin and the folks at Nomadic Press have been an absolute joy to work with on this project. I started my new job in August and that’s been great. And most recently, I became engaged to the most wonderful, talented, and supportive woman I’ve known. So all is well with art, business, and love… what more could you ask for?
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
True Facts about Morgan Freeman… …it will make any day better:
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Being African American, and given this nation’s history, it’s difficult to answer a question like this… I can only say that I would like to know stories about my ancestors. Yeah, I’ll leave it at that.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
My mom; she was a single mother and worked extremely hard to provide me with the best life she could. She was extremely giving, and thoughtful, and kind. She had a blood disease called Sickle Cell Anemia so when I was young I wanted to be a doctor so I could find a cure… you know, one of those cute dreams kids have. One thing I came to appreciate later in life, about my mother, was that she never pushed me to be something other than what I wanted to become. I remember her telling me when I was young, “find something you like doing, and then think about how you want to get paid for it.” I think she’s one of the main reasons I’m a writer… I found what I wanted to do and I’m doing it… I’m still working out that whole thing about getting paid for it though, lol.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
A week in the wilderness… I like this question! Chelsea (my fiancé) and I love camping, I guess it’s actually glamping the way we do it, but to each his own, right? I think a week of camping would be ideal. So let’s see, it would be Spring so it wouldn’t be too hot. We’d have two coolers one full of beer, premixed cocktails, and sparkling wine, the other full of home made curries, salads, and breakfast foods. Our campsite would be close to a little stream and under redwoods. We’d have a few days to ourselves to go on long hikes, swim, and do silent walking meditations. We’d spend the evenings snuggled next to a fire with a bottle of champagne. Then after three days or so our friends would join us. And it would turn into a big party; we’d play cards, play music around the campfire, all that good stuff… oh and they would bring the block-rocker for late night dance parties, gotta have late night dance parties.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
Of course I would… I won’t describe it though… you just have to use your imagination.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
More than I did when I worked in Education…
What’s wrong with society today?
So, so much. But if I had to boil it all down, or think what’s at the root of society’s problems I would say it is a combination of greed and a lack of understanding and compassion for others. A little less selfishness and a bit more compassion can make a huge impact; try to live with that as a centering thought for a just one day and tell me it doesn’t make a difference.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
What is your fondest memory?
Riding in a tiny paddleboat through a flooded mangrove forest in Cambodia; listening to the sound of the oar hit the water, pull slowly out and hit the water again, and our guide humming, quietly to herself, while Chelsea and I lied on our backs hand in hand watching the sky through the trees.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Let’s see, today, 3 or 4 times. When you’re in love with someone you’re constantly falling in love, with a glance from that person, or a text, a random thought, …or a Snapchat. 😉
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
- I would like to see more compassion and understanding for one another, more openness and acceptance of ideas, expressions, faiths, and beliefs that differ from our own.
- Equality; gender, racial, and marriage equality.
- Less exploitation and more empowerment.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
When it’s done best, art is pure expression coaxed into form. And it is absolutely necessary, it’s pedagogy and therapy so deeply intertwined that the two are indistinguishable.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
I like to use peanut butter.
What are you working on right now?
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I admire work that bears its soul, that strips itself down and by way of reading it, strips you down in the process. Work that makes you a little raw, that opens up old wounds and pokes around looking for something you’ve long since forgotten. And then it heals that same wound without you knowing how; it softens your scars a bit. That’s the kind of work I love, and what I hope I’m doing when I’m writing poems.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The real estate market and income disparities; without a doubt, that’s what is ruining this city and it has to change, and quickly.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Ideally, that means Chelsea and I having a light snack before heading out for drinks with friends and then probably some dancing, but as long as the night ends at Taqueria Cancun I’m happy.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I don’t know.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
I think 50 words sounds like more than it really is… I mean I write short poems but they typically come in somewhere between 80-100 words. I have some 50 word poems… but not many. So most likely, I could write a stanza with 50 words. With 50 bucks, I could buy one ticket to see Bonobo (he’s coming to town soon), and have enough to get money left over to get 3 carne asada super tacos at Taqueria Cancun (which I should really get for free now after plugging them twice, lol).
What are some of your favorite smells?
Indian food, especially fresh baked naan. Jasmine. Nag Champa.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Without a doubt, a trip around the world with my fiancé; that would be so EPIC!