Full circle: Poet returns to Marquette as guest lecturer


Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE – Contrary to the popular saying, you can go home again: Just ask Jonathan Johnson, who’s returning home to Marquette next week.

Marquette Senior High School graduate Johnson will be at Northern Michigan University, his alma mater, as part of the NMU Visiting Writers Series.

“When Professor Beverley Matherne, director of the master of fine arts in creative writing program at NMU, invited me, I was touched and honored,” Johnson said in an email. “As a student more than 20 years ago, I helped with the NMU Visiting Writers Series myself. Over the years the series has featured Pulitzer and even Nobel Prize winning poets. As a student, I once drove the world-famous poet Gwendolyn Brooks all the way up to Marquette from Milwaukee! So I’m kind of amazed now to be invited myself as a poet.”

Johnson resides in the state of Washington and is a professor at Eastern Washington University. He was featured in the recent anthology, “The Way North,” which featured poets with links to the Upper Peninsula.

“These days, I receive a number of invitations a year to read at universities, but nothing quite compares to being asked to come back to the setting where I began my life’s work,” Johnson said. “Since those early days, since my years at Marquette High School even, Marquette has been one of my main sources of inspiration. The town has been the muse for much of my poetry my entire adult life.

“When I’m there, I wander the streets and write at the Third Street Bagel Shop, Babycakes, Peter White Library, Presque Isle, even sometimes in a little wooden boat I row in the Lower Harbor,” he said. “It’s magnificent to think of giving a reading in the setting about which I write so much and at the school where it all began.”

Johnson will be busy while he’s in town.

“I will be visiting a couple of NMU creative writing classes and speaking with student writers,” he said. “One thing I’ll be sure to tell them is how much I envy them this period in their lives, when they are just starting out and full of passion and artistic possibility and in a place that has both a thriving literary community and a nurturing natural environment. I’ll tell them to embrace it all – the harsh and remote character of Marquette, as well its more intimate and graceful charms.

“I will also be visiting a nursing class to read and discuss some of my writing about nurses who have cared for people I love,” Johnson said. “I’m especially looking forward to giving those students a glimpse of how meaningful their work will be to the family members of their future patients.”

The “main event” is a reading of his poetry Johnson will give at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Erie Room of the University Center on campus. The public is invited to attend.

His campus time aside, Johnson has other plans for his return home.

“I will be in town a week, and I plan to visit a number of places important to my work – the woods and coast north of town, the cove where my mother’s ashes were scattered, the cliff top clearing in the woods on Presque Isle where my wife and I were married,” he said. “I plan to walk around the East Side at night in pursuit of a few old personal ghosts and watch the lighthouse do it’s thing in the dark for a while. The final poem in my latest book, ‘In the Land We Imagined Ourselves,’ is about the musicians Jim and Ray playing at Vango’s, so I hope to catch them there for a set.”

And he has one more objective in mind while he’s here.

“After I fly in, I’ll get a lift to Munising, from which I plan to walk to Marquette,” Johnson said. “I sometimes take long walks or runs to commemorate personal landmarks. I ran 40 miles on my 40th birthday and walked 50 recently when I finished a novel manuscript.

“So I suppose this walk will mark coming home to the place where I started my writing career. Moving over a landscape by foot is very meditative and intimate,” he said. “The place gives you things it won’t when you travel though it by car. Lake Superior will be there for long stretches for company, and the autumn leaves will be at their full crescendo of color, which I haven’t seen in the U.P. since 1998, since I’m usually only here for the summer and Christmas.

“In addition to the U.P., I also spend time in Scotland and the American northwest every year, and all three places are essential to my writing for different reasons. But the U.P. is the most intimate landscape I know.

“And this walk was simply the best way I could think of to come home as a visiting writer.”

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is rprusi@miningjournal.net