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A Kansas City writer's new book provides something 'tangible to hold on to' after years of isolation

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City poet and essayist Andrew Michael Johnson moved in June into this studio at the Charlotte Street Foundation, shown here. The organization offers studio and rehearsal spaces for performing and visual artists and writers.

Andrew Michael Johnson’s book of poetry and prose, “The Thread,” explores cosmic events and everyday moments.

A few months into the coronavirus pandemic, poet and essayist Andrew Michael Johnson started a weekly newsletter called “The Thread.”

“Partly because I needed, as a writer, a regular routine for my writing, and also wanted to share what I was writing,” he said. “In the midst of lockdown, (I) saw that as a way to regularly connect with people.”

What started in 2020 as Johnson sharing his writing with more than 300 subscribers turned into a two-year book project. Like the weekly email, his book is called “The Thread: Prose & Poetry." It's scheduled to be released on Oct. 11.

Johnson says he designed “The Thread" as “two books in one.” Hold the slim green book in one direction to read poetry, or flip it over to read prose.

Living through more than two years of the pandemic, he says, was a time of “being disconnected and remote in a lot of senses.” The book provides an alternative: “something that’s physical and tangible to hold on to.”

The Thread

Whether in prose or poetry, Johnson says he uses language “to find remnants of hope or beauty or things that connect, amidst a lot of things that feel disconnected or disjointed or hard or struggling.”

He grew up evangelical, but describes himself these days as “a religious humanist who occasionally attends Anglican services.” One concept from his early religious upbringing that continues to resonate is the idea of “The Way.”

His poem “A Department Letter to Jesus of Nazareth,” written in the style of an official memo, explores the concept.

"Dear Sir:

"We regret to inform you that your claim
I am the way
does not provide us with any useful metrics
or a clear definition of the way.

"We simply cannot detect nor measure it,
though we have made several attempts.

"We collected the tears, sweat, and spit-out wine
from a random sampling of wedding feasts
during our study of the way people celebrate,
but oddly, our jars did not contain
any evident traces of the way ... "

LISTEN: Andrew Michael Johnson: "A Department Letter to Jesus of Nazareth"

“For so much of the Christian community, that 'Way' ends up being articulated as a set of beliefs, or as a doctrine,” he says. “But I constantly find myself seeing 'The Way' as these ... very human-level, small things that so often go unnoticed."

"Those gestures are the ways that love is transmitted, or that hope may be transmitted," Johnson says.

Some of Johnson’s poems and essays touch on recent current events, like the total solar eclipse. The poem "Stupid Breeze" explores everyday moments, such as parenting during the pandemic. The joys and challenges of gardening show up in the essay “In Praise of Okra’s Imperfections.”

One unifying trait of the 15 essays in the book, he says, is they’re told from the “you” point of view.

“The essay; I really love it as a form because it is the artifact of active thinking,” Johnson says. “And so, whether it's thinking through an experience or a memory or an encounter or a journey, I think well-done essays are the reader getting to experience that process of thinking on the page.”

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Andrew Johnson hangs out in his studio at the Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri. “The Thread: Prose & Poetry” is Johnson’s most recent collection. Designed as two books in one, you can hold the book in one direction to read poetry, and then flip it over and read prose in the other direction.

An essay titled “Charlottesville: A Nightmare Tableau” references the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which turned violent when a neo-Nazi drove his car into counter-protesters. One woman was killed and dozens were injured.

Johnson says, especially over the last decade, he constantly asks himself as a writer, and a citizen, observer, and participant in civic life: What is my role? Where do I actually stand?

In the essay, he imagines himself standing in Charlottesville.

"You arrive at the scene to play your part. Actors fill the stage bodies, motionless.

"Stage right: Metal barricades and a long row of riot shields outlined by helmets, batons, cans of pepper spray, guns. Bodies of men behind it all. One body stands atop a tank, bullhorn raised to his face.

"Stage left: Costumes include robes, vestments, yarmulkes, collars, habits. Props include holy books, prayer beads. Arms are interlocked.

"Upstage right: Swastikas on flags and sleeves. Citronella torches with sharpened bamboo shafts. Costumes include white polos and khakis, or military clothing, or shirts brandishing swastikas, Confederate flags, other strange insignia. Bodies of men behind it all … "

“Ultimately where that essay leads is that question of: If you do nothing, you are still doing something?” Johnson says. “But it's not easy to even think about or answer.”

LISTEN: Andrew Michael Johnson reads an excerpt from "Charlottesville: A Nightmare Tableau"

As a father of three children, Johnson says he's still learning how to protect his solitude — "that time I need to focus and think and write."

In June, he embarked on an opportunity at the Charlotte Street Foundation that might help him strike a balance. Johnson started a two-year studio residency for writers, performing artists and visual artists.

“I have a room that is outside of my house where I can go lock a door and be by myself,” he says. “But it’s also tied to this wonderful community of visual artists and performing artists and other writers and creative people who I find to be very helpful for my craft.”

"Coming out of COVID and recognizing I desperately need both of those things — that solitude and that community — and now having a place at Charlotte Street Foundation as part of the studio residency, I really see as providing both of those," Johnson says.

An opening reception and book launch party for "The Thread: Prose & Poetry” is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 11 at Haw Contemporary, 1600 Liberty St., Kansas City, Missouri, 64102.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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