Poetry illustrated author’s childhood

Justin Armburger

Award-winning poet Roxane Beth Johnson reads poems from her first published collection of works, titled Jubilee, during the last Wick Poetry Reading of the semester last night in the Student Center. ELIZABETH MYERS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

When Roxane Beth Johnson was younger, someone on the bus called her father the n-word.

She bluntly replied, “No, he’s a fireman.”

This was just one of the many memories Johnson referenced as she read poems about her childhood, her life and her ancestry to a crowd of more than 75 people in the Student Center last night.

The event, sponsored by the Wick Poetry Reading Series, was the last one of the season, said Maggie Anderson, director of the Wick Poetry Center.

Johnson, who lives in San Francisco, read mostly from her poetry book, Jubilee, which was the winner of the 2005 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry.

Katherine Blackbird, an NTT instructor in the English department, referenced Levine’s comments about Johnson’s prize-winning work.

“I can’t recall when I last read a first book of such startling originality and intelligence,” said Blackbird, reading from Levine’s review of the book. “These luminous poems depict a world I never knew – or knew as a child and since forgot – and they do so with the authority of a totally mature voice.”

Recently, Johnson’s poem “Mulatto,” which appears in Jubilee, was selected as a winner of the 2007 Pushcart Prize.

The poem refers to her Italian grandmother who believes that Johnson, who is half-black, is so because she stays out in the sun too long.

In the poem, her grandmother is giving her a bath, in which she scrubs her extra hard to wash the black off, Johnson said.

“Grandma is washing me white,” she said. “I am the color of hot sand in the bleached sea light. I am a stain on the porcelain, persistent as tea.”

In another poem, titled “Hell,” Johnson talks about what she used to think hell was like as a child.

She believed that people kept coming back to this life until they got it right.

“To come back as yourself in the next life, ignore yourself in this one … To come back as the person you hated the most, save all their letters in old cigar boxes and eat them gingerly,” she read. “To come back as a better person, piece memory together like a mosaic of broken tea cups, standing back for long moments to revise your work.”

Johnson also read from her second book, Blues for Unburied Slaves, which is about her ancestors, who were slaves.

“I had how many ancestors who were slaves and know nothing about them, and that really bothered me,” she said. “It was very difficult to trace this kind of thing in a family tree like other people could, so at first I thought I’d make them up … and after working on it for about a week, I started to feel like I wasn’t making them up – that these were really my ancestors.”

In the book, poems were written from the point of view of the slaveowner and certain slaves, two of whom were in love.

Contact science reporter Justin Armburger at [email protected].