Kendall Johnson is a multi-talented artist whose work in his favored mediums (writing and painting) is a reflection of the work that he has done for decades in the real world. It is a huge tell that he is a man that has rushed into the worst of situations to offer help, both as a firefighter and as a trauma psychotherapist. These occupations did not come by chance. His new book on Bamboo Dart Press, Black Box Poetics, touches on his experiences in these realms, but also of his time served during the Vietnam War. He has previously written a number of books that serve as texts for the varying trauma timelines. How to deal head on in just days out from the worst physical forms of trauma, for those that are in the midst of a crisis, or those in recovery.
There are those that flirt with darkness, dance and romance with the idea of it. Ken has been deep in the thickets and sees no phoney Johnny Deppisized Keith Richards skull ring joy in it, but sees a way out of it. His is an incredibly empathetic heart and calm voice that comes back from the depths of things not to show his battle scars, but to show that there is indeed a path out of the most sorrowful and hopeless of places. In the stories he recounts here, there is not always salvation, and there are not tinted ever afters, but there is a case made for redemption.
Your book “Black Box Poetics” is one you mentioned you never wanted to write because of the weight of the subjects. Many of your previous books offer concrete solutions or at least methods of helping those that have been exposed to trauma where this one is a more contemplative and internal look at events you have been called to in an attempt to help the survivors of varying traumas. What was the catalyst to share these stories?
I retired from trauma and crisis consultation, and don’t have to worry about gaining a reputation for breaking confidence, that code of silence that protects individuals and agencies from unscrupulous professionals from telling stories outside of the clinic. I don’t do that in my writing or speaking. I change names, gender, situation, time and place to disguise who I am talking about. Always have. But when I was practicing it was important not to appear as if I was breaking trust. Now appearance is less of an issue, though I still go out of my way to protect my people.
The military folks have an old saying: “no battle plan survives the first shot fired.” I stand in awe of the complexity, ferocity and randomness of the world, and the capacity of humans to deny it. I’m in equal awe of the human capacity to endure, to persevere in the face of obstacle and setback. These are the things about the situations I encountered that I find so compelling, and that I hope to convey.
Your writing is not histrionic, and there is a deep humanity in your framing of these stories. There seems to me to be a very distinct outline in the sequence of these stories where light slowly starts to pin hole the darkness as the reader moves through the book. Was there a lot of thought put into the pacing of these stories, the reveals about yourself?
I truly feel I have as much a duty to protect my readers from the toxic impact of many of the situations that I encountered and now relate. I remember doing a trauma survey of counselors for whom I provided consultation in L.A. after the combination of civil disorder/fire/flooding/earthquake from 91-94, and in NYC/DC following 9/11. My counselors, who listened to victims after these events, showed as many or more trauma symptoms than the victims they helped. Same with reporters in the UK. There is plenty of misery in the world. The point of discussing it, no matter how interesting, is to talk about it in a manner that minimizes the effects of hearing about it, and at the same time try to make sense of it and to find redemptive value in the listening.
Pomona artist Father Bill Moore’s appearance towards the books end is such a succinct and beautiful piece of writing and quietly captures who he was. Knowing about the two of you outside of this book, I wonder what that relationship was like or the conversations you had outside of those that appear in the book
I’d like to think that Fr. Bill took me on as a special project, in his mentoring me. In retrospect, I doubt he would agree that it was mentoring. He’d probably insist it was the other way around. He would talk to me about what I was trying to do in my painting, and give me positive and constructive feedback if I insisted. He’d listen to my adventures in the consultation incidents when I’d return, and I would find myself talking about how the elements of my art reflected the truths of the world I’d been exposed to. He’d let me connect the dots. And he would talk to me about his life, his internal questions, not his answers.
You collaborated with fellow Bamboo Dart Press writer John Brantingham on the book A Sublime And Tragic Dance: Robert Oppenheimer & the Manhattan Project, your paintings married to his writing. Collaboration and working with others has been a thread in your professional life as well as your creative life. For the solitary work that you do, it appears that you try to interact and collaborate with others in so much that it allows in regard to your writing and painting. Were the paintings done in tandem with that book? Do you have paintings you work with in tandem with your own writing?
John, his wife Ann, and I met during a meeting of his writing group the San Gabriel Valley Literature Festival one night in my gallery in the downstairs of the dA Center in Pomona. I had my Fragments exhibit up, where I was experimenting with trying to reclaim lost Vietnam memories. I had written excerpts from some of my various stories and poems that I’d gleaned retrospectively and paired with the art work. He invited me to read. One day he and Ann were in my studio looking at work and we found ourselves confessing a mutual interest in Oppenheimer and his very convoluted, contradictory life and personality. After our book of ekphrastic poems influenced by the art, we’ve continued the collaboration. I’ve also been working with another writer, Kate Flannery. Collaboration helps me see the things I am blind to, gain words for things I need to clarify, and discover new perspectives and directions. In the same way, my own paintings are an important tool in opening my own inner doors.
Much of your poetry has a reportage aspect to it in the same way that your texts for teachers and professionals do. There are a lot of facts, figures, noted physical spaces in the work of your poems. I know in talking to you that you are a revisionist in your writing, working to fine tune your written work. I wonder how this method comes into play with your painting, if there is room for such editing and deleting in how you realize on canvas.
Ha! What a terrific and insightful question! Revision is what I do best, and what I do most of. I’ve learned that not selling a painting early is a blessing, as most of the best of my work happens after a second, third, or fourth repainting. I just can’t make deep sense of an image right away. Paintings, my own or others, reveal themselves slowly, just like stories under revision. Being older holds possibilities in a similar way, and you have the chance to develop an appreciative understanding. Instead of saying “I wish that hadn’t happened,” or “I wish I’d done this or that differently,” you get to re-understand what did happen, and like good wine, a lot of things get better as they age. You get the opportunity to roll things around until the more important sense of them appears.