Local Writer Challenges Himself With Book Of Sonnets

Mar 10, 2014

Kalamazoo native Arnold Johnston is best known as a playwright, but he’s also a musician, a writer, and a poet. He’ll be reading through his new poetry chapbook Sonnets: Signs and Portents Wednesday at Michigan News Agency at 6 p.m. He and his wife Debby will also be reading their play “A Sheltering Tree.”

Arnold Johnston in the WMUK studio
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Johnston says the idea to write a book of sonnets came from an assignment he used to give to his students when he taught at Western Michigan University.

He would give them two rhyming words and their job was to make a sonnet out of them.

"Quite often those were the best poems people wrote that semester," says Johnston.

Johnston says, for the sake of fairness, he would write some too. Johnston says the assignment challenged him as a writer.

"If you set yourself some limits and conventions to follow, you are going to pull out of yourself things you didn't know were in there," he says.

Johnston says the rest of the title “Signs and Portents” comes from his tendency to read the world for signs, which he would often find in nature.

In this chapbook and others, Johnston will often title a poem starting with “The Poet,” such as “The Poet Does Yardwork.” Johnston says the poems are mostly in first person, but he started making the poet more of a character. Johnston says this allowed him more flexibility. He could even poke a little fun at this poet.

In “The Poet Washes His Hair,” Johnston reminds us of the inspiration you can get from doing something so mundane as washing one’s hair. Johnston says he gets inspiration in these moments. It especially helps him problem-solve when he and his wife Debby are writing a play.

"You relax. You're not intensely trying to solve the problem anymore. And all of a sudden, there it is, the answer" says Johnston.