curt johnson | gott ist gross und gott ist gut.

10 06 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.143 | June 10, 2008

Curt Johnson: 1928-2008

Gott ist gross und Gott ist gut.

Dear Friends,

I just learned that Chicago writer and publisher, Curt Johnson, died.

I was a friend, we were friends, for over 40 years. He was one of the best writers out there, and never received the attention he deserved, slugging it out for so many years with his own small press and magazine, december, for so many of us who looked forward to reading whatever he was up to, as well as hoping to some day get the official nod from Curt, to be included in anything he edited and published. Among his early ‘finds’ Ray Carver.

I can’t imagine the literary small press scene in America without the no bullshit attitude of Curt, always hovering over the scene, separating the crapola (Academia and government grants) from the writers who wrote solid, lived the little mag/small press life–no strings attached. Curt had an eye for those folks. It’s no wonder his heroes were writers like Nelson Algren and Jack Conroy. The poetry of the streets, the working stiff. The school of hard knocks.Tell it (in writing) like it is–is something Johnson wrote and lived, long before it became the popular thing to say

As the publisher and editor of Cross+Roads Press, one of the projects and books I’m proudest of is SALUD, Selected Writings by Curt Johnson. It was a bear of a book to work on, there was so much of his writing that deserved to be to included, it took far longer than I imagined, but luckily Curt was alive (though not well) and in touch via phone, snail-mail, and his daughter,Paula. I wanted him around to see this book happen, introduce him to young writers and readers who never heard of him, or may have forgotten he was still around. Which happened, to some degree. And that was just last year–2007. I’ll never forget his smile, when I delivered the first copy to SALUD to him and his eyes began to well, standing there in the kitchen of his small house in Highland Park, Illinois. “It’s beautiful, Norbert…beautiful,” he whispered in his gravely voice. One of the small satisfactions of small press publishing that few will understand or experience. To print something to make sure that writers like Curt are not forgotten.

But I remain more than unhappy over the reception of SALUD in the hometown, Chicago. Not one goddamn newspaper or literary magazine gave SALUD or Curt the print he deserved. Believe me, I contacted all of them. It was like tossing copies over a cliff. Granted, he had made some enemies in the media world in his time. He did not suffer fools or what he perceived as injustice. But for all the time, effort, concern that he put into ‘the city of the big shoulders” that they should give him the cold shoulder pisses me off considerably, to this very day.

Only the little mags and newspapers, publications read mostly by other writers gave it some print–and continue to give it some attention (one even featuring Curt at their writer of that issue)–most of this thanks to the tireless efforts of Milwaukee writer, Charles Ries, who maintains a passionate mission to ‘get the word out there.’ For which I thank him again here.

But I’m still waiting to hear more than wind from the Windy City. Chicago, where the hell are you? You lost a champ. Somebody, please wake up Oprah. Not to mention the Trib, Sun-Times, Chicago Magazine, all the alternative newspapers, all the literary mags still riding whatever small wave was once the Chicago writing scene.

Rest in piece, old friend. The important thing: You got it all down on paper, kept the faith, said it well. It’s their loss.

norb blei

Let us turn over the page

And see what is written

On the other side of the night.

—Thomas McGrath

P.S. Copies of SALUD are still available. $15 plus $2 postage from CROSS+ROADS PRESS, PO Box 33, Ellison Bay, WI 54210. Blatant advertising. An out-and-out pitch. (Curt would have loved it. I can see him grinning). For those of you who enjoy reading essays, short stories, memoirs, novels, satire, political commentary, etc. For anyone out there who wants to become a writer or a publisher, or knows someone who is entertaining the notion of writing seriously, here’s the book. Not “How To” but “How It Is”. Curt wrote this one for you.



7 responses

12 06 2008
Ralph Murre

Sorry, Norb, for the loss of your friend and our Cross + Roads colleague, Curt Johnson. You served him well, for without your efforts on his behalf, I, along with many others, would not have become aware of the man — of his writing.

You’re a good man to have in one’s corner.


– R.

12 06 2008
Jason Mashak

Hi Norb, I posted a link to this on the “Poetry Chicago” group site on Facebook. Maybe someone will respond to your “Chicago, where the hell are you?” question, get some coverage rolling. This reminds me of Bob Kaufman and Jack Micheline being mostly ignored by SF. Or D.A. Levy by Cleveland. Or Jesus by Nazareth (the town, not the band – although the band ignored him, too, I think).

12 06 2008
Michael Hathaway

I’m sorry to hear of Curt Johnson’s passing, and sorry to hear of Chicago’s indifference to his life, work and death. Unfortunately, that seems to be the way it goes for literary heroes/prophets.

I’m not in Chicago, but if you could send a review copy of Salud to Chiron Review, 522 E. South Ave., St. John, KS 67576, I would do my best to have someone review it for Chiron Review.

15 06 2008
Paul Fericano

Thanks for this posting, Norb. I was saddened to hear about Curt’s passing. I heard through John Bennett who directed me here. My condolences to you and to his family. Curt and I corresponded during the seventies and I’ll always be grateful for his involvement in one of my literary ventures at that time.

Curt was one of the first editors to regularly contribute copies of December and his other publications to the Small Press Racks in Libraries Project that I helped establish in California public libraries in 1976. And Curt continued to support the project long after the libraries ran out of funds and could no longer subscribe to small press magazines. He just kept sendng material whenever he could: his own publications and mags and books from other presses that he received. They were all distributed to participating libraries.

A good man.

20 06 2008
Robert M. Zoschke

It was more than exemplary to see the Chicago Tribune get off their morbid duffs and publish a fine Obit on Curt, including meaningful hammer-on-the-nail comments from Norbert Blei. For my money, time, and study…Curt’s essay on Raymond Carver, featured in SALUD from Cross Roads Press, ranks right up there with Kerouac’s Windblown World journals and the finest Paris Review Writer Interviews, in terms of delving into Writers on Writing. A postcard or package in the mail from Curt always lifted my spirits, with Curt’s delivery seemingly coming at a particularly low point when I needed something so meaningful so damn much. Blei most assuredly deserves to be proud of his SALUD Curt Johnson anthology…it is an incredibly produced, insightful sampler on the life-work of a very talented writer who reigned on the typer in iconic iconoclast style.

2 01 2009
Lindy Gligorijevic

Hi, maybe someone can help me, my parents were friends of Curt’s and I have been tasked to find out what happened to him. My father was a fellow writer, Harlan Olafson (he died as well). My mother sent Curt a Christmas card, didn’t hear from him, etc. So, this is what my web search has revealed, your mention of his passing.

13 09 2009
Pete Lund

I’m trying to reach Lindi Gligorijevic. Harlan was my first cousin. If someone has her email I’d like to make contact. She can contact me by searching the U of Minnesota directory even though I’ve retired. Thanks.

Pete Lund

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