NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.143 | June 10, 2008
Curt Johnson: 1928-2008
Gott ist gross und Gott ist gut.
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.
Let us turn over the page
And see what is written
On the other side of the night.
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.