emmett johns | word & image

20 05 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 181 | May 19, 2009


The recent piece on Henry Denander (see archives, Poetry Dispatch #279) brings to mind my friend, Emmett Johns and his life upon the blank page.

I think it was the summer of 1995 that I first saw the sketchbooks / notebooks / journals he religiously keeps. For those who may know Emmett, “religious” is both the right and the wrong word. “Spiritual” is perhaps a little closer. With a deep bow to Zen, meditation, and the great good silence we seek. And for Emmett especially: How to show-&-tell, express all this, simply in a man’s life.

Many artists record what they see in sketchbooks—follow the line, pen or pencil. Emmett’s images sometimes break into words—what he’s seeing and thinking, inside. He is one of those. One of us–those of us who occasionally need to speak two languages simultaneously, word & image.

I remember gathering an armful of Emmett’s black sketchbooks / journals one fall, as he was preparing to leave Door County, for New Mexico. ( A man of two places, two minds.) I remember spending that whole winter going through his work, page after page, in search of a narrative, a greater story, a different book-of-sorts. The kind I like to see and read and write.

I remember the agony and the ecstasy of sifting through everything, looking for a form that would show and tell and in some way also ‘teach’—for readers who wanted to see and know and learn.

I remember finally settling on about 64 pages of drawings/writings from his sketchbooks—plus front and back cover illustrations. Plus inside the front and back covers. That’s how challenging and tempting it was. I couldn’t get enough of his work in a small chapbook—to suit me! And others, I was sure.

The book finally came together in a work called I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE. Cross+Roads Press published it in 1996. Only the 6th chapbook to come off the press (presently at work on #32). Staple binding. Eight bucks. (A special signed and numbered edition of just a few more bucks where he did an original drawing in each book.) A total run of 500 copies. All of them—long gone.

I still love this book—cover to cover. Love looking into it. Always finding something new. Always finding the best of my good friend in these pages.

Here’s an introduction to Emmett for some of you: I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE PICTURE. A chapbook, revisited. We need to do this more often, revisit the stacks and shelves of small press publications we own. Honor their very existence. Honor ourselves–those who work for, have published in, or may be small press publishers. We’re a lot better than much of the mainstream out there, work a hell of a lot harder for little profit or exposure, with MUCH to show for our efforts. A whole history of underground literature in fact. Poetry Dispatch, Notes from the Underground, Basho’s Road—all these sites are filled with some astonishing work—by known and mostly unknown writers. With more to come.

Following the excerpts of Emmett’s work is a small poster about a workshop he will be teaching June 22, 23, 24 at the Peninsula Art School in Fish Creek. For details, contact: www.peninsulaartschool.com Those of you in the Midwest (or elsewhere)…I couldn’t recommend a better experience than working (just listening) to Emmett in a teaching atmosphere. You can contact him at: emmetjohnsatabqdotcom or www.emmettjohns.com. Norbert Blei

Artist Mike McCartney, artist Emmett Johns, writer Norb Blei...on an opening exhibit of Emmett's paintings.