[This issue, we sit down for an interview with poet Clay Franklin Johnson. Here, he discusses his first collection, A Ride Through Faerie & Other Poems; his creative process and his experiences as a self-published author; and his upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: You just released your first poetry collection. First, congratulations! Second, how did you go about assembling the collection? How did you decide which poems to include and which to leave out?
Clay Franklin Johnson: Thank you, Rebecca, and thank you for taking the time to interview me about my upcoming book, A Ride Through Faerie & Other Poems. As a lifelong sufferer of debilitating perfectionism, a disease that has both infected and crippled my writing over the years, no decision came easily in the putting together of this book, especially a book as important to me as this one. Assembling the collection, which included deciding which poems to include as well as putting them in an order that made reasonable sense, was my first cause for anxiety, and one that came back to haunt me at the very end due to binding complications with regard to illustration placement. As my own worst critic, I am no longer fond of much of my earlier writing, and, with more than just a modicum of regret, there were dozens of poems that I decided against publishing in my book. To illustrate this little dilemma of mine a little clearer, from January of 2015 (when I first began writing poetry in earnest) until October of this year, I had around 650 Word file pages of poetry, not including the poems that were handwritten in travel journals. However, of those 650 pages, my final manuscript came out to be approximately 150, with the majority having been written during the last few years. There was no real method to this madness of indecision other than reading and rereading each poem, then choosing which I preferred best, and repeating this rather obsessively until I came to about a reasonable number of pages for a book of poems. As for deciding on the order, this wasn’t terribly difficult once I knew which poems I wanted to include, for as it happens with many who scribble away their lives in writing, a theme began to emerge from the madness, and madness just so happened to be one of those themes.
ev0ke: Most of the poems could be described as Gothic. What do you find appealing about that genre? What draws you to it?
CFJ: Many of my poems (and my writing in general) are certainly tinctured with that Gothic sensibility found within that overarching literary movement of Romanticism, including the artistic aesthetic of the painting and music of the time, which have also greatly inspired my writing. Although I have read many genres and styles throughout the years, I find the most pleasure in reading and rereading 18th- and 19th-century Gothic literature, and I return to it often — the brilliant novels of Ann Radcliffe I reread every October. There is something about that brooding melancholy that speaks to me.
ev0ke: What other examples of Gothic poetry (and prose) do you recommend? Do you have favorite authors who are a must-read?
CFJ: The majority of what I read that can be classified as “Gothic” is in the form of prose fiction, not poetry, which might come as a surprise. I began very early on with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as many do, I suppose, and fell madly in love with its themes and ideas. However, the genesis behind her story during that stormy “haunted summer” of 1816 at the Villa Diodati became just as intriguing to me as her brilliant novel. The thought of ghost stories, violent storms, darkness, laudanum, mad visions, and nightmares as inspiration for literary creativity became a fascination of mine. Years later in 2016, still enthralled by the idea of this haunted yet inspired summer, I made the pilgrimage to Switzerland and gazed with my own eyes upon the Villa Diodati. It was an unforgettable experience and even inspired a poem within my book.
However, my first true literary obsession, and one that has never diminished, was with John Keats’ great odes of 1819, especially his “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on Melancholy”. I was somewhat young at the time and not as well read, so I neither saw nor considered the Gothic within these particular poems. But now, however, I truly adore Keats’ darker, more Gothic side, and there are particular lines of his that are forever whispering within my thoughts. This side of Keats’ writing was, quite obviously, the inspiration behind the publishing house that I founded this year, Gothic Keats Press. The idea of the press name came to me in 2017 when I was writing an essay about a particular time in Keats’ life, from his travels through Scotland, the death of his brother Tom, and his poems of 1819, but I finally brought the idea to fruition this year in honor of Keats on the bicentennial year of his tragic death in 1821—and what better way to honor Keats than by publishing a collection of poetry?
I return to both Keats’ poetry and prose more than any other writer, but other favorites that I return to again and again are Mary and Percy Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, George MacDonald, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lord Dunsany, and M.R. James. Although Stoker’s Dracula is not a favorite of mine as a standalone literary masterpiece, pairing it with Coppola’s 1992 film over the last few years has been a true inspiration and has influenced my writing greatly. My favorite living authors are Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent (2016) and Melmoth (2018), and A.S. Byatt, whose 1990 novel Possession was an unforgettable read for me, and one I look forward to read again. I even alluded to certain bits in Byatt’s novel in my latest poem, “My Mélusine Illusion”.
ev0ke: Which poem was the most difficult, but ultimately most satisfying, to write?
CFJ: As a poet yourself you know just how difficult this question is, although I’m happy to answer it, for I think it’s quite important. Honestly, none of my emotionally difficult poems were satisfying to write, and one in particular almost sent me into the arms of despair, although a Scottish winter’s cold and darkness paired with nightly writing sessions of heavy crème pâtissière and copious amounts of Earl Grey tea could partly be to blame.
The poem in question is “Lines Written by Moonlight at Whitby Abbey”. Even though most of my poems and writing in general are written after the fact, “recollected in tranquility”, as Wordsworth wrote, the majority of this particular poem was indeed written in situ beneath a full moon at Whitby Abbey in October of 2018. However, I both edited the poem and added to it weeks later while living in Edinburgh, but these additions were certainly not written in tranquility. There are many reasons for my despairing mental state at the time, but much of the poem’s heartbreak and tragedy were because of my beloved dogs, both of whom I had recently lost. Because of this poem’s profound significance to me there are three detailed illustrations to go with it, each one representing a particular change within the poem. In the final illustration, I requested from the illustrator (Eli John, whom I can call my friend) if he could incorporate actual photographs of my dogs. He included them wonderfully well, and now my dear pooches are truly a part of this book.
Other difficult poems that I want to mention only briefly are “The Emerald Witch Stone”, whose inspiration I wish not to write of, and “Keats Stone”, written on the bicentennial of Keats’ death. Both of these poems took quite an emotional toll on me, and each one was uniquely different in difficulty.
However, while none of my emotionally difficult poems felt satisfying to write during composition, I will say that I am satisfied beyond words that they were written, published, and now exist, both as a testament to the uniquely troubled mental state in which they were written and, especially, as a tribute to whom they were written for.
ev0ke: You decided to self-publish your collection. What advice can you offer to other authors who might be considering the self-publishing route?
CFJ: Like most writers, I wanted to publish my book the “traditional” way: sending my manuscript to publishers, waiting months for a response, having one fall in love with my writing, signing the contract, working with their editorial team, printing thousands of books, etc. This, of course, is the writer’s fantasy, and I knew it was far more difficult of a sell with poetry in today’s literary world, but there are still outlets that publish such collections. Last year, before the miseries of covid started taking full effect across the globe, I believed I had found this fantasy — twice, no less! However, the first publisher later had covid-related financial complications which crippled their business. The second publisher simply didn’t do the research and had no idea of the financial obligation required to publish a book, even cheaply. Needless to say I was crushed, not to mention exhausted after months of preparations to get everything in order for printing.
After several weeks of feeling sorry for myself (perhaps months), I picked myself up out of my miserable state of “literary failurism” and decided to make a comeback of sorts. It was January 2021, the bicentennial of Keats’ death weighed heavily on my mind, and I could think of but one way to resolve my lamentable situation: stop waiting around for others and simply do it myself. And this is precisely what I did. As I had mentioned earlier, I already had a press name in mind, and on the anniversary of Keats’ death it all made perfect sense to me — it almost felt like fate that both traditional publication methods had failed the year prior.
Every situation is different, but as for advice with regard to self-publishing, I would simply say to just do your research. Do a lot of research, and make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into. I very, very much wanted illustrations with my poems (particular poems, especially), and this simply would not have happened with the publishers of 2020. However, a significant cost comes with such illustrations, both in terms of paying the illustrator as well as printing costs associated with gloss paper inserts and ink — it also turns out that you can’t just insert such illustrations anywhere in the book as I had first assumed. Because of these illustrations (highly detailed), I felt it a must to go with an offset printer instead of print-on-demand. The quality of offset printing is generally better, but, again, there is a significant cost attached to this. As an incurable perfectionist, self-publishing this particular book in such a manner was the only way for me.
To briefly reiterate, just do your research, and understand all costs involved. There is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing — nothing at all! You have more control over your own writing, and you can design it however you choose. But just be aware there is A LOT of work involved, more than you might think, and there are costs you must factor in.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
CFJ: Those interested in reading my work should very much consider my new book, both in hardcover and electronic formats (created to make it more affordable), available through Gothic Keats Press.
However, to those unfamiliar with my work, much of my writing is available online, especially on my website where you can read published poetry, as well as my Keatsian essays.
Speaking of published poetry, you published “The Fires of Ecstasy at Samhuinn” (now illustrated) in your Summer Solstice 2020 issue of Eternal Haunted Summer, available to read here.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
CFJ: I can never seem to just stop and turn it all off when it comes to writing, which is to say I have a myriad of literary projects that are ceaselessly swimming about my mind. Now that my first collection of poems is soon to be released, I plan on taking a much-needed break from poetry in order to focus all my creative energies on other writings. Poetry is still my first love, without a doubt, and I will return to my beloved muse again, but I do believe that spending too much time brooding upon those Faerie realms of the poetic imagination can make one go mad. I truly believe this. However, that being said, I am looking forward to working on my neglected novel once again, and hopefully making significant progress. The novel certainly contains themes and tropes of the Gothic, as one might expect, including an aesthetic of decay, ruined architecture, and a perceived supernatural mystery, but I wouldn’t classify it wholly as a Gothic romance, and it is most certainly not horror. It’s a work in progress, and I’m excited to begin again.
Lastly, I am both excited and anxious to begin work and research on my academic journal, Gothic Keats Review. This has been something I’ve wanted to do for years, especially so after I decided against returning to university for a PhD in favor of other interests. And just as I did with my hardcover and illustrations, I want to research this more to make sure I understand exactly how I want it setup before I send out a submission call. My current plan is to publish it both in paperback and electronic formats, but I’ll know more next year. However, before this comes to fruition, it is my desire to publish a series of Shelleyan essays on the press website next year in honor of the bicentennial of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death in 1822.
Thank you again for the interview, Rebecca.