June 26, 2019

John Philip Johnson


for Mike Allen

Feeding on the living is good,
but feeding on the dead is better.

Nestle your offspring in the rancid.

The air is heavy; let it work for you,
but fly only until you find beauty.

Shit is beautiful.

Rub your hands together before you eat.

If you land on the wrist that holds the swatter,
consider yourself lucky, not clever.

Remain humble, if you think of anything.

You only have a few days;
stay simple.

Breed when you are able.

And when you are licked
by the frog’s tongue,
or swallowed by a songbird,
or felled in a cloud of nerve gas
and lie twitching, unconcerned,

know that it is the honor of a fly,
it is its purpose,
to die.

from Rattle #63, Spring 2019


John Philip Johnson: “I went to ReaderCon in 2011 to meet Mike Allen. He was the editor of Mythic Delirium, a magazine that, along with Goblin Fruit, had liberated me from the academic poetry tradition. I had learned to have fun with poetry, thanks to them, and I wanted to meet Mike and learn more. He gave a workshop on genre poetry in which he mentioned flipping perspectives. He made a stray comment about flies knowing their purpose was to die. I mulled that line over for years, and this came out one summer afternoon. I was sunning myself, in my wife’s garden. I had my notebook with me, as I usually do. There were flies around.” (web)

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November 6, 2015

A Graphic Poem


Soft Rains #1


Soft Rains #2


Soft Rains #3


Soft Rains #4

[download in full resolution: 1, 2, 3, 4]


poem from Rattle #45, Fall 2014

[download audio]


John Philip Johnson’sThere Have Come Soft Rains” originally appeared in our 2014 Poets of Faith issue. John has been working with a group of talented illustrators, including Marvel Comics legend Bob Hall, and Julian Peters, whose work appears above, to create a book of graphic poetry, which is available at his website. We published the title poem from that book, “Stairs Appear in a Whole Outside of Town,” in comic form in 2014.

Julian Peters is currently working on a 24-page comic adaption of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which can be previewed at his website, where you’ll also find full comic versions of many great poems, including Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” Seamus Heaney’s “The Given Note,” and more.

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January 30, 2015

John Philip Johnson


In kindergarten during the Cold War,
mid-day late bells jolted us,
sending us single file into the hallway,
where we sat, pressing our heads
between our knees, waiting.

During one of the bomb drills,
Annette was standing.
My mother said I would talk on and on
about her, about how pretty she was.
I still remember her that day,
curly hair and pretty dress,
looking perturbed the way
little children do.
Why, Annette? There’s nothing
to be upset about—
The bombs won’t get us,
I’ve seen what’s to come—
it is the days, the steady
pounding of days, like gentle rain,
that will be our undoing.

from Rattle #45, Fall 2014
Tribute to Poets of Faith


John Philip Johnson: “I usually don’t talk about this in the literary world, but I’m a born-again Christian who became a Roman Catholic; I read the Bible, say daily Rosaries, and go to church at least every Sunday. I kneel by my bed at night and say my prayers. I believe the world’s problems mostly happen because we don’t love each other like God told us to.” (website)


John Philip Johnson is the guest on Rattlecast #43! Click here to watch …

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November 1, 2014

A Graphic Poem


Stairs Appear #1


Stairs Appear #2


Stairs Appear #3


Stairs Appear #4


Stairs Appear #5

[download in full resolution: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]


poem from Rattle #38, Winter 2012

[download audio]


Editor’s Note: John Philip Johnson’s “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” originally appeared in our 2012 Speculative Poetry issue. Since then, John has teamed up with a group of extremely talented illustrators, including Marvel Comics legend Bob Hall, and internet phenom Julian Peters, whose work appears above, to create a book of graphic poetry. “Stairs Appear” is just one of many stunning surreal poems that has been put through this collaborative treatment, bridging the worlds of poetry and comics, now available in print at his website.

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July 11, 2013

John Philip Johnson


Stairs that never stop going down,
concrete steps, concrete walls:
down twelve, turn right, down twelve more,
fluorescent bulbs humming on every landing—
you can look between metal railings
and see down into the vanishing point. It’s creepy
because it’s so bland, because it is so otherwise
plausible. There are little clusters of tourists
and townsfolk, walking up and down,
murmuring their speculations. The municipality
has stationed a few policemen in the upper stories,
after that it’s the wilderness of young men
who aren’t huffing, or letting their better judgments
hold them back. Some pack a lunch,
see how far they can go. A few loners
have gone for days, or longer, obsessed, and come back
with critical perspectives on prior stories brought up,
arguing against them, bringing rumors of their own,
rumors of the lights shifting imperceptibly,
of ambiguous odors, of vast ballrooms
and wide open spaces, of small villages
with picnic areas, of hot steamy dioramas of hell,
strange animals, grotesque and sublime,
of a rapture that some theorize is the bends
but they swear is as real as the bright pounding light
that fills everything down that deep, where
the stairs are made of light, the walls a glow
you can’t quite touch—this is weeks down,
beyond some rapture or rupture point,
beyond some point from which they never
really come all the way back.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
Tribute to Speculative Poetry


John Philip Johnson: “I hear a lot of poets say they’d rather be jazz musicians, but if I could be something else it would be an astronaut. I’d rather land on Mars than win a Nobel Prize. I got into poetry because I had a great high school teacher named Kirsten Van Dervoort. In college I came to believe I could write the stuff when I read Byron rhyme ‘gunnery’ with ‘nunnery.’ I thought, golly, anybody can do this.” (website)


John Philip Johnson is the guest on Rattlecast #43! Click here to watch …

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March 30, 2013

Review by John Philip JohnsonOut of the Black Forest by F.J. Bergmann

by F.J. Bergmann

Centennial Press
P.O. Box 170322
Milwaukee,WI 53217-8026
2012, 44 pp., $8.00

Beautiful and at times haunting, F. J. Bergmann’s new chapbook, Out of the Black Forest, conflates the crowded world of fairy tales into contemporary relevance. Concerned with true love and changelings and eerie silences, among other things, these poems echo with post-modern sensibilities. Accompanying illustration from Kelli Hoppmann help further evoke the mood, and the mood is rich and gothic with a tendency towards uncertainty.

Bergmann, a past Rhysling winner for best spec poetry, and editor of the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s publication Star*Line, is a practiced hand at this genre. Her poems are well-polished, expansive, with terse one word titles tacked onto them. In “Feather,” a foundling girl, raised by birds, asks them “when her feathers/ would come in, when she would be old enough/ to fly.” Fantastical poetry is often concerned with the creation of mood (to transport you elsewhere), and lush diction goes a long way towards that end. The girl raised by birds had been found in the nest of a “lammergeier”:

The birds swaddled her in shed plumage:
She slept nestled in eiderdown, was fanned by
swan primaries, wore pheasant or ibis retrices
in her hair. Looking beyond the endless forest,
she could not tell mountains from clouds.

This poem is about Leda and the Swan, although she never says that, and it’s a lot different than the story you know. Like most spec genre work, it has a rich narrative environment, but the tales here are subtle and obscure, often made of gestures.

For example, in “Teeth,” a girl with a red hood goes out into the woods with a basket of food for her grandmother. But no wolf appears. Instead, the poem ends simply with the forest growing dark, and her lifting the napkin (which she had “spent all winter/ embroidering with snowflakes”) off the basket to find “There was no bread./  In the moonlight, white pebbles/ glistened like teeth.” That which menaces is sublimated.

There is no visible threat anywhere in “Hair,” but the air of menace abounds, sumptuously. The poem is about a girl in a tower with long yellow hair “as heavy as gold threads.” She pulls out the “glittering strands” one by one, letting them “float away on the wind, until/ her head is bald as a spotted egg/ and every tree in the forest/ was crowned with a golden nest.” The tower resonates in my mind like a girl in her bathroom; pulling out her hair feels like she’s cutting herself. The romantic mien, at least to me, hints of the comfort of that pathology for its practitioners.

These poems are full of touchstones like that to give us a bearing in their fantastical worlds. The poems connect, and transport. That’s the reason I love this genre. These poems quicken my breath, and let me touch something carefully delirious. There is a glut of fairy tales out there but these are more personal. For my taste, I can only take so much tapestry, but at sixteen poems, this is just the right-sized serving. You might try it with a cup of mulled cider. Good spec poems like these help me, just momentarily, break away from this software we call western civilization. And enrich my perspective when I return.


John Philip Johnson has work recently published or accepted Southern Poetry Review, Euphony, Ruminate, Dreams & Nightmares, and in the Rattle’s Speculative Poetry issue. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and five children.  www.johnphilipjohnson.com

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July 22, 2010

John Philip Johnson


When Midas went to the beach
everyone in his kingdom was nervous.
They liked the foot-shaped patches of golden sand,
scooped up like cattle patties,
and they were used to the nimble ruckus
of the entourage, staying somewhat close
but avoiding the bump. Their fear was for the sea,
for his first step, for the yellow muck hardening
around his ankles like it did in his brief Saturday night baths.
They would rescue him, of course, if the water trapped his feet—
throw him chains which they would later add to the treasury
once he’d grabbed them and been dragged
over the sharp, concreted waves.
It was a matter of some speculation for them,
but as he stared across the water,
their anxiety rose, and they muttered
about the loss of the fishing industry,
imagining the blue sea becoming gold.

It was the philosopher’s punishment, anyway:
He’d been estranged with his daughter
long before he’d hugged her to death. Like everything
else in his kingdom, she’d become an object
of evaluation. Even the words he used to describe things
were like little boxes of confinement, little rocks
he threw at the moon, separating him further,
bringing him pieces, lodestones. And the guilt
of his isolation—he’d sworn off concubines,
it was that look in their far-off eyes, the crackling realization
reaching their minds that they’d been bought,
while he caressed the distant, perfect object in his hands.

He went often to the beach and stared like other people do
at the meditation before him.
The sun’s long dangling finger across the water,
the honeyed line, shimmering like a zipper
on what he was coming to understand about it:
one conclusion, or another, here a god, there a god,
everywhere a god-god—he was aloofness itself,
and by that held the upper hand, the sponge,
squeezing it while soapy runs splattered
into gold chaos on the gray rocks; the servants
scrambled, able but wary, picking up his treasured flotsam.

Age made it worse. Aloha girls waved,
ever receding, their swaying hips
making the horizon like the hem of a grass skirt.
At least there was the gold. And he was the king,
king of the homunculus, giver of sciences,
wolfing down salad leaves before they lodged
in the back of his throat, cutting off fingernails,
letting them fall with a shrill clatter
onto the smooth golden floor which mirrored his feet.
He would cough, and wonder if his spray of golden spittle
would ignite the air into golden brightness
and make him fall with the last tinkling music
into the consummated, unabdicated otherness.

from Rattle #32, Winter 2009


John Philip Johnson: “One afternoon, a long time ago, before you were born, I was reading Byron. I couldn’t believe it when, in Don Juan, I found him rhyme gunnery with nunnery. I thought, good grief, anybody can do this. I wrote reams of poetry, lost most of it, and published some. Recently I woke up in middle age, with the children (cinque bambini!) finally able to dress and feed themselves. So, I’ve been scribbling again, a lot, and editing this time, like a born English major.” (website)

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