Mercer’s artists are not just limited to their student body, but also include many faculty on campus. Gordon Johnston, professor of creative writing, published two books last year and is in the process of writing several more.
Johnston’s primary artistic medium is writing, particularly poetry. He originally published a book of poetry, “Scaring the Bear,” and a book of chapters, “Durable Goods,” last year, which are currently available through Mercer University Press and Finishing Line Press.
Johnston also writes fiction and non-fiction, was in a group with other teachers, and works with “clay pages”, clay tablets on which he writes poems before entering in the oven.
Johnston began writing poems on the clay pages by accident after collaborating with now-retired Mercer professor Roger Jamison. Johnston had taught a capstone course called “Art Society”, including a unit on wood-fired pottery.
During this class, Jamison came to show off some of his work and was building a kiln at the same time. Johnston, who had read about them, became interested in the oven and began to help see the cooking process. Jamison insisted on trying to repay Johnston for his help and the two eventually agreed that Johnston would take the clay pages.
Johnston said the clay pages were different from his usual process of writing poetry. He wrote the poems directly on the tablet, which he does not do for the poems he intends to publish traditionally.
Not all poems survive the cooking process due to the heat of the fire.
“So sometimes it’s like the oven rejects my work, you know,” Johnston said. It’s kind of cool not knowing what you’re going to get, always having that element of surprise.”
He started writing poetry in high school, but said it was “miserable, and none of it impresses much now”. When he started college, however, he started reading great poets like Robert Frost which sparked an interest in writing poetry.
“It seemed to me that writing a poem was the most supercharged language you could ever access,” Johnston said. “There was no wasted energy, there was no wasted word. Even the white space in the poem was loaded, even the space between the stanzas was incredibly loaded, and so I wanted to write that .”
He continued to read and write poetry while in college and began sending it to try to get published.
“I want to participate in the life of art, and words seemed to be the thing I was adept enough to participate in,” Johnston said.
Writing also proved to be a way for him to approach life and exercise some control over it.
“Life throws all these wonders and joys and tragedies at you hour by hour and day by day and poetry is my way of dealing with some of those things,” Johnston said. “We don’t control what happens to us, but when you sit down to work on a painting, when you sit down to shape a pot, when you sit down to write a song, when you sit down and write a poem or a short story , you make a small world.
The idea of writing more to learn had a big influence on his writing, as well as on the natural world. Johnston enjoys getting out in nature and kayaking and canoeing, which has given him the opportunity to take these trips to find inspiration in nature. He said he couldn’t imagine having been able to take these trips without writing about them afterwards.
Likewise, nature was an important theme in his writings, especially about people in the landscape. He does not intentionally incorporate themes into his work, but says they creep in unconsciously. In his work there are many friendships outdoors and in wild landscapes, people talking or meeting by rivers or mountains and religious influences.
“Religion, so often these days, is about what you reject rather than a broad, widely accepted reverence,” he said. “I have great respect for science and there are currents of religious thought now that won’t allow it (…) Sometimes in the poems I think I’m trying to work out my own spiritual view of things .”
Johnston said Mercer’s creative community is a huge help and influence.
Roger Jamison was a role model for him, along with Anya Silver, who died in 2018, whom Johnston says is still dearly missed. He also mentioned Eric O’Dell, Charlie Thomas, Monty Cole, Carolyn Yackel, and Ginger Young as prime examples of Mercer’s artistic community.
“All these different people who are engaged in some kind of artistic creation or whatever, it’s a good thing to be part of a community,” Johnston said.
Johnston recently completed a collection of short stories. He’s also writing a non-fiction book about a backpacking trip he took a few years ago, and says he has more in store for the future.