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By Curt Johnson
Cross & Roads Press
P.O. Box 33
Ellison Bay, WI 54210
Review/Interview By: Charles P. Ries
This Review First Appeared In: Free Verse
SALUD is a homage to Curt Johnson by his dear friend and small press institution, Norb Blei. This is the 27th publication from Blei’s, Cross + Roads Press. Blei says, “When a writer reaches the point of Selected Works in his life, a definite benchmark has been achieved. You stand by your words. What you’ve penned you are. This could not be more true then in the life and work of Curt Johnson, short story artist, novelist, essayist, critic, and one of the best yet, least celebrated writers and publisher (december magazine and december press) coming out of the heartland.”
Through SALUD, Blei gives us a sampling of Johnson’s work: novel excerpts, essays, articles, and memoirs. The challenge here is condensing the works of a writer who wrote so broadly and in so many forms. I often felt like I was getting only the first course – a taste. But this is want Blei intended to do; tempt us with Johnson’s work and encourage us to seek it out.
This book is both a literary experience and a history of the small independent press. Johnson who is now in his 80’s, was editor of the highly regarded december magazine in the early 60s. He was one of the first to publish the works of Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Bukowski, and Ted Kooser, to name only a few who have gone onto popular acclaim. But Johnson also published the work of many writers who never hit it big, or at all. Johnson and Blei are two of the patron saints of the small press. They have been in it and doing it for over 50 years. They do it as much to give new writers a place to shine, a chance to be heard, as much as for any glory they may receive.
I found the interview between Johnson and Blei that concludes SALUD a delight - a history lesson and look inside the head of two small press pioneers. Blei says in the interview, “Curt have you, one of the Granddaddies of independent publishers in America, ever been invited to read your work and/or discuss the role of the independent presses in academia? Northwestern University? The University of Illinois (Johnson has lived his life in Chicago). And Johnson replies, “I don’t think the academy and its creative writing courses are of much use to the real writer. And I don’t think the safe haven the academy provides established writers does their own writing much good either.”
For those of us active in the independent small press this book is a must read. How can we know that we are innovating if we don’t know what has come before us? But even more, SALUD is a morality tale that has been told again and again by yet another talented, prolific writer sitting at linoleum kitchen table at 11:00 a.m., having a coffee and a shot of whiskey with a fellow writer and friend reflecting on the old days, lamenting the fact he never quite hit it big, but not willing to change one thing about his journey, the books he wrote, the people he met, or the writers he helped along the way.
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over two hundred print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory and five books of poetry. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (www.wordriot.org), Pass Port Journal (www.passportjournal.org) and ESC! (www.escmagazine.com). He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore (www.woodlandpattern.org). He is a founding member of the Lake Shore Surf Club, the oldest fresh water surfing club on the Great Lakes (http://www.visitsheboygan.com/dairyland/).