For a split second this summer, Devin Johnston and Michael O'Leary thought their ship had come in. The pair, who run a shoestring independent press called Flood Editions, got an E-mail from a judge for this year's National Book Awards who was interested in one of their titles--poet Ronald Johnson's final book, The Shrubberies. Could they submit a copy for consideration?
Unfortunately, says Johnston, "I went and looked at their guidelines, and it said it must be a living author. I made the mistake of E-mailing them back and saying, 'Do you realize that on the back of the book it indicates he's dead?' And they said, 'No--we're sorry, we didn't realize that. So forget it.'"
Johnston, 31, and O'Leary, 30, have both kicked around the Chicago poetry scene for years. Johnston, who got his PhD in English from the University of Chicago in 1999 and now teaches English at Saint Louis University, was editor of the Chicago Review for five years. O'Leary, currently an engineering student at UIC, has edited and published LVNG, a semiannual magazine of literature and art, with his older brother Peter and their friend Joel Felix since the early 90s.
Through their various endeavors they'd developed a loose web of contacts around the country; both magazines had published work by Pam Rehm, who won a National Poetry Series award for her 1994 book To Give It Up. O'Leary's brother had written Johnson a fan letter in 1992 and the two had become correspondents; in 1993 Michael and Peter, on a road trip to LA, met up with Johnson in San Francisco and "hung out." The visionary experimental poet, whose work invites comparisons to William Blake and transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, had recently finished his masterwork, Ark, a 99-part poem 20 years in the making. Inspired by the Watts Towers, LA's oddball architectural wonder, the poem was divided into three sections--"Foundations," "Spires," and "Ramparts"--and the first two parts were published as individual books. The complete poem was published to critical acclaim in 1996.
In 1998, Johnson was 62, living with his 93-year-old father in Kansas, and dying of brain cancer. "My brother Pete was in Austria," says O'Leary, "and Ron Johnson named him his literary executor," giving him instructions to "prune the shrubs." "So Pete called me up and said, 'Look, man, you've got to go down to Topeka and pick up the papers and bring them back and make sure they're safe--just so nothing happens to them.'" O'Leary, Johnston, and Felix rented a car and drove through the night.
"He was just sitting on a hospital bed in the living room," says Johnston. "He had no health insurance, and I think it was just taking so long for Medicare to kick in that he was dead before it happened."
"He looked so different," says O'Leary. "He had this giant beard. He hadn't shaved in a really long time because he didn't have the motor skills to shave, and he looked--his legs were just skin and bone, and we walked up to him and said, you know, Pete just wants to say he's really sorry he couldn't be here....And Ron just sort of handed a piece of paper to us, and it was this kind of last poem. That was it. It was his last poem--called 'Last Poem'--and that was it. It was pretty heavy-duty."
They spent all day going through Johnson's papers, unearthing a dozen or so yellow notepads--the unfinished manuscript for The Shrubberies--that were the object of their mission, plus several boxes of other papers. At one point Johnson, who was also a fan of found art, gave them a stone ("the cornerstone") and the rusted head of a pitchfork ("the tree of life") to carry back as gifts for Pete. For lunch Johnson's father made them some brisket. And then they left, notepads, boxes, stone, and pitchfork in hand.
"I was so struck the whole time driving back," says O'Leary, "at just how weird it was to be in this kind of grim reaper position, and how arbitrary it seemed....We left Saturday evening, and he died on Wednesday....It was like within two or three days, literally. So the thing that was so strange about it was that, absolutely, he was waiting for someone so he could know it was in good hands, and then he was like, 'That's it. I'm done.'"
Two years later, when plans for Flood Editions started coming together, O'Leary asked his brother--who'd included 13 poems from The Shrubberies in a Johnson collection he'd edited called To Do as Adam Did--if he and Johnston could publish the whole manuscript. Says Johnston, "Him being his brother--he couldn't say no!"
The Shrubberies and Pam Rehm's Gone to Earth--her first book in seven years--both came out in May, the first two titles from the fledgling press. Published in print runs of 1,000, the elegantly designed softcover books have sold about 250 copies each in bookstores and through Flood's Web site (www.floodeditions.com). This Saturday at 1, Rehm and Peter O'Leary will give a free reading in the Chicago Authors' Room at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State (312-384-3782).
O'Leary says he thinks the press is "the product of something that's been going on in Chicago and with poetry" for a while. Adds Johnston, "Both of us, doing magazines, ran into people with books and we would think, 'This person is great--and they can't get their book published. That seems really weird.'"
"There are a lot of good presses in Chicago," says O'Leary, "but most of them are associated with universities, except for the Guild Complex. I think they're doing great stuff, but we're not doing the same thing....There aren't a lot of independent presses in Chicago, and it's kind of ridiculous that there aren't."
The two are quick to credit a support system of friends and family who've offered advice, financial contributions, and design help--though at times they may have gotten too much input. Coming up with a name, says Johnston (who played guitar with local bands USA and the Palms before he moved away), "was worse than being in a rock band." Adds O'Leary, "You have to suffer the dumbest names from friends. They're like, 'Dude, call it Willowthumb--isn't that great?' And you're just like, uh, yeah man, that's awesome."
But, says Johnston, "Poets like to do something collaborative. Otherwise, you're just, like, in a room by yourself."
Two volumes of poetry by Philip Jenks and Tom Pickard are slated for January publication; Winter (Mirror), the latest collection from Columbia College professor Paul Hoover, and a book of short stories by Bostonian Fanny Howe are tentatively scheduled for May. All these writers are wildly divergent in style and subject matter, from Rehm's direct, brooding reflections on isolation and love to Johnson's ecstatic yet utterly precise lyricism to Howe's brutal stories of Boston race relations.
Says Johnston, "I think it's important to have presses that can be as haphazard and inarticulate as we are. Because if you have something that's more professionally run, you're having to justify all your choices along some lines of consistency."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo, Literary Estate of Ronald Johnson.