By Jailene Adorno
Javon Johnson is a highly-recognized poet, who has placed in several poetry slams and appeared on shows such as The Steve Harvey Show, The Arsenio Hall Show, and Def Poetry Jam. He was bringing energy and laughter to the stage even before obtaining his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Performance Studies.
Johnson’s relationship with poetry started when he was in high school. A young lady had gone up to him to say how cute she thought it was that he wrote poetry. But this was nothing more than a rumor. Up until that point, Johnson wasn’t writing poetry at all. However, this admirer was encouragement enough to start. That night, he went home and wrote her a love poem.
“It was terrible and cheesy, but she loved it,” says Johnson. “I realized the power of poetry and I became known as the guy in high school who wrote poems.”
Johnson uses his poetry to talk about the world around him. For him, every poem that he writes is a love poem; even if it doesn’t seem like it, he’s always writing from a place of love. He once wrote an anti-Iraq poem that was dedicated to his brother, as a way of asking him to come back home.
“I just really, genuinely want a better world,” says Johnson.
He enjoys playing around with words and language in his poems—to share experiences, to emote. When watching him perform, you can really feel the passion and urgency of his words as he shares stories of race, gender, and current events. He takes history and adds an extra layer of truth and tangibility to it. He allows his voice to be heard no matter the subject.
Johnson believes it is important to find a creative community to be around, to create and challenge each other. When it comes to writing, he follows the advice of Maya Angelou and Octavia Butler—writing out of habit, not out of inspiration—he forces himself to write every day.
“Inspiration will leave you,” says Johnson. “Habit won’t.”
In addition to being a poet, Johnson is also an assistant professor at San Francisco State University where he teaches Performance and Communication Studies. He’s found that everything he reads and writes for the classes, complement his writing because he’s reading and writing academically.
In July of this year, his book Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities will be published by Rutgers University Press. This upcoming book will explore how slam poetry communities are working to better the world. Another piece of work from Johnson, which will be published next year, is Chiraq: War Cries, Love and Other Stories from the Murder Capital (Northwestern University Press), which will investigate the city of Chicago.