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Alex Johnston created his upcoming poetry book to impress a woman.

Johnston, of Auburn, told a woman he was a poet. She wanted to see his work, but he wasn't confident about it. A month later, he decided to refit everything, create more pieces and turn his "sloppy poetry" into a cover-to-cover collection. The result was "On Fire and Roses," Johnston's deeply personal, over-100 page mediation on his childhood, former struggles with addiction, relationships and personal growth. He said it tackles everything, from seemingly mundane snippets to his most intense experiences.

Johnston, 29, is currently in his final year majoring in cultural studies at SUNY Empire State College. The book is coming out through Lummox Press in mid-February. He hopes it finds an audience with young men and women who haven't been exposed to much poetry, but are looking for something "a little more contemporary and a little more hard-around-the-edges." Johnston has also had work featured in print and on poetry websites.

He submitted one of his poems to Lummox last year. After it was accepted, he decided to take a chance and ask if they wanted to publish a book of his work. They accepted that, too, and he began writing like a man possessed, he said, creating a few pieces he considers "knockouts." That's significant, he said, because he tends to be extremely critical of his own work and revise his pieces.

Johnston rapidly yo-yos from topic to topic in conversation, often starting with one and then branching off to others before circling back to what he was originally talking about. He said the book is staunchly serious, with inspiration culled from his own experiences and observations. But he described himself as someone who takes little seriously beyond writing. 

Johnston's love affair with writing began a few years ago, when his girlfriend at the time convinced him to go back to Cayuga Community College after an earlier attempt at college there wasn't successful. In January 2015, he took some writing classes and "nosedived" into all things related to poetry, consuming everything in sight by authors he now reveres.

"I realized the love and passion that I have for literature, especially for poetry," Johnston said.

Moments in life that might seem insignificant to others tend to be what Johnston remembers the most. For example, his poem "The Calendar" chronicles an instance when Johnston went with his dad, Ted Johnston, to the machine shop Ted owned one day when Johnston was around 7 or 8. He vividly recalls certain details from that shop, such as the "smeared black faces" of the workers and the industrial soap featured there.

Johnston is unafraid of veering into tangents on his favorite poets, like T.S. Eliot — the title of Johnston's book is an Eliot reference — as well as Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and E.E. Cummings. He frequently gives mini-lessons on their histories and styles in conversation. The book is "bombarded" with allusions to other creators' work, in ways that casual poetry fans might understand and more obscure references, Johnston said. 

"I gravitate toward anyone that is doing anything experimental that works," Johnston said. 

Dr. Mark Montgomery, an English professor at CCC, encouraged Johnston's fledgling work. Montgomery said Johnston was his own biggest critic. The student would decry his own pieces as "an imitation, it wasn't original, things like that." Montgomery said Johnston was simply finding his own voice, as his poems always had "something in the phrasing or the language that was really unique." He praised Johnston's ability to conjure up imagery through words.

"He's excited about literature, language, writing and reading. Those are all things that you want in a student and a writer," Montgomery said.

Johnston's ambitions include gaining as much notoriety as he can without performing publicly. The anticipation before a performance terrifies him, he said, despite his background as a violinist in Rochester and performing in plays when he was younger. His end goal, Johnston said, is to be a "notable college professor" teaching people about the poetry he adores.

"I knew none of this three years ago. I have devoted my entire career to poetry," Johnston said.

He also did impress that woman with his book, he said.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.


Education Reporter