While the Kettle's On, published by Little Balkans Press, is Melissa Fite Johnson's first book of poetry.
"While the Kettle's On openly, whimsically and originally explores homecoming, whirling its journey through past generations, the present body, making home, unmaking the self, and everyday love. This strong first collection lands on what is, and what is behind what is, from the tree in the present that will one day be gone, to the grandmother once young, choosing "this future, this little life." Melissa Fite Johnson helps us see the large world encapsulated in the gestures and glances of even the smallest moments of this little or big life, including what losses damage even fresh air and what graces give us back all we are. In essence, the whole collection is about love, and how to recognize it when it shines through the moments that matter." ~ Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate
"Reading While the Kettle's On, one feels invited into Melissa Fite Johnson's family. Like a good novel, Johnson's poems bring us into her world, and readers come to know her the way we know a close relative or good friend: sharing times of joy and loss, sharing life-changing events (deaths, romance, and marriage) and the small day-to-day details (a garden of hydrangeas or eating hot dogs at a baseball game) that make our lives most truly our own. Each poem is well-crafted and enjoyable on its own, but the true pleasure is in the way the book as a whole draws us vividly into a community of family and friends and, most of all, into the mind of a poet who reveals a full range of human emotion, from happiness to sorrow and from nagging self-doubt to quiet confidence." ~ Dr. Christopher Todd Anderson, 2013-2014 Guest Poetry Editor for The Midwest Quarterly
"I have been reading Melissa's poetry--one poem every other Sunday--for more than a decade now, with pleasure, and with admiration for her dedication, artistry, and skill. I suspect she is her own toughest critic, and that is how it should be. She's good: her word choices are good, her lines lean, no lardy modifiers. She's a poet. I'm glad to have her as a friend." ~ Roland Sodowsky, author of AWP Award Winner Things We Lose
"Settle back with these poems and get as comfortable as you would on the living room sofa remembering your way through a family photo album. In Melissa Fite Johnson's While the Kettle's On, we're lucky to watch these four generations fall in love, take their chances, sip tap water from Mason jars, and lovingly polish their teaspoon collections. These poems are comfortable as an evening walk with the dog, often as soothing as a nightly ritual of washing dishes in lavender suds while the chickadee chirps on the pear branch outside the window. Take a minute while the tea steeps, scooch back into your favorite reading chair, and then sip from your steaming cup as you read these charming lyrics and personal yet universal stories." ~ From the book's introduction by Laura Lee Washburn, author of This Good Warm Place and Watching the Contortionists
Melissa Fite Johnson is the author of Green (forthcoming, Riot in Your Throat). She holds a BSEd in English and an MA in creative writing and literature from Pittsburg State University in Kansas. Her publications include Pleiades, SWWIM, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Stirring, Broadsided Press, Whale Road Review. Her first collection, While the Kettle’s On (Little Balkans Press, 2015), and her second, Ghost Sign (Spartan Press, 2016), which she co-authored, were both named Kansas Notable Books. She is also the author of A Crooked Door Cut into the Sky, winner of the 2017 Vella Chapbook Award (Paper Nautilus Press, 2018). Melissa and her husband live with their dogs in Lawrence, Kansas, where she teaches high school English. Please feel free to connect with Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I first read this collection in 2015. I’ve opened it up and read select poems many times in the intervening years, but this was my first time reading the entire book since that first time. It was especially interesting to revisit it after reading Melissa Fite Johnson’s latest collection, A Crooked Door Cut Into The Sky. Not that much time has passed, but they feel like time capsules of different poets and different people. The subjects of the poems in this collection are much more wide ranging, providing a great variety, whereas the newer collection addresses fewer topics but perhaps delves deeper. It is fascinating to see the growth from one collection to the next. As always, though, the language is easy and welcoming, the images are surprising and potent, and the insights are unexpected, and therein lies their power.
A bit of a mixed collection. All the poems here are really honest and accessible. Some are definitely more thought-provoking, observant, and evocative. Personal favorites were "Summer Wedding" and "Ode to Washing Dishes."
Although Melissa Fite Johnson’s WHILE THE KETTLE'S ON is autobiographical, this fresh, candid poetry collection expands beyond the “Confessional” niche. With wit, restraint, and insights to human nature, she shares stories and characters from her family in the book’s first section “Four Generations” and her new life as a married woman in the final section "The Ballad of Marc and Melissa.” In between, the sections, “Revising the Body,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Vulnerability” display scenes from her youth and from her adult life as a teacher.
In “The Things They Keep,” (a poem from the first section that perhaps alludes to Tim O'Brien's “The Things They Carry”), Fite Johnson details notes her father wrote her when he struggled to recuperate from strokes. Then she names items her friends kept from their deceased parents and hints her regret that she “didn’t think to keep even one” of the notes. In this section, her wry sense of humor surfaces in "Visiting My Grandparents’ Graves” with an image of her grandfather’s “arms outstretched for eternity” and the revelation that her mother married her father because she “knew he could kiss” in “My Parents' Wedding Day.”
Her words about her adopted brother reveal a restraint from sentimentality: I think of what’s thicker than blood-- love, sure, but mostly our ability to unnerve each other with a look, the girlfriends he doesn't tell me about anymore, the money I won’t get back. How my first lie was to him. . .
In the section “Revising the Body,” Fite Johnson shares feminine adolescence via bra sizes, eyeliner, Ouija-board experiments, and death of classmates through overdoses, liver damage, and a car crash. Again, her sense of humor and honesty create a section that's a delight to read.
Next, she segues into the adult world with the “Good Housekeeping” section, where she writes about a dying Bartlett pear tree, an odd dream about motherhood, picking pecans, a mason jar, and a poetry group. The title poem of this section contains vignettes of her parents: “The mother of my childhood/is propped up by the vacuum handle./Her arms disappear at the ends/into filmy sink water” and “My father's smoking/transformed the bathroom vent/from flute smooth to caked fireplace ash.” “The Ballad of Marc and Melissa” section shows a picaresque peak into the poet’s married life, including a scene from the title poem. “For once, this apartment/without even a dog for company/is all I need: kitchen’s open window/lapping at rain drops . . .”
One of the most noteworthy poems “Emily Dickinson in 2012” lies in the “Vulnerability” section. Here, the persona composes a new collection of poems on her laptop, prints them, and shuts “each document/without saving a single one." Fortunately, Fite Johnson saved her poems to compile in this uplifting, engaging collection.
Johnson’s poems are clear, spare gems of observation about the simple things that tell our life stories – hand-scrawled notes, Ball jars, and dish washing. She focuses mainly on her family, but readers will feel they’re reading about their own families, too. Although the poems don’t fall in chronological order, she begins in “The Things We Keep” about her father’s early death and comes full circle, ending with her own “Summer Wedding.” The first poem tells us about the notes her dad wrote to her after his stroke: “But though he left as many notes/in my house as snowflakes in a snowstorm,/I didn’t think to keep even one.” Perhaps that regret now shapes her poetic mission to keep what matters.
While most of Johnson’s poems deal with everyday moments, she also takes some entertaining leaps. She imagines “Emily Dickinson in 2012” – what Emily’s life would be like if she were a poet today. In “Elegy for the Class of 1999,” she envisions the three classmates who have died as the first to arrive at a party: “I picture balloons and a DJ…I picture them/growing bored with each other’s company,/impatient for the big empty room to fill.”
Johnson’s easy, conversational style will make you want to pull up a chair at her kitchen table while the kettle’s on. You won’t be in any hurry to leave.
Note: I'm reading a (short) stack of collections by four contemporary Kansas poets. This is #1 of 4. I don’t read a lot of poetry and I definitely don't have any training in form (or lack thereof) so I came at these with an attitude of “I don’t know what’s considered ‘good’ but I know what I like.”
I really liked this collection. The poems center on family and daily life, modern without being modernistic. The writing is clear and evocative without seeming “crafted" or overly lyrical, and it flows smoothly and clearly. Many of the poems made me think of things in my own life -- similar or opposite. And I copied lines from a few of them because I liked the way the words went together or the image they evoked.
While the Kettle’s On is a rare collection of poetry that manages to balance depth and lyricism with accessibility—these are poems that you’ll understand instantly, but you’ll want to read them and consider them again and again. Melissa Fite Johnson invites readers into a world both familiar and new with poems of family history, coming of age, and married life. These are honest poems that reveal the poet’s unique insight and experience, but they don’t rely on shock value to hook readers. Instead, they engage us with a fresh perspective on the memories, stories, challenges, and blessings that so many of us share. You’ll find yourself nodding in recognition, tearing up in sympathy, and laughing out loud.
Melissa F-J is several kinds of observer: sometimes simply looking out a window, sometimes looking into her future, or sometimes at the people around her. Her poems always offer us a picture of her own heart.
Fite Johnson’s first published collection of poems is divided into five thematic sections, and the title of each section seems a perfect fit. I particularly enjoyed the themes within the section titled “Revising the Body,” but my favorite single poem, “Adoption,” belongs to the section titled “Four Generations.” I name this as my favorite poem for a couple of specific reasons, and both reasons represent the qualities I admire in this entire collection: apparently simple stories suddenly become dense with meaning, take on the weight of profound reflections and insightful truths. And be cautioned; as a result readers may experience unexpected bursts of emotion. Repeatedly in this collection, the poems’ resolutions cast fresh light on previous details, and as one who always looks with hope for the next epiphany in my own life, this never gets old.
As I read the closing lines of “Adoption,” I suddenly began to cry, not out of sadness but out of appreciation for the beauty with which a truth was expressed, and for the reminder that love and grace are easily missed if we aren't watching closely. But just as often, as I read, I released short bursts of laughter; Fite Johnson’s ability to create the quick turn at various points in a poem is delightful, and this skill is equaled by her ability to drop poignant metaphors and similes in just the right spots.
In the short documentary, The Making of Finding Nemo, one of the art directors says, “It takes a tremendous amount of effort to create something that looks effortless,” and I suspect that much labor sculpted these poems in which each curve and indentation is essential to the whole, and is touched with sharpness and subtlety in turn, such that readers have an easy task.
And as one of her readers, I can only say I’m thankful Fite Johnson has done the work of seeing for me and has the talent to show me what she’s seen. The poems in this collection are beautifully crafted, grace-filled, and born from the light of love. I hope it’s a relatively short wait for her second collection.