Barrington writer brings 'Old Man' to life

Peter Johnson's latest books focus on prose poetry

By Josh Bickford
Posted 2/20/20

Peter Johnson is sitting inside the Coffee Depot in Warren, and in front of him are two books. 

One is titled "Old Man Howling at the Moon." The other is titled "A Cast-iron Aeroplane That …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Not a subscriber?


Start a Subscription

Sign up to start a subscription today! Click here to see your options.

Purchase a day pass

Purchase 24 hours of website access for $2. Click here to continue

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.


Barrington writer brings 'Old Man' to life

Peter Johnson's latest books focus on prose poetry

Posted

Peter Johnson is sitting inside the Coffee Depot in Warren, and in front of him are two books. 

One is titled "Old Man Howling at the Moon." The other is titled "A Cast-iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly." 

Both books are his. He wrote "Old Man," which is a collection of his prose poetry. He compiled and edited the other, asking 80 American poets to choose one of their own prose poems and write about it. 

"Old Man," Mr. Johnson said, is really a book of complaints written from the perspective of "Grumpy Old Everyman."

Some of it, he said, is autobiographical.

"Some of them are funny," he said. "Some of them aren't."

They say your whole life flashes before you when you die, but I'm sure I'll witness the lives of others.

And if I'm right, please spare me the lives of this moron wearing a black wifebeater, mid-calf jeans, and orange work boots.

We're at the zoo, more precisely the habitat of the arctic fox, whom we've never seen awake, terminally depressed to find himself in a moderately-sized, ethnically-mixed city surrounded by creatures who hurl animal crackers, caw like crows, or scream "Wake up, stupid."

Which is what this man's two boys are yelling.

— Taken from "American Male, Acting Up"

In the preface of "Old Man," Mr. Johnson writes that there is not much anger in contemporary poetry. He writes that there is plenty of fashionable irony, but he prefers angry poets. 

"I've always felt a kinship with whiners like Catullus, Nicanor Parra — even Charles Bukowski when he wrote his best stuff," Mr. Johnson wrote in the preface. "These poets had a way of merging outrage and humor, the ability to attack people and institutions without acting superior."

The Barrington resident and Providence College professor has been writing prose poetry for years. He jokes that after having taken nine years of Latin and five of classical Greek, he should probably be writing sonnets. But when he discovered prose poetry — a prose poem is a poem written in prose or paragraphs — he felt that it fit his sensibility.

Mr. Johnson said "Old Man" has been a long time in the making. 

They say everyone deserves someone special, but I know people who don't.

Like the ones who didn't visit when I sat lame on my frigid front porch, reading Faulkner and sipping lycopene-laced green tea.

But squirrels came with their empty stomachs, and telemarketers phoned in their hollow promises.

Cars passed, too, with their steely glares.

And that was something. 

— Taken from "Special"

Mr. Johnson stepped away from writing prose poetry for a while, as he focused his work in other areas. He has written three middle grade novels, three young adult novels, and a book of short stories for adults. He is also working on a new collection of stories that will be published in May.

Mr. Johnson said "Old Man" was significant to him, partly because he was trying to decide whether it would be his final work of prose poetry. 

"This could be my last book," he said. "I may do one more."

The idea was to write an Old School New School Poem, none of that fashionable irony where poets sit around their endowed swimming pools laughing at the rest of us who have kids and work for a living.

Who don't have the money or time or the inclination to meet a terribly confused coed at the local No-Tell Motel.

Who have a real pet instead of some stupid cat named Shakespeare.

Hey, I'm just being honest. 

But back to the Old School New School Poem. 

On second thought, I already wrote that poem.

— Taken from "Sisyphus"

"A Cast-iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly" was borne from a different project he was working on, said Mr. Johnson. He believes it is a useful book, sharing poets' works and their detailed commentary on the same pages.

It's already being used as a text in a number of college creative writing courses, Mr. Johnson said.

2020 by East Bay Newspapers

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.