“Welcome to Indiana: Crossroads of America,” reads the big blue road sign all drivers pass when they cross the state line.
Indiana is the heart of the Midwest, and for senior English major Abby Johnson, the Hoosier state is home to more than corn and soybeans. Indiana is spirited, with millions of stories to tell. As a poet, her work is to tell them.
“We need to talk about the Midwest as somewhere alive and multifaceted, full of people who are full of passion, because that’s who we are,” Johnson says.
It was in this spirit that Johnson released her first chapbook, “The Midwest is a Place,” on Friday, March 2 in Mocha Joe’s.
A chapbook is a focused collection of poems surrounding a theme, usually 25-30 poems in length.
“Where a larger work of poetry can address a lot of topics, typically a chapbook addresses one cohesive thread that runs throughout the poems,” Johnson says.
She also says that “there was a lot of explaining to people what a chapbook actually is because it’s a very weird, niche term.”
The open mic event was held at the same time as several other campus events and was able to draw a crowd of both creatives and supporters alike.
The concept for creating the chapbook came from a simple miscommunication with her friend, Jackie Grondahl, on a Sunday morning drive. When Johnson suggested the idea of collecting poetry for her own portfolio, Grondahl took it to mean a published volume.
Over the ensuing months, Johnson selected and edited poems, refining her work, and Grondahl designed illustrations to accompany the poems and made the cover for the chapbook.
“This is not something that I made,” Johnson says. “This is something that we made and that, I think, protects and asserts the theme of the piece. We created something really special.”
The evening celebrated Johnson’s publication, and brought together a mix of AU students, alumni and members from the local community.
Johnson read selections from her book, which contains 28 poems about place and finding herself in the Midwest. Invited to present as a part of the release event were Grondahl, Jacob Cupps, Emily Doty, Amey Dice and Mitchell Stacy.
“They all have a different perspective to offer about what it means to live in central Indiana and to have attended AU,” Johnson says. “And not all of them are from the Midwest.”
The mic was then opened and several guests stood in front of the crowd and performed some of their work.
In spaces where poetry is shared, there is an engaged and collaborative community, and Johnson says this is an integral part of reclaiming a sense of belonging.
Specifically, Johnson refers to one of her poems, “Who Knew Central Indiana Had A Music Scene?” to describe the significance of these kinds of small, intimate community events.
“It’s important and fundamental to the Midwestern voice,” Johnson says. “It’s about people putting together events for 25 people and saying that’s a good amount. It’s not about stadium shows, it’s about how we can turn one room into a family of people who all just want to hear other people’s thoughts.”
When Johnson first came to AU, she dreamed of becoming an author of novels. She had no intentions of writing poetry, and regarded herself far from a poet.
Johnson kept a journal for herself for many years, and during her sophomore year she realized that the lyrical compositions of her thoughts and expressions were poetic in nature.
“I realized, ‘wow, I think this this is what I actually am—a poet—and I just haven’t recognized it in myself,” Johnson says. “Naming that gave it a lot more power.”
With guidance and encouragement from her professors, Johnson charted a course to realizing her new passion.
Johnson’s voice has come from thoughtful reflection, and she has been refining her craft and calling it by its name of poetry.
Now, Johnson is at work on her second chapbook, and is chasing down her career as a poet. She has applied to several MFA programs with dreams of teaching creative writing in a university setting, and intends to publish a manuscript in that time.
“The goal for now is to create small things for people at large,” Johnson says.
Johnson hopes that her work and events like the poetry collection release party will inspire young creatives like herself.
“Keep reading poetry,” Johnson says. “There’s innovative contemporary poetry out there that you will understand and you will identify with and that will help you solidify your voice. And keep writing.”
She defines poetry as familial in nature, and encourages sharing poetry in community.
“You’ll make friends and you’ll hear people’s work from around you and it will be collaborative,” Johnson says. “And that’s the most important thing.”