Peninsula Poetry: Charlotte Johnston


Charlotte Johnston was only 10 when she spent a week at Eagle Bluff Lighthouse with her grandparents. Since that first visit, Door County has remained her constant while she and her husband, Richard, have divided their time between Madison and Ephraim.

Johnston grew up on a farm in the Verona, Wisconsin, area and later taught in Verona for 29 years. While teaching English, she developed a Wisconsin Writers course that received statewide recognition. She also pursued poetry writing at workshops at The Clearing and Björklunden; with her poetry group, the Stone Kettle Poets; and while writing alongside her students.

Recently, Johnston published It’s How You Catch the Light, a collection of her poetry, prose and photographs. Her poem “Storm Warning on Fyr Bal” is included in the Door County Poets Collective’s just-published anthology, Halfway to the North Pole.

Johnston shared these thoughts about her poetry and more.

What’s your writing routine?

My most productive writing has happened in Door County. For me, there is nothing like the quiet space in our birch woods to find inspiration.

My recipe for writing: First draft = the down draft: that is, you just get it down. Second draft = the up draft: that is, you fix it up.

As many times as I shared this recipe with my high school students, I often found it hard to follow it myself. The impulse is to want to put it all down perfectly, which often results in a blank page.

What do most poorly written poems have in common, and what do most well-written poems have in common?

The tried-and-true rule of “Show, not tell” really works. Showing helps the reader get there on their own. Telling sometimes works if used sparingly, but you still need to make sure the reader has to do work. A not-so-good poem is one I’m not thinking about again later in the afternoon.

Is it important for the reader to understand the meaning of the poem or to be able to “solve” it?

I think a poet should give their reader a hand down the path, not push them off the escarpment.

Each reader brings their own reference points, so a poem resonates uniquely with each reader. As I was deciding which poems to include for this column, someone mentioned they liked one of my poems for its relevance to our current times. I had not seen that meaning in my poem before, but when I reread it, I enjoyed seeing it with new eyes. 

What book are you reading right now?

I am really enjoying reading Halfway to the North Pole. We have so many gifted voices here in Door County; I feel fortunate to call this place home. There’s no place that I’d rather be.

Uncharted Waters

Wind, catch my sail …

Take me beyond limits

of expectation and sensibility,

out past lanes of narrow-mindedness,

past boundaries of doubt and fear

to open waters where I am free.

Fill my sail, summer wind …

Take me places I’ve never been,

let me do things I’ve never done.

Challenge me … dare me

to take risks out in deep water.

And when I have satisfied my yearnings,

let a quiet breeze take me home again

to what I left behind.

It’s How You Catch the Light

Cana Island lighthouse

rises 89 feet along Lake Michigan’s shore

where rough waters smooth white stones,

its beacon guiding mariners past treacherous reefs.

Rising 89 feet along Lake Michigan’s shore

on the Door Peninsula due north of Baileys Harbor,

its beacon guides mariners past treacherous reefs,

just as it has for 145 years.

On the Door Peninsula due north of Baileys Harbor,

a Fresnel lens of circular prisms sends light 18 miles out

just as it has for 145 years,

warning sailors of impending fog and wintry storms.

A Fresnel lens of circular prisms sends light 18 miles out, yet

dark waters harbor a resting place of wood-hulled schooners

lost in thick fog and wintry storms,

where rough waters smooth white stones – and old bones.

Storm Warning on Fyr Bal

Rolling winds from Escanaba tumble down
toward the bread loaf peninsula
of Eagle Bay.
Cauldrons of Ephraim waters
erupt angrily, washing
white boulders on shore.

Fierce wind gusts challenge purple martins
seeking shelter in their
high-rise condominiums.
Fat clouds darken and bellow,
raining down torrents of fury
on tourists scurrying for cover.
Car doors slam, artists’ tents collapse,
food tables topple …
summer solstice surrenders.
Its damage done, the summer storm
climbs the bluff between two churches,
hoping for redemption.

Peninsula Poetry is a monthly column curated by the Door County Poets Collective, a working group that formed to publish Soundings: Door County in Poetry in 2015 and continues to meet.