Melissa Fite Johnson, an English teacher at Pittsburg High School for the last 10 years, is the 2015 recipient of the Kansas Authors Club Nelson Poetry Book Award for “While the Kettle’s On,” Johnson’s collection of poems published by Little Balkans Press.
“It feels wonderful, it was a pretty big surprise,” Johnson said. “It’s the first contest I entered and I felt a little presumptuous even entering because it’s my first book and it was a very small press — a wonderful press — so I thought ‘Well but why not?’ ... It was a wonderful surprise.”
“While the Kettle’s On” is a collection of 50 poems divided into five categories — Four Generations, Revising the Body, Good Housekeeping, Vulnerability and The Ballad of Marc and Melissa, which is about her relationship with her husband — and Johnson said she calls the book a love letter to her late father, Jerry Fite.
Johnson said her father was also a writer who had columns in about nine different newspapers and also taught English like Johnson does now. Reconciling with what she remembered about her father — he underwent laryngectomy from smoking when she was four years old, suffered two strokes before she turned six and eventually passed away when she was 16 — her work has had a focus on the version of her father that other people would recant to her showing a new side of him.
“It’s kind of weird, because I didn’t know my dad like a lot of other people knew him,” Johnson said. “I knew this man who was very positive all the time, which was pretty inspirational, like he was disabled, so a lot of my poems are about that. But he was this incredible person. He was in the Peace Corps for seven years and he traveled all over ... He just had these crazy experiences, so the people who knew him would tell me all this crazy stuff about him.”
She said her father tends to “pop up” in the book more than anyone, so she sees the work as kind of a tribute to him.
Praise has been pouring in, from those from whom she learned such as Laura Lee Washburn, director of creative writing at Pittsburg State University, and distinguished writers and poets like Judge John Jenkinson and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.
In a press release, Washburn writes in the book’s introduction that “Melissa’s poems are at turns delightfully romantic (think Nora Ephron, think ‘Say Anything’) and mournfully elegiac, never letting us forget, even in the domestic bliss of the evening walk, that we are as mortal and frail as the trees and flowers around us.”
Jenkinson, an award winner with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, attributes her collection of poems to “her gentle wit, concrete imagery and faith in the poem to carry its own weight without authorial intervention make this highly accessible book not only easy to love, but also demonstrate the poet’s keen sense of a deceptively simple art.”
“This collection, which puts me in mind of both Robert Frost and Louise Gluck constitutes an impressive first book, one that comes whistling like a banshee out of the kettle,” Jenkinson said in the release.
Mirriam-Goldberg, a 2009-2013 Kansas Poet Laureate, states that “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. In essence, the whole collection is about love and how to recognize it when it shines through the moments that matter.”
Johnson’s work has appeared in many publications, including I-70 Review, The New Verse News and Inscape Magazine, to name a few.
“While the Kettle’s On” is available in several area bookstores, including Spellbound in Pittsburg, as well as at Inklings and Prospero’s in Kansas City, Reader’s World in Lee’s Summit, Missouri and The Raven in Lawrence. It is also available on Amazon, and signed copies of the book can be purchased through her website www.melissafitejohnson.com.
— Jesse Brown is a staff writer for The Morning Sun. He can be emailed at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @JesseBrown_MS.