The turnabout came when, as a teen, Johnson attended a summer program for writers. She planned to write fiction but was assigned instead to a spoken-word poetry class. She calls that event her “second birthday.”
"That first class changed my life," she said. "It was as though poetry came down from the sky and said to me, 'This is you. You are home!' The poetry came pouring out of me, and I haven't stopped writing and performing since."
"I do perform poetry, but I don't want to confine myself to performance because I also want my words to stand on their own on the page," she clarified. "I call myself a spoken-word poet."
Johnson's passion for poetry has led to remarkable opportunities. As a high school senior, she was invited to take part in a poetry workshop at the White House. And this past fall, author and activist Kevin Powell, who was giving a talk at Mount Holyoke, unexpectedly asked Johnson to perform a poem before he spoke. She had only three minutes to prepare, but brought down the house with a spirited performance of "Verification."
"The support I've gotten from Mount Holyoke is the only reason that opportunity came about," said the Los Angeles native, who now lives in Oregon.
The pull of poetry.
Johnson says her poetry has been inspired by everything she's learned academically, and by the discovery of her own cultural heritage.
"So many classes have informed my writing, to the extent that sometimes I'm writing poetry in classes when I should be taking notes," she said.
Johnson's passion for poetry overcomes any performance anxiety, and she puts her full self into expressing each poem for listeners.
"I think there's nothing more beautiful than giving my heart to an audience through poetry,” she said. “And I've always gotten nothing but love back."
This happens, Johnson said, because poetry means "sharing part of my essence with you through the spoken word, not just telling you a story. I'm connecting soul to soul with the audience."
Spreading the word.
Johnson wants to use that soul conversation to create positive change in the world. That's why she cofounded Mount Holyoke's Conscious Poets Society during her sophomore year. The group runs poetry slams, workshops, and performs locally.
"Mount Holyoke supported us in building a community of artists and poetry lovers. I do it to inspire others to get onstage and find themselves," she said.
In addition to her poetry, Johnson belly dances and co-leads Afrik Chic, an African hip-hop fusion dance team. Through MHC's Community-Based Learning Program, she tutors and teaches spoken-word poetry in an after-school program in nearby Holyoke.
"If I can help a young person speak her mind—through poetry or any other medium—then I've done my job,” she said. “I don't write to be famous or even to be the best poet I can be. I'm here to empower others so they can empower others in a ripple effect of service."
After her May graduation, Johnson will get to serve larger groups of people as the newly hired creative and administrative assistant of none other than activist Kevin Powell and his BK Nation. Clearly impressed by Johnson's performance before his talk at Mount Holyoke, Powell reached out to Johnson and ultimately offered her a job. That's the kind of opportunity that, Johnson said, only poetry could bring her.
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