Meet Alex Johnson, the soul behind spoken word artist PoeticSoul
In 2009, Alex Johnson, better known as PoeticSoul, a spoken word artist and social activist, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Her poetry has been featured in The Southern View Magazine and has performed around the country at events like 100,000 Poets for Change. She has been featured in the Blood Jet Poetry Series in New Orleans, Patrice Melnick’s Artist Series, and in 2016 collaborated with Unlikely Stories as a featured poet on the Unlikely Saints Tour.
Johnson’s album, “Scattered Thoughts,” details her inner thoughts and poetic journey from 2007, when she first started experiencing the symptoms of multiple sclerosis; through 2009 when she was diagnosed; and up to 2015 when she decided to put out a spoken word record rather than a book.
“I wanted to put out something for my grandmother, who is illiterate,” Johnson said.
It was period fraught with illness; fatigue and exacerbations; or relapses of multiple sclerosis symptoms.
“There are people,” Johnson said, “that have exacerbated once and they’re in wheelchairs.”
Johnson has exacerbated 15 times since 2009. She went blind in one eye for five months.
“I don’t have bad days — only inconvenient moments,” she stated.
I sat down with PoeticSoul on a sunny day to talk about her poetry, her battle with illness and why spoken word is important.
Story continues below after video
In person, Johnson is dynamic: quick to laugh but equally quick to philosophize. When she does this, she becomes animated, and her intense passion becomes focused on the point she is making.
During her “pleasantly intense” childhood, Johnson became intrigued by poetry at an early age through her mother — a writer herself — entering but never winning numerous writing competitions at the main branch of the Lafayette Public Library. She found spoken word poetry in high school, when a chance channel change introduced her to HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” The passion and freedom of expression she saw there filled her with awe and she knew then that she wanted to be a word artist.
Johnson started her academic career in Wharton Hall, pursuing a degree in nursing at the prompting of her mother, but soon left the field.
“I’m a poet. I’ll help you save your spirit, but as far as touching you… maybe not,” she laughs.
She left nursing when her illness began affecting her GPA. After a few semesters off, she came back to school: this time in political science.
“I love studying what’s going in in society and economics and things like that,” she said.
For a time she was happy, but then, she said, found that she didn’t really have a place in political science. “I spoke with (political science departmental chair) Dr. Teten about where I fit in and he said, ‘Well, Alex, you can do it but you’re going to have to make your own place.’ And him saying that meant so much to me: make my own place.”
Another bad bout with multiple sclerosis took her out of school, and when she returned it, was to marketing.
“It kind of fell in my lap,” she said. “Despite my health, I continued to work with my poetry.” She had started spending time as a teaching artist with at-risk youth, students, she said, who shared her background of an “intense” childhood. Marketing seemed right for her because she needed a way to promote herself and her mission, she said. She speaks glowingly of the university’s marketing department and faculty, testifying how her classes helped lead her to self-discovery. “I have a voice,” she said, “and I have something to market.”
At the moment, Johnson is marketing an organization she founded and runs: Lyrically Inclined. The organization sponsors spoken word and poetry events around the Lafayette area. They’re working towards building into a certified non-profit, she said, because she wants to make sure that Lafayette has a strong foundation for spoken word artists in the way that New Orleans and Baton Rouge do.
Empowerment is a strong motivator for Johnson: the word comes up often, and attests to her passionate belief in the importance of self-expression. Johnson is heavily involved in the local community, most especially with the Lafayette Juvenile Detention Center, where she spent time last year teaching a poetry workshop.
“Just because a student is ‘at risk’ does not mean they are incompetent, it doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent.”
Johnson and her students at the Detention Center collaborated on a poem called “Eyes on of the Sun” with each student contributing their “dopest” line. Johnson then edited, recorded and presented at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C.
“I was a pawn,” she laughed.
Johnson lightly tosses off references to her “health drama,” but becomes serious and deliberate, speaking slowly and carefully, when addressing how it influenced and shaped her progress as both an artist and person.
Having fought with multiple sclerosis for the better part of 10 years, Johnson is reluctant to speak to it, feeling sometimes as though people think she is complaining, but is unapologetic.
“I have to talk about it because it’s a part of me, it’s a part of my journey.”
Poetry, Johnson said, is powerful because it’s a free form of expression.
“You can take the worst thing that has happened in your life — an atrocity — and make it beautiful. You can make death beautiful… and in the same scope there is love — you can express your love for someone. It’s the ability to relay those emotions so creatively so that it doesn’t hurt so much. So that you can see that it hurts, but it’s so beautiful that you have to pay attention and think about it, and maybe even think twice about how you react to it.” She paused and then laughed.”That’s just my take on it.”
Her poetry is inspired by self-experience. It’s dangerous, she said, to write about what you don’t know or haven’t yourself experienced.
“It’s not truly being honest—writing about a subject that you’ve never touched, you still should find yourself in it someway so that you can write about it honestly.”
Spoken word performance captivates her because it allows the poet to communicate how they wrote the poem itself. It gives a concrete sense of objectivity to an art form riddled with emotional ambiguity.
“I would love to watch Maya Angelou read all of her work to me — I would prefer her to read it all the time rather than me reading it because of the passion behind it. You get to feel that passion. I think that’s what is missing from the page. The page brings its own beauty, but the passion of the person is missing.”
The passion Johnson brings to the mic is what she credits with captivating her audiences, and in one instance, silencing a crowd of rowdy drunks.
“I’m very proud of that,” she laughed.
After she graduates in May, Johnson said she will sleep, develop her teaching-artist curriculum and begin work on a book.
To aspiring writers and poets, Johnson says to be consistent. “Keep writing. Don’t doubt yourself, don’t throw it away. Don’t get frustrated — just breathe. That’s really it: breathe.”
Johnson’s album “Scattered Thoughts” is available on Spotify and iTunes.
To hear the full interview, click below:
Video shot by Raeilon Semere and Kailey Broussard and edited by Kailey Broussard. Interview recorded by George Clarke