Bermudian Stephan Johnstone has just released his second album of poems and is working on a new book. He spoke to Lifestyle reporter René Hill about his life, his influences and his hopes for the future.
When Stephan Johnstone showed his poem to his teacher she thought his parents must have written it, convinced no 11-year-old could have constructed such verse.
It was about Tom Moore’s Jungle and told the story of how much he loved walking through the trails, the things he saw and came into contact with when there.
“I remember when I was in primary school at Harrington Sound and I wrote a poem for class and my teacher didn’t believe I wrote it,” he said.
“She kept asking if my parents had written it for me. She even pulled me aside after class and asked again.
“She asked so many times, I began to doubt myself and at the time I never understood why she singled me out like that.”
But now, at the age of 25, he is about to release his second album called ‘The Script Keeper‘, is working on his third album called ‘Spaceship Earth’, he is also writing a new book and hopes one day to become a household name.
Although he says he draws inspiration from life, one of the tracks of his new album is dedicated to his mother, Rhonda Johnstone, who passed away 11 years ago at the age of 44.
“My mom passed away from cancer and ‘As Long as I’m Living‘ tells the whole story,” he said. He also released the album on his mother’s birthday April 20
Mr. Johnston, from Devil’s Hole, in Smith’s parish, left Bermuda to study Graphic Design at George Brown’s School of Design, Toronto. His first album ‘Broken Thoughts‘ was released online for free, and ‘The Script Keeper’ was launched in Bermuda at Sound Stage. It has since been released online at various music websites.
While studying, he performed a lot at live mic nights, but since graduating in 2006 and gaining work experience in a graphic design firm plus doing freelance work in the evening, he says he hasn’t had the time for live performances.
“But I’ve made a promise to myself that once this album has been released I will try and get back into it,” he said.
He got his start in live performance at Chewstick and said: “Chewstick was actually the first place I had ever performed! It was July 3, 2005 and I was 22-years-old and extremely nervous, but it went over well.
“Performing there made me comfortable with reciting my poetry to people outside my immediate circle of friends and gave me the motivation needed to write even more.”
Mr. Johnstone freely admits to being ‘a nerd’ the reason, he believes, that he was always an outsider.
“I’m not big in sports, I love learning, I love computers, too much my girl would say, and I’m not a big party animal. I’m more of a ‘to myself kind of guy’ plus I’m skinny with glasses (laugh).
“I’ve always felt like I related more with nerds than bad boys or thugs, but I am proud of that! I love who I am! Forever a nerd!
“Growing up I was extremely shy, but I wouldn’t say that turned me to poetry. My interest in poetry wasn’t sparked by a particular event in my life. I’ve always had the ability to put my thoughts and emotions into metaphors and words that rhymed, but I couldn’t write an essay to save my life (laugh). I’m proud of being a nerd because nerds run things, literally.”
Asked where and when he writes, he says he writes “anywhere and everywhere”.
“It’s strange, because I’ve never been good at English or grammar, but I’ve always had these moments when a combination of words, a rhyming pattern or an idea would pop into my head and I would feel guilty if I didn’t write it down.
“Or, I’d feel like I missed out on something great, because it usually doesn’t come back twice. I either capture it as it reveals itself to me, or it’s lost forever.”
Regarding his inspiration, he simply said: “Everything! Life is full of inspirational moments, but sometimes we are just too busy to see them.”
On when he began reading poetry and his favourite poets, he explained: “To be totally honest I don’t read much poetry or listen to a lot of it.
“I love being creative and expressing myself in as many ways as possible. Poetry allows me to get a lot of stuff off my chest and when it’s off my chest and out in the open, it always gives me a better understanding about who I am.
“Some of my favourite poets are Black Ice, who frequently appears on Russell Simmons’ ‘Def Poetry’, Ras Mykkal, “every Bermudian poet has to take their hat off to Ras”, and Saul Williams a popular American poet.”
On his biggest influences, he said: “I don’t really have any poets that influence me and I never grew up listening to any. I just try to write the best I can in every piece.”
Regarding whether his parents were avid readers or writers, Mr. Johnstone said: “My parents weren’t heavy readers or writers.
“My mom, Rhonda Johnstone, worked in reinsurance and my dad, Eldon Johnstone, is in construction. No one in particular really helped me to write, but everyone I shared my work with gave me pointers and encouraged me to keep it up, so I did.”
In as far as his future aspirations are concerned, he said: “I have to answer both these questions at the same time.
“I currently run my own Creative company called SJDWORLD sjdworld.com and under this umbrella I take on design work. From business cards, to brochures, to websites, to advertisements, we do it all.
“Some of my clients include Saltrock Grill, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bermuda, Sea Horses, Bermuda Arts Council (web) and Khadijo Music Inc. just to name a few.
“I also have my own projects that I work on. My second album is the first project I’ve released this year. My goal is to network as best as I can and build a solid client base while gaining work experience out here in Toronto.
“Once I’ve successfully established a solid client base I plan to move back home to Bermuda to start up SJDWORLD full time.
“I would love to one day be recognised as a known poet so, with each album I release I try to perfect my craft.
“I wouldn’t say I’m trying to be a full time poet/ author, as poetry is just one of the many creative outlets I am interested in.”
He hasn’t been pushing himself in Canada as much as he should, he admitted. “But I would love the opportunity to be recognised as an up and coming poet in Canada. Now that this album is out I promised myself I would get back in to the Canadian poetry scene.”
However, he added: “I’m not expecting to make much money off of my work (laugh). One of the reasons why ‘The Script Keeper’ is for sale is because people around me convinced me to sell it.
“The other reason why it’s on sale is because it gives me the ability to reach a wider audience by making it available in stores and online.
“I don’t write poetry to make money I just write poetry, because I can and I love it.”
So is he the archetypal struggling poet living in poverty dreaming of being published?
“No,” he said, “When I tell people I write poetry they don’t believe me at first.
“I guess I don’t look or act like the stereotypical poet, but I am broke and I do love dreaming (laugh).
First Chewstick performance:
Written by Rene Hill