Wrestlers are tough people, right? So what would make an Olympic-caliber wrestler want to write a poem that took 23 years to finish and cover 90 pages in a book?
For Kenny Johnson, the answer is simple. Love and History.
Johnson, who for many years was a nationally-ranked freestyle wrestler, has brought to publication a new book entitled "The Rose and the Silver Bell." According to Johnson, it is the longest rhymed and metered poem written in the English language.
The promotional material for the book says that it is "an enchanting story told in verse, in a haunting fashion that will make you sad, then hopeful, then, at last, joyful." If you read the entire 90-page poem, you will have read 2,608 lines, 12,315 words and 53,304 characters.
The story combines Johnson's lifelong interest in poetry, with a personal quest for true love and an interest in history, specifically in the days of Scottish Highwaymen.
"It is a love story that transcends time, a story that love conquers all," said Johnson.
In 1984, when Johnson was in ninth grade and was 13 years old, the poem was started. Just a few days ago, in mid-December 2006, his book was published and is now available for purchase. Ironically, the poetry project was started during the same year that Johnson began his wrestling career. His passion for wrestling, as well as his interest in writing poetry, has continued and grown during the years.
"This came from my heart and soul," said Johnson about the book. "But it also came from wrestling. Like wrestling, it is a true love for me. Like wrestling, once you latch onto it, it's there for life."
The first edition of the book has a limited run of 250 copies, each hand numbered and signed by Johnson. The cost of the book is $16.00 and will be available online and in selected bookstores. Anybody who would like to preview a sample of the story can go to the following website and read some selected excerpts of the book. http://www.theroseandthesilverbell.com
When you click on the preview section, you can flip through a few pages and read a sample of the verses. The first two stanzas of the sample preview are:
The horse was black from hoof to mane,
Arabian and thoroughbred.
Silver decked the saddle and rein,
And the halter around his head.
From boot to plume, all clad in black,
Save earring with a silver bell,
There sat a man astride his back;
The two looked like they came from Hell.
This is a form of poetry Johnson calls rhymed and metered. His book is actually a single poem, one that fills an entire book. Johnson has searched everywhere, attempting to find a poem of this format as long as his own. He is convinced he has created a new "record" for the longest poem in this category.
"The reason I chose rhymed and metered is wrestling," said Johnson. "This has structure. The sport of wrestling has structure. It all goes back to the basic skills. Keeping the basics, being rhymed and metered, had focus, just like in wrestling."
As a kid, Johnson liked jotting things down and keeping track of what he wrote. After watching the movie "Somewhere in Time," which featured Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, and reading books by HG Wells, Johnson's interest in love, in history and in time travel all pointed him towards the development of his poetry.
"I started writing a story, and it just got longer. Instead of ending, it just kept going," said Johnson.
Johnson continued working on his story through high school, college and after, but most of his focus was on his wrestling career. Completing the poem was never a major priority, at least not ahead of winning wrestling matches and training for the Olympic Games. His poem was like a hobby for him, an important part of his life off of the mat.
It is only in the last few years that getting the poem completed and published became important. Since moving to California, Johnson has shown the material to many people, including those who work in entertainment in Hollywood. Many have encouraged him to get the poetry published. He reached out to wrestling journalist and author Mike Chapman with the project, who has assisted in the final editing of the poem and given guidance on getting through the publishing process.
Johnson has an interesting time explaining that he is a wrestler who writes poetry.
"People are surprised," said Johnson. "As a wrestler, I'm one of those short, stocky-looking guys. They think, 'he's tough.' When they hear I wrote a book, they thought it was about wrestling. I'm not qualified for that. I stuck with something I know about, my poetry."
Johnson's wrestling career also continues today at the age of 35. After competing in high school, Johnson wrestled in college, for three years at Cornell College and two years at the Univ. of Iowa. He then turned his attention to freestyle wrestling. While competing on the Senior level, he coached a number of years at Northwestern Univ. He then moved to Colorado Springs, Colo. and was a member of the first U.S. Olympic Training Center resident program in freestyle wrestling from 1997-2000. His pursuit of his Olympic wrestling dream ended at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Dallas, Texas.
Johnson remained involved in the sport as a coach, working with young athletes and also teaching wrestling to those who compete in mixed martial arts. He took a job for a few years working with Real Pro Wrestling, serving as one of its executives and helping the organization develop its product. Johnson has since taken a job as the Director of Sponsorship for the AVP, a successful professional beach volleyball league.
It is on the beach that Johnson continues his career as a competitor. This season, he placed third at the U.S. Beach National Championships, then finished fifth at the Beach World Team Trials, just missing a spot on the U.S. World Team. Johnson plans to continue entering Beach Wrestling events.
"I like Beach Wrestling and love training it," said Johnson. "If Beach Wrestling didn't take off, I would be shocked. It is fun to do. It is intense. Living in Southern California, I am in the mecca of beach activities."
Meanwhile, Johnson enjoys sharing his new book and his passion for poetry with whoever is interested.
"Originally, this was a personal journey for me, right from the first word," said Johnson. "To see it finally done, I just never imagined that. It was a feeling like nothing else. But for me, the personal journey is enough. I would love to have people read it. It is beautiful, positive and uplifting. This is a 23-year journey for me. It is a two-hour journey for someone else who reads it."