Writer and critic Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951. His most recent collection is ‘Rogue States’ (Salmon Poetry, 2019.) He founded Galway city’s annual literature festival in 1986 and in 2004 was writer-in-residence to the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco.
One of Galway’s most beloved writers, Fred Johnston talks to Tracy Gaughan about cultural politics, widening our imaginative horizons, and his life long love affair with the poetic craft.
This interview was conducted via email in April 2020.
You have had a long and illustrious career as a poet, Fred, publishing your first collection Life and Death in The Midlands in 1979. What does poetry mean to you and what does it do for you? Must you write?
The first poem I ever published was entitled ‘Síle,’ in Hayden Murphy’s ‘Broadsheet.’ In Dublin in the early seventies. I was fond of Patrick Kavanagh and, by utter contrast, Ferlinghetti. I had sat a whole Summer of lunchtimes on the steps of the PR agency I worked for in Merrion Square, reading an anthology of Irish poets; I loved Derek Mahon, and still do. He should have had the Nobel Prize. There were very few outlets, readings, and so on, at that time. One worked in a sort of friendly isolation. Later I was attracted to the flawed Robert Graves.
I saw poetry as a way of speaking. A poem was a conversation. I must say that I saw it also as having a quasi-religious significance too; there was magic in a good poem. I wanted to partake, if you will, of its mystery, the mystery language might conjure. The ordinary transmuted into something more than itself. As an only child, I suppose writing allowed me some measure of control. For me, poetry is the most direct and concise method through which an idea can be transmitted and the imagination reformulated. What a poem means to you changes with age and by age I mean life’s experiences. That’s why it is ridiculous seriously to publish a young poet of, say, twenty with a first collection. They may believe, as we all did, that they have profound things to say, whereas, in reality, they haven’t anything to say really, their experienced world is small. They will tend towards dwelling on adolescent love and so on. This might all embarrass them later. It shouldn’t, it’s a rite of passage. I’m speaking of those who live in the comfortable and politically stable West; if they are teenagers in a war zone, reality is very different.
Poetry has a reputation for being an esoteric and confounding art creating a chasm between it and broader culture. What, in your opinion, is the current relationship between contemporary poetry and the general reader? What role do you feel poetry plays or should play in society?
I can think of no poem as powerful an artistic-political statement as Picasso’s painting Guernica. We should guard against being too grandiose about what poetry can do and so forth. But there has certainly been the suggestion that poetry should not be accessible, that a reader should have to work at interpreting it. ‘Accessible,’ sadly, has become an alternative to describing something as having little poetic value, and doesn’t try for any. If a critic says a collection of poetry is accessible, he has in my view condemned it. A good poem contains all the meaning and factuality one can wish for, but it remains a poem, no matter what information it contains.
In Ireland – in the West generally – no one is likely to write a poem that threatens the Establishment to the point where the poet is dragged out of bed and ‘disappeared’; you need the pressure-cooker of totalitarianism or dictatorship for that. And such political conditions some of our poets may fantasize about a little, but I doubt very much that they’d endure the penalties. Poets elsewhere in the world right now are being jailed for what they write, but not here. And we have no right to plunder their suffering. Poets and writers generally in Ireland actually benefit from our system, and some appear to strive hard to be acknowledged as part of the Establishment. They can spot a ‘business’ when they see one.
I don’t know who the ‘general reader’ is anymore. I don’t go for what’s termed ‘performance poetry’ because any I’ve heard here has been adolescent and a rage against one’s father. I don’t go for the notion that the more hits you have on your Facebook page the likelier it is that a major publisher will take you up, but it happens. We need satirists but in the main, we have people who are angry. Poetry is showbiz now, a package of festival invitations, media interviews, all of that. Grants, trips abroad, the glittering prizes of a culture very self-satisfied, purring like a well-fed cat. And Tony Soprano could run some elements of it all quite well. I’ve encountered some nasty people in the poetry world. Some see poetry as a means to an end, a means to acquire some species of social or cultural power. Thus is poetry and its noble intention subverted.
But we have a slow train coming down the line with the arrival of Covid-19. I dread the first Corona poetry anthology, the first Corona novel, but I can sense them out there. That said, our writing will undoubtedly be changed by the social situations we’re facing. Poetry may possibly harden, as it did during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles,’ and become actually more concerned with concrete social issues. It may re-acquire a protesting, vigorous voice. We may all be forced to become politicized poets. Certainly, that wouldn’t suit those who believe that political invisibility is the secret to success. All indeed is changed, changed utterly. It hasn’t quite hit our understanding yet. Post-Covid poetry may indeed be more tilted towards performance, a freeing of the body after such restraint; the page may not be enough to frame the held-in energy. It will be a younger person’s game. A poet won’t be allowed the luxury of being an observer.
Seamus Heaney likened editing to performing ‘surgery’ on a poem. How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a poem and talk a bit about your own editing/rewriting process.
I edit and rewrite quite often, even if a poem has seen publication. There’s not much blood. My poems develop from a basic idea or image or conversation. Maybe there’s a first-line there. I never throw anything out entirely, it may be useful elsewhere. The idea, the image, will dictate the form a poem takes, whether it will rhyme, whether it will be in several verses or just one. Then I check it for voice, to make sure it has one, first of all. Then I edit out superfluous ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ and ‘thes.’ I trim the poem. A poem should have an internal beat or rhythm, in as much as it is related to a proposition of music. Maybe new images suggest themselves. Maybe the poem could lose a couple of verses. It’s all rather a natural process, in the end. But know what you wish to say from the outset. Don’t write to be liked. Avoid poets who are always praised, there’s a worm in that apple. Only nurses and doctors actually deserve praise, as we have seen.
What do you think most well-written poems have in common?
Conciseness. Every word counting. A sense that the poet cares enough about it to have laboured over it.
How would somebody recognize a Fred Johnston poem? What are some common themes, words, quirks in your work? Is there a period in your life you write about more often?
Would anyone recognize a ‘Fred Johnston poem?’ Or distinguish one from a poem by someone else? I’d like to think so. But it’s doubtful. I take writing poetry but understand that as a writer, I’m a hack. Apart from rhyming on occasion, something which I think is treated like a stylistic albatross these days, I really can’t say. So much poetry to me is very wordy and prosy, chopped prose, as they say, giving the impression of being unworked. I don’t get too moved by that. I want a poem to sound like a poem. That requires work, making. I do tend to drift back to two distinct periods in my life as I get older, my ‘African’ period, when I lived in Algeria, and my family, dissecting the latter and their histories. For a time I wrote every day of my cancer treatment and some of those poems got into the collection, ‘Rogue States.’ I sometimes tell myself I should get out more! But that’s a redundant concept for the time being.
As a mainstay on the literary scene and as founder of the Western Writers Centre in Galway, you have obviously inspired and supported many writers over the years. Might you share with our readers and aspiring poets a little of the advice and encouragement you offer to your students? Also, what’s the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Both my founding of Galway’s Cúirt festival in 1986 and putting together the Western Writers’ Centre years later became deeply unhappy and unfortunate experiences. In both I was faced with persistent opposition. Galway’s cultural world is a tight and somewhat envious one. The first day as writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco, I had to explain the contents of a very grubby email sent all the way from Galway. It’s not a cultural town; it was founded on strategic and economic concepts. Culture was a bit of a shock to it. And there were those who believed that they alone were entitled to be engaged with the Arts. I had come from a very different, more varied, and organized world in Dublin. Galway was a culture-shock. None of the great cultural events we now associate with Galway were founded by Galwegians. All blow-ins, when you look at it.
I tend to tell anyone I’m teaching poetry to, to read poetry; it’s surprising how many people want to be poets but won’t bother to read any poetry. It’s always interesting if one is giving a course in poetry, to watch how participants fall by the wayside as soon as exercises and rules are talked about. And remember that once you publish your poem, you are up for critical grabs and have no right to protest about it. In a sense, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. If you can’t handle criticism, don’t publish. Poetry is not easy – the worst advice I’ve heard being offered to apprentices is that anyone can write a poem. That’s simply not true. Anyone can write a bad poem. Not everything you write will pass the test. But you must keep trying. Fail better, as Beckett tells us
Your work hews closely to place and some of your poems reverberate in Galway. Can you talk to me a little about the origins/background of your poem Nothing to do with Love or Sleep, for example?
It’s a fairly obvious poem. The suicide rate in Galway city is alarming. Perhaps young people are under very different pressures these days. And not only young people. The Corrib River flows with deadly force through the centre of the city and sadly if one falls in there in the small hours of the morning, you are unlikely to survive, the river is full of rocks.Then there are the heartbreaking days of searching. It’s hard to live there and not hear the stories or read the coroner’s reports in the local papers. Yet contradictorily, Galway seems to be the ideal city for young people. The poem is about all of that, the night-club frivolity, then God knows what kicks in. Now they have a very good team on guard, as it were, who patrol the edges of the harbour and the river at night. I have known people who have killed themselves, one indeed was a close friend. It was impossible to predict. One day he was considering purchasing a house and quite literally the next he was dead. It’s not a maudlin poem, it’s written with a light enough touch. It arrived that way. The subject is one of our dark little secrets, isn’t it? Maybe less now than previously. The age-old question: ‘To be or not to be.’ Posed, tragically, by some who haven’t lived long enough to know what exactly the question means. Loneliness, emotional or physical, is itself a killer. I think many writers are lonely.
Who are your influences and what emerging poets are currently on your radar? Which writer, dead or alive, would you most like to have a coffee with?
I like French poets. Perhaps because philosophy is so embedded in their education system there, the language and the way they use it is very different from what we do. That said, I think I’d like to have a coffee with Patrick Kavanagh. He could have whatever he liked. And the French writer Colette. Though I don’t know if we’d get on for long. My hat is off to any writer who can challenge our smugness and makes us think and we have one or two here in Ireland, who, despite every pressure, remain unafraid but rarely published, which is the price they pay. Society in Ireland is conservative and our art is conservative. Rock a boat and you’ll be tossed out to drown. Writers are often creatures of contradiction. But it’s what fuels their work too. Maighread Medbh I find very admirable and consistent. Gerry Murphy down in Cork is quietly anarchic as a poet and always worth a read. The Dublin poet and playwright Gerry McDonnell, now working in haiku, is an admirable writer and has written extensively on the Jewish presence and influence in Dublin. In my view, some of the best and most innovative writing doesn’t get heard, while the ‘usual suspects’ too often get dragged on board at every excuse. Dispiriting, I’d say.
The Cuirt International Festival of Literature which you founded in Galway in 1986 continues to break new ground. This year’s festival is an entirely digital event. How in your opinion, is technology changing the literary world?
Technology is a two-edged sword. It permits the publication of some atrocious poetry, upon which the authors declare themselves to be poets, and at the same time provides a platform for good poets to announce themselves, if they see fit. But I can’t equate publishing online entirely with publishing in print. That’s considered, no doubt, an old-fashioned attitude in some quarters, but there you have it. There have to be standards in poetry and in prose. Something has to remain sacred. Reviewers have to learn to say when something is bad. Many are afraid, of course. But technology cannot be a bad thing in itself, it’s how it is used. It’s how poets use it, and critics. As you point out, the digitalising of poetry festivals – why not? Sadly, you can’t heckle into your laptop.
In relation to your role as a literary critic and reviewer, is it important that literature be judged on its own terms? Is the author dead or is his/her life important when looking at the work?
This is a thorny question, much debated about. Would you buy one of Hitler’s paintings? Céline was a great literary innovator and influenced many, but he was also a Fascist and an anti-Semite. There are in our time writers who are supporters of Zionism and are unbothered by the dispossession of the Palestinians: how can you judge their work? Can you read the late Francis Stuart without remembering his work for Nazi radio? I remember that when that latter row erupted in Aosdana, many believed that you could not venerate a writer who’d worked for the Reichs Rundfunk-Gesellschaft. Others held that his writing was a separate thing. Now Stuart, after all, was a very fine writer. I believe the writing of Bobby Sands should be taught in our schools along with the rest. But you can see the objections from here – what about the IRA and so on and so forth. You must take the package, but now and then you need someone to tell you what the package contains. I think one can only properly read a writer’s work if you absorb him whole, that is, the life and all. Any divorce is false and self-deceiving. I know writers who would call themselves Leftists or Socialists, but who would undermine other writers, censor them, in effect, at the drop of a hat. I know poets who are political hypocrites; should I not draw examples when reviewing their work? Should I not provide as full a picture to the reader as possible? Let him or her arrive at their own conclusions. The rest is merely a discussion of the writer’s style and coherence.
You also write fiction. Is there a poetry time of day and a prose time of day? What are you writing now?
No, I wish I were that disciplined. At present I am writing, that is, I am learning to write, some haiku. I hold up no commendations for it. And I have about five new stories, written, into which I plunge now and then with the correcting-pen. One has just recently been taken for publication. I’d like to bring out another collection of stories but who knows? It’s a younger market these days or seems to be. And I’ve never quite seen myself as being a definitively Irish writer.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Purchase of the late Aidan Higgins’ great Euro-Irish novel, The Balcony of Europe. Many years ago, admittedly. As a writer, he allowed me to push off from Irish territory and not be constrained. The short stories of the late John Arden tell you the same thing; widen the imaginative horizons, it’s not all O’ Faolain, though reading him was one of the best things I could ever do as an aspiring short story writer. But the world has changed. Everyone should read Lee Dunne these days, too. Or Brian Cleeve’s Cry of Morning. Of course, young writers often tend to wish to ‘sophisticate’ themselves by not reading what went before them. But if you are, say, an aspiring young woman writer and disdain to read the early Edna O’Brien, or Jennifer Johnston, or Kate O’Brien, you’re only fooling yourself. Young Irish women writers wouldn’t have anything to offer were it not for these women. We neglect our literary history at our peril. You must strive to ‘make it new;’ and that’s a challenge because most everything that can be done in literature has been done, and decades ago. Read Joyce’s ‘Dubliners.’
Fred’s poetry will be available to read in The Blue Nib print Issue 42, July 2020.