This is an edited transcript and interview, recorded in May 2016 at the University of Dundee for DURA. The interview can be viewed by clicking on the image above.
Beth McDonough: Good afternoon Brian Johnstone… it’s a pleasure to have you here. If I were to go through your CV, I think we would take up the whole filming time, so I’m not going to do it but I’m aware you’ve got six published collections?
Brian Johnstone: Yes, three full collections; three pamphlets….
BM: And, of course, amongst your many other roles, you coined this wonderful term. You’re a sort of serial founder, not least of which, of course, is StAnza which still thrives beyond anybody’s hopes. I think it’s just extraordinary.
BJ: Thanks to Eleanor [Livingstone], our wonderful Director.
BM: But thanks to you too. And to Anna and to… When I think about your work, I think about the past being omnipresent in your work in a very healthy and wonderful way. And sometimes it’s a very highly personal past. And sometimes it taps into a collective memory. This history is really huge in your work.
BJ: It’s an obsession of mine. There’s no point saying otherwise. I’ve always been a lover of history. It’s possibly the first reading that I ever did as a pretty young child was historical stuff. The first time I ever got the belt at school was for reading a history book. The mistake I made was reading it during an arithmetic lesson. The pain didn’t put me off: a positive reinforcement of history. As a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist. My hero was Mortimer Wheeler. I didn’t, obviously, become an archaeologist. I do have friends who became archaeologists. But archaeology, history, the past, they’ve always been very, very much something that I’m interested in. It’s not nostalgia. I think nostalgia in some ways has kind of been debased through its understanding, the way the term’s used nowadays. It actually comes from, I think it’s nost-algia, pain and loss. It’s not really about the sort of sentimental wishy-washy affection for the past that it tends to be tied up with now. I prefer terms like the Portuguese term saudade and the Spanish term duende. That sort of soulful empathy and longing for the past. But it’s not longing to live in the past. It’s longing to understand the lives of the people of the past, to understand the conditions that they put up with, to try and be those people.
BM: So a sort of living with the past?
BJ: I think of it in those terms. I mean the immense amount of loss that’s part of the past. We only have a fragment. The further back you go, the less you have obviously. But even in recent history, we only have fragments of what’s there. We can never fully understand. But I try in my writing, to get very much inside that. I’ll give you a little poem, “History” which [gives] what I want to say about the past in terms of that aspect of loss.
[Reads poem “History”]
BM: I think it’s very interesting what you were saying about wanting to be an archaeologist, because I feel it is that kind of excavation that you are doing with words in your poetry. That it’s quite a similar thing.
BJ: Well, I try to and it’s not.. I mean, one thing that I do latch on to a great deal in what I write is objects. The remains of the past. As I was trying to evoke in just a crumpled bit of paper there. But objects which can say so much about the past, connect you directly with them. They’re handled by people through generations. I’ve got this phrase which I use rather glibly, “the patina of the past” or “the patina of possession”. They’re really the same thing. The way that you can inherit or just a few objects which have been handled by people generations back. I remember years ago in Crete, a place I love, going to an old site on the south coast which still had a few mosaics and things – they were really interesting but lying around all over the place there were broken roof tiles – I was rooting about in those and I picked up just a fragment of roof tile, and in that clay was a thumb print: just the thumb print of a person. Four thousand years ago. Made by a roof tiler. That’s the sort of thing that matters to me here.
BM: Yes, I can see that. And it’s extraordinary because you’re doing that, as I say, in that collective memory, with things that, hopefully, that you are igniting in other people too. But you’re also looking at things in your own past. You have a memoir coming out with Saraband?
BJ: That’s coming out early next year…. It’s the first lengthy piece of prose I’ve ever published. I published a few short stories. I was interested in writing short stories fifteen or so years back but I’d never published a lengthy bit of prose. In fact, I’d never written a lengthy bit of prose. This is the first extended piece of prose I’ve ever written. But don’t get too excited – it has poems in it!
BM: Good! So, you’ve married the two.
BJ: Yes. There’s one or two from my three main collections. But most of it is new poetry that’s not been published anywhere before. So I could give you one of those if you’d be interested. A preview!
BM: Yes, please. Exclusive!
BJ: The memoir is very family orientated. I’m not going to say too much about it. It’s about members of my family and about unknown members of my family, thinking back to Donald Rumsfeld – the unknown knowns and the known unknowns. It’s about revelations that came after the death of each parent and a lot of the book is about my mother who’s a very central figure in the whole memoir. This is a poem – I tried to evoke my mother. Again, through an object. A cigarette case. It’s just called “Case”.
(Reads poem, “Case”.)
BM: When you have to work with poetry, and you’re telling it slant in that way, when you’re looking at those highly personal, highly close things, it must be a very different thing, to do that in prose? How did that feel?
BJ: The way I’ve used the poems in the book is they’re almost like a story board. This didn’t occur to me right away when I started writing. I planned the whole book out ages ago around the narrative that I wanted to tell. It was only when I had decided I would include some poems in it… that [it] occurred to me that… [the poems were actually]… binding the story together, that it became easier to write the prose. I can’t write poetry and prose at the same time so when I was writing prose, I abandoned poetry…. But in terms of writing prose and the difference: I find that it’s actually quite liberating because instead of trying to encapsulate what you mean inside a series of images and keep it – “tell it slant” so that it emerges to the person reading the poem or hearing the poem – it’s quite liberating to be completely overt and say, “This is what I mean. This is what I think. Here you are. Take it or leave it. I’m nailing my colours to the mast.” So I found it a liberating [if] time-consuming experience. It takes a hell of a lot longer than writing poems so I suspect this may be my only major prose work but we shall see.
BM: … you[are] a serial founder, you’re a very esteemed collaborator with people both in poetry discipline but in disciplines way beyond. Yes, particularly perhaps about music when I think about your highly rhythmic words. I think about you with Trio Verso and it would be very interesting to unwrap what influence you think your music has had.
BJ: Let me start with a poem then.
BM: Yes, please.
BJ: I’ve been a music lover from early childhood – classical music to an extent but my main thing is jazz and I’ve been into jazz since I was in my teens when I discovered the great Miles Davies. This is a poem called “Lady Day’s Experience” about the jazz singer, Billie Holiday. And this is about when I was about maybe sixteen, seventeen, as a teenager. Not really interested in the pop music that all my contemporaries were into at the time. I wanted something more and I’d been round in a friend’s flat, listening to Billie Holiday albums which belonged to his mother, when this happened.
[reads poem, “Lady Day’s Experience”.]
BM: That’s very, very haunting…
BJ: Well I do that one with Trio Verso, in fact, and Richard who’s the sax player introduces it with a tenor solo of Billie Holiday’s number, “Lover Man”. “Lover Man” was the very first song I heard Billie Holiday sing…. I love working with musicians. Trio Verso’s my dream outfit because, as a jazz fan, to work with a wonderful sax player like Richard Ingham, a fantastic bass player like Louise Major – it’s just a treat. But I’ve worked [also] with traditional musicians…. It’s something I enjoy doing. People often – some people anyway – they feel that (I know Don Paterson believes this) spoken word/poetry and music should be kept apart. They just don’t work together. I was actually talking to Don about this just the other night when I was out hearing him and his band playing. And he said, “Well, fine for other people but never for me.” Well, it’s the opposite with me. I find it really enhances what I’m trying to do. And I think what it does is to allow those people who maybe have that barrier to poetry, which I blame the teaching profession for…
BM: We can say that as we’re both ex-teachers.
BJ: Exactly, I’m a former teacher. I was in there at the [chalk]… face. I know this was the case but people are allergic to poetry. The word “poetry” does bring down barriers; if you couch it in different terms, as musical performance, people will maybe give it the time of day. I’ve certainly had a lot of feedback at the end of gigs, folk who’ve said, “Oh, I’ve never really listened to poetry before.” It works; more of it, please.
BM: I don’t know what you think about collaborations, cross-disciplinary things, moving [from] to another one. I’m always delighted…when I looked at Dry Stone Work I thought, “Oh good! It’s a Will Maclean cover again.” … I’ve seen a lot of these wonderful cross-pollinations and great respect – mutual respect – across disciplines which I think is an entirely positive thing. Sharing has been a huge hallmark of what you do as a poet.
BJ: I love working with all sorts of other artists – musicians, visual artists… I respond a lot to visual stuff. I’ve written a series of poems based on different photographs. Partly that comes from the fact that before I seriously started writing. Before I got back into writing – as I said to you I started writing as a teenager – but before I got back into seriously writing poetry, I thought photography was where my creative urges were going to go. I did a lot of serious photography in the ‘80s, a couple of exhibitions in the early ‘90s and I still am very, very interested in photography and I look at a great deal of photography – contemporary photography and older photography – but it’s stuff that will spark off a lot of poems.
BM: That sounds like a cue for a poem…
BJ: This is very much a Dundee poem and it’s based on a photograph… of a series of train tickets, all punched, in the small station of St. Fort on the far side of the Tay for the passengers who were on that fatal train that fell into the Tay during the Tay Bridge disaster. There’s an epigraph to the poem which says “Tickets for Dundee had been collected from passengers on the train before crossing the Bridge.” A photograph shows the tickets of some who lost their lives that night and this photograph makes a beautiful visual collage of these photographs so the beauty is very much contrasted with the horror of what we know they represent.
[reads poem “The Last Train from St. Fort”]
BJ: And they’re still there. Every time you cross the Tay Bridge, they’re there, just below it.
BM: At low tide. Yes, yes, it’s always quite a harrowing sight. Just thinking about this sharing, I dare say which sharing you were most proud of but surely the founding of StAnza and your earlier moments with StAnza must be way up there and what that has given to the poetry community in Scotland and internationally?
BJ: Well, I’m certainly extremely pleased to have been involved with StAnza right from the start. It’s kind of a dream come true because I’d been involved in various other initiatives to get live poetry out on the scene…. To my mind… poetry is not text that’s written down. That’s the quotation. The poetry is what you hear in the air, the space. And to be able to found a festival, as I did with Anna Crowe and Gavin Bowd in 1998, to direct it for ten years, from 2000 to 2010, and to see it continue, it’s approaching twenty years…. To see it continue and to thrive under the current director, Eleanor Livingstone, is just wonderful. But otherwise it’s a great buzz to go along there and connect… it’s just great to be able to drive nine miles from home and be able to hear world class poets every year.
BM: To do something that is every bit as gigantic as anything that might be done in London or anything, and yes, you must take a great pride in that.
BJ: And it has grown to be one of the major festivals. I think, even within the ten years I was directing, we definitely achieved that goal. To some extent, it was based on the earlier St. Andrews poetry festivals. There had been poetry festivals in St. Andrews since the late ‘60s but I was involved in the Festival that Professor Nick Roe ran in the early ‘90s – I was a committee member on that. That ran out of time because most of these things were run by academics who just didn’t have the time to pursue them. So, the fact that both Anna and myself were not academics gave us the time and space to promote it and we certainly got up there to the top echelons of the British poetry festivals and within my ten years, anyway, we were attracting people from all over Europe and America and it’s just grown and grown continually. Eleanor has made much more of it. It’s delightful. In another ten years’ time, I’ll be sitting creaking in a chair but still enjoying it.
BM: … something we discussed a few weeks ago, I remember, when we were talking, both of us being very into paper and print, had become surprised in recent years by how much we’re liking what’s going on online. There’s something special happening there. Something also very exciting. And of course, you’re very, very involved with the exciting project with Andy Jackson, Scotia Extremis, which must have thrown up some very fun and interesting things for you?
BJ: It’s been a great chance to work with Andy whose editing I’ve been admiring both disconnectedly and connectedly over the past, the anthologies he’s done for Red Squirrel Press, his Whaleback City with Bill Herbert. So it’s great working with Andy. I’m not going to claim that I came up with his idea. The whole idea of Scotia Extremis came from Andy, it’s something he’s very into. But the pairing of poems. So you build in, built into the anthology, unlike other anthologies, Scotia Extremis is a tension between two subjects, two poems, two poets, and even two photographs – because he puts photographs up. But the whole principle of this is that we’ve looked at the extremes of Scottish culture. Its sub-title is, “Poems from the polarities of Scotland’s psyche”. So we’ve paired up things like Celtic Connections with the White Heather Club; Jenners, the department store in Edinburgh, with the Barras in Glasgow etc etc. And there’ll be lots more things like this. We’ve got Jimmy Shand paired with Jack Bruce, for example: that’s coming shortly. So the whole idea is that there will be some connection between these two, but they will be very much at the extremes of the subject matter that they’re dealing with. And we’ve commissioned two separate poets to write; neither poet knows what they’re going to be paired with, so there’ll be a tension that will grow from that unfamiliarity as well. And we only reveal to them who they’re being paired with, subject matter-wise, when the poem’s ready to be, when it’s finished and ready to be posted online. But it’s been great fun. I mean I notice you asked me what has it revealed about Scotland’s psyche … I’m not sure it’s revealed anything yet but maybe it will..
BM: I think Scotia Extremis really does.. brilliantly. You’ve got something about the Barras, Irn Bru, whatever’s coming up that, “Come on”…you can pull people in.
BJ: In a way, it’s a mini online festival. We’re only about a quarter of the way into it and the range of voices we’ve had, in terms of the styles of the poetry and so on, that’s enormous, already. But I do the same thing, I’ve been posting it on various sites and groups I’m involved in, some political groups, so people pick up on the politics of the stuff, some of the photography groups that I’m involved in when there’s particularly interesting images that go with it so I know for a fact that there are people out there reading it who are probably not reading contemporary Scottish poetry. I’ve been cheekily posting it on all sorts of poetry sites down south so people can see what’s going on up here. Funnily enough, I’ve had quite a number of people saying, “Oh, I never knew that about Scotland” or, “I’m learning so much about popular culture in Scotland”. Whatever. That sort of thing that people weren’t necessarily aware of. It’s not polemical in any way. We’re not trying to educate or be didactic at all. We’re just trying to have a bit of fun with the poetry. But it’s making lots of different connections.
BM: Serious and beautifully made fun which is wonderful. I think it’s very interesting, you were talking about the political..Scotland is incredibly precious to you, undoubtedly, as Greece is, so I just wondered if there was a poem that perhaps…
BJ: Let’s see what we have. In terms of Scotland, I do love the country very much. The point about it is, it’s the people, it’s the past, it’s everything about the place. Here’s a poem. It’s another object poem. It’s about the tools I inherited from my father-in-law. Again it’s about this patina of possession. So, I don’t know how much this fits with what we’ve been talking about the country but, in many ways, this is the country for me.
(Reads Poem, “The Thousand Blows”).
BM: Thank you. We’re coming towards the end of this interview and so much of what we’ve talked about has been in the past but also looking to the future. I know you not only have a memoir coming out but I think next year you have a poetry pamphlet.
BJ: There’s a poetry pamphlet due towards the end of next year which is also music orientated. It’s a sort of history of my growth through pop music. It’s called Juke Box Jeopardy.
BM: Great! That’s marvellous. I know we could have a whole other conversation about what the pamphlet does, which the larger collections do not; that’s an exciting area too… it sounds to me as if there’s been all this huge energy that’s not diminishing… Thank you, Brian.
BJ: Would you want a final poem to finish off?
BM: I would never say no to a final poem. Thank you.
BJ: I always read this at the end of everything. It’s called “One for the road”.
(Reads poem, “One for the road”).
BM: Thank you, Brian.