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Interview with writer Fred Johnston

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Article by Kate Dempsey © 8 September 2013.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Fred Johnston has such a long writing CV, I can only summarise it here. He was born and educated in Belfast. He has lived in Toronto, Canada, Spain and Africa. ‘Orangeman’, a collection of stories in French, translated by film-maker and
writer and good friend, Christian le Braz, appeared from Terre de Brume (France) in October 2010 and
has just published a second volume of short stories, ‘Dancing In The Asylum,’ from Parthian Books (UK) Among his poetry achievements are Founder of Galway’s annual international literature festival, CÚIRT, in 1986. Writer-in-Residence to the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco, 2004. He is the Founder of the Western Writers’ Centre – Ionad Scríbhneoiri Chaitlín Maude – based in Galway (www.twwc.ie)
Hello Fred and welcome to writing.ie. You’ve had such a long writing life so far, I’m not sure where to start. But I’ll start at the beginning. How did you first get interested in poetry?
I was writing poetry very early on, at about the same time that I began to write short stories. I wanted only to be a short story writer, as it transpires. Steinbeck influenced me, and James Baldwin and later the French writers. Dear me, but I toted things up the other day, and it is forty-two years since I published my first short story! Poetry was always dear to me in so much as, writing songs, which I also did from an early age, I believed in the measured potency of words. I also believed – and it was in the air then too – that poetry had a social and political importance; certainly,
that poets had or should have. Not many Irish contemporary poets want to hear that now, sadly.
You write both fiction and poetry. How do you change from one to the other?
One doesn’t so much ‘change’ from one to the other as permit oneself to be led into a different manner of seeing things; poetry has one way of doing things, let’s say, prose quite another: which is why it saddens me to see young poets banging out poems which are actually merely acts of chopped prose. I blame writers’ workshops, some of the worst kind, anyway, for this. In poetry I am dealing with music; in prose, with a sort of oration. Each demands something quite different from you.
You also do book reviews. With Ireland a very small place, you must often know the writers you are reviewing. And the reviewers of your books may often know you. How do you keep the review separate from the relationship?
I was a book reviewer for newspapers and journals and indeed theatre and visual art for many years. I have no problem keeping the relations between reviewer and acquaintance separate, but I have learned that there are those who believe you are betraying them if you speak your mind.
Joyce said, and I paraphrase, that the big sin in Ireland was to put things in print. He wasn’t wrong. I expect he meant opinions that ran contrary to the consensus, or some consensus served up by a tiny group, poets, writers or  politicians.
The cultural world in Ireland is tiny,;the poetry world a tinier world within an already tiny world. Everything is personal. Everyone connected to one degree or another. Friends help out friends, review friends: woe betide the reviewer who speaks his mind to his friends! It is held, schoolboy-fashion, that some poets are not to be criticised save favourably and sanction will be sought if one attempts to criticise them unfavourably.
Of course, this attitude prevents the poet under review ever from maturing. I believe also that a writer is not divorced in some quasi-mystical way from his or her work; this view is not tolerated easily in some quarters. For instance, if a poet who epigraphs his work continually with quotes from old Soviet Union poets who were incarcerated for their work, yet will himself never join a demonstration or write a letter of protest to a newspaper, I see it as a reviewer’s duty to point out the obvious disconnection inherent in this. This rather more ‘holistic’ approach is not welcomed in Ireland. One doesn’t lose real friends by being a reviewer, it should be said. One only loses those acquaintances whose time it was to go anyway.
Have I ‘suffered’ professionally from writing negative reviews? Oh, without a doubt. But I’m against cultural love-ins, they do the art no good at all. One should rather have art and literature that was excruciatingly bad than art and literature that slapped itself on the back. The word ‘consensus’ sounds too much to me like the sort of thing a doctor might write on one’s chart at the end of a hospital bed.
You have embraced Facebook. What, if anything, do you get out of it as a writer?
Facebook is merely a communications tool, for opinion, viewpoints and dissent, sometimes. But God protect us from a day when some budding poet adds to his bibliography that he or she ‘had three poems published on Facebook.’
What advice would you have for poets who are starting out or at an early stage of their development?
One could be dreadfully cynical and suggest that he or she finds some well-connected friends in the media before writing a line. Too much of publishing and promoting poetry is a ‘who-you-know’ game. It has become particularly thus through the fashioning of ‘poetry celebs,’ God help us, and that sort of thing.
On a more positive note, one might suggest that they stay true to their first creative impulse, that they do not crave publication as if it were the height of poetic achievement nor desire to have a collection of work published while they are too young to have anything to say; that they do not look to a writers’ course ever to turn them into poets nor seek poetry prizes. Of more real value to the world is to be the local postman.
As Eliot said, writing poetry is a mug’s game. One writes, I would add, because one has no choice. There is no other motive.
What can you remember your first publication?
It was a short story published by the late David Marcus in the New Irish Writing page of the old Irish Press. It was based on real experiences.
How did you feel, do you remember, when your story was accepted?
I felt very good when my first story was published, four decades ago. I was also very young. I believed the publication heralded the beginning of an illustrious and adventurous Bohemian career. I was incredibly naive; but these days anyone who publishes anything is looking at once at a collection of this or that and being encouraged to do so. Dreadfully damaging in the long run. I had one real thing to say and I said it. I was eighteen years old. At twenty I probably had one more thing to say. That’s all.  Most things that I believed pertained only to my own view of the world. With some contemporary writers, this affliction never quite passes.
Have you got a good writing prompt for a new writer?
I am unsure as to what you mean by a ‘writing prompt,’ as I had always thought that, firstly, inspiration was a personal affair and secondly that imagination worked from there. The writing should prompt the writer.
I guess what I mean by a writing prompt is just an exercise a new writer could use to kick start the imagination. What do you do? Walk? Read? Meditate? use a notebook? Memoirs? Use photos or visual art?
I have personally never used prompts as such beyond giving ideas time to mature. I can’t say much more about that.
Time – a great writing prompt!
I know you write in French. Does the initial idea come in French? Do you dream in French? Do you do your own translations? I have tried poetry translation (I speak Dutch) but I found it extremely tough to get both the meaning and the rhythm and nuances out.
Excellent question. I have occasionally had dreams in part-French! The nuances. . . well, when translating, your faced with a choice: to go for the adaptation of the poem, or the more precise translation, which is always more challenging, naturally. But I suppose that’s part of one’s job. And one’s risk.The initial idea derives very often from a sort of verbal play, if you like; I simply want to use French to see how it sounds, how it works text-wise. Yet just as often I have a theme which, odd though it may seem, is more suitably handled in French. I am freer in my writing, I think, in French – I envy very much those who can, for instance, write in Irish as well as English. One can deal with subjects in a very different, not to say more open and even intimate way. It’s always hit-and-miss.
I am always delighted and surprised to have one of my poems in French take by a French publication. For me, changing languages is changing my mind-set, my emotional response. I suppose one literally becomes someone else. I have respect, I would hope, for the translator’s task and detest the fact that in Ireland so much of what is published as a translation by some poets is in fact a crib from an original translation altered slightly. That’s just messing about, to put it mildly.
I think I would add that the French have more respect for poetry than we have. We’re churning it out, paying little attention to style and some times, to form; we think emotion is poetry. It isn’t. Too many of us see poetry as a way to get trips abroad and a handy grant. I hate to say this, but Irish poetry is far from being in a healthy state. It needs serious critical revision. But sadly, I doubt that it will get it. We’re not who we think we are.
Trips abroad and grants galore. I wish!
What have you got coming up?
A new collection of poems, ‘Alligator Days,’ is being published by the redoubtable Revival Press. I was extremely lucky to receive a literary bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland and another from the Northern Ireland Arts Council this year, and for this second bursary I am working on a project with Lagan Poetry in Derry.
Good luck with those and we’ll keep an eye open for them. Thanks Fred.

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KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.

Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.

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