Monday, 14 March 2016

Fits and Starts – an interview with Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston (photo supplied)

In your day job you work both as an editor and as a teacher of ‘plain English’. Poetry is the opposite of plain English isn’t it – thinking here of the way you play with words and their sound, with language’s slippery meanings?

It’s all about language, that’s for sure. I guess you could say that the day job, unlike poetry, is about making things happen – I teach people in the United Nations and in aid organisations how to write policy that is more likely to get results with decision-makers. Plain English is part of it, because they have to learn to ditch the jargon. But I take them up close to language, too – we talk about Shakespeare! We talk about noticing the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin inside English, about saying things as simply as possible.

When it comes to poetry, I’ve always been more interested in language as substance, as sound and form, rather than any idea of language as a transparent, purely utilitarian medium. I like listening to the way language pushes back when we want it to say something. It says less than we want it to, and it says more than we want it to. I’m interested in the “more”. Like many poets, I love what Wallace Stevens said: “There is a sense in sounds beyond their meaning”. Language is incredibly musical. It’s a whole orchestra. Some poetry sticks to just one instrument – the speaking voice, the narrator. I like poetry that tries out lots of instruments.

In ‘The Otorhinolaryngologist’, a light in the speaker’s mouth gives them a god-like perspective, before they’re pushed into the ‘hollow places’ of the street – does poetry give you a scope to move between the sublime and the mundane to a certain extent?

The light-in-the-mouth thing actually happened, in the sense that I went to this old-fashioned specialist who stuck a light bulb in my mouth that apparently illuminated my sinuses. It was a bizarre experience, because the light was coming out of my head. It felt like knowledge, and it felt like delusion, so I put the two together in the poem (Perhaps knowledge is always a kind of delusion.) It’s partly a poem about imagination. Imagination has to cope with the mundane, too – I think that shuttling between imagination and reality is one of the engines of poetry.

Echo, the Greek nymph, is a recurring character in the book – walking through poems named after Old Testament characters. What made you want to write these characters from ancient literature into your new poems?

It’s all a bit accidental and obsessive so I think the only true explanation is in the poems themselves. But this is how it happened: I started a sequence based on the radio alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc) because I like the words. When I got to the E word, Echo, I started reading about the Echo myth. Echo is condemned to repeat the last words of what others say. And then she falls in love with Narcissus, who as we all know was in love with himself, so that wasn’t going anywhere. She wastes away till all that is left is her bones and then just her voice.

What was it that drew me to the Echo myth? Perhaps I thought I could use Echo to evoke the sense that something extremely important is missing from your life but you don’t quite know what it is (I tend to have this feeling most of the time, in spades). As a poet, it’s easy, too, to have a sense that you’re condemned to repeat what others have said.

Then I started another sequence, based on the books of the Old Testament. Echo wanted to be part of that, too. I’m not a believer, but I’m intrigued by the ancient weirdness of the Old Testament stories, so full of loss and exile. Perhaps I’m interested in how missingness is part of being human. Also, the Old Testament is at the root of both Judaism and Christianity – and living in Europe, you can’t get away from that. The Holocaust never went away. But that’s another story.

You’ve lived in Paris for a number of years now. Has becoming fluent in another language affected the way you write in your native English? And has French poetry had any influence on your own poetry?

France has a strong myth of integration – the idea that if you do things right, you too can become French. (“How’s your integration coming along?” my wife’s great-grandmother used to ask me.) Whereas the experience of migration is more often one of realising how much you have been formed by the place you came from – and the language you came from. So being in France has pushed me deeper into English, paradoxically.

As for the influence of French poetry, I just don’t know. I like poets such as Jacques Roubaud and Jacques Jouet who can shift from being playful to being serious (and back again). But much French poetry is just deadly serious, even fatally so. It’s terribly abstract and philosophical – whereas the great precursor for much New Zealand poetry is William Carlos Williams, who wrote “No ideas but in things.” I love the thinginess of New Zealand poetry.

I like John Ashbery’s response to the same question (he lived in Paris for 10 years – and the scene he describes hasn’t changed):
“I found my poetry being more influenced by the sight of clear water flowing in the street gutters, where it is (or was) diverted or dammed by burlap sandbags moved about by workmen, than it was by the French poetry I was learning to read at the time.”

Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston is available from good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
p/b, $25.

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