Fred Johnston discusses his three poems in Issue 7 of The Lonely Crowd.
I was delighted to have three poems published in The Lonely Crowd, Issue 7. And especially to have some space in which to talk about them. I am aware, of course, that poems ought to ‘talk’ for themselves. So the best I can hope to do is provide a surface explication of sorts.
‘The Shoe-maker of Cernaҫa’ is what I suggest is a ‘composite’ poem. The town, and presumably the show-maker himself, does not exist. I have a memory of coming upon a hamlet of sand and stone in the Sahara where an old man in ancient flying-goggles sat against the wall doing nothing. This idea of ‘waiting’ – and I think, if I remember rightly, there is a line in the Quran about this – is a philosophical concept we in the West cannot abide any longer. So I saw this man working in his window, watching the world go by, having a great reverence for his trade and by implication, for himself, and making something almost holy out of patching up and making shoes. He has more respect for shoes than ever to walk on them! I don’t think this would mean much in the West either. So as he sits and works, he embodies a small host of ideas and truths, the natures of which we cannot, being tourists – that is, disconnected spectators – comprehend. And certainly we cannot photograph it.
‘Sandwork’ came to me rather quickly or, as I like to imagine, made itself known to me quickly. It was a kind of dream, certainly what I’d call a ‘trance-poem,’ with the words and lines creating beats and rhythms rather before to my fiddling with them. There was no forcing of anything here. Once the poem had established itself, it tended to pull me along with it, dictate its own terms, if you like. The ‘plot’ is built around a reminiscence of a past love and a day at the beach, nothing more. But somehow all of this is woven into how the weather is, how the city is; and it requires the pace and stylistic texture it has. Relationships of any kind are, to my mind, inseparable from their geography; this is the subtext, the concrete nature of the city is like a manacle, the sea is the cell door broken down. But this is to become almost adolescent about it. And yes, of course, there is a sensual, if not frankly sexual, component to the poem. But one can wander off into the quicksands of cliché here. At the end of the day, it’s a poem about impressions and emotions and I enjoyed to write it. Or have it write me!
‘Born Again’ is a very different animal. I was angry when I composed it, and perhaps anger is not trusty fuel for a poem. I think it’s obvious in Ireland, as it likely is in the UK, that society has been cleaved in two. It’s not just a question of education, a trope trotted out by a well-meaning but rather distracted liberalism. There are many people for whom just getting by, just surviving, is their lot. And will continue to be. There will be no revolution. For them, a view of a wall is a view of the world. They are nailed into a system that will provide them, not with hope of any kind, but with a sort of palliative despair; the pub, the bookies office, the fast-food outlets, the wretchedness of obesity in their children, the adolescent pregnancies. I’ve sat in courtrooms and watched young men and girls come in, handcuffed, to stand accused of stealing a bottle of this or that – I watched a young man being arrested in the street for stealing a fish. Yet we know, every Irish person knows, that there is a class of criminal, call them white-collar if you will, who will never see a courtroom, never see a prison cell. The system was constructed to them, comprises people who went to the same colleges, played in the same rugby teams at school; they become the lawyers, the judges, the politicians, and by God they protect their own. Most Irish people acknowledge that their politicians lie and it’s only a question of degree. If you can’t lie, find some other trade. This poem grew out of all of this, the hopelessness of it all. I do wish more Irish poets would understand that they have a duty to write about the politics around them, and in turn play less politics. I don’t know whether this is a successful poem as a poem and I do hope it doesn’t come across as a rant.
Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951. In 1972 he received a Hennessy Literary Award for prose. In the mid-seventies he, along with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan, founded the Irish Writers’ Co-operative, based in Dublin. In 1986 he founded Galway city’s annual Cúirt literature festival and in 2002, the Western Writers’ Centre in Galway, Ireland. His work has appeared in The Spectator, The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, Stand, The Irish Times, The London Magazine, The Edinburgh Review and, in the US, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review and elsewhere. He also writes and publishes poetry in French.
© Fred Johnston, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.