Interview with Fred Johnston, Ireland Fund of Monaco “Writer-in-Residence” at the Princess Grace Irish Library, Monaco (Autumn 2004).

Fred Johnston — Irish poet, writer, literary critic, musician — has just spent a month at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco as the Ireland Fund of Monaco “writer-in-residence”. At the end of his stay, he answered our questions.

How would you describe the role of a poet and writer?
Inasmuch as this question concerns contemporary Ireland, I think poets have, in the main, adapted observing roles; reactive, rather than becoming, as they say nowadays, pro-active, with regard to political or social events around them. The notion of the poet as an active ingredient in the evolution of his national society is gone. Poets seem to be talking mainly with themselves. And about themselves. This is not true in small rural communities, where the role of the poet and song-maker is much more vital and relevant, but this sort of art is disregarded by academic study and ignored utterly by the compilers of anthologies. It is considered non -poetry. Whereas the truly ‘non’-poetry is that which speaks only to itself and encourages the creation of élites who alone can interpret the language. It’s too easy to be a poet in Ireland these days; any chance a thinking poet has of living up to a working role in society is buried under avalanches of bad poetry or poetry written for the wrong reasons. He or she has to contend with mediocrity being described as ‘important’; though I’ve yet to read a critic defining what ‘important’ means here. It’s interesting when considering all of this to reflect on the theory that the act of artistic creation may, in the end, be merely a process of healing something in the artist; that what poets foist on the world might be little more than a gallery of their personal demons, tamed. The healing or ‘restoring’ aspect of poetry is, thankfully, being acknowledged, at least in some quarters. Then again, the purely academic analysis of poetry has little room for this.

How would you describe your own work?
I write about small things, small thoughts, my self-consciousness and anxiety in the world, my anger at unfairness and political double-think, rediscovering family, loves, regrets – the bits and pieces that float up to the shores of the heart and soul regardless of how much we try to hold back the tide or keep the beach clean. Always the hope is that someone may see a poem as a mirror of something they are experiencing themselves and react to it, take it in. You can ask little more. Poets speak and record ordinary life and endow their reworking of the ordinary with another sense, another dimension, if you like. But they – and I, most definitely – are not always successful. That’s why pomposity or the notion of ambition in poetry – rabidly prevalent among, sadly, younger practitioners – is ludicrous. To imagine that your thoughts are holier, more sacred than someone else’s! You do a small job with a poem, but if you do it well and someone likes it, that’s what your whole achievement is.

Why did you apply for an Ireland Fund of Monaco Residency at the Princess Grace Irish Library?
I applied because, for one thing, I have a strong belief that, as an Irish poet, by definition I live on a small island and island life is imaginatively claustrophobic and can smother creativity; it is necessary to get off the island, to open oneself to new voices, whether they come at you from the street or out of a book. Also, I wanted to be in a writerly environment, to be able to concentrate on doing and even thinking about writing; where my own was going, where I could connect with other writers. The notion of a modest weekend get-together of local and Irish poets came out of this. I think that, historically, Irish writers wrote more imaginatively after they had been caressed by Europe. Very often at home it’s a slap, not a caress. I knew about the Library, of course. It attracted me as a place to work, an environment which would force me to think in new, or even more intense directions, to reconnect with writing. I remember lifting up some of Yeats’ poetry one afternoon and reading the poems as if I’d never read them before. It just seemed right. Then I made a personal pilgrimage to Roquebrune -Cap Martin, to what was once the Hotel Idéal Séjour, then I trekked up to old Roquebrune, to where he had been buried and recited some lines of his by the monument. A little ceremony of connection, if you prefer.

What did you set out to achieve during your residency at the PGIL and have you achieved it?
I intended to work on a novel set in Paris, and I continued to do that, and I produced new poems, one or two translations. I wanted to contact local poets or poets of the region – that’s vital to me, I want to see what others are doing, what I can learn – and I did make contact in the end, with Madame Paulette Cherici-Porello, whose book of Monégasque poems was a delight to find. There simply, as always, wasn’t enough time to go farther, but I had sent out a call for Monégasque poets and poetry and it’s always a step towards further research and involvement. I want now to translate some of the French versions of the Monégasque poems. So, from continuing to work on the novel, to translating some poems and writing some new ones, then making the contacts I did with the Monégasque work, I think I could hardly have achieved much more. I came to the point where I felt it would be no harm to draw up a tentative plan for a two-day, possibly weekend festival of Monégasque and Irish poetry/writing, possibly with some music, and this I put forward too. This was an aside, if you like; but also it is, for me, a development of everything else. I don’t write in a vacuum; I don’t see writing as unrelated to the world around it, so it’s natural that a writer should reach out, create and explore.

What have you written to date and do you have any books in the pipeline?
Well, this would require a list! Essentially, I’ve written eight collections of poems, three novels, had a play performed and two given public readings, published one collection of short stories… was commissioned a couple of years ago to reinterpret some ‘Celtic’ legends, and that, when written, made a whole book, but I don’t think the publisher quite knows what to do with it now! ‘The Garden of Heaven and Earth’ is a long novel set in Algeria, where I lived for a time, and I expect that to be out in 2005. And I’ve given a set of published stories to a publisher for collecting. I continue to do book reviews, although some editors are not inclined to allow me as much personal critical comment as they once did, which is unfortunate; and I’m editing the journal, The Cork Literary Review, for the next three years: my first issue comes out in January and there are several previously unknown French poets represented.

Have you discovered interesting poets and writers in and around Monaco?
As I mentioned previously, had I more time – isn’t this always the complaint? – I think more could have been done in this regard; but communications take time and replies take time, so it was to be expected that I wouldn’t meet a great number of people. What I did get was a sense of poetry being alive not only in Monaco but in the entire region, there being poets publishing in a modest way in small villages, for example. This poetry is important and should be looked at and have its place in any examination of literary culture, but I think poets should be involved with such analyses directly. Anyone else simply won’t recognise what they’re looking at, with the best will in the world. From Antibes to Menton and in some villages in between – apart from a major book-fair – I would fairly confidently guess that there is a small but thriving literary scene. But you have to know first of all that poetry is not a theoretical pursuit; it was never meant to be. It is, and should always be, as real an impulse in people as the desire to open one’s mouth and sing.

This was your first visit to Monaco. Is the Principality what you expected or have you discovered the unexpected?
I didn’t know quite what to expect, and that’s perhaps the best approach. Monaco-Ville was wonderful, just the still-tangible sense of community, hearing the dialect on occasion, reading the dialect, ceasing to be a tourist after a while, people in the street getting used to you so that you slowly become absorbed by the place: that’s important, writers who remain tourists lose something. It would be incorrect to say I didn’t arrive with cinema-induced fantasies about a fast life-style of intrigue and dressing in a dinner-jacket at the roulette table! Monte-Carlo, the very words, conjure such an image. But I found rather more than that in the smaller streets, the cafés, the ‘buses; I strove quite consciously to find the ‘Monaco behind the Monaco,’ if you like (the great poet Kathleen Raine spoke of seeing the mountain behind the mountain) and it is this, I hope, which surfaces in some poems I wrote while there; an encounter in a bakery, a woman hanging out washing on a balcony. Snapshots, I suppose. But a dawning awareness that Monaco was a sustainable mixture of two cultures, one venerable and traditional, one modern and progressive, and they existed in harmony in such an apparently small space. I began to look at spaces, align them with ideas, and say This is possible, or That could happen. I also discovered imaginative and hard-working individuals who produced events, kept them going, maintained a very high degree of cultural response. I was delighted to meet the people I met, I must say, and Judith Gantley [administrator] and Géraldine Lance [secretary] at the Library made everything easy; there was room too for a laugh, a joke, and this is vitally important. Mrs Paul Gallico [trustee] was wonderful to both myself and my partner, Sylvia. Quite unexpectedly, wearing our musicians’ ‘hats’, we have been invited to play on St Patrick’s Day back in Monaco-Ville and that was a marvellous treat. I think I found that all aspects of my creative life had somehow been allowed to blend, to come together in Monaco, and that blending is rare enough; my life-long involvement with music paralleling my similarly lengthy writing life and my belief that all poetry begins in music. There was also a marvellous feeling that things got done, that there existed a generous openness to new ideas and suggestions. Creativity, in the fullest and most rounded sense.

What have been the highlights of your stay?
Once again, I might make a list! The very matter of being there and working there was a vital and considerable experience in and of itself. I came back to Ireland renewed, I would say, and with yet another angle on my work. I enjoyed particularly, from a work perspective, reading and playing traditional Irish music, some with a French link, to students from the Lycée Albert 1er, during which I endeavoured to create a connection between music and poetry in a contemporary sense, reminding any sceptics among them (and one should always be healthily sceptical when young!) that contemporary music, the music they might relate to, such as Rap and even disco-‘Pop’, had a basis in rhyming and therefore a basic poetry – that poetry was present in their world, even if it wasn’t always the poetry of Baudelaire (whom I suspect would have loved Rap!) or Wordsworth, Dante, and so on. I think they responded well. Giving my paper on contemporary Irish writing was also important to me, particularly as certain points raised in the paper are relevant to my critical view of poetry at home and have been elucidated in a variety of reviews. Then there was my little pilgrimage to Roquebrune in memory of W.B.Yeats. It’s interesting here to note how Yeats is critically being slowly ‘dismantled,’ if you like, back home; that in some circles he is now considered old hat, passé, representative of a dreaming Ireland which is not in line with a ‘modern’ Ireland of Celtic Tigers and this sort of thing. Away from writing, it was delightful to watch the ingenuity and, let’s face it, sheer magic of the performers at the International Magic Festival at the Théâtre Princesse Grace in Monaco. The loss of ordinary magic in our lives, or a sense of magic and wonder, is one of the great and possibly irredeemable losses in modern life. Children create fantastic worlds and believe in magic spontaneously. The modern adult dissects the imaginary, pulls it apart to see how it works but cannot put it together again. I enjoyed travelling in the region overall, too, finding those tiny galleries and bookshops which contain miracles, often in small ancient walled villages, down narrow streets. I read newspapers and kept up with everyday events in Monaco and the region generally, I think it’s foolish not to and oneself is the loser if one is running around in search only of news from home. It was a wonderful experience and was an accumulation of experiences too, of meetings, conversations that come back now and again, the sight of Napoléon’s hats in the Musée, those locks of hair; standing in the great throat of the train-station at night, reading for the first time the legend of Sainte Dévote, of Monaco’s annual Blessing of the Boats, a custom also carried out annually in Claddagh, back in Galway; peering for the first time in a small dictionary of Monégasque words and phrases; a conversation with Madame Nadia Lacoste [trustee] as we passed each other in the Library or a chat to someone else from Ireland who’d lived for a long time in Monaco – seeing Yeats’ telephone* and wondering if it were possible to speak to him through it and what, in these days, he might have to say; then reading more of the controversy surrounding the removal of his remains to Ireland (a story which rose again when I got back to Ireland, spurred on by the remarks at a conference of an academic who had a new theory!). Yeats may never rest in peace! The very first evening in Monaco was delightful, chatting to Bill Cullen about Annesley’s Garage in Ballybough in Dublin, where he had once worked and near which I and the Dublin side of my family lived for many years. And yes, I did actually step inside the great, portly Casino, but that was as far as I went, really. The rest will have to be created in the poetic imagination, I suppose!

*The telephone from the Hôtel Idéal Séjour is displayed in the Library. It would, of course, have been used by Yeats during his stay there.

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