Brian Johnstone is a Scottish poet. He has published three full-length collections – The Lizard Silence (Scottish Cultural Press 1996), The Book of Belongings (Arc 2009), and Dry Stone Work (Arc 2014).
Hi Brian. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest collection Dry Stone Work. How would you describe the poems in this book and do you think they are in dialogue with the poems of your previous collection The Book of Belongings in any way?
Thanks for the congratulations. I’m very pleased with how Dry Stone Work has come out – it was a tricky collection to sequence as the subject matter is quite diverse – much more so than The Book of Belongings, in fact. There are a few themes that carry over from one book to the other – war poems, for example, and poems on the natural world and on one of my main interests, archaeology. But at the same time, there is, I feel anyway, a lot of new ground covered in Dry Stone Work.
The collection is actually a mix of very new poems and older poems I was keeping until I had a collection they’d fit into – roughly three quarters to one quarter in favour of the former. So to some extent the subjects of the older poems tended to inform where I went with the new writing – more narrative in nature, more looking at popular culture and so on.
Since my previous collection I’ve become much more interested in narrative as seen, say, in my sequence of circus poems ‘The Ring Cycle’ – really fun to work on – and others such as my Billie Holiday and Beach Boys poems, which are examples of several on music subjects in the book. Narrative is still something that holds my attention, though I sense I’m beginning to start on a new tack recently.
You collaborated with Chrys Salt a couple of years ago on a project called ‘The Fields of War‘ to mark the centenary of the First World War. Seamus Heaney once famously said ‘no lyric every stopped a tank’, but I wonder if you have thoughts on what makes poetry the ideal genre to tackle such a thorny subject and its inherent tensions, conflict of emotions, and contradictions?
As I say above, war poetry has always been a fixation of mine. It’s more or less where I started writing as an adolescent, influenced by Owen, Sassoon etc. And since getting back to writing in my forties, it has returned as a major theme. It’s a topic I examine in some depth in my new book.
I’m not sure I would say that poetry is ‘the ideal genre’ to approach this subject – and Heaney is, of course, right in what he said (as was Auden in his famous ‘makes nothing happen’ remark) – but where I think poetry, especially live poetry, scores in this is the direct connection it can make.
At the end of the last performance of ‘The Fields of War‘ that Chrys and I gave there was a stunned silence of nearly a minute’s duration before any applause. And we’ve had many audience members – often from a non-poetry background – saying how evocative and inspiring of empathy the performance was.
So I think the nature of the show, which combines our poetry with film, original music and prose extracts, is ideal to deliver the very real experiences we’re talking about directly to the audience’s imagination.
Another collaboration you are involved in this year is the Scotia Extremis project with Andy Jackson – exploring the soul of Scotland and its various dichotomies. Could you tell us a bit more about the genesis of the project and how you pulled together all the themes for the participating poets to work on, and have the resulting poems surprised you in any way?
Well, to answer your last question first – I’ve been amazed by the diversity of styles and approaches from the commissioned poets, and equally amazed by the enthusiasm of everyone taking up the challenge.
The project developed more or less out of two recent anthologies Andy edited for Red Squirrel Press which paired up characters from TV, film and other areas of popular culture. I was asked to write poems for both of those, so I was delighted when Andy approached me to ask if I’d like to co-edit this latest venture.
Scotia Extremis is basically an online anthology taking the same pairing approach to a broad-based list of ‘icons’ of Scottish culture – from the Forth Bridge to J K Rowling to The White Heather Club to Joseph Knight. The title comes from Hugh MacDiarmid’s famous remark – I’ll aye be whaur extremes meet – which seemed to us to capture that underlying duality in the country’s character.
Through that notion, we have paired up all of our topics in themes where the two poems published each week are as far apart as possible, but also linked in some often oblique way. The anthology has been online since the start of the year and, naturally, I’d encourage all of your readers to take a look and sign up to follow it if they like what they see.
I understand you perform as part of the jazz poetry collective Trio Verso whose mission statement is to ‘refocus the ideas behind the 1950s poetry & jazz movement for a 21st century audience’. I’m curious how far back your interest in jazz music stretches and what you feel it adds to the performances?
For me – as a long-term jazz fan, Trio Verso is a dream come true. Its main thrust is very much connected with the purpose behind the two projects above – to connect poetry with audiences in new and different ways, something I’ve always believed in and worked towards.
I’ve collaborated with musicians before to this end – most notably with the clarsach player Wendy Stewart in the ’90s – so the opportunity to work with two superb jazz improvisers was one I couldn’t miss. I’ve been a follower of jazz since my teenage years and remember listening to various poetry & jazz performances by both American and English poets back in the ’60s, and the chance to tackle this myself was very attractive.
The two forms go very well together. All the music is improvised so it differs with every performance. This ensures I express the text differently in direct response to the music each time we perform. That gives the whole thing a real sense of freshness and spontaneity – good for me as a performer and also, I think, good for the audience who respond to that very freshness of approach. And it’s great fun!
Tracks can be heard across at my website.
What does the rest of the year hold for you in the world of poetry? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to?
I feel slightly traitorous in answering your first question here! While I’m by no means deserting poetry, the rest of the year will see me completing the editorial work for my next publication – which is, in fact, my first ever prose book.
My memoir Double Exposure is due out with the Glasgow publisher Saraband early in 2017, so I’ll be doing all the final polishing and proof reading in the second half of 2016.
The book, however, does include poetry – one poem per chapter, in fact – so I don’t feel I’m deserting the form entirely. And much of the story has sprung from elements which have appeared in various poems in the past – they’ve become like a sort of story board to the content of the new book.
Other than that I have one or two readings lined up and a (to be confirmed) Trio Verso gig down south – fingers crossed for that. Scotia Extremis will also take up more time over the rest of the year and I hope to get back to a couple of nascent projects with an artist and a film-maker which are on hold just now.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve already fessed up to being a jazz fan and have mentioned my interest in writing music poems and narrative poems, so I thought combining those and submitting a narrative poem about jazz would be a good way to tie some of the threads together.
So here’s a poem about one of the greatest jazz musicians ever – Louis Armstrong. The poem tells the story of Satchmo as a young man when he was summoned from his home town of New Orleans to Chicago to play with his mentor King Oliver.
I enjoy transforming a story like this into a poem, stripping it down to its physical and verbal essentials, making the verses take the steps of the characters as they move through the narrative and turning the ending on the implications, in this case what the future held.
It’s a fairly recent poem that was published last year in The Fenland Reed, a new East Anglian literary magazine.
Armstrong’s Arrival in Chicago
You get there late, looking for Joe, guessing
you should’ve made the early train, missed
for a Storyville funeral. Better late, you say,
than never: Little Louis, fresh from the Delta,
spotted by a Red Cap there in the concourse,
give-away cornet case hugged under an arm.
Man, are you for the King? The new second horn?
That porter is right first time. You’re reeling
to hear Joe Oliver’s boast, the rank he’s fixed
for himself. And reeling again at this place,
at its pace, eyeing the buildings and thinking:
Sure do reach the sky. Soon you’re off in a cab,
bound for the club – where they’re on stage
already, Joe and the boys. And you’re driving
down State Street, on track for the show till
you’re up there, the best of them, that much
you know. Making a mark on the new world
of jazz, you’ll set it to spin when you blow.