Creativity: Poet, Story Writer and Novelist Fred Johnston

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951 and educated there and in Toronto, Canada. In Belfast, he attended St Malachy’s College. He moved to Dublin, where he was to publish eight short stories over a period of time with the late David Marcus, in the New Irish Writing pages of The Irish Press. In 1972, he received a Hennessy Literary Award for prose. Working in Public Relations and later in journalism, in the mid-Seventies, along with playwright Peter Sheridan and novelist Neil Jordan, he founded The Irish Writers’ Co-operative (Co-Op Books.) Following a period in North Africa, he received The Sunday Independent Prose Award and followed it with their Poetry Award. In Galway, he founded the city’s annual international literature festival, Cúirt, in 1986 as a poetry-only festival. At this time, he wrote and broadcast for RTE radio a set of programmes on the new poets of the West of Ireland and produced a commercial cassette, ‘Poets in the West,’ featuring Sydney Bernard Smith, Paul Durcan, Gerald Dawe and some of his own work, accompanied by traditional Irish music from the late Charlie Brown (flute) and Sean Ryan (tin whistle.) Later, he founded the city’s Western Writers’ Centre, which ran for almost fifteen years. During this period, he received a Prix de l’Ambassade for translation of a French poet and was invited to be writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What strength do you admire in others?

Reading motivated me in my last years at school and afterwards. It was a great pleasure to be able to purchase one’s own sorts of books. When writing, one escapes into a world over which one has some sort of control, as it were. For an only child, it was a blessing, the world was very big. If I developed a ‘forte,’ it was a species of unbridled imagination! Again, a gift of most solitary children. Not always enough, of course. And sometimes it lags. I think there is the world of what we term reality and another, parallel world of the imagination and if you’re lucky as a writer they touch against one another at times. By others, I presume you mean other writers. I’m almost old-fashioned in my literary tastes and novelists such as Maugham and Greene, Durrell and Hemingway, Faulkner and Joyce and Steinbeck all had two things, great sense of style and a marvellous command of the English language. Often younger novelists tend to go for the former and let the latter slide. It’s a sort of fashion.

When the creative well is dry, do you have techniques you return to? I’d like to say I did, but I’m a rather moody writer.

The only technique that I have ever found to be efficacious is reading. If you want to write prose, then read prose; likewise if you wish to write poetry, read it. That’s the best kick-start I know to one’s own writing when one’s own stream runs dry. But one must accept dry spells. Like rejection, they are part of the game. Of course in every creative writer there is a hack waiting to get out, and if put to the pin of one’s collar a decent writer can churn out a thousand words on just about anything to pay the rent.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I’d be flattered to think I even do possess an authentic voice, either in poetry or prose. One is influenced by what one reads, that’s unavoidable. The authenticity is in what one says and how one says it, not particularly in the words one uses. Social media, media in general, doesn’t influence me towards a voice of any sort, really, though one wishes one possessed the facility, as some do, to read a current newspaper headline and create a novel from it. The Corona Virus blockbuster novel is, I dare say, just around the corner. People trapped on a cruise ship, that sort of thing. That may sound flippant, but wait and see. Likewise the volume of poetry entitled ‘Corona’ can’t be far off. I have serious doubts about that sort of thing. Social media has given a platform to some dreadful poetry, though. And allowed some people to think of themselves as poets who simply are not poets.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family?

I was driven to write – there’s no other verb really – from an early age, as I’ve said. Just as I was driven to play the guitar and sing folk-songs, for that matter; a need to express myself, shout out that I existed, I suppose. I suppose I was supported by my family insofar as they didn’t really object to either proposition; but my father did express the view that my writing would not make any money and he was correct there. A very literary man, he did come from an age when learning a good trade was considered vital. My mother, coming from an entertainment background, encouraged my performing. I think parents have to conceal their admiration as well as their distastes from their children. There comes a point where their opinions no longer carry weight with their offspring anyway. And young people in their late teens and early twenties are determinedly self-centred and rather in love with themselves, so a parent’s opinions come up against a very high wall.

In the 70’s you founded the Irish Writer’s Cooperative with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan and in the 80’s you founded the poetry festival Cúirt. What was the impetus behind these two cultural activities? Was the experience worthwhile?

The impetus behind the first was my having read of how the Scandanavian writers were forming groups and publishing one another in turn. I wrote letters to newspapers about it and received a call from playwright Peter Sheridan – might we meet up? In Captain America’s Restaurant in Dublin’s Grafton Street we met with Neil Jordan, a teacher at the time, and over a very decent burger we discussed the possibility of publishing a young contemporary named Desmond Hogan, he had a novel completed called ‘The Ikon Maker.’ To this point, writers really had to seek publishers abroad. We needed a collective name for grants purposes, and settled on The Irish Writers’ Co-operative, which in due course became Co-Op Books. Heady days indeed! The late journalist and publisher John Feeney and I left after a time, others came on board. Writers such as the late Leland Bardwell, Sebastian Barry, Neil himself, Des Hogan of course, Lucille Redmond, and others were all published by Co-Op Books. Irish literary histories, rehashed in newspapers or even in anthologies, fail to mention the organisation. I don’t know why this is. One might suggest with some validity that the Irish home-grown publishing scene would not exist had the Co-Op not come about. One supposes that there is a generation of young writers now who believe that Irish literary history started with them. It didn’t. They have it very easy now. And the younger they are, the better their publishing chances. It was not always so. Founding the Cúirt festival in 1985/6 came about from my reading of Daniel Corkery’s ‘The Hidden Ireland,’ in which there is mention of ‘courts’ of poetry, organised for the most part after the fall of the Gaelic order. I was working as a literary officer in Galway Arts Centre at the time, which was based in an old disused church. Now the title has been foreshortened. Originally it full title was ‘Cúirt Filíochta Idirnáisiúnta na Gaillimhe,’ which makes plain that it was a festival exclusively devoted to poetry. I can’t imagine who believed that it might also be an umbrella title for a gathering including music and prose and so on. The first outing was over a weekend, more or less, and featured great poets such as the late Iain Crichton Smith, John Cooper Clarke, Paul Durcan, Nuala ni Dhomnaill, John Hogan, and others. It was an extraordinary success – and naturally with that success came politicking and, frankly, a march of egos and a very unpleasant time for me. My view of the entire Galway City arts world was tainted by those experiences, at least some of which were, shamefully in my view, to rear their heads again. It wasn’t about money, or anything quite as grubby; it was about power. Who, in a city not far removed from its past as a cattle-market town in the West of Ireland, ought to be ‘in charge’ as it were, of elements of the emerging cultural scene. I was naive, I admit it, and had never thought of art as being linked to parochial power.

How do you keep positive if an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Well, if it’s a short story that’s not going one’s way, or a poem for that matter, one leaves it aside – never throw anything out! You are parent to your creation, after all. Negative feedback, in terms of reviews, for instance? You have to expect those. Maybe a reviewer genuinely doesn’t like your work or genuinely doesn’t like you. In Ireland there’s a lot of the latter. Nothing to be done about it. A writer should never attack his reviewers. They have a job to do, as one also has a job to do and that’s that. If one doesn’t like negative criticism, then one should do well to look elsewhere for a job. I have known some writers to stoop very low indeed to uproot a reviewer of whom they didn’t approve. Very bad form. Demeaning to literature, if you wish. Insulting. There should be a literary Coventry to which such individuals can be exiled.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Did your work evolve/change in some way after the experience?

I have collaborated with translators, of course. And with a French poet whom I translated. And composers. I would dearly enjoy to work with a visual artist. I think poets are closet visual artists anyway. Translation allows one to see one’s work in a new light and working with a composer who is composing his music around one’s poem is always illuminating. Different transmutations take place. Different elements fold into one another. One gets back more than one puts in and consequently it’s all quite humbling. A new work has been created. It is different from what one started out with, of necessity. I should think it would be very exciting to work, as others have, on a lengthy project involving music and poetry. There are some very fine expressionistic artists working in sound-forms, one such being Danny McCarthy in Cork, who has made several recordings. All of that is extremely interesting.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you give to someone starting out?

I should advise anyone starting out, much as my father might, to find a job that makes some decent money, or a patron who’ll give one decent hand-outs. Much easier to find the former nowadays. In seriousness, writing, even for those with several novels out, is not a money-spinner. The Stephen Kings are rare, we shouldn’t forget that. Some Irish novelists with, publicly, considerable literary success, nonetheless found themselves having to return to nine-to-five employment. And there is no money in poetry, unless you are very good at ‘networking’ and can find one’s self invited to literary festivals all around the place. One might live on that, and ancillary things, like reviewing or giving workshops. I’m retired now, but generally speaking I’ve worked as a journalist, PR man, sub-editor, loaded train wagons, dug a trench or two, and even giving writerly advice. And experienced long periods on the dole. Most art is created on the dole, by the way. Only arts administrators make money. Which is a bizarre situation. Yet I’ve yet to hear someone at the launching of their new collection of poems say “I wish to thank the Department of Social Welfare. without whose regular payments this work would not have been possible.” They’re far too snobbish to admit that. And most arty audiences are too snobbish to want to hear it.

Do you think your national identity influences you and/or gives you a unique perspective on the world stage?

I was born in Northern Ireland and have lived all my live, save for my childhood in Canada, in the Republic. I have always had an interest in, but never a deep patriotic feeling towards, Ireland. Though I admire those who do. I believe that Republican writers should have their work featuring on the educational curriculum, especially those who sacrificed much in the conflict of Northern Ireland. Loyalist writers, too. I left Belfast before what are called the ‘Troubles’ really got under way, so I don’t feel qualified to write about that period too much. Then again an entire school of writing has come out during that period. Unfortunately it has overshadowed much Northern Irish, or Ulster, writing that went before it. Ask a young Belfast writer who Sam Hanna Bell was, hear what he or she replies. I have written poems from an exile’s point of view, so to speak. I ought to say, perhaps at some risk, that writers of my generation in the Republic were never too concerned about the North and perhaps rather envied how quickly big British publishers took up poets and novelists from there. Conflict is always artistically sexy. In the Republic some writers clearly desire to be English writers. Irish-language writers have stayed true to their country in a way some others have not. I see myself as a European writer and admire the French. They have a history in philosophy which we do not, for one thing. Their writing is infused with it. And they have a very healthy suspicion of institutional politics.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

Yes, one does have such a responsibility and any artist who says he or she is ‘above’ or ‘outside’ politics is simply dodging it, usually because they fear political engagement might taint them in some manner or interfere with their careers. But writing is not a career. It’s a vocation, and I won’t lean heavily on that word. How can one proclaim that one looks at the world in one’s work and ignore social or political distress? The very first political act is in a word, when one first learns one’s name. The first poem, the first story one publishes declares who one is at a higher level. You cannot look at what Israel is doing in Gaza, for instance, call yourself a writer and at the same time never write so much as a letter to a paper about it. The artist of whatever discipline must speak, make utterance literary or visual against injustice even in a story about love. Look at Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ It’s an act of love. And defiance. And witness. Self-censorship is a dreadful thing. God knows, one’s fellow writers can do a good enough job of trying to censor you.

Given the new situation the world finds itself in—with a virus that does not recognise class, gender or age—what role do you think creativity should play now and after this period has passed?

That’s a fascinating question, for one senses the world will have been changed in many ways. Some we cannot yet imagine. And that ought to happen, we cannot simply slide back into our old ways. Here we have a natural phenomenon, quite deadly to many, that doesn’t take into account how many shares you hold or how much interest you have running on Wall Street. Yet what one term’s the ‘great’ powers dithered and prevaricated and allowed people to die because they didn’t know how to respond. These same powers pour enormous amounts of money into rogue states in real cash terms or militarily and without a blink. They support very dubious regimes to kill and maim and dispossess other people. Yet no one has come up with a cure for cancer or even the common cold. Now this mutated common virus comes along and starts wiping us out – the arms sales continue, the support for nasty regimes continues. Art may explain some things, point out some unpalatable truths when this is over, if it ever is. But politicians do not listen to what art has to say. Besides, the great novels that spoke of totalitarianism, the great poems that warned us, have been written out of former conflicts and we haven’t learned a thing. Art has been allowed to become entertainment. Art should upset people, disturb them, uplift them surely, but most of all move them. You may not be able to hang a riot on a wall, but you can paint something that produces a just anger. A poem means nothing to a starving child, but a poem about a starving child just might move someone to action, however modest. If we are wise as writers and artists, we will look back on this time and think. If we are done with thinking, as many have been in history once a plague has passed, then it’s all irrelevant anyway. Bring on the next plague, the next illegal annexation, the next atrocity. This is not a thinking age. Our iPods and various similar devices have taken care of thinking. A teenager may kill for a pair of expensive runners. But when was the last time a teenager killed someone for a copy of ‘War and Peace?’

 

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