Thursday, February 22, 2007


SOL by Andrew Johnston Victoria University Press

From V.U.P. a delightful collection of new poems by former Wellingtonian Andrew Johnston with whom I caught up last weekend.

Beattie - Andrew when I first met you many moons ago you were the Books Review Editor for the late much lamented Evening Post newspaper in Wellington. What have you been doing since?

Johnston: Well, Graham, journalism is still paying the rent (or rather the mortgage) and poems still get written in spite of everything. After I left NZ in late 1996, I worked in London for about eight months as a casual sub-editor on the broadsheets, then moved to Normandy. A deal to teach English there fell through, and for 16 months I commuted once a week across the Channel on the night ferry to carry on working part-time on The Observer -- an experience that I'm still unpacking.

When I got married in late 1998 I acquired the right to work in France, so I wrote a letter to the International Herald Tribune in Paris and they gave me a job. Christine, my wife, got a university post in Paris, too, and so we've been living there since early 1999.

As for poetry, I had a selected poems published in Britain in 1999, then VUP published another collection here, Birds of Europe, in 2000. So this new book, Sol, has been seven years in the making -- during which time Emile, our son, arrived.

The other thing I've been doing is keeping up a web site, The Page ( I'd always wanted to find a web site that kept track of the best new writing about poetry, and couldn't find it, so I made it myself. It's a lot of fun, though I find it hard attending to it regularly. (Note from Beattie - this site is well worth a visit.)

Beattie – ahh Paris, the world’s most visited city, the city of light, the city too of ex-pats I gather. Is there indeed a large community of ex-pats? Is this community visible? Do you come across other NZ’s living there? Other artists?

Johnston: From time to time I come across other NZers in Paris, and I've been to one or two things at the embassy, but if there's a community of expats who meet regularly I'm not aware of it. I know that young NZers who go to London often tend to get around together -- that there's a real community there -- but my impression is that in general NZers who settle elsewhere overseas tend to want to fit in, to blend in. The previous ambassador in Paris told me they even have to be careful contacting NZers because some just don't want to know. As for me, I have dual nationality now, and I'm pretty caught up in the big questions that France is struggling with; I feel I belong to both places.

Beattie: Part One of your new collection, some 12 poems, is made up of poems written obviously as a result of living in France. How big a part does environment play in influencing your poetry, both in terms of style and subject?

Johnston: That's a question that preoccupies me rather a lot because sometimes I wish I was one of those poets who are good at making poems out of their surroundings -- where I live is an interesting place, after all. But it's also true that living in Paris can be inhibiting for a writer because as a place it has been written about endlessly -- overwritten, even. Paris does get into some of the poems, but it's more often the case that I write about France (or from France) when I'm out of town, on holiday.

As far as style is concerned, and the influence of being in France, I'm interested in French poetry but slightly allergic to some of its philosophical pretensions and its inherent conservatism (even when it's being avant-garde) so I doubt that French poetry has influenced my style. I'm much more steeped in contemporary American poetry, which is incredibly rich and varied and adventurous.

Beattie: Do you get home to NZ very often and what are you doing while you are here this time?

Johnston: I've been lucky enough to get back here every 18 months or so, on average, though it's two and half years since I last came. This time I'm here for a year, working on a book about contemporary New Zealand poetry -- I managed to get the J D Stout Research Fellowship at Victoria University to do that. It's also a year to get back in touch with family and friends, for Christine to do some research of her own, and for our son Emile to get to know his NZ family and to speak English. He's loving it so far. And so am I!

Author pic courtesy Victoria University Press.

1 comment:

drmathew said...

Caould any body be abled to write poems on ferry travel? I am craze of such, actually