Justin Quinn Interview

MH: Let’s begin with a question you sometimes seem to balk at by suggesting that your path has evolved by chance and that at times you simply engage with what is at hand. Granted that chance operations—including certain aspects of our lives—become the basis of discovery and choice, nevertheless, will you tell us what sparked your creative and personal journey from Ireland to the Czech Republic and including the United States? Looking back, what has been the most interesting creative or artistic development in your multinational, polyglot professional experience?

JQ: I very much dislike house repairs and tend to leave things half broken until they finally have to be dealt with. Until that showdown occurs, I tend to find ways to work around this without disturbing the flow of things. This may not seem like an answer. But I found myself in Prague in the early 1990s largely because Ireland at the time was a frustrating place for someone in their early twenties. So I leave and I’m in a country whose language I barely speak, a literary culture I barely know. I start to find ways around the problems. And those hacks, or temporary fixes, then slowly become a life, a way of living. It goes for poetry as much as earning a living. I strongly believe that making decent art of any kind has less to do with imposing one’s will on words or colors—say, using those materials to express oneself—but rather in a kind of openness to the materials themselves, or in the case above, to my circumstances. That way you find yourself, as Stevens says, more truly and more strange.

MH: Much of your poetry, such as your collection Waves and Trees, draws from your experience as an Irishman living in the Czech Republic. Specifically in terms of your artistic and scholarly influences, how have the two nations helped you define your voice and your use of craft?

JQ: I only learned to use the Czech context for scholarly purposes in the last few years (more on this below). In terms of the poetry it’s not so much a question of the confrontation of Irishness and Czechness (whatever those two things may be), but rather, I suppose, being a resident alien. I’m not sure I’m grateful to either nation for their influence on the poems I write. Certainly, as an Irish citizen, I’m grateful to be allowed to be resident in the Czech Republic. But my gratitude goes rather to the poets of the English language, whether they be from Ireland or wherever, and to those Czech poets, who are most dear to me. Claudio Guillén said writers have a special relationship to their second language—they are not so intimate with its literature, as they are with that of their mother tongue, but this distance can also be enabling. It’s like an extra dimension, or an extra wavelength, that other anglophones can’t quite catch. They hear murmurs, intimations, but not the words. That’s been a tremendous privilege: to have my ken extended in just this way.

MH: You’re something of a “hyphenate”: an accomplished scholar of modernist and contemporary literature in three countries; a poet; a critic; a translator; and, a novelist. Translation may be a central metaphor for the conversation between forms, languages, poets, and cultures that permeates your work. How do you feel these things “talk” to each other in your work? Can you describe one specific example where you have experienced multiple “voices” affecting each other in a passage or line of your own writing or your translation?

JQ: This is a difficult question, as I’m not quite sure how it works myself. On days that I’m writing poetry, I do it early in the morning, sometimes getting up around 4 a.m. (at least in the summer). Then I stop around 11 a.m., do some exercise, lunch, doze, and work on a critical essay in the afternoon for a few hours. The poetry is ticking over in my head when I’m writing the criticism and vice versa. In all types of writing, I try to be clear, or if I’m being vague, then I myself have to be clear on why that’s necessary. I dislike criticism and poetry that has a troubled relationship with grammar. I’m not really disposed to write about the same themes in my poetry as in my criticism, so I’m hard put to see any crossover. But I have experienced a strong crossover between poetry translation and my own poetry writing, more or less in the terms described in the previous question.

MH: Your poem “Seminar” draws from your experience teaching American literature to students in Prague. What is there in American literature that you believe is beneficial to Czech students? Setting aside McDonald’s™ and KFC™–the vulgar accoutrements of late capitalism–how has United States culture affected Czech culture? Are any of these effects positive?

JQ: Many are positive. For a lot of Czechs, the US is an ideal example of democracy at work–a state to be aspired to and befriended. Many people here are very grateful to Reagan for forcing the Soviets’ hand and bringing an end to the Cold War. Some of the journals and magazines try to emulate American examples like The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker. The downside of this has been a reluctance to see the pernicious aspects of American foreign policy, especially in Latin America during the Cold War, when the US exaggerated the Soviet threat and aided and abetted “right wing death squad democracy” as Allen Ginsberg put it. As for the literature, Ginsberg himself was a transformative presence, and then a later wave arrived that included Elizabeth Bishop and others. Because Czech is a small culture and language, the literature has to be attentive to external influences, and one of the major ones is that of the English language.

MH: Your critical reviews are balanced, but always have an edge. What do you value most in the critical discourse, both as a critic and as someone whose work receives critique?

JQ: As a reader of reviews, I want primarily to be informed by the piece. The reviewer should be able to deftly and briefly characterize the work, and only then offer an opinion. If it’s going to be trashed, I want the reviewer to tell me why it’s worth the trouble of trashing. Most reviewers as they become more established get to know writers and lose their independence. The same goes for reviews I’ve received of my own work. What I appreciate most is the response of an intelligent and sensitive reader—whether the review is positive or negative is always secondary to that.

MH: Much of your critical writing also addresses in one way or another complex relationships between poetry and politics. In your discussions of the social and political implications of poetry, you appear to be skeptical of the conventional notion that language is a valuable shaper of national consciousness—or at least feel that this idea has changed or is problematic. We have several questions about this topic: what are your current views about the relationship between poetry and politics/social issues? In your view, which poets are doing the most compelling work in this area now? And, what nations or locales do they represent—or does locale matter in such work?

JQ: Although these things preoccupy me, I like to find a wide range of pleasures in poetry. For instance, I recently enjoyed the American poet Joseph Massey whose lyrical minimalism finds no place for an abstraction like politics. And though I’ve just done it in the previous sentence, I’m wary of labeling poets as American, English, Irish, etc. Perhaps Massey is better described as a poet of the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. Above all, he and all poets belong to their language, which is something that easily exceeds the limits of the nation. As for poetry and politics at the moment, a lot of the work is a little predictable. In the US it takes the form of kneejerk criticism of foreign policy, racism, etc. If your sole aim is to express sympathy with the suffering of others, then you’re probably best off donating some money to charity or going on a march, instead of saying so in a poem. If you want to express your ethnic identity, then, once more, there are many better occasions to do so than a free-verse reminiscence about your ancestors. Warm feelings usually lead to limp lines. I think Paul Muldoon plays brilliantly with ethnic identity and politics, constantly surprising. In his last few books he’s dealt with the various wars the U.S. has been engaged in, but he refuses to use poems for moral grandstanding.

MH: Your forthcoming book, Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry (Oxford UP, September 2015) examines the transnational movement of poetry during the Cold War. In particular, using alternative analytic frameworks and postcolonial theory, you argue that Czech poetry had more influence on the Anglophone tradition in this period than has been previously recognized. Will you give us a sneak preview of this argument through an example?

JQ: Primarily I was interested in the way in which the Cold War created a particular framework for the transmission and understanding of culture, and specifically poetry, even at times when it seemed irrelevant. Some poets were right at the centre of the action, like Allen Ginsberg, zipping around the various flashpoints and catalyzing changes in widely divergent cultures. Others seemed external to it. The first idea of it began when I discovered that the Czech poet Miroslav Holub was famous and influential in the US and UK in the 1970s and 1980s (spoken of as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature), and yet a minor figure in the Czech context. Obviously some weird forces were at work in this case. I started pulling at that thread, and eventually came to understand what was going on in the reception of postcolonial poets like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott in the US. It was a kind of outsourcing of politics in culture. Poets like these could tell a story of oppression without any connection to US foreign policy, whereas if American audiences had looked to poets of similar standing south of their own border, they would have been forced to question the involvement of successive governments, both Democratic and Republican, in that part of the world. We warm to the story of an Irish writer in his struggles against a British oppressor, but are made uncomfortable by other writers whose work implies that we are the oppressors. Of course, this is something that several US editors and critics twigged to in the 1980s, especially Carolyn Forché, but there was still a strong aestheticist line that insisted that politics spoiled the poetry of Latin America, but not of Ireland or the Caribbean, because those places told us stories that were altogether more heartwarming.

MH: As we’ve noted, you operate in the “in-between places” (in terms of forms, cultures, languages, influences, etc.), places that Terry Eagleton in After Theory says can be the most creative. One of the “in-between” things we love about your poetry is its subtext. Under the surface, through a use of ironic double meaning that might almost be called clever, are layers of allusion where things meet. An example of this subtext is in your poem “Russian Girl on Přížská” with its lines such as “The way you walk is slash and burn./Like understatement’s now a crime.” These interstices in your poems are serious fun. Are they fun for you? How and where does this play with gaps and overlaps arise in your discovery and working process?

JQ: Right there is the delight of the whole endeavor. The fun of it is most intense at just such turns. As for the interstices, it’s harder to say. I have such a limited awareness of the process. I’m too absorbed in it when it’s happening to be able to give an accurate account of it afterwards. This is not to say that it’s like a trance. I do, mostly, answer the phone and I like to think I would notice if the building was burning down. But your question, which is fair, is perhaps one that artists are singularly ill equipped to answer.

MH: Another thing we love about your poetry is your use of given forms. For example, “Recession Song” is a Spanish sextilla and “Russian Girl on Přížská” is a contemporary sonnet that fuses the 16-line sonnet of George Meredith’s sonnet cycle Modern Love with iambic tetrameter and a Shakespearean rhyme scheme (ending with an unconventional ghgh rhyme in the volta). The strictures of given forms seem to lend your poems a singing quality. Will you talk about your use of and experimentation with strict forms in your poetry?

JQ: The form for “Recession Song” I found in an anthology of 17th century English poetry. It was a particularly beautiful short poem, and I started to wonder what would happen if the same form dealt with a more modern idiom and theme. That’s often how it works. It’s a more tactile and semi-feral activity than it might seem at a distance. Something in you goes, “That sounds nice. I’d like to make a song like that.” Obviously with rhyme you have to train yourself before it becomes natural, but the pay-off comes when the form leads you beyond yourself and your narrow intentions and emotions. That’s when the language starts doing some of your thinking and feeling for you. Given how limited, vain, and uninformed most of us are, or at least I am, that will always be an improvement.

MH: Your poetry employs what might be called a gentle pastoral lyric with images of landscape and domestic life, yet the associations within the poetry’s images and diction invoke subtexts of displacement, catastrophic war or genocide, economic distress, and other imminent dangers in social or political relations. In your essay “American Sublime and Allen Ginsberg” you spoke of “the ligatures between private ecstasy and political vision.” For you, what is the relationship between lyricism and politics in your poetry?

JQ: Perhaps a little glibly I have to point back to the poems themselves. That’s where I think about this stuff to the best of my abilities. Outside that enclosure I think I resemble most a drunk at the bar shouting his predictable opinions about the state of the world. It’s precisely because poets aren’t good at answering questions like this in prose that makes them poets in the first place. I can’t really talk straight and analytically about these things, at least not in relation to my own work.

MH: In a 2010 interview for Radio Praha, you spoke about first moving to Prague. You mentioned the initial difficulty of not hearing your native language spoken around you, in addition to the difficulty, as a writer, of not being able to feed off of the contemporary speech that surrounded you. Did this experience shift the way in which you conducted your own creative process? What did it teach you about the idea of “inspiration”? As you’ve become fluent in Czech and now stand immersed in it as the culture in which you live, how have your perceptions of the creative process evolved?

JQ: Funnily enough, I don’t think in terms like this. I’m unanalytical about these issues. Throughout my writing life I tend to concentrate on the practicalities and leave the larger abstractions to work themselves out. Thus, in my case, I know I write best in the early morning, with a pencil on loose A4 paper which rests on a Brampton folder. I’m either on the couch or on the armchair. As I said above, I’m up early and drink a lot of coffee. This creates a strange state of consciousness, when I’m still half dreamily asleep, and yet also wide awake. That’s ideal as stuff floats into my head from left field. I like peace and quiet, and a computer open to check the OED and Thesaurus occasionally. More generally, all I really know is that my adopted country seems to suit me, even after two decades. I don’t know why that it is. I imagine that my diction has become a bit distant from the demotic, but other poets probably do slang better than me in any case.

MH: In a 2010 interview for Radio Praha, you spoke about first moving to Prague. You mentioned the initial difficulty of not hearing your native language spoken around you, in addition to the difficulty, as a writer, of not being able to feed off of the contemporary speech that surrounded you. Did this experience shift the way in which you conducted your own creative process? What did it teach you about the idea of “inspiration”? As you’ve become fluent in Czech and now stand immersed in it as the culture in which you live, how have your perceptions of the creative process evolved?

JQ: Rejection is integral to any career, including an artistic one. It never disappears. Some rejections are like body blows, others one forgets a few minutes later. If it’s particularly bad, I usually wallow for two to three days in self pity. It’s important at that point to assess the exact contours of the rejection. Is it from someone you respect? Was it an informed and considered decision? If the answers are yes, then you’d be stupid not to think about the matter long and hard.

MH: The Soap Bubble Set section of Mistake House is partly where we wish to connect the student with the professional. Naturally, we have some questions of interest to student writers:

Was there a moment where you felt like your work started to move from the student state to that of the professional?

JQ: Perhaps when my first poem was published in a national newspaper in Ireland. What had previously been a rather furtive activity was now public knowledge. In terms of the writing itself, I was fairly convinced from my late teens that I was willing to arrange most things in my life to allow the writing of poems. Simply put, little else seemed quite as interesting. That said, it demanded and still demands quite a lot of worldly wile and time management to pull off the trick.

MH: You’re a busy man—juggling family, teaching at Charles University, and writing and translating in several forms. What advice do you have for the busy about how to maintain a work ethic and a creative practice?

JQ: Apart from the wiles mentioned above, it’s important to have people around you who take your writing seriously. I don’t purely mean that they should consider you a genius, but rather they should know that the writing is an integral part of who you are. My wife has what at best could be described as a polite interest in the art of poetry, but she knows how important it is to me and helps me make time. I would hope she thinks I reciprocate in similar fashion. This is grading into marriage counseling, but no less valid for that.

MH: How do you feel about your earlier works when you compare them to your current works?

JQ: I don’t think about this very much, and haven’t much to say on it.

MH: What do you value most deeply as a teacher?

JQ: Serious passionate engagement in the work at hand. In some cases, because of the particularity of the student, this isn’t reflected in grades. But those are always of secondary importance–which is not to say that grades are unimportant, just not as important.

MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?

JQ: Frost said that the best bit about farming was shirking chores. I’m in agreement. As mid life responsibilities descended on me in the last decade it’s become harder to play hooky, or as we say in Ireland, to mitch. You skive off and someone doesn’t get their letter of reference written and perhaps they don’t get the job they deserve. I write the letter, but only promise to do things I know I can deliver well and on time. So the upshot is that I don’t really play hooky. You aren’t playing hooky unless there are bad consequences either for yourself or others. Thus I plan my dérives, which sounds like a contradiction. I arrange my affairs so I can take off for a walk for a day or a few days. I’ve had a lot of longer waits in airports in the last year, and I’ve become preoccupied with trying to get out to the open countryside from them. To my surprise, you can’t get out of some airports at all, unless you’re in a road vehicle or plane—you’d need wire-cutters, etc. The best, though, was Amsterdam. I walked out of the terminal and within about twenty minutes I was strolling through sunny meadows, being observed by a colony of rabbits. They seemed happy, and I lay there for an hour.

Justin Quinn Bio
Justin Quinn Poetry