The Scotsman

Interview by Susan Mansfield

24th October 2009

THE old centre of Anatolí was all but deserted. Most of the inhabitants of the village in Crete had moved to the coast when polytunnel horticulture took off. On Minos Street, the houses sat abandoned, their doors unlocked. Waiting, in fact, for a poet to push them open.

It was a string of oranges on a nail that captured Brian Johnstone's eye: a vivid fragment of the past. "I was struck by the poignanacy of that, that someone hung those up to use and they're still there. As if someone just walked out the door and left it, which is such a metaphor for the way we go out of life."

So it became a poem, On Minos Street. The theme of discovering fragments of the past runs right through Johnstone's new collection, The Book of Belongings: "someone's granny's wallpaper" on the exposed wall of a half-demolished tenement; the lid of a Marmite jar dug up in the wood behind his Fife cottage; the sealed larder of a sunken ship which still holds the smell of honey.

It is a book about memories and secrets and the passing of time. The epigraph from poet David Harsent is: "Not everything buried is dead"; the cover artwork, a sculpture by Dundee-based Will Maclean, is called The Archaeology of Childhood. It is also about loss: of innocence, the passing of parents, the loss of lives in war. The title poem is about a book of "belongings of those found dead" used to identify Bosnia's missing.

"The archaeology of everything appeals to me, not just conventional archaeology, but the archaeology found in old photographs or old maps, the archaeology of conflict. It's about finding casually discarded or commonplace things that acquire much more value through the fact that they come to stand for something in the past, or something deeply buried in us."

It is also about what is revealed, including the secret histories in his own family. "You think you know your parents and grandparents, but in fact you only know one small aspect, how they interface with your own life. Extraordinary revelations came out when my father died about his first marriage, of which I knew nothing as a child, and similarly extraordinary revelations about my mother after she died, about a half-sister I had no knowledge of whatsoever."

For the past decade, Johnstone has found his own poetry playing second fiddle to the demands of his role as director of the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews. Since its beginnings in 1998, StAnza has gone from strength to strength, bringing world-class poets to St Andrews every March. He says it's no coincidence that the publication of his first full volume of poetry for 13 years is occuring as he announces his retirement (he will stand down in May 2010).

"Unless I'm able to step back and see that the festival has a life of its own, I would never be convinced that it had a future. It's at an adolescent stage. Handing it on to someone, and to a team in whom I've got confidence, is showing that it's grown up." He insists the festival has always been the work of a team and will hand it on to his current co-director, Eleanor Livingstone.

Johnstone got turned on to poetry as a teenager listening to Norman MacCaig, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and  Robert Garioch read at the Traverse Theatre in the late 1960s, and did his first reading there as a lad of 18, encouraged by poet and organiser Alan Jackson.

He returned to poetry in the 1990s and co-founded Edinburgh organisation Shore Poets. His first full collection, The Lizard Silence, was published in 1996. "I had got into photography, but when I was asked to write reviews of exhibitions, it was the words that really appealed to me. I started reading more poetry again, and it gradually built up and became the artistic endeavour of this part of my life."

One of his most important early inspirations was Orkney poet George Mackay Brown – when Johnstone was a student at St Andrews, he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Mackay Brown, who rarely left Orkney, to come to give a reading. He also admires the work of Americans William Carlos Williams, W  S Merwin and Mary Oliver, who combine depth with a kind of clarity and simplicity.

"That's what I seek to do in my poetry, to create a pattern of words which can be taken on board easily, a narrative or an argument which can be grasped relatively easily, but which you can go back to and dig into and excavate more from." Archaeology, again.

One thing StAnza has taught him is that "there's no such thing as poetry, there are poetrys of different sorts". The festival is about celebrating that range. "Sometimes I hear people coming out of an event arguing about what was good, and that's part of why we do this, because we want stuff which will appeal to all manner of people."

A recent experiment is to combine his poetry with music, working with Richard Ingham and Louise Major to create free improvised jazz performances using instruments and poetry in a group called Trio Verso. "I love music and have very catholic tastes. I'm very much a frustrated musician, and this is the closest I'm going to get, and something I hope to do much more of."

Above all, he will remain an ambassador for poetry. "One of the problems that I think poetry has is that because text is so omnipresent in life, people expect to be able to read a bit of text and grasp the meaning instantly. The idea that you have to go back to poems, reread them and explore the sound of the words, troubles people. They get scared that they're out of their depth. I would just encourage people: keep paddling, you'll get into the sandy bottom eventually."