with Rosie Johnston:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Rosie: As soon as I learned how to hold a pencil, I escaped the family ructions around me by writing on my own on the upturned base of a doll’s cot. That absorption in writing is where I’ve felt at home ever since. At school, I loved writing, even though they called it homework, but then sensible things got in the way like earning a living and having children. I couldn’t finally give myself permission to write until I was around 40 and my kids were all settled at school. I had waited so long, I’d lost focus and had no idea where to start, so I took a journalism course and swore I’d write anything and learn as I went. My first influences were what journalism teaches us: to get it written, get it right and keep it short, in plain, unstilted language being aware all the time that our readers have other pressing things to do.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Rosie: I’m most impressed by plain-speaking poets who keep strictly to their chosen form. Seamus Heaney and his old friend Michael Longley come to mind, and Edna St Vincent Millay. I turn to Basho in quiet moments, and Rumi. There’s an American master of short poetry called Samuel Menashe; I wish he were alive today, still writing.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work?
Rosie: Born in Belfast, I grew up during what we euphemistically called The Troubles. Times were turbulent in my family too as my mother contracted breast cancer when I was 17 and survived until I had just become a mother for the first time aged 30. Northern Ireland used its ‘troubles’ to foment a golden age of poetry. I used mine to escape (with my parents’ blessing) to England with those home poets (Heaney, Longley, Meehan, McGuckian, Hewitt, Muldoon et al, and Yeats of course) packed in my bags.
Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work that you’ve done creatively so far?
Rosie: It’s tricky for a writer to assess their own work but I’m probably most proud of Six-Count Jive (Lapwing Publications, 2019) which brings together around 90 micro-poems charting my recovery from a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder in 2010. With a sense of women of the past urging me on in the writing, I found these two little stanzas arriving as introduction:
So many words.
Sung, scribbled, told
by the fire, by the cradle. Vanished.
In dreams, I hear whispers, women
‘Find our lost poems. Write them.’
I’m also very proud to have poems included in some wonderful anthologies recently: Places of Poetry (OneWorld, 2020) and Her Other Language (Arlen House, 2020).
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Those moments wrapped in my own world at the upturned cot gave me an early sense that writing was the place for me. But it wasn’t until my youngest (of three children) was a year old that I had a sort of eruption of energy emotionally and mentally telling me that if I didn’t start writing then, I never would. So, I took a journalism course in the evenings and learned how to churn out the words on time, see them edited without dissolving in tears, felt the thrill of watching strangers engrossed in my words, and the even greater buzz of getting paid. Heady days. I developed into writing drama and fiction and never intended to write poetry but as CPTSD began to make its presence felt in 2009/2010, I found tiny poems coming to me, always in 17-syllable stanzas with a short middle line. Luckily, Dennis Greig of Lapwing in Belfast saw something in them and published my first pamphlet in November 2010.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Rosie: After forty years in London, I moved in 2018 to the English seaside and bought myself a beach hut. It’s a little shed on the shore where friends, family and I can change for a wild swim, have warm drinks and meals and chat the day away. Any tension around? The beach hut and the waves defuse it in no time.
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Rosie: In March this year, roof repairs were going on in the teeth of Storm Christophe and heavy snow (there’s never a perfect time to write) and I produced my first fiction in over ten years. On my last trip abroad before the pandemic, I met a lovely old man in Paris and knew there was a story there waiting to be written. Laughing and Grief is about love and loss without straying into the usual territory of Parisian romance and I’m proud to say it was published last month in American Writers Review 2021, available here American Writers Review 2021: Turmoil and Recovery: Ferrara, D, Louise, Dale, Talarigo, Jeff, Florio Founder, Patricia A.: 9780999880869: Amazon.com: Books
On 23 October, 2021 between 14.00 and 16.00 GMT, I’ll be reading my poetry at Gloucester Poetry Festival online. I will have half an hour all to myself, quite a challenge for somebody who specialises in short poems, and I can’t wait. My website Blog – Rosie Johnston (rosiejohnstonwrites.com) will have details closer to the time.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
In 2016, to celebrate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, Greenwich publisher Live Canon commissioned responses by living poets to all the great man’s sonnets. Project 154 (livecanon.co.uk) Mine was 126, a rather snarky sonnet written in elegant balance-sheet language about, essentially, being dumped. Uniquely, and possibly to annoy every sonnet fan who can count, sonnet 126 is two lines short, as if the affair it describes was cut unfairly short. Well, that took me to my own, too-hot-to-handle, first love:
My boyish love. Your solemn
enchanted even Time
till in this willowed place you
chose to wane
in earth, while my heart waxes.
Your stone preserves your name,
Chiselled dates belie vitality.
We linked hands and birled in
Snubbed her warnings, let them swirl.
Love led us from discredit to
divided us in two.
I survived the severed decades
to unite here
stricken at your grave.
My heart still whirls with
Yes, that ‘stricken’ is a nod to Edna St Vincent Millay’s wonderful sonnet about grief: Time Does Not Bring Relief. “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied”… | Poetry Foundation
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
Undoubtedly my greatest poetry debt is to Dennis Greig of Lapwing Publications in Belfast. He has published four books of my micro-poems since 2010 and, in spite of his own immense health difficulties, always finds time and energy to nurture my style and confidence. A thousand thanks to you, Dennis.
Bio: Rosie Johnston's four poetry books are published by Lapwing Publications in her native Belfast, most recently Six-Count Jive (2019), a description in 17-syllable stanzas of the inner landscape of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Last December Irish poetry blogger Billy Mills chose it as one of his top three Irish poetry books of 2020. Rosie’s poems have appeared or featured in the Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog, London Grip, Culture NI, FourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman, Ink, Words for the Wild and Hedgerow. Anthologies include Places of Poetry (OneWorld, 2020), Her Other Language (Arlen House, 2020) and Live Canon’s ‘154 Project: In Response to Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ (2016). Before poetry led her astray, Rosie's two novels were published in Dublin and Ireland. Her first story in ten years will appear in the American Writers Review literary journal for 2021. She was poet in residence for the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust until she moved to live by the sea in Kent, UK www.rosiejohnstonwrites.com