Sequence of Seventeens

Feature on poet, Rosie Johnston

Claire Savage

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‘On crushed-ice-velvet she / Rustles / Open her senses to novelty.’

With free verse a popular choice among many poets today, it is somewhat comforting to know that amongst all this talented work, there is still a strong current of poetic form surging underneath.

Former Belfast/Portstewart and now London-based resident, Rosie Johnston, is once such poet who has embraced a fixed form in her writing. She specialises in creating poetry with just 17 syllables per stanza – a style some may hasten to describe as Haiku but which, upon closer inspection, stands apart from this Japanese form.

Rosie, who is now on her third published collection – Bittersweet Seventeens: A Poem Sequence - with Lapwing Publications in Belfast, maintains that by adopting this approach to her work, her writing is more refined – stripped back, as it were, to the core of what she really wants to say. It is a method which has been well received to date – her first collection in 2010, Sweet Seventeens, was soon followed by Orion: A Poem Sequence in 2012, both of which were praised by critics. Indeed, it is a style which just seems to fit this poet, despite her attempts to explore other avenues…

“It seems to be the only way I can do it!” she says. “I keep trying to write in other forms and it never works for me. I go to courses and hang out with other poets but every time I try it, I feel it’s just really weak.

“The 17 syllable thing, for me, causes me to examine every single syllable and line. It forces me into the cauldron of where it really has to be as concentrated as possible and I really love that. I also have this short second line – the pivot – which I love. It’s the construction of structure that frees you. That’s what I find.”

It is a form which lends itself well to engaging an audience, and enticing people to read poetry is something Rosie – a creative writing tutor and published novelist - is very keen to do. Indeed, she hopes that through her poems, she can hook in those people who might otherwise shy away from it.

“That’s my dream – to get people to pick it up,” she says. “People have no time these days. These little tiny poems can slow you down. And all the white space around it helps…

“People have asked me how autobiographical they are, but it doesn’t matter. The purpose is for them to be what you want them to be. I think people who don’t normally read poetry like that too. For example, ‘That ogre high in the / Family tree, / When will his drumbeat silence?’ - people keep coming up to me and saying, ‘that one hit home’. It doesn’t matter what the ogre is to me.”

Citing her own poetic influences as anything from Homer’s The Odyssey, to Yeats, Michael Longley and so many more, Rosie adds that one of her earliest memories is of her father reading her Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot, an act which no doubt helped feed her love of words.

Meanwhile, she is keen to praise the merits of Northern Ireland’s inaugural Poet Laureate and TS Eliot prize-winner, Sinead Morrissey, whom she says has “brought something new to poetry.”

“I like poems which are clear,” she adds. “Like Hausmann and Larkin. Larkin was very good at saying fantastic things in plain words. I tend to prefer poems which seem to be in the vernacular. Occasionally, I try for that myself…”

And, she may be a Londoner now, but Northern Irish poets are never far away in the capital… Cushendall-born poet, Anne-Marie Fyfe, also lives in the city and is a good friend.

“She’s been a great support for me,” says Rosie. “She, I think, runs the best hub for poets who are working on their craft, with her Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour.”

Whilst she is not attempting to fit into the Haiku style of poetry (which she says is fascinating but dissimilar to her own more personal poems), her publisher, Dennis Grieg from Lapwing, suggested that Rosie may actually be writing in a much older form…

“Dennis introduced the idea that I might be writing like Early Irish Lyric Poetry from the 8th-12th century,” she explains. “They have five syllables by four lines and would write quite long pieces in that form. That’s been a great discovery.”

Poetry aside, however, Rosie is also awaiting another publication this year – Music in 19th Century Belfast - a book by her late father, Roy Johnston, which documents the growth of the early music scene in Belfast.

Roy was a former member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and chair of its music and opera committee, as well as being a member of the governors of Linen Hall Library, the board of Castleward Opera and a trustee of the Grand Opera House. Having written, lectured and also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 about opera and musical history, he subsequently wrote a dissertation on Concerts in the musical life of Belfast to 1874, for which Queen's University awarded him a doctorate in 1996.

His passion for music, and in particular, classical music concerts, inspired him to gather together as much material as he could to document the rise of concerts in Belfast.

“His main sources were the Belfast Newsletter and especially the Linen Hall Library,” says Rosie. “There’s plenty about places like Edinburgh and Dublin and so on, but my father found a gap that nobody else had. Nobody before him had brought together all this information about what was actually happening here.

“In the 1700s, there would have been lots of informal gatherings here and there. There was no cathedral in Belfast for a long time though. What my father has tracked is the move from these initial gatherings, through to the flourishing of artistic life and the building of the Ulster Hall.”

With her father (87) working on final revisions to the book up until his death at the end of March, 2012, Dr Declan Plummer of Queen’s University has since taken over to complete the work.

“We’re very grateful to Declan for taking it over,” says Rosie. “Professor of Music at Queen’s, Jan Smaczny, recommended him and he has taken it up to the end of the 19th century. Throughout the 19th century there was a great boom for Belfast.”

Another book in the pipeline is one on Roy Johnston’s mountain diaries from the late 40s/early 50s. An eager mountaineer, Roy was the first to climb Hen Mountain and myriad other craigs in the Mournes.

“My father and his friend, both amateurs, used to spend Sunday afternoons rock climbing,” says Rosie. “He wouldn’t talk about the mountaineering very much. It was only after he died that I realised how clear his diaries were. It was very dangerous. After my mother died in 1985, we all moved over here to England, but he really would not move. He would not go. Maybe not just because of the people and the Linen Hall… he needed the Mournes.”

‘Belay me, father, hold me / Close / Among those old, loved, homely mountains.’

Music in 19th Century Belfast, will be published by Ashgate this year and Bittersweet Seventeens: A Poem Sequence (dedicated to Roy Johnston) is available now from Lapwing Publications.