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Interview with Justin Quinn by Selina Guinness

Justin Quinn was born in Dublin in 1968, and studied English and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. He has moved between Prague and Dublin since 1992, but is now afull-time resident in a Soviet-built housing project on the outskirts of Prague where he lives with his wife, Terez.a. He lectures in English at the Charles University and has just completed a doctorate on Wallace Stevens. The O'o'a'a' Bird was published by Carcanet in 1995 and was one offive shortlisted for last year's Forward Priz.e for best first collection.

The 0' 0' a' a' Bird shuttles between the cities of Dublin and Prague. Yet I found it refreshing that the book rejects a touristic portrait of each city, focusing instead on the disjunction between the human perspective and the urban environment in each place. How do you approach the idea of modem life from Dublin and from Prague?

Certainly moving between the two cities over the past three years has been a strange kind of experience. The geography of the two places has blended in my mind. Sometimes I would slip between these geographies in a poem or between one poem and another and I have to say now that I feel equally at home in both places. As regards modernity in both places ... I don't know really how to answer that.

Let us say that throughout The 0'0' a' a Bird there is a demand that we question our place as individuals inside a hostile social structure. I would have thought this to be more characteristic of a Czech tradition than the Irish poetic tradition.

Well maybe I could answer on two levels. First of all, sometimes it's a bit lonely, sometimes it's quite liberating to be a foreigner in a place like this, because nobody quite knows your history. You don't have the same reference points as anybody else, which can be refreshing but is difficult at times also. On the cultural level, I feel like I've taken very little from Czech literature. It's not one I know intimately by any means and I would feel no affinity whatsoever with what I've read of contemporary Czech poetry. I mean ... influences would be people like Derek Mahon, Irish people: Heaney I still read with huge enjoyment, and Paul Muldoon. I think there's a very intellectual and bardic tradition in Ireland which is very important. Heaney is by no means an easy poet. He is popularised as such, but I think in some cases he's extremely philosophical. Paul Muldoon is famously and brilliantly obscure and he is someone I really read with enthusiasm. So I do feel there is a kind of conceptual tradition-or not so much conceptual, more that I think within certain important areas of the Irish poetic tradition there has been very deep engagement with intellectual issues. Yeats would be a good example: he never shied away from Hegel, although he might do his own thing with him. He had a rough vein of philosophical ideas that he wasn't afraid to use in his poems.

Has your work on Wallace Stevens's use of landscape influenced your own?

I spent three years studying him for a Ph.D so I suppose he must have influenced me to some extent. But I remember when I started studying, I consciously tried not to write like him and part of that was adopting metaphysical verse, filtering verse forms from John Donne or George Herbert as a kind of antidote to Steven's looser pentameter lines which he uses to write philosophical poetry. I tried to steer clear of him in that regard.

You dedicated The 0' 0' a' a' Bird to your wife, Tereza, yet in a curious way the emotion in poems such as 'Present Tense' seems to move beyond personal circumstance to consolidate itself in the landscape. In your recent work that has appeared in PN Review and The Irish Times, the domestic world appears more immune to the outside world than in poems such as 'The Clearing'. What has changed?

On a personal level, Tereza and I have been living in two different cities for most of the time, and there was always that sense of distance, of a relationship under threat because it is difficult to conduct one under those circumstances. Over the last year we have been living together for the first time in the same place. I have also changed, I think, in my attitude to the way that politics in the larger context of society threatens a personal space, I think a few years ago I would have felt that there is a very strong threat that could be barely survived. I no longer consider this threat to the personal to be so serious; I now think there can be moments won from these larger forces.

Why has your viewpoint changed?

I know it's been changing. I don't know why. I could never write those kind of poems again. I feel an episode has closed with that book. In a way I'm glad because I don't want to continue writing the same poems for the rest of my life but as for the deeper reasons that's difficult. I have no idea.

It's handy to have a dictionary on the desk when reading your poetry. Words such as "coulisse", and "cinct" as in "cincture", appear in your poems- other words that weren't actually in my Collins Compact occurred also ... At a time when the English poetic scene is divided about questions of accessibility, do you feel this is at all an issue for you?

Ah, well, it is a difficult question because you know if you use one ofthese kind oftricky words you're going to piss some people off, but at the same time, some of these words are so fantastic in themselves they're really crying out to be put in a poem. I have to say when I read a difficult or obscure word in someone else's poem, I'm glad if it sends me to the dictionary to discover a new word like that. Although in the case of "cinct", I was particularly hamming it up, putting on a sort of baroque voice in the poem ['Minuet'] and I needed that weird diction. I think I'm now steering away from that posing. There is a sense of taking on different voices in The 0' 0' a' a' Bird, and I'd like to think I am now writing a more direct poetry that could be more accessible.

You have translated J aroslav Sievert and also translated some of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Do you feel confident with translation?

I haven't been doing very much translation from the Czech because I decided to wait until my grasp of the language is much better; my grasp of the literary language especially. Translation in general I wouldn't be attracted to, except for one or two poets, the translation of whom would help my own work, help me to see things in a different way. I would have very little time for the scholarly approach that some poet really should be translated into English because its a pity he's not known. I suppose you must translate from a real liking of the poet, like Sievert, and a desire to enter into that world. If you 're not Czech or if you don't speak that language one of the best ways to read that poem is to write it again into English. So translation then becomes a way of reading the poem.

Did you find the workshops you attended at Trinity useful?

Yes. What was helpful was knowing that the poems were given an audience, that they would be read seriously, or dismissed seriously. Dismissal is one of the most important and neglected things I think in the critical climate in Ireland at the moment. There is not enough critical dismissal. A poet does not need someone who is going to say that every poem is "great": better to say "not so great" or best of all, punished.

Who are you reading at the moment?

I'm reading quite a bit of Mark Strand, an American poet, and James Merrill who died last year. I'm very attracted by Merrill's voice: he's so witty and relaxed, so brilliant, and in a way so intimate. I would hope I am learning something from him in these respects, in his poems of friendship and love ... I felt deep down that the earlier poetry I was writing was philosophical and, well, distant, and rarely had those moments of intimacy with other people, even those who are addressed in the poem. Merrill is very instructive in that regard, but also very entertaining. I think that's a quality of poetry which I really look for: to have your imagination entertained by other people.

When did you write your first poem?

My first poem was written to woo a girl and it failed miserably. That was the initial impetus, to woo a womanand it didn't work. As Auden says, poetry makes nothing happen.