The Irish poet Justin Quinn has been living in the Czech Republic for close to two decades. His latest collection of poetry, “Waves and Trees” has been translated into Czech, and he himself has also translated the work of Czech poets, such as Petr Borkovec, into English. I talked to Justin Quinn about translating poetry and how living away from his native country has affected the poetry he writes.
“I suppose I feel more at home here at this stage than in Ireland, which is beautifully my home country. Living here affected me very strongly at the start. I didn’t know how to process the information and the experiences I was having.
"For the first few years, I lived in a tower block at the edge of the city, and a lot of work remained within the confines of the apartment walls. When I walked out of the door, I was surrounded by tower blocks, an estate at the edge of the city. And of course, there was a completely different language as well. Which for a writer can be a difficult thing to process, not hearing your native language spoken around you.
“Many writers feed off contemporary speech, so one thing that I had to learn was to stop feeding off contemporary speech in the way many writers do. So all in all, there were a lot of things that I had to adjust to at the beginning of my stay.”
In terms of style, Irish poetry is said to be relatively divided between formally conservative and more innovative schools of writing. Where do you see your own poetry? And does such a division still apply nowadays?
“I think the situation is changing. Irish poetry, up to my generation, has been very conservative. All the attention has been directed towards those poets who rhyme, use meter and use old forms like the sonnet. And experimental poetry has been quite marginalized up until now.”
“I feel in my generation, poets have greater freedom. I see now that my contemporaries feel fairly relaxed about picking and choosing between different styles. So I think things are changing in Ireland.”
To return to life in the Czech Republic, you already touched upon the time you lived in the tower blocks. One collection of poetry you published and I believe it’s inspired by your experience there, is titled “Privacy”. Is there privacy in such a tower block?
“Well, there kind of is. People try to patrol the borders of their privacy very vigilantly. I found it bizarre to step inside the lift during the first few years and sometimes the neighbors would not greet me, so intent they were on maintaining their privacy.
“And of course once you enter your apartment, you forget that you are on the nth floor of a very horrible concrete block and you create your own world for yourself and your family there which is very much in contrast with the world outside.
“But there are also interesting spillages. The concrete walls are not that thick, you hear the neighbors banging around upstairs, doing all kinds of things, the whole range of human activities. It was bizarre for me, having been brought up in a house, to know when the neighbors went to the toilet, because I’d hear the toilet being flushed upstairs.
“It was a bizarre mixture of privacy but also the barriers between privacy where broken in ways that they weren’t where I grew up.”
Is there a central theme or inspiration for your latest collection, “Waves and Trees”?
“I’d like to think that I got out of the house over the years. And I was able to get out into the Czech landscape and draw on the Czech experience. I was able to find out how to process this experience in a way that I didn’t know before.
“The main thing that helped in that process was translating Czech poets into English. They allowed me to see how I could use that experience. Foremost amongst them was Petr Borkovec, whose work I published in book form about two years ago.
“That was a real revelation to me to see how he used the landscape, the Czech language and he also drew upon a European poetic tradition that I immediately recognized. So that was kind of a commonality that I had with Borkovec’s work and that was a great help.
“As the title of the book indicates, it’s much more about fresh air, it’s about waves, and it’s about trees. Also in the title, there’s an attempt to connect the waves of the sea where I was brought up in Ireland with the marvelous forests that stretch all over Central Europe, which I love walking through for days on end.”
You mentioned Petr Borkovec, whose poetry you translated. Your book “Trees and Waves” is now available in Czech translation. What was it like to see your work in a foreign language?
“It’s a very strange experience. The translations were done by a Slovak poet who has been living here for about 20 years, Tomáš Fürstenzeller. He is extremely good at translating rhymed poetry and so he rhymes the translations.
“He is also a very close friend of mine, so the translation was also a reason to meet up for a few beers and talk about poetry in general. It was lovely to see the work he did, but it was also strange to se that in some cases, he improved the originals. So I’d have to rather reluctantly tip my hat to him and pick up the bill for the beers, because he was so good.
“So it was a learning experience for me. Just as much as I learned a lot from translating Borkovec’ work. And to see the dedication and elegance that Tomáš took to my work was rather humbling and it was fun as well.”
You had a poem published in the New Yorker last fall. How did the publication come about?
“In the traditional way. I sent it off to the editor and they liked it. There were no strange alchemical processes involved, as far as I remember. Obviously, I was delighted to get a poem in this magazine, which had kind of mythical status.
“When I was growing up and first began writing poems, I had never seem a copy of the New Yorker, and yet, by the time that I was twenty, I had already sent three submissions there, because I knew that was a place to send your poetry. It was really nice to get a poem published there after twenty years.”
Would you mind reading the poem for our listeners?
“I’d be delighted. The poem is entitled “Seminar” and it’s about teaching American literature to Czechs in Prague.
I carry America into these young heads,
at least some parts that haven’t yet got there—
Hawthorne’s Salem, Ellison’s blacks and reds,
Bishop’s lovely lines of late summer air.
The students take quick notes. They pause or dive
for dictionaries and laptops, or turn to ask
a friend as new words constantly arrive.
The more they do, the more complex the task.
They smoothly move from serious to blasé
and back again. I love the way they sit
and use their bodies to nuance what they say.
I lean forward to catch the drift of it.
When it’s ended, they’ll switch back to Czech,
put on their coats and bags, shift wood and chrome,
and ready themselves for their daily trek
across a continent and ocean home.