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(Image: Tina Tiller)
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BooksMarch 28, 2023

How to take a book apart: on compiling a poet’s life so far

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Poet Ash Davida Jane talks with poet Andrew Johnston about his Selected Poems, which spans 23 years of his published work. 

I’ve started writing this review in the notes app on my phone from the backseat of my friend’s car, which feels a far cry from the world of Andrew Johnston’s Selected Poems. Nothing is out of place in this world — words fall into place naturally and echo each other with a pleasant ring. A lot of the assonance is subtle enough that you might not see it if you aren’t looking for it, but you’ll definitely hear it in how smoothly the poems flow. 

With a selected poems you get to dip into each of the author’s books, savour a fair few of the tastiest bites, then move onto the next. It’s a great way to explore how a poet’s work has changed through the years and through their life. With some poets you can see distinct eras, like a pop star. The shifts in Andrew’s work are more subtle, but definitely present. I’m always curious how a writer sees the progression of their own style, so I asked him about it. He responded:

 “I think there are some broad differences between the books. How to Talk is very pared back – it went through many versions. I think I was wiser then. The Sounds is trying to be more discursive, with the sestinas. Birds of Europe is the least successful, I think, because it’s more diaryish and because it glosses over a big question without tackling it (I’d just moved to France and wondered if this was a mistake). Sol is a mixed bag. ‘The Sunflower’, the long eulogy to my father, could have been more critical (but then it wouldn’t have been a eulogy). I left the whole last section of Sol out of the Selected. As for Fits & Starts, I’m still very close to it. Each poem is like a spell to cast out demons, most of them my own.”

Johnston oscillates between shorter pieces that are witty, even occasionally whimsical, and longer poems that meander, taking you on a journey. My favourites are the latter, but there’s plenty of charm and skill on display in both. For example, Saudade, only five couplets, puts a complex and many layered concept next to the almost childish rhyming of ‘sad’ with ‘glad’. The first two lines set us up to expect a rhyme scheme, before tossing it aside completely. Only four lines later we’re somewhere else altogether: “life is hard. But / there are grilled sardines for lunch — // we crunch their / delicate skeletons.” You can hear the crunch in the hard c, k and t sounds of delicate skeletons, which is rich to the ear after the earlier ease of sad/glad.

Andrew is adept at this kind of soundwork, which is why it makes sense that his Selected Poems gives us the whole phonetic alphabet sequence from Fits and Starts. Each is 10 lines and a perfectly formed thing. In the poem Quebec I enjoy the poet’s boldness in breaking lines partway through words to maintain the rhyme:

having abandoned your call and beck, 

I banked instead bitter disaffec-

tion, I contemplated the travel sec-

tion, I set out in praise of a fresh direc-


Only a skilled poet could do that without it seeming gimmicky. In a nice touch, the repeated “tions” sitting one under the other at the beginning of each line is balanced by the first five lines, which all start with “having”. 

The thread that weaves through the sequence is the character Echo, which in itself echoes the previous section of the book — Echo in Limbo. She’s both the Echo we know of myth and a transient figure slipping through the various scenes and settings of Andrew’s poems, which is fitting for her character. She takes on the sounds around her and reflects them back, just as the words in the poems do through assonance and rhyme.

The choice to include the full alphabet sequence pays off, and it made me curious about the process of selecting the selected poems. How do you take apart books that have already been carefully curated and sequenced, and decide what to include in a wider selection? I asked Andrew:

“I made an initial selection. That was easy but kind of dismaying, too – some of my poems seem half-baked now. Sentimental, going through the motions, that kind of thing. Then I sent the selection to Fergus at THWUP, who felt that I’d pruned too hard. He suggested that I put a couple of poems back in, which I was happy to do.”

The half-baked comment is interesting, and something I’m sure all poets (possibly all writers) can relate to. Going back to your earlier work can feel like visiting a younger, worse self. On the other hand, there’s something very powerful in recognising those changes, and insisting on the value of that earlier work. When I asked if there were any of his earlier poems he would write differently now, Andrew said no. I think about this as I reread ‘Revisionism’, the first poem in the book, and these lines catch my eye in a new way:

“and there, you say, I go again

and so I almost went,

slipping into the dark past

for the sake of comparison.”

In the context of the poem alone this is speaking to something different, but in the context of the book it warns against that desire to compare and rewrite, and I’m glad for Andrew’s answer. 

It’s a testament to Andrew’s skill as a writer that poems pulled from five books across 23 years stand the test of time and publishing. As a poet and publisher, I’m morbidly curious about how you put such a thing together, so I asked Andrew whether he saw this as a selection of the best poems of his previous books, or the poems that fit together best.

He replied, “definitely a selection of the best. As to whether they fit together, the poems can sort that out among themselves!”

I can confirm the poems get along well, like old friends who remember each other’s little quirks and mannerisms. Read cover to cover, these Selected Poems form an arc that charts the years of a poet’s writing life so far, with grace and plenty of wit.

Selected Poems by Andrew Johnston (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $40) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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