Justin Quinn: An Irish poet in Prague

Justin Quinn arrived in Prague from Dublin in 1992. He is a teacher of literature at Charles University. He has written three highly regarded collections of poetry: the first is the very strangely named "The O,o,a,a Bird", the second is the book "Privacy" and the third is "Fuselage". Justin joins Bernie Higgins in the studio.

Landscape by Bus

Look out the window - half

A landscape, half its trees.

Switch focus. Reflections of

The rest float by on these.

At sixty miles an hour

The world's being folded back

Into a suitcase. Where

Oh where will I unpack?

How has living in the Czech Republic as an Irish poet, a Dublin-born poet, affected your writing?

Justin Quinn
"Well, in various ways. Simply the experience of living here has affected me for many years. My wife and I lived in a tower block down in the suburbs to the south of Prague, and that was a very new experience for me, having moved from Dublin, where I lived in a leafy suburb, full of semi-detached houses. Then to be on the fifth floor of one of these tower blocks, that's surrounded only by other tower blocks, was a very bizarre experience."

And this I think was the inspiration for a lot of the poems you wrote in the interestingly named collection: "Privacy". How much privacy did you have when you lived on the fifth floor of a tower block with many other people?

"Well, it was carefully guarded. You're living on top of one another in this building, and one of the things I realized very strongly at the start was that you've such a strong sense of living in a machine. That was one of the things that made me think how I could get this into poetry, because it was such a fundamentally unpoetic thing. That's like a red rag to a bull. If it can be got into a poem, then by God I will!

I'd like you to read another poem from that collection.

"This poem is called 'Highlights' and it's about listening to the neighbours above and below. One of the things about the tower blocks is that the walls are not that thick, so you hear bits and pieces. You don't hear all of your neighbours' lives, but, as the poem's title has it, you hear the highlights."


Last night the couple in the flat above us

Were in full flight: tirades and injured feelings

Swung back and forth for hours across the ceiling

Like bad jazz solos, long and repetitious.

Last week we caught crescendos from Sibelius.

And now tonight around eleven stealing

Through carpets and concrete slabs a wild, freewheeling

Moan of utter joy, which is their Anschluss.

But otherwise we'd never know they're there

And easily forget their sixth-floor sitcom.

We get on with our own lives - work and leisure,

Chores tending to our household appliances -

Which see the same as theirs (the noise, the rhythm)

Apart from what goes on between, in silence.

As well as the Czech experience - your everyday experience - informing your poetry, how has your exile from your home, from Ireland, inspired your poetry?

"It's a very dangerous subject for an Irish poet - exile - because so many generations before me have made their literary careers - poets especially - out of moaning about the fact that they're not living in Ireland, and that they're so far away from the green, green grass of home. So I was very aware when I moved here first of all, that this was a definite trap for the writer. So over the years I've been trying to write about life here, as it has impacted upon me, without constant reference to Ireland."

You've lived here for twelve years now, so you've lived through a lot of changes in the country. How are they reflected in your poetry, the actual process of change?

"Well, for a few years I lived in Mala strana [The Lesser Quarter - part of old Prague] and there was a pub down the road called Saint Nicholas Café. It was one of my favourite places because you got a great mix in the clientele. You got expatriates, you got tourists who had just come in and you had locals as well. And what I've noticed over the years in the city is that there's a kind of apartheid between pubs that only Czechs go to and only foreigners go to. This seems to have developed only since the revolution, I think. I particularly like this pub because it is untypical of that.

Saint Nicholas Café

Go through and down the steps

into this low-lit cave with floral vaults,

the waitresses manoeuvring

past people who are also moving

to Rebirth of the Cool - its huge bass volts

juddering through the depths,

and sailing over those

a lithe and black soprano melody.

Impossible to get the lyrics

but it's love and la vie en rose

that sweetens through the voice - love is the eddy

that floats and swerves and flicks

out rippling through the hips

of this girl bringing me a beer just now.

She barely lingers, midriff bared,

and seems amidst all this so Tao.

And oh how smoothly, quickly, she now slips,

High tight black trousers flared,

back into the flows and systems of her global clientele,

the press of KOOKAÏ and GAP clothes,

their jet-lagged, blue-chip ironies,

and her flesh taken with their push and swell,

her mouth, her hands, her eyes...

I find the bill days later -

the date, the time, my itemized half-litre,

full record of our brief transaction,

a printed chit with till ID,

which is her numbered name relieved of accent - SARKA 03.

I know that another inspiration for your poetry has been your family life in Prague and the birth and early life of your son. And I particularly like one poem that you wrote about the three of you in bed together.

Our heads drop down into the ebb and flash

of all the world. Here is a house and here

the beds held up against our blood and flesh

by campaigns, drives, the sponsoring unclear.

Here is the swift uncoupling of bone

from the choreography of the waking head;

for these dark hours it might as well be stone,

the brain ungrasped, the eyes let go by heed.

Thus folded back into the mesh, we three

lie stockstill through the night - my wife the odd time

wakes, our son rolls round occasionally,

but otherwise unmoved, unmoving:


with all its oars at rest, the gentle wash

of waves on the hull. Here is the ebb and flash...

As well as writing your own poetry, you've become very immersed in Czech culture and Czech poetry, and you've translated a number of writers, including Blatny and Krchovsky, but most importantly, I think, Petr Borkovec, who I think must be your exact contemporary, and is a leading Czech poet. I'd like to ask you what you've gained from your collaboration with Petr, because you've worked closely together.

"Actually I'm two years his senior, but I don't feel his senior in terms of poetry. He's been a great inspiration. A few years ago I started translating his work and it's been a great introduction for me into the poetry of the Czech landscape. I grew up in Dublin, beside the sea, and after moving here, the sea was the thing that I missed most of all. A lot of my poems are nostalgic. The earlier poems are nostalgic for the sea, and it wasn't until I started translating Petr that I could see the poetry of the forests of Central Europe - as it were - the rivers. The poetry I'd like to read by Petr is about the Berounka River, which flows into the Vltava and then goes to Prague, and it's set down in the south-west of the city."

The work, the river's watermark, the swell

of sunset on the west side of the sky.

Soft folds of air caught in the current's turn

until the last bird takes them when it flies.

A jetty propped up on the surface, footsteps,

a wrinkled beach, a pair of shoes, and sand,

although withdrawn, which watches you discreetly,

ice, which razors you, the strokes. Point.

of no return. Man on a punt, depicted,

perhaps observing his float's glint and play.

Who now encounters only things themselves.

The roar and thunder. The jetty rubbed away.

In terms of your translation of Petr's work, what have you found most challenging from the language point of view?

"Petr Borkovec's poetry is rhymed in the original and there's a challenge for the translator that he has to rhyme and equal those formal characteristics of the poem. I felt that responsibility very strongly because Petr Borkovec is a translator himself and his own example as a translator was again an inspiration for me, because he's some who would work very hard to get the right rhymes for the poem in Czech translation. I felt when I was translating his work into English that I similarly had to do that hard work."

As for you and your own work, what are your plans for the future?

"I'm working on another book of poems at the moment and also I've just finished putting together a book of translations of Petr Borkovec's work, and I hope that will be forthcoming this year or next year."

I'd like to ask you to read a poem from your most recent collection, "Fuselage", which, I believe, is dedicated to Petr Borkovec.

"Yes, the start of the poem especially is about the landscape around Prague, especially the river valleys of the Vltava. The poem has no title.

I wake early into

the already azure day.

The leaves, still sleeved in dew,

adjust themselves and sway

like tiny tremor-gaugings.

The black rampaging gangs

that flooded to-and-fro

throughout the night in dreams

(in time to passing trams)

linger briefly, then go.

Receding southwards, deep

into the continent,

a goods train threads one steep

green river valley bend

after another. Thunder

slow-fades to faint trundle.

The fields of yellow rape

stretch both ways from the river

to the interior;

they ripple and stand ripe.

Gaze folded into gaze,

flesh into flesh, like forests

risen in a maze.

"The poem goes on, but that's basically the landscape part."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.