The Scottish Poetry Library is sad to learn of the death of Brian Johnstone, poet and friend of the SPL.
Toted up, his achievements, before we even mention his poetry, are unambiguously impressive. He was the founder member of two pillars of the contemporary Scottish literature scene. In 1991 he was a founder of Edinburgh’s Shore Poets, which made its name by programming bills featuring mature poets with new voices. Seven years later, he was a founder, again, of StAnza: Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. From 2000 until 2010, he was Festival Director, and in 2014 he was appointed an Honorary President of StAnza. Few people in Scotland can claim to have done so much for the promotion of live poetry.
Brian, of course, was not only an advocate for but also writer of poetry himself, with his most recent collection The Marks on the Map published by Arc only recently. John Glenday wrote of The Marks on the Map, ‘Brian Johnstone takes us on a remarkable journey, not just to discover what is there, but also what was there, mapping time as well as space. This is one map I would urge readers to follow, because the world through which Johnstone guides us is so utterly moving, so totally familiar and so entirely new.’ He is the author of four collections, four pamphlets and one memoir which mixed poetry and prose.
Through his memoir Double Exposure, published in 2017 by Saraband, readers learned of the family circumstances that shaped his upbringing. Born in Edinburgh in 1950, Brian was the child of Gilbert and Bea, his mother an archetypal Morningside matron who thought plain loafs, fully opening curtains, listening to music on a ‘transistor radio’ and Glasgow itself were ‘common’. A natural rebel, Brian embraced the changing mores of the 1960s and 1970s and the music of the day, as detailed in his 2018 pamphlet Juke Box Jeopardy, published by Red Squirrel Press and shortlisted for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award in 2019.
Brian was an early starter, with his first poems written in the late 1960s while he was still a student. He was 18 when he gave his first reading at the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe poetry sessions. After that youthful burst of creativity, however, his poetry took a back seat as he established a career as a teacher; he only seriously returned to writing in the early 1990s after a 22-year break.
His achievements as a poet and an organiser of literary events are considerable. In addition to his roles in the founding of Shore Poets and StAnza, he taught creative writing in poetry for The University of St Andrews Centre for Continuing Education from 1998 to 2003 and for the Open College of the Arts from 1998 to 2000; throughout the 90s, ran the Cave Readings series for the Pittenweem Arts Festival; in 2019 he became one of the organising group of Platform Sessions, the bimonthly poetry & music events at the Off the Rails Arthouse in Ladybank. A prizewinner in the National Poetry Competition in 2000, he has won several other competitions, including the Writers’ Bureau Prize, the Mallard Prize and Poetry at the Fringe during the Edinburgh Festival.
As already mentioned, he was passionate about music, not only as a listener, but as a performer. His record of collaborating with musicians was extensive. Since 2007, he collaborated with Trio Verso on a blend of poetry and jazz improv; they played together at the SPL in 2017. Other musical collaborations include with clarsach player Wendy Stewart, jazz saxophonist Ben Bryden and composer Rebecca Rowe.
SPL Director Asif Khan says, ‘Some of the poems from Brian’s pamphlet, Juke Box Jeopardy, were first aired in the SPL at one of the most enjoyable events I’ve attended. In November 2017, the audience was treated to a fusion of Colin Steele’s brassy jazz and the Trio Verso band’s skiffle/rockabilly accompanied by the fine poetry and storytelling of Brian and Marjorie Lotfi Gill. Our co-Chair Gordon Munro commented that Juke Box Jeopardy, published in 2018, was a personal favourite of his when he was one of the judges on the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award panel. Brian’s introduction to the popular anthology Scotia Extremis, which he edited with Andy Jackson, gives a measure of the man’s love for both poetry, and his personal insight into the way in which creativity flourishes in our nation of seemingly conflicted identity and interests. Brian wrote, “Where else can anyone live – and write – who lives in Scotland other than ‘whaur extremes meet’”?’
For those wishing to spend the day thinking about Brian and his legacy, our website features several of his poems and a podcast he recorded with us in 2014. He will be much missed by family, friends, collaborators and poetry readers.