‘A Modern Don Juan’. The imaginative reworking of Bryon’s classic for modern times
So what happens if Lord Bryon’s satirical poem Don Juan is brought right up to date? He’s now Donny Johnson, a DJ, but he’s still as hapless as the original as he stumbles from one sexual entanglement to another.
One of the editors, Andy Croft, talks about the origins and creation of this new work.
How did A Modern Don Juan come about?
Four years ago my wife and I were on holiday on the Greek island of Lesbos. For me, a holiday is a chance to read the bigger books that I’ve dipped into for years. On this particular holiday I took Byron’s Don Juan to give myself time to read it from front to back.
I was completely amazed by the wit and brilliance, the humour and the daftness and the satirical punch of the book. It’s a stupid book in many ways, but it’s also a great book. I finished it when we were flying back from Mytiline airport. It’s one of those tiny Greek airports where once you’ve checked in you have to go and sit on the beach until your flight’s called. So I’m sitting there with my feet in the water finishing the last few pages, thinking how badly we need a Byron who could ridicule the follies of our age. I knew I couldn’t do it, because I’m not that time rich, I don’t have servants running around after me. Nor am I clever enough. Then the idea came to me. Byron’s original was written in 16 Cantos, or chapters. If I could find 15 other poets, we could all write a chapter each, imagining Don Juan in the twenty-first century. It was one of those eureka moments, because the minute it entered my head I knew it was an idea worth pursuing. So when I got back to the UK I began looking for poets to write the book.
It took me a while to find 15 other poets who could do this. Most poets in the UK now cannot write formally; they can’t write metre, aren’t interested in writing political and social dialogue and don’t seem to have much of a sense of humour. So I didn’t start with a very long list. Nigel Thompson agreed to help me put the book together. I knew that Nigel would be interested because a few years ago, I published at Smokestack his long satirical poem Letter to Auden. We spent about six months putting together the team. Some of the people we approached list didn’t want to do it, or couldn’t commit the time necessary to do it. One poet refused the invitation when he realised that he wasn’t going to be paid. Who gets paid for writing poetry in the UK? Unfortunately one poet had to drop out, due to illness, so we are one Canto short of an epic.
What sort of brief did you provide?
All the contributors were free to do whatever they wanted to do with the idea. There were no rules about content or about length. The only requirements were that it had to be in ottava rima, the eight-line stanza of Byron’s original. And it had to be funny. We wanted our poets to amuse themselves as well as the reader.
So with these basic instructions they let rip?
Yes. We said that their character could be a fall guy or a bad guy, although we wanted everyone to use some of the original elements of Byron’s Don Juan. In the original he’s not very bright, but he’s very good looking. So everywhere he goes women throw themselves at him and he doesn’t always duck. That’s the basic silly storyline in Byron’s original and he adds lots of things on top of that.
When I picked the book up I was alarmed by how thick it was and yet it is a remarkably quick read. It was not only funny, but very enjoyable because of the way the words were used by the poets.
I think that’s what you get with a tight form. My own poetry these days is obsessively tight metrical verse. When it works it’s as if you’ve screwed a spring tighter and tighter. The tighter you’ve screwed the spring, the harder it jumps up and hits you in the face. Writing in ottava rima requires immense restraint. It is a formal voice, tight, constricted posh and slightly straight-jacketed. Then you have to try to say everything in phrases of ten syllables, you have to rhyme alternate lines ABABAB. And then you have to come up with a punchline in the final couplet. The reader feels this immense restraint, so when the joke comes at the end it is like a child being let out of school. The tighter the regime at school, the wilder the kids go when they reach the school gates. For me that’s the benefit and the point of writing idiotic stanza forms in our time, because you get a comic punch that you can’t get if you’re just writing free verse. A Modern Don Juan was warmly reviewed by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian; he described the book laugh out loud funny. Blake Morrison in the Guardian picked it up as one of his books of the year. The TLS, meanwhile, denounced the book as puerile…
How did you edit the book because the use of the words is so crucial to the success of the cantos, so it would not be easy to make changes?
There was no point going through everyone’s Canto and saying ‘Why don’t you change this, and if you do this here it would work better’. Because of the size of the book it would have taken years. Anyway, we chose poets who we knew would deliver. Making editorial suggestions would have been intrusive and unnecessary. The hardest job was putting all the Roman numerals in. Some arrived with no numbers at all and some with Arabic numerals. I didn’t realise how hard it is to work out Roman numerals beyond L.
If you were looking at a comparison between A Modern Don Juan and the original, how would you see the two?
To say anything other than ‘We are not worthy’ would be inappropriate. There is a great impertinence in setting ourselves up do something that Byron once did. Byron’s Don Juan is twice the size, twice as clever – and he wrote it all on his own! It just poured out of him. I don’t think he sweated over it like we did. To invite comparison seems ridiculous. I like to think of A Modern Don Juan as a distant echo and a homage. On the other hand, I think our rhymes are consistently tighter than Byron’s. His hudibrastic rhyming is utterly brilliant. But he also got away with a lot of duff rhymes. Even allowing for the changes English diction and pronunciation, he repeatedly rhymes ‘woman’, ‘no man’ and ‘common’ in a way that I can’t imagine was ever satisfying or pleasing.
You’ve done some readings. Sometimes it is not easy to convey the written word to performance. How did you manage to get the humour over to your audience?
It is hard to write in ottava rima over any length without falling asleep (that goes for the reader as well as the writer), because there’s not a lot of variety there. The ABABAB rhymes start to struggle after a while unless they’re interesting, entertaining, challenging or surprising. The obligation to provide a punchline at the end of the couplet every time can stretch a writer with regards to finding new jokes. Even stand-up comedians don’t need to come up with a joke that often. So it’s a special effort for the writer to maintain and therefore a special obligation on the listener to really concentrate. At the T-junction international poetry festival in Middlesbrough, we gave all the members of the audience a copy of the book so they could they could follow the text while we were reading. This made it possible for us to jump around the book, which gave us more freedom and allowed us to give a bit more external narrative. It also probably helps if we ‘ham up’ the verse a bit.
The book cover does indicate what the reader is letting themselves in for, in the sense that this is not a heavy-duty tome of serious poetry.
Martin Rowson is responsible for the brilliant cover of A Modern Don Juan. Martin is our own Hogarth. To be able to suggest the early nineteenth and early twentieth century at a single stroke by showing Byron holding his mobile phone is utter genius.
Do you see yourself doing another project like this in the future?
Not just yet, because I have lots of things to write at the moment including a poetic cookbook with Martin Rowson. The idea is that we have ‘discovered’ lost poems about food written by some famous poets. So for example, we have ‘found’ a sonnet by Shakespeare that begins, ‘Shall I compare thee to a fromage frais, thou art more lovely temperate and sweet.’ Did you know that Ted Hughes once wrote a poem called ‘ A Hawk Roasting’? Or that Robert Burns wrote a song called ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rosé’? The book is called provisionally Lyrical Salads …