Paul Stephenson’s Those People was a winner in the 2014/15 Poetry Business Competition, judged by Billy Collins. The poems are inventive and risk-taking, achieving a fine balance between the witty and the humane. When not writing poetry Paul teaches at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He lives in Paris. He talks here about the importance of play, how not to be too ‘poetic’ and how to sequence an award-winning pamphlet
PJ: The ‘day job’ is teaching & researching political science. Tell us about the relationship between academic and poet.
PS: It’s not necessarily an easy relationship. One’s the day (and evening) job, the other pleasure, mostly. Academic life’s rewarding when it’s fieldwork, workshops, supportive colleagues and bright students, but when it comes to the bureaucracy, endless pointless meetings and the horror of re-accreditation exercises, then I wonder what I’m doing, and whether teaching creative writing would be a kind of salvation. To be paid a salary to actually read and research poems, and stimulate others in their own writing often seems like a very greener grass. As for the political science, I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t do more discourse analysis and framing, to look close up at speech acts and language, and make the link with language and poetry more explicit.
Poetry does take over sometimes, when I should be drafting an article. Or I open a poem to tweak it and before I know it, it’s lunchtime and I’m still in my pyjamas. Then I feel guilty. At least I used to. I accept it more now I know, that’s the way I work. Stolen pockets of times. You have to go with it when it comes, whenever and however the creative urge takes you. Before it is gone. And, there’s a lot of admin in poetry, if you want your work out there, it’s not just writing.
PJ: When did you first start to write poetry?
PS: I started writing in 2005 as some kind of creative outlet, at a time when I was at a crossroads in my professional life – a year later I went from public sector desk job back to university life. Until then, painting was my creative outlet. I’d next to no exposure to poetry. I wrote more intensively from 2009 after moving to London and began attending readings and writing workshops and going on residencies.
PJ: You are also a linguist – the pleasure with words, their playful associations, is threaded through your work – it’s no accident that the first poem in Those People is to the Thesaurus, ‘Roget.’ When a phrase or word resonates do you follow in the spirit of playfulness rather than a hunt for meaning?
PS: I’d say I tend to play. I let sound lead the way. Deriving meaning, or hunting for it can come later. It's the music and rhythm and the filmic, visual sense of the poem that tempts me. Maybe I shy away from looking too hard at meaning. ‘Roget’ itself was a small poem I had forgotten about until I sent a large batch of poems to the poet Robert Peake who picked it out. And when I looked at it again I thought, yes, it deals with how you start to make sense of the world at an early age; it’s about seeing, and seeing what you think you see before you learn to know otherwise, learn to be wrong; before you are told how to look and realise that life comes with so many rules. It seemed like a good first poem, even if throwaway because it would set a ludic tone and present the boy at the beginning of a journey.
PJ: You’ve done a fantastic blog on the process of preparing your manuscript for publication but can you tell us about the process of choosing and arranging the 24 poems you submitted to the pamphlet competition – e.g. were you always sure about the start and end poems?
PS: I find sequencing difficult. At least I did in previous years – it was the fifth year I entered the competition. The temptation before was to include all my ‘best’ poems, but this risked exhausting the reader with longish poems that weren’t necessarily in dialogue with each other. So my strategy was, indeed, to decide on the first and last poems and then try to fill. I had a handful of key poems or anchors so then it was a question of hammocking from one to the other. I actually started by asking myself what second poem would speak to the first, and then taking it poem at a time, using an idea or image or word that carried over somehow. So I knew where I wanted to end up but not how to get there. The end poem ‘Capacity’ seemed right because it left the reader about to go on their own journey. The seventy litres somehow spoke to the seventy years of ‘Birthday Cards’. It made me think how a lifetime has a capacity.
PJ: What did it feel like to be selected by Billy Collins?
PS: A real honour, quite incredible. It was so hard to keep the news from my friends while staying up in St. Andrews for StAnza, I felt dreadful. I admire the way he pulls the reader through a poem in an effortlessly, yet (un)obviously crafted way. He speaks his poems, makes them accessible, is expansive and at the same time focused. There’s a wit and humanity.
PJ: You seem to find fresh ways into familiar subjects around families etc, often via quite ordinary objects. I’m thinking of ‘Birthday Cards,’ ‘Cab’ and the rucksack in ‘Capacity’ – a terrific poem into which you pack so much. Is it finding the ‘thing’ that starts you off, or do you discover the thing in the writing?
PS: I think in all these poems it was not the thing, but the line that started me off. Ted Kooser’s poem starts ‘Today you would be ninety-seven…’ And when I read that line I thought how tragic dying at seventy was, how my poem might be sadder. Some how by line three I’d found the birthday cards and ran with the idea. With ‘Cab’ I could hear the first line because the word ‘reliable’ was just so powerful and needed to be explored. I first called the poem ‘White Cab’ (instead of black cab), then ‘Rank’ but in the end changed it back simply to ‘Cab’. With ‘Capacity’, the poem started with the idea of being somewhere about to go on a journey, so it was a poem about preparation, what needed to be done before the trip. And I had a very strong sense of where I was at the time. Then I remembered I’d need my rucksack and how there was something ambiguous about using litres to measure their size – it’s not as if you fill them with water. I remember inter-railing as also being about the capacity to survive each other for so long.
PJ: Similarly with your observations on the wider culture – Tannoy, Glacé – is it true that Madonna can’t stand glacé cherries or did you make that up?
PS: Yes, I think it’s true. I think it’s something I read, probably in Smash Hits, one of those artist’s profile pages full of trivia. True or false, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a premise and allowed me to talk from the top of the page until the bottom of the page, and just meander without worrying that the poem would deliver anything or be anything more than the trivial memory it is. It allowed me to go off on a tangent and make stuff up at the end. Poetry is so sincere so much of the time, words trying so hard to be poetic. It feels good to mess about for the sheer hell of it.
PJ: With Ashby De la Zouch it seems as if the sounds of that place name set you off?
PS: Yes, I was imagining a place I had never been to and just writing about it. I used the name as the constraint, so everything had to riff on the sounds in the name. It soon seemed to be a kind of satire on Middle England. I have a poem in a similar vein about Roscoff.
PJ: Form – you’ve taken risks with form that pay off – Tannoy, School for Dummies – with both those poems the form seems a perfect fit for content – can you say something about finding the form?
PS: I wrote ‘Two Tannoys’ after standing on the platform at Finsbury Park and hearing the same message being spoken across the tracks as on the platform I was standing on. I thought this idea of the same voice speaking with a slight delay might be worth investigating. Had I an edit suite I could have probably recorded it and played it twice to see what words suggested themselves. I had to do my best to just work it out. The poem took a long time to find its shape, and I’m pleased that it looks like two loud speakers. It might seem odd but I felt this poem was my riskiest of all, because it’s a bit naughty but also goes against the plain English narrative of the other poems.
The form of ‘School for Dummies’ came out of a challenge to write a poem that was a multiple of multiple, say a poem of five stanzas each of five lines. My poem is 14 couplets each of 14 syllables. Quite separately at a workshop, the other short poem on the page (the one we weren’t looking at) circulated by the poet Pam Thompson at a workshop was ‘Economics’ by Paul Farley (I think). It gave me the idea of exploring all the school subjects. I’m sure everybody could write their own version.
PJ: Which poets have influenced you the most?
PS: That is such a difficult question because in the scheme of things I’ve read so little and so terribly superficially. I started with magazines and journals, skimming the surface then going deeper with the poets who intrigued me. But if I have to choice poets who have influenced me in some way, I’d say Hugo Williams, W. H. Auden, ee cummings, James Fenton, Tony Hoagland, Jacob Polley, Michael Laskey, Federico Garcia Lorca, Valérie Rouzeau, Luke Kennard, Patience Agbabi. But I’m probably as much influenced by television and film, by soap opera and pop music. The attention to characters, to narrative, to word repetition and rhyme. So you’d have to include the culture of my adolescence: Victoria Wood, French and Saunders, Mike Leigh, Pet Shop Boys, etc. They’re all poets and capture the language of the urban and contemporary.
I'd have to add Warhol, Monet and Cezanne to the list because they all play with repetition and were big influences on me growing up. It’s that idea of attempting the same thing again and again, the attention placed on looking and noticing variation, change, detail under different conditions; finding the wondrous in the ones that go a little wrong.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
PS: Ashbery’s ‘Houseboat Days’ and ‘Some Trees’. I’ve ordered ‘Breezeway’ too. I’ve been really enjoying the other three poetry pamphlet winners: David Tait’s suffocatingly good poems on pollution and modern China, Samuel Luke Yates witty long-lined poem on modern life, and Basil du Toit’s on ageing and language.
PJ: Is living in Paris good for writing poetry – are you writing much at the moment?
PS: I think Paris is so imbued in literature and high culture of the 19th and 20th centuries that it’s not necessarily the best place to be a writer today. People have acute, well-defined images of Paris that are probably hard to break, though I don’t really write about the city itself. I have been inspired by a few sculptures and street life but it’s too much a place of the past – I think I might need the modernity, somewhere less weighted in artistic brilliance.
PJ: What about the contemporary poetry scene in Paris?
PS: There is a poetry ‘scene’ – at least, there are spoken word evenings on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as a couple of monthly readings series, and readings in various bookshops. I threw myself in 2 years ago and was a regular in Belleville on a Thursday, where the atmosphere is really encouraging at ‘Culture Rapide’. I even helped run Saturday afternoon writing workshops for a while. But I have become a bit lazy, and I do miss London poetry life and the RFH, Bloomsbury cafes.
PJ: So you are not writing much at the moment?
PS: I am writing less than I did, only out of circumstance I hope. I have a whole notebook brimming with beginnings, ideas, things I overheard or read. I know that there are all these poems waiting to be explored but at the moment I don’t get time because of my academic research project ending in August. I do get very frustrated and down at times when I’m taken up with other obligations. I long for protected writing time, something totally unstructured, but if it came to it, I’d probably not deliver, so much probably depends on writing in fits and bursts, stealing small pockets of time on trains and in cafes, and juggling guilt with guilty pleasure.
PJ: Any tips for aspiring poets getting ready to submit to a pamphlet comp?
PS: Imagine that your potential reader will be going on a journey from one place to the other. Try to encourage your poems to speak to each other. The conversation doesn’t need to be loud, it can be one of whispers, but some kind of subtle dialogue between the pages will probably mean that there is a loose coherence or cross-over in terms of themes, obsessions, issues, even vocabulary. Give the journey some pit stops, alter the speed and the scenery along the route – vary the style, form, shape, even voices (you may have more than one voice, and it may not always be you speaking).