Paul Stephenson

An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett

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Paul Stephenson grew up in Cambridge and studied modern languages. He took part in the Jerwood/Aldeburgh mentoring scheme in 2013/14, and has published three poetry pamphlets: Those People (Smith/Doorstop, 2015), which won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition judged by Billy Collins; The Days that Followed Paris (HappenStance, 2016), written while living in Paris at the time of the November 2015 terrorist attacks; and Selfie with Waterlilies (Paper Swans Press, 2017). He completed an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) with the Manchester Writing School and has co-curated Poetry in Aldeburgh 2019 (8-10th November). Paul interviews poets on his blog: www.paulstep.com

Maria Isakova Bennett: It’s lovely to have this opportunity to chat to you, Paul. I wonder if we could start with your present projects as what you’re doing at present is so fascinating and I’m in awe of how you manage to be such a pivotal part of putting together a festival as stimulating and exciting as Poetry in Aldeburgh while teaching and creating your vivid poetry which reveals such immense skills with language. Could you tell us about how Poetry in Aldeburgh comes together and about the festival this year?

Paul Stephenson: Hi Maria, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to speak a little about current projects and the forthcoming festival. Well, there’s less than a month to go and we’re all getting excited about the party weekend – excited but nervous at the same time. There’s not much you can do at this stage, other than cross your fingers and hope the trains will be running and the weather mild and dry. Other years it has been really pleasant, almost balmy – perfect for late night strolls along Crag Path to take in the incredible star-filled sky.

MIB: I remember the lovely weekend last year, so surprising to be on the beach in November, but, yes, it was balmy! I saw from the brochure than you have a great array of poets this year.

PS: Yes. This year we have 20 workshops, 40 readings and performances and over 100 poets and artists, all performing across 8 different venues. And we’ve made on Friday a full day of free events so that there’s poetry available for everybody, whether coming from near or far. A number of themes this year – narrative and the prose poem, America, gender and family, and of course, our continued commitment to themes of coast, ecology and climate change. We have three poets over especially from the US and two from the Netherlands, so this year’s festival has a real international flavour. We have discussion events, performances and publisher anniversaries (Salt at 20, Carcanet at 50, Ambit at 60).

MIB: There must be months of planning?

PS: The whole extravaganza comes together over a 6-9 month period, starting early on in 2019. The final programme is the result of input from an array of people, taking on board different ideas, making the most of our existing contacts, engaging with publishers and their lists of new releases, and responding to requests from poets to read, some of whom are such loyal festival goers. All the events are thematic in a way, encouraging poets to come together across publishers. Now, in the 30-day countdown, all we can do is promote our events as best we can, and encourage poets and publishers to do likewise.

MIB: Given the demands of teaching and curating a festival, how do you manage time to write? Do you have a routine or is it a case of writing when you’re called to do so in some way?

PS: I haven't found a great deal of time to write of late, but I’ve continued to try to send existing work out whenever I have a day free to engage in poetry, or rather poetry admin, but even doing one or two submissions is easier said than done, as you’ll know how time-consuming editing and sending work out can be. As for writing, I try to do Poetry School online courses to keep my hand in. It’s so good to be in a small writing group with a tutor whose work you admire, and then to have a prompt with a deadline, just to get yourself to put some words down on paper. I travel quite a lot by train so sometimes give myself that 1 hour as a time limit to at least start a poem. And with poet friends from my former workshop group, we have tried to get together every few months for a day of readings and exercises in each other’s places.

MIB: I enjoyed and admired your pamphlet, Those People. The work there reveals a fascination with language and your eye for the poignant in the humour of the everyday. I’ve used several of the poems as samples when teaching. My students have loved, Angle End, and Around the Block. Your pamphlets which followed, The Days that followed Paris, and, Selfie with Waterlilies were so different but equally riveting. Each of the pamphlets have a powerful focus; in the case of Selfie with Waterlilies – the powerful start (Turkish Delight) drawing us quietly into a bereavement; and that remarkable and sensitive focus on the attacks in Paris through your pamphlet, The Days that followed Paris. Could you tell us something about the differences in writing each? Did you slowly gather poems or was there a poem which triggered the others for instance?

PS:  Thanks Maria for your generous comments. Those People is indeed rather playful and I tried to bring together a selection of poems that would engage with form, and perhaps appeal to the Poetry Business competition judge Billy Collins. I cannot put in words how thrilled I was to be one of that year’s winners. I’d worked with Peter and Ann Sansom for a while, and had completed the Writing School, and to have my first pamphlet as part of that beautiful, reputable and colourful series was really a dream come true. Angle End was the street I grew up on (I changed a few of the names a little bit when I knew the poems were going to print); and Round the Block is me going on the mental walk around the streets that encircled the recreation ground – it’s a walk I still do at night sometimes to try to get to sleep. I’d been writing a while and it was quite arduous to choose what to put in and what to leave out. I am so indecisive….

As for The Days that Followed Paris, that was an entirely different project with all the poems written as fragments or small pieces in the 4 weeks following the terrorist attacks in November 2015. That writing process was about reportage and preservation, trying to capture how the city felt in the aftermath. I didn’t set out to write a pamphlet, it sort of happened by accident when I’d amassed 20-30 or so pieces and felt that I really needed to share them with somebody, in this case Nell (Helen Nelson, HappenStance).

With Selfie with Waterlilies, I met Elisabeth Sennitt Clough on the Manchester Writing School MA, and she’d been published by Paper Swans Press through their annual competition (her pamphlet Glass), which is how I heard about Sarah Miles and her wonderful publishing venture. I had quite a backlog of poems that had been in magazines but not collected so it was a fantastic opportunity to put together a mix of family poems, but with a focus on family life and my late father. The title poem of the pamphlet was actually written a week after the terrorist attacks when I went to the Orangerie to see Monet’s Nymphéas, having seen them years before when I went to Paris for a week aged 17. I was on a quest for tranquility and serenity, away from the paranoia of the streets, but with the cold and rain, the crowds and selfie-sticks, it turned out quite the opposite. I was fascinated how the text used to describe those massive paintings could be reduced down to say something about the self and the way we are all busy narrating and curating our own lives in a very public way, as if works of art ourselves.

MIB: You recently taught a Poetry School course, Channel Hopping: A French Exchange, and I wonder if you could tell us a little about the course, about how an online course works and what to you are its benefits and limitations.

PS:   I was lucky to have the opportunity to teach an online course on Contemporary French Poetry and it was such a thrill to see how the very talented and mutually supportive group of poets responded to the poems I chose and tasks that I set them. It was a really mixed group from all over – as well as UK-based poets there were a few Brits in rural France and Portugal, an American in Korea… Putting the course together, with its five assignments, was a learning experience to me. It’s a course over 10 weeks, with 5 sets of readings and prompts, so you have a week to write and upload a poem, and then there’s a week of feedback and discussion by tutor and poets on the work that’s been written. It probably sounds easy, to have a week to write a poem, but speaking from experience (and I’m signed up as a student on two online courses this autumn term), it can take a while for the ideas to ferment and for the poem to emerge in its draft form.

We used a recent bilingual anthology and a single author collection. Each week I selected a number of poems and set the group an assignment. Having recently spent 3 years in Paris, it was wonderful to research the contemporary French scene a little more and to share resources and links. I didn’t like all the poems I used, but I think the very different nature of French poetry – much of it interrogating the city, exploring our existential self, questioning what the poem is and could be – took people out of their comfort zone a little. Discomfort isn’t a bad thing either – to have an adverse reaction to a poem can also be a catalyst for great writing. Many of the poems were ambitious, quite a few rather rough around the edges perhaps, but many playing with form. I was overwhelmed by the responses and the way in which the poets really managed to engage with the poems, enter into dialogue with them. I’m sure I’ll see some of them in print very soon. Already, Sue Burge’s poem In Which a Middle-Aged Woman in Primark Jeans Denies Her Invisibility was recently a winner in the Poetry News members’ poem competition on ‘Truth’.

MIB: Paul, it's lovely to share your thoughts with everyone here. You're giving so much to other poets especially through teaching and enabling them to showcase work. Do you have any mistakes you'd warn your younger poet-self against and any advice for or requests of your poet-self now?

PS: Thanks Maria. I’ve enjoyed doing the interviews with poets and learnt a lot from them. Mistakes and warnings? Well, just things I’ve realised with time, I guess…

First, I threw myself into poetry, and like many poets starting out, I was eager to get poems published as quickly as possible but perhaps my submissions were a little bit disparate in terms of the six poems I chose each time, which explained the rather poor hit rate. Maybe they didn’t complement each other as best they could to convey to an editor an overall sense of me as a writer and the themes I was exploring. Often my poems weren’t ready, and the envelopes of poems would come back and I’d re-read them and think, what on earth was I doing sending that out into the world? But even that was, and remains, part of the process of critical reflection and editing, even if we’ve migrated to email, so that those envelopes sent by snail-mail are an increasingly rare thing.

Second, I worried for a long while that, because I was writing very different types of poems depending on the poet tutor and the course or workshop, I hadn’t ‘found my voice’ – which poems were really me? Then a poet told me not to be concerned, to accept that you have several voices, not just one. I can look at my poems and see a real hotch-potch of work, with poems that seem strikingly different and in a mix of styles, even unrelated. But other poets have told me that they can see it’s a poem of mine, that they have certain characteristics. So I guess the advice would be, just write and don’t worry too much about what it all adds up to as others will help you see the links and consistencies, and over time you might also notice emerging themes, conceits, devices…as well as those writing tendencies that you seem to fall into easily.

Third, you simply can’t keep up with it all. Early on, I subscribed to so much – and still do – but soon felt overwhelmed by all the bookshelves of unread books and magazines. I would rush in and buy a book recommended by another poet on Facebook, and not always enjoy it. Perhaps I should have read more selectively and more in-depth around a single poet, rather than skimming the surface (as I, admittedly, continue to do) but then again, early on it’s key isn’t it, to expose yourself to as many voices as possible, to try out as many different journals as possible, and then go deeper with the poets and publications that excite you.

MIB: Paul this is such valuable advice of worth for poets at all stages of writing. Thank you again for your generosity sharing your experience and insights. I’m looking forward to all you’ve put together for Poetry in Aldeburgh.

Links:

https://www.poetryinaldeburgh.org/festival-programme

https://poetrybusiness.co.uk/product/those-people/

https://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/opoi-reviews-2016/132-paul-stephenson-the-days-that-followed-paris

https://paperswans.co.uk/product/selfie-with-waterlilies/

https://paulstep.com