Wednesday 30 September 2020

Matthew Stewart and Paul Stephenson

I've not found the poetry world to be the bitchy place that it's sometimes made out to be. It's unfair to pick out just 2 generous poets - for a start poetry journal editors merit a mention - but I've chatted to both of these poets, they've both been published by HappenStance, and they've both had some recent successes.

Matthew Stewart

His blog is Rogue Strands where he often posts supportive reviews. He's published

Recently he's had 2 poems in the Spectator!

In Writing Simply he writes "Helena Nelson suggests that one reason why poets are afraid to write plainly is because they're worried the result wouldn't be a poem at all. I'd agree with her, but argue that writing simply also carries huge risks. There are no accoutrements, no verbal fireworks, no make-up to hide any flaws, and the consequence is that any mistakes become glaring". This is an abiding theme of his. Here are some other quotes -

  • Countless poets, editors and critics appear to equate ’simple’ with ’easy’ or ’facile’. However, the reverse is true, as many readers recognise.
  • Richie McCaffery speaks to us directly, with passion, with sincerity. He moves us in ways that should theoretically lie beyond the capacity of such accessible words.
  • Michael Brown’s poetry might initially seem straightforward. Certain critics might dismiss it as facile or simplistic. In reality, the opposite is true
  • Rory Waterman stands out among the poets of his generation in the U.K. not only for his awareness of form and his technical control but for how lightly he wears them. His use of language is so natural that the reader is carried along by the cadences of his lines without any need for extraneous resource or recourse.
  • There’s a poetry that doesn’t tackle difficult subjects head-on, preferring instead to seek out angles that might lend new perspectives. It’s not cowardly for doing so. In fact, its risk-taking is greater, as it doesn’t pulse out obvious messages. Instead, it prefers a far more subtle, more powerful and longer-lasting approach to its awkward themes (of Charlotte Gann)

He's also interested in metrics - syllabics, etc.

He spends much of his time in Spain where he works.

Paul Stephenson

On his blog are interviews with poets and much else besides. Interviews like the one with Richie McCaffery (yes, the same poet who caught Matthew Stewart's attention) are extensive and well researched. As well as helping fellow poets by writing about them on his blog he co-curated Poetry in Aldeburgh in 2018 and in 2019.

He's published

  • Those people - a winner in the 2014/2015 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet competition judged by US poet Billy Collins.
  • The Days that Followed Paris - by HappenStance in October 2016 and included as one of the Poetry School’s Books of the Year 2016
  • Selfie with Waterlilies - which won the Paper Swans Press pamphlet competition and appeared in September 2017.

He's recently had poems in PN Review. He writes a wide range of poetry, from identity politics to Oulipo. One never knows what he'll come up with next.

Like Matthew Stewart his interest in Europe isn't token - he's worked in Paris, etc. Perhaps this outsider perspective is what helps fuel both of these poets, letting them observe English language and society from a distance. Both poets deserve the success that's coming their way.

Thursday 17 September 2020


In Poetry Salzburg Review (No.35), James Russell entitles his reviews section "Aboutness", using the term (which is used in philosophy, apparently) to help classify some types of difficulty -

  • Late modernist - there's no "poet standing 'behind' the text talking about something" - e.g. Prynne's "The Oval Window"
  • "standard-issue difficulty" - "there certainly is a poet writing from a viewpoint behind the refractory surface, a poet who is deliberately withholding the poem's aboutness. (In the worst cases, the poem only attains poetic status because of this withholding)"
  • poetry with aboutness, which however uses a "particular form of diction and lexical range [] withholding closure" - Ashbery, Stevens
  • poetry where the seeming aboutness and the content don't obviously match. High-modernist? - e.g. Geoffrey Hill, Pound

Readers who think they can see what a poem's "about" (who can paraphrase) have a foundation to help appreciate the poem. It probably means that the poem has some cohesion, which also aids conventional understanding. It may only be a prop to be discarded after use, but there's no harm offering a helping hand to readers, is there?

If a collection has aboutness (e.g. a theme or two), the themes can provide the narrative for a review, which helps both poet and reviewer. It makes commercial sense for the back cover to say what the collection is "about" even if a minority of the poems match the description. If the poet's autobiography matches the theme, so much the better.

But "aboutness" isn't univerally popular. I've heard poets say of a poem of theirs that "If I knew what it's about I wouldn't have written it." I rather like trying to discover what a poem is "about", which is perhaps why I'm not so keen on single-theme autobiographical collections. I like trying to work out how a poem achieves its effect, which leads to psychology and market awareness more than soul-baring. Even if a poem doesn't work for me, I'm interested in how might it work for others.

At the end of his review, Russell wonders wonders whether poems can be about themselves. He mentions theories which claim that mental states have to be about something, if only in a "I think therefore I am" way. Poems can perhaps create a sensation of being poetry without paraphrase getting in the way.

I don't write many poems that are clearly about something. Perhaps I should write more of them. I can write them more quickly than my usual ones, and I'd like to increase my output.

Friday 4 September 2020

What I did during lockdown

Just to make sure I didn't go in, they padlocked my workplace but that didn't stop me working full time, more or less. I've been cycling around to avoid cabin fever. I started taking photos of village signs, ending up doing trips just to take photos. Some of the signs have stories behind them, with Saturn V rockets, radio telescopes and DNA featuring among the more common windmills, ponds, Romans and Vikings.

I've seen parts of the area I should have visited long ago. Girton used to supply goose quills for Cambridge University. This sculpture goes rather beyond celebrating that though. It's lit at night.

We've driven places too. This area is 2m below sea level, allegedly. Before the fen was drained, these green posts were mostly underground.

And at last I've visited Aldeburgh. I found the shell sculpture that I've seen many photos of. I've still not attended the poetry festival. My writing hasn't suffered as a consequence of lockdown though the mood has narrowed. When I've had little bursts of creativity I've been free to take immediate advantage of them. I've radically rewritten some old pieces, merging them when I can. I thought I'd get more acceptances than I've actually received. I expected to do more reading. I'm still working through my book list. I've belatedly discovered audio books.

The allotment has of course been receiving more care than usual. Our sweetcorn's been ravaged by badgers in recent years so this time we built some protection.