5 Questions for: Paul Stephenson

Paul StephensonPaul Stephenson is the winner of our poetry pamphlet prize 2017 and his pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies, available to order HERE.

Bio:

Paul Stephenson was born and grew up in Cambridge. He studied modern languages and linguistics then European Studies. He spent several years living between London and France, Spain and the Netherlands, including most recently, three years in Paris. He was selected for the Arvon/Jerwood mentoring scheme and the Aldeburgh Eight. His first pamphlet ‘Those People’ (Smith/Doorstop, 2015) was a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, judged by Billy Collins. His second pamphlet ‘The Days that Followed Paris’ (HappenStance, 2016) was written in the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks.
Read more at: www.paulstep.com

 

 

When did you first start writing poetry and why?

Just over a decade ago, probably in 2006. I was working in northern France, living between Cambridge and Lille. Though I had a regular painting class, I felt dissatisfied creatively. Poetry somehow found me. I started writing small prose pieces, and they were pretty dreadful but they allowed me to vent and also become more attentive to my surroundings. Very quickly I realised poetry suited me best. It was good for interludes and stolen moments, coffee and lunch breaks, and made the train journey go faster. There wasn’t the pressure to write much, but to consider the currency of each and every word. It was a way of combining textual and visual concerns, and I see it as a kind of sculpture on the page.

Do you think it helps to be part of a local group/stanza? Why?

Finding a poetry group was hugely valuable to me when I moved to London, not least to make contact and establish friendships and support networks with other like-minded people. It was a way of testing out what I was writing, seeing the themes and approaches of other writers, but also learning how to give feedback in a considered and constructive way. The downside can be that workshopping one poem a month is slow going and people can be too polite and hold back. If you can establish trust and find a smaller group of people with whom you can workshop a batch of poems more regularly then that certainly helps as a complement to a larger group.

You spent three years living in Paris; what’s the poetry scene like there?

There is certainly an active English-language poetry scene in Paris, though much of it has a clear spoken work and performance dimension. There are regular weekly reading nights at cafés up in Belleville and around the Canal St. Martin, north of the river. Then there is one or two monthly reading series as well as occasional book launches in the second hand bookshops run by Americans near the Jardins du Luxembourg. A good starting point for events and people is to check out the website www.parislitup.com. I was active in attending poetry events early on, but like with any big city, you get lazy…

Selfie with Waterlilies
We are publishing your pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies — what made you choose that title?

I chose the title because I felt it was contemporary and yet rather old-fashioned, drawing both on 21st century technologies and 19th century painting. Even though the title poem is somewhat unrelated to the other poems, I felt that the pamphlet as a whole was in some sense a kind of selfie given that the poems are each a glance towards me, a glance of me – through family, travels and the way I see the world. At the same time there are portraits of family members and places I have known. Selfies of togetherness and loss, of remembering and, no doubt, mis-remembering.

To continue with that question, what about the poem itself? How did Selfie with Waterlilies come about?

I wrote the title poem after going to see Monet’s waterlilies at the Orangerie in Paris a couple of years ago. I had seen them when I was 17 and spent a week running around the city, hungry for Impressionism and Post-impressionism. In November 2015, a week after the Paris terrorist attacks, I went back. That first weekend when public spaces were open again, I had the bright idea (so I thought) of trying to find sanctuary and a sense of calm and peace by going to see the massive oils again. Instead, there were tourists arguing in the queue in the rain.

When I got to the two large oval rooms, the panels were breathtaking, particularly those that are particularly abstract where there is nothing of the sky, just the depths of dark water, and where the waterlilies are reduced to a few slapdash brushstrokes. But I couldn’t take them in the way I had expected, and couldn’t even see a whole uninterrupted panel, on account of the endless people taking selfies. I can’t actually recall if the tourists had selfie sticks: these may have been banned.

Anyway, my quest for serenity and reflection was somewhat in vain. I then started looking at the text explaining the paintings and somehow the poem emerged a few days later as a kind of erasure – it was fascinating to see how some of the found text, if pared back enough, actually spoke to the phenomenon of selfies. While Monet’s subject was light, air, clouds, water, our constant, everyday subject matter is the self. What a difference in time and labour!

And finally, would you like to share one of your poems with us to publish in our site, maybe explaining why you chose this particular one?

I have chosen the poem ‘Valuation’ as it brings in my mother and father, who feature – be it as personae – in much of the pamphlet. It sets up the notion of the house, a shared space for so many years, where each holds on to certain beliefs – about history, the bricks and mortar, the lives of each other – sometimes to find out later that all you had thought true was misfounded. It also hints at rupture and how things come to an end, because people grow up or grow apart, and that the transition from childhood to adulthood inevitably brings with it an element of loss, often of what was once held to be sacred or permanent. Some visitors are welcome, others not, but are inevitable.

 

Valuation

My mother used to tell people
our house was a pub
in the eighteenth century.
I could see the cobwebbed crates

and woodworm-riddled benches.
Together among the pewter,
we believed in our public house,
conscious of the cavity beneath us.

My father, a true landlord,
would say to every visitor
as they got up to go and he didn’t,
The door is always open.

One day a man with a measure
came to price the place for sale.
Pointing needed doing.
There was no cellar.

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