Interview with Stephen Boyce, guest poet at Fire River Poets, Ciccic, Taunton Nov 7th 2019.
Graeme Ryan (Fire River Poets)
Firstly, Stephen, thanks very much for agreeing to take part in this
I’ve read ‘The Blue Tree’ this
morning and have really enjoyed it. Lots of the poems stay with me and I have
enjoyed going back to read particular favourites – not least the opener ‘The
Lone Tree of Loos’, ‘Triangulation’, ‘Sturm und Drang’, ‘The Blue Tree’,
‘Pendulum’ and ‘Anniversary Waltz.’ You write very skilfully and I love the
sudden depths, the telling details, the poignancy – this is a powerful
collection all the better for working on the reader from a place of real, deep
attention. Thank you!
I’d like to ask a few
questions, receive your responses, then ask a few more in the light of your
replies – would that be OK?
what initially prompted you to become a poet, or to realise you already
I guess most people would recognise there are identifiable stages in the
process of becoming a poet. Mine included a passion for reading poetry from a
young age, for which I thank my parents; the support of some enlightened
teachers and enthusiastic teenage friends; self conscious experiments in writing,
and eventually a recognition that, because writing is a process of
communication, at some point it needs to be shared. The most significant moment
was probably when I submitted a manuscript for a Poetry Society appraisal. The
resulting report gave me enough encouragement to take what I was doing
seriously. After that a period of study, the first magazine acceptance, the
first competition success – and each subsequent success – a warm response to a
reading, the first pamphlet and collection, all of which reinforce the
realisation that one is in a state of becoming a poet. And the best one can
hope for is a permanent state of becoming.
- Which poets first inspired you
(and are maybe still important to you)?
SB Very early influences tended to be among
the poets whose work I learned by heart, either at home or at school, so I
always say that AA Milne’s wonderful collectionsWhen We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six lit the fuse – that
feeling for rhythm and rhyme and a love of language. Later WB Yeats (The Lake
Isle of Innisfree); WH Davies (Leisure), Shakespeare of course. As a teenager I
discovered the poems of Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNiece and especially
e.e.cummings whose innovative style, emotional intelligence and skill as a
sonneteer affected me deeply, and still do. Over the years I’ve developed
enthusiasms for Michael Longley, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, WS Graham,
Norman McCaig, Jacques Prévert and many younger writers such as Sinead
Morrissey, Liz Berry, Leontia Flynn. It’s vital to keep an open mind and one of
the joys of poetry is that one is constantly discovering new influences. There
are great inspirational writers in the canon and a wonderfully diverse range of
new voices constantly coming through. I’ve met people who say ‘I don’t read other
poets, I don’t want to be influenced’, but this is absurd. It’s only through
reading others that you can learn the craft of writing.
- Tell us a bit about your journey
so far as a poet (and maybe a bit about Winchester Poetry Festival too?)
SB My first
collection, Desire Lines, was probably about ten years in the
making and focused a lot on my parents who had died when I was in my early
forties. Writing helped me to come to terms with the loss. But I was also
writing about relationships and my interest in the natural world. The
Sisyphus Dog, which came out four years later in 2014, enabled me to
be less personal, to begin to explore a wider range of themes. About the same
time I became increasingly involved in collaborating with visual artists on a
variety of projects. In one of these I produced a sequence of poems imagining
the fate of a young servant girl at a country house which I produced in the
form of a needle case. I find working with artists and/or working in heritage
settings particularly stimulating – it has to do with the power of stories and
of the visual imagination.
2014 was also the year of the first Winchester
Poetry Festival. It came about as a result of the vision of Robert Hutchison, a
former colleague from Southern Arts. It was a case of three friends deciding to
pursue a shared interest but with the ambition to create a festival of national
significance. The most gratifying response to our first event was when someone
said the festival had emerged ‘fully formed’. In the last five years we’ve
added to the biennial festival an annual poetry prize, an education programme,
a number of one-off events and a small publishing output. It’s a lot of work
but immensely rewarding and seems to have become a fixture on the poetry
calendar with audiences from around the country.
- As a way into your most recent
work, what was it particularly about ‘The Blue Tree’ poem that made you
choose it as the title for the collection?
The poem was written in response to an image
my wife created at a time when I was thinking about poems on the theme of
reconciliation. The painting sparked a half-memory which evolved into the poem.
The collection originally had a very different shape to it but as I reworked it
I realised that, while the poem is not the most significant or even the
strongest in the collection, both its title and its theme could resonate across
the whole. What’s more I felt the image would make a striking cover, which has
proved to be the case.
GR Stephen, thanks a lot for these responses
– it’s always interesting to read about early influences, the poets who inspire
you now and the journey you are undertaking – I like your idea of the permanent
state of becoming a poet. Thanks
too for sharing the significance and genesis of The Blue
Tree as a
title poem for your most recent collection.
The poem sequence about
the fate of the young servant girl sounds fascinating too – what is its title
and is it readable in another format as well as the needle case? Does it
feature in The
Sisyphus Dog as
needlecase of poems (entitled Needlework) was a
one-off, but since then I’ve revised and expanded the sequence with a view to
publishing it as a pamphlet in due course.
have some more questions if that’s OK…
- What departure(s) have you made
thematically or otherwise in ‘The Blue Tree’ in comparison with your
earlier work eg The Sisyphus Dog?
SB The distinctions aren’t always obvious but a
number of the poems in The Blue Tree emerged as responses to visual images
(mainly abstract art works) created by an artist friend. This has taken me in
unpredictable directions with poems such as Frank Hurley’s Negatives, Flutter, Choughs and
others. And then there’s the tree theme itself. For a variety of reasons, not
least a move to the countryside, trees were very much in my mind during the
writing of this collection.
I mentioned some of the poems that really captured me in The Blue
Tree eg The Lone
Tree of Loos with
its incantation of ‘What matters’ and the fantastic phrase
white algebra of these cemeteries’
with reference to the rows upon rows of WW1 graves. Having visited
Tyne Cot Cemetery for instance, that one word ‘algebra’ is so chillingly
powerful – also makes me think of the Yeats quote – something along the lines
of that click when the poem finally falls into place. The even lines and
lengths wonderfully suggest the duckboards and boxes – they are like planks – a
really good sonnet! – and then the poignancy of Housman’s cherry tree at the
Triangulation has the wonderfully arresting metaphor
also/as trig points of the heart’
– so much quiet craft in this sonnet with your ten and
eleven syllable lines meditating on the presence of trees and woodland in the
landscape – I also loved in this poem:
‘a maple counts off the seasons
on a colour-wheel of young love – love green
love golden, love bleeding’ .
The third stanza of ‘Sturm und Drang:
‘This is what we’ll come to, catching
the storm in a net, emptying the ocean
with a shell, lying down to die among
fallen lumber with sound of the wind
the sound of the surf pounding,
and rain, teeming, thrashing, teeming.’
opens up a whole other dimension; your writing in this
anthology is for me so readable because of the depths it reveals in the
seemingly familiar. And this has come about by your great attentiveness and
Anniversary Waltz is
another case in point – a deceptively powerful exploration of mortality:
‘Count the rings
on fingers, phones and in the core of trees.
Count the falling leaves, the ticking clocks,
the beep of monitors, the drip drip drip.’
I’d also like to mention the very moving A Peal
for Wilfred Owen: commemorating the centenary of his death:
‘And yes, there must have been a lump
in the throat of the day, another day of negotiations,
endless bloody negotiations, when all that was
was a signing and an end.
What is there to say now,
each of us alone in a crowd of one hundred, alone
on the canal path with our own muddied thoughts?’
So some questions that arise for me now are as follows:
the process of poetry one of constant drafting for you over time, or do some
poems come quickly and more easily? Do you have any examples of both ‘slow
burners’ and ‘rockets’ in The Blue Tree? What is it do you often find yourself
grappling with when developing a poem towards its finished form?
SB There’s a lot to this question. Drafting and
editing are essential preoccupations and can be the most satisfying or most
frustrating elements of writing. Generally, I enjoy the process. There’s very
often a point at which you know you have a poem, but is it the best poem it can
be, has it taken flight? Is it complete, or overwritten? Anything can be important
to unlocking the poem’s potential – line breaks, title, rhythm, closure,
etc. To His Fingertips is a poem which came almost as a single
fluent thought and with a pleasing shape, it needed little revision,
whereas Building Bridges went through many versions and
changes of form. Sometimes you have to force yourself to be quite radical with
a poem – and trust the process. There is some truth in Paul Valéry’s often
quoted remark “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
- Which particular poems in the
collection do you feel most connection – and satisfaction with – and why?
(Or maybe particular lines etc where you feel a real consonance with what
you are trying to get at?)
SB That’s a bit like choosing between your
children. But Watching ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ is a poem
I feel a special connection with. It’s about my parents and I have a feeling
they would have liked it. My father served in India during the Second
World War and they both read Paul Scott’s magnificent Raj Quartet and saw the
TV series. After I re-read it and binge-watched the series over one
weekend I genuinely began to conflate their story with that of the characters.
The poem is a tribute to my parents but it also captures my struggle to know
them and understand their experience.
- What excites your imagination –
how do you know a poem might be in the offing? Could you maybe choose a
poem from The Blue Tree to exemplify this? I ask this question partly
because readers of poetry often are fascinated about how an idea gets to
become a poem, and how one even one knows an idea has poetic
potential. I think this also relates to my first question at the beginning
of the interview, when I was thinking of what inner experiences or
impulses you may have had that first got you putting pen to paper – the
lens you realised you possessed in order to see the world as poem?
SB Poems come in so many different ways – and
as Michael Longley says, “If I knew where poems come from, I’d go there.” Words
and phrases are often trigger points, visual images spark the imagination, mood
and emotion, too. But they can also be fickle and misleading. In my experience
it’s only when you have some confluence of thought, emotion and language that
you feel a poem may be about to come into being. A good opening line can act as
a key to unlock a poem, enabling you to enter the imaginative space where
feeling and idea or narrative start to flow. This happened with several of
these poems – Escapement, Cuts Both Ways, Memorial with Dog, for
example. But I suppose, for me at least, poems are mostly born out of a desire
to convey an emotional experience – a sense of loss, a moment of desire, of
hope. And of course, fundamentally one is writing in order to understand what
it is one thinks or feels.
very much these responses, Stephen, as I say I really like The Blue Tree
and this interview has given me lots more insights in your work. it’s been
great to read what is, for me, a brand new poet, and Fire River Poets looks
forward greatly to your reading at Ciccic in Taunton on Nov 7th!