Interview between Stephen Payne, forthcoming guest poet on Thursday May 3rd at CICCIC Taunton, hosted by Fire River Poets, and Graeme Ryan, member of FRP.
GR Hi Stephen, thanks for agreeing to this interview. My first question, having read your collection ‘Pattern Beyond Chance’ is: What made you choose this as the title for your collection?
SP To find a title, I looked through the poems for a phrase. “Pattern beyond chance” appears in a poem called “Scientific Method”, where it expresses a quality of data that might demand an explanation. The phrase appealed to me as a title because it has that scientific air, a kind of technical precision, but also because it seems, in a sense, definitional of poetry. I also liked the relation it has with the title of my Smiths Knoll pamphlet, “The Probabilities of Balance”, from which a few of the poems are drawn. I hope it captures one of the characteristics of my poems, which if not usually “about” science, are informed by a scientific curiosity about the way things are and the way people think.
I’m not sure I fully believe my own claim that I started writing poetry to better understand what I was reading, but there’s some truth in it, and you have to say something in book blurbs. The first poems I used as models were song lyrics – especially the lyrics of Paul Simon (who is well known as a lyricist) and Clive James (who is not, but who wrote the lyrics for some wonderful songs by Pete Atkin). And then in terms of page poetry, I was very taken by John Updike, better known to everyone, including me, as a novelist. I can’t remember how I came to own his Collected Poems. It’s still true that most of my favourite poets aren’t the best-known, e.g., Jeffrey Harrison, Peter Goldsworthy, Timothy Steele, Connie Wanek. None of those are British. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Michael Laskey, who is probably my top favourite British poet, which perhaps goes to show how tied are poetic and personal judgments.
Having enjoyed your collection very much, I’m struck by how you have developed your own distinctive voice, and I’ve got a few more questions.
In the section ‘About the Author’ at the end of ‘Pattern Beyond Chance’ you say that you began writing poetry to figure out how the poets you admired ‘worked their tricks.’ Which poets are these and would you consider that you have now evolved your own distinctive way of expressing yourself through poetry?
Secondly, you are a Professor of ‘Human-Centric Systems’? What are these?
On the back of this question, and thinking of your job in academia, I almost imagine some of your poems as significant and transformative notes/doodles in the margins of your academic work (something which is alluded to strongly in in ‘Meme’ with its ambushing thought about ‘eulogising the dead’ during a lecture to students); ie poems in active dialogue with your work as an academic psychologist. What’s your take on this?
When I was starting to take my writing seriously, I read some advice from Elizabeth Bishop, that beginning writers should try to closely imitate their favourite writers, because they anyway won’t be able to, so something new will emerge. I don’t know how distinctive my own poems are, but thank you for your comment. I’m interested in a “poetry of ideas” more than I am interested in lyrical description or surface linguistic innovation. Sometimes I think of this as a matter of scale: I like it when writing becomes poetry at the level of the whole poem more than at the level of the isolated phrase. (Good phrases are great too, of course!) I am quite drawn to conventional formal devices, especially metre and rhyme as a vehicle for and a prompt of ideas.
Professor of Human-Centric Systems isn’t a job title I chose for myself. Rather, it was a new chair at the University of Bath that I applied for, around ten years ago now. My previous positions (in Cardiff University and Manchester University) didn’t have fancy names. The more conventional title for what I teach would be Human-Computer Interaction, which is a kind of engineering discipline that tries to support the design of computer systems that are usable and useful, by better understanding human capabilities and preferences. My research career has been in this field, and also in more theoretical psychological topics in comprehension and problem solving.
I’m not sure about the relation between my academic thinking and my poetry. You’re right that the poem Meme raises the question. And handily for my point right now, it shows that none of us are in full control of what we think about. In writing poems, I sometimes have to work hard to avoid scientific habits, such as the move to generalities and precise conclusions. I think poetry writing is more like science pedagogy than it is like science per se: trying to find concrete examples that open the students’/readers’ minds to new abstractions.
Thanks so much for this Stephen – it makes for interesting reading in terms of your work and poetic approach.
I really like your comment: ‘I like it when writing becomes poetry at the level of the whole poem more than the level of the isolated phrase’ and I can see many examples of this, not least ‘ A Life in the Day’ and the way it imagines of a host of alternative existences, ‘Bite’ also and ‘Girl on the Stairs’ which explores a memory of the day you learnt about the sex of your second child. A poetry of ideas but moving too, eg with the telling fragment: nobody had lost a son’.
When your ‘writing becomes poetry at the level of the whole poem’, how naturally does this now comes to you? What sort of editing and re-working processes do you find yourself undertaking?
I certainly wouldn’t say that achieving poems comes easily to me. I have to work over many, many drafts. Not really “work”, more like play. Writing poetry for me is release from work, and if that makes me sound like an amateur, so be it. Often I feel I’m writing and watching-and-waiting at the same time, extending and editing a draft until some movement in it pleases me enough to convince me I might have a poem that’s worthwhile. That’s the best moment; even if sometimes it later feels like it had been an illusion. I also enjoy what follows, trying to hone the whole thing. It’s not unusual for me to have worked on a poem intermittently over several years before ever showing it to anyone. One of my re-drafting techniques is to move in and out of form. I almost always begin writing in free verse, then look for formal accidents which suggests a form into which I might translate the whole poem. It’s somewhat surprising to me that it’s always possible to do that. People talk a lot about English being rhyme-poor, but my intuition is that the flexibility of syntax more than compensates. Later —who knows? —I might re-translate the poem back to free verse, guided by some intuition that the poem would benefit.
Hi Stephen, once again, many thanks! If you’re not ready to reply straightaway please don’t worry, you’ve been so helpful and prompt already, I just had a few final questions if you can bear it!
My final questions arise from the relationship between the work you do in Human-Computer Interaction and the ‘playing’ element of writing poetry, as you describe it.
Do you think that the human mind will always be more complex, vast and wide-ranging than any computer system we can device – or am I framing the wrong question/ worrying unnecessarily?
Is ‘what it means to be human’ a valid concept, one capable of definition?
What about ‘soul’?
Finally, what makes poetry important to us as human beings and do you foresee a time when computers could ‘synch’ in some way within the human mind itself to create works of art?
Forgive me if these are naively phrased questions – I’m partly influenced by Professor Iain McGilchrist’s book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ which he characterises as a metaphor for the relationship between left and right hemispheres and the pertaining culture of our western world.
What interesting questions! Quite a leap, from describing my redrafting process to “What does it mean to be human?”. Although, if I understand correctly, your question is recursive: What does it mean to ask what does it mean to be human? I’m flattered that you think I might have anything worthwhile to say about any of these things; I’m not sure I do, but it would be cowardly to deflect them completely.
I don’t feel at all capable of predicting the complexity of future computer systems. The World Wide Web is in certain technical respects more “vast and wide ranging” than the human mind (it’s been estimated to contain more 1018 bits of information, and growing, whereas the adult human, according to some ingenious studies by Thomas Landauer, contains on the order of 109). I’m less sure about “complex”. In terms of intelligence, there’s a long history of over-prediction in terms of computers emulating human intellectual competences, though there certainly have been recent impressive advances. I’m personally much less worried about AI as some kind of malign Sci-Fi aggressor than I am about the prospects of it making workers redundant, which, under our current political systems, will impoverish most of us for the benefit of a few.
What does it mean to be human? I think sometimes the force of this question is moral, even religious, and I don’t have anything to say about that (likewise, “soul”, although I do think the distinction between software and hardware offers something there, as it does for the distinction between mind and brain).
Sometimes, though, the “What does it mean?” question is scientific, in which case it reduces to a question in comparative biology, roughly “What do these huge brains of ours enable us to do that makes us different from other animals?” To which a psychologist would typically answer “language” (putting sound-symbols into meaningful, novel sequences according to rules of combination), “planning” (imagining future states of the world and the actions that will achieve them), and “living in very big social groups” (band to clan to tribe to city to nation state, etc.). Put all these together and you have a creature that can worry about its own mortality, and use language to express such concerns, not only to friends but to strangers. It’s probably harder to interest strangers in your personal worries (even if Facebook suggests otherwise), so advisable to make the language itself attractive and memorable. Hence: Poetry. You can’t accuse me of being unwilling to speculate wildly.
Many thanks again Stephen – as I say I’ve really enjoyed reading your poetry and have been both intrigued and moved. The remarks you have made in this interview have made me even more keen to meet you and hear your reading at Taunton CICCIC on Thursday May 3rd. One not to miss!