Paul Stephenson

 

Paul Stephenson was born and grew up in Cambridge, and currently lives in Paris. He studied modern languages and linguistics then European Studies. In 2013/14 he took part in the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme. His poems have appeared in Poetry London, The Rialto, The North, Magma, Smith’s Knoll and The Interpreter’s House. In the 2012 Troubadour poetry competition he won second prize. In 2014 he was one of the Aldeburgh Eight. He teaches at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.


Funny and quite serious at the same time, these poems cast a fresh, ironic eye on contemporary life and find a wild variety of fields in which to play. The colloquial tone and satiric brilliance might make a reader wish to hear more, ideally over a pint or two’

 

Billy Collins

 

There is a word for ‘those people’: it’s ‘us’, and the poet leaves us there, belatedly making this discovery – and, I hope, resolving to be kinder to our fellow humans in future.

Playful, intelligent, generous, working in us softly – Stephenson’s poems often work this way. Try the rest of this pamphlet.

 

 – D A Prince, Sphinx Reviews 

 

Review of Paul Stephenson’s Those People  


in Rogue Strands: 

http://roguestrands.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/a-harnessed-relish-for-language-

 

in Nomadic Permanence:

https://robpacker.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/kitsch-

and-linguist-tricks-paul-stephensons-those-people/

 

in Sphinx: http://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/reviews/opoi-reviews-2016/658-paul-

stephenson-those-people

 

in Sabotage: http://sabotagereviews.com/2015/08/06/those-people-by-paul-stephenson/

Those People

 

What are they called? Those people who turn up

unfashionably early, too premature for it to be a party,

just a room full of drinks and square metres of carpet.

I mean the opposite of stragglers, not the hard core

with staying power and no home to go to, or the dregs

of the party who’ve no intention of going anywhere

but love to linger, end up getting chucked out into

the night, or if they’re lucky and it’s a good party,

into a warm sunrise. I’m talking eager beavers,

the party-goers who make a punctual appearance,

greeted at the door by hosts running around with

nibbles still in cupboards and half their face on,

the guests who arrive bang on and get shown through

to hover admiring the smoothness of wallpaper,

which they do politely, not entering yet into the spirit

of the party, swaying by a bucket of orange punch.

Those folk who don’t often get to go to parties,

so have it marked fluorescent for weeks in their diary

and make a mission of what to wear, but never sure

of the dress code, opt to play it safe and wear jeans.

Those characters who eight hours later could be

hitting Havana, sipping mojitos and dancing mambo

and rumba and salsa merengue with dollar-hungry

doppelgängers of Che Guevara in desperate need

of mechanical parts for dilapidated Dodges and

Chevrolets, but hey, instead revel in the refuge

of empty strip-lit galley kitchens, to sit on a ledge

of marbled Formica, slurring into sausage rolls

and spilling their life, is there a name for them?



Paul Stephenson on his work:

i. How did you start writing?

 

I started writing in Spring 2005 while working in Lille in northern France. I had an office job developing and managing European regional cooperation projects. My colleagues would go out once an hour for a smoking break, and I thought to myself, well if they are doing that, what about me who doesn’t smoke? I decided to leave the building and go for a coffee break at a café across the road where I’d sit and stare into space, maybe scribble in a notebook. I didn’t write poems at first but a few bits of (dire) prose. I didn’t know anything about poetry and had no idea where to start but somehow poetry drew me in. I browsed the stacks at the Galloway & Porter bookshop in Cambridge. I bought a few ‘seconds’ of Faber titles, and was particularly drawn to poems in Hugo Williams' ‘Collected’. It had a threatening first poem called ‘The Net’. Some of W. H. Auden’s poems carry that similar sense of danger.

 

I was born in Cambridge. The old maternity hospital is now a retirement home. I grew up in a village seven miles from Cambridge and seven miles from Newmarket, so on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border. I was lucky to have both sets of grandparents in the village: my maternal grandfather spent most of his hours in a converted barn where he sat in his green velvet chair and listened to his jazz and smoked. My paternal grandfather in particular was a big influence on me: art, languages, a love of France and Spain/Portugal. He was a vintage car enthusiast and liked operetta. He’d been a POW but never talked about it. When I’d finished my Saturday paper round I’d go and sit with him and he explained how cryptic crosswords work. This might explain why my early poems were like bad puzzles, lacking in clarity. My grandparents took me to Dieppe for the weekend on the ferry, this my first taste of France. I remember as we approached how it looked like there’d be this amazing sandy beach and then as we got closer you realized it was all massive pebbles. I guess that’s the kind of early disappointment that makes a poet. It wasn’t just French though – because we lived just outside Cambridge, my mother took in Spanish language students each July/August while we were children so I was also fascinated by the odd sounds they made and how they rattled off their language at such a speed down the phone.

 

At school, I loved painting/photography and was good at maths and languages. I didn’t really study much literature or poetry. I went on to do French and German at A-level, then French and Spanish at university, but first spent a gap year in Avignon in southern France, which was, looking back, a defining episode given that I’ve more or less lived in ‘Europe’ ever since, living and working in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. I’m very indecisive and found it tough to make decisions as to what to study because choosing one thing always meant rejecting another and I didn’t like closing doors on subjects. Hence I opted for a modular degree at Royal Holloway that I could shape as I went along, but which ended up mostly being languages. I subsequently did an MPhil/PhD in European Studies, and today teach at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The best of all was my year in Madrid in 1999/2000 before the euro when you could live like a king and get by teaching English 20 hours a week.

 

ii) Which are your favourite poets and poems?

 

In the scheme of things I have barely scraped the surface in terms of reading. I have been working backwards, using contemporary poetry magazines as a starting point. As such, I am very conscious of the limits of my reading and that, in any discussion of favourite poets, I must accept that I am only the sum of very piecemeal reading. Poetry will take a lifetime.

 

I like American poets like Tony Hoagland who disguise sadness and loss beneath a veneer of humour, but who also celebrate life in all its crazy detail. His lines snake their way down the page and you are often captivated by the contemporary urban landscapes or familiar situations he paints. Like Billy Collins, he creates these wonderful meandering poems that look effortless but are highly crafted. At Aldeburgh I have recently discovered Robert Wrigley and Thomas Lux, who I also admire, Wrigley for the rhythm, Lux for the politics, both for the imagery. These poets conjure up place and feeling, beating around in a shamelessly indulgent way to capture contemporary life, but the poem nearly always comes back to a relationship or incident or memory that has marked or impacted upon the narrator. They take time to get to where they want to go. In a way that’s what the British do in conversation, always skirting about and being evasive, even if in British poetry we’re not allowed to talk so much on the page. 

 

I also like the earlier avant-garde poets e e cummings and Raymond Quéneau for their experiments in form and their risk-taking, and poets who mess about and entertain in an intelligent way, like James Fenton with his fabulus drum majorettes. Recently, I have admired the work of Valérie Rouzeau (translated by Susan Wicks) for her fresh use of language that defies conventional grammar and syntax and which has real urgency about it. She manages to escape the prison that is a mother tongue. Then there are poets who write more sparse, pared-down poetry, the type I rarely manage but aspire to write, like the no fat-on-the-bone poems of Jacob Polley, or the quiet ultra-sensitivity of Niall Campbell who I got to know on the Jerwood/Arvon scheme. Roddy Lumsden is also a great innovator and adventurer in form while Philip Gross explores word associations and has a great ludic quality, always playing games while ensuring an emotional heart.

 

I have a pretty short attention span as a reader of poetry. Maybe because I’m always on the move and trying to juggle poetry with a non-poetry job. I know poems are meant to be read slowly in a quiet and considered way, but I need to be hooked by the first or second line. There needs to be something ajar, opaque, not-quite-right about those first lines to reel me in. I want to be pulled through a poem and drop out the other end without even realizing I’ve read a poem. It’s important that the opening is intriguing, maybe even syntactically uncomfortable so that I have to read it several times to get how the phrase works. A lot of narrative poetry gets written but much lacks that linguistic pzazz and seems more interested in just telling the story than actually exciting with language or challenging the grammatical construct. More recently, I have learned that freeing myself of any kind of narrative, or at least a concern of what the poem will be about – not having an agenda – is very liberating, and can help produce poems that veer off in unexpected directions, and have an ambiguity that keeps me as the writer interested. I don’t think we always need to know what a poem is about, or should worry about sense-making, but enjoy the sounds and texture. Who was it that said ‘if you have to choose sound or sense, always go for sound, because we will also derive our own sense from what we read’.

iii) Where do you mostly write? What do you do instead of writing?

I write a lot on trains, Eurostar, in particular, given the hundreds of times I’ve been through the Channel Tunnel. Coming out of the tunnel into France or England is always like pressing ‘refresh’ and entering into some kind of parallel reality – it helps see the world afresh, though making constant comparisons can be unsettling – you see what is right and wrong on each side. I do like long train journeys, and just the time to stare into space, peruse a magazine, overhear a conversation, think and not think, just be between places. But the train is in some ways just an extension of urban space. The same goes for cafés. Anywhere that doesn’t feel academic or like school. Instead of writing, I like really good TV comedy, well-crafted dialogue. I think excessive TV-watching, lots of soap opera and comedy has probably influenced my writing. I do feel guilty writing poetry when I should be spending my time doing academic research in an area totally unrelated to poetry, but when the poem wants to come, it wants to come. It can be hard to create the space for new poems to emerge through so I have found workshops, residencies and festivals very stimulating.

iv) A paragraph about one of your collections – how you put it together, some background about one of the poems, how you came to write or revise it? 

It was the fifth time I entered the competition. I submitted two pamphlets but the most coherent of the two was chosen. I had long been looking for that thing that would bring a series of poems together. Two poems from the pamphlet were written on the Aldeburgh Eight week in Suffolk in November 2014. Somehow the poem entitled ‘Those People’ somehow captured the fact that there are many characters in the poems. It felt like a good title. I like the way it can be said in a neutral or sometimes a disparaging tone. I am fascinated by individual characters but am less enthusiastic about groups.

v) What are you currently working on?

I am working on a series of poems about living statues. I first heard a reference to them in summer 2012 when a woman on the radio was complaining about the lack of tourists in central London during the Olympics. She said ‘When you hear the living statues complain you know something is very wrong’. This set me off thinking about them and I ended up attending the World Living Statues festival in Arnhem in the Netherlands last September. It was an incredible and eye-opening experience with over 150 living statues, adults and children, from all over the world. Quite surreal.

I am also working on a series of responses to Browning. I’m trying to rewrite his monologues using my iphone and the autocorrect function. I type badly into my phone to generate new words that are only loosely approximate to the originals. I start out unsure of the narrative or where the poems will go, but eventually the words suggest a scenario and the poem takes shape. I’m having a lot of fun with this process, which really opens up all sorts of linguistic possibilities. Not sure the poems that result will be up to much but it’s fun.


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