Stuart Pickford

Stuart Pickford

Stuart Pickford is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award. His first collection was published by Redbeck Press in 2001 and was short-listed for the Forward Best First Collection prize. He has twice been commended in the National Poetry Competition, the last time in 2012 for his poem ‘Swimming with Jellyfish.’ He was the winner of the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition Yorkshire Poetry Prize in 2013-14 for his poem ‘Moon.’


What comes through immediately and vividly is the anguish of loss, the strength of love, and that the poem is a repository for survival through its function as memory. I enjoyed the simple language which somehow dramatizes emotional complexity in many of these exciting poems.

- Daljit Nagra 

 

Wendy Klein has reviewed Swimming with Jellyfish on London Grip

 

‘Stuart Pickford’s beautiful and moving poems do justice to the human condition [and] move with technical adroitness, pathos and hilarity, wry ironies, finely-observed and restrained lyricism through the life cycles of a family, starting with his own childhood and relationship with his parents, including the indignities of old age and experience of bereavement’. 

– Peter Carpenter, Under the Radar

Swimming with Jellyfish

 

For fun, the dolphins race the prow,

flip their white bellies over

for the crowd, some of whom run

 

from one side to the other.

Even his wife smiles, gripping the rail.

After, she drives them up the coast.

 

The balcony of their flat seems suspended

in the sea fret. She goes to lie down.

On the beach, sun presses to get through.

 

Families have parasols. Kids are netting

jellyfish: in a dingy full of water,
they are pulsing like hearts, red

 

on yellow plastic. Wanting to be stung,

he swims into coolness. His fingers flinch

as he brushes them but he pushes on.

 

He thinks gentle breaststroke might save him –

a jellyfish drifts through his arms, kisses
his cheek. He splashes as if his feet

 

are tangled but no one can see him.

The ocean grows darker feeding on

the pale mist. Trawling a wake behind,

 

he makes the beach. The kids have vanished.

Jellyfish on sand, their buoyancy and gloss,

a gritty blob. Too late for them.

 

 

 

In the mirror, his face stares back.
On the raised skin, a red line,
an incision, tingling like an electric shock.

 

His wife gets antiseptic, cleans and cleans it,

doesn’t ask why, rests her fingertips
on the exact place he’d been stung. 

 

 

Stuart Pickford on his poetry

 How did you start writing?

 

I started writing because I liked what I read: I can still remember Keats, Shakespeare, Donne and Eliot from my days at school. I like the solitariness of writing and how you discover, sometimes, things you never thought you knew. With paper and pencil, the hours can pass in an exciting way.

 

I was born in Canterbury, Kent, and moved to the north about thirty years ago. I live in Harrogate where I teach in a local school. I am happy being a classroom teacher and cycling to work across The Stray each morning. I think my measure of a good poem is one that my parents or friends would be able to enjoy and identify with.

 

What are your favourite poets and poems?

 

Like all lovers of writing, I enjoy anything that presents the world in a fresh and different way. One of my favourite poets is Mathew Sweeney. I think I have all of his books and if he did t-shirts… For me, Sweeney confirms the notion that a story is better if you leave half of it out. I admire the cadence, the rhythm of his lines and I can hear his voice and accent when I read them; when I read Sweeney, I am him! He seems to be able to show how strange our lives are. The reader is often invited into the poems to speculate about what has happened or just wonder. Among my favourite poems are ‘A Picnic on Ice,’ ‘The Aunt I Never Met,’ and ‘The Volcano.’ These three poems deal with what is on the surface, what appears to be the truth of things; then, as the poems progress, they address how, especially over time, there may be other details at the margins of what we thought we knew. At the end of ‘The Aunt I Never Met,’ the narrator asks, “Why else did I never meet her?” Why, indeed; did all the rumour about her really capture who she was?

 

I should also say that I have learned a lot from Sweeney about how to handle narrative. He starts with action, with incident; any backstory is layered in and often the ending of the narrative is open-ended. Sweeney is adept at how to pare down the action to the essential details. The first time I met Sweeney at Lumb Bank, he remarked that writing a poem is like swimming in the Atlantic, you don’t mess about but have to jump in.

 

Where do you write? What do you do instead of writing?

 

I write anywhere I can: in the car while my wife is driving, on the train, with my classes, sitting on a blanket in the park. Over the last couple of years, I have used a notebook more to record ideas and the occasional line. Also, I have started to write in my head while walking; perhaps a strange thing to do. Of course, a few conditions need to prevail: it has to be a short poem or a short walk.

 

When I am not writing, I enjoy running and walking—there are many great places to visit in the north. Fridays is staff football. Centre-half, number four, over four hundred caps. We have our names on our shirts. I also go to the pub on Sunday with my teenage son and we watch Arsenal play, speculating endlessly about whether Ramsey should play on the right, and such things!

 

On The Basics  (2001) 

 

My only collection was The Basics (Redbeck Press, 2001). It is a difficult thing to put together a book of poetry. A fair analogy is comparing it to an album of music; you need to select the areas of concern, the order, the type of ending that best reflects your intentions. Sometimes, I have expected too much of the reader, to ponder the relationship between one poem and another, what they have to say to each other. Probably most readers dip into poetry books and don’t read them start to end. As a result, I have gone for a more transparent approach in Swimming with Jellyfish. That said, I hope the book takes the reader on a journey and moves through different areas of experience and language use.

 

What are you currently working on?

 

I am currently working on anything that comes my way. To some extent, I think it is true that the poems choose you, rather than the other way around. I am aware that some of my poems may be based in the domestic; that noted, I think how you get through the day is a political question, though that may sound like I am overstating things. I am also trying to get more references to Arsenal in my work so that they will make me their poet in residence—you can only dream!

 

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