Paul Stephenson

paul-stephenson

Paul Stephenson is a British poet. His poems have appeared in places such as Magma, Poetry London, The Rialto, and The North.

Paul’s debut pamphlet Those People was published by smith|doorstop in 2015 after winning the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition. A new pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris was published recently by HappenStance Press.

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Hi Paul. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Your latest pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris examines the aftermath and psychological impact of last year’s Paris attacks. Can you tell us a bit more about these poems and the impetus behind them?

I was living in Paris at the time of the terrorist attacks. I didn’t think to write poems in response when it first happened. But a few days later I received an email from Greg Freeman who runs Write Out Loud asking if I had anything to say in response. I didn’t know. Everything was still so raw and, like everybody, I was still trying to process and make sense of it all.

But it set me off and I quickly started taking notes, reading stories, recording my feelings and recording the days, as much for my own diary as anything, so that I could look back. So that’s the impetus, the catalyst, the trigger. The poems seek to chronicle in various shapes and forms, but they were written in the moment so they are not reflecting or analyzing.

 

 

The pamphlet also explores the relationship between the real world and our virtual lives with reference to things like Facebook statuses, Twitter hashtags, the colour-coded alert levels of the Vigipirate, and the veracity of news articles and online posts. I’m curious in what ways you feel poetry is suited to interrogate this 21st century phenomenon and its resulting dilemmas?

That’s a really good question. What can we take to be true? These days we have to read several sources to build a nuanced picture. We can’t rely on one outlet, one station or channel. But even then, we know that this news is controlled, the stories chosen and shaped, the information filtered and framed, depending on who is ‘making the news’, who owns the news media.

There is what happened and there is what is reported to have happened. Of course, this also relates to what is left out or down played, the incidents that are left ignored. So in the midst of the terrorist attacks we were trying to ascertain what was happening, and then why it happened, and whether the information we were passive recipients of was accurate.

Twitter hashtags make people active, give them a voice, enable them to construct the news and direct our attention. I was very much aware that the extreme emotions I felt at the time – of fear, confusion and suspicion (some of which are explored as poems) – were the product of my own consumption of social media. In that sense, some poems derived from indirect experience, some from the direct experience of walking the streets and observing how the city was absorbing the shock. But direct or indirect, both experiences feel authentic and real to me.

I hope poetry manages to interrogate such phenomena. Twitter is already used as a vehicle for poetry and some poets are active and very successful users. A poem as a tweet has an immediacy and a synthesis. It distills and is of the moment. Other poems might, in a similar way to poets being inspired by paintings and sculpture, also respond to Facebook stories or YouTube videos, allow for a textual (re)interpretation of events.

 

 

Your previous pamphlet Those People feels understandably lighter in tone but seems to have a kinship with your Paris poems, in that there is a sense you are interested in people and our relationships with each other. Do you think this is a fair description of one of your preoccupations as a poet?

The first pamphlet is certainly lighter, though there are some complex feelings running beneath some of the humour. Yes, I am certainly interested in people and their role in shaping places and events, and in all of life as a social construction. People make the occasion, are behind the incident, responsible for life and death. Paris was a painful episode with protagonists, heroes and villains, different scenes, various fates and outcomes.

 

 

Some of your poems – ‘An Ear’, ‘Two Tannoys‘, ‘Deathflake‘, ‘Blindfold’ – also experiment with how the layout of the words on the page can directly relate to the subject matter of a poem. Do you subscribe to the idea that the visual experience of reading a poem can be as important as the auditory experience of hearing it read aloud?

You mention poems that have appeared in my two pamphlets and beyond. In these poems I shape poems as an ear, a loudspeaker, a snowflake and a head. I am interested in concrete poetry and the sculptural potential of the poem on the page as a two-dimensional artifact.

Hearing a poem is quite different to reading it, when the poem can work as an image – the shape itself can be an event. The danger is that shape becomes some kind of compensation for an under-performing poem, or else distracts the reader from the essence of the poem. I’d hope that the shape complements the ideas and narrative, maybe even helps reinforce or enable the rhymes and play of line breaks.

 

 

Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?

I was lucky to experience my first Torbay Poetry Festival down in Devon at the end of October and I participated in Poetry in Aldeburgh last week, which all takes place in the pretty Suffolk coastal town, run by volunteers (new dates have already been announced for 3rd-5th November in 2017).  It was a wonderful few days by the sea, spending time with poet friends from my workshop group.

I launched my new pamphlet in a Sunday morning session at the Jubilee Hall, reading alongside Dan Burt and Mona Arshi. The audience response was very encouraging but also emotional. A few French people came up to me to speak and one man was in tears. The poems transported us all back to that horrific night of Friday 13th a year ago

I am looking forward in 2017 to reading at StAnza in St. Andrews, where I understand there will be a focus on contemporary French poetry.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

I have submitted the poem ‘Suspicion’. I tried to capture the paranoia and anxiety we all felt in the streets of Paris in the days that followed, and particularly in places where people congregate. Suspicion in our waking hours, and in our sleep, acknowledging that we all had a specific profile in our head of what suspicious looked like.

Mentioning all the rail stations, there is a Monopoly aspect to the poem, but with the focus on clothing too, I was bringing in a reference to Paris as a city of fashion. I like taking abstract nouns as a starting point and exploring them. I also do it in another poem from the new pamphlet called ‘Fear Is’.

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Suspicion

We wear it about the neck and chest,
taking line seven to Gare de l’Est.

Bad combination, cuffed at the wrist,
it hangs wrong by Gare d’Austerlitz.

We see it blinking in bright blue neon
just next door to Gare de Lyon.

It doesn’t go. We grind and snore.
Clashes beneath Gare du Nord.

It loiters, an accessory, looks bizarre,
a stone’s throw from Gare Saint-Lazare.

We wear it, a mess at Montparnasse.
It wears sweats, a backpack, Adidas.

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