Photo Credit: David Hall
Hi Stephen. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your debut full-length collection Pattern Beyond Chance last year with HappenStance. For the uninitiated, how would you describe the poems in the collection?
As a reader of poetry, I admire clarity, and I hope my poems are clear. I hope that the surface meaning is interesting enough to engage, and that despite the clarity, there are some deeper ambiguities, some play. I enjoy form, and around a third of the poems are rather strictly formal – there’s some half-rhyme; some full rhyme.
The title, and the book’s structure, reflect an observation by my editor and publisher, Helena Nelson, that my scientific interests and vocabulary leak into many of my poems. These poems find me trying to make sense of the personal, but with an experimental psychologist’s dispositions and concepts.
If this all sounds a little serious, perhaps I should admit that I sometimes think of poems as a bit like jokes, generalised over a wider range of emotions. Timing and balance matter in both, I think, although poems usually work better without punchlines.
Your academic background informs quite a lot of your poems with scientific and psychological themes cropping up frequently. One difference that is often observed between the sciences and the arts is that science tends to be quantitative wheras the arts is more qualitative. I’m curious what your own thoughts are on poetry as a tool for discovery?
In my area of science there’s quite a lot of qualitative work, actually, although I personally favour experimental methods, statistical inferences and computational approaches to theory!
It’s a bit simple-minded to put it this way, but science reaches toward generalities, whereas poetry rests with particulars and encourages readers to do their own theorising. In this sense poetry is more like science pedagogy than it is like science practice or research.
And everyone who teaches will know that sometimes it’s only when teaching an idea that you come to fully understand it. It’s become a cliché to say that poets discover the truths in their poems by writing them, but it’s as valid as most clichés.
There’s at least one moment in the writing of any poem which feels like a discovery, and with luck this is true also for the reader, with each reading.
It’s interesting to learn the different approaches poets use in their writing. Do you have any set routines or methods you employ in putting together your own poems from initial draft to finished product?
I wouldn’t say I have any fixed routines. I’ll write a first draft in a single sitting, when I’m grabbed by whatever it is that starts a poem – a phrase or an idea. Annoyingly, this is often when I’m busy, and hardly ever when I’d most like to be writing.
Usually, I draft on my laptop, though it’s sometimes in a notebook. Often it’s several years from the first draft to something I’ll think of as finished enough to show anyone. And sometime in the intervening, intermittent reworking there’ll be a moment where I think I’ve got a poem, and it’s that moment, the thrill of it, that keeps me writing.
I have one re-drafting technique that I think might be unusual enough to share. I sometimes take a free-verse poem, look for a hint of regular formal structure, and translate the poem into that structure. I enjoy doing this: it’s a challenge but always possible, and I find that very fact intriguing – that ‘the poem’ can change a great deal, but keep something of its identity.
It’s one way I have of making sense of the rather magical-sounding pieces of advice one sometimes hears, ‘Write what the poem wants you to write’, that sort of thing. The scientific sceptic in me treats such advice with a pinch of salt, but when trying to fit a form, new ideas inevitably arise.
And then sometimes, armed with these new ideas and a remaining dissatisfaction that I can now blame on the form itself, I might move back into a freer structure. Or I might not.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the diary you are looking forward to or are there any specific poetry goals you have set yourself?
I have a work date I’m looking forward to – a trip to Brazil to continue my collaboration with Maria Cristina Ferreira d’Oliveira of the University of Sao Paulo. That doesn’t have much to do with poetry, unless we can count Cristina’s name.
I don’t have any poetry goals, except to enjoy writing poems, and to see what happens. I wrote all the poems in my book one at a time, and I believe in the poem as the artistic unit, even if I can agree it might sometimes make sense for collections to offer structure as well as miscellany.
Since January 2015 I have learned a poem by heart each month. Some mornings I have a particularly long shower and recite all of them: fifteen at time of writing. This is very nourishing, and I recommend it. It’s humbling to really know how brilliant are ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’, or ‘Ode to Autumn’, or ‘Canoe’ – to name but three. I plan to keep going, although the shower trick could get unwieldy.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I’ve chosen this poem because it seems representative of the strategies and concerns of Pattern Beyond Chance, and especially the way I’ve described these above. I used to teach an undergraduate course called ‘Language and Thought’. The original impetus for this poem came as I was marking exams one year and realised that a couple of hundred miles away somebody else might be about to mark one of my son’s finals papers.
Language and Thought
On my left, the stack of unread exam scripts.
On my right, the stack of those I’ve marked,
which contains no scripts at all. Perhaps only
a certain kind of academic would call it a stack,
though everyone has dealings with the empty set,
the set of things described and held in mind
but which do not exist—shirked chores
which dispatch themselves, perfect answers
to open questions, whatever we long for or miss.
The paper stack returns my stare. Child-like,
it grows a few inches taller every year.