You have recently been living in Paris. Can you tell us a bit about the Parisian poetry scene and name a French poet who you admire?
There is plenty of poetry in English, with spoken word nights on Thursdays (at the Culture Rapide café) in Belleville, and on Mondays (at the bar, Au Chat Noir) not far from the Canal St. Martin. There is also a regular monthly poetry reading series (Poets Live) and occasional readings at Berkeley Books near Odéon, and of course, Shakespeare & Co. The organization ‘Paris Lit Up’ has quickly – and through a great deal of energy and commitment – grown to become the umbrella website for much of the poetry activity in English so it’s a good place to find out about readings, events, writing workshops.
For poetry in French, the Maison de la Poésie organsies a rich and varied season of readings by French poets and writers from around the world. The venue, not far from the Centre Pompidou/Beaubourg, is located down a pretty passage way and is quite intimate, comprising a small theatre with little bar.
I admire Valerie Rouzeau’s work (translated by Susan Wicks), especially her first book ‘Cold Spring in Winter’ (Arc, 2009). She was at Aldeburgh last year. Such an inventive use of the French language, such emotional intensity and, at times, such helplessness. It is wonderful to hear her read her work (such as here). And Raymond Quéneau was so playful, full of ideas and experiment, riffing on the names of the streets of Paris.
You wrote your new pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris in a four-week period following the terrorist attacks in the city last November. Can you say a few words about how using many different shapes and forms in your poems helped to write about a difficult topic?
I didn’t set out to write shaped poems, though I do think shape is important and there’s that long tradition of shaping words, or, wording shapes, with Apollinaire’s calligrammes. I think I started writing poems of 10 lines as a way to begin, to see if I could get stuff down and collect fragments that might eventually constitute a sequence – a way of forcing words into square holes, so to speak. But many of these pieces went on to – or wanted to – take/adopt other forms.
Poems are two-dimensional sculptures on the page and if there can be a visual thrill as well as a linguistic one then all the better. I think shape can help deliver the intellectual stimulation or emotional charge of the poem (but it can, admittedly, also be a device to try to make a weak poem more interesting).
At times the shape seemed obvious to me, and presented a challenge, such as to use the white space to create the French flag (‘Tricolore’), to taper a poem in a V-shape (‘Vigipirate’), or to use all the hashtags (‘MêmePasPeur’) in a hexagon, because the tweets showed solidarity not just with Paris but with France as a whole. In ‘Blindfold’, ‘Cigarette Break’ and ‘Old Bones’ I present some words as you would actually see them, on a home made sign, on a canopy outside a shop, or on an inscription. Ultimately, I suppose because of the shock and bewilderment of what occurred, the different shapes all seemed like bits of a puzzle, and if I varied it and then put them together, maybe I would actually make sense of it all. I didn’t, and there are many pieces and many poems that are missing.
This might be of interest.
In the anthology Adventures in Form, you have written several poems using the Oulipean N+7 procedure. Are there any other poets who you admire who use processes along these lines?
I don’t know many, but absolutely loved Ross Sutherland’s ‘The Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-Ha’ (actually an N+23), that takes a fairy tale, and using N+7, creates something dark and political, something that subverts and is comical, unsettling. Coupled with the imagery, it is very effective.
What is your preferred type of location for writing poems?
On trains. Between places. Coming and going. To and fro. Being carried somewhere. A window. Precious pockets of time when I am more aware, tuned in, and vigilant of, more sensitive to, what’s going on around me.
You have recently written a series of poems on the theme of living statues. What was the inspiration behind these poems, and why do you think you were drawn to this topic?
I was listening to Radio 4 in the kitchen in north London in summer 2012. Somebody on the radio mentioned ‘when even the living statues complain, you know something is wrong’, and that line grabbed me, my ears pricked up. I thought the line was sad and poetic in itself. This was the time of the London Olympics and the person was commenting on, lamenting the fact, that central London was not packed with the influx of tourists as had been promised. The street performers had a livelihood to make and were not doing well. This got me thinking about living statues – who were they? why did thy do it? – I’d never really paid them much attention, and maybe I’d even dismissed them.
I wrote a couple of first poems, and then in 2014 went off to the International Living Statues Festival, held biannually in Arnhem, statues by night and then by day. Over two hundred performers: many professionals from around the world but also amateurs, a mix of adults and children. I discovered that it’s a whole world, like poetry, with professional standards, competitions, festivals, judges, etc.
They are fascinating for the statue itself, the thing they are trying to be, but then the person underneath – why that theme, that character? And how does who they embody relate to their story as an artist and performer? When you watch them and then write about them, without reference to living statues, somehow their pose and their gestures, and the way the public engages with them, all takes on another bigger meaning, says something more universal about modern life, such as in my poem ‘Lady Justice’ recently published in The Rialto. I hope I’ll write more poems, and maybe one day, do a pamphlet.
You are an Aldeburgh regular, having been to several Aldeburgh poetry festivals. In the manner of George Perec’s lipogram novel La Disparition, can you explain, without using the letter E, what you like about poetry in Aldeburgh and what your favourite place in Aldeburgh is? For the purposes of this question you may wish to refer to Aldeburgh as Aldbro, a variation used in the 18th Century.
Thanks, I’m not familiar with that orthography but okay. What draws any of us to Aldbro? I did a quick brainstorm, had an array of random thoughts and finally what I think is this: basically I’m fond of its invigorating air, that brisk kiss of cold air smack on my lips. Away from city dust, loud horns and that stink of tarmac, I find strolling along its front truly invigorating. No foul odours, just wind and salt. Bliss! It transforms and I am youthful again, blooming, I’d go as far as to say, glowing. My habit is a dawn stroll – fantastic to catch a morning warming, watch a rising sun, though last autumn, I admit, lots of low-hanging cloud and it was bracing! In particular, it’s that thrill on my skin – of a day, firm and crisp, on its way, and all that is about to occur – it’s not knowing what, but grasping in an instant what you might call happy, admitting that today is a donation of sorts, far from work and dull tasks. And musing: thank God I’m in Aldbro and not moaning about slim profit margins in a boardroom among a bunch of bald suits who toil for a firm that churns out crappy plastic toys that no poor child actually wants, clock-watching in thick cotton slacks up high in an ugly glass monstrosity of a building faraway in London. No, Aldbro, it’s an oasis, a charming location for taking it slow, far from chaotic traffic, jams and fast trains. It’s for quatrains and cinquains and haiku, bumping into folk, sitting around with pals from your workshop group and sharing a drink, catching up on gossip, opinions (possibly a harsh standpoint or two, but with luck, willing to shift positions), coming across brilliant unknown writing by girls and boys, young and old, grabbing a biro, jotting down a first word, a last thought, drifting on, hoping my ink will last.
Only joking, I said a dawn stroll, but I’m lying – obviously! – I’m not usually up and out without a half-hour lying in a hot bath, so I don’t catch a bird’s first chorus as it wings its song. I sit and soak for far too long (in my avocado bathroom, sip my lapsang souchong). As for my top spot in town, I don’t know? How about Crag Path, a window in a first floor room, that dark vista, looking out around midnight, sky all silky smooth but for light wisps floating horizontal, a full moon and distant horizon. So still, and so whitish out: (a tint of ivory, titanium, ghost? a hint of flax, floral, Navajo?). And without a doubt, climbing that tall flight of stairs – you must know it – coasting up along so many rooftops, full on fish ‘n’ chips from two family-run shops: all that cod, haddock, pollack, swimming in my stomach. In addition, hiking past Moot Hall up to Maggi Hambling’s giant scallop. No sand on Aldbro’s strand, so no grit in your hair, nothing annoying infiltrating your socks – it’s a bonus! Plus, did I drop in pubs? Cosy drinking spots with so much history, courtyards out back and a front door usually ajar. At a minimum, I count two locals for visitors and locals too, to down a warm pint or a whisky ‘n’ soda, possibly to background jazz and radio classics. All in all, it’s hard to say, but lazy, long walks in Suffolk I find such a luxury, going solo usually, but as a duo that’s also good, traipsing up and down, totally caught up in it, buying far too many books. In short, lots of tops spots – too many – but if I had to commit, I’d say just sat on a low brick wall, any wall around town, stopping for a small thought that stuck casually mid-morning, for an odd notion from taking photos at noon, capturing that plain vocab, that ordinary saying, thinking what might follow from a strong hook.
Paul Stephenson is a British poet who grew up in Cambridge, England. He studied modern languages and linguistics then European Studies. He has lived and worked in France, Spain and the Netherlands, and most recently, for three years in Paris. He regularly attends poetry readings and workshops in London and beyond, including Coffee-House Poetry readings at the Troubadour. He has published over 100 poems in magazines including Magma, Poetry London, The Rialto and The North, plus the experimental anthology ‘Adventures in Form‘ (Penned in the Margins, 2012).
In London, Paul was a member of the monthly workshop group ‘Highgate Poets‘ and fortnightly group ‘Lamb Poets’. He took part in the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme 2013-14 with tutoring from Patience Agbabi. He ‘graduated’ from the 18 month-long Poetry Business Writing School in Sheffield run by Peter and Ann Sansom. He was one of the Aldeburgh Eight in November 2014 and a winner in the 2014/2015 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet competition judged by US poet Billy Collins. His first pamphlet ‘Those People‘ (Smith/Doorstop) was published in May 2015. His second pamphlet ‘The Days that Followed Paris‘ is published by HappenStance in October 2016. He is currently doing an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) with the Manchester Writing School.