Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Poet Interviews: 3 - Steve Nash

Steve Nash was born in Ripon and grew up on a variety of military bases around Europe.  His first collection, Taking the Long Way Home (Stairwell Books) was published in 2013, the year he moved to the Calder Valley, and the following year Steve won the Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Performer. I first met Steve in 2014, and have had the honour of appearing with him at various poetry events such as the Todmorden Alternatiba 2015, Halifax's Spoken Weird, The Quiet Compere, and Sowerby Bridge's Puzzle Poets. It was a privilege to publish Steve's collection The Calder Valley Codex, with illustrations by York artist Nicole Sky, on Halloween 2016, which we launched with ghoulish festivity at The Blue Teapot along with Genevieve Walsh and Victoria Gatehouse.  


Steve lives in Sowerby Bridge.  He works as a University Lecturer and has co-ordinated successful performance and discussion based events, such as the philosophy-themed The Thinkery.  We often bump into each other in the supermarket, or the somewhat more poetic setting of a train, and I generally come away knowing more about poetry than I did before.

Can you give a brief description of your "poetry background", ie how you became interested in poetry as a reader and a writer?

I remember in one of the many schools I attended (sadly not because I was a ruffian or got thrown out repeatedly), there was one teacher who gave us all a pristine A4 notebook that had half-lined, half-blank pages, and once a month we would write a poem to be included in these books. We couldn’t write directly onto the pages, and even once we’d drafted something and redrafted, and got it into shape, we were still only then allowed to write the poems in the book in pencil so that any errors could be erased. We were then encouraged to illustrate our little masterpieces. Despite the insistence on all the ceremony, I remember everyone loving the monthly poem and poetry day. I’m sure it was around this time (maybe aged 9 or 10) that I discovered the Please Mrs Butler/ I heard it in the Playground books, and of course Roald Dahl’s revolting rhymes.
Since then it has always just been a part of my reading and writing life, and was always the first thing I would turn to. The wonderful thing about poetry (well, one of many) is that, despite so many other childhood passions being overcome by other things as I grew up, poetry has always managed to deliver new surprises, new things to delight in (even if those things aren’t new, but just new to me) that it always feels like I’m barely scratching the surface. Even now, after so many years of reading, listening, and studying, it’s rare that a conversation with another poetry reader won’t result in the familiar question: ‘Oh, have you read…?’ and of course the answer is still quite often: ‘No, tell me more!’

Which poets are important to you and why?

Wow, how long have you got? I would still say that those formative experiences with the Ahlbergs or Dahl, keep them as important touchstones for me. I think because my tastes are so varied, it is a very broad array of names that I would say count as ‘important’ to me. My prize possession (not that it’s worth a great deal monetarily speaking) is a 200-year-old copy of Milton’s Paradise Regained (his difficult sequel to Paradise Lost), and there is something about the cadence and character voice in that (often regarded as stuffy) book that I still marvel at. In terms of the old classics, I have a very deep love for Christopher Marlowe as both a writer and an individual. The Romantics hit me in my late teens (the ideal age) and I had a suitably lovelorn, emo response to them, supplemented with Neruda and Plath.
I think that there’s an incredible wealth of interesting and engaging poetry being written now too, and too many names to list here pop into my mind, but Helen Mort, Claire Trevian, Sarah Howe, Kei Miller, Gen Walsh, I find quite awe-inspiring in the manner that they’re able to deliver such clear images in surprising ways. Don Paterson is a poet whose work I keep returning to, and often have a copy of one of his collections in my bag alongside whichever new book I’m reading. I should probably stop there or I will end up listing my entire bookshelf.

How important is the history, landscape and general environment of the area you live in, to the poetry you write?

Immensely – and it’s something I occasionally feel a bit mournful about: that I don’t feel like I have a definite sense of place, of belonging. Having moved around so much as an army brat, and then shifted steadily westward across Yorkshire since University. I was born in Yorkshire though and definitely feel that Yorkshire is and will always be home, but whether that’s York, Leeds, or the Calder Valley, it all feels like home in a sense. With the exception of the latest collection (The Calder Valley Codex) which clearly has a very definite place in mind throughout, and most of the poems were written about the Valley, I would have said that history and landscape weren’t so significant to my writing, but looking back at the work in my books, I think it’s obvious that I’m a little obsessed with it.

How did you begin to get published as a poet, and how did your debut publication come about?

I was encouraged by a couple of tutors (not of poetry and who had never seen my work) to send some of my scribblings out and see what happened, and to my great surprise, I was fortunate enough that most of the poems got picked up. The debut collection came about due to being dragged to open mic nights by some writer friends who wouldn’t take no for an answer. York publisher Stairwell Books’ Rose Drew and Alan Gillott asked if I would produce a debut collection with them, I said yes, and then made them wait for a pretty long time as I didn’t feel I was ready for a collection. In the end, it was a module I was teaching at York St John University that forced me to pull the trigger. It was a work-based module in which students were given projects regarding the written word to work on, and someone helpfully pointed out that if I stopped being such a coward, then one group of students could get the opportunity to actually work with a publisher, and produce (and launch) a book. I’m still immensely grateful to those students who did a brilliant job.  Without them I’m not sure the book (Taking the Long Way Home) would exist.

Have there been any landmark events or experiences in your life, or the lives of others, that have either motivated you to write, or have affected the general nature of what you have written?

I do write a lot in response to significant events in a broader context and in my personal life. Often I find that the words don’t do justice to the event when it is in a broader context, and so they hide away in darkened corners of notebooks, but the more personal events and experiences have found their way into my published work. Sometimes this is really obvious, but one of the things I most enjoy about writing poetry is that ability to write about something very close to oneself, but to produce something that is less obvious than that, something that others may read and find a connection to. This works both ways of course, and one could probably write a sonnet about a particularly good sneeze and someone would read great depth into it *pauses to jot down idea for new sneeze anthology*. The loss of friends is a major theme in the first collection, but I am assured that it’s not a morbid book, and the latest one is dedicated to my fellow victims in a horrific car accident that nearly claimed all of our lives on Skull and Crossbones bridge (which, let’s face it, is the place to crash if you’re going to).

What kinds of poetry do you like - and which, if any, do you dislike?

I don’t think there’s any ‘kind’ of poetry I dislike genre wise. As long as the writer is using their imagination in some way, and not just writing the most banal or obvious things, then I’ll be likely to respond in some way. That being said, some of the most direct poetry often speaks to me as well. It’s often a sense, or a feeling of connection, and I still haven’t worked out what that is. I think my favourite poetry, is usually poetry that has some element of humour in there. Stephen Dunn, and George Bilgere are particularly skilfull at this. It’s not that the poem is a joke or that there is a lead up to a punchline, but there is a sense that the poets have smiles on their faces and are really enjoying themselves while they write. That playfulness is really important to me. But thematically I don’t think there’s anything I’m cold toward. I like fairly dense and obscure poetry, but then I enjoy direct poetry too. It’s less about the style or genre of the poetry, and more about the hitting it off with the way the words fall on the page, or the way they hit your ear. It’s like meeting someone new. Some people you instantly connect with, and others you might clash with or find abrasive. The important thing for me is that it’s okay to feel that way. People will often say: ‘Oh, I don’t like poetry’, but they’ve been exposed to very little. Nobody does that with any other artform. You look at a Picasso, and maybe it doesn’t quite do it for you. Your response is not going to be: ‘Oh, I don’t like art’, the same with music and novels, but for some reason poetry seems to be fighting against that very reductive early conclusion. There’s so much out there. If you don’t like Larkin, guess what… that’s fine! Here, try Alice Notley, or Patience Agbabi, Zaffar Kunial, or Simon Zonenblick.

Is there any over-riding "theme" or raison-d'etra behind your writing as a whole, or has it tended to go in different directions and areas of inspiration?

If there is one it’s my surroundings, including people, but that’s never a deliberate starting point. My mind seems keen to return there over and over (maybe that’s a lack of imagination on my part). And trains, I’m always scribbling about trains, on trains, or the view from a train.

What do you make of the small magazines and competitions, and what are your experiences of the readings circuit?

Having helped to edit and run a couple, I can say they’re a tough but rewarding experience, especially if you get a good team together, but it is a big commitment, and I found the desire to respond as fully as possible to everyone who takes the time to submit can make for an exhausting process. The reading circuit has been an incredible experience for me personally. I love the opportunity doing readings gives to hear how these different collections of writers share their works and what kinds of things get responded to strongest in different venues. It’s probably the first piece of advice I would give (as someone who was reluctant to read poetry in front of people for a long time) to anyone wanting to experience poetry and meet other writers: go to your local open mic night or reading. 

I’ve had some very unsuccessful performances, where my absolutely sparkling personality was not received as positively as I would have hoped, but I’m still yet to find an event that was anything but welcoming (even if I suspect they think very little of me).

Do you feel poetry (in whatever context you like - international, British, European, etc) is currently in a good or poor state?

People seem to keep insisting that poetry is dying or dead, but it seems to me there has never been more opportunity to hear, read, see, poetry and to get involved. There are events, symposiums, slams, readings, pretty much everywhere spanning huge age ranges, and other cultural differences. It may always be a niche artform (except for its seemingly necessary inclusion at weddings and funerals), but I find it hard to see how anyone who is actually paying attention to the voices emerging here and overseas can possibly say that it’s in a poor state. Poetry is the human urge to sing and in times that seem determined to attack the vulnerable, poetry is one of the areas that responds most strongly.

A few words on how you write, any routines, superstitions and such?

No superstitions, but I’m afraid I will make a confession and let you in on a secret I’m not proud of. I am someone who does take part in that most unpleasant and crass of writer habits – notebook fetishism. I love notebooks, but before I feel like I can ruin one with my ideas, I always have the urge to find some new quote (usually derisive not inspirational) to throw on the opening page. And then I spend a good week or so too terrified to actually write in it for fear of ruining it. Very quickly though, it descends into a patchwork of messy scrawl, doodles, and scribbled out ideas. Maybe it comes from that teacher in my first answer making me fall in love with the idea of a new notebook. I really should get a routine.

Source Material, by Steve Nash

The weavers threaded us bare,
when weavers were all flesh and finger, unburdened
by the shuttle's whirr and fizz.

They ruffled and stuffed our fabric
into muscle, flexing upward to fibre clouds;
ringed our digits with twine tourniquets.

They tugged our knolls into heads,
gazing over borders, crowned them with chimneys,
noosed our necks with waterways.

They drew blood from our iron veins,
like millers drawn through thoroughfares in subtle shifts,
until all was atrophy.

From The Calder Valley Codex


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