Stephen Boyce – ‘The Blue Tree’

Interview with Stephen Boyce, guest poet at Fire River Poets, Ciccic, Taunton Nov 7th 2019.

Graeme Ryan  (Fire River Poets) Firstly, Stephen, thanks very much for agreeing to take part in this ‘interview’.

I’ve read ‘The Blue Tree’ this morning and have really enjoyed it. Lots of the poems stay with me and I have enjoyed going back to read particular favourites – not least the opener ‘The Lone Tree of Loos’, ‘Triangulation’, ‘Sturm und Drang’, ‘The Blue Tree’, ‘Pendulum’ and ‘Anniversary Waltz.’ You write very skilfully and I love the sudden depths, the telling details, the poignancy – this is a powerful collection all the better for working on the reader from a place of real, deep attention. Thank you!

I’d like to ask a few questions, receive your responses, then ask a few more in the light of your replies – would that be OK?

  • Stephen, what initially prompted you to become a poet, or to realise you already were one? 

Stephen Boyce   I guess most people would recognise there are identifiable stages in the process of becoming a poet. Mine included a passion for reading poetry from a young age, for which I thank my parents; the support of some enlightened teachers and enthusiastic teenage friends; self conscious experiments in writing, and eventually a recognition that, because writing is a process of communication, at some point it needs to be shared. The most significant moment was probably when I submitted a manuscript for a Poetry Society appraisal. The resulting report gave me enough encouragement to take what I was doing seriously. After that a period of study, the first magazine acceptance, the first competition success – and each subsequent success – a warm response to a reading, the first pamphlet and collection, all of which reinforce the realisation that one is in a state of becoming a poet. And the best one can hope for is a permanent state of becoming.

  • Which poets first inspired you (and are maybe still important to you)?

SB     Very early influences tended to be among the poets whose work I learned by heart, either at home or at school, so I always say that AA Milne’s wonderful collectionsWhen We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six lit the fuse – that feeling for rhythm and rhyme and a love of language. Later WB Yeats (The Lake Isle of Innisfree); WH Davies (Leisure), Shakespeare of course. As a teenager I discovered the poems of Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNiece and especially e.e.cummings whose innovative style, emotional intelligence and skill as a sonneteer affected me deeply, and still do. Over the years I’ve developed enthusiasms for Michael Longley, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, WS Graham, Norman McCaig, Jacques Prévert and many younger writers such as Sinead Morrissey, Liz Berry, Leontia Flynn. It’s vital to keep an open mind and one of the joys of poetry is that one is constantly discovering new influences. There are great inspirational writers in the canon and a wonderfully diverse range of new voices constantly coming through. I’ve met people who say ‘I don’t read other poets, I don’t want to be influenced’, but this is absurd. It’s only through reading others that you can learn the craft of writing.

  • Tell us a bit about your journey so far as a poet (and maybe a bit about Winchester Poetry Festival too?)

SB    My first collection, Desire Lines, was probably about ten years in the making and focused a lot on my parents who had died when I was in my early forties. Writing helped me to come to terms with the loss. But I was also writing about relationships and my interest in the natural world. The Sisyphus Dog, which came out four years later in 2014, enabled me to be less personal, to begin to explore a wider range of themes. About the same time I became increasingly involved in collaborating with visual artists on a variety of projects. In one of these I produced a sequence of poems imagining the fate of a young servant girl at a country house which I produced in the form of a needle case. I find working with artists and/or working in heritage settings particularly stimulating – it has to do with the power of stories and of the visual imagination.

2014 was also the year of the first Winchester Poetry Festival. It came about as a result of the vision of Robert Hutchison, a former colleague from Southern Arts. It was a case of three friends deciding to pursue a shared interest but with the ambition to create a festival of national significance. The most gratifying response to our first event was when someone said the festival had emerged ‘fully formed’. In the last five years we’ve added to the biennial festival an annual poetry prize, an education programme, a number of one-off events and a small publishing output. It’s a lot of work but immensely rewarding and seems to have become a fixture on the poetry calendar with audiences from around the country.

  • As a way into your most recent work, what was it particularly about ‘The Blue Tree’ poem that made you choose it as the title for the collection?

The poem was written in response to an image my wife created at a time when I was thinking about poems on the theme of reconciliation. The painting sparked a half-memory which evolved into the poem. The collection originally had a very different shape to it but as I reworked it I realised that, while the poem is not the most significant or even the strongest in the collection, both its title and its theme could resonate across the whole. What’s more I felt the image would make a striking cover, which has proved to be the case.

GR     Stephen, thanks a lot for these responses – it’s always interesting to read about early influences, the poets who inspire you now and the journey you are undertaking – I like your idea of the permanent state of becoming a poet. Thanks too for sharing the significance and genesis of The Blue Tree as a title poem for your most recent collection.

The poem sequence about the fate of the young servant girl sounds fascinating too – what is its title and is it readable in another format as well as the needle case? Does it feature in The Sisyphus Dog as well?

SB    The needlecase of poems (entitled Needlework) was a one-off, but since then I’ve revised and expanded the sequence with a view to publishing it as a pamphlet in due course.

GR   I have some more questions if that’s OK…

  • What departure(s) have you made thematically or otherwise in ‘The Blue Tree’ in comparison with your earlier work eg The Sisyphus Dog?

SB   The distinctions aren’t always obvious but a number of the poems in The Blue Tree emerged as responses to visual images (mainly abstract art works) created by an artist friend. This has taken me in unpredictable directions with poems such as Frank Hurley’s Negatives, FlutterChoughs and others. And then there’s the tree theme itself. For a variety of reasons, not least a move to the countryside, trees were very much in my mind during the writing of this collection.

GR   I mentioned some of the poems that really captured me in The Blue Tree eg The Lone Tree of Loos with its incantation of ‘What matters’ and the fantastic phrase 

                            ‘the white algebra of these cemeteries’ 

with reference to the rows upon rows of WW1 graves. Having visited Tyne Cot Cemetery for instance, that one word ‘algebra’ is so chillingly powerful – also makes me think of the Yeats quote – something along the lines of that click when the poem finally falls into place. The even lines and lengths wonderfully suggest the duckboards and boxes – they are like planks – a really good sonnet! – and then the poignancy of Housman’s cherry tree at the end…

Triangulation has the wonderfully arresting metaphor of 

Trees also/as trig points of the heart’ 

– so  much quiet craft in this sonnet with your ten and eleven syllable lines meditating on the presence of trees and woodland in the landscape – I also loved in this poem: 

‘a maple counts off the seasons

on a colour-wheel of young love – love green

love golden, love bleeding’ .

The third stanza of ‘Sturm und Drang:

‘This is what we’ll come to, catching 

the storm in a net, emptying the ocean

with a shell, lying down to die among

fallen lumber with sound of the wind

the sound of the surf pounding,

and rain, teeming, thrashing, teeming.’

opens up a whole other dimension; your writing in this anthology is for me so readable because of the depths it reveals in the seemingly familiar. And this has come about by your great attentiveness and expert craft.

Anniversary Waltz is another case in point – a deceptively powerful exploration of mortality:

                                         ‘Count the rings 

on fingers, phones and in the core of trees.

Count the falling leaves, the ticking clocks,

the beep of monitors, the drip drip drip.’

I’d also like to mention the very moving A Peal for Wilfred Owen: commemorating the centenary of his death:

                   ‘And yes, there must have been a lump

in the throat of the day, another day of negotiations,

endless bloody negotiations, when all that was needed 

was a signing and an end.

                                             What is there to say now,

each of us alone in a crowd of one hundred, alone

on the canal path with our own muddied thoughts?’

So some questions that arise for me now are as follows:

  • Is the process of poetry one of constant drafting for you over time, or do some poems come quickly and more easily? Do you have any examples of both ‘slow burners’ and ‘rockets’ in The Blue Tree? What is it do you often find yourself grappling with when developing a poem towards its finished form?

SB   There’s a lot to this question. Drafting and editing are essential preoccupations and can be the most satisfying or most frustrating elements of writing. Generally, I enjoy the process. There’s very often a point at which you know you have a poem, but is it the best poem it can be, has it taken flight? Is it complete, or overwritten? Anything can be important to unlocking the poem’s potential – line breaks, title, rhythm, closure, etc. To His Fingertips is a poem which came almost as a single fluent thought and with a pleasing shape, it needed little revision, whereas Building Bridges went through many versions and changes of form. Sometimes you have to force yourself to be quite radical with a poem – and trust the process. There is some truth in Paul Valéry’s often quoted remark “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

  • Which particular poems in the collection do you feel most connection – and satisfaction with – and why? (Or maybe particular lines etc where you feel a real consonance with what you are trying to get at?)

SB   That’s a bit like choosing between your children. But Watching ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ is a poem I feel a special connection with. It’s about my parents and I have a feeling they would have liked it. My father served in India during the Second World War and they both read Paul Scott’s magnificent Raj Quartet and saw the TV series. After I re-read it and binge-watched the series over one weekend I genuinely began to conflate their story with that of the characters. The poem is a tribute to my parents but it also captures my struggle to know them and understand their experience.

  • What excites your imagination – how do you know a poem might be in the offing? Could you maybe choose a poem from The Blue Tree to exemplify this? I ask this question partly because readers of poetry often are fascinated about how an idea gets to become a poem, and how one even one knows an idea has poetic potential. I think this also relates to my first question at the beginning of the interview, when I was thinking of what inner experiences or impulses you may have had that first got you putting pen to paper – the lens you realised you possessed in order to see the world as poem?

SB     Poems come in so many different ways – and as Michael Longley says, “If I knew where poems come from, I’d go there.” Words and phrases are often trigger points, visual images spark the imagination, mood and emotion, too. But they can also be fickle and misleading. In my experience it’s only when you have some confluence of thought, emotion and language that you feel a poem may be about to come into being. A good opening line can act as a key to unlock a poem, enabling you to enter the imaginative space where feeling and idea or narrative start to flow. This happened with several of these poems – Escapement, Cuts Both Ways, Memorial with Dog, for example. But I suppose, for me at least, poems are mostly born out of a desire to convey an emotional experience – a sense of loss, a moment of desire, of hope. And of course, fundamentally one is writing in order to understand what it is one thinks or feels.

GR   Thanks very much these responses, Stephen, as I say I really like The Blue Tree and this interview has given me lots more insights in your work. it’s been great to read what is, for me, a brand new poet, and Fire River Poets looks forward greatly to your reading at Ciccic in Taunton on Nov 7th!