Interview with John Stuart, by FRP Member Anthony Watts
John, welcome to the Fire River Poets virtual interview room. If you don’t mind, I’ll jump straight in with my questions …
At what point in your life did you decide you were a poet?
Hopes and aspirations have always been slippery things for me. I had delusions about being a pianist and composer from quite an early age … but found making up stories easier. The next abortive thought was that I might write novels which lasted for most of secondary school, with only a passing interest in writing poetry until I read Eliot’s Four Quartets. I wanted to be a poet from then on. At university, I became besotted with Rilke’s Duino Elegies (and later in life, started a still unfinished translation of them all). These two spurred me into obsessive writing – horribly pompous, out-of-my-depth stuff that I didn’t forsake nearly early enough. I was still aspirational and not really, in my own mind, a poet as I passed into marriage, fatherhood and middle age. I got better at writing proper poetry over this period – I had the advantage of being able to read poetry in several languages (French, German, Russian) not just English, and read a lot. Precisely where the switch tripped, I can’t say. Confidence was never my strong suit and you need some kind of confidence to think of yourself as having a vocation like poetry. I have that now but perhaps I had it a long time ago only I didn’t notice it.
Which of these three words would you say best describes your relationship with poetry: a hobby, a vocation, an obsession?
Two answers: Vocation because I’ve always felt that poetry is a calling, even an obligation and I certainly feel duty bound to get on with it. Obsession because all the time I can muster goes into writing, rewriting, polishing and obsessing(!) about my poetry.
Could you cite any poets in particular as influences on your work?
While Eliot and Rilke were early obsessions and are still admired, I’m not sure how far they have truly influenced what and how I write now. The same goes for other poets whom I admire/have admired. I don’t think I have adopted styles or vocabulary/ register so much as absorbed aspects of their sensibilities. It’s quite a long list – and varies each time I think about who have influenced me. Today, I’d say Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Raymond Carver, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and in other languages, at least Lorca, Goethe, Pushkin, Pasternak, Cavafy. A varied list … and even as I recite the names, I’m not sure the list is quite right.
What living poets, if any, do you think will be remembered in a hundred years’ time?
This is a question I often ask myself because I’d like to think that at least one poem of mine might, after I’ve passed on, be remembered and anthologised – at least, long enough to satisfy my ghost. I wouldn’t like to guess which poem that might be (I may not have written it yet) but it would be nice to have at least one poem that is thought worthy of being preserved outside obscure collections of books. History seems to choose rather haphazardly between whose work survives and whose fades away. Famous people have a better chance, of course. Between Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, I’d go for Heaney to last – and be still widely read – while Hughes lies on the unvisited shelves of academe. I would perhaps go for Sharon Olds rather than Carol Ann Duffy, too, if only because Sharon is American and has a better chance.
Your latest sequence, Drawing on the Natural, in which you collaborated with the artist Norman Steel, follows the course of a pregnancy. Although some of the poems were written from the point of view of the father or a spectator, others were from the woman’s point of view. This must have been quite a challenge for a male poet. Did you have recourse to consulting the experts (i.e. women) to see what you could glean from the horse’s mouth?
The answer is I did not talk to anyone on the matter of the woman’s perspective specifically for the project. Having a wider family that talks together, I have of course previously been exposed to the woman’s perspective. And I think we all have innate sympathies which cross over the border between the sexes and I trusted to my feelings of empathy as son, brother, husband, father and grandfather. And as it happens, one of our daughters-in-law was pregnant at the time I was starting to write the poems. That helped in terms of bringing alive again memories of what it felt like for my wife and me at each stage on the journey to parenthood.
What sort of work plan did you and Norman follow? Did the pictures inspire the poems or the other way round? Or was it something of each?
Norman and I get on very well and have a common love of our children. Most of our planning time (over coffee in a coffee shop) was spent swapping stories about our children but we did occasionally look at the practicalities. We both had to contend with medical conditions which made it difficult to set hard and fast timetables. And the pandemic ensured we could not meet for most of the time we were working. Besides these, we had on the one hand, life drawing restricted to a studio and on the other, poetry with no physical limits as to its setting – apart from my imagination. The stories we could tell were almost inevitably going to be very different so we simply decided to let that happen. We exchanged drawings and poems from time to time and took inspiration from that but we each kept our work on its own trajectory. Norman’s sketches capture the moment in the studio and are a record of the couple as the pregnancy developed; my poems give a series of moments as pregnancy proceeds, not tied to a specific couple’s experiences or place. They take us to the street, to the hospital, to the ante-natal clinic, etc.
Your poems always appear to be carefully constructed, with much care given to the placing of every word, but they are not always immediately accessible to the general poetry reader. What importance do you place on communication?
Yes, well there is the view that poets should not offer poems which are termed by some as “difficult” or “inaccessible” and this is justified in order not to exclude those who are not university educated. Words like “elitist” and (unnecessarily) “obscure” are bandied about. I am sure this has some truth in it, but it’s not the whole story. And the major trouble with it is that it attempts a form of censorship. I don’t hold with that (except in those accepted cases that are legally defined).
As poets, we all want to communicate what we have to say, however complex or subtle that may be in any given example. But once the poem is ‘out there’ in public, it is not up to the poet how it is received or what meanings are attached to it. I am quite sure that there are very few poems (obscure or not) that have not been “misinterpreted” but the pleasure in a poem cannot be directly linked to the poet’s intended meaning. We may want it to be, but it is not. For the individual reading/hearing it, the significance can be and, I suspect, frequently is entirely personal and no less true for deviating from what the poet intended. The relationship poet to reader/listener is a complex one and who is to say where “true” meaning lies?
For myself, I am acutely aware of this and careful with diction so that what needs to be crystal clear is as clear as I can make it. But some aspects of a poem may need to communicate uncertainty/incoherence as part of its intended meaning. I do not shy away from that. We need variety in poetry and after all we expect poets to ‘make it new’ – or publishers do. Poets can’t respond to that if shackled by what is in effect the very British accusation of being ‘too clever by half’.
On that pugnacious note, I wonder if this is enough to say on what is a vexed question that can easily set hackles rising.
Thank you, John – some meaty and thought-provoking answers there. I’m sure we all look forward to your presentation on the 1st July, when we can hear your poems in the context of Norman’s artwork.