The Write Out Loud interview: Kenneth Steven
Kenneth Steven is a children’s author and poet, living near Perth. His services were recently retained by organisers of the Wigan Words festival and I was fortunate to work alongside him at a local primary school. Kenneth kindly agreed to be interviewed - so I put to him questions that might be of interest to members of Write Out Loud.
The theme of this year’s Wigan Words festival was “Greenheart” – a celebration of the rejuvenation of former mining land. You are known to be very passionate about conservation and have been inspired to write on this theme. Do you believe that all poets should have a particular voice – all poems a message?
If I can widen that, I’d say that all writers should have a message and think about the time in which they are living and the things that are important around them in the culture, in the country and society they live. A few years ago I was just writing nice, green poems. Now I’m aware of the need (for me) to be writing poems that are talking about the future of our planet and how we are looking after it, or not looking after it. It is important for poems and writers to make their readers think – and to also make themselves think.
Some poets on WOL believe that there is too much ‘I’ in poetry. Are poets, in general, overly introspective?
Yes – I think we probably are. I think though, that’s maybe the nature of the beast – poems are coming out of the very deep and secret places of your self – things that you have been working over, pondering, working away with for weeks, and months and years even. Much of my work was autobiographical for years, but now I am trying to imagine situations in my poems. They are almost short stories, but in poem form. These characters are coming from some place in my mind – invented characters and invented situations. To get back to your question, I think it’s good to get away from just dwelling on yourself, your own personal issues and to be wider than that.
What do you make of political poetry?
I’m suspicious of it. I think that, as an artist, I should be asking / posing questions in my writing – to myself and to my readers – but I think that when you start giving answers to people, you are in dangerous water; you shouldn’t be preaching. Good art, in my opinion, is asking questions, not giving answers.
Do you believe that poetry should be accessible?
Yes, I agree whole-heartedly that it should be. Part of my mission is to make poetry more accessible to a wider audience. Nothing means more to me than if, after a reading, someone comes up to me and says ‘Thank you – I was put off poetry at school, I didn’t like it, I realise now that I don’t need a degree or doctorate to read poetry for myself – thank you for opening a door for me .’ I believe passionately that poetry should be accessible. I hate intellectual poetry which comes from what I would call university poets, who are in danger of making poetry inaccessible. I just have no time for it.
In a recent interview on Write Out Loud Fiona Sampson bemoaned the status of poetry within our schools. She suggested that not enough classical poetry was now studied and that teachers feared tackling the subject. Would you agree with this?
I have to say that I would agree with that. I think that we are a bit too over-aware of the contemporary – and this goes for America too. In a way I have to be thankful for it – the fact that Carol Ann Duffy and all manner of other contemporary poets are now studied in primary and secondary schools – but there is a danger of forgetting that there was a 19th century and that there was lots of wonderful poetry before that. I worry that we start at WW1 – Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen – as though nothing had happened before that. For me, it has to be part of a continuum.
Are you familiar with the national curriculum and do you think that enough time is devoted to creative writing within our schools?
I am not familiar with the English curriculum but can give an answer in the light of my deeper knowledge of the Scottish education system and how poetry, writing and creativity are dealt with at the moment. Over the last 10-15 years while I’ve been involved intensively in facilitating creative writing in schools, I’ve seen great swings. Sometimes a new government will chuck out the creative elements. It will all be about comprehension and grammar, with little room for creativity. What really bothers me is that there isn’t a balance. It is said that when England sneezes, Scotland gets a cold – we tend to follow what happens in England, so it’s possibly the same for the English system too. You have a new government coming in and everything changes – all the old chairs on the decks of the Titanic are changed for new ones – the next administration comes in and they’re changed again. I believe passionately in creativity and in allowing both secondary and primary school students as much time as possible for creative writing.
From your experiences, are children becoming more or less creative?
That’s a difficult one. If I can answer in the light of the imagination … a lot of people bemoan the death of the imagination in children – and I don’t, actually. I feel that when I have the chance to work with a group of children over a week or a fortnight, I can get them into a much more creative place by giving them different stimuli, taking them away from the torrent of modern visual and sound images … If I can read to them, let them work with books, do very simple things, work up their concentration span, take them out into nature – it can be amazing. I don’t believe for a minute that the imagination is in danger of dying – it just takes time to take the mind into that place.
Many Write Out Loud members would like to make a living from writing. You have published over 25 books and been translated into 14 different languages. What advice would you give them?
I do make a “sort of” living from writing but it is unbelievably hard – you need to be as imaginative as possible. Something that worked in the past (like school events) is not guaranteed. Because of the crisis in funding there is a dearth of school events. I’m doing about a tenth of the events that I did. Therefore, I have to be constantly turning over new stones, getting involved in all manner of different departments of creative writing, in order to make a living.
Prior to chatting with you, I imagined that most writers received 10% in royalty from the sale of their books but I understand that isn’t always the case …
You might get that for a novel where there are no pictures but for children’s books you will share the royalty with the illustrator and receive only 5%. My best advice is to be totally tough at working at this if you want to make a living from it. You have to go in with twin open eyes and realise what a ferocious struggle it will be. Most authors in this country (I’d say 99%), are able to make a semblance of a living, simply by absolute blood – but they do it because they love it – but you have to be aware. Otherwise don’t give up the day job.
Is getting the toe in the door the hardest thing? Does it get easier once you’re published?
It does become easier because you’ve got a reputation and you might get an agent – but every book is still a battle. I’ve just given up on having a book published because I’ve had so many rejection slips. Being published isn’t necessarily an Open Sesame moment, where you are through the door and everything turns to gold – unless you are fortunate enough to have a major success and be taken on by a big publisher.
Write Out Loud is a website that encourages poets to perform their work. What do you make of performance poetry? Do you see a distinction between performance and page poetry? Do you see any important relationship between the two?
I’ll answer about what I know. I’ve got every respect for performance poetry but I definitely think it’s a different world. Obviously I am performing published poems but that does not make me a performance poet. I wouldn’t have the courage in a hundred years to get up on a stage or in a bar and perform – I don’t write performance poetry – though I have every admiration for it.
What is the difference? I’ve seen people read thoughtful poetry.
The performance poets I’ve heard, I would describe as actors. I think that’s the difference. They really were able to act out their poems, so that what they had written or composed was reliant on sound, on different variations in sound, on taking their audience by surprise, so it would generate and create a performance of a piece of work. Whereas what I write, is first and foremost, for the page. I believe that the last stage of a poem is when it’s read – but I’m not performing it – I’m just reading it.
Do you see any advantages to having a performance poetry scene?
Definitely. Going back to what I said earlier, about as much as possible being done to open this world of poetry to a wider audience; if that audience is a new one, then it is opening doors.
Many ‘old school’ poets see contemporary poetry as little more than chopped-up prose. What are your thoughts on this? Is there any place left for rhyme and traditional, formal structure?
Yes, I think there is. I think maybe some of the contemporary writing which I see in print is getting dangerously close to prose – there is a danger of becoming too conversational. I work very hard; I do intensive writing workshops, showing people how to craft poetry, I was commissioned to write a book on the crafting of poetry. I believe that poetry should be crafted over hours and hours and days and some of what I do see comes across to me suspiciously like chopped up and un-worked with writing – and that worries me. One of my very favourite formal sonnets is by Carol Ann Duffy – so the great poets of today can do it and I think that they should work with formal rhyme. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There are good reasons for using rhyme.
And yet traditional poetry seems to be well and truly shunned by most judges. Submit a rhyming poem to a competition and I think you stand little chance of winning. Would you agree?
I think by and large I would agree. But I do think that if a stonkingly good poem came in that happened to rhyme, they wouldn’t turn it down for that reason. I encounter a vast amount of rhyming poetry from unpublished poets, which is dire and that is the problem, in my book. If it’s going to rhyme, it’s got to be blooming good.
Tell me a little about your new poetry books. Do they have a theme?
My last collection is called Evensong and is published by SPCK in London. Evensong is more spiritual / religious in terms of its content than anything I’ve done to date. A lot of poems are concerned with where we are as a society and a world in general; we’ve thrown out God but what do we have left? Are we really the happier for science and materialism? So whereas in the past I was content to create a real scrambled bag of poems, I wanted this to be composed of individual poems exploring similar facets of the same jewel.
I have a new book published by Polygon, coming out in a month’s time called A Song Among the Stones. It is a sequence of poems – 26 pieces, longer and shorter and tells the story of the papar – Celtic Christian hermits who are likely to have travelled from Iona to Iceland in the sixth century. I wanted to create the sense of a lost Celtic manuscript – the barest bones of the tale.
“Do not trample on my dreams” … Whilst talking to the children in my school, you adapted the quote from Yeats ("Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams") and discussed the ideas. I wondered what inspired you to use it?
When I was at school, I dreamed of being a writer. I was very badly bullied and bullying was one of the reasons I started to write. My writing world was a hidden secret, an imagined world, my place of sanctuary - and yes, at that time others were very much trampling on my dreams. A lot of work that I do in schools, particularly at primary level, is connected to bullying, to just what a menace it is, to how much damage it can do. So yes – that is a particularly important message for me that children should learn from a young age and it has to be said again and again and again through every generation, to every child – don’t trample on another’s dream – as your dreams are precious, so are the dreams of those around you.
That’s maybe something us adults can take on board too, Kenneth – and I really can’t think of a lovelier note to finish on. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and good luck with your future books and projects.
WOL discussion threads/articles connected to the issues explored
Photograph: Isobel Malinowski