Saboteur award winner Steve Nash: the Write Out Loud interview
York-based poet Steve Nash is still reeling after beating such names as Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish to win the title of best spoken word performer in the recent Saboteur awards: "I was sat in the audience at the awards ceremony, and I just sat and stared into space for what felt like a very long time before it sank in enough for me to acknowledge what had happened." He talks to Greg Freeman about his modesty problem, a horrific crash that he still recovering from, working with Simon Armitage, his favourite venues, and his hopes for the future.
Many congratulations on winning the Saboteur best spoken word performer award. You beat some of the biggest spoken word names around to win the title. What was your reaction when you heard that you’d won?
My reaction to finding out I was shortlisted was one of complete surprise, and that reaction was only strengthened when I saw the other names on the shortlist. When I heard I had won, I was sat in the audience at the awards ceremony, and I just sat and stared into space for what felt like a very long time before it sank in enough for me to acknowledge what had happened. All the shortlisted people had been asked to prepare a five-minute acceptance of some kind, but I’d been so convinced I didn’t stand a chance that I hadn’t done so. I ended up rambling for a while, but anyone who has ever seen me perform knows that I do this quite often, so it must be what they voted for anyway.
On your own website you say: “Playing catch up after a very busy couple of weeks in Steve land. Gigs, festivals, interviews, and awards. I think I may have peaked.” Since winning the award a number of your fans have said, with affection, that you don’t sell yourself as much as you should. Do you accept that as a failing?
That’s a tough one, particularly because of the Saboteur award. I have continually been told that I need to sell myself more, and not put myself down so much, in pretty much every aspect of my life, but there is a little part of me that thinks “See! It works. People voted for me.” I realise that’s a cop- out, though. It is definitely a failing in that I have seen other performers and writers get themselves gigs and publicity through general belligerence, and I wish I had the courage to do the same. But, despite how I come across on stage, I am always wary of seeming rude or just generally annoying people. I am just so fortunate that I have been able to consistently get rebooked for events through my performances, and slowly it seems I have managed to build up some real goodwill. My biggest hope is that this will now get me further invites to perform to new audiences.
Your first collection with Stairwell Books, Taking the Long Way Home, is in its second print run. You have said: “Poetry, to me, is a reciprocal thing, and it needs its reader or listener to feel complete. Otherwise it’s just a message in a bottle, unopened and of no use to the shipwrecked individual who cast it forth into the waves.” Would you describe yourself as a page poet, a performance poet, or a bit of both?
I suppose now I’ve been given the ‘Performer of the Year’ label it would be odd if I said, if I had to choose one, that I was predominantly a page poet, wouldn’t it? But, truth be told, if you’d asked me this a few months ago I probably would have said just that. I have been really lucky when it comes to poetry editors accepting my work for print, but I come from something of a performance background, and so I am always very conscious of the audience. So, I suppose, rather than ‘either/or’ it’s a case ‘and/and’.
Last year you were injured in a serious car crash. Can you tell us more about that? What were your thoughts immediately after the accident? Are you fully recovered now? Has it changed you in any way?
The crash still seems surreal to me and I only remember snatches of it. Basically, a teenager in his dad’s car was driving way too fast, turned onto a bridge but, due to his excessive speed, swung into oncoming traffic and could not pull back into his own lane in time. He hit our car head-on and from there everything becomes a bit blurry for me, I’m afraid. I was in a lot of pain for a few months but [York St John] University were extremely supportive and insisted I didn’t even try to come to meetings or anything – in fact, now I come to think about it, they may have just been really pleased to have some peace and quiet for a while. I’m mostly healed up now, but I am still having weekly physio on my back, and I gather my body will never be quite the same again. It wasn’t much of a body to begin with though, to be honest. Has it changed me? My partner would certainly tell you it has. I am quite jumpy in the car now. Things that I would barely have acknowledged before have a tendency to make me flinch quite violently now. I’m hoping this will get better with time though, because it is extremely irritating.
What are your favourite live venues?
Coming from a musical background, there are a great many places I loved playing with various bands, but for poetry there are still plenty that have a place in my heart. City Screen’s Basement Bar in York is one that I really love. My last band played our first gig there, but it has also housed some of my favourite performances. It has the benefit of being able to fit a good number of people in, while maintaining a certain intimacy that more open venues lose. The Terrier in York has the dubious honour of being the first place I ever read my poetry in public - at Speaker’s Corner hosted by Andy Humphrey. One that I cannot recommend enough though is the Eagle Inn in Salford, which hosts Kieren King and Ella Gainsborough’s Evidently, and is an amazing space with a great atmosphere.
How long had you been playing gigs before you took up poetry? Will you still be playing as much music as before?
I had been a guitarist in various punk bands in my teens and early twenties, and then I became the lead singer for a hard rock band in York about five years ago. I now play solo and occasionally mix some songs into my poetry performances - usually silly comedy songs, but with an occasionally more serious tune thrown in. I'll never be a particularly great guitarist or singer but I do really enjoy it and people keep booking me. I am playing less music now, but I think that's a sign of growing confidence as a poetry performer. If I was booked for a longer guest slot, I would often break up the poetry with a couple of songs in an effort to stop the audience growing bored, but the past couple of lengthy sets I've done, I haven't found that desperate urge to include the songs - so perhaps I am finally gaining a little belief in my words. In a more general sense though, I've always written poetry alongside playing music and writing songs, so even if poetry becomes the main medium of performance for me, I'll still be writing songs and playing music. I don't think I could ever lose either one of them.
What was it like working with Simon Armitage on the Stanza Stones project?
Truth be told, there wasn’t a huge amount of working together, but it was great to meet someone whose work I admire so much, and a massive relief to find out he is such a lovely bloke. I had nearly met him on a train a couple of years before. He was sat across the aisle from me and for some reason I got really starstruck and shy. I spent the journey from Huddersfield to York willing myself to say hello but couldn’t, and then we ended up waiting in the vestibule at the same time for the doors the train to pull in and the doors to open, and still I just clammed up. It was nice to get a second chance to meet him, and he gave me some good ideas for workshop activities to pass on to my own students.
How big a part does poetry play in your life? What are your plans for the future?
Poetry’s a massive part of my life. It’s been something that has fascinated me since I was in middle school. We had one teacher who gave us all a blank book and told us this would be our designated poetry book, and we were only allowed to break them out once a month after we’d edited and edited a monthly poem. I cannot remember for the life of me what drivel I filled mine with, but I do remember the importance we all attached to those books. While it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I shared it in public, I’ve tried to write poetry ever since. I never thought I’d get to a point where I actually had my own published collection.
I’m just about ready to submit my final corrections for my PhD thesis so I’m currently looking around for a full-time lecturing post. I feel a little in limbo at the moment, but I’m hoping that the award and the little bit of attention it’s gotten me may lead to more opportunities. I’ll be competing with England’s second World Cup game in Hull as the main guest at Away With Words on 19 June, and then there’s an event in Sowerby Bridge called Bards, Bands et Branwell at The Works on 29 June which should be fun. Other than that, I’m open to any ideas, offers, advice or abuse anyone has. Oh, and I’m also getting hitched.