'Brilliant, eccentric, champion of small presses': why there's a prize named after Geoff Stevens
A poetry collection competition that is open for entries at the moment is titled the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize, in honour of the West Midlands poet and editor of the poetry magazine Purple Patch, who died in 2012. Many in the poetry world knew Geoff and have fond memories of him. I never met him, although he took two of my poems for an edition of Purple Patch, while mentioning at the same time that he didn’t really like the last two lines of one of them. I wanted to know more about this great poetry character who seems to embody many of the values that a site like Write Out Loud holds dear.
His close friend Brendan Hawthorne has described him thus: “Geoff was a complicated man. He was a serious poet with a fantastic sense of humour. He was warm and generous, direct and critical but most importantly he supported with every fibre of his being the genre of poetry and the true poets within it.”
An appreciation written in 2012 by Scottish poet and writer Neil Leadbeater describes him as “a champion of the regional arts and of the small press scene in general”. It adds that his initial foray into poetry was as a dialect writer, reading at venues such as the Stuffed Whippet folk club in Lower Gornal and at an “old-fashioned ale house known for its Holden’s draught beer and its pigeon fanciers”.
Neil Leadbeater’s appreciation also records the moment in 1976, when Geoff met Olive Hyatt at a writers’ club in Dudley Library and they decided to start a magazine. “It was duplicated in purple ink and was called Purple Patch. Initially it was sold to friends and distributed through clubs but later it built up a steady and loyal subscriber base and found its niche in the plethora of small press magazines. Geoff took his role as editor very seriously. He did not accept blindly every submission that came through the letterbox. Response times were swift … his replies were blisteringly efficient and always gracious. Suggestions were made as to improvements and it was all done with a note of encouragement.”
Geoff edited Purple Patch – described in the Guardian as a “national treasure” - right up until the time of his death. It went through 130 issues and, as Neil Leadbeater says, “it was his pride and joy. It was so much more than just another poetry magazine. The regular Gossip Column was always a good read and showed just how carefully Geoff kept his ear to the ground. His refusal to succumb to the poetry bigwigs in the smoke down south or anywhere else for that matter soon became apparent.”
Neil Leadbeater also pays tribute to Geoff’s qualities as a poet. “He was a prolific writer but also one who maintained a consistent quality throughout. His first major collection, The Phrenology of Anaglypta was published by Bluechrome in 2004. This was followed by A Keelhauling Through Ireland (Poetry Monthly Press, 2005), Absinthe On Your Ice-Cream (Poetry Monthly Press, 2007), Islands in the Blood (Indigo Dreams 2010) and Sleeping With You (Indigo Dreams 2011). Scores of pamphlets were also produced. In his poetry, he often displayed a remarkable ability to be humorous and serious at one and the same time. He found an original way of writing about the commonplace which engaged his readers right from the start. Commenting on the dull uniformity of much of modern life, he avoided the trap of falling into sentimentality, of giving in to nostalgia.”
Brendan Hawthorne recalled meeting Geoff in 2000 when they set up Poetry Wednesbury together: “We would meet regularly at ‘the office’ which was the local Wetherspoons pub were we would share our new work by reading it out loud over a few early lunchtime pints.
“Geoff was annually invited to the Canadian embassy in London as a magazine editor and to be part of the Petra Kenny poetry awards held there. Geoff was allowed to bring a guest and so several times I accompanied him. We tried our best to drink the Canadian champagne lake dry but our glasses kept getting filled! We would often leave the premises after the awards and go to the local pub to regroup.
“Geoff was always known for carrying an old shopping bag with him that had Tardis-like qualities. After sinking a few drinks one day in London he said to me that he needed to sit down and change his shoes as his new ones were rubbing his feet. He removed his open front sandals and grey socks … and proceeded to take out of his bag an identical pair of sandals and an identical pair of socks.
“We worked on several projects together from dialect CDs to poetry and song. We were both proud of our Black Country language, heritage and culture and always promoted it when we could at the many events we attended. One of our favourite joint ventures in standard English was a book called The All Night Café where we researched the demise of the ‘greasy spoon’ smokers’ cafes. Someone had to do it and we premiered it in the New Art Gallery in Walsall.
“Geoff was always grumbling that I shared a birthday with Jack Kerouac whilst he shared his with Patience Strong. More than anything Geoff was a close and now much missed friend. I am lucky to have shared close on 12 years’ friendship and camaraderie with this exceptional poet, wit and best mate, and I miss him still.”
Geoff’s partner, Geraldine Wall, said: “He was eccentric, opinionated, hugely committed to poetry and a brilliant editor and encourager of new talent. He was also one of the funniest people I've ever known. He loved puns and any wordplay. He was, to put it mildly, outspoken. He also had an incomprehensible (to me) hatred of baseball hats.
“He counted a day lost which didn't include writing but also loved to explore the countryside and towns of this country. There are very few place he had not visited and he remembered all of them, often as starting points for his poems. What he liked to find were the quirky corners, the forgotten monuments, the promising back alleys, not the mainstream tourist attractions, and we spent many holidays on islands which resulted in part in the collection Islands in the Blood.
“After he died I was moved to get tribute after tribute to him from this country and several others, often saying how encouraging he had been through Purple Patch. The Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre in London held a memorial evening for him on December 6, 2012 as they knew him well and admired his work. They have all of it, including 35 years of Purple Patches, archived.
“Alex Barzdo started a monthly poetry group in remembrance of him called Purple Penumbra at the Barlow Theatre in Oldbury where Geoff held his conventions and it is going strong. He also set up a Facebook page for him where he regularly adds poems of Geoff's.”
One poem of Geoff’s poems, ‘Erogenous’, from the collection Sleeping with You, is about a bomb scare on the tube, and concludes with these lines:
I still have my day ticket
ALL ZONES AVAILABLE it says …
A memento of the day
I first saw you naked and afraid
Another, ‘Black Box’, ends: “Every morning so far / I have awoken to count myself amongst / the survivors”. The final poem in the collection is titled, ‘When It’s All Over Will You Be With Me?’
Indigo Dreams publisher Ronnie Goodyer has his memories of Geoff Stevens, too. “In the days of letters, before emails, bulging envelopes of written notes and creased poems used to thump onto respective doormats. One of his earliest to me was in reply to a submission I’d sent for Purple Patch. ‘Enjoyed most of it, Ronnie, then I came to that line ‘dappled dew-legs.’ And my disappointment turned to horror when I saw that you repeated it later on!’ That tale of an early collie in Bellever forest never saw the light of day. A few years later I’d had a prize-winning poem which had earned some welcome pounds for my wallet and I offered Geoff first refusal on this gem. He agreed to publish it – provided I dropped the entire last verse! He couldn’t take to the idea of me wishing my feet were talons, wishing my arms were strong wings.
“A few years later I won the inaugural Bluechrome poetry competition and was subsequently invited to introduce a poetry division to Bluechrome Publishing. I had a lovely free rein to select poets whose work I admired. Among the early crop was Geoff. We discussed the details and I agreed to design the cover for him. I asked him the title: ‘The Phrenology of Anaglypta’. Thanks Geoff! Thus followed an early technical sortie into Photoshop and I haven’t really emerged since. The resulting textured head can be seen if you look for the book online.
“We continued to swap poetry over the years. I’d left Bluechrome to concentrate full-time on Indigo Dreams and he was often in Reach Poetry and Sarasvati. It was great to publish him again seven years later with Indigo Dreams – Islands in the Blood. A terrific collection.
“Geoff was a great supporter of IDP and encouraged me right from its earliest days, when my own health was very iffy. Our poets and publications invariably did well – and sometimes dominated – the annual Purple Patch awards. I received a note from him ‘I’m glad that Indigo Dreams is so busy – it means the UK’s best poetry publisher is being successful.’ Over the top totally, but hey, who cares? It kept me going when I was pretty low and he always seemed to know when to encourage.
“In December 2011, Dawn and I met Geoff with partner Geraldine at a halfway hostelry and went through various aspects of his superb Sleeping With You - And Other Night-time Adventures. He gave me this little gem as part of the description: ‘The poet’s aim is to bring people closer together, and one could say this volume was written in aid of a universal global warming.’ Love it! And among the many plaudits for the book he was particularly pleased with Dawn’s own "Made me want to run my fingers down someone’s spine" How thankful we are that the book was published early and he had the opportunity to ‘see it, feel it, sniff it, enjoy it.’
“We ran out of time for further work together, but we just couldn’t see his name forgotten. We’d heard so many stories of poets he’d helped along the way, supported, improved – rejected! He was a good friend of mine and a great friend to poetry. I missed him. We discussed with Geraldine the idea of an annual competition in his name. Adjudicated anonymously, trying to select poetry that Geoff would have enjoyed. Geraldine loved the idea, and the inaugural Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize took place in 2012. There are two winners, both of whom have collections published by us on Geoff’s birth date, June 4. Winners to date are Julie Maclean, Terry Quinn, Rachael Clyne, Sophia Argyris, Mick Yates and Jennifer A McGowan. Both we and the winners are very proud to be associated with it.”
The 2015 Geoff Stevens memorial prize competition is now open and details may be found here