The PK Featured Poet 16 Stuart Nunn
"The pleasure of reading and writing poetry and I suppose I should add here, for me - comes from the resolving of difficulty, or at least the confronting of difficulty. " - Stuart Nunn
One of the problems of being involved in an internet writing group is that you seldom get to meet your co-conspirators. I have never met Stuart, but I have long admired his work and thought I knew something of him through his poetry. This interview and appended poems is an opportunity to find out more. Thank you to Stuart for providing the insightful responses, and thanks to Arthur who has undertaken three new interviews in this series.
The PK Featured Poet 16
1. Tell us something about yourself.
I have been an English teacher for 36 years, and for a quarter century was Head of English in a comprehensive school in what is now South Gloucestershire. Over that time I gradually fell out of love with the teaching of literature and now lecture part-time at a local FE college in A Level English Language or, as I call it to people who might think that meant just a bit of reading and writing, Linguistics.
I have been married to the same rather wonderful woman for very nearly 35 years, who keeps my feet on the ground by being completely uninterested in poetry. We have two children who are following their careers in London.
I am naturally
an optimist, which means that I am usually in a state of
disappointment. I also have a tendency to religious thinking,
which is kept in check by my convinced atheism. Any urge that I
might have to return to Christianity or any other system
of faith - is cured by listening to 30 seconds of the religious
news on Radio 4 on a Sunday morning.
2. How/when did you start writing?
At boarding school I wrote poetry of the Oh-my-God,-I-cant-take-this-any-longer variety. Since then Ive written stories, a couple of novels and occasional poetry. Teaching literature acted as a kind of inoculation against the production of any more of the stuff. There seemed to be too many words floating about already.
I started writing poetry more seriously about ten years ago when the thought of eventual retirement was replaced by immediate early retirement on terms I couldnt refuse. It was also kick-started by my fathers death, which seemed to require some kind of response, for which poetry was the natural medium, and a taxing relationship with a delinquent pupil for whom I had responsibility.
3. Was there anything that particularly influenced you?
Poets who have made a difference are Tony Harrison, Thom Gunn and Baudelaire. I read The Outsider by Colin Wilson when I was 14 about the same time I saw James Dean in East of Eden which lead me to Sartre and Camus and Dostoevsky, and from there to Kerouac and Ginsberg. (I can still taste the winter evening when 3 of us secretly read Howl aloud to each other at school).
4. Do you have any strong influences on your writing now?
I belong to two poetry groups. One is a group of poets who have been working together for many years, taking it in turns to lead workshops; the other is a reading and critical group who once counted Tennyson as a member. Both are supportive and intelligent and sometimes astringently critical. Both groups alternately keep me writing and keep me honest.
5. How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing?
I always carry a notebook, but even so there are many what I call mind poems that are half written in my head but never make it to the page. Having always told pupils not to let the rhyme tell them what they want to say, I now find that very often the way to an original image is through the rhyming dictionary, though I prefer feminine or half rhyme to the thump of the real thing.
Drafts 1 and 2 are always in pencil the same pencil for preference. Subsequent drafts happen on screen, using the Word Thesaurus as well as the other reference books at my elbow.
Away from home,
I write poetic postcards every day, which sometimes
grow into real poems.
6. Do you make much use of the internet?
The PK List has been a bit of a revelation. The criticism offered there is wonderfully warm and supportive, but there are times when I wonder whether a little more rigour wouldnt be a good idea.
The same is true of Desert Moon Review only more so.
In general, there is so much poetry on the web that it can seem a bit remorseless. When people are posting poems many of them terrifically good every day, one wonders when the life is happening. A bit like Clarissa in Richardsons novel writing letters with the other hand while being rogered by Fairfax.
I enjoy sharing work online, but theres nothing to beat the face-to-face encounter with other poets.
7. Why poetry?
Because poetry not only distils experience into a lyrical form which renders it accessible to others, but mainly because, through poetry, we can deal with emotional, spiritual, intellectual difficulty. Life, on the whole, is difficult and the best poetry has a difficulty to match it. The pleasure of reading and writing poetry and I suppose I should add here, for me - comes from the resolving of difficulty, or at least the confronting of difficulty.
Which is not to say there is no pleasure in turning out a decent haiku or reading someones attempt to capture the scenery.
8. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think Blairs government is probably the best Ive seen in my lifetime which isnt saying very much; London should stage the Olympics in 2012, and Bristol Rugby Club should win the Premier League next season.
In another part of my life, I am an official starter at athletics meetings. This was a meeting for athletes with special needs, which I found strangely moving and uplifting. Some of my athletics colleagues cant work with people like this: I thought they were wonderful.
This won second prize in a competition run by the Jenner Museum in Berkeley, Gloucestershire (which is well worth a visit incidentally). The rules were that the poem had to include Jenners name. I looked him up on the internet and discovered that the boy he vaccinated was James Phipps and the milkmaid he got the cowpox virus from was Sarah Nelmes. No-one, including my friend who lives in Berkeley and is an expert on local history, could tell me what James did when he grew up. The worlds way in the penultimate line is, of course, the Internet.
A holiday postcard that seemed to work pretty well. Lezignan is a nondescript little town in Languedoc. I read this at Bath Poetry Can and was treated to half an hours lecture on the Cathars, Simon de Montfort and the local architecture during the break when everyone else was getting fresh supplies from the bar. I thought no other English person had ever been there!
Round here, kids mark their leaving school by writing all over each others shirts. This was written during my final lesson with a lovely GCSE class who spent most of the time doing exactly that, since it was their, and my, last lesson in the school. They saw that I was writing too and asked me to read it. Their round of applause was the best reward Ive ever had for a poem. I cant bring myself to revise a single word.
Much more recent, this was written at a workshop that I lead on the Periodic Table. I suppose English teachers of recent vintage have to know a lot about Wilfred Owen and this comes out here, though in my own schooldays, to which the poem refers, we were never given his stuff to read. Too negative, I suppose.
Which leads to the last one. My wife and I were on holiday in northern France and by accident I discovered that Wilfred Owens grave was in a nearby village. But I could only go there if I left really early in the morning without waking Lesley. The poem tells what happened.
It takes the rhyming words of Owens sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth, reverses the list of words and juggles them a bit so it still forms a regular sonnet.
A friend who teaches in London asked my permission to use this with a class. They studied Owens poem and mine. Then he gave them Brookes The Soldier and they did to that what I had done to Owen. It was a privilege to visit the class and hear their phenomenally good sonnets.