Interview

John Stammers

Now widely recognised as one of London's best new poets, John Stammers came to prominence upon the publication of his debut collection Panoramic Lounge Bar (Picador) in 2001 which was awarded the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Born and bred in London, Stammers graduated in philosophy from Kings College, and achieved a commendation in The National Poetry Competition of 2000 for his controversial poem On Love . His second collection with Picador is due out early next year.

JAMES BYRNE: Three years ago you won The Forward Prize for best first collection. You were not widely published beforehand, and relied on the recommendations of other poets before being taken on by Picador. Are you the Midas of modern poetry?

JOHN STAMMERS: Well, Midas' talent destroyed his life because he couldn't control it, so I hope not. I have, though, been very fortunate. By far and away my greatest good fortune is having Don Paterson as my editor. I regard him as already a major poet in the English canon. I need to be constantly challenged over what I'm writing; I mustn't be allowed my indulgencies. That's really what undid Midas. To be honest, I do endlessly obsess over trying to make my poems perfect. Don't get me wrong, I know full well perfection isn't possible, but I chisel away like a maniac nonetheless. What people often don't appreciate is sheer number of hours, days, weeks, sometimes years, it can take to solve a poem ('a hundred indecisions, … and a hundred visions and revisions'). There's a poem in my next book that has taken me seven years.

Throughout Panoramic Lounge-bar, your poems (with references ranging from Elliott Smith to Greta Garbo) combine film and musical qualities with unswerving efficiency. Yet which genre would you say is closer to writing poetry?

I suspect both are first cousins to poetry in different ways. I love music, but am, unlike poor Elliott, hopeless at making it. Whereas I do have some grasp of how films are made: I've written a screenplay and script-doctored for friends of mine. I find the structural requirements of film fascinating. In my next full collection there's a poem which explicitly employs some of these. By the way, I think TV ads are closer still than either. For instance, the current Alpha-Romeo GT ad (A-R, please note product placement) operates around the conceit of racy partygoers turning out to be also parents. The last line is something like 'Looks can be deceptive'. It would make a bit of a lame poem, but a poem for all that.

You were a New Voice at The Royal Festival Hall in 1998 and part of a retrospective on The New Generation 'Seven Years On'. With this in mind, were you surprised not to have been part of the recently selected Next Generation?

To be honest I was more disappointed than surprised; I'm the sort of person who wants everyone to like him. Alas for my sensitivities, the sort of poetry I write, i.e. in a highly distinctive, artistic style, is the sort that divides people. I know this and think it's something to be valued. The artists I admire from the past have all been like that. It does, though, mean that it's not to everyone's taste and presumably the judges where amongst these. When you put your work up for public assessment, whether it be art, politics or sport, you have to accept the outcome (look at all the unfair stick that, at the time of writing, Beckham and Owen are getting). This is not to do with poetry, but the nature of public judgement.

There are some notable exceptions from its cast list, and perhaps some strange choices, does this make the whole idea of a British Next Generation less credible?

As I said, I wasn't that surprised not to be on the list. I was, however, stunned to see that Colette Bryce, Kate Clanchy and Roddy Lumsden were omitted. Whilst there's no-one on that list who writes at all like me, most of them do write, broadly speaking, in the same vein as these three, quite a few nowhere near as brilliantly. You tell me.

The Wolf Man is arguably your most renowned poem from Panoramic Lounge-bar. Can we expect any wolfish undertones in your next collection?

As an example of what I have said above, people seem to disagree widely on which is the most significant poem in that collection. There is much of the lupine in my next full collection as befits a love poet.

Do you consider yourself a modern-day love poet?

Yes very much, post-postmodern, actually. The love poem has been far and the away the dominant theme in English poetry starting from Wyatt and I'm proud to be part of that tradition. The English lyric provides for that particular type of intensity that we associate with love poetry. I live within the dominant western culture which is the pop culture. As an artist, I want to work with what's around me. I speak, as most of us do, in the ironic, Americanised, pastiched mode of that culture's diction (adolescent sarcasm being the most primitive form). I detest, however, the unrelieved tedium of spurious intellectuality so, so usual in academic, postmodern poetry. Patrick Caulfield, the wonderful English Pop-artist whose images appear on my collections, uses orthodox methods and settings: paintings of still-lifes, landscapes and interiors. In his work, however, the beautiful and the ironic are both always present. This is what I try to achieve. I'm also, of course, a romantic.

You were born in Islington and have lived in London most of your life, knowing a good many of the poets who live here. Who's the best living poet currently working in London?

The only best poet's a dead poet. Seriously, I don't think there is such a thing as 'the best' in art. There are lots of fine poets in London and Islington especially, which, as we know, has become the centre of the cooliverse. I was on the television last year and bumped into a friend of mine from out of the borough who mentioned it. I said, 'This is Islington, everyone's on TV here' - witness Steve Buscemi having egg and chips at my local caff. You might see (on a scale of Postmodernism) Caroline Bergvall, Mark Ford, Michael Donaghy, Hugo Williams or John Hegley in Upper St on any given day; must be something there for everyone.

Is there a good poetry scene in London?

As a philosopher, I feel I should say it depends what you mean by 'good'. In a social sense, there is a really friendly scene with lots of nice, interesting people. There's always something going on and most people know each other one way or another. I do wonder whether it's too cosy sometimes. I like a good row from time to time. In terms of poetry, it's difficult to say. Some people's work gets more attention in large public scene where the emphasis may be on impact. But it may militate against other, more delicate, material which might have a better chance of being heard in a less multitudinous context, any open-mic readings, for instance, being very heavily subscribed.

If your house was on fire, is there anything you'd run back in for?

My only photographs of my late parents.

When is the new book out? and what is it called?

Well, I have two. Buffalo Bills, a pamphlet with a single theme was published by Donut Press in June. My next full collection Stolen Love Behaviour is out from Picador in February next year.

Questions: James Byrne

 

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