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.

(Jim Bennett)


The PK Featured Poet 16 – Stuart Nunn

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-can’t-take-this-any-longer’ variety. Since then I’ve 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 couldn’t refuse. It was also kick-started by my father’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Richardson’s novel writing letters with the other hand while being rogered by Fairfax.

I enjoy sharing work online, but there’s 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 someone’s attempt to capture the scenery.


8. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think Blair’s government is probably the best I’ve seen in my lifetime – which isn’t saying very much; London should stage the Olympics in 2012, and Bristol Rugby Club should win the Premier League next season.


The poems


 

On Pen-Y-Fan With Ryan
 
It was a temporary kindness
that we were looking as the clouds lifted,
as if to say, See, here's the pattern.
 
We looked out north to where the land was crafted
into fields, flecked with shadows to heighten
the effect of distance. He sat down on the grass
and watched the distant landscape steadily come clear.
At first no more than a something seen through hammered glass.
Then it all made sense as the clouds rose higher.
 
The difference in him was the stillness.
The tension and the misery drained away,
insinuating almost - what? a wholeness?
and I thought that he was going to cry.
 
The violence that had smashed his bedroom door
was gone, leaving only this quiet recognition
of the mountain's power -
stronger by far because he could not say it.
On this mountain no-one cares that he can hardly read,
or that his only answer to a problem is a knife.
 
When he climbed up here he had to leave behind his need
for love. All that he brought with him was his life.
Seeing the clouds lift tells him he's alive,
more certainly than letting strange girls carve his hair
into silly shapes, or going on the skive.
It's confirmation that he's really there.
 
The mountain says: It doesn't matter that you're such a little liar.
What you take home from here is truth, is truth 
 
This was the first poem I wrote ‘seriously’. Ryan was in my tutor group and was extremely difficult, mainly because there seemed to be no reason for his difficult behaviour. I took him walking in the Brecon Beacons one weekend and the poem explains what happened. What it misses out is his continual moaning about how far it was and how much his feet were hurting.
 
 

Special Olympics
 
They parody us,
play at the normality that we’ve stopped seeing.
The winner of the 100m walk
could be the lady from the library
or someone else’s maiden aunt,
until she tells you of the medal she won
for throwing a ball – and her smile
sets fire to her eyes behind the too-thick glasses.
 
The 1500m star has seen athletes on TV,
and knows they get uptight
and pace the track like caged animals,
and his imitation isn’t bad,
an 8-year-old Linford,
raging to let his running show
that he’s all grown up now.
 
Bodies that could be ours,
except for the thickened waists,
the musculature that hits somehow
the wrong note, features
smudged Polaroids, a try-out
for the beauty that was aimed at.
 
But winning’s winning;
defeat’s a loss beyond repair
(at least for those who understood
the taking part).
How can we dry the little boy’s tears
when he’s bigger than we are?
How not share this joy?
 
 

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 can’t work with people like this: I thought they were wonderful.


James Phipps finds his voice
 
Was I asked, you say? Not bloody likely.
Give us yer arm, young Jim, says Dr Jenner.
I held it out ‘cause father was behind him,
an’ I knew that all us miserable sinners,
if the gentlemen said we was to jump,
we bloody jumped, and didn’t skimp.
 
You’re a good brave lad, says Dr Jenner,
gripping me on me arm, but his other hand
was hid behind his back and I smelt a rat.
When doctors say you’re brave, I’ve always found
they mean to hurt you damn near to the quick.
A sideways glance becomes a pain in the neck.
 
One sickness to drive out another, says Dr Jenner.
Is that a good trade? Did I have a choice?
It made no difference what I thought –
a child and poor. Who’d credit me with a voice?
Now our names have spread along the world’s way:
me and Sal Nelmes and the doctor. Christ knows why.
 

 

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 Jenner’s 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 world’s way’ in the penultimate line is, of course, the Internet.


Lzignan-Corbires – en fte

 
Where medieval walls confined, now the avenue
encircles all that is important,
provides a natural route for the procession.
Harsh bands precede each troop of little girls.
Dressed as their mothers’ fantasies, graded by age
and colour-coded, they spin their batons,
each group a little more proficient than the last.
Mums no longer dart into the troop, wipe tears,
or rectify a defective or reluctant twirl.
Breasts and sleek thighs now strut their stuff,
fringes caress the bits that drag a majorette
towards her majority.
Until at last a smaller troop of girls
who’ve almost made it into womanhood,
swing into sight,
their batons aflame and hurled into the night.
 
What can follow that?
 
A tanker dispenses muscat into plastic cups
and then –
the Champions of France, the local
under-seventeen rugby team, bare-chested, drunken lords,
spraying us anarchically with water
from the vineyard trailer that they’re carried in.
Astride the tractor’s nose, dressed only
in his boxer shorts, a boy
cradles the cup they won, and, all alone,
croons himself into the oblivion of adulthood.
 
 

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 hour’s 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!


Poem on a Leaver’s Shirt
 
Good luck, Gemma, see you soon.
Stay happy. Great bum on you –
all your future’s ahead of you.
Have fun, Lianne, and loads of love.
This is just to say, I’ll miss you,
Rachael, Jo, Phil, Dan and Craig.
Miss you loads already, Kelly,
childhood, school, being shouted at.
I – heart – you. Marry me, you bum.
Good luck. Wish me love.
I need it, you, they, all of us.
Handprints down your front mean
something’s out there waiting.
Loving you to bits is worth
a felt tip down your cleavage.
I draw a circle to claim the bits of you
I need – your hand, your heart,
the safety that we make between us.
All my heart to all of us –
good bye.
 

 

Round here, kids mark their leaving school by writing all over each other’s 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 I’ve ever had for a poem. I can’t bring myself to revise a single word.


Chlorine
 
Such improbable complications of glasswork,
whose arrangement we weren’t to concern ourselves with
but whose name we had to know – Kipps,
and in the bottom chamber, marble chips.
He poured the acid in and in my brain
some kind of reaction started:
this wasn’t education so much as conjuring,
and I was certainly up for that.
And over there, the bubbles rose
until the flask was full of faintly coloured nothing.
Meanwhile, in another classroom, Owen’s soldiers
were struggling to fit their clumsy masks
and gargling lungs were flung into carts.
Invited to smell it, of course we did.
Mitch reacted first, and soon a line of us
were hanging, as instructed, out the window.
“Breathe deeply, boys. Taste God’s good air.”
 
 

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 Owen’s 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 Owen’s 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 Owen’s poem and mine. Then he gave them Brooke’s ‘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.

 


Almost at the grave of Wilfred Owen
           
The daylight comes up like a raising of thin blinds
on our last morning, tight with imminent good-byes.
But first, there’s a grave to see. Something in our minds
will not rest quiet till it’s confirmed by our eyes.       
Sun gleams over the misted landscape like a pall,     
an echo of the shroud of loss on distant English shires.
I cross three fields to the wrong foreign corner, all     
the invisible birds greeting my mistake like choirs.           
Owen’s not here.
                               But these also speak of the guns;
clean stones, neat garden manifest the blasting shells.
“A soldier of the Great War” rings as many bells  
as his name. Private Chidgey is more worth my orisons
than any poet. The blank raw metal gates rattle 
as I scurry back to the car past the incurious cattle.
 
 


 

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