Poets in Lockdown 4: Paul Stephenson

Our fourth poet in lockdown is Paul Stephenson.  I first met Paul in Paris back in 2016 when I was working on my pamphlet, Lumière, a response to Paris’ cinematic heritage.   The November terrorist attacks of 2015 were very fresh in everyone’s minds and Paul was working on poems which eventually became The Days That Followed Paris.  Lots to talk about indeed!

So, Paul, how has lockdown in Brussels been? 

Have you discovered any new poets? Any good lockdown reading recommendations? 

I have been enjoying ‘Heaven’ by Manuel Rivas, as recently translated by James Womack (Carcanet, 2020) – ‘a collection of dark, funny Iberian poems about drinking, sex and death’. James read superbly from the book in Cambridge just before lockdown. And having discovered a poem called ‘The Forecast’ by US Michael Dumanis on poetry.org, I ordered his 2007 collection ‘My Soviet Union’ (University of Massachusetts Press) – ‘dark vaudeville’ and ‘desperate comedians’ – which is entertaining also.

A fortnight ago a box arrived from the UK with all the poetry books and magazines that had arrived at my Mum’s address in recent weeks. New collections from Adam Crothers and Rebecca Watts, Ella Frears, Séan Hewitt, Will Harris, Geraldine Clarkson, Rishi Dastidar. Pamphlets from Ali Lewis and Roxy Dunn. Such a rich and eclectic mix of great young voices. Not to mention all the magazines, including the brilliant Poetry Wales, newly edited by Jonathan Edwards, and the latest issue of Jan Heritage’s Finished Creatures.

What is the most important thing you have discovered about yourself in lockdown?

Besides good health and peace of mind, I don’t need much: internet, friends and family within virtual reach, fine food and wine, but also parks – the vital importance of urban green space in order to be able to walk, wander, lose yourself, de-stress. I’m lucky to have two wonderful parks on the doorstop, one a natural bowl of open grass, the other woodland with trails and paths. I’ve been strolling and stopping, sitting on fallen tree trunks and just taking in my surroundings. You can see my photos on instagram (paulstep456)

But I’ve also discovered that I can work from home (‘working from home’ usually meant in cafés to me), which includes coming up with varied and quick lunches, but also that I can manage largely going paperless and not printing. It felt like a baptism by fire at the outset with so much paper grading to do but I’ve adapted. That said, when workshopping poems online, I still like to print the poem, to hold it and mark it up.

Will you make any significant changes to your life post-lockdown?

After weeks of not going out I am now doing a good 1.5-2 hour walk a day in the amazing parks on my doorstep here in Brussels. It is incredibly therapeutic and stress-relieving to be immersed in woodland and feel protected by all the mature trees. I hope this new habit will stick and that the quicker pace of life post-lockdown will still mean I am able to take time for this each day, to really immerse myself in nature. For those of us in cities, it has made so startling clear, the huge importance that urban green spaces have for our well-being.

What have you been buying which you don't usually?

With little to spend money on, my treat has been to bring back a new 4-5 euro plant, each time I go to the supermarket. So now I have the windowsills and sideboards covered with all sorts of flowers, herbs, and general greenery. I’ve been most envious of people with gardens and outdoors space. In the absence of gardens, I’ve created my own little green space.

I invested in one of those adjustable smart desks that you can place on top of your desk or table so that you can work on your laptop standing up. It’s quite exhausting being sat down for so many hours so it has been good to mix things up, for example, attending a meeting or event standing up, or writing a few emails, perhaps in a shorter, more succinct way, as a result of standing.

How important did you feel poetry was both specifically and generally during lockdown? 

Poetry, including poetry friends, has been vital during the lockdown. The virtual writing workshops have been fantastic but I’ve also enjoyed the workshopping with friends. One of the plus sides of all of this is that I feel much more in contact with people with regular weekly online sessions. It has meant that geography has become less of barrier. Previously I was unable to get to London or Cambridge, because of work and being abroad, but now there are so many more possibilities to get together. I think these regular sessions are now institutionalised and should last beyond the lockdown.

Paul Stephenson grew up in Cambridge. He was a Jerwood/Arvon mentee and did an MA with the Manchester Writing School. He has three pamphlets: Those People (Smith/Doorstop, 2015), The Days that Followed Paris (HappenStance, 2016), written while living in Paris during the terrorist attacks of November 2015, and Selfie with Waterlilies (Paper Swans Press, 2017). He co-edited Magma (issue 70 ‘Europe’) and co-curates the Poetry in Aldeburgh festival. He interviews poets at paulstep.com.