Amanda's Circus

Richard Stillman – The Interview

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Richard Stillman writes poetry and novels. One of his poems will feature as part of 10 Days Chalk. Richard is currently working on a poetry collection about the Czech Republic.

Many thanks to Richard for giving us a sneak preview of two brilliant poems from this collection.

 

 

 

The supermarket squatted like a grey toad;
it dominated the concrete square,
a statue of Goethe, a cracked road.
The ring of Hapsburg-style houses resembled
a half-restored smile, some enamelling here
and there, but so much left to corrode.
Their future dream seems their past, reassembled.

 

 

I fix her weak black tea, sugared.
She practises her English, ‘Sugar, sugar.’
It’s not quite there, it’s ever so slightly slurred.
Bad teacher, I don’t want her to lose that drawl.
She has over-purred the rhotic ‘r’;
it aspirates into a soft slavic burr
that fades into the faintest sweet guttural.

 

 

Amanda: Firstly, why have you chosen to write about the Czech Republic? What is it that fascinates you about the country?

Richard: I lived there between 1991 and 1993, at a time when it was going through great changes post-1989 and the Velvet Revolution. I taught English there and, as it was my first real job, I went through a lot of changes too, I suppose. I had written several individual poems but felt that I wanted to create a sequence that could have both stand alone poems and a narrative arc.

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A: I envy you, I imagine it was a fascinating place to live. The first poem, in particular, contains some tantalising images. How important is symbolism in your work?

R: I think symbolism is very important especially when it comes from very specific detail. Finding parallels, deepening connections, these are important aspects of poetry for me.

A: It’s the sound and shape of the words that I find mesmerizing in the second poem. Is this something that you’ve consciously brought to the fore? I love the way the mouth has to continually reshape when speaking this poem. How important is it to read your work aloud?

R: I’m glad you find that your mouth was reshaping as in a way that is what the poem is exploring: how language makes everything new. There is a very sensual aspect to language as well. It’s wrong, I think, to say that there is only an arbitrary connection between words and things; the spoken element, the physicality of words, especially new words, has a very powerful charge.

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A: When you’re putting together a collection such as yours, how do you choose which poems to include? When deciding how to order the poems you’ve selected, do you consider theme, pace, length, the level of introspection, character? Or do you have a particular method of selection?

R: I wrote over 150 of these poems. It took some earlier poems and shaped them to this canzone shape: each line has 7,9 or 11 syllables and the abacbac rhyme scheme runs through all of them. The tension between colloquial voice and strict form can create intensity and compression. I also had to loosen up a little with some in-between sections that gave the narrative more coherence. My friends Sonia Jarema and Paul Davies, Judith Heneghan and Steve Scholey from the Hyde Writers gave me very useful feedback, and I have been working closely with the poet, Myra Schneider. She is a wonderful mentor, with just the right mixture of brutality and tact to whittle the number of poems down.

A: That’s a great many poems. What makes you start writing a poem?

R: Some I have to force, some just seem to come: I wish I knew how.

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A: When you’re creating a new prose project do you take a different approach?

R: The prose is easier to write in first draft form but terribly difficult to edit. Once the story is written I often find I need a completely new narrator. I have intermittent crises of faith over the prose. When I got my agent I was buoyantly confident: three years down the line, that has started shipping water!

A: There are always so many different ways of saying something. I hope you’re bailing. Do you need to turn off the poet when you’re writing novels? To what extent does your prose-writing style depend on a love of language? Does compromise inevitably play a part?

R: I can’t turn off the poet but I have to be more of a chameleon and sometime lose the indulgent ‘I’. My prose style should depend on love of language. The problem is that I am writing, slowly, a thriller at the moment, and there is a lot of compromise. I do think the story is important but I have to get the style right. I wouldn’t want to be a writer who wrote whatever they had to just so they could get published, but I do have to think of clarity and genre expectations. I hope I can subvert those enough to keep it interesting.

A: Can you tell us a bit about your novel?

R: It’s called ‘Seven Days in London’ and it’s a reimagining of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this time seeing the Americans take over London in 2018.

A: That sounds intriguing. I’m already looking forward to reading the book, I hope you can write quickly! How does writing fit into your very busy life? What is your writing routine?

R: My job does involve some swathes of free time but even in the busiest times I still try to write when I can. My routine varies but I will always plan when I write and stick to it. I find word counts and time management very important but the best ideas always come on long walks around the meads.

A: Writers read so I have quite a few questions about books. What are you reading now? How important is reading in your life? What book has most influenced you in your life and in your writing?

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R: I’ve just finished ‘The Teleportation Incident’ by Ned Bauman, an old-Wykhamist. It’s all dazzle and cleverness but a bit too much light and not much heat. Personally, the Czech novelists, Milan Kundera and Ivan Klima have been very important. I enjoyed Moncrieff’s Proust and love Dostoevsky. I was very influenced by Kerouac, Hemingway and Fitzgerald as well. Poetry wise, I like Robert Haas, Tony Harrison, Elisabeth Bishop, Don Paterson and Liz Berry.

A: That’s a varied selection. I must look into Ivan Klima. What are your writing plans?

R: To finish the Czech collection and the novel. I hope I’ll have a final draft by Christmas. After that, who knows!

A: The best of luck, Richard, with both your novel and the collection. Thank you for giving us these insights into your writing life.

 

Richard Stillman is Head of English at Winchester College and has enjoyed being part of the Winchester literary scene as a Hyde Writer and also in his role as head of Winchester College’s Empson Society. His poetry has appeared in several anthologies and he is preparing a first collection about his years in what is now the Czech Republic. He is also a novelist, represented by Peters, Fraser & Dunlop.

Richard’s poem, ‘Coarse Components’, a response to  the work of artist Kimvi Nguyen, is now on display in City Musum, Winchester until November as part of 10 Days 2015.

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