Part of the fun of doing this writers influences series for the Sunday Tribune as well as getting constantly surprised by some of the choices some of the writers who do pieces for me, is my first encounter with the writer they choose to talk about.
In the case of Stevie Smith, who Tom McColl is going to talk about today, my first encounter with Stevie Smith was back at university in 1999 where I seem to recall we were asked to study the poem “Not waving but drowning”. It has to be said, I thought it was only okay but my writing was still pretty young so I completely missed the point and only got to grips with it some years later.
Tom McColl, thankfully has a much more straightforward getting into her work “I was first introduced to the work of Stevie Smith when I borrowed The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse from my local library.” He begins “I was in my late teens and, having started writing poetry, was looking for a prominent poet whose work I could not just really get into but emulate, and the problem with poets I’d up to then admired and enjoyed reading – such as Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Jennings – was that they all wrote very formal verse, employing strict rules of metre which my mopey teenage brain had little or no hope of mastering, so I looked through the anthology for a poet whose work I could get to grips with much more easily, and as soon as I came across Stevie Smith and her free verse poetry which was quirky and light in tone but, at the same time, very profound and moving, I realised I’d found just what I was looking for.”
“Thing is, though, on trying to emulate her style” He carries on after a slight pause “by writing my own quirky, free-form, melancholic poems, and finding that everything I wrote immediately paled in comparison, I very soon realised that Stevie Smith’s poetry is, in its own way, just as sophisticated and complex as the poetry of those other three poets I mentioned, and arguably more unique. Smith’s poetry looks deceptively easy to write – and maybe that’s why novice writers are often attracted to her work – but it isn’t, and I love that about her writing, and what I loved about Smith herself was her eccentricity and how she was her own person: very much a one-off. And so, she remains, very much, a favourite poet of mine to read.”
Upon asking Tom next does he have a favourite poem of Stevie’s, he then mentions my favourite poem of hers before carrying on “Stevie Smith’s most famous poem, Not Waving, But Drowning, is famous for good reason, and definitely a favourite of mine, but my personal favourite is I Remember, where the narrator is an old man, during the war, on his bridal night, in bed with his young bride (‘a girl with t.b.’), listening to German bombers flying overhead when, just at that moment, British bombers have chosen to set out for Germany, and the young bride asks him, ‘Harry, do they ever collide?’, to which he answers ‘I do not think it has ever happened / oh my bride, my bride.”
“The two sets of bombers never colliding appear to be a metaphor for their relationship and generational difference, and it’s an 11-line poem that says so much, and made a lasting impression on me in showing what could be achieved in just a few lines.” He recalls in addition.
“I think it’s not just Stevie Smith’s poetry, but her attitude, that continues to be a major influence on me.” He concludes thinking about the impact of her work on his own” Her eccentricity, and apartness from any particular movement or accepted style of writing, appealed to me greatly as an out-of-sync teenager who didn’t feel he belonged to anything, and that – along with her determination, throughout her life, to keep things interesting and novel and to always be unique – continues to be a big influence on me now.”
Florence Margaret “Stevie” Smith was born on September 20, 1902 in Yorkshire, England. Her father left the family to join the North Sea Patrol when she was very young. At age three she moved with her sister and mother to the northern London suburb Palmers Green. This was her home until her death in 1971.
Her books include A good was had by all (1937), Harold’s Leap (1950), Mother, what is Man? (1942) and Not waving but drowning (1957).
Thomas McColl was born in 1970 and lives in London. He’s had poems published in magazines such as Envoi, Iota, Prole, Riggwelter, Atrium, London Grip and Ink, Sweat & Tears, and his first collection of poetry, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, was published in 2016 by Listen Softly London Press. One of the poems from the book, The Chalk Fairy, was subsequently included in the Shoestring Press anthology, Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, and ended up getting quoted in the Evening Standard. He’s read and performed his poetry at many events in London and beyond – including Celine’s Salon, The Quiet Compere, Birkbeck Writer’s Room and Newham Word Festival – and has been featured on East London Radio, Wandsworth Radio and TV’s London Live.