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Interview with Kenneth Steven by Georgie Burns

During the lockdown, getting out to spend some time in nature and pausing to consider what really matters is more important than ever. For the second Kinlochlaich House blog, I have been fortunate to interview Kenneth Steven - an internationally acclaimed poet and novelist, from the Isle of Seil, near Oban. Kenneth's work focuses on the interplay between the natural and the spiritual. If you have missed visiting the Highlands this year, Kenneth's poetry may provide comfort in transporting you to the heart of the Scottish wildscape.


GIFT

Take nothing with you but your shoes.

The path is easy, and once the river opens

into the cupped hands of a pool

swim without fear of being seen.

Walk softly, so sometimes you are surprised

by the full sweetness of birdsong.

The cabin is never locked; anything that’s taken

was needed more by someone else.

There is no need of artificial light:

a few candles are enough to warm the dark.

Before you sleep, go out into the silence of the stars

and listen to nothing but the hugeness of the night.

From Out of the Ordinary, New Poems by Kenneth Steven, Saint Andrew Press, 2020


You may have caught Kenneth on the BBC, advocating the importance of literature and poetry, and giving helpful tips to stimulate imaginative thinking. I have always considered poetry as the purest form of writing, as at its finest, it represents the distillation of prose where every word must carry weight, in the strive for perfection.

For me, Kenneth’s work is without equal in describing the Northern Wildscape. His poetry is enriched and illuminated by his lifelong interest in Celtic Christianity, and his deepest roots are in Iona, a spiritually ‘thin’ place from where much of Kenneth’s inspiration wells. As we chat, he refers often to the link between his faith and creativity. It is this deeper dimension - sometimes as a focal point of a poem but often as an undertow about something superficially ‘ordinary’ - that elevates his writing to the extraordinary.

Kenneth’s ability to describe the mundane in ways that touch upon the biggest questions and themes is, for example, illustrated in, ‘The strangest gift’ (which you can read here ). This poem describes a nun presenting him with a wasps’ nest. The strange beauty of this object’s perfect engineering triggers guilt at having killed those ‘yellow and black thugs’ who designed it. It reminded me of my feelings on reading Robert Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ which describes the bard's sorrow at accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest with his plough. Both poems focus on the slightest details in nature, but the magic is woven in the allusion to the wider universe and man’s place in it.

Kenneth’s poetry has always addressed the most difficult issues of loss and the impacts of irrevocable change. Earlier aspects of his work include a feature on Saint Kilda - 75 years after its evacuation - which won a Sony in 2006 and his research on the changing culture of the Sami people, the indigenous nomadic people of Lapland and the surrounding high Arctic. Living in northern Norway - ‘the landscape of the heart’ - was a formative experience after growing up in Perthshire. Although on a different scale, there were many similarities with where Kenneth eventually settled on the West Coast of Scotland and these landscapes were to be instrumental in his development as a writer.

Poetry means something different to everybody. Kenneth defines it as “this idea of profound simplicity. So really often very simple words. But it's the putting together that matters. And the way they're put together can move somebody to tears. Poetry can change someone's life.” He gives the example of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, as a poem everyone should read. This poem which he has explored in depth for a BBC programme (which you can listen to here) perfectly illustrates Kenneth’s concept. On one level, young children can understand it, yet true understanding could take a lifetime.

Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, were his first introduction to modern poetry and are poets he still reads for inspiration. He explains how they helped him to use language in a playful, creative and brave way. “That was really an opening of a door to me. [...]To use language in new, bold and daring ways. It was those two who really opened my eyes.” Perhaps most importantly, reading these poets, and other ‘writers of the land’, such as Norman MacCaig and Sorley MacLean, was key in developing his authentic voice about the natural world and the landscapes he knew so well. A breath of fresh air after reading stuffy Victorian prose at school, he describes reading such poetry as ‘smelling the mud - literally like having my nose rubbed in the mud’. More recently, Kenneth cites American writer Wendell Berry as a key influence.

Reading a variety of work is something Kenneth believes is one of the best, and overlooked, ways of becoming a good writer. Yet he warns that quality is important, citing a former teacher who told him to read wisely: ‘You only have so many books in your eyes!’ He emphasises how, while other artists - musicians, for example - wouldn’t dream of forgoing practice, among authors practice is rarely discussed. As you use different weights at the gym, experimentation in different writing styles develops your writing muscles. Kenneth strongly believes that everyone should practice, stating that he too is ‘still learning’. In terms of tips for aspiring writers, he talks about the importance of making time and space. This could mean a blank piece of paper and absolute silence, as it does for him, and working out whether your creative clock is that of an ‘owl’ or ‘lark’.

During lockdown, Kenneth has published his newest poetry collection ‘Out of the Ordinary’. The book encompasses a wide array of emotions. Hope and grief meld to create a painfully beautiful collection, which continues to bridge the gap between us and the natural world. Many poems have a strong connection to Celtic Christianity, although they are equally relevant to other religions or personal spirituality. His faith has a strong influence on his writing, perhaps best exemplified in his special bond with Iona: “I think there's something intangible, something indescribable about Iona that I keep on trying to describe. I think this is an important thing for me to say that there's a link somehow that goes so deep within me”. The island, which he refers to as his ‘spiritual home’, is the subject and inspiration of many of his works. It’s a place to which he returns if ever the creative well is running dry: “I feel blown out of myself. So I cease to matter. I become just like a small child. I feel timeless and unselfconscious about the writing process. [...] When I'm back on Iona, it’s as though I’ve never written anything. So you're free. To begin again, to pour words onto the page.”

Out of the Ordinary reflects this poignant view, describing our ordinary in a new light. It shows how nature’s elements are unique, while reflecting how our universe has been designed. Faith radiates from these poems and helps form a bond between the reader and spirituality. Like many of his other works, they offer hope in difficult times, showing how faith can be found even in our darkest of moments. Loss is a recurring theme and, whether recent or historical, is treated with equal sensitivity. His answer when asked if he believes writing was a way of processing grief, is open and sincere: “I do. I wrote, probably the hardest collection that I wrote, was for my wee girl Willow. I suffered the loss of my marriage and the loss, then as it were, of my child who went back to Germany to live with her mother, and that was unbearable. I wrote through that time. [...] I just was writing little poems on scraps of paper, in despair.” This despair, along with his emotional frankness, created a heartfelt collection of poems that tap into deep-rooted yet raw wounds. Ultimately the collection is named ‘Letting the light in’, reflecting it’s hopeful endnote.

Touching a personal chord is at the heart of successful poetry. My first experience of Kenneth’s work was his poem ‘Stars’ which describes the ordinary occurrence of getting contact lens for a birthday present. As someone who has been extremely short-sighted from a young age, the emotions stirred in me were surprising. Kenneth explains that ‘Stars’ didn’t use poetic license, it was simply describing the day he could see clearly for the first time. The point of view though, of the heavens coming into focus, is one many would overlook: “I'd never known that the stars were these bright, jewel-like things in the sky. For me, they had always been just smudged things that were a bit like torch lights in the sky. I had no idea what they were.”

Kenneth has been writing his whole life but I was curious about what convinced him to take the leap of faith into a writing career, far from a financially secure route: “ My parents were journalistic writers. So I grew up with the sound of typewriters clacking away in the house. [...] I just decided in my naivety and my courage and my stupidity, call it what you will, I was now going to become a writer. [...] It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I think I was blessed with a kind of naivety about it. Because I would honestly say, still today, all these years later, that I have no idea what I would do if it wasn't going to work. I was going to push every single impediment out of my way to become a writer.”

Even after years of being a successful writer, Kenneth says there are still elements of feeling his way, from the initial, whispered stirrings of a poem. It could begin with a couple of words or a fleeting idea which may end up as the beginning, middle or end of a piece, or as something entirely different. “I get something in the back of my mind, like a lone goose flying. But I don't know what it is. So I go away and do the finding process. And gradually, I discover it.” And these journeys have led to a body of work which beautifully captures the mystery of the Celtic Wildscape for everyone’s inspiration.


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