If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big, robust circles, to tiny, stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce. Some of the nicest people around are writers, but some of them truly are mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Thrillers With Attitude has undertaken to meet up with a few of these weirdly-shaped and strangely flavoured writers, some well-established, others emerging, so that you, dear reader, can find out more about them without endangering body or soul.
Welcome then, to the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.
My guest this week is poet, Stephen Keeler.
Hi Stephen, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Thanks for inviting me. This is a real pleasure.
I was born and grew up in the north-east of England and read English at Durham University where I also qualified as a primary and secondary teacher. I worked in Sweden for five years in the early 1970s, and met my (English) wife there. She was a school teacher and eventually head of a large west London junior school.
I took an MA in applied linguistics at London, and we moved to China in 1981 where I directed a UNDP programme for British Council in Xi’an for a couple of years. Back in the UK, we found a lovely house in Richmond-upon-Thames and lived there for the next 25 years during which I worked as a freelance language teacher and consultant, mostly in Sweden but also in the UK and for The British Council in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and other Soviet bloc states. Our daughter was born in 1988. My wife died in 2003.
I moved from west London to Ullapool in 2010, to write, and this year (2015) I was fortunate to be selected for a Scottish Book Trust New Writing Award.
What were you like at school?
Junior school me was well-behaved and polite and passed the 11+ (thank God!).
Grammar School me was a bit of a yob, really (massive understatement). I was rarely in serious trouble but rarely really out of it, until Philip James Osborn walked into my classroom spitting fire and ready to haul me into some kind of civilised state, with violent force if necessary, not least by introducing me to Lit-er-a-ture. I owe him everything: Joyce, Milton, Chaucer, Forster, Golding, Shakespeare, of course…
What has been the evolution of Stephen Keeler, the poet?
I wrote the usual compulsory embarrassing guff as a fey teenager, and even gave some of it to girlfriends. Ouch! My toes are actually curling as I type this. Another English master at the same school told me my poetry was crap so I wrote no more for over forty years. No exaggeration.
I wrote prose, and much of it had poetic elements. I also wrote occasional journalism, travel pieces, a detailed journal, academic papers, school books, study materials, occasional memoir sketches and even an award-winning series of English-language magazines and workbooks for teenagers. But I kept the poetry well back until I suppose it began to seep out.
I started to write poetry a little more consciously when I joined the North-West Highland Writers group which I found very supportive when I first moved to Ullapool.
Last December (2014) those wonderful people at the Scottish Book Trust decided to give me one of their New Writing Awards, and it is no exaggeration to say that it has changed everything for me.
At what moment did you first define yourself as a writer?
One sunny school day in 1958, in Mrs Butterwick’s class when she asked us all to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” and could think of nothing else to write.
Everyone else wrote pages about being a nurse or a train driver or fireman or secretary – they were somewhat unenlightened not to say unimaginative days – but I could write no more and so was hauled out in front of the class and made an example of. “Well some writer you’ll turn out to be if you can’t manage more than that!”, hissed Mrs Butterwick through pursed lips, her eyes narrowing like a big cat about to maul. I was metaphorically mauled anyway by then. And maybe she was right. OfSTED wouldn’t have let her teaching style pass unremarked but I bear absolutely no grudges. No, really I don’t.
Why do you write?
Because I couldn’t not write.
How deep do you dig when you are writing – how much of yourself do you expose?
Two questions there, I think. I dig deep. I had what might euphemistically be called a colourful childhood; I’ve travelled very widely and lived for lengthy periods in a number of countries. I have a lot of ‘material’ to call on. I am especially interested in the importance of objects (was it Rilke who said that there was nothing of any more significance than objects?) and how they signify. I find myself calling on childhood memories even when not writing specifically about childhood. Toys, ornaments, streets, cities, cars all seem to feature a lot in my poems. Old girlfriends, my daughter and my dearly-loved and much-missed wife, too.
But, having mined material, I’m not sure that I really ‘expose’ much of myself. No one would be interested in that. It is the universal appeal of literature, its ability to speak to the reader in language and images and rhythms and signs that help us keep our sanity. I think.
Are you inspired by any writers in particular?
I read the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming as they were published over fifty years ago, and swallowed them whole. I have no doubt that much of my professional life and the vast amounts of travelling I’ve done are as a direct early influence of Fleming. For a while, as a gauche young man with more on his mind than in it, I even smoked Morland cigarettes, and I once went into Boots, in Darlington , and asked if they sold Benzedrine tablets!
As a poet I am strongly influenced by Philip Larkin who I believe to have been England ’s greatest poet of the second half of the twentieth century.
Best writing moment so far?
The realisation that you’ve somehow, against all the odds, managed to nail it in a poem. Nothing, well nothing much, beats that.
Of course, in ‘career’ terms nothing has come close to getting a Scottish Book Trust New Writing Award, as a result of which I got a support gig with Elvis McGonagall recently and learned all over again what it means to be stage struck. I loved it!
What are you working on right now?
All poets want their first collection published. I have the material for a first collection and am actively seeking a publisher.
I’m working on a pamphlet of poems about railway travel. Yeah, I know.
My Scottish Book Trust year project is The Poet’s Calendar in which I am writing one poem each month, about that month. So far I’ve written January to June… a bit predictable maybe but a realistic project with a more or less 100% chance of being completed.
What are your ambitions, writing-wise?
Getting that first collection in print and on bookshop shelves.
What is your writing routine – do you have a favourite time of day for writing?
I live alone and so can write whenever I like. I frequently write very late into the night, and just as frequently wake at three and jump out of bed with a ‘thought’. I’ve been known to greet my postman (around 10.30) in pyjamas having been up for eight hours writing. Something he never believes.
Do you have a set amount of writing to do each day – if so, how is it measured – pages, word, lines, time..?
I try to write something every day, even if it’s only notes. My writer’s notebooks are my most important piece of kit.
I don’t measure by quantity or time. When I begin to work on a new poem I try to work on it uninterrupted until at least a first draft is complete. I may work on some poems like this for three or four days. Seamus Heaney’s answer to the question’ ‘how do you know when a poem is finished?’ was, ‘when it stops bothering me’. I get that.
How do you write – longhand, laptop, typewriter, quill and ink?
Quill and ink, of course. I’m a poet, what d’you expect?
Any writing habits – music, particular place to work?
I need complete silence to write. I write on narrow-lined A4 pads from Ryman, with a Staedtler Stick 430M (nerdy enough?) but usually transfer to my laptop at some difficult-to-pin-down (critical mass?) moment, to develop and finish.
What inspires you to write?
The unbelievable good fortune of being alive, and wanting to celebrate that. I know that sounds guffy, but hey… And all that stuff about wanting to know what I really think about more or less anything. It’s true for me. And the exhilarating experience of finding a poem taking its own course (sometimes you have to rein it in).
Any advice for aspiring poets?
Three things: read poetry, read poetry and read poetry. You cannot write poetry if you don’t read it.
If there was one person, either contemporary or historical (or fictional character) you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
Flippant or serious? Flippant, I think: Greta Garbo – or the person who is for me her latter-day equivalent – Susan Sarandon. How would I spend the day? I should be so lucky!
Serious: my maternal grand-father who was a complex and accomplished man but who was profoundly ill-at-ease with himself. I’d love to spend a day with him teaching me to build radios and use a soldering-iron and develop photographic film and make mandolins, all of which he did effortlessly it seemed to me as a small boy. Odd how I don’t miss my parents but I frequently think of him and wish he’d had an easier life.
What are you reading at the moment?
Fifteen poetry pamphlets I’ve just been sent to review by the end of the week, oh and Johnny Rogan’s comprehensive biography of Ray Davies (a hero of mine and contender for your question about who I’d like to spend a day with).
A few quick questions. Favourite book?
The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin.
Janson’s Temptation (a Swedish dish with anchovies, potatoes and cream)
Casablanca – unoriginal, I know, but that moment when they all stand to sing the Marseillaise has the tears pouring every time
I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (Radio 4)
Elgar Cello Concerto and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite; Beatles, Kinks, Cream, Elvis Costello, Tord Gustavson.
And finally, where can readers find out more about you?
On Twitter @stephenkeeler and you can read about me and my fellow New Writing Awardees at the Scottish Book Trust.
Thank you, Stephen.
This has been a lot of fun. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Stephen Keeler. Photograph by Rob McDougall/Scottish Book Trust.
LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Each New Morn, and Erosion.