The BTS Interview with Steve Pottinger
BTS: Do you have any plans to come to America? Do you find as much acceptance here as in the U.K.? Or do you feel you aren't too accepted there, either.
SP: I’d love to visit the States, and have looked into it once or twice. It’s a question of finding both sufficient time, and setting up enough gigs or readings to justify it. I’ve toured there with a band (working as a roadie) and I’m well aware of the scale of the venture! I’m currently keeping myself busy here with my own gigs, with the small publishing company I run, and with ‘poets, prattlers, and pandemonialists’ a collaborative venture with two other Wolverhampton poets which is having a lot of fun doing our bit to popularize poetry and break down people’s expectations and prejudices about it. As for acceptance, I still get a huge buzz when someone tells me they don’t normally like poetry, but mine really touched them. I’m far more excited by opening up that kind of connection than I am about being accepted by the great and good of the poetry world. For some, I’ll always be too political, or too serious. I’m fine with that. What counts way and above anything else is being true to my own voice, to what I have to say, and saying it loudly and clearly and whenever I’m given the opportunity.
BTS: I note that you write a lot from an outsider's point of view, especially in England, but also in so much of your work. Pottinger sounds very English to my American ears. If your heritage isn’t English, what is it? (I do have some understanding of native alienation, as I am from the Deep South of the USA, but hardly fit there), but yours seems more truly "foreign."
SP: I’m a mongrel, as so many of us are. The family name comes via my granddad, who was from Orkney, an archipelago off the north coast of Scotland which looks back as much to Scandinavia as it does to the UK. My grandma was born and raised in the Black Country, which is where I live now. And on my other’s side, I’m Irish. I’m the child of migrants and immigrants, but one lucky enough to have the camouflage of white skin. This meant I got to hear the casual bigotry and racism — so often directed at people like my mom – because people assumed I was one of their own and would agree with them. I wasn’t, and I didn’t. The parallels between the physical and verbal abuse dished out to black and Irish people in the 70s and 80s, and the hatred whipped up against Muslims now, is — to my mind — inescapable. We’re all human beings. We all share the same physiology, the same hopes, the same dreams. There is more that unites us than divides us. This should not be news, and yet it still needs repeating. Then there’s class. In the UK, that’s very often the elephant in the room. I grew up a middle-class kid (my dad was a general practitioner) in the heart of a very working-class town. I straddle both worlds, yet belong fully in neither. Traditionally, you’d find shopkeepers, professionals and middle-classes cheek-by-jowl in the same small towns, Now, I live in a world where these communities are increasingly hollowed out, leaving the working-class and poor behind — and increasingly voiceless — while the better-off flee to the suburbs. It’s an interesting place to be.
BTS: How did you come to poetry? to write it? to be a performer?
SP: If we go right back to first beginnings, I can place the responsibility firmly on the shoulders of a girlfriend when I was 16-17. She introduced me to the work of the Liverpool poets (Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Roger McGough). I’d never read anything like it. Poetry at school had been dull, dry, written by dead men, and we’d spent all our time ripping it apart to find out how it worked, which was about as useful as shredding a butterfly to understand its beauty. But their poetry was vibrant, rich, and funny. It talked about life in a world I understood and recognised, held a mirror up to a society which was flawed, and had a glorious sense of humour. I was hooked. From then on, I kept a notebook about me, and wrote. Most of it was the usual teenage guff, but I was learning about poetry, about how and why it worked, and when it didn’t. I was learning about the magic and power of words. As for how I got into performing, that was either pure chance, or one of those moments of serendipity which slip into our lives from time to time, depending on how you read it. I’d come back to Leeds from travelling in Europe, was unemployed, and kicking around for something to engage me and take up my time. I learned the local poetry group met once a month in the pub at the end of my street, and thought — in a moment of bravado — what the hell, let’s give it a go. At this point, I’d never shared my poetry with anyone, and when I sat round the table in the back room of that pub on a Monday evening with four other people, all of whom knew each other, I was quietly terrified. I read one of my poems, and waited for them to put down their pints, look at me earnestly, and tell me that wasn’t poetry and I should never darken their doors again. They didn’t. I kept going back. I grew less nervous about reading my work out loud. One of the poets also ran Leeds Alternative Cabaret, which put on comedians, musicians, and poets, and he gave me a spot at the start of the evening where I could read one of my poems. It went well. Next time, he gave me five minutes. Then ten. Those were my first faltering steps into my craft.
BTS: I note that you are about as likely to rhyme as not. Do you find free verse or rhyming to suit what purposes best?
SP: I remember hearing an interview with a sculptor — don’t ask me who, I’m terrible with names – who was asked how he found the statues within the stone. He said it was a matter of listening to what the stone wanted to tell. I think poetry is a lot like that. It’s all well and good knowing what I want to write about, but the skill is in finding your way in. Sometimes, a draft can be free verse, but I reach a point where I realise I’m trying to force it, or a poem starts out rhyming, but that becomes too blunt a tool. In the end, it’s a matter of patience and flexibility, of not being afraid to edit and re-draft and throw away, and of allowing the story the room to tell itself. Then, it will connect with an audience or a reader, and I’ll have done my job.
Straight off the bat let me say
I was never a fan
I mean don’t speak ill and all that
but if we’re clearing the decks
wiping the slate clean
getting it all out in the open
you were bloody hard work, England,
not easy to live with, let alone love.
You see, you kept making me and my friends
sit cricket tests I was never going to pass
took our taxes and our labour
but still left us feeling second class
because our roots stretched back
to other cultures, other shores
and other teams made our guilty, secret hearts
beat a little faster, race a little more.
Even now, it’s like you can’t help yourself
some scoundrel starts waving the flag
critical thought goes out of the window
and next thing you know
you’ve tanked yourself up on bigotry and lager
giving it ‘2 world wars and 1 world cup’
like you fired the winning shot yourself.
I mean really, England? Really?
I’ve seen you running for the bus
in the mornings, and it’s not pretty.
You’re a heart attack waiting to happen
hypertension, clogged arteries, dodgy knees
it’s all history, for fuck’s sake
do yourself a favour, let it go.
And you were the chink of fine china
the tyranny of manners and the old school tie
tut-tut-tutting about the enemy within
turning a blind eye while someone
did your dirty work
battles in beanfields
cover-ups and never-challenged lies.
So, like I say, it wasn’t the best of starts.
I had to leave to learn to love you
get far enough away to see both sides
of the coins in your pocketful of shrapnel
find the fist that read ‘love’
not just the one that promised ‘hate’.
And out there,
on the other side of the world
I found I missed you
missed your dirt under my fingernails
hankered after your way with words
your dirty laugh
your seaside postcard humour
and your beautiful mongrel language.
Every time you open your mouth
history tumbles from your lips
in dialect and accent
a pulsing archaeology of trade
invasion, conquest, immigration
the ebb and flow of populations
making room making homes
and getting assimilated
learning there’s precious few of life’s problems
not cut down to size with another cup of tea
and a couple of biccies.
You’re not dead.
You’re just evolving
getting your nails done
putting on your glad rags
for a night out on the town
and I will find you
on top of the moors
quoting Benny Hill and Shakespeare
feasting on samosas and flagons of cider
slapping the taut drum of your stomach
where it spills over the waistband of your trousers
— all paid for, kid!—
proud as punch
Falstaff, as I live and breathe
paddling in the shallows
beyond the deckchairs and the donkeys
giggling in Gujerati
the hem of your sari trailing in the cold North Sea
salty and wet while your wide-eyed kids
play shoot-em-up in the arcades
mither you for fish and chips
support City and United
and ride the bus home
with their heads full of dreams
knowing love triumphs
over cricket tests
and their hearts beat
proud and strong.
About the poem, Pottinger says, "It was written in response to a prompt from local artist Carolyn Bayliss who asked 'What would you say at the funeral of England?' I couldn't ignore that opportunity!"
The poem will feature in his next volume of poems, which will be published through Ignite Books in late September.