A few weeks ago I listened to a BBC podcast* and on it was an artist called Sarah Pickstone who had just won the John Moore award for painting with her piece entitled ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’ (see left) inspired by Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.
In the interview she talked about ‘making connections‘ ‘finding things together’ in her work. In her painting Pickstone took Stevie’s illustration for ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ and placed it amidst a mass of willows. ‘A forceful gentleness’ one critic stated, dealing with the important issue of death and the ‘relief which can be found in death’. This made me intrigued about ‘the shadow and story’ as the interviewer put it, ‘ that lurked behind the painting’, and indeed about the relationship between a story communicated in a piece of art and the object itself. It made me want to explore and connect, just like Sarah Pickstone. To connect with Stevie Smith and her work.
This post follows the connections I made, the seemingly random paths that were thrown up at me as I started to explore Stevie Smith. What lies ahead is a creative trail which touches (curiously and without intention) on all of the ideas and themes raised in the podcast….I thought I’d share the multi-form excursions I’ve been on this week with you because they inspired me and made me think, and introduced me to new writers and artists and I wanted this for you too: from beginning to end. Beginning with Stevie and ending with Stevie.
Firstly a bit of a Biography about Stevie, to contextualise, to pave the way :
Stevie Smith was an English poet, novelist and illustrator who was born in 1902. Her father ran away to sea when she was 3 and she belonged to a church-going family. For the majority of her life Stevie had an ambiguous relationship with religion-an agnostic with a predisposition towards belief. As a child Stevie suffered from a very severe bout of Tuberculosis, often fearing for her life (death always felt near, and became a constant subject in her poetry later). Her mother died and she began to live with her aunt who she cared for until her aunt’s death in 1968. In the interim Stevie became a secretary and published her first novel called Novel On Yellow Paper in 1936. A stream of consciousness novel based on her life. Her first book of poetry appeared in 1937 (‘A Good Time Was Had By All’). In 1953 she had a crisis at work and life became difficult and ended with Stevie attempting to cut her wrists. In 1957 she published her collection. ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ which contained the poem we’re focusing on here. In the 1960s Stevie was very popular and gave lots of poetry readings. In 1970 she began to have difficulties finding words and she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died in 1971.
See Strange-Attractor website for more biographical detail
The video below was where I began; it gave me my first real glimpse of her. The above was her life, and the video was her: her ‘ take’ on her relationship to her writing; her strident voice ringing out. It was the ‘how & the why’ of writing that reached out to me initially in its simplicity:
It was her choice of words that particularly grabbed me in her mini-talk. How striking they were and odd, slightly askew with her and her very precise persona. Words like ‘gnawing‘ and ‘pressure‘, and ‘ease‘, as if there was something seething underneath, something that will- out. It was this bubbling- underneath- the- surface-something that drew me on…
She talks about the frequent questions that everybody asks her: how and why she writes, and she states that her poetry comes from the experience of her own life, the ‘experience and the fancies’. She writes to give herself EASE and RELIEF and for herself- not the reader-not you or I. And this word ‘relief ‘, made a connection backwards, took me back to what the interviewer had said about Sarah Pickstone’s work, her painting as ‘a relief from the world’.
The poem and the painting -a means of relief. Sarah Pickstone +Stevie Smith (Making a connection (1))
Furthermore, while her poems are being written ‘NOBODY comes into it at all’. Writing for that moment has nothing to do with the reader and everything to do with the ease that the expulsion of the idea/object can bring to the creator.
This lead me to a further connection : ART & WRITING as expulsion. (Making a connection (2))
There was something dark and pressing inside Stevie that ‘GNAWED‘ at her and this took on a variety of forms and pressures.
The ‘PRESSURE’ of life: of earning, of work, of relationships, of knowledge, of despair, of pleasure, of funniness.
Lots and lots of weight.
And it was the word pressure that struck me: the sheer force and weight of life on her; a downward motion and not a reaching up; a drowning and not a waving. It seems to me that Stevie was actually more interested in the drowning. In the deathly quality of life and she grappled with this through lightness, simplicity and a delicacy of prose. The poem inspired by a newspaper article had clearly disturbed her deeply, maybe the feeling inside, so disturbing to her that it needed to be expelled ? Was it actually feeling she did not like? Was it perhaps that Stevie was frightened of the sheer weight of her emotions? Being frightened of pure feeling and then putting it into poetry and in so doing placing it far, far away? It’s unclear.
Stevie also had a tendency to illustrate her works, as she said, ‘drawing often inspires a poem’. Like her poetry her illustrations are sparse, scratchy, caricature like. Veiled by their simplicity and their child-like quality.
Here is the text of ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ and the illustration:
Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning” from Collected Poems of Stevie Smith. Copyright © 1972 by Stevie Smith. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Source: New Selected Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1988)
- ‘Flash Fortnightly’ starts this Wednesday with Laura Besley– Your fortnightly dose of short fiction!
- Alastair Cook, Full-time artist using film & photography. Director of projects such as ‘FilmPoems’, will be our guest blogger next Monday sharing a review of the work he’s done this Summer with North Light via an article by Michael MacLeod, a freelance journalist.
- Susan O’ Reilly has 4 new poems on her ‘Visitor Peep Page’
- FabFiction Page Starting Soon…for anyone wishing to share their short fiction or poetry, and you may get the odd author profile too. Do get in contact if you’d like to contribute.
- Several other new initiatives are percolating…so watch this space!