Stephen James Smith is a poet attuned to the nerve-ends of our people and our city. As he publishes his debut collection of poetry, he discusses his relationships and his platform to make a difference.
“The reality is I will probably move to Belfast in January. The cost of rent and houses is way cheaper. I doubt I’ll ever be able to buy a house in Dublin. It’s sad for me that I have to leave my own city”
The original title of Stephen James Smith’s debut book of poetry was going to be Pretending to Be Happy. However, when it is published this month it will be called Fear Not. This name change reflects Smith’s personal journey over its gestation as much as that of the creative process.
“The book has gone through a few incarnations,” he explains when we meet in the Liberties institution that is The Clock. “I felt that I’d changed a little bit as a person also. I learnt a bit more in terms of challenging myself about what scares me. Some of the poems are a rallying call to be a bit bolder and braver,” states Smith.
It is this ‘rallying call’ and tackling of the love/hate conundrum that is the city and times we live in which has catapulted Smith into the consciousness of the wider public. My Ireland, his 1755 word commission for the St Patrick’s Festival in 2017, pierced the gauze of a fractured nation whilst casting a blanket of knowingness over what makes us intrinsically tick.
As one of the most outspoken and recognised poets of his generation, Smith’s journey to ‘here’ has been one of self-discovery. There might have been an easier path, but he questions whether it would have been as rewarding.
“If I had followed the path my parents wanted me to, I’d probably be a mechanical engineer now, or a salesman,” he reflects. “It’s like the MasterCard ad. There are loads of things I get afforded to me, that you can’t pay for, that I really cherish. There is a lifestyle that comes with this. I get to go to prisons, and then I get to meet the Royal Family. And I go ‘How the fuck did that come about?’ They all inform each other. I don’t want to be just stuck in a room writing airy fairy poems. I think you need to be knocked around and have a bit of life experience.”
Smith knows the lot of the full-time poet in 2018 is a meagre one without the ability to diversify. This has seen him work in prisons and schools, it’s seen him support Imelda May in the Summer Series in Trinity College as well as work with the travelling community in Labre Park in Ballyfermot. It’s out of choice as much as necessity.
He also recognises that his work gives him the opportunity to rub shoulders with the powers-that-be in various areas of society. He’s had his Bono moment and Gerry Adams has shuffled up to compliment him on his work. “It made me laugh, maybe even nervous laughter. I’m still processing it. There are some things about Sinn Fein I probably like but I’m not a chest beating nationalist.”
This access and proximity to prominent political and cultural figureheads has made Smith keenly aware of his opportunity to use his position to relay viewpoints as well as rankle the ‘establishment’.
“I have been asked to write something about creativity in communities. I know Leo Varadkar and the Minister for Health and maybe the Arts Minister will be at the launch. In that instance, it would be remiss of me to not try and voice the subaltern. I do feel a duty with those ears there. To think of the people I get to meet, and if I didn’t try and take aim… ‘Fuck me!’ Now, whether that makes a difference? Probably not. They don’t give a shit. They’re thinking about their socks,” he says with a hearty eruption of laughter.
“When big containers of fish are being transported, instead of them being docile, they put in another fish that is nipping at their fins and keeping them healthy. You need a provocateur, someone who is needling and keeping people on their toes. Otherwise, people become docile and potentially oblivious to potential injustices.”
When asked if he feels he’s part of the ‘right on’ crowd with all the right left-leaning answers to the issues of our day, Smith retorts: “I’d rather take that label than being a cunt. There’s your headline.”
However, it is his relationship with his family and the city in which he was born in which informs his insights. Both, clearly, have been fractured. He hints at a troubled past with his separated parents.
There was a poem about his father which hasn’t made the final cut in Fear Not. “I was a little more conscious about whether it worked on the page. And there was a part in it where something was written about childhood that was honest, but it didn’t show my dad in the best light. It wasn’t the worst household, though it wasn’t always happy. I felt I needed to re-address that. It felt a bit raw. It didn’t feel right now.”
Growing up as an only son meant his was the sole prism for analysing their roles in his life also. And it is seems his mother provided creative nourishment for Smith while his father was taciturn – or a staunchly Irish dad, in other words.
“I have matured and I can see their perspective. While I don’t agree with things my parents have done I can still empathise with them as to why they might have made those decisions. It’s come with me, having relationships of my own which have failed. I’ve learned from things I’ve done that I was neither happy nor proud about.”
“My mum said something to me about a year and a half ago which had a huge impact on me. She called round to my house and was giving out about something. I was trying to have her refocus on positive things. She said to me: ‘If I can’t tell you these things, who can I tell them to?’ I’m an only child. So why can’t she tell her son the things that are bothering her? In my mind, it was a battle to reframe her life in a positive light while for her, she just wanted to talk. Now she’ll give out and it’s tough to hear, but I’m getting to know her a little bit better and that’s a revelation.”
Another necessary revelation has been Smith addressing his own mental health issues. He’s worked with the First Fortnight festival whose stated aim is to challenge mental health stigma through creative arts. He’s even based out of their offices off Meath Street.
“The reality is 2007 and 2015 were really shit years for me. I had a particular low in 2015. I’m not trying to cash in on the depression card – ‘oh woe is me’ – I was very, very low and had some very dark thoughts and am very grateful I was able to work through them. Then, I think of a friend of mine who didn’t make it through this year, Paul. That stays with me all the time. First and foremost, the duty is to yourself, but the people who have committed or attempted suicide do weigh on me. That certainly spurs me on.”
The emotional resonance of Smith’s words are far-reaching also. He estimates he received around 4000 e-mails after My Ireland was published. “I got back to everybody. I didn’t want to leave anyone hanging.”
Whilst currently living in Knocklyon – “I prefer Tallaght” – Smith also regretfully acknowledges his chosen path may divorce him from the city that courses through his work.
“The reality is I will probably move to Belfast in January. The cost of rent and houses is way cheaper. I doubt I’ll ever be able to buy a house in Dublin. It’s sad for me that I have to leave my own city. It upsets me a little bit. I don’t want to romanticise it, but a lot of writers have cast the net. Perhaps, a bit of distance might help give me some focus.
“However, I have to live with me. And not worry about the expectations of grandchildren or should I have a house by now. I’m 36. I lived a part of my life trying to make other people happy. I need to do what’s right for me and by virtue of that if you want to be in my life, it’s right for you too.”
Fear Not is published by Arlen House. It will be launched in Poetry Ireland on Thursday September 13 at 7pm. Stephen goes on a 14 date nation-wide tour in November finishing up in the Button Factory on Saturday November 24.
Words: Michael McDermott
Photo: Babs Daly Grace