Today on the blog, I’m talking to the Provincial Prince of Darkness himself, Steve Urwin, whose words are quoted above. Steve is a well-known and much-loved poet, who truly has to be seen and heard to be believed. As well as writing and performing his own poetry, he works with other writers to facilitate their development and also binds his own books. There are pictures of his work throughout this article, but I wanted to show his astonishing work, Anomalies, which is nothing short of a publishing feat. Beneath the handmade cover is a sumptuous (faux) suede cover, variously coloured leaves, and poems, vignettes and photos galore from Steve’s archive.
I’m lucky enough to own this handmade beauty in its deluxe form, and Steve will be relieved to know that it is not just stashed on one of my usual teetering bookpiles, but is kept in its own special poetry box underneath my valet stand. (Yes, cut me in half and you will find the words Downton Abbey stamped right through me. But enough of my televisual addictions and furniture predilections and on with the interview.)
Q. I recently read The Binding by Bridget Collins and immediately thought of you. Not only do you write, perform and publish poetry, you also make your own books by hand. What drew you into this painstaking process?
A. I’ve seen that novel but haven’t read it. In early 1999 I got a book of writings by Jarboe of the music group Swans from America. It was a limited edition, hand-assembled folio, typewriter set with handwritten embellishments. Heavy handmade paper for the cover, with one of the singer’s dreadlocks attached to the binding. I liked her personal approach to publishing, the direct interaction with the people purchasing her art. Also, I’m a control freak. I get a kick out of being able to make something at my dropleaf table without having to ask anyone’s permission to do it.
Q. You share your diary on your weekly blog and many of your poems appear to be autobiographical; you don’t shy away from sharing the details of your life, whether painful, hilarious, tragic or mundane. Why did you decide to put yourself under the microscope and how does it feel to bare your soul to the world in this way?
A. I’m not the most imaginative person on the planet. I only have myself and own experiences to draw on for my writing. I am reluctant to use the experiences of others for fear of misrepresentation and causing offence. I will borrow from others, if I am involved in their experience, but I’d prefer not to. Also, I believe it’s not my place to tell someone else’s story. People should write their own stories if possible. In my workshops I tend to encourage autobiography but appreciate that not everybody wants to air their dirty laundry in public. I use silly, lightweight, automatic writing with groups who would find the really dark stuff inappropriate. I could never write a plotted novel. When I discovered the works of autobiographical writers such as Henry Rollins and Charles Bukowski, I saw how it might be possible to produce something that could be made into a book. In my twenties I also read people such as Michael Gira (Swans) and Lydia Lunch – their work is heavy, brutal, disturbing… I once heard the late, great Freddie Mercury describe himself as a musical prostitute. I feel much the same about my writing. Some may see it as a rather desperate way to make so-called art/literature. I don’t really care. If I could write nice, well-adjusted uplifting stories, I would, but I just use what I’ve got.
Q. As someone admired for both writing and performing (not least for leaping onto tables in one mighty bound), do you prefer page over stage, or vice versa?
A. I like both. I’m probably known more for the performance aspect. (I think the incident you refer to was during a poetry slam at Ustinov College, Durham University. I didn’t want to use the mic so just performed from where I was in the room.) Unfortunately, due to the current public health situation, I might not get to perform again for a long while. I’m enjoying using the page instead. When I started writing I envisaged just typing up the most gut-churning introspection I could muster and sending it out to unsuspecting small press magazine editors. I had no intention of getting on stage. I like a book in my hand, someone’s experiences, insights, imagination locked in a portable volume.
Q. In 2014, in ‘Home Town Slog’, you set yourself the goal of leaving the house with a 100-page notebook and not letting yourself come home until you’d filled it with writing. More recently, last year, you committed to ‘Steve Achieves’, a series of 365 daily achievements on social media. Having decided to monitor the weather for the first 12 days of 2020 to predict the weather for the rest of the year, I was fed up with doing it by day 2. So, how do you feel about committing to challenges like these as time wears on and how do you keep going?
A. It’s easy when you don’t take quality over quantity into consideration. It’s just talking with a pen instead of your mouth. About eighty percent of what I write is unusable, but it’s the only way to get the other twenty percent. There were some days during Steve Achieves where I really struggled to get something worth recording. I ate a lemon just to say that I’ve done so. Some activities took longer – a three-hour walk with a notebook to jot down observations. On a few occasions I was sitting at 10.30pm, reviewing my day in hopes of recalling something to get online before bed. I kick myself if I don’t get my journal done before the midnight deadline. The proper ‘diary’ never leaves the house for fear of losing it, so the hard bit is revisiting stray entries written on scrap paper when I’m away from home and copying them up. At present, there are no gaps in my supermarket-purchased diary. Some years I’ve had up to thirty gaps and had to sift through loose leaves to find the words I’d scribbled at my girlfriend’s house, in a venue, or on the last bus home.
Q. I’ve heard you describe morning pages as ‘a net for catching dreams’, which is easily the best description for this kind of writing that I’ve heard. Apart from waking up and filling three pages before you’ve done anything else, tell me about your writing day and describe any writing rituals or equipment that you can’t do without.
A. To be honest, I rarely feel as though I have a writing day. People often ask if I’ve written anything recently. I do about two hundred thousand words of journal, morning pages and workshop-generated pieces of poetry, memoir and flash fiction a year. It’s all handwritten in the first instance. I make the morning pages books to the exact length I’m going to need. Two notebooks a month. Twenty-three sheets of blank 75gsm A4 for the first; folded and stapled as an A5 booklet, using a double spread turned ninety degrees to portrait A4 for the writing. The second notebook, depending on how many days the month has, may use 25 sheets. If I use heavier paper stock, I will sew the pages. Sometimes I glue on covers and trim before completion – the notebooks are easier to spot in a messy house with nice brightly-coloured card around them. I currently have a backlog of four months to put covers on. I used to write morning pages in bed but have recently developed pains from propping myself up with my elbow on the mattress and my left hand on my head as write, so I do them downstairs at the dropleaf table. I use waterproof gel pens that are only available in packs of three from a well-known supermarket and start to panic when stocks run low. I have occasionally resorted to other brands that aren’t permanent, so there may be smudges here and there if the pages get wet.
If I’m editing a publication, I’ll be at the computer in my bedroom typing up poetry and prose from the notebooks. I never feel as though I’ve written a book. All my books are constructed from selections of short pieces. I spend a lot of time considering the running order of the material; I try to find a thread-line and agonize over the placement of poems. How things sit on the page and the spaces around them is of considerable importance. Having said that, I don’t believe there is a haiku in existence that, when typed in 12pt Times New Roman, deserves an A5 page to itself.
Some of my best writing comes from Writing Marathons. I have over thirty notebooks of work from those sessions that haven’t even been revisited yet. Some of the journal/essay stuff I just find months, years down the line. I can’t remember the last time I had an idea, wrote it down and followed it to fruition, start to finish. It used to happen quite a lot but not in the last few years.
I have a work log that I fill in every day to remind me not to take the same material to a venue twice, and so I can see when I’m slipping and need a boot up the backside. Then there’s a little Gratitude Journal, which sounds quite twee for me, that I jot something in every day: Thanks for a good meal, a good gig, etc… And the ‘Scribbles from the Brink of Inertia’ blog comes from the diary I write in at the end of each day. I have about twenty years of introspective writing to edit, all the Home Town Slog, and Steve Achieves to proof read for possible book publication. I rarely send material to magazines anymore.
Q. You have a huge back catalogue of work, including the likes of There are Easier Ways of Living Than Bleeding to Death, Tightrope Walker, Hypomaniac, Shades of Grey, So Much for the Sunshine, Milking A Joe Brainard Riff, Dark Matter, Laughter to Split Glass, and Anomalies – to say nothing of all the work published in a huge range of other publications. Can you pick out three poems you feel especially proud of and tell me about them?
A. ‘The Chocolate Onion’ is a signature poem. It was written as the prologue to a Theatre Cap-a-Pie ‘CONTACT’ performance based on young people’s experiences of domestic violence. I rarely perform it now, but I used it a lot for a long time as a foundation piece to justify anything disturbing that may follow later in the set. A well-respected regional songwriter once said he would give his right arm to have written it. Coming from a guitarist, I took that as quite a compliment. The piece was the title poem in an anthology I put together from the week of ‘CONTACT’ workshops that took place at Civic Hall, Stanley twenty years ago. A hundred copies were made. The poem is included in the Deluxe version of my handmade book Anomalies 1989-2014 and opens a set from the Edinburgh Free Fringe ‘JibbaJabba’ event.
‘Coming Back To This’ is a big poem for me. I wrote it after buying a new bicycle in 2001 when I was recovering from a mental breakdown. It’s one of my most positive pieces and closed the first section of my first Red Squirrel Press book Hypomaniac. It takes me back to my old stomping ground in Bridgehill where I used to ride BMX bikes and skateboards as a kid. You will know all the places name-dropped. (I do!) It usually comes with a five-minute spoken word intro about competing in Yorkshire trials biking events with my brother alongside much more able-bodied, younger riders. I performed the poem at a mental health event in 2002 and became a creative writing workshop facilitator as a result, hosting sessions at Waddington Street Centre in Durham City, where I still motivate people to write now, even during these difficult coronavirus times. You can read the poem here.
‘Prose Poem From A Lazy Sunday’ is an example of one of those moments when the morning pages offer up a little gift. It was tweaked a bit for performance but is basically just an exchange between my better half and me during a lie-in. The piece is in my handwritten So Much for the Sunshine collection and was recorded at JibbaJabba on a particularly good night in The Cumberland Arms, Byker, for the book launch. You can watch the clip here.
Q. You do a lot of work in the north east of England to facilitate writers. Tell me about your Writing Marathons and why there are always cakes…
A. A writing marathon is a four-hour bootcamp of a workshop. It started as part of my New College Durham writing courses when I did joint sessions with Lamplight Arts Centre in 2007. I developed the format from Natalie Goldberg’s idea in her ‘Writing Down the Bones’. A prompt is selected at random from folded sheets on the table followed by readbacks of writing produced. The process is repeated with a series of new prompts until the four hours is up. The first writing marathons were low-key; everyone brought a packed lunch, a pen and an open mind. They grew into bigger events taking place at various venues across the region, with food and writing materials included. You basically turn up, sit down, shut up, write then read and listen – and stuff as much food as you want down your gullet in the process. The food takes longer to prepare than the writing prompts. I have a sweet tooth. I love cakes and biscuits and salmon sandwiches and pork pies and crisps and peanuts. I couldn’t set the room for a marathon without my partner, Jenni, who helps with food preparation and greets the participants with teas and coffees in reception – while I’m frantically checking that the pens alternate black-blue-black-blue around the workshop table, and the four colour choices of handmade notebooks do likewise and are all perfectly aligned… I’m hoping we get back to doing writing marathons again in 2021. But it’s probably going to be the following year.
Q. What are you working on now?
I’m about to start selecting material for the follow-up to my recent perzine-styled A6 booklet Unruly Eyebrow. It will consist mainly of extracts from my morning pages since July this year and I’ll try to include new poems written off the back of my autumn writing sessions at Waddington Street Centre. A perzine (personal zine) is a handmade fold and staple autobiographical self-published booklet / pamphlet / chapbook / whatever. They often include collaged graphics, cut-and-paste text, handwritten pages, photographs, diary entries and confessional essays. It’s a popular format in America and elsewhere, though not so much the UK – sod’s law. It’s my favourite format at the moment.
Q. What question have I not asked that you wish I had, and what is your answer?
‘Would you like regular free physiotherapy to prolong your mountain biking well into your fifties and sixties?‘
A. Oh yes, please. My left knee is on the way out and my right shoulder is starting to give me trouble as well. If you could throw in a Surly ‘Karate Monkey’ fully rigid mountain bike in the ‘wet clay’ paint finish that would be lovely.
Q. Finally, please tell me what your three favourite books are, and why?
A. Henry Rollins Talks (with Robert Fischer)
This book saved my life. In September 1988, when I was eighteen and at a low ebb, I saw in THRASHER skateboard magazine a b/w photograph of this threatening-looking tattooed guy in shorts who used to front some U.S. hardcore band called Black Flag. I knew nothing about him or the band but vaguely remember one or two kids mentioning Flag at school years earlier. I read the short feature and liked the honesty and intensity – the no bullshit way Rollins said what he meant and didn’t care whether the interviewer liked it or not. A man living independently of the mainstream and working on his own terms with his ‘Rollins’ Band.
A couple of months later I saw a review of ‘Henry Rollins Talks’ in NME. The good people at the now defunct COMPENDIUM BOOKSHOP on Camden High Street got me a copy of this little 70-odd page interview book. Again, I could relate to the opinions of this ‘outsider’ bloke; and his references to Nietzsche, Hubert Selby Jr, Knut Hamsun, Henry Miller, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Charles Bukowski, got me reading ‘literature’ instead of music biographies and pulp horror almost overnight.
You’ll struggle to find a copy of ‘Henry Rollins Talks’ for less than about sixty quid on eBay or Amazon. (I paid £4.99.) There was a great review of it in SOUNDS or Melody Maker when it first came out back in 1988, but I no longer have the clipping. The book, minus b&w photos, was reprinted as the second part of One from None.
Factotum (Charles Bukowski)
Second novel from the ‘laureate of American low-life’. I spent over a decade of my adult life holding down a menial shit job in a warehouse. I hated it and couldn’t see a way out. I could relate to the constant struggle of trying to escape the rat-race. Great work.
The Consumer (Michael Gira)
Hallucinatory vignettes, monologues and other short fictions from the founder frontman of Swans, one of the world’s most legendary ‘avant-garde’ music groups ever. If you have a weak stomach you might not wish to experience the full force of this man’s writing. The book is filled with many powerful pieces that I find myself returning to again and again when I need to escape tepid literature and really revel in the extremely visceral. Depraved, disgusting, psychologically suffocating. Amazing. Gira waited over ten years to release some of these writings and will probably never put out another full-length volume. At the time, he didn’t even consider himself a proper writer! But, in my humble opinion, he’s still knocking spots off most authors I’ve had the patience to read over the last few decades.
About Steve Urwin
Steve Urwin is a diarist and ranter from Consett, County Durham, UK. A widely respected spoken word performer and multiple poetry slam champion, Steve works as a creative writing facilitator and runs Talking Pen, organising the monthly Poetry Jam event at Waddington Street Centre in Durham City and publishing limited edition monographs and pamphlets.
Once again, this purveyor of provincial darkness draws on life lessons some would rather not experience beyond the confines of a poetry book. Although the collection bears much of his trademark bleakness, Urwin has created intriguing characters and entertaining monologues with some lovely humour brought to the fore. Disgruntled offspring avoid the criminal embarrassments of the nuclear family. Insubordinate outsiders recall the trauma of school dinners. Expect bully boys, bus queues, letters of love and hate, alternative subculture observations, masochistic instruction manuals, ridiculous political manifestos and the everyday chore of having to do just that little bit more.
Review of Steve Urwin’s work
‘Steve Urwin’s work has a winning combination of humour and deep, deep emotion; here are ordinary lives and ordinary places with all their extraordinary and multifaceted diversity. Poetry can be a map to live by, and Steve Urwin is an expert cartographer.’
Ian McMillan, The Verb, BBC Radio 3
Find out more about Steve Urwin
Website: Talking Pen