“The relationships we have with our parents are complicated.
We love and we hate them.”
Stephen James Smith started our interview by apologising for being elusive. We’ve been back and forth for a week or so, trying to work out a good time to chat ahead of his Electric Picnic gig this weekend.
“It’s just been f**king mad,” he tells me, before adding that it’s a good complaint. Smith is currently heading for Stradbally to play the Other Voices tent this Saturday. After that, he’s off to Holland and Malaysia.
Then there’s the little matter of his collaboration with Conor O’Brien of Villagers fame. “Which is kind of ironic.” he notes, self-depreciatingly. “He’s just won an Ivor Novello award for songwriting and he wants to work with me! I was kind of going, ‘I think you’ve got this covered!’”
Since I first heard Stephen performing at the spoken word festival he co-founded, LingoFest, I’ve been curious about what drives someone of my generation – he’s 34 - to become ‘a poet’. “I’ve done every job under the sun and now this is my job, which is weird to say,” he replies when I ask him. “Although, the idea of a professional poet doesn’t sit well with me; like, I wouldn’t classify myself as that, or a careerist, but I’m happy to be able to do what I love.”
In fact, the Dublin poet and spoken word revivalist hasn’t been elusive with me at all, bar a 24-hour period without a reply because he was busy gigging. After speaking to the man, though, I realise it’s in his nature to be accommodating and considerate of other people.
His poem, The Gardener, written about his relationship with his mother, is, in his own words, “not entirely flattering”. Though he had wanted to write about his mother for a number of years, it was a car trip home from mass one day that gave him the inspiration he had been waiting for.
“My mam goes to church all the time and I went with her one day. We were driving back from the jazz gig that she goes to every Sunday and she said to me, ‘I pretend to be happy.’ It just stuck with me. It was that moment of vulnerability from her that triggered something in me. Later on that night I wrote the poem; it just sort of came out of me in about 20 minutes.”
What came out, was a relationship laid bare.
The kind of words that you can imagine his mother listening to that first time: her heart swelling from hearing the tender and subtle things that her son noticed about her, and with the next word grimacing as he utters a harsh observation about something she may never even have noticed about herself – but he did. Yet, despite the sometimes harsh words, the idea that your son paid that much attention to you, loved you so much that he put his heart and soul into capturing your very essence as his mother, makes you realise why she was OK with The Gardener being put out there, into the world.
“I didn’t share that with the world until it was OK by my mum,” Smith says.
“It was her 60th birthday a few years back and our old house was robbed. She had a lot of her jewellery taken, and one of the things that was taken was a charm bracelet she had. So I got her a new charm bracelet and my friend, Enda, helped me to record The Gardener and put it onto a CD for her. I felt she had to hear it, and not just read it.”
I’m not entirely flattering in it, the whole way through,” Smith admits. “I think, nobody’s perfect, so hopefully I’m fair within it, despite me having a go at her about a couple of things.”
When I ask about the poem Smith wrote about his father, The Piano Man, which, like The Gardener, isn’t always complimentary – you could call it ‘brutally honest’ if you wanted to - he reflected for a moment.
“The relationships we have with our parents are complicated,” he finally said. “We love and we hate them.”
Never a truer word said.
“There are a lot of difficult subjects that people don’t always broach, and I think this is one of them. Hopefully people are able to then go and maybe have that conversation with their own parents and their own children as a result.”
The spoken word poem about Stephen’s father arose out of a monologue for a play that he wrote.
“Again, I shared it with my dad,” said Stephen, “and he said it was fair. In fact, he’d heard the poem about my mum and had asked when I was going to write one about him... and that’s what he got! I think it somehow helped our relationship. It’s not perfect, but we’re certainly more open with each other now.”
It’s people that tend to inspire him the most, he says. “Those simple things; those little human interactions.”
Even his poem about Dublin, Dublin You Are, a project that came about in a collaborative manner between a number of Dublin-based artists, Dublin2020 and the people of Dublin, is, he says, essentially about people.
“You could say it’s about Dublin; you could also say it isn’t. It’s very much focused on the people that make up Dublin, and about inclusivity, and about hope, and about optimism.
He’s quick to point out that Dublin You Are is not simply an ode to his hometown.
“I think that’s why I can get away with doing the poem outside of Dublin,” he reflects. “Because I’m not saying, ‘This is the greatest f**king place in the world.’ I’m actually saying there’s light and darkness in it.”
Those elements of light and shade are central to Smith’s work. “I’m not really interested in false platitudes,” he tells me. “The poems aren’t perfect and maybe I’ll look back on them in ten years time, with the benefit of hindsight and life experience, and maybe I’ll change some things or whatnot, but they felt right to me in that moment.”
One thing is certain, Stephen James Smith’s poems, essentially lyrical portraits of the people and places around us, are a true reflection of his life right now; and are relatable to so many of us living in Ireland in 2016 and ourselves each working through those complicated relationships with people, and with life.
If you’re going to Electric Picnic this weekend, Stephen plays the Other Voices tent at 4.15pm on Saturday.
You can also check out his spoken word and find out about his upcoming projects here. I highly recommend that you do.
Photograph: Bob Dixon