Sunday Poem – Paul Stephenson

So this weekend I’ve been down in Leicester for my dad’s 60th birthday – his birthday is actually Thursday but we had a meal for him on Saturday – there were 16 of us altogether, mainly sisters, brother in laws, neices, nephews and one great neice.  I have one neice who I bought a Michael Rosen poetry book for this Christmas which she absolutely loves, and while waiting for dinner to arrive she asked me to write a poem with her.  She decided she wanted to write one called ‘Rabbits and Dogs’ and then we played a game which I often do in school workshops – we listed as many words as we could beginning with a letter (in this case T) and then made a sentence out of them.  The sentence was ‘I twirl and twist my tiny toes underneath the tall and tricky table’ which I was quite impressed with!  She is seven years old – but even at that age when she was writing her rabbits and dogs poem she was worrying about using adjectives because that gets extra marks – it makes me sad – but playing the game of listing words and then making nonsensical sentences made her forget about that and have fun with language I think.

My eldest sister has been to one of my poetry readings, but since then has refused to attend any more so my plan of revenge is to turn her daughter into a poet, thus ensuring that she has to go to lots of poetry readings and read lots of poems.  Both of my sisters also keep my pamphlet on a shelf but haven’t read any of the poems apart from the one poem that is a bit rude ‘Picnic on Stickle Pike’.

All of last week was half-term but I didn’t do anything exciting – I spent pretty much the whole week painting.  We have finished the living room now for those of you who are following the painting saga with baited breath,which is probably nobody if I’m honest!  Next weekend I’m away in Grasmere with the Poetry Business Writing School on a residential weekend which is the end of the Writing School course – we are giving a reading on the Sunday at the Wordsworth Trust which is free to attend

so unfortunately no painting for me!  Am hoping to return at the end of the weekend and see either the bathroom or the kitchen transformed by hubby.

It was lovely getting back to the house tonight because there was lots of post waiting for me.  There was the Poetry Book Society bulletin with the new John Burnside collection ‘All One Breath’.  I really like John Burnside so I’m really looking forward to reading this.   There was also a cheque waiting for me for a poetry workshop that I ran at the beginning of January so that was rather pleasant. And two books arrived as review copies from Under the Radar so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into them as well.  This plethora of books almost made me feel guilty for buying the new David Constantine book when I spotted it on sale in the shop at Durham Cathedral but it was a momentary twinge and it disappeared when flicking through the Constantine collection I read this line ‘Nothing in a swallow says, I don’t want to leave this place’.  Isn’t that beautiful?

So today’s Sunday Poem is by Paul Stephenson who is a lovely guy and a very good poet.  He will be reading on Sunday as part of the Writing School event in Grasmere.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know Paul a little better over the last 18 months while the Writing School has been running – he is an exciting writer I think who often surprises us all in workshops when he reads back his work – Paul’s poems never sound like that dreaded beast ‘the workshop poem’.

I asked Paul to send a biography over and he is so modest he didn’t mention his most recent competition wins – a 1st prize in the South Bank Poetry magazine competition, judged by Clare Pollard, a 1st place in the Magma Short Poem prize in 2013, 2nd in the Cafe Writers competition in 2013, 2nd in the Troubadour in 2012….He is also currently taking part in the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme.  His background in Modern Languages and European Studies has an effect I think in the way he plays with language and his interest in experimenting with words – Paul says that recently he often finds himself “looking for words within words, anagrams, palindromes, rhymes, that this helps give me a texture for the poem and a word constraint.”

Paul says that the context for this poem was that “I heard David Cameron on the radio in January 2013, I think, talking about multinationals avoiding corporation tax. And he said ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’, obviously referring to a large coffee shop we all know. And I thought, gosh, that is such a tired old expression, how can I play with it and travel somewhere unexpected….”

which I think gives a really interesting insight into the writing process, although I also think it is not necessary to know this to enjoy the poem.  I didn’t know it when I read the poem, but I enjoyed the playfulness of it and the slow transformation of ‘coffee’ to ‘coffin’.  I picked this poem as well because it is very different to the poems I normally choose, completely different from anything I would write – which is probably one of the reasons I like it – and maybe in my head it is linking back to this weekend and sitting at the table playing around with words with my neice….

The poem was previously published in Lighthouse – a relatively new journal which you can find more information about here

You can find out more about Paul by going to his website at

Thanks to Paul for letting me use this poem – I hope you enjoy it!

Wake Up And – Paul Stephenson

smell the coffee
smell the coughing
the cacophony
the cafard
the cavern

wake up and smell Cavafy
wake up and smell Kefalonia

smell the kaftan
smell the kif
the köfte
the Kiefer
the O’Keefe

wake up and smell the cufflink
wake up and smell the coffin

8 comments on “Sunday Poem – Paul Stephenson

  1. Kim,

    Many thanks for featuring my poem, and for the generous words! I really appreciate it. I can also totally see why the poem may have struck a chord after the word games with your niece! That is so ironic that they get better marks for using more adjectives. I totally see how they want to get young kids to employ a broader and more ambitious vocab….but it is ironic that any aspiring poet would have to shake them off. But I guess it’s about knowing rules and breaking them. I do hope that your sister’s refusal to see you read is just cos she ‘doesn’t get poetry’ and you haven’t fallen out. Looking forward to the weekend. Any chance to escape real life 🙂

    night night,


    1. Hi Paul
      Yes, I should have clarified that my sister is not interested in poetry – we haven’t fallen out. After she came to my reading she said my poems were ‘ok’ but she got bored during other readings – I don’t think this is a reflection on the other poets – I dragged all my sisters and my older nieces to the reading and came to the conclusion that they have the attention span of small insects! But at least they came 🙂 Thanks again for letting me use the poem

  2. Spot on, what you’re doing with your niece, Kim. Children know intuitively and in their bones what schools unteach….that we invented poetry as mnemonic when we had no writing, or how else would there be history, how else would we work together in time to achieve what we could never achieve alone; that poetry is, at heart, oral and communal, and rhythmical and repetitious. That’s what your alliterating game knows. And that’s why your niece may be a poet one day (if she isn’t already…if she is, then school will ultimately leave her undamaged). Buy her the wonderful ‘Animalia’…the alliterating alphabetical bestiary by Graeme Base (Picture Puffin). I’ve bought it for at least 4 grandchildren. Tell her verbs are better than adjectives, any day. Hmmm. I didn’t mean to kick off like that. I meant to say how much I like the poem. Loved reading it aloud…a chant. Then listening to it. Then thinking about it. I can’t do simple/complex. But this does. lovely sound shifts through the scents and tastes and moods and fabrics of the eastern Mediterranean. The full Lawrence Durrell/ Louis de Bernieres experience. Layers and layers of references. Even blowsy O’Keefe. Shape and structure, playfulness and righteous anger, and working like a rainbow, a spectrum, a colour wheel. Another to make me reconsider even thinking of writing any more. Right. Time to go into the garage and start making a table for the next-doors mobile home/dragcar transporter. Honestly

    1. Hi John – will see if I can get a copy of the book you recommended! I have used the alliterative game as an ice breaker with children up to the age of 16 and as young as 7 and they all seem to like it – I think it is so important to make language fun and it does seem to take the pressure off to ‘be creative’. I’m glad you liked Paul’s poem as well – I think the words in this poem are like stones dropped into a pond in this poem – they set off little ripples and chains of thoughts…don’t work in the garage for too long!

  3. Ah, what a super poem! Thanks for posting. And I know what you mean about siblings not being interested in poetry, but what a shame they couldn’t bring themselves to read your pamphlet all the way through, just once!

    1. Hi Robin
      Glad you liked Paul’s poem. Yes, it is a shame, but on the upside, at least I can continue to make them feel guilty about it when ever I visit!

  4. Hi Kim, if it makes you feel any better, I bought your pamphlet the other day and read the whole thing in one sitting. Loved it! Also enjoyed Paul’s poem and I second John Foggin’s Animalia recommendation, it’s amazing

    1. Hi Charlotte! Ahh! That does make me feel better! I am glad you enjoyed the pamphlet, and Paul’s poem! I was actually quite touched that my family came to my poetry reading at all – it is completely alien to them and they have no interest in poetry so just to get them through the door was an achievement! Thanks for reading and I will definitely try and find a copy of Animalia…

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