Today’s special guest is poet and blogger Mike Steeden, and we’re going to talk about his book The Shop that Sells Kisses, which leads us to touch on epic love affairs in Mike’s poetry, the Summer of Love in San Francisco, and depictions of absolute defeat, not to mention the avant garde 1920s in Paris.
I’ve been following Mike’s blog for over a year now, and I’ve got a copy of his book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Mike’s poetry is filled with devious temptresses, femme fatales, mysterious magical mavens and just all kinds of cool and wonderful ladies. After all, his motto is “the gals must always win.” But just when you think you’ve plumbed the depths of their depravities or fathomed their raison d’etre there’s always more to learn about these heroines.
I was curious about Mike’s inspirations, so I’ve invited him here to answer some questions for us:
How long have you been writing poetry?
It is true that I write poetry, yet before getting stuck in I feel the need to say that I lay no claim to being a poet. To warrant the tag, ‘poet’ I believe the author of such work must possess a certain greatness few are blessed with. Sadly, I am not one of those. They are the rarest breed.
However, and in essence, I write about whatever idea, scenario or emotion drops anchor in this tangled subconscious of mine and do my level best to choose words that might do justice to the images I perceive.
It was, from years back and to stave off the potential tedium of having too much free time I commenced ‘writing’. Initially, it was ‘silly verse’ aimed at small children, then even sillier stabs at humour for grown-up’s’, following which I started writing down whatever came to me. Over the last few years, I have discovered within an enticing, free-thinking land of possibilities than previous. I think I finally learnt how to take into custody anything that turned up within the bleak warehouse that is my skull, and mustered the bravery to write it down uncensored. As to the worth of my work? A subjective matter for readers to ponder upon and decide.
A time and place that you revisit often are the 1920s and 30s, or Europe between the two World Wars. What inspired you to write about this period?
There were two standout cultural events in the 20th Century. The latter of the two, I lived through. 1967 saw the Summer of Love evolve in San Francisco. This was a time when the young, fed up with following in parental footsteps, fed up with an unnecessary Vietnamese war abandoned all that had gone before, chose peace and love instead. Young women, buoyed in confidence through the new-found freedom the contraceptive pill afforded them rejected the concept of life as subservient housewives. The electric guitar finally came of age and would leave its artistic mark henceforth. Self-styled hippies were at the forefront of this peaceful revolution. That the dream was a short-lived naivety and became a Mansonesque nightmare perhaps the saddest thing. That summer of love left its mark as a cherished memory for those who could still remember! That’s all.
The other key event, well before my time on earth, namely The Crazy Years in Paris endured despite itself. It was the period twixt the two World Wars. The Montparnasse district of the city, a place of café culture, boozy tobacs and artists’ studios a magnet for budding intellectuals, philosophers, painters, photographers, writers from not just France, but from all over the planet. In short, The Crazy Years spawned an anarchic avant-garde; became a place where free-thinkers lived out the Bohemian ambition to the full as a matter of course. Within the currency of that twenty-year timespan the place was a nonconformist domicile for the likes of Hemingway, Man Ray, Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, even political exiles such as Leon Trotsky, and that is merely scratching at the surface. Art movements, from Art Deco, Cubism, Surrealism, indeed more ‘ism’s than one could shake a stick at flourished. From my perspective, who in their right mind would not want to be part of that scene. I have said many times that even in the knowledge of the ever-growing cancer that was Nazism would all too soon herald the demise of such outlandish, often provocative self-indulgence, I would, be it in the gambit of Godly gift travel back in time and stay for as long as the place would have me.
There you have it…my inspiration born of that most fascinating period in modern times.
Much of your poetry is about lost or tragic love. Do you think such epic love affairs were only possible in the past when people didn’t have social media, or could they exist nowadays?
What an ingenious question. On the one hand, I believe social media has devalued relationships simply because avid users have grasped lowest common denominator habits of both banal and/or overtly explicit inter-action leaving little room for the art of romance to hold sway. Certainly, news of ‘love lost’ breaking on, say, Facebook can be the most irksome, tiresome, repugnant sometimes, thing to have paraded hither and yon within the ether of the public domain. Yet, tethered in any particle of time such souls would, by hook or crook always find a means of shouting there supposed grief and anger from the metaphorical rooftops; they know not, a thing called ‘epic love’.
On the other hand, whether or not a person is an advocate of social media, I truly believe it is likely little has changed; a romantic soul will always be romantic; that it is in the DNA of the chivalrous male to be chivalrous; that epic love affairs will, for eternity, be epic. It is the way of things, the natural order.
Twixt lovers, an unambiguous awareness that the potential for tragedy has always, and always will lurk in the shadows makes for the ‘epic’ insofar as such great love affairs are concerned. Knowing, that even the tightest knot can be unravelled in an instant, focuses the mind and perhaps is the very thing that makes them ‘epic’ whether they subsist or fall apart.
Do you have a favourite author or two?
I certainly do. At the very top of my list is Michael Ondaatje. Any and all of his books are literary gems, he is a master of the art of writing, his book ‘The English Patient’ an eternal favourite. He never wastes a single word. Beyond that ‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer, a book set in the run up to WW2 (inevitably, with me) is one that conveys, often in a heart-breaking way, the trials and tribulations of those stuck in a German society that is rapidly turning into a living hell. Certainly, Mr Mawer is right up there with Mr Ondaatje.
I tend to remember authors from the books they wrote rather than their names! Danny Scheinmann’s ‘Random Acts of Heroic Love’ struck a chord with me some years back. It is a pity Mr Scheinmann has not been more prolific for he writes ever so well.
I want to ask you in particular about a story that I really liked called Smashed Ceramics. It was so weird and mysterious. What was the inspiration behind it?
You really are rather good at posing questions, Carolee.
At first, aside from the title, ‘Smashed Ceramics’ I had no recollection of this one. After a swift search, I discovered I had posted this back in December 2015. I remember it clearly now as in hindsight it may have subliminally sowed the seed of thought process in respect of an extensive piece I am presently working on.
‘Smashed Ceramics’ is a brief muse upon the subject of absolute defeat. To be conscious of a comprehensive defeat, the vanquished one must be awake to the fact that he or she are empty of all things they once held dear. Additionally, the defeated one must also understand that to the perpetrator of such a conquest sees their victory as nothing less than a magnificent art form. Salt in the wound, so to speak. In the case of this tale, its finale where his female gaoler simply drops the cell door key out of the window and into the moat below, seals such absolute defeat.
Personally, when writing…and I suspect you know this better than I do…it is important to put yourself in the same place; become even the character you are writing about. This piece was but a cameo of absolute defeat, a thing known to many who have suffered at the hands of unadulterated evil.
What’s your favourite poem from this collection?
Mostly, I write for myself. It is an added bonus if others like what I have written. There was one piece, from long ago that I wrote for another. A refreshing change of tack insofar as I am concerned. I did manage to post said piece a while back. They are words my dear Shirley has kept tucked away in her purse for many a long year. The piece of paper they are written on is now tatty, almost falling apart. The note reads;
She talks of family planning with spiders; gives advice to dogs on the subject of manners; compliments flowers on their beauty; discusses pesticides with bumblebees; speaks of romance with butterflies; lectures cats on their toilet habits, and, mostly, she just tells off the wasps. Wasps are the Hell’s Angels of her garden. When hot, she undresses, when cold she wears layer upon layer. Rarely is she colour co-ordinated. She looks best naked. This one is of the earth.
Whilst idling in the open air she has shown me many things from nature that being held a hostage of concrete and tarmac had denied me.
She takes in waifs and strays and gives a ray of hope to the unfortunate with kind words. We are lovers, parents, husband and wife. Confidants over thirty years woven together in love this past twenty or so. As just friends there were never secrets. We have no secrets even now. I call her my ‘child bride’ as I am nearly eight years her senior. We are over one hundred years between us – and counting. When the mood takes her, she may prey upon the weaknesses of pretentious humanity. In days of yore, in drink, she sometimes destroyed such beings. She is blessed with great, cutting wit and cries giant tears, like crystal balls made of morning dew when laughing. She laughs a lot. She does not ride that savage downhill slalom of melancholy that is my want, although if left alone too long she climbs the walls of tedium. Her smile can illuminate a cathedral, her frown may slam shut its Gothic doors and herald the crepuscular certainty of nightfall. She is blond, her hair fine and long, her body nectareous. A brave one, she has the small scars of childhood recklessness about her limbs. Accident prone, she bruises her body with regularity, yet never her heart. To her there is no calamity in her clumsiness. The regular breakage of man-made objects matters not a jot. She says such things are replaceable anyway. Those mortals who cause the pain born of malice she would lock away forever. She calls small children and the very old, ‘My angel’. Infants would follow her to the ends of the earth. Sometimes she has the mouth of a navvy, sometimes the eloquence of a bard.
She conceived our child in the Polynesian suite of a French chateau in the Loire Valley. As is her way, a certain savoir-faire. When, all those years now past, giving birth to her George she sweltered in the body heat of her own endeavour. Nearly a day in labour, and oblivious to the comings and goings of others, she insisted the midwife undress her. Enthrallingly naked, she bore her son. Natural instinct is second nature to those of the earth, those impish daughters of Eve. Fate wed us; eternity binds us. My Celtic lady is out of step with the rest, captivatingly mad, yet with no comprehension that this is so. She has emboldened me. I think I am her rock.
Her name is Shirley. Shirley is ‘off the wall’ most times.
Additionally, I was a proud moment when my youngest, musician son, uniquely for him as he always pens his own lyrics, put my poem ‘Sunlight & the Dust’ to song for his new album, ‘Dream Rescuer’. I rather like the finished number.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your writing?
When discussing Smashed Ceramics, I alluded to the point that without realising it at the time, it was likely its subliminal effect may have played a part in my current endeavour. Some weeks past, I arguably finished a book of fiction. The spine of my story revolves around a male subject who has indeed suffered an absolute defeat like no other.
When I say, ‘arguably finished’ I mean that I am presently editing, the edit of the edited edit’s edit. In truth, I know not how to call a book ‘actually finished’. All I know is that when I am happy that it reads as I wish it to read, then, only then can I say, ‘job done’! My story is entitled, ‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ ©Mike Steeden, 2016.
The story is set in the period just prior to WW2 and up to the early 1950’s. It is a risqué tale of espionage, assassination and an epic love affair (sorry Carolee, I just stole your phrase). Whether it is any good I dare say I will find out in the fullness of time.
My thanks for the invite, I have thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Thank you so much for being here, Mike. It was great to chat with you!