• John Dempster

An evening with Kenneth Steven


We had a lovely evening at HighlandLIT last night with the gifted poet and novelist Kenneth Steven and we are so grateful for his visit.

Kenneth sat in front of us, gently reading a selection of poems from his two most recent collections. West contains poems about two of the subjects closest to Kenneth’s heart: the Scottish landscape, and his beloved sister Helen. The first poem in the collection is ‘My sister Helen’ in which Kenneth shares that ‘She was Scotland to me.’ Helen, who was an adult when Kenneth was born was a hugely influential presence in his life. She died at the age of 73, and many of the other poems in West aim at seeing things through Helen’s eyes.

Kenneth gave introductions to each of the poems he read. I was particularly moved by The Deer which describes the winter morning, bitter to the skin and to the heart, when Kenneth was leaving his home in Dunkeld after his marriage had irretrievably broken down. The past eight years of his life were in boxes waiting to be collected. And the deer came ‘down…through the dawn to stand and watch’, the same deer he had fed winter by winter when the ground was rock-solid. ‘That dawn,’ he writes ‘I think they knew that I was going for good, As though they had come to say some strange farewell.’ Kenneth’s poems are permeated with the ache of a fragile beauty.

The second book from which Kenneth read was The Spirit of the Hebrides a selection of poems from earlier collections by Kenneth made by the photographer Alastair Jackson to accompany an exhibition of black and white photographs of Skye and Raasay, and later published in book form. More lovely poems about landscape and Gaelic culture and encroaching modernity.

What was most fascinating about the evening was Kenneth’s readiness to share his experience of the creative process. He told us that, right from the beginning, he resolved to be a full-time writer, because, he said ‘You need to be there for the words when they come.’

Kenneth works best when he is in the silence of his own writing room. He need ‘cabin time’ as he put it, referring to the unheated cabin at the bottom of his mother’s garden in Aberfeldy where he went to seek stillness to reflect and write. A place to which to retreat, to meditate to ‘quieten the soul.’ Now, living on Seil Island with his new partner (‘my beloved Kristina’ he describes her) he has a studio above the garage, with a view over a calming lochan.

Before reading us a sonnet (which begins ‘A sonnet is the hardest thing to write’) he explained how important to him practice writing is – trying out a particular literary form, taking a single word from a newspaper, like ‘war’ or ‘peace’ and trying to spin a sonnet from it.

Practice writing no doubt develops technical skill, but he particularly mentioned how practising, even writing fairly low-grade material, stills and focusses his mind, and as it were opens the inner doorway from where the steps lead down to the well at the core of his being from which words come. And sometimes golden phrases and images arise even in practice writing which draw him to the well to discover their significance.

He tells us ‘you can’t order poems: they just happen; they are lightening strikes.’ Iona has been a special place to Kenneth all his life, and he often finds that when the well has dried up, when the lightening has forgotten how to strike, a visit to Iona is what he needs. ‘Often the poetry returns on Iona.’

The actual initial draft, written in pencil by Kenneth, he refers to as the ‘outpouring’ – this is the initial gift from which the final work is shaped. Both poems and novels come from the deep place within, Kenneth told us, but admitted that poems come from deeper within him than prose writing.

Kenneth then reads his work over and over, his ear and his heart keenly listening for what changes are needed. Kristina is an excellent editor, with the gift of reading his drafts and discerning where changes would be enhancing.

Finally, Kenneth types the word in progress on to computer.

Some of us were talking with Kenneth after the event. Would it not benefit him to go on-line and manage the e-publishing of his work to get a wider readership? His reply was that while he is always happy to have new readers, his priority is to be there for the words when they come, to create new things. ‘You are a true artist,’ someone told him.

I felt that listening to Kenneth yesterday evening, we were bound together as a community, sisters and brothers in literature, listening with admiration and respect to one of the most gifted contemporary Scottish writers. Thank you Kenneth, for sharing with us your work, and yourself.

(Kenneth's Facebook page is here.)


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