Monday, May 26, 2008

Interview with poet and artist Stephen Morris

1. Stephen Morris today is both a poet and a painter. From where did this love of verse and art come ?

At the age of three I was separated from my parents to live in Somerset, in the South of England, for five years. I didn’t speak until I was seven years old and on reflection I detested my childhood. My grandfather, with whom I lived at that time, was a brutal man who would discipline my brother and I with verbal abuse, beatings and sometimes keeping us tied up like dogs. Dirty boots would stimulate frenzied thrashings. I hated and loved my grandfather, but I had little respect for him.
I now believe that because of those early traumas I lived from an early age in my head and with my own imagination, Perhaps in many ways I still do. Academically, I was backward at school. I failed my grammar school entrance examination, aged 11 but at 13 I passed an entrance examination to a junior art school in Birmingham. Because of my August birth date I was always the youngest child of my academic year which had advantages and disadvantages. Art was, I believe, my way of communication but as I was not very successful at art school I left to work in a series of dead end jobs mostly in factories. One such job was in Cumberland, in the North of England.. One Sunday, I remember when aged fifteen, I caught a bus from Workington to Keswick a small town right in the heart of the Lake District. It was there discovered William Wordsworth and I stood on the very spot where he wrote his famous poem Friars Craig. These events, I think were the initial stimulation for both my art and poetry and from there they grew in the fertile pastures of my imagination.. There were certainly no teachers to guide me and I have always been a self motivator. I am , for me, the most reliable person I know, believing the old maxim, if you want something doing, do it yourself.

2. The reader of your poetry and viewer of your art soon understands that there is something special in your production which puts it somewhere between the simple and the beautiful. How do you react to such a statement ?

The question throws me a little and I will try to avoid a pretentious response. I have always believed that an artist, in the broadest sense of the word, must be able to communicate his work if he or she doesn’t what is the point ?. People naturally react differently to different things, Some people are determined to find hidden meanings in anything and in the past have read ideas and symbols into my work that consciously I have not been aware of. I don’t mind this at all as there are certainly a number of levels that I do operate on.. On the one hand there is the series of paintings that I did on the Holocaust following what was for me quite a traumatic experience when I visited Auschwitz-Berkineau in Poland. In that instance the paintings were totally in the face of the viewer. Bang, no punches pulled.. A political, an artistic, a sociological, a psychological, a racial, an historic and an emotional statement ,take your pick. Not long after I produced a series of paintings about Stonehenge, which attracted so many interpretations especially on the theme of twelve. I used twelve colours in the paintings, there were of course twelve paintings that were subdivided into twelve. Twelve months of the year,, twelve disciples, who followed Christ, There were twelve Greek and Roman Gods and on it went. The exhibition opened on mid-summers day in Salisbury which is quite near to Stonehenge. I had really hoped that a flying saucer was going to land but it didn’t. The paintings though did stimulate many interpretations which I found both flattering but also mystifying.
Yes I do try to be simple without been simplistic. I find beauty everywhere, both in the physical and the abstract. Oddly, and this maybe for some, a controversial statement, I found even in the ugliness of the twin towers attack in New York there was something hypnotically beautiful. The images of the planes as they flew into the building, The mesmerizing effect of people jumping to their death, to be followed by the collapse of the buildings. Finally, the twisted metal that remained created by the collapsed girders, could have been interpreted as an staggering piece of sculpture. What I feel is that beauty can be everywhere but I hastily add I never saw any beauty in Auschwitz not for a single moment.

3. What do you think about the relationship between the poet/artist and society/politics?

Historically in totalitarian political regimes, poets and artists are often the first to be imprisoned or executed. Artists and poets have imaginations, the rulers know this for they could be dangerous as they make people think. Dictators don’t want people who think. The true artist, in my opinion, not only should reflect the society he is in, but should be critical of it and attempt to change it, especially if that society is corrupt and restricts freedom. The pen and the paint brush are mightier than the sword, nes pas?

4. Apart from the social and political issues you write and paint about love. Which of these is most important for Stephen Morris ?

Love like wine comes in different bottles and has different tastes. I am not sure that it gets better with age though. Loving my children, as I do, is obviously different to loving a woman. With the latter I don’t think I have been very good at it and this may be due to a deep insecurity. I have bruises, scars and wounds to prove it. A couple still bleed as well. I think romantic love is an art form created by man, not women, they are too practical for that. Men write all the love songs and the love poems and seem to suffer more. My time for all that hopefully ran out ages ago thank goodness. I don’t ever want to go through being in love again even if it did stimulate within me some interesting work. So to answer the question , right now social and political issues are more important but when I was younger and the sap was rising through my body continually, love was.

5. Does Stephen Morris as a poet/artist believe in art for arts sake. Or does he believe that there must be something else behind the words and colours ?

I think that what is behind my motivation is compulsion. I have to create full stop and for most of my life I have. There was a period from 1985 to 1995 where I didn’t create anything, well very little. It was one of the darkest periods of my life where I came to the brink of life and death a few times. I sought relief in alcohol, sex and an insane and somewhat idiotic life style. I partially saved myself by going to work in a Children’s Home in Birmingham,. The young people there , were in every way, far worse off than myself.
If there are things in my work to detect it is for others to find . I have never thought of art for arts sake . There are many motives for creating art. Some artists make art for fame, others for money. There are some who use it a therapy and some to make a political statement as I previously covered . However, for whatever reason, to be a creative artist can be agonising but then there are times when it is ecstatic. Depending from which direction you are coming . I certainly believe a true artist has to suffer but maybe it is not obligatorily i.e. you don’t have to suffer to be a true artist. Some of my heroic figures certainly suffered for their art and in some cases died for which has to be interpreted as a futile gesture under any circumstances..

6. You write verse, short stories, paint and travel a lot. Why is travelling important for an artist?

I can only answer for myself. I travel for inspiration and a desperate urge to see over the next hill. Travelling can also be a drug. At the moment I am quite content to be living in the South of France. I mean who wouldn’t be ? I have though in the past been greatly influenced by travelling. My series of painting on the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in the U.S.A. bear witness to that, just as Stonehenge was and my visits to the Holocaust death camps for which I wasn’t really prepared for, emotionally that is.. However, the natural phenomena of The Grand Canyon and Monument Valley are the two wonders of the world I would urge people to see before they die.

7. What do you think of poetry evenings and art exhibitions. And about the role of art and poetry magazines, internet and the media in general when it comes to expose to the public the artist ?

Poetry readings are fine, There has to be an instantaneous rapport though with the audience. Over the years I must done over 1000 plus readings and its only now that I do not become nervous. It was always a few slugs of whisky before I went on stage , but never these days. Reading poetry has also enabled me to visit the strangest and wonderful places and to move in to literary circles that would have been impossible to experience. It also gave me the opportunity to meet and make friends with other poets especially when touring. They were great days which I do not regret at all. Exhibiting is another ball game entirely . There is no personal performance. The work is there on the wall to be scrutinized and criticized. With a poetry reading you would move on to the next gig virtually as soon as it was over. With exhibitions, the work is there hanging on the wall waiting to be condemned by anyone and everyone and that has occurred a few times in the nightmare past.
I am not sure about the net. I suppose it will take over everything eventually, Shopping, banking, films, meeting partners, hopefully wars will be fought on the net rather than in reality. It is a technology that I will never catch up with but I acknowledge its importance and its value and I am still amazed by it. I do hope that poetry magazines will survive as I think they will. I love the idea of seeing my name in print underneath a poem that I have written. Fantastic. I am still so interested in ideas, in working at projects in all kinds of means of expression and medias. I worry about death only because I want to do so much and really I want to live until I am one thousand, and even that wouldn’t be long enough.

8. Stephen Morris and his visit to Malta. Reflections and future projects.?

My recent visit to Malta was so good. I found everyone to be very helpful, generous and kind. When I was young I had a pen pal who lived in Sliema. We were, and I still am, Aston Villa supporters so I was aware of Malta from an early age as well as for the heroics in the second world war. In the seventies I was invited by the President of the Country, ( who was a poet ) to visit Malta. For many reasons I did not take up the generous offer which I regret it to this day. Of the many artists I admire the one who comes head and shoulders above the rest is Caravaggio and incredibly he lived in Malta, This makes the country extra special for me. I have been on the trail of Caravaggio for many years making special trips to Rome and Florence and Paris to see his work. This artist inspires me and my love affair with his work began many years ago in Dublin when I first saw his painting called ‘The Taking of Christ’ It is an extraordinary and magnificent piece of work with a brilliant use of light.. I am looking forward to my return visit to Malta at the end of September, when the Maneol Theatre are showing my exhibition called ‘Homage’ I hope also to be giving some poetry readings as well during my visit.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express myself and I hope it was something such as this that you imagined.
(May 2008)

1 comment:

N V said...

A nice interview. Plain, frank, forthright! Definitely could help in understanding the poet and artist better and deep. May his wish for living thousand years be granted to enable him to fulfill his literary and artistic pursuits!