FROM MARS TO MARSDEN -
THE UNTOLD STORY
He is Britain’s – and possibly the world’s most widely
published poet. He’s been featured regularly, week-by-week,
month-by-month, year-by-year since the 1960’s in more strange,
obscure, and esoteric journals than even he can possibly remember.
Now he’s singlehandedly resurrecting the ‘Genre SF’ poem
as a unique and distinctive verse-form. He is Steve Sneyd…
FROM MARS TO MARSDEN
Steve Sneyd can be a distracting interview.
He’s the guy sitting at the end of the bar, with a Philip K Dick paperback crammed conveniently into his corduroy jacket pocket and an obscure crossword-completing word on the tip of his tongue. Spinning looping, leisurely soliloquies that lengthen for about the time it takes for a pint of best to settle, or for someone to get the next round in. As we talk he sketches zigzag castles and mythic faces on the beer-mat, scribbles sudden ideas in interacting hieroglyphs of longhand script into the dog-eared flyleaf of the paperback in his pocket, then hand-rolls a matchstick-thin cigarette infiltrating a fallout of tobacco strands across the table between us. He has quotes, phrases, lines and useful expressions for future use in black biro on scraps of paper in every pocket.
As he tells Marge Simon ‘I’m endlessly writing such bits down on paper, always carry some, and a pen, or into notebooks – though the problem is the vast majority never develop any further, just silt up in vast accumulations of such scraps, though sometimes, years later even, one or another will resurface and a poem will come together out of that seed. Ideas can come from anywhere – flashbacks of memory, of places, people, events, items from the radio or books, curious facts or images, fragments of phrases, odd images springing to mind.’ And he talks. He talks about everything from the lost galaxy-spanning poetry of obscure American fantasist Lilith Lorraine, to an interminably convoluted comic routine about Bob Marley’s arrival in heaven, to tales of legendary Beat poetry heroics in the back rooms of 1970’s Yorkshire pubs, and about the prehistory of Pennine earthworks and tumuli. About everything – in fact, but Steve Sneyd himself.
Perhaps you were aware that – further to his ‘Amazing Stories’ interview, Steve Sneyd was nominated, or elected, or appointed as ‘Grand Master of SF Poetry’, so some kind of honorific became appropriate…? Surely it was only a matter of time, and now constitutes a well-deserved and entirely appropriate recognition of his epic contribution to the genre. Odd that he didn’t actually start out with that Lit-orientation. When pressed he estimates that ‘about forty-percent’ of his output would so qualify. ‘I’ve never systematically done the figures, but as an impressionistic guess, would say about 40% of my published poetry has been SF, and overall perhaps 70% has been genre. Boundary drawing can be hard – eg. is a poem about the historical Dracula genre or ‘mainstream’?’ It seems there was always a myth-continuum, and bits of SF imagery surfacing here and there, but it only became more dominant later. Or at least that’s what my immediate recall tells me, without delving back through what he terms ‘the whatever decades’ of magazines and old small-press journals.
Anyway – it also turned out that I’d been nominated, or elected, or appointed – in some way, to make the ‘Grand Master of SF Poetry’ presentation. Although by then he’d already received it via airmail! He’d already received the Gold Chalice, or Scroll, or Coat Of Arms or whatever it was from America. And we were required to fabricate some kind of ceremony, photographed for posterity, to record it all. Marge Simon (of the ‘Science Fiction Poetry Association’) contacted me through ‘Facebook’ about doing it. She’s a lady who brooks no refusal. So we devised a joint strategy to meet up in Huddersfield to enact this arcane ritual. It took the ‘New Horizons’ probe nine years to reach the Pluto system, we did marginally better than that…!
Then Steve carefully extracts the presentation plaque from the box in which it was posted to him across the Atlantic. A black resin monolith emblazoned with a comet-tailed star, and the legend ‘Steve Sneyd: SFPA Grand Master Poet 2015’ etched in silver lettering. Various curious photos subsequently take place, some of then snapped by a bemused passer-by who is inveigled into the impromptu ceremony. The photos eventually appear in the SFPA news-site for the entertainment and edification of all! Afterwards we sit back on the pub-seat in the weak sunshine, and Steve sips reflectively at his pint. ‘I thought afterwards, possible reason the lady who volunteered to take pics got so far away as soon as possible afterwards, maybe she saw words ‘Grand Master’ on offending object and feared was Crowley-style occult cult, and your Mekon manifest of familiar/ demon familiar…?’
--- 0 ---
‘Ought to give up listening to World Service new’ says Steve wearily, ‘endless litany of going-to-hell-in-handbaskets. Trouble is, I’m a news junkie and can’t stay off…’
To Fred Beak, writing the afterword of Steve’s 200-page collection ‘In Coils Of Earthen Hold’*, ‘the neglect of Steve Sneyd’s work is one of the mysteries of our poetic era.’ There’s possibly something in what he says, but neglect is not what you’d normally associate with a writer responsible for over 3000 magazine appearances and a near-ubiquity in literary magazines for over thirty years. Steve is Britain’s most widely published poet, and one of the world’s top ten most frequently published, too. He also figures in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ for his contribution to ‘genre’ poetry both as archivist, and scribe. So ‘neglect’ is relative. Perhaps by ‘neglect’ Fred Beak means his exclusion from that kind of self-congratulatory Oxbridge clique massaging each other’s sterile celebrity from elitist London art-circles? In which case he could well be correct. If such issues still have relevance. Which surely must be marginal, at best. Steve’s voice is Yorkshire, and it’s too vital, too involved, too real for such distractions. He writes from Almondbury, Huddersfield, beneath the appropriately gaunt tower of Castle Hill. He muses that he never intended Huddersfield to be so central, but here he is, four decades later…
Steve is bearded with a shaggy fringe of greying hair, and an air of constant pre-occupation. Reading to an audience – as he does in his mesmeric set at the Huddersfield Poetry Festival, he can conjur time and space, myth and magic, history and futures through a temporal warp, and then back to the Hotel bar again with a bardic resonance that story-tells and weaves strange truths, ‘finding skulls under every grin.’
‘Poetry, in the final analysis’ he opines, ‘is surely nearer – or can be, to the working of actual thought, than prose.’ But he takes it beyond such meagre limitations. Writing dialogue with a dry kitchen sink sense of desperate ordinariness, and line-breaks set to the rhythms of breath – ‘you go on and on, she said, you repeat yourself endlessly, she said, you whinge and moan, she said, some time went by, you never talk to me, she said, there was nothing to be said’ (“A Season For Taking Stock”). While above such drab domesticity there’s always awareness of the sky. The ‘Half-Moon… swollen could be her mother, shrunk could be her daughter, half-face missing as if turned, away from life...’ And beyond even that normality there’s a mythic depth behind actions that align with the symbols and rituals of lost archetypes – ‘wrote three lists – what he, feared most, what he’d done worst, what he most wished he’d done, hung each on chosen tree – oak, ash, rowan – set each with, fire. Collected ashes with, care. Buried in three holes between monster roots, then sang, light of burden at last’ (“Wildwood Days Recalled”).
--- 0 ---
Already active in the 1960’s, it was the 1970’s that gave Steve a wider platform of possibilities. Beneath the (psychedelic) mushrooming underground press explosion – and infected by its anarcho-irreverence, looking as much to Dylan (Bob not Thomas) as it does to the performance legacy of the Liverpool Poets and the persistent viral illumination of the Beat Generation, the DIY small-press napalms the decade into the rudest of health. Traditional letterpress A5’s with neat wood-cut illustrations (‘Viewpoints’) interface with cleanly-cluttered photo-offset collages (‘Global Tapestry’), while mimeo – typed directly onto limited-run paper templates, proliferates through SF-fandom (Lisa Conesa’s ‘Zimri’) while strange mauve spirit-duplication produces ‘Bogg’ – until the dense black-solids made possible by Xerox infiltrate from the Punk-press towards decade’s end (‘Sniffin Glue’). In this raging firmament the inspirational Blake-Bardian Mike Horovitz lights ‘The Children Of Albion’, Jeff Nuttall ignites ‘Bomb Culture’, while Dave Cunliffe and Jim Burns – already outlaw literary stars of the previous decade high-profile alongside George Cairncross’ surreal humour, Dave Ward’s Liverpool urban, Barry Edgar Pilcher’s Beat-Zen, Pete Faulkner’s Rimbaud-Romantic, Tina Fulker’s brittle fragility, Derrick Butress’ precise dramas and Dave Caddy’s eco-rural.
While an International Reply Coupon – or, in that post-Imperial twilight, a Commonwealth RC, could gain admittance to the equally rich diversity of an American or Australian parallel universe. And beyond... Steve Sneyd flourished as a visible presence in it all. Each format. Every niche and sub-niche. Few magazines came – or indeed, still come, without a page or three of his distinctive voice. And although it’s obviously absurd to suggest that evolution has not taken place – because it self-evidently has, it’s equally true that early poems are as instantly recognisably Sneydian as are the latest. The shape. The breath-break punctuation. The chopped erudition…
Inevitably, as perpetrator of the earlier ‘Riding West’ magazine, he was the obvious co-ordinating spirit when the ‘Inner Circle’ decided to launch its own print counterpart. As a series of Huddersfield-based live events, the ‘Inner Circle’ had already staged guests such as bussed-in Dave Cunliffe as well as providing debut-audiences for new writers and musicians. With its collectivist aspirations set to the pulse of the times – its title, an elision of errors on Steve’s notepad fusing suggestions ‘Thud’ and ‘Ned Ludd’ into ‘Ludds Mill’, it went on through changes and oddnesses through to the dawn of the eighties. By then Steve’s publishing had diversified through Hilltop Press, with irregular SF-poetry ‘Data Dumps’ linking a series of unique meticulously-researched stand-alone’s documenting neglected slipstream maverick names Robert Calvert and Lillith Lorraine (a research project begun in 1987, with a bio section appearing in ‘Fantasy Commentator’, and not ‘signed off’ until mid-2009 – although ‘as soon as book comes out some amazing new info about her life that should’ve been in will probably surface…’).
There’s also a CD by Icarus Landing, Steve’s legendary word-of-mouth underground performance-art duo. His poems delivered in a thick monotone the colour of Pennine Bitter, pointed up by slurs of betraying Yorkshire inflections, in spaces provided by Dave Jaggar’s Blues improvisations. Jaggar, he of Spider Lee Brown and the Champion Jack Dupree Band, plays dextrous guitar and – on “Trowell, Midnight”, harmonica. Blues from the Calder Delta, long-thought unrecorded and forever lost, the duo finally resurfaced with ‘Icarus Landing: The Crested Vulture Tapes’. A flood-damaged seventies tape, cleaned-up, digitised, and completely amazing. An audio artefact of smoke-hazed Folk Clubs and moist beer-mats, where sweat drips from the ceiling as if in some time-capsule monochrome photograph. Together, they pick up the rambling cadences of half-glimpsed and never-quite-concluded back-street pub people-stuff conversations and ignite them with surreal absurdist sense-of-wonder, from skew-wiff mythologies of visiting Martians, to the scrap-dealer clearing the Rhodes Colossus from where it blocks the harbour-mouth, the girl who half-inches cutlery from Motorway Service Stations yet only gets randy ‘for men with ideals’, the man on his ninth pint waiting for the girl who never turns up, then the puddled walk home uphill singing ‘Careless Love’ off-key. Like the line ‘crooked, as a ring around the moon’ – a ring, of course, is not crooked, but what they’re about is reconciling contradictions. These performances are unforgettable, like scars.
‘I honestly can’t remember ‘owt about the circumstances of the tape being made’ Steve comments the year of the CD’s eventual release – 2009, ‘though I do have a clear memory of a later one, ‘Manna From Heaven’, which also had Michael Massey on, done at Jaggar’s house, and he was getting drunker and drunker. As was his canary, which kept sipping from his glass. It died very young from that habit, despite Jaggar’s theory that bird’s hollow bones means they can take immense amounts of C2H5OH without harm. Massey had a nightmare rendering the tape listenable, as Jaggar’s sudden weird sound-fx, shouts of irrelevance, drumming of feet on floor etc. But of the making of this one? a total mindblank. A review on Paul Rance’s website creates urban myth that it ‘was made on tour’, so ‘print the legend’ applies…’
HOLDING YOUR EIGHT HANDS
‘We’re in Marsden at the moment’ Steve announces on a radio documentary about SF poetry. A sub-genre that link-voice Ian MacMillan places ‘at the fringe of the fringe, at the end of the universe.’ ‘And this is where – when they put the new station signs up, someone graffiti’d really neatly underneath the name ‘Marsden’ they put ‘The Land That Time Forgot’. Which I think it’s pretty appropriate, although it’s been painted out since, because that’s what Science Fiction poets do. They try and forget about the limitations of our time, and look through all time for human experience. You look out from up here, you’re looking out on practically everything that’s ever happened in this country. You look over to our right – that big mound on the horizon, that’s where neolithic men were making flint tools. There’s little pits on the top of the hill where they were doing that. You look straight in front of us, you’ve got a sunk road going up the hill past the old – what used to be Marsden Manor House. That was probably a Roman road. Perhaps even earlier than that. A bit farther up the hill behind it you’ve got loads and loads of roads on top of each other, you’ve got the Roman road, you’ve got Turnpike roads, you’ve got the first attempts to get across the Pennines and the ones that went nearly up to the time when we built motorways. They’re all going across the hills in the same sort of places. History is all twisted and linked together here. And I think Science Fiction poetry is taking this same sort of wider view of humanity, of a species, of us. And of our future. It’s not saying we live only in this present time, this fixed present, we’re not just figures in a permanent unchanging situation. But we’re part of the process that goes on and on occurring and changing and reshaping – just like this landscape…’
Steve Sneyd can be a distracting interview. For a multitude of reasons…
ANDREW DARLINGTON & STEVE SNEYD:
AN EXPLANATORY POSTSCRIPT
They live within ten miles of each other. Together, over some thirty years of manic productions, they’ve made over 4000 magazine appearances around the world. They share an entry in the current edition of the ‘Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ for their contributions to genre poetry. And they collaborated to produce ‘Ludds Mill’ – the leading vital anarchic arts magazine of the 1970’s. They have appeared together at venues dating back to the ‘Inner Circle’ events in Huddersfield, and were a regular part of the Tawny Owl group of writers which also numbered Horror novelist Simon Clark and ‘Krax’-publisher Andy Robson among its members. Yet their differences are just as pronounced. Steve Sneyd organised the live poetry programme at the Leeds Griffin Hotel SF Con – a landmark event in the recognition of genre-poetry. And he’s recognised as its leading archivist. While – although Andrew Darlington appeared on that bill, he’s equally adept at Rock journalism and erotica. And although both have an extensive fiction back-catalogue – Steve’s work in ‘Year’s Best’ and Andrew’s in New English Libraries, their styles operate in alternate universes of prose. Steve’s mythic and dream-like. Andrew’s sharp-edged and SF-literate. Only the respect is mutual.
*‘A WORD IN YOUR EYE’ by Steve Sneyd (ISBN 0-905262-24-7 - £3.75 / $8) An introduction to the Graphic Poem, from HILLTOP PRESS, 4 Nowell Place, Almondbury, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire HD5 8PB
*‘NEOLITHON’ by Steve Sneyd & John Light (£5.50 from KT PBL, 16 Fane Close, Stamford, Lincs PE9 1HG) The poetry of prehistoric stone monuments
‘ICARUS RISING: THE CRESTED VULTURE TAPES’ by ICARUS LANDING (STEVE SNEYD & DAVID JAGGAR) (Crested Vulture Disks CVD-001 - £6.50 – Hilltop Press, 4 Nowell Place, Almondbury, Huddersfield HD5 8PB) www.booksmusicfilmstv.com/Poetry/SteveSneydDavidJaggarIcarusRising.html
Steve’s entry in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database:
Hilltop Press Catalogue:
Gerald England reviews Steve Sneyd’s ‘Gestaltmacher’, ‘Gestaltmacher’, ‘Make Me A Gestalt’: http://www.geraldengland.co.uk/revs/bs126.htm
PDF of Steve’s ‘Flights From The Iron Moon’ a ‘gazetteer’ collecting poetry from UK FanZines from the 1980’s: http://efanzines.com/IronMoon/
Steve Sneyd interview by Catherine Mintz:
Steve Sneyd’ poetry in Atlantean Publishing: http://atlanteanpublishing.wikia.com/wiki/Steve_Sneyd
Full text of Steve’s epic poem ‘Crowland’, plus links to Steve’s ‘The Poetry Of Brian Aldiss’ etc: http://pandf.booksmusicfilmstv.com/sneyd.htm
‘Parameter Magazine’ two Steve Sneyd poems:
Link to Steve’s essay ‘The Outbound Muse’s Despatch: The Science Fiction Poetry Of Calvert And Many More’:
Diane Severson’s interview in ‘Amazing Stories’: