Stephan Delbos’s is an ambassador for poetry in Plymouth Massachusetts; their inaugural Poet Laureate. On the 9th December at the Plymouth Athaneaum (Devon!), he will be taking part in a one-night only evening of live poetry with CrossCountry Writers and Mee Group. Our Community Reporter, Nick Ingram, interviewed him ahead of the event.
I’m Stephan Delbos, born and raised in Plymouth, Massachusetts and the town’s first Poet Laureate, beginning my tenure in 2020.
A poet, a gentleman, a man of the people. A scholar of stubborn joy. Curiously dapper, delightfully risqué. Indelicate and hungry for luck.
Are you excited to be reading in Plymouth?
I really am excited to be reading in Plymouth. This feels like a bit of a homecoming for me.
Thom Boulton and I have been in touch since 2020, when we corresponded with a series of poems meditating on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Plymouth, Massachusetts and swerving into considerations of lockdowns during the pandemic. I’m thrilled that we could make this happen before I hand off the Laureateship early next year. This feels like the culmination of my work as Laureate and I’m delighted that I’ve already received such a warm welcome. I can’t wait to meet the local literary community and take a stroll around the waterfront.
Tell Plymouth something about your style of poetry?
I write to be reckoned with.
I know because of COVID we are behind with everything, but what are your thoughts on Mayflower 400, and the connections between the two Plymouth’s?
Corresponding with Thom Boulton on a series of poems, “Transatlantic Cables,” as I think of them, during 2020, the first year of my Laureateship and also the Mayflower 400 year and the year that Covid really kicked off—this was a major highlight of my tenure. The Laureate program was started in order to have someone to commemorate the variety of events that were planned for 2020, most of which were ultimately cancelled. So I was thrilled when Thom was ready, willing and able to pick up the gauntlet I threw down when I contacted him with the idea to write poems together. I’ll be reading some of the resulting poems in Plymouth and I think they’ll see the light of day someday in a paper publication, not just on the internet where they currently reside. That’s why my visit to your Plymouth seems like such a culmination for me: I can’t wait to meet Thom and the local community, see the city, and write the capstone poem for that series with Thom.
The whirlwind of 2020, with all of those different elements in the air, really brought something out of both Thom and I, I think, and the poems are richer and more nuanced because of it. I went into 2020 feeling very patriotic for Plymouth and contemplating all the things I could do with public poetry for the 400th anniversary, then very quickly we were all locked down. We had to pivot, and those poems sometimes feel like people dancing in new shoes, which is part of what makes them work so well.
I’m grateful and proud that I’ve been able to make this connection with Plymouth, UK, and I hope it will only be the beginning. To contradict Frost, poetry isn’t what’s lost in translation, it’s what’s found between strangers. I also think of poetry as a kind of shadow history: the news is lies, history is lies, poetry is truth. So I think this conversation that we’re having now is evidence of a real bond between our two towns.
Is this reading with Cross Country Writers the beginning of a long term collaboration?
I hope so! Everyone involved with the Laureate program in Plymouth, MA were thrilled that I could set this reading up. Thom Boulton has been involved in some of the online readings I’ve done with the Plymouth Poetry Forum, and in 2021 I did a phone-in interview on Plymouth television with Laura Horton, who became Plymouth UK’s Laureate of Words after Thom’s term ended. But this is the first time I’ve ever visited the city and collaborated with Cross Country Writers, and I hope we can work together more in the future. Hopefully, too, both Plymouth Poets Laureate can collaborate in the future.
What do you think about the differences between British and American poetry?
I wrote a book that is in part an answer to this question, The New American Poetry and Cold War Nationalism. The general public in my view considers British poetry as more conservative and traditional in form and content than American poetry, and this can be attributed largely to the success of Donald M. Allen’s 1960 poetry anthology, The New American Poetry 1945—1960. The book became a watershed on both sides of the Atlantic and effectively established the United States as the center of Anglophone poetic innovation after World War I, an opinion which is bound up in Cold War nationalism. In a similar way, the CIA used the Congress for Cultural Freedom to secretly fund international touring exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist painting and jazz concerts to promote American culture as free and integrated, as opposed to the prescribed and limited official Soviet culture.
What I’m saying is that I don’t believe the popular perception of British poetry as more formal or traditional than American poetry is true. I love British classics like Auden, Basil Bunting, poets from the Children of Albion anthology, and many more. J. H. Prynne I can’t get my head around. And many contemporary British poets including Thom Boulton, Annie Brechin and Alistair Noon write poetry I admire.
The main difference I think is that the US is massive in comparison to Britain and there are just so many different poets writing in so many different styles that it’s nearly impossible to pin down any general characteristics or traits in American poetry. But above all, I believe in transnationalism and I don’t think it’s really useful or valuable to try to make a distinction between British and American poetry. To me it’s all Anglophone poetry. T. S. Eliot is the perfect example: He was American, but then he became British. Both countries want to claim him. Is he an American poet or a British poet? I’m not sure. Then again, who cares?
Do you see any difference between spoken word and page poetry?
In my own work I don’t subscribe to one mode, written for the page or written for the stage. The aural element of the language of a poem is as important to me as the visual element of the words and lines on the page. And I’ve developed a reading style over the years that I think does justice to the poems while also being interesting to see and listen to. I think I probably still read a little too fast and could give each line even more time to sink in, which is something I’ve been told once or twice.
If I think of spoken word as performance poetry, then I think the writing itself starts to lean more towards the stage than the page. The performance itself gives so much to the content of the poem that the poem on the page can sometimes seem a little flat. It’s the same way that a script for a play is usually actually quite bare—it’s the skeleton of a conversation, but you have to leave space for the actor to bring something to the words, you can’t just tell them exactly what to do. I often think performance poetry on the page is a little like that.
But I also associate spoken word with a hip, cool, engaging reading of a poem in public. Spoken word conjures up directness and performance but less mediation by form. I guess I tend to associate spoken word with free verse as well.
I feel comfortable talking about my performances as both poetry and spoken word. I hope my poems live on the page and I hope I gently breathe life into them while reading in public, so the audience can hear the poem the way I hear it. But then they say that you can’t really hear the actual sound of your voice the way others hear it because your voices is vibrating through your skull. Writing poetry is like that: trying to get your voice out of your skull and showing it to people to see if it sounds the same to them as it does to you.
Name two of your favourite poets? Why?
What a difficult question!
Dante takes the lead, at least lately, because of how comprehensive and varied the poetry and the scope of his Commedia. I’ve often heard of the anxiety of influence that many Anglophone poets and playwrights feel about Shakespeare — he seems to have covered just about everything. Harold Bloom says Shakespeare created our entire conception of what it means to be human in the Western world. But this feeling never struck home for me until I read the entirety of the Commedia last year. I read it in four translations simultaneously, something I’m doing again currently. It is profound, it is major, it has just about everything: inventive prosody, murder, redemption, devils, angels, traitors, great men, it’s very human, very spiritual and very literary. And Dante wrote this in the last years of his life, before dying in 1321, 300 entire years before the Pilgrims set out from Plymouth, UK and reached my hometown. That conception was mind-blowing. 300 years before the Puritans were digging in the dirt and starting a society, Dante in Italy had already written one of the most profound and comprehensive works of art, poetry, religion, and philosophy in Western culture. No wonder the US sometimes feels behind the times culturally! Dante for me is a desert-island poet: I think I could be happy only reading The Commedia for the rest of my life.
I’ve had the opportunity to see a number of my other poetry heroes read in real life: Chard DeNiord, Derek Walcott, Gerald Stern, Jack Gilbert, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Adonis, Gary Snyder, Galway Kinnell, Joy Harjo, Maggie Smith, Petr Hruska, Jessica Q. Stark, Douglas Piccinnni, Stephanie Burt, Joshua Mensch, Coleman Barks reading his Rumi translations, Christopher Crawford, Joshua Weiner, Anne Waldman, Ilya Kaminsky, D. A. Powell, Mark Terrill… too many to choose just one!
Name an American poet we should be reading now? Why?
I think Joy Harjo’s anthology When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry should be required reading for everyone who celebrates Thanksgiving, and anyone interested in poetry, especially Americans but also in the original Plymouth. It’s a brilliant and ground-breaking anthology of Native Nations voices and a fascinating study of how this poetry intertwined with, adapted to, evolved alongside and broke away from mainstream Anglophone poetry.
What’s your favourite line of poetry?
Another tough one! Here are 10 in random order:
- “Fear is what quickens me.” James Wright (That’s actually a title)
- “Burnished, burned-out, still burning as the year,” / Robert Lowell
- “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” / Elizabeth Bishop
- “partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt” / Frank O’Hara
- “I labor by singing light.” / Dylan Thomas
- “And then a Plank in Reason, broke” / Emily Dickinson
- “Cities at daybreak are no one’s,” / Adam Zagajewski (trans. Claire Cavanagh)
- “What does not change is the will to change.” / Charles Olson
- “Somebody blew up America” / Amiri Baraka
- “and the snap of bracken breaking in the dark.” / Christopher Crawford
When here will you be joining the Green Army (who are ya/ who are ya?)
Yes! I hope local fans will accept me as an honorary member of the Green Army. I hadn’t actually seen the team’s kit until you asked this question and I’m thrilled to recognise what I think is the Mayflower on the jerseys—very cool. I’ll definitely pick up a few jerseys for myself and my sons while I’m in town.
What’s your position on the scone debate between Devon and Cornwall? Cream first or jam first?
With all respect to the late Queen, whom I hear preferred the Cornwall way, I have to side with Devon on this one. Cream first all day. It looks better, it tastes better, and who’s afraid of a little melted cream anyway? And now I’ve got something else for my to-do list while I’m in town! If anyone has recommendations for a place in Plymouth where a vagabond poet can get a good scone, please let me know!