There's nothing like getting it wrong. MARTIN STANNARD AT SEVENTY
I first encountered Martin through his poems in 1987, when Wide Skirt Press published The Flat of the Land. The title poem, which also opened the collection, was a revelation. The style owed a lot to the New York Poets, who I had recently discovered, but also felt fresh, funny and self deprecating in a very English way. Two years later, John Harvey's Slow Dancer press published a new and selected called The Gracing of Days, then Wide Skirt press published Denying England. I loved both collections: the voice, Martin's laconic yet romantic view of the world, the string of humour tightly laced throughout. I dragged a bunch of my A level students to a Slow Dancer reading in the basement of Nottingham's Old Vic pub. Martin was appearing alongside a young whippersnapper called Simon Armitage, who John had also published a pamphlet by. I primed the students for the reading with a sheet of poems by both poets.
Before the reading, I asked Martin and Simon a couple of questions that the students had come up with. I'd met Simon before (he'd read with my partner, Sue Dymoke, in Huddersfield). Martin immediately jumped on the student question, which was about 'The Flat of the Land'. I can't remember what I asked, but I do recall Martin's reply: 'There's nothing like getting it wrong.' Ever the diplomat, Simon tried to smooth things over by discussing the joy of misreading, or some such, but it wasn't the most auspicious of starts.
Writers do tend to keep running into each other, though. A couple of years later, Martin had a residency near Nottingham. We had a drink and talked music - which is the way most of my friendships start - and began to visit each other, going to the occasional gig. Through Martin, I got to know the late, great New York poet Paul Violi,who also became a good friend. We met the evening the pair of them did a joint reading on Radio Nottingham, my 1993 recording of which is part of this festschrift. Below, Paul, Sue and Martin are pictured in our garden in 1997.
Later, we went to Martin's wedding, when poets and family packed the tiny chapel of Newstead Abbey. Byron's ghost officiated. Later still, we became neighbours. In 2007-8 Martin took up a Royal Literary Fund fellowship at Nottingham Trent University, where I'd not long since started working. He only did that for a year, because he had set his heart on teaching in China. He'd begun teaching English as a foreign language and was to work in China until four years ago. On retirement, he chose to return to Nottingham.
Martin has had significant influence on the last thirty-odd years of British poetry, both through his own work and by publishing so many of the New York poets, established and emerging, in his influential journal joe soap's canoe. The Huddersfield group, including his friend and publisher Peter Sansom and many others venerated him (I hear Martin's voice as I type this: venerate? WTF are you talking about, Belbin? but it feels like the right word).
He has always been prolific. His major poetry is accompanied by work that is determinedly silly, witty but minor, generally published solely on the internet. I'm talking about his Eric, Eric work, the verse plays with Mark Halliday, the Bippety and Boppety duologues which can be found at International Times. This work is often great fun, and the solo stuff is very English. While some future scholar will doubtless write a paper about B&B's debt to Beckett, it's probably not the material on which weighty poetic reputations are established.
I mention the minor work because Martin has never played the reputation game, the mutual backslapping and pimping for prizes that affects so much of the literary world. It's probable more people have read his reviews than have read the poems. My own career as a poetry reviewer was relatively brief but extended enough to discover the enmities that can arise from even the most measured remarks. Martin, in person and in print, can be a curmudgeon, a quality that reflects is his unvarnished honesty. The rigour of Martin's criticism demonstrates his high expectations of literature. He has no interest in being diplomatic, though his reviews have mellowed a little as they've become less prolific. When I last visited him, he had just finished writing a very positive review. 'I don't want people thinking that I don't like anything.'
Some of his takedowns can be brutal - but the poet under discussion will have a reputation sufficient to merit serious critical attention. Martin's attention is always serious. He avoids jargon and often writes in a naïf tone that makes the reader question fundamental issues. The selected reviews in Conversations with Myself are well worth seeking out. The criticism, like the poetry, is never boring. It always finds a way to give pleasure.
One's relationship to a writer's work is inevitably compromised when the writer in question becomes a good friend. Nevertheless, I would argue that Martin's poetry really hit its stride (pun intended) in the '90s. All of the work published by Leafe is essential reading. I love the wit, the sardonic humour, the casual shifts into a higher, more profound gear that doesn't seek to mask the despair at the heart of everyday life. He is a poet whose work rewards rereading (also a great performer of his own work, which isn't that common). His long sequences are demanding, but only in the time it takes to read them: they don't court difficulty. His work draws you in. His self-knowledge is acute. His world view, while pessimistic, is a deeply romantic, compassionate one. I don't know if the phrase major poet has currency any more but, for my money, he is one.
I fully expect Martin to take the piss after he's read this. He'll tell me what I got wrong and why. Then, perhaps as we wander up the allotment, I'll quote Philip Roth (from American Pastoral) back at him:
the link below to hear a radio interview on BBC Radio Nottingham
featuring Martin Stannard and Paul Violi, recorded 10th August 1993:
Paul Violi, Martin Stannard and Sue Dymoke, 1994
Copyright © David Belbin, 2022