Sometime in the very early 1980’s I was doing a reading for Martin Stannard somewhere in Ipswich and I was staying over at Martin’s house. On the way back from the gig his car broke down spectacularly, gasping and wheezing, then clanking and sighing, then moaning and complaining, then dying. The night was clear and Martin and I stood outside the car waiting for the RAC and gazing at the stars and I realised, not for the first time and not for the last, that I was living in a Martin Stannard poem and that it was an exciting place to live.
When I first read Martin’s poems and started subscribing to his wonderful magazine Joe Soap’s Canoe I was excited that he took his influences from absolutely everywhere. At the time a number of us were writing in the shadow of Ted Hughes and The Mersey Poets and our lenses were crowded with our visceral reactions to Thatcherism’s vicious flowering but Martin seemed to look wider than the rest of us; he took in John Ashbery and surrealism, a kind of cracked and hilarious English country dancing that prefigured hauntology, and an innate sense of how people spoke and the knowledge that, if you stretched that speech a little and tuned it a slightly different way, you could make poetry.
It took ages for the RAC to arrive that Saturday night and we watched a few planes going over and tried to guess where they were heading for. We spoke about poetry and we talked about the idea of little magazines and how we liked them so much. Or were we really just standing in a Martin Stannard poem? At this distance it’s hard to tell.
Martin has continued to be an influence on my work and on the work of many other writers; his poems are still indefinable and daring, still making me ask questions of my own work, my own timidity and unwillingness to try something new. When the RAC eventually came my memory tells me that it was almost morning and the sky was lightening to the east. The Martin Stannard poem we were in was layered with nuance and ambiguity, like they all are; the RAC man was a shadowy figure in the second stanza, and the light was a constant motif throughout.
There’s a flowering of new poetry in the UK and beyond at the moment and I want these younger poets to read Martin Stannard and get delight from his work, and learn from him, and see him as someone who can be a presence and an inspiration in their writing lives and that’s why these 70th birthday celebrations can be a springboard to a wider appreciation of Martin’s work.
And remember, next time you’re in a car that breaks down late at night, you’re just inhabiting a Martin Stannard poem. You’ll be in a pamphlet soon.
Copyright ©Ian McMillan, 2022