SMALL SOULS by Stephen Symons launched at Wordsworth Books Gardens

Poetry galore! Family, friends and poetry lovers filled Wordsworth Books Gardens to the brim to celebrate the publication of Small Souls: New and Collected Poems by Stephen Symons.

Stephen was in conversation with Kelwyn Sole, who has been a mentor and friend to Stephen for many years. Here are his notes for the introduction of the event:

Introduction to the launch of Small Souls (Karavan Press) by Stephen Symons | 28th November 2022

I first met Stephen Symons as a Masters student in the English Creative Writing programme at UCT a decade ago.

To quote Neruda, he is an unusual poet, ‘like the poets of our age, in light clothes and walking shoes’ (Pablo Neruda). I haven’t previously met a poet who is not only a sportsman but also someone who could weld, fly a plane, in addition to being a prodigious reader, Stephen is a knowledgeable lover of classical music and fine arts, and an excellent photographer.

In our interactions as his supervisor, I very soon realised that Stephen was already skilled in the lyric form and its formal devices (metaphor, image, extended tropes)

But equally quickly, I realised this designation of ‘lyric poet’ did not give the full story of what he was and is trying to do, nor what his poetry was increasingly to morph into.

He has kept the mastery of the traditional lyric, yes, and – like all good poetry – a 2nd and 3rd reading in these terms reveals gems the reader will have missed the first time around. However, what struck me also was his inquisitiveness and willingness to experiment and extend the lyric form in other directions.  

I now understand that his knowledge of music and sensitivity to sound gives him a deftness with rhythm and rhythmic changes. Moreover, as a graphic designer, he is fascinated by the use that can be made of the page as an arena for spatial experiment (how a poem looks) and has worked on several poems which reflect this. Furthermore, he quickly ventured into the prose poem, a realm which abounds in lyrical and narrative possibilities; but a realm where few lyric poets venture, especially in SA.

I think these exciting formal directions he has followed reflect the openness of his own personality. When we worked together, he was prepared to follow, examine and think about every reading or individual poet I suggested to him. At the same time – of course – he was reading and thinking prodigiously on his own. He has an openness to the influence of the new, not from any desire to imitate but rather to see whether anything or anyone he comes across can teach him what may be useful for the further development of his style.

This openness to influence encompasses not only SA poets but also the poets of metropolitan modernism and postmodernism, and those further afield, like modern Arabic poetry.

In summary, for me, the effectivity and reach of his poetry lies not only in his usage of form but also in the number of recurring interests – themes and perspectives – which make his poetry unique.

The titles of his books are instructive here: Questions for the Sea; Small Souls; Landscapes of Light and Loss; and my special favourite, For Everything That is Pointless and Perfect, indicate some of his abiding major interests and perspectives.

Many of his poems revolve around acute observations and musings on the everyday (the quotidian), sometimes little noticed, details of family interaction, suburban experience and life. Poems about marriage, family, children and friends are recurrent and resonate particularly strongly. Among the weight of practicalities as a householder, there is a compelling awareness of the fragility and lightness of being alive on this planet at this time; and the particular anxieties and uncertainties of living in a strife-ridden country, itself part of an increasingly precarious world order.

It is also a poetry stippled with memory and immanence. There are poems filled with the memory of loves, youth, and his fraught time in the military.

As a result, there is a grounding of Stephen’s lyrics in our lives and our contradictions. Our past and present repressions and oppressions in SA leave their trace. I can think of no better concise example of this than a poem which notes how the shadows in a garden ‘leopard-crawl over mossed brick.’ (‘The intricacy of a body in the dark’) – the image has an immediacy but, simultaneously, a reference to the recent military past of this country, which is unforgettable. He writes within a country which, in the words of another poem, “simply wraps bandages” (‘Night drive’)  around everything; a country where – to quote another particularly memorable longer poem, fences appear to “give chase” to human movement (‘The fence’). The threat of enclosure, violence, or peer or personal psychological repression and suppression are still with us and tinge his lyrics with their presence, giving them a greater resonance and accuracy.

Stephen’s poems resist restrictions of subject matter and style. He is superb at interweaving the social world of his poems with a more expansive natural world and the lives of the other creatures with which we share the planet. These intrude in poem after poem to advise and admonish us. The non-human is there and interacts willy-nilly with the behaviour (and, one should add, follies) of human beings.

I find references to the sea, and astronomy, in his poems especially powerful and healing.

For me, I find Stephen’s poetry, as a whole, moves exhilaratingly between stillness and flux; the numinous and the prosaic; between the concrete and the abstract; between family gardens and an expanded vision of the sky at nighttime; between the small details and compulsions of our surroundings and the large, philosophical and ontological questions always contained in these. (His poetry aids a reader’s understanding of their interconnectedness). For instance, a poem watches a dying butterfly, ‘paying life’s inevitable invoice / for a weekend / in paradise.” (‘Last afternoon’) Or, elsewhere, a rising wind reminds a banished angel, huddled beneath a streetlight, of flight. (’Beneath a streetlight’)

But even among the strictures we face, as he points out in several poems, “no loss is a perfect amputation/  … / the ghost of the limb lives on’  (‘Nervelines’).  

Thus Stephen’s poems are always replete with possibility, with potential, with our human impulses that promote love and life in the midst of everything that besets us. As one poem says:

every outcome is possible –
infinite fractions
of happiness and hopelessness
intent on manufacturing wonder.

(‘A vast undecipherable stillness’)

Those of us who know Stephen are acutely aware “he never takes poetry, or the subject matter he writes about, for granted.” He never adopts the narcissistic self-regard that appears so often these days; instead, in his demeanour and work, he demonstrates the questing humility of serious talent, of a practitioner of the art of the poem: a stance which will, I know, result in much more to emerge from his pen subsequent to this wonderful, life-affirming and skillful collection we have before us tonight.

Professor Kelwyn Sole, Emeritus Professor of English Literature (UCT)

Thank you to Wordsworth Books Gardens, Stephen, Kelwyn and all who were there to welcome this beautiful book into the world!

Karavan Press title: Small Souls by Stephen Symons

In Small Souls, words resist the passage of time and provide calm acceptance of that which is inevitable. And thus, the witnessing carries on with elegant care, even if not ease: the poet observes the world around us ‘in a time of sickness’ and the resulting intricacies of homelife put under the pressure of current circumstances and the relentlessness of time. The sun rises and sets, the tides obey their eternal rhythm, we grow old, our children spread their wings, forcing us continuously to find new maps for navigating future skies. Flight – ‘wings dusted / with the ashes of last light’ – is an unmistakable thematic link to Symons’s previous collections.

The path of a lone bird
skimming cloud
after a storm

Soundless,
given its altitude

but music nonetheless
above a scuttled country.

– ‘A short history of love’

Throughout the ages, love triumphs, refusing to be silent. As does poetry. They are inseparable, after all. In these collected and new poems, Symons offers us the greatest of gifts: balm for (sm)all souls.

– Karina M. Szczurek, Introduction, Small Souls

Publication date: November 2022

ISBN: 978-1-7764064-6-3

STEPHEN SYMONS has published poetry and short-fiction in local and international journals, magazines and anthologies. His debut collection, Questions for the Sea (uHlanga, 2016), received an honourable mention for the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, and was also shortlisted for the 2017 Ingrid Jonker Prize. His unpublished collection Spioenkop was a semi-finalist for the Hudson Prize for Poetry (USA) in 2015. His second collection, Landscapes of Light and Loss (Dryad Press), was published in 2018, and third collection, FOR EVERYTHING THAT IS POINTLESS AND PERFECT (Karavan Press), in 2020. Small Souls includes the winning poem of the 2021 The Red Wheelbarrow Poetry Competition, “Small souls”. Symons holds a PhD in History (University of Pretoria) and an MA in Creative Writing (University of Cape Town). He lives with his family in Oranjezicht, Cape Town.

Stephen Symons will be reading at The Red Wheelbarrow on Thursday, 20th January, at 19:30

Stephen Symons will be The Red Wheelbarrow’s featured poet this week.

Stephen Symons has published poetry and short-fiction in journals, magazines and anthologies, locally and internationally. His debut collection, Questions for the Sea (uHlanga, 2016) received an honourable mention for the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry, and was also shortlisted for the 2017 Ingrid Jonker Prize. His unpublished collection Spioenkop was a semi-finalist for the Hudson Prize for Poetry (USA) in 2015. Landscapes of Light and Loss (Dryad Press) was published in 2018, and For Everything That Is Pointless and Perfect (Karavan Press) in 2020. Small Souls, a collection of selected and new poems will be published in 2022 by Karavan Press.

Symons holds a PhD in History (University of Pretoria) and an MA in Creative Writing (University of Cape Town). He lives with his family in Oranjezicht, Cape Town.

**As always, the reading by the featured poet will be followed by an open mic session for poets from the audience. Poets are welcome to read from their own work as well as from the work of a favourite poet**

Join Zoom Meeting:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9529041131?pwd=M2VUL3RNWGMvMFZCU1Zuemt6QnU3Zz09

Date: 20th January 2022
Time: 19:30 SAST

Meeting ID: 952 904 1131
Passcode: 12345

Poems by poets featured previously at TRW can be found here:
https://redwheelbarrowpoet.wixsite.com/website