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Roger Stennett: "I feel grateful to have been educated in the old British Grammar school system"

Updated: Jan 25

Roger Stennett
Roger Stennett (British poet and playwright)

Deena Elsheikh دينا الشيخ
Deena Elsheikh

An interview with Roger Stennett

Interviewed by: Deena Elsheikh Roger Stennett is a British Poet, Theatre Playwright, Screenwriter, Radio (Audio) dramatist, and Animation scriptwriter. Roger has also spent many years teaching creative writing to postgraduate level as a visiting tutor at British universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, and drama schools such as The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and The Royal Welsh Academy. His work ranges from cartoons like ‘Sooty’ to The Royal Shakespeare Company. Roger’s first book of Poetry was published in 1976, and his most recent collection, ‘Forty Poems For Dylan Thomas’ was published in autumn 2022. Roger has presented his poetry and facilitated workshops in community settings, educational establishments, festivals, and public spaces, like The Dylan Thomas Birthplace House, in 2023. Alongside his writing, he was also a Psychotherapist in private practice for several years. Stennett's writing is rich in vivid imagery and descriptions. He paints detailed pictures, often using nature and fantastical elements to set the scene. His style is characterized by wordplay, social commentary, and a willingness to blend different tones and themes within a single poem. It offers a unique and thought-provoking reading experience.

1. Can you tell us about your journey as a writer? How did you first discover your passion for writing? My passion for writing started in my teens, so almost 60 years ago. I feel grateful to have been educated in the old British Grammar school system, which exposed me to many influences, creatively, including lots of poetry and that is where my love for some of the great poets of the past began in my teens. Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, the romantic poets of the 18th century. John Milton with his magnificent work ‘Paradise Lost ‘. And the great satirist and poet, Alexander, Pope and the metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and Andrew Marvel. And Shakespeare of course. All of these I had to read as a schoolboy, and they laid down foundation of my love of poetry, spanning centuries.

On a more light-hearted note, I found that other people, especially girls, took an interest in ‘A Poet’ in the class. Good news for a teenager developing his interpersonal skills!

Much of my work in those younger days was typical of its 1970s times and the preoccupations of an earnest young man/ These were Protest days and our heroes were Bob Dylan and the American “Beat Generation` of poets and novelists like Alan Ginsberg, both of whom I was destined to meet in the future, as well as the ‘Liverpool Scene’ of Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell and Roger McGough, with whom I actually became friends in years to come.

And, of course, Dylan Thomas (1914 -1953)

2-what aspects of life do you find most compelling to explore in your works? In terms of what aspects of life interest me as a poet and have interested me as a poet through my long career, I would say literally ‘everything’.

I think that creative artists need to have their eyes open and not to restrict themselves to any particular genre or set of subjects.

I love to write poems about people.

I love to write poems about myself.

I love to write poems about nature.

I love to write poems about politics and spirituality.

And everything else under the Sun. And I think that’s healthy.

Roger Stennett

3. Your plays have been performed in various theaters. What challenges and rewards come with bringing your written words to life on stage, and how do you collaborate with actors and directors to ensure your vision is realized? For most of my writing career, I’ve been a dramatist as well as a poet.

I grew up around the theatre. My father, Stan Stennett MBE, was a comedian and jazz guitarist, who spent 70 years in the profession. My work as a dramatist is wide, and ranges from small community and fringe theatre in the early days, right the way through to nationally and internationally recognised companies such as The Royal Shakespeare Company. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre and Manchester Royal Exchange. Every production brings its own challenges, and I have been fortunate to work with fine directors and actors throughout my career. Many of my plays have a historical or biographical dimension to them, often with a real character being at the centre of the drama.

For example the novelist and poet D H. Lawrence in my play “Dreaming Of Eden’ written for The Nottingham Playhouse.

I’ve also written a great deal about War both for Theatre and BBC Radio 4.

Not to glorify combat, but to look at how ordinary people react in extra ordinary circumstances and find a way to survive. I often say that ‘I write drama, like a poet’, and I write poetry like a ‘dramatist.’

4. You possess a rich and varied writing experience spanning poetry, theatre, screenwriting, and radio drama. How do these different forms of writing influence and inspire each other in your creative process?

For many years, when I started to work as a professional dramatist, I put down my poetry entirely. In fact, my poetic life divides into two periods. My early work, through my teens into my 20s, which culminated in the publication of my first book called ‘Just A Matter Of Time’ in 1976.Then a huge gap of four decades where I barely wrote Poetry while I concentrated on writing drama for theatre, radio, and animation. Ironically, it was only with the advent of Covid when all the theatres closed down, and opportunities to work in radio and animation was severely restricted that I picked up my pen and started to write poetry again.

That would’ve been in the middle of 2020 and lockdown, One day I wrote single poem and realised that ‘The Muse’ had not deserted me.

5. 'Forty Poems For Dylan Thomas,' was published in 2022. Could you delve into the inspiration behind this collection and its significance in your writing experience? Autumn 2022, saw the publication of my second book of poetry, which was entitled ‘40 Poems For Dylan Thomas’.

This book was an important milestone in my life as a writer and reflected my lifelong interest in the life and work of my fellow Welshman, Dylan Thomas (1914-53) Happily the book has been very well received. Copies can be obtained on Amazon.

6. Your poetry often delves into nature and the human experience. Can you share how your surroundings and personal experiences inspire your poems, and what role nature plays in your creative process?

I always believe that the subject of a piece of writing suggests to you the best ‘form’ in which it should be expressed.

Poetry is wonderful at capturing any subject, and a very flexible form in which to write. However, it is marvellous to broaden one's skill set and if you move into drama, whether for the theatre or film and television. Each delivery platform offers you an opportunity to explore further and further.

I am a great believer in the idea of common skills in writing. It is as though all the key elements of character and dialogue and situation and plotting and planning of the trunk of the tree, and that the different forms of expression such as theatre, film, television, and animation radio, are simply branches spreading out from that central knowledge trunk.

Everything we do to develop our core skills can be applied into ALL the different areas of creative writing.

I'm not saying that all writers need to develop skills in each discipline, but it is a great strength to feel you are able to work in more than one form, particularly if you have the idea in mind to make a profession of writing.

Everything we see and feel, is potentially a subject for creative writing.

Whilst it is a wonderful opportunity to express personal opinion and to examine one's own psyche, it really is good to get ‘out of one's head’ and to write about objective aspects of life particularly nature and how that might well be used as a symbol for writing about human life and interaction. It's important that not all one 's poems are about oneself.

Within my life there is a huge range of experiences, but at the same time there is a universality that links us all.

In Buddhist thinking it just said that what unites all human and animal Life is that every living being experience is suffering.

Beneath the skin we're all much the same, and if a writer can tap into that universality, he or she stands a chance being appreciated and widely understood.

Writing is a serious business. That's not to say that it can't be enjoyable, but it is a privilege to use words to touch the hearts and minds of others wherever they might be.

On the matter of Nature poetry, I always feel it is a place to which I need to return periodically, and to write about the grandeur and magnificence of the natural world, in which we are fortunate to live, although sadly we don't take great care of it. Rather like eating a sorbet between courses of a Feast, writing about the natural world cleanses the creative palate, and allows us to go back to all of the other themes we wish to deal with, with a more fresh approach.

For many years I've been running master classes in universities and drama schools. I have worked with thousands of writers in all stages of their creative development.

Roger Stennett and hid father Stan Stennett
Roger and his father (Stan Stennett)

7-What advice would you give to emerging poets and playwrights, who aspire to make their mark in the literary world?

The basic advice I give to all writers, of whatever age, is to read.

We are privileged to have the Internet now, for good and bad, but one thing it does do is it makes access centuries of learning and creativity available to us.

We can learn so much from the writers who have gone before us, and it really is an important fact of life to see that writers of all centuries have something to teach us.

A person wouldn't dream trying to become a musician if they had not listened to music. We learn from those who have gone before,.

Not uncritically, but at least acknowledging the pioneering work they have done

One of the truisms of creative writing is that ‘writers write’.

By that what is meant is that we need to practise art and craft regularly. You are not a writer simply by telling people that you are.

You need to prove it constantly and you need to seek the channels through which your work will be seen by others and judged.

One of the faults of Facebook for example, is that it is such an easy access route and there is a temptation for people to post work before it is fully considered, and revised. Heaven forbid you offer any gentle critique of such work, very often the creators are extremely defensive and even respond aggressively.

Sadly I have stopped doing this, because even if I bring my experiences of 60 years to the analysis of a poem, many of the creators of that poem feel that it is beyond touch, and that no one should have the temerity to offer even the most compassionate input. A real sadness.

The Internet offers a wonderful opportunity to research and to learn about many aspects of creative writing, often for free. Talks and lectures abound. You would be very foolish not to take advantage of freely offered material.

But your responsibility as a writer is to be curious and seek out, and to share in the work produced by your colleagues, whether current or long dead.

When you go to see a movie or a play or listen to something on the radio, do it critically. Analyse why one production works and another doesn't. Why one poem touches you and the other does not.

Remember that writing is an art and a craft. We need to serve an apprenticeship, whilst at the same time realising that ‘one lifetime’ is not enough. And finally, don’t even think of doing it for the money.

Hardly any writers make any sort of ‘living’ from their pen. Believe me.

8.In your opinion, what is the power of literature, and how do you hope your work impacts and resonates with readers and theatergoers? All art can be transformative.

It is hugely important and through history, people have fought and died for the right of free expression. It is a privilege to be able to communicate with other human beings, and sometimes even to influence the feelings and the discussion on any particular theme.

It has been my life journey and a journey with so many interesting twists and turns. I can think of nothing else that would have brought me such a profound challenge. Such great joy. And such occasional crazy moments of despair.

9. You had the opportunity to teach creative writing at prestigious institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, and drama schools. What did you find most rewarding about teaching, and how did it influence your own writing? Over many years I've had the pleasure of conducting lectures, master classes and mentoring work in a number of universities and drama schools. It is always a pleasure to pass on what time and experience has taught me, and as a person who spends most of his time alone in a room with a word processor, it's lovely to be in an environment of learning, with all the energy and companionship.

An ongoing debate about creativity is always one in which I am happy to participate. The academic environment is a place in which I feel comfortable, while at the same time, I must emphasise that in order to be an artist, it is not necessary to have undergone any formal education, although it is always helpful to share time with teachers and peers, over work in progress.

Roger Stennett and Stan Stennett
Roger Stennett and his father (Stan Stennett)

10. With a writing experience of more than four decades, how has your perspective on poetry evolved over time? What themes or aspects of poetry continue to captivate you, and how have they evolved in your recent collection, 'Forty Poems For Dylan Thomas'?

I have been writing for 60 years. I have been learning about writing for 60 years.

One of the most profound sayings in Buddhism, philosophy I have studied for many years, is the desirability of approaching all undertakings with what is called a ‘Beginner’s Mind’. Hopefully this prevents us from being over egotistical and keeps us in a place of learning that all things are possible, good and bad.

In terms of themes for my work, the world is full of possibilities.

I often set students a task of looking in a newspaper with a creative eye, and challenge them to find stories that would be a springboard for a play or a movie.

The issue is not finding ideas, it is stopping yourself finding too many.

In film scripts there is a phrase ‘POV’ which means ‘point of view’. It is possible to adapt this ‘camera direction’ to look at many things in the world, and if you choose a point of view that is slightly shifted, to one side or another, often a whole new creative world comes into vision.

Since my teenage years, I have enjoyed the poetic and prose work of Dylan Thomas'.

A wonderful lyrical poet who created memorable verse as well as amusing prose and the ‘play for voices’ of ‘Under Milk Wood’

I used to be friendly with his daughter, Aeronwy, and we gave poetry tours back in the 1970s when our first books were published by the same press in Wales.

The book is a collection of my poems looking at aspects of the life and creative output of Dylan Thomas. In some ways it's a journey since the first poem ‘Memory of A Miler’ is set during his childhood, in Swansea, a place very dear to him, and to childhood time from which she drew many of his own poems. The book has received very good feedback.

Whilst there is obviously much about Dylan Thomas in the work, it is my original poetic response to his work combined with my own poetic creativity that seems to make the work special to readers.


11. You've presented your poetry and conducted workshops in various settings, including The Dylan Thomas Birthplace House. What role does community engagement play in your creative life, and how do these interactions influence your work?

Involvement with other people through things such as workshops and public readings is for me a great joy. I do believe that the poet reading his or her own work can add a dimension to the poem, and also the ability of audiences to interact and question the process can be enlightening.

Over the years, as well as individual readings, I've had the pleasure of reading with other poets whose work I respect as well as participating in events with world renowned writers like Ted Hughes, Alan Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney and Yevtushenko.

12. Given your background as a psychotherapist, can you share insights into the connections you've observed between the processes of creativity and personal growth? How has this dual perspective informed your work?

Seek out your own heroes and always be open.

For several years, alongside my work as a writer I also was a psychotherapist, working with many hundreds of clients and over thousands of hours.

The work was important and gave me extra insight into the dilemmas and motivations in people's lives. It clearly influenced my work as a creator of fictional characters for drama, and there are many similarities in the life of a fictional character and the life of a real character, much of which was underlined to me by hours sitting with people going through pain.

In drama there is the notion of the ‘inciting incident’ which often sends our protagonist off on a journey.

In therapy there is of the notion of an ‘initial sensitising event’ which often sends our clients off on a particular journey of their own.

13- Are there any upcoming projects or works that you're particularly excited about, and can you offer us a glimpse into what readers and audiences can expect from your future endeavors?

Sadly, over the last year I have not been in good health, and my dramatic output has been very impacted. However, there are one or two things to report.

I'm writing a short play about Dylan Thomas and Thomas Hardy meeting in heaven.

I am also working with an Animation Producer to developed a feature film screenplay using a fascinating form of animation which involves sand. The project centres on the jungles of Burma during World War 2 and we are currently in the development and financing stage.

I am also putting together a collection of 100 poems out of my 3500, with a view to publishing a collection of 100 poems in the spring of 2024.

I'm planning to write a book in 2024 (‘The Talking Cure’) which looks at ‘therapy and poetry’, reflecting real cases of mine (anonymised) interspersed with my poetry about the therapeutic world.

14-Can you describe a particularly memorable or transformative moment in your life that had a profound impact on your journey as a writer?

My life has been full of interesting experiences and transformative moments, but the most transformative moment was being present at the birth of my son Sam, and being the first thing he saw in this world when he opened his eyes.

15. Finally. How do you see the future of poetry and literature in general, with all the different challenges that t AI brought to existence?

The future of Poetry.

Unpredictable as it always has been. No way of predicting anything. And anyway what would be the fun in that?

One thing I will say is that whatever else Artificial Intelligence influences, there’s no way it will replace the human dimension creating poetry that matters.

The only poetry I want to read is written by a ‘being’ who can feel pain;

And cry REAL tears.

Best of luck with the new magazine. A courageous and energetic initiative by the Editor-In-Chief and all who support her. I admire you.


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