Interview: Lines from outside
The poet Stewart Henderson talks to Karen Carter
Like Roger McGough, Stewart Henderson came from the Liverpool poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s and went on to be a stalwart of BBC Radio 4. His children’s poems are set texts for primary schools in England and Wales, and he has been a songwriting partner for the singer Martyn Joseph for 20 years. Henderson is both a producer and presenter of radio documentaries. He has worked on programmes such as From Our Own Correspondent, Pick Of The Week and Saturday Live, and presented Questions, Questions for ten years. His latest book, A Poet’s Notebook: With new poems, obviously, is due out from Lion Hudson in June.
You have been in what you call the ‘bardic business’ for almost 50 years. What first prompted you into poetry?
I was a post-war grammar school boy given the privilege of a liberal education, one that was enhanced by BBC radio as ‘the window on the world’. But the whole idea of writing and creating something has been with me right from the start and I was always drawn to the lyric.
In the days of the old Home Service, I first heard the sonorous voice of Dylan Thomas reciting his poem ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’. He was using that phrase from Paul’s letter to the Romans – so that was Dylan’s church and chapel memory coming out and he was taking it elsewhere poetically. Of course, I had no idea what he was on about – I would have been about six or seven at the time – but I was suddenly aware of this great, anthemic character ‘singing’ to me.
I also remember hearing some of the songs of Noel Coward – his beautiful diction, command of language and the light touch. It was the fusion of those two very different characters – Thomas and Coward – which spoke to me. A devotion for the word and a rigour for the word, as well as knowing how to execute that and say something immense in two minutes – that’s what I came to recognise as a stand-up poem. I look back and view it as the beginning of my apprenticeship.
Do you think of a particular place as home?
Not any more but I still have that Liverpool ‘attitude’ about me.
And what is the Liverpool ‘attitude’?
Probably nonconformist – in its widest sense; suspicious of power for its own sake and a preference for the absurd. Roger McGough and I have come to the conclusion that we now inhabit a ‘Liverpool of the mind’. And in the Liverpool of the mind of the late 60s, my creative foment was the Everyman Theatre and the poetry readings that were blooming around the city and on Merseyside. That’s where I began to be, and think, and feel creatively…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the March 2018 edition of Reform