New book is published by award-winning St John’s poet
“If your poem isn’t even attempting to be as worthy of people’s time as a Taylor Swift song, I question your motives"
A St John’s librarian and award-winning wordsmith is continuing the College’s long poetry tradition with the publication of his second book.
The Culture of My Stuff by Dr Adam Crothers, who is the Special Collections Assistant, is published by Carcanet today (28 May 2020) and is a collection of sonnets, prose and political nonsense rhymes. Brexit, Trump, Northern Ireland, Komodo dragons, the male gaze, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, lapsed Protestantism, horror cinema, art and typos all fall under Adam’s lyrical spell.
The book’s title comes from the first line Adam wrote for the collection, ‘I hole up in the culture of my stuff’, which is a version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Take the only tree that’s left / And stuff it up the hole in your culture’, from his song, ‘The Future’.
Adam came up with the theme around the time of proof-reading his first book, Several Deer. Adam said: “I was moving house, and was quite down about how the physical manifestations of literary and musical culture I surrounded myself with were, for a period, just stuff in boxes, material I had acquired, entirely unprofound. And I wondered if the next book ought to be about the overlap between the consumption of art and the consumption of goods.”
Several Deer went on to win the Seamus Heaney Centre’s First Collection Poetry Prize in 2017, from a remarkable shortlist that included St John's Library Projects Assistant Rebecca Watts and Alex Wong, College Teaching Associate and Director of Studies for second year English undergraduates.
“Thanks to the St John’s Harper-Wood Creative Writing & Travel Award for English Poetry and Literature an amazing set of writers are now as much College members as Herrick and Wordsworth and Hugh Sykes Davies were, including two of the best living poets in the language, Vahni Capildeo and Sarah Howe,” added Adam. “The Biographical Office’s Paul Everest, a very fine poet and visual artist in his own right, has put a lot of work into re-establishing and maintaining the College’s connections to past Harper-Wood writers. And the College is ever so fortunate in having a Writer-in-Residence position, currently occupied by Sasha Dugdale; she’s been wonderful, and I hope St John’s will let her stay for a hundred years.”
Adam was making poems, songs, stories and drawings from a very young age. One of his favourites was a poem he wrote at the age of 10 called ‘The Tiger Watches’. He said: “It was vaguely metrical and it rhymed and it used its title as a refrain, and I only remember the embarrassingly bad bits, which doesn’t say much for the good bits; I’ve still not shaken entirely, though, the somewhat blinkered sense that a poem is more convincing the more it foregrounds its artificial rhythm-producing devices, and that it’s form rather than subject matter that generates something worth reading.” It was the start of a love affair with poetry.
Although he spent his childhood in Northern Ireland, he experienced little of the Troubles. “I grew up mostly at a remove from the sort of thing people associate with the place and the time,” said Adam. “The new book has a poem called ‘Ulster Poet’ that is about having an uncertain grip on some aspects of my cultural heritage, and having been at some geographical distance for about half my life.”
Even so, in a review of his first book, fellow Irish poet Thomas McCarthy said Adam was ‘unmistakably assembled on Ulster soil’; so, says Adam, there must be something in the sounds or the tone or the sense of humour embedded deep in his poetry. “And one’s always influenced by and in conversation with one’s regional predecessors: I would not write as I do without having spent a lot of time with the work of Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, for instance, and of course Seamus Heaney is a whole other can of eels.”
His other influences include: Emily Dickinson, George Herbert, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Philip Larkin and Frederick Seidel. Trinidadian Scottish poet Vahni Capildeo taught Adam when he first arrived in Cambridge as an undergraduate at Girton College in 2002 and proved to be a positive force. “Vahni was the first person to take my writing more seriously than I did, and as such is largely to blame for the whole sorry thing and should be judged accordingly,” he joked, adding that his list of rock and pop influences ‘would be at least as unwieldy’. “If your poem isn’t even attempting to be as worthy of people’s time as a Taylor Swift song, I question your motives."
After graduating from Girton, Adam spent a year in Dublin before returning to write a doctoral dissertation. He’s been in Cambridge ever since, joining St John’s Library in October 2012.
Thematically, The Culture of My Stuff has stayed close to the original conception. “But of course poems respond, even accidentally, to world events and personal drama and Bowie heading to the stars, and so there are other threads running through it. Much of it comes together in the final poem written for the book, ‘John Everett Millais: The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare’, which I drafted while standing in front of the painting in question, one of my favourites, at the Fitzwilliam Museum,” said Adam.
Adam enjoys giving readings but favours recitals, delivering the poem from memory. “This keeps things interesting for me if it’s a poem I’ve performed a lot – some just lend themselves to performances more than others, for instance by being funnier, or more thematically immediate, or more representative; and it’s sufficiently odd behaviour, from somebody who isn’t a spoken-word artist, that it fills audiences with the confusion and discomfort we all crave from our entertainment.”
With live performance off the agenda for now, he is undertaking pre-recorded video readings and hopes to collaborate with friends whose publication dates have similarly fallen into the middle of the global pandemic.
His mind has now turned to two more books of poems. “One will be a collection of lyrics and prose respectively more pared-back and more conversational than most of what I’ve published so far, into which some lockdown language seems doomed to be shoehorned; the other a set of longer narrative poems rooted in science fiction and horror,” said Adam. “If the words ‘prose’ and ‘narrative’ suggest that I’ve also been figuring out how to write fiction, this is not misleading: poets are always working on novels these days, it seems, but, well, so am I, and my teenage self is delighted that I’m doing some proper writing at last after all those sonnets.”
If the Tiger is Watching, it will be pleased.
• The Culture of My Stuff is published in the UK by Carcanet on 28 May 2020 (30 July in the US). An online book launch will be held via Zoom at 7pm on Tuesday 16 June when Adam will read poems, be in conversation with poet and novelist Caoilinn Hughes and answer audience questions. Registration is £2, later redeemable against the cost of the book.
Adam’s reading of his poem ‘Cambridge,’ from The Culture of My Stuff: