Works of poetry and prose
‘This pursuit of the optimal way-speed was, I came to realise, in keeping with all that Ian does. In action and speech, he is formidably exact. He exemplifies what Robert Lowell once called ‘the grace of accuracy’, and his poetry too, is distinguished by its precision. Minimalist but not gnomic, it extends his commitments both to exactitude and communication. There is no surfeit to it. His poems are short and taut as well-set sails. Poetry represents to him not a form of suggestive vagueness, but a medium which permits him to to speak in ways otherwise unavailable.’
Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, Hamish Hamilton and Penguin, 2012-13
In spring 2016 Saraband, Glasgow published a new and selected poems
from The Skinny Dec 22
'After the huge critical lauding of his novel The Book of Death and Fish, Ian Stephen justifies the first claim of his ‘poet, writer, sailor’ designation with new collection Maritime (Saraband/April). These lyrical works evoke the dramatic waterscapes, rocky shores and wind-blasted textures of his native Hebrides. It’s a collection that, as Kirsty Gunn claims, “splits the form open like a fresh catch, glistening and raw and singing with the sea.” '
'Ian Stephen's poems are finely wrought and stripped of embellishment. His gift to us is a poetry as taut as a sheet in a gale.' – Pete Hay, poet and essayist, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia
Waypoints and Transitions form a recently completed duo of non-fiction works, exploring the shared ground between storytelling and navigation
El Vigo (Astilleros Lagos)
Waypoints – sailing through stories:
is a history of the author's love affairs – with boats. Sea-routes from the Clyde to Orkney are explored in vessels which are sometimes traditional and sometimes of near-contemporary design – like the stories told along the way.
Boats are containers to keep one thing out, another thing in.
A waterproof vessel has to contain an absence of water.
If the inside and outside are exchanged – you're sunk.
'I am impressed not only by the power of much of the writing but also Ian's superb knowledge of land, sea and the topographical interface of oral tradition and the landscapes and voyages from which that tradition emerges. This is expressed both directly in his descriptions of journeying and implicitly in the often exquisite poems that punctuate the narrative. The traditional stories are also beautifully handled.'
Tom Lowenstein, poet and author of Ancient Land, Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strouss and Giroux, Harvill Press).
intended and actual routes
Transitions – voyages through change:
A man born and raised in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland stands at the tip of South Bruny Island in Tasmania. He observes the white triangles of a yacht in transit. These could be the sails of his friend who set out from South Africa bound this way to complete a solo circumnavigation in a small craft.
But his friend's sails were tan. He is long overdue and the official search has been terminated. The detached standpoint helps the traveller, who is the author, view the landscape of his home country and the lives of its people as they are mapped, across the oceans. He thinks back to his voyage to the Northern Isles of Scotland with that sailor who is now missing. This prompts remembrance and analysis of his own many previous voyages to and from British, Continental and Scandinavian ports and anchorages. The topography, the records of lost or surviving communities, the resilient stories – all these are placed in a wider context by placing them along sea-routes:
International folk-tales and local stories, linked to the physical geography observed and to the psychological journey of the voyager, are retold along the way. Short extracts from the sailor's logbook are moulded to a contemporary haiku. Timeless narratives are balanced with information from factual records which document both vanished and surviving communities.
(both works of non fiction are represented by the agent, Jenny Brown)
A Book of Death and Fish
is the title of Ian's first novel, published by Saraband, hardback and kindle, in October 2014.
The hardback was reprinted but the novel is now also available in paperback.
interview with Robert MacFarlane, Faclan
A North American response
“At 574 pages, poet Ian Stephen’s debut novel, A Book of Death and Fish, is not a work to be finished in a single go, but it is one you will want to. Wholly original, it nonetheless strangely calls to mind, for this North American reader at least, writers as different as Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Alistair MacLeod. Like Moby-Dick, A Book of Death and Fish combines compelling narrative with densely detailed but no less compelling chapters devoted to such mundane matters as building a boat, repairing a chimney and selecting roofing slates. (As in Melville, no metaphysics without physics.) The great lesson Twain learned from his time piloting steamboats was that the Mississippi was too changeable to be learned once and for all but had to be read, experienced and navigated anew on every trip, much as Stephen’s main character, Peter, has to, no less in his life in general than in trying to reach land during a storm. Perhaps it’s the fiction of Alistair MacLeod that Stephen’s novel most calls to mind; set in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, rather than MacLeod’s Cape Breton, A Book of Death and Fish shares a similarly rugged landscape and stoic yet lyrical simplicity. MacLeod’s recent death makes Stephen’s novel all the more welcome. This novel about Peter is also about island life—or rather about life, past and present, on the island and how, like Peter, the island community both endures and evolves, existing apart from the mainland and the larger world but interacting with both.”
Robert Morace, Professor of English, Daemen College , Amherst, New York
A similar comparison was made by Candia McWilliams in The Herald Books of the Year:A Book Of Death And Fish by Ian Stephen (Saraband, £18.99) may well take its place beside Moby-Dick, asking of you something as much and giving in proportion - which is to say incalculably much, and that long after you have finished it, over and over. It will, I suspect, be one of those books I will not put down all my days: island life, life at sea, being en-islanded, the isolation of failed understanding, of loss, of identity, even of nationhood - and of tank warfare - of addiction and of much else, all broached in a daring remade language that teaches you how to read it.
Western Isles Folk Tales
The Press and Journal Seanaid Macrae, 27th Dec
Cleverly incorporating a subtle geography lesson, this delightful collection of tales takes us from Barra in the south to the north of Lewis, with each new section of the journey introduced with a simply drawn map of the area and illustrations by Christine Morrison.
There are around 50 tales included covering a surprisingly varied amount of topics ranging from fishing boats and marriages to murders and clan feuds – “The Crop-Headed Freckled Lass” was one which, for me, was reminiscent of a Hans Christian Anderson-style story.
Some have a moral edge and others seem founded on superstition. They range in length from just a couple of paragraphs to a few pages long which makes for convenient reading, particularly for those with a busy lifestyle.
Ian also provides the sources of the tales, some of whom may be familiar to readers who are natives of the Isles, which will be useful for those wishing to research further.
A transatlantic response from Canadian storyteller Dawn Macfarlane
‘brilliant and compelling historical artistry in word and illustration!’
Oxford Poets 2013
a sequence of Ian's recent maritime poems is included in the 2013 Oxford Poets anthology. Oxford Poets is now an imprint of Carcanet Press. It is a continuation of the Oxford University Press which had a distinguished history in publishing poets from many countries including the Russian, Joseph Brodsky.
The editors have chosen a group of work which includes all the poems written during the 2011 Cape farewell voyage to St Kilda, the Monachs and Taransay. You can view one of these, with photographs in the Samples section of Cape Farewell's Scottish Islands Exhibition website.
Fathoms and Metres
is an audio CD of traditional maritime stories, produced by an Tobar, Isle of Mull as part of Is A Thing Lost If You Know Where it is? - a multi-arts project linking Scotland's Island arts-centres. It includes musical contributions from Norman Chalmers, Gordon Maclean and Julie Fowlis. A recording made live at St Kilda, during a Cape farewell voyage, is included.
With musical contributions from Peter Urpeth (piano) Maggie Nicols (voice improvisation,
Julie Fowlis (whistle) and Norman Chalmers (flute and Gordon Maclean (various instruments).
Available from an Tobar, an Lanntair, The
Ceilidh Place and The Scottish Storytelling Centre
or direct from
Sail Loft 2, north beach, Stornoway HS1 2XN
(price £10 incl post and packing).
Adrift, new and selected poems in English with Czech translations.(Periplum, Olomouc, 2007)
drawings by David Connearn
Adrift offers a cross section of Ian Stephen’s nearly three decades’ worth of poetic and dramatic work. His poetry is dynamic and succinct, to the point where I have been tempted to reproduce here, poems in their entireties. His work has its spiritual home in the Hebrides and their surrounding waters. For Stephen, the sea and shore are vibrant, active; landscape is not background, it is interwoven with the author’s own personality. Stephen expresses himself in terms alternately flowing and lyrical, or imagistic and disaffected. He deals as readily with questions of aesthetic as he does with the grimy trivialities of the everyday. The result is, either way, voiced with economy and pathos.
Whether enacting a muted engagement with natural beauty, or employing the common idiom, this is a poet attuned to the old injunction to ‘Know Thyself’, or as he might admit with less ceremony, ‘I bide within limited parallels/shuffle a few meridians.’
Stephen Lackaye, The Edinburgh Review
It’s About This, a poem log of a winter voyage to the StAnza Festival. (Daemon, Glasgow, 2004)
(a poem-log sent from the yacht El Vigo to StAnza festival)
It's your track record,
how she leans to the cloth she carries,
how her forward sections dip
and the bounce of recovery.
The swither of that, if any,
in small turbulence astern.
It's the hiss of the line of bubbles.
the one you're not often going to see
in the clutter of several waters
but you have to get the sniff of it.
Mackerel and Creamola, a collection of short stories with recipe-poems and children's drawings, is a rich portrayal of contemporary life in the Hebrides, drawing on the author's deep knowledge of sea lore. With a forward by Gerry Cambridge, recipes by Donald Urquhart, and an audio CD. (pocketbooks/Polygon, Edinburgh, 2001) Contributor and co-editor for other titles in pocketbooks/Polygon series.
Green Waters, with Ian Hamilton Finlay and Graham Rich. (pocketbooks/Polygon, Edinburgh, 1998)
PROVIDENCE II, poems and photographs. (The Windfall Press, 1994)
'His main subjects - seas, winds, tides, shorelines and horizons - are expressed in precisely observed details of shape, colour, texture and movement that capture the spirit of a place as well as the topography in poem after poem, until voyaging becomes fact and metaphor in Stephen's work, a way of life and a way of interpreting life.' - James Aitchieson, The Herald
Morning Star Publications, many collaborations with Alec Finlay, from 1991. (Held in many public and private collections, including National Library of Scotland and Museum of Modern Art, New York.)
Siud an t-Eilean (editor) anthology of poems and photographs. (Acair, Stornoway, 1993)
Varying States of Grace, from small, perfectly reconstructed moments of island life to longer, loosely textured meditations on European politics, from stories of family to songs of romantic adventure, the care and compassion of Stephen's eye find a state of grace in every situation, his unerring but quiet technique marking out their variations. (Polygon, Edinburgh, 1989)
Malin, Hebrides, Minches, collaboration with the photographer Sam Maynard.
Poems and photos published internationally and exhibited at The Third Eye Centre, Glasgow. Associated performances with Sean O' Rourke (JSD band, Alba, The Keltz) and Savourna Stevenson. (Dangaroo Press, Denmark, 1983)
with Sam Maynard
Your poems are like washed pebbles on a beach. – E P Thompson
The weather feeling of the poetry is very truly matched by the photographs – altogether good lifting signals being transmitted….. – Seamus Heaney, letter to Dangaroo Press
Stephen writes well of the bare, islanded north and its sea-scapes, its loneliness and stark, sporadic collisions with geopolitical industrial-technological realities, of the view from the top of the world.' – David McDuff in Stand.
Poems from Small Islands
Venue: Charlotte Square Gardens
Running time: 60mins
Performers: Robyn Marsack, Miriam Gamble, Adrian Grima, Maria Rosa Liabres Ripoli, Jenan Selcuk, Ian Stephen
On the evening of Sunday 14th August, the small Peppers Theatre stage was packed with poets – not the usual one or two writers and a presenter; here were five international poets from Belfast, Malta, Majorca, Cyprus and the Isle of Lewis. Introducing the event was Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library.
In co-operation with the SPL, Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) arranged a writers’ workshop recently at Crear, Tarbert, Argyll, bringing together these poets from islands around Europe. This was apparently an inspiring and educational collaboration, learning about language with the aim to translate selected poems - say, from English into Turkish. The workshop and subsequent poetry readings in Crear were part of the "Year of Scottish Islands Culture" series of events.
"Crear, space to create, is an inspirational working space with accommodation on the west coast of Scotland, connecting individuals and organisations across the arts worldwide through innovative residencies."
The poets in turn read their own poem followed by the translation by another poet into their language; for instance Northern Irish writer, Miriam Gamble’s witty and romantic “Semi-colon”, was translated into Catalan by Maria Rosa Llabres Ripoli.
An atmospheric narrative about the wild rugged Icelandic landscape, “Ridge above Lake Myvatn” was first read in English by Ian Stephen (with lively Hebridean storytelling skill) and then repeated in the translated version in Maltese by Adrian Grima.
Reading poetry requires fine expression over every syllable, each word and stanza, with flowing pace and rhythm. Adrian, Miriam and Ian have a rich quality of voice and performed their work with style…