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Abbey of the Arts Featured Poet: Kenneth Steven

We are launching a new series this spring with poets whose work we love and want to feature!

Our first poet is Kenneth Steven whose work is deeply inspired by the island of Iona. You can hear Kenneth reading his poem “Iona” below and read more about the connections he makes between poetry and the sacred.

The Strangest Gift

Sister Mary Teresa gave me a wasps’ nest from the convent garden –
just the startings, the first leaves, a cocoon of whisperings –
made out of thousands of buzzings.
To think that these yellow-black thugs
could make such finery, such parchment,
a whole home telling the story of their days,
written and wrought so perfect
stung me, remembering how I’d thumped them
with thick books, reduced them to squashes on walls,
nothing more than broken bits on carpets.
This little bowl, this bit of beginning
rooted out by the gardener, reminds me
of something bigger I keep choosing to forget
about what beauty is, and where that beauty’s found.

—Kenneth Steven

Poetry and the Sacred

I don’t think I understood just what a deep place poetry took me too before I had my writing cabin. This was no luxurious Scandinavian log cabin in the woods: it was a very simple structure hidden among trees at the bottom of my mother’s garden. It became my writing place. But what I learned to find there (and it took some time) was what I now call a place of deep writing. I was in the cabin for several hours on my own, often in the cold. I read a great deal and I wrote a great deal. I was taken far beyond myself, into somewhere deep and precious. It was a journey into myself, in all senses.

I began to write in a new way: words poured from the pen very quickly – sometimes a thousand words in an hour. What was important was that that writing – whether poetry or prose – was not self-conscious. I found myself writing things that came from a very deep place. Often I felt I left that cabin space a new and changed person: I had been on an extraordinary journey, and always a deeply spiritual one. I just know that faith and poetry have a kinship within my life. Perhaps I know that most because whenever I return to my spiritual home, the island of Iona, new poems flow from the pen. That pen can seem to have run dry for ever, and once I am back on Iona I find that new words appear on the page.

Themes of His Work

Iona and the Celtic Christian are at the heart of all my work, poetry and prose. But nature has had a vitally important part in my writing too, from the very beginning. But above and beyond these central threads, the pen is ready for new words: I can’t really dictate what those words or ideas will be. The more I plan, the more I’m taken by surprise!

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I remember what it was like to barefoot that house,
wood rooms bleached by light. Days were new voyages, journeys,
coming home a pouring out of stories and of starfish.
The sun never died completely in the night,
the skies just turned luminous, the wind
tugged at the strings in the grass like a hand
in a harp. I did not sleep, too glad to listen by a window
to the sorrow sounds of the birds
as they swept down in skeins, and rose again, celebrating
all that was summer. I did not sleep, the weight of school
behind and before too great to waste a grain of this.
One four in the morning I went west over the dunes,
broke down running onto three miles of white shell sand, and stood.
A wave curled and silked the shore in a single seamless breath.
I went naked into the water, ran deep into a green
through which I was translucent. I rejoiced
in something I could not name; I celebrated a wonder
too huge to hold. I trailed home, slow and golden,
dried by the sunlight.

—Kenneth Steven

The Stars

From the age of five my sight was smudged as a mole’s;
I wore tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses that were never quite clean,
and the stars looked white and indistinct,
vague pearls in a distant heaven.
On my fifteenth birthday my parents gave me lenses –
little cupped things that drifted into sight across my irises.
Driving home with them that night I suddenly caught sight of something,
got out by the edge of the field and looked,
amazed and disbelieving as if Christ himself had healed my eyes,
for the stars were crackling and sparking
like new-cut diamonds on the velvet of a jeweller’s window,
so near and clear I could have stretched and held them,
carried them home in my own pocket.
That was the gift my parents gave me on my birthday –
the stars.

—Kenneth Steven

About Kenneth

Kenneth Steven grew up in Highland Perthshire in the heart of Scotland, and now lives in Argyll on the country’s west coast; it’s these landscapes that have inspired the lion’s share of both his poetry and prose.

He is best-known as a poet. Fourteen of his collections have been published over the years, and individual poems have appeared in top literary journals across the globe. Much of his poetry is inspired by the wildscape of his native Highland Scotland; much has resulted from his love of the Celtic Christian story whose deepest roots are for him found in the island of Iona off Scotland’s west coast.

He and his partner Kristina and lead Celtic Christian retreats each October on the island of Iona seeking to offer a gentle path through the Celtic Christian story. More about them can be found on the website of the Argyll Hotel on Iona.

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Order Kenneth Steven’s Books

Island: Collected Poems

Salt and Light: Poems

Iona: Poems

Columba: Poems

Coracle: Poems

A Song Among the Stones: Poems

The Sound of Iona (an audio CD)

Kenneth has also published fiction and nonfiction titles

(using the Amazon links above help to support the Abbey scholarship fund at no additional cost to you)

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Dreaming of Stones

(available to pre-order)

Christine Valters Paintner‘s new collection of poems Dreaming of Stones will be published by Paraclete Press this March.

The poems in Dreaming of Stones are about what endures: hope and desire, changing seasons, wild places, love, and the wisdom of mystics. Inspired by the poet’s time living in Ireland these readings invite you into deeper ways of seeing the world. They have an incantational quality. Drawing on her commitment as a Benedictine oblate, the poems arise out of a practice of sitting in silence and lectio divina, in which life becomes the holy text.

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