DUBLINER STEPHEN James Smith’s poetry videos have amassed over 2.5 million views and he has performed at prestige venues and events such as the National Concert Hall, the London Palladium, Electric Picnic, and Glastonbury.
His vibrant live performances of riveting poems like ‘Dublin You Are’ and ‘My Ireland’ have won him many admirers, including Roddy Doyle, Christy Moore, and Donal Ryan. This weekend, Smith brings his electrifying presence and work to the Róisín Dubh on Sunday November 18 at 8pm.
The show comes as part of a major 30-date tour of Ireland and Britain which follows on from the recent publication of Smith’s debut poetry collection, Fear Not. Smith spoke with me ahead of his Galway show and I began by asking how the British leg of the tour, which has just finished, went.
“It’s been a learning experience," he says. "It had plenty of highs and plenty of moments of pure exhaustion. You’ve got the two hour gig but then you’re driving two or three hours to get there, and have to do your sound check, and so on, beforehand. It’s made me battle-hardened, I did 17 gigs in 19 days which was quite an undertaking but I am delighted I did it; it enabled me to make new connections with audiences there.”
'For me poetry is an oral art form that appeals as much to the ear as the eye, that’s how I first connected with it'
Smith’s ‘battle hardened’ road experience imbues him with confidence on stage regardless of the environment. “I’m pretty comfortable onstage; the only time I get nervous is when I am presenting something new for the first time,” he notes. “I collaborate with musicians all the time, I’ve toured, I’ve written a play which was staged in Galway during Cúirt a few years back. I’m quite happy to mix it in different environments, you learn from doing that. I did a gig in Glasgow where we had only four people, but you need to make that gig the best it can be for those people. I’ve also been fortunate to perform many times in front of full houses and delivering in that environment is a different energy.”
A measure of Stephen’s broad appeal is that last year he was commissioned by the St Patrick’s Festival to write a new poem as a ‘celebratory narrative” of Ireland. The resultant piece, ‘My Ireland’, was accompanied by a short film which was viewed more than 300,000 times and was screened at the London film festival.
Earlier this year, he was commissioned by Aviva to write a poem for the rugby clash between England and Ireland on St Patrick's Day. The poem, 'Bring It Home' chalked up more than 750,000 views across that weekend. Given the huge popularity of these short films of his poems, would he like to do a long form poetic film? “Actually I sat down with my manager the other day to talk about plans for next year,” he replies. “One of the things I want to do is to write another play, which will probably be a one man show and could also be turned into a film. I’d like to try and write that way and see what happens, it would be a good challenge for me.”
Having made his name through live performances of his work, how did Stephen feel about preparing his poems for Fear Not? “I was apprehensive,” he replies. “For me poetry is an oral art form that appeals as much to the ear as the eye, that’s how I first connected with it. I’m also dyslexic, which is not an excuse but perhaps it made me more hesitant about putting my poems on the page a bit more. However, I feel now that I do want to put my work out. There are probably some poems in the book that I wouldn’t do at a gig. The book is like another string to my bow and I was mindful of the change in form to Fear Not when I was getting it ready.”
Looking forward to his Róisín gig, where he will be joined by singer Enda Reilly, Stephen admits to a love of Galway. “I loved Galway from the first time I went there,” he declares. “It has a different vibe to Dublin, and I love Dublin, but Galway just has a different pace to life. When I am down there it’s generally to have fun; I love McDonagh’s fish and chips. I know various poets from Galway as well and when I visit it’s a chance to have some tomfoolery with them. With all the festivals throughout the year I am often down there.”
Regarding what Galway audiences can expect he says: “I like audience interaction at the gigs and that very much informs how the evening unfolds. Every night is different. There is a mix of laughter and tears, there’ll be poems and there’ll be songs from Enda, so it will be a broad palette.”