Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Happy Birthday to Stevie Smith!

Today would have been the 114th birthday of local poet Stevie Smith, so in honour of this occasion we thought we would tell you a little bit about her.

Born in Hull on 20 September 1902 and christened Florence Margaret Smith, she was initially called Peggy by her family. Of course we now know her better as Stevie. This famous nickname came about at the age of 19 or 20 during a horse riding escapade with a friend on one of the London commons. Her friend compared her to Steve Donoghue, a popular jockey of the time, she then became ‘Steve’ to her friends and eventually ‘Stevie’...the rest is history!

Illustration for 'I Love the English County Scene' [U DP209/16]

Although now more widely known as a poet, Stevie’s poetry was, at first, less successful than her attempts to become a novelist. Her first novel, 'Novel on Yellow Paper or Work It Out for Yourself' (1936), was an instant success. It was written on yellow paper taken from the office where she worked at Newnes Publishing Company, and the original manuscript is now held by Hull University Archives here at the History Centre [ref no.U DP156/1].

Her first volume of poetry, 'A Good Time Was Had By All', was published in 1937, but it was only with the publication of 'Not Waving But Drowning' in 1957 that she became more widely known as a poet. Throughout the 1960s, her poetry became increasingly popular in both Britain and America, and through her poetry readings and broadcasts she gained an increasingly wide readership.

The University of Hull Archives holds several collections relating to Stevie, including her book collection [ref no.U SSC], which was purchased at auction in 1979. This collection contains numerous books by and about her, including many first editions, as well as over 100 newspaper and periodicals containing poems, articles, and reviews by Stevie and reviews of her work, obituaries and other material.

Illustration 'Dear Child of God' [U DP209/8]

Stevie was also a talented artist. Thirteen of her original drawings, composed as illustrations for poems first published in The Frog Prince (1966), are held at the History Centre [ref no.U DP209/6-17]. Other records relating to Stevie held here at the History Centre include a number of recordings of Stevie reading her own poems, including three tapes in the British Council series 'The poet speaks', and seven letters to her friend Ladislav Horvat dated 1957 [ref no.U DP197].

In 1966 she was awarded the Cholmondeley Award for Poets, and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1969. In 1971 Stevie sadly died of a brain tumour but left a literary legacy that Hull University Archives is proud to preserve.

Verity Minniti, Archives Assistant

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