IT was a photograph of an old couple in a greasy spoon cafe that got Michael Stewart writing his acclaimed poetry collection, Couples.

This was no rosy image of lasting romantic love; an elderly couple holding hands, still hopelessly devoted after half a century or so. It was a rather sad picture of two people sitting together, yet appearing not to notice one another. “They were sitting at a table, a slice of bread and butter between them, staring through each other, into the abyss. I was chilled by it,” says Michael, of the Martin Parr photograph.

Michael, award-winning novelist, poet and playwright who lives in Thornton, began to write ‘couples’ of poems that were connected, “talking to each other, or sitting uncomfortably next to each other”. The result was a darkly comic collection exploring the notion of how two people come to depend on each other.

The collection comprised 24 poems, in 12 pairs, placed in ‘couples’- left and right-hand poems facing each other across the page “in an uneasy relationship. Says Michael: “Sometimes they exchange a glance, sometimes they stand side-by side, staring out into the world. Only when the book is closed, and they’re in darkness, do they truly come together.”

The format was inspired by an idea he had while editing another poetry book: “I became mindful of the relationship between the left and right-hand page of a book, the two poems on either side. There they were, pressed up against each other, attached yet separate.”

Couples was first published on Valentine’s Day 2013. Now the seven-year itch has reunited Michael Stewart with his ‘old flame’; re-working the original poems and adding 12 more for a new edition. The collection is funny, tender, bleak, haunting, unnerving - perhaps best not read to your loved one this Valentine’s Day, unless you’re both on the same page..

The book has had impressive praise. Alan Bennett calls it “Bleak but wonderful...familiar, and of course funny”, while Ian McMillan says: “Couples does what very good writing can: it makes you look around you, see things differently. Once I’d read the book I couldn’t take my eyes off that older pair on that bench in the park in the drizzle.”

Two poems, He and She, sit poignantly on opposite pages. “ He bought Valium off the internet at four pound a pop, and locked them in a box beneath the bed. One day when his wife was at work and his kids at school he took a brush and a pot of blue paint and decorated the kitchen: the floor, the units, the fridge, the plates, the knives, the kettle. He left a note to his wife and two daughters. The note was also blue. It said: I love you.”

“She came home to the mess, the stink of paint, everything wet. She closed the door behind her, her hands now stained with thick blue gloss. She didn’t see the note, walked through the house shouting his name. It was too late for 999. Now she’s moved on. Met a man through Matchmaker dot com. But sometimes when everyone is out, she sits in the kitchen picking at the yellow paintwork so she can see the blue beneath.”

Michael is head of Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield and the author of novels King Crow, Café Assassin and Ill Will, short story collection Mr Jolly, and several BBC Radio 4 plays.

He will be reading from Couples at the University of Huddersfield on Tuesday, February 25 at 6.30pm. The event includes ‘In Conversation With’ Sairish Hussain, whose debut novel The Family Tree, is set in Bradford.

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Emma Clayton