Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Matthew Clegg was born in Leeds in 1969. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 1997, and from 1999-2001 he was poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. His published works include Lost Between Stations
(https://longbarrowpress.com/current-publications/matthew-clegg/ ), West North East
His next collection, Cazique, will be published by Longbarrow Press in October, 2018. He has worked as a Literature Officer for Arts Council England, and has taught at Sheffield University Lifelong Learning, and for the Open College of Arts. He currently lectures in creative writing at Derby University, and he lives in Sheffield.
Matthew Clegg: The Navigators | Poems by Matthew Clegg
‘A Navigation’, led by Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne, tracked several miles of the South Yorkshire Navigation between Mexborough and Conisbrough on 24 May 2015, with an audience of 25.
Matthew Clegg | Longbarrow Press
The Navigators (hardback, 128pp) £12.99 UK orders (+ £1.70 postage) Europe orders (+ £5 postage) Rest of World orders (+ £7 postage) Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection explores the portals that connect time and place, and meditates on the element of water, as it moves through both. The book opens with rain falling in the Lake District, flowing to…
Matthew Clegg: West North East | Poems by Matthew Clegg
West North East: £12 (hardback) UK orders (+ £1.70 postage) Europe orders (+ £5 postage) Rest of World orders (+ £7 postage) West North East is the debut full-length poetry collection by Matthew Clegg. A beautifully produced 96-page hardback book, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12 + P&P. You can order the book securely by clicking on…(https://longbarrowpress.com/current-publications/matthew-clegg/ ), West North East
Q: What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
A: I began reading poetry when I was an ice-cream man outside Canal Gardens in Roundhay, Leeds. I was 18. I’d made friends with an art student who managed a charity café. I was also a little bit in love with her. She was smart, and had seen more of the world than me. She told me I looked bored, so she gave me a copy of The Oxford Library of English Poetry. It was very kind of her. I enjoyed the idea that she thought I looked like someone who’d like poetry. I read that book diligently, going backwards from Seamus Heaney. It introduced me to poets that genuinely excited me: Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Auden, Eliot, Wordsworth, Hardy and Hopkins, just to name a few.
Writing started a few years later. My first efforts were just those of a young man trying to get the attention of a woman. I couldn’t think of any other way of getting her attention at that time – which shows how limited my imagination was.
Things started to develop for my writing when I was living in a suburb of Birmingham in the early 90s. I was lodging with my first girlfriend and her parents, and they were pretty much the only people I knew in the city. I was in love, but not with Birmingham. The trees seemed diseased. The air was dirty. There was a grey dust of car exhaust on the roadside weeds. Our neighbours had this dog that barked all night. My girlfriend’s dad got into a fight with the owner in the street. I started to feel a little directionless and isolated. My friends were elsewhere. I was estranged from my own family. The jobs I had meant nothing to me. There were signs that the relationship I was in was going to end soon. Eventually, I got sick – a gastric stomach ulcer – and this laid me pretty low. All in all, these circumstances created a crucible for introspection. I started to write more often, and I started to make little handmade pamphlets of the poems – all lost now. The poems were clumsy and pretentious, but they helped me through that illness and introspection.
In 1993 I started an English Degree as a mature student at Sheffield University. That was where I attended my first writing group. It was chaired by Chris Jones, who lectures at Hallam now, and most of the people who went were postgrads. They were more sophisticated writers than I was. This was where I began some kind of tough weekly discipline, and where I started getting encouragement and constructive criticism. ‘Why don’t you write like you talk?’ ‘You write better when you write about the world you know.’ The usual good advice for beginners.
I wrote my first ‘real’ poem there – or at least the first poem that was close to my own spoken idiom, rather than a naff impersonation of a poem. In this poem I tried to process thoughts and feelings about my father’s working life, and about the difficult beginning of his second marriage. Writing it helped me empathise, which enlarged my world, and it also helped me locate one theme and territory that I’m still exploring today: the relationship of people to their predicament in life, and how the persona they adopt reflects their place – and their sense of place in the world.
When you write about people, you are also writing about the places and circumstances that shaped them. This has been one of the strategies I’ve used to try and dig deeper into sense of place. My first two collections (Lost Between Stations, and West North East) are full of voices and characters who are all genii loci – that is, spirits of place. Like William Carlos Williams, I’m more drawn to (so-called) ‘none-entities’ than I am to (so-called) ‘leading citizens’. I add the brackets because I’m not really interested in conventional status hierarchies. It’s the grass-roots of life that attracts me. It’s one source of authenticity. Of course, our social conditioning can make it hard for us to appreciate authenticity. It can be difficult, or painful – it can clash with the constructs we build around our egos and aspirations – our sense of how the world ought to be, or what we want from it. Authenticity can be threatening. I think there is a sense of threat driving some of my early poems – a potentially positive sense of threat – positive because it can crack that shell around the ego, if that makes sense.
Q: “Crack that shell” as in puncture any complacency that may creep in?
A: Complacency, yes. We can all get locked inside our little world-views. We can grow too comfortable with those views. I love that part of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he observes that Stephen saw nothing in the world unless it was a reflection of his own inner life. I’m paraphrasing. I was always very excited by scenes in novels where difficult events break a character open, make them vulnerable again, and their authenticity is restored. I think we have to guard against arrogance, too. I’m not saying it’s a fault I’m susceptible to. Pride and pig-headedness, yes, and defensiveness, certainly. But I have been in circumstances in my life that fed arrogance. These circumstances were often where I experienced a sudden surfeit of conventional status – or at least relative to the status I didn’t have before. The individual isn’t entirely to blame. Our status-orientated culture feeds arrogance. Sometimes it actually expects it. We can treat people like fools if they don’t have a carapace of arrogance. This is not even good for those getting arrogant. There’s often a little burn-out or breakdown waiting to happen to them.
Q: How does this affect your writing? Is each new poem or collection a reappraisal of the attitudes and ideas expressed in the one before it?
A: Not in any programmatic or mechanical way. But I do tend to reappraise quite naturally in all walks of my life – and that feeds into my writing. I try and keep open to the challenges to complacency life throws at us. I try to challenge myself through reading too. I’m not a conservative, but I want to understand how conservatives think, and why they think that way. I’m reading Jordan Peterson’s book because I want to understand where he’s coming from. I don’t want to join in with the mud-slinging between different tribes of thought. I don’t think Peterson is ‘the greatest thinker of our age’, and I don’t think he’s an alt-right madman or monster either. I expect there’s a little piece of Jordan Peterson inside middle-aged me. Some of his thought seems rooted in classic liberal ideas, which interests me. I also think he genuinely wants to help people become more competent. But reappraisal is absolutely essential to what goes on between my different poems and my different books of poems. I don’t tend to try and close topics down. I want to be able to open them up, again and again, and let some new light in. I worry that stiff ideological thinking can actually seal out the light. I don’t tend to believe in closure in life or writing. Pound wrote ‘there is no end of things in the heart’. I connect with that. When I believe things, I can believe them strongly. And then a challenge will come along, and I will get opened up again, and there will be new light to take account of. I look forward to it. It will often be a new poem growing. It will tell me things I didn’t already know. It will be a discovery.
Q: Poetry is a revelatory act for you?
That’s an interesting question. I always hope that the creative process will reveal something to me that I didn’t know before. Derek Walcott said something like ‘if a poet knows beforehand how a poem is going to end, it’s going to be average.’ In ‘Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise’, Jane Hirshfield says ‘a good poem makes self and world knowable in new ways, brings us into an existence opened, augmented, altered. Part of its work, then, must also be to surprise – to awaken into a new circumference is to be startled.’ I like that idea of ‘new circumference’, and the notion of enlarged consciousness it implies. I suppose it is possible to enlarge consciousness by argument, or other more prosaic means, but there’s something powerful and immediate about how surprise can open our minds to new apprehension of the world. But if I was to say that poetry IS a revelatory act for me, it would be to set a standard I couldn’t possibly maintain. Many of my poems strive to reach that ‘new circumference’ but fail to get there. They catch the scent or sense of something close, but just can’t quite bring it home. Intellect, or language, fails to follow through. Life often leaves me feeling like that. There is still plenty for poems to do, though, if revelation fails. They can evoke our human experience of searching or striving or trying to open ourselves up. They can dramatize our failing and falling and our determination to go on taking our chances. There is a fine poem by the American poet Philip Levine. It’s called ‘The Great Truth’, and you could read it as a poem about waiting a lifetime for a revelation to materialise, accepting the possibility that by the time it arrives, it might be too late for us to change or respond. Ordinary life and disappointment might well have already made us who we are. I also accept that might be true. There’s a flip-side to revelation.
Q: Surprise rather than revelation. When a poem of yours or others does not surprise is it a bad poem?
I think I was trying to say that revelation and surprise are interlinked. What kind of revelation doesn’t surprise? If we know something already, can it be a revelation? What is revealed? OK, it can be something we know, but don’t feel, or even try to deny, so maybe the revelation makes us feel it on a deep level – as something real, rather than just an abstract concept. Poems are better at dealing with these nuances than explication, perhaps – or at least my attempts at explication. ‘Never try to explain’ is good advice for poets! I think I tried to answer the second part of your question when I talked about dramatizing our failure to bring revelation home. Also, I think the Levine poem tries to offer a poetry of accrued experience over time. The great truth of ‘The Great Truth’ doesn’t materialise as a revelation, but through a lifetime of coping and getting on with things, and outliving youthful expectations. That is what it communicates to me. But I suppose you could argue that this subverts the Romantic expectation for a poem, and so is surprising, in its sobering way. I think it’s a great poem. Once of his best. Another poet who seems to offer a poetry of disenchantment is Ken Smith. So many of his personae seem to have outlived a belief in surprise, or change for the better. I’m thinking of the poems in Terra and in Wormwood, especially. The poems in that hard-boiled Bogart voice he sometimes adopted, or the poems about, or in the voices of outcasts and prisoners. There is a concentrated ennui. A claustrophobic pressure. I find these poems powerful, but they don’t seem to conform to some expectations for poetry. There is no little epiphany. This is poetry stripped of the obligation to re-enchant. And yet the dark places these poems take me awakens my compassion for my fellow creatures. Somehow the poems speak meaningfully about the human condition. That they achieve this without using the conventional apparatus is actually surprising. So my answer goes round and round the mulberry bush. I don’t think I can break the circle today. Sorry.
Q: What is your work ethic?
That’s a hard question to answer. Is poetry ‘work’, in the conventional sense – in the way that we mean it when we talk about a job, or a living, or a contribution to society, or the economy, or whatever else? Can it be included in the nexus of ‘doing your best’, or improving yourself, or fulfilling yourself? Is it therapy? Is it extra and outside of all that? Is it an expression of free will, a kick against the pricks? If poetry is a job, what is its function, or its responsibilities? Derek Walcott saw poetry as votive – a devotional act. I find that helpful. Poetry is an organism that refreshes our perception of the world. It channels imagination and transforms our understanding. We use it to sing our pain and our joy. Walcott talks of singing the pain and joy of the tribe. I suppose there are other words we could use to describe our sense collective responsibility. I have a strange affiliation with people on the margins, or people who are ignored. I do feel I have devoted myself to poetry in some way. I feel a responsibility to maintain the quality and integrity of my contribution to that project. I work hard at my poems – at times I’ve over-worked them. I don’t see myself as a poem factory though. I’m not a slick machine. The world will clearly survive without its quota of Matthew Clegg poems. Why should the world care if I have a successful ‘career’ or not? Of what interest is anyone’s ‘career’ to anyone else? There seems to me very little existential value to a career. It’s just a construct for the ego to live in. What’s the real content, beyond that? There have been times when I’ve preferred the notion of ‘art ethic’ above ‘work ethic’. I mean an ethos whereby we seek to refresh our practice – keep it living and alert. Keep it creative, not merely productive. Keep it real and honest. That does take devotion. It’s a sort of path, or Tao. Perhaps that is how I see it. A combination of devotion, discipline, persistence – and a sense of adventure, too, and a commitment to risk, and to opening yourself up.
Q: How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I think Ted Hughes reminds me that language can act as a physical force. Handled in the right way, it can be physically affecting. It can summon beings and places. It can make them present. It doesn’t have to be a polite or restrained or genteel business. It can accommodate wildness, and otherness, and difficulty. It can take us strange places – and inside strange mental states. I think Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney remind me that the ordinary can also be a place of revelation – that ordinary people can embody virtues and values worth celebrating, and unlikely places can be the site of wonders. Walcott made the tiny island of St Lucia the heart of his near-epic poem, Omeros. He encourages me to go on absorbing new territory into poetry – that there are plenty of places and people and predicaments that have not been celebrated by poems. Nothing is unworthy. As Patrick Kavanagh said, the universe starts from where you stand. Peter Reading reminds me of the value of persistence – that a bloody-minded project might not be the most popular, but it can accrue value over time. He encourages me to keep on looking at the dark and difficult stuff. He encourages me to learn my craft, and master my techniques: that they are tools for coping, as well as writing. Thom Gunn reminds me that I can be interested in both traditional form, and experiment. I don’t have to subscribe to a camp, or a school, and there is a lot to be gained from moving between poles. He also reminds me that poetry is an adventure, and the adventure continues, even as we get older.
Q: Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
I’m getting old. Most of the writers I admire the most are dead. I try to stay in touch with what’s being written now, and I try to engage with the new voices, but the mechanisms of the current poetry world – the careerism, the promotion, the tribes and cliques – it costs me a lot of effort to filter it and try and make sense of it. And there is so much being published, so much to absorb.
I found Melissa Lee Houghton’s Sunshine brave and vital. The (apparent) self-disclosure is discomfiting, but the images are searing and the voice is brimming with life and presence. There is a strange music to her work too – something almost rhapsodic. There’s nothing stiff or stagey about it. The subject matter is difficult – mental illness, desire, sex and pornography, self, but there is no shying, nothing cute or coy about it.
I love Thomas A Clark’s poetry. This is a very different ethos altogether. His lyric sequences celebrate place. The poems are haiku-like. The ego is left out. The poems are almost found – or discovered in the world. Their music is minimal, but still very much a music. They leave spaces for the reader to fill. There is a nuanced simplicity I find beautiful. A lightness very close to Japanese karumi.
I’ve just discovered Jane Hirshfield’s poetry. Her work feels calm and wise. I’m guessing Buddhism is a guiding force. I’m more and more attracted to work that applies Chinese and Japanese frameworks and aesthetics. Taoism, Zen, and Pure Land Buddhism all interest me. The Japanese aesthetic philosophy of Wabi Sabi is fascinating too.
Some performance poetry engages me and wakes me up. Kate Tempest’s ‘Europe is Lost’ (from Let Them Eat Chaos) hit me like a mid 60s Dylan song. She electrifies language. Jamie Thrasivoulou – an ex-student of mine – is writing a contemporary punk poetry. It’s great to feel how the room bristles awake when he performs. It’s an energy bomb.
I find this question a hard one. There are other writers I could mention. Andrew Hirst – from Sheffield – was an inspiration to me, from the first time I heard him read in 1997, when he was performing with Ken Smith at the Graves Gallery. I love his command of tone. He’s written some of the most riveting 4.00 o’clock in the morning poems. His Frome Primer pamphlets from Longbarrow Press deserve to be better known. They are a kind of elegy to places and communities passing (or being pushed) from our lives. As he says: ‘the city I love is disappearing…’
Fay Musselwhite’s ‘Goat Boy’ sequence in her book Contraflow is also a voice from the edge – the edge inside us, and the edge of society. I can’t think of anything else quite like it either. The character of Goat Boy has a genuine outsider wildness – not at all ersatz or faux. There’s nothing inhuman about him.
I love John Burnside’s poems. I admire his presentation of consciousness, and his fine-tuning. His poetry is so sensitive to traces and glimpses that are so often lost in the rush and noise of modern life. The poems create a quiet and a concentration where hidden presences emerge: shadows and quiet wonders.
I enjoyed Inua Ellman’s #Afterhours project. He takes poems written (by other writers) during the first 18 years of his life, and writes his own responses to those poems. His response to Andrew Motion’s ‘The Aftermath’ is a terrific piece of contemporary psychogeography. It’s a night walk through central London: its building sites, used condoms and greasy puddles.
Q: Why do you write?
You certainly ask the big questions Paul. It might take an essay to answer that one. I remember watching Henry Moore being interviewed once. The interviewer asks him why he had made so many mother and child sculptures, and Moore declined to answer. He said he feared trying to rationalise these things because it might cure him of his driving obsessions, and then where would he be? I worry that I can’t offer an answer that does justice to the time and effort I’ve put into poetry. I also realise I often ask my students this question, so it’s my turn now to feel the tension and anxiety some of them feel, no doubt, when they can’t manufacture a slick response. As I said earlier, I started to write in order to get someone’s attention, but grew out of that. I’ve written to navigate through periods of introspection. I used writing to push back against anxiety. I’ve also used it to talk back to the forces I believed were grinding me down. I’ve used it to try and advocate for people and places that aren’t given a fair hearing – because I feel an affiliation, sometimes on levels I can’t fully understand. I’ve used it to try and discover or rediscover my world – or the hidden wonders in my world. I’ve used it to try and get out of my own narrow head and climb into other and different perspectives. I’ve used it to try and expand my consciousness. I’ve used it to rescue my own perspective or my own sanity from what people call hegemony, or the dominant and dominating ideology. I’m one of those people who can’t quite feel comfortable with this neo-liberal, materialistic consumer society. Writing helps me keep channels open to other values. In Psycho-politics, Byung-Chul Han proposes one antidote to neo-liberal conformism. He sees it in the figure of the fool, or the idiot. They can be idiosyncratic. They can be other. Perhaps writing is my way of being an idiot.
Q. What would you say to someone who asked “How do I become a writer?”
I think you start by becoming a reader. You read everything you can get your hands on, and you start to read like someone who wants to open themselves up to as many ideas and perspectives as they can. If you want to be a genre writer, don’t just read that genre. Horror writers can learn a lot from existential fiction. Short story writers can learn from poets. Poets can learn from none-fiction writers. You start to read like someone who wants to learn about technique, voice and structure – and all the rest. It’s amazing what you’ll learn from reading – and you’ll learn it unconsciously as well as consciously. Reading is essential. Next, you need to practice and persist. You need to write and keep on writing. Follow your impulses. Be brave. Take risks. There will be plenty of mistakes on the way. There will be a feeling of failure. Trust the process. If you persist, you’ll improve. Compare yourself to how you used to be, not to others. There will always be someone else doing ‘better’. Learn to be sceptical of the myths that culture circulates about writers and other creatives. I don’t think it’s helpful to think about fame and success in the terms society glamorises, either. It’s flimflam. At some stage you will probably need to join a writer’s group (or equivalent) so you can start to get constructive criticism on your work. Then you’ll need to learn how to take and process criticism. This is a complicated and difficult stage of the journey. You won’t like some of what you hear, but if you take it on it will be good for your work. Sadly, not all that you hear will be useful. Readers are no more infallible than writers. Some can only tell you what they would do – and the trouble is, you might want to do something entirely different. So you will need your wits about you, and you will need to learn to separate the pearls from the dross. You always need to be thinking. This is good preparation for what comes later: rejection. Every writer experiences rejection. Don’t take it too personally. Easy to say, I know. Again, after rejection, you will need to persist. Hold fast to what motivates you. It’s good to know where these energies come from. Personally, I don’t think ‘getting published’ is a good enough motivator. It makes you too dependent on external factors. I’m talking about what feeds and drives you on the deepest level. This leads me back to Derek Walcott: ask yourself, what are you devoting yourself to when you devote yourself to writing? It needs to be bullion to you. It needs to be real. Lastly, trust in your own path, and be wary of anyone who tells you there is one formula for ‘success’. They are probably trying to sell you something.
Q: And finally tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I have a new book coming out in October. It’s called Cazique, and it will be published by Longbarrow Press. It’s made up of three poetry sequences. The title sequence is in the voice of a washed up conman – a man who imagines he’s related to the 19th century conman Gregor MacGregor, the self-titled ‘Cazique of Poyais’. One of the themes is the relationship between deception and self-deception, and how manipulation is hard-wired into our culture. I enjoyed the irony of having a conman speak truthfully about this. He is neither victim nor monster, but something altogether more difficult and complex (I hope). In some ways, it’s been the most challenging sequence I’ve attempted. I’ve had to acquaint myself with my own inner Cazique. I wrote a short essay on this project, which you can find at this link:
The Outside Inside: Some Notes on Creative Practice …
i. Not long ago, I stumbled into a website that sported an article titled ‘What Marketing Can Learn from Conmen.’ [i] There was something brazen about it that carried the stink of our times – this stage of capitalism that some people refer to as ‘late’. I was working on a poetry sequence about the…
The other sequences are ‘Officer’ and ‘Holodets’.
‘Officer’ dramatizes a break-down of relations between employee and corporate employer. There is a sequence of sonnets in quite corporate language that runs parallel to a sequence in tanka (‘Zipped File’). The tanka offer something slightly more interior than the sonnets, although there are instances where the private / public modes flip over. How much of us do our employers ‘own’? How do we keep hold of those parts of us they don’t? What happens when our private values clash with our employer’s objectives – or values in the larger culture? Are certain kinds of nervous or mental illness a protest from the body, or from the inner life – a set of signals urging us to change our life? What if we get caught in a loop we can’t find a way out of?
‘Holodets’ is a sequence about the relationship between an unknown English poet and a Russian immigrant and single mother. Holdets is a Russian meat jelly, which is served chilled. The word derives from ‘holod’, the Russian for cold. On one level the poems dramatize a breakdown of communication between the lovers – there are cultural and psychological differences, and they are under different kinds of pressure – but it also deals with the issue of coldness creeping into a relationship. The immigrant is fighting a depression, and feeling is draining from her life. The poet’s coldness perhaps relates to the act of writing itself. I’m thinking about Graham Green’s notion that ‘there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’. The sequence is made up of sonnets, epigrams, little songs, and some very free translations of Pushkin (and one poem by Osip Mandelstam).
All three sequences are all about individuals in certain places and predicaments, coping with different pressures, and they are all comprised of poems in slightly different modes. I’m trying to use music and structure as an intensifier. The ‘Cazique’ sequence has a chiasmic structure, for example. Largely, they are a continuing exploration of my interest in personae and place – and the relationship between the two. The book is quite dark, but not without moments of affirmation. I hope there is some catharsis, too. I’m interested in adapting ‘Cazique’ as a kind of masque play, or performance – as a means of trying to get away from me and my own ego. That will probably be the next stage of my journey with this project. I hope to collaborate with some creative people – and take some risks. I’m a little bored with how I’ve been presenting my poetry in the past.