Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers 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 Paul was born in New Malden, Surrey, in 1966, read Philosophy at the University of Ulster, and lives and works on the outskirts of London. He was shortlisted for the Poetry School/Pighog Press pamphlet competition 2013, has had his poems published in a variety of publications, including Butcher s Dog, Magma, Nth Position, Poetry Ireland Review, The Rialto, and The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 & 2017.
1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?
I was at school. I took my O-levels in 1983, which was when my brother Adrian – who, as part of his American studies degree, was studying poets like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and the Beats – came back from the States. We saw the Liverpool Poets read at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, and went to the all-day Poetry International at the Albert Hall in 1984, which is less famous than the original 1965 happening but featured most of the same poets: Adrian Mitchell, Gregory Corso and the main man, Allen Ginsberg, who accompanied himself on harmonium in a moving reading of ‘Kaddish’. Around that time, I got a copy of the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse and all the Jack Kerouac books which had been published then, including his then hard-to-find poetry like San Francisco Blues, so I started out writing very minimalist, haiku- and Imagism-flavoured Beat poetry. I daresay it was dreadful, but I read out a poem in a small creative writing class in sixth form and the teacher, Jim De Rennes, was very encouraging.
Back then, it was really hard to get hold of out-of-print books unless you had loads of spare time to ransack the Charing Cross Road, which I did a bit, so when I went to the University of Ulster in 1985, I could barely believe all the goodies in the library, especially the haiku books and the vast amounts of Irish poetry. I devoured MacNeice, Kavanagh and Murphy, and subscribed to Poetry Ireland Review. I was unlucky because Derek Mahon had just finished as Writer-in-Residence at the university; but his replacement, Martin Lynch, though a playwright, was very encouraging nonetheless, and invited me to take part in a reading – my first ever – which James Simmons headlined.
I was then beyond chuffed when the first poem I ever submitted was accepted by Dennis O’Driscoll for Poetry Ireland Review in 1987. I thought I’d made it! I then had a few poems published in university magazines and in an American journal called Spirit and thought it was all easy. Unsurprisingly, I then had a few rejections, and I gave poems, except haiku, much less time and attention for a good few years. I had a spurt of more intensive writing in the mid-90s under the influence of Thom Gunn, Sarah Maguire, Matthew Sweeney and Susan Wicks, among others. It wasn’t until 2008 that I really seriously got back into writing longer poems again, when I attended Pascale Petit’s wonderful ‘Poetry from Art’ courses at Tate Modern, which inspired me to get my head down properly.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My brother Adrian, Jim De Rennes and another English teacher at school , Neil Hooper, all, in their own ways, helped to bring poetry alive for me. I had to read Robert Lowell and John Donne for A-level, and whilst I wasn’t madly keen on the elaborate conceits in Donne’s poems, I loved the directness of Lowell’s poems, especially in Life Studies and For The Union Dead. I’d read poets like Heaney, Hughes (especially), Larkin and the First World War poets for O-level, but it wasn’t until I’d started reading more widely during my sixth form years that a lightbulb went on and I knew that I wanted to write poetry as well as read it.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
I was very aware of the generations who’d shaken up the stuffiness of British society in general, and that it was visiting American writers, like Lowell, Ginsberg and Burroughs who’d paved the way for the British Counter-culture. A marvellous Channel 4 film on Basil Bunting captivated me – his example, as a humble, left-wing, pacifist and highly articulate poet quietly ploughing his own furrow, was, and remains, inspirational. I also loved the Angry Young Man and Kitchen Sink books and films, which I suppose were our nearest – albeit not very radical and male-dominated – equivalent to the Beat Generation. Beyond that, I was aware that Hughes, who’d just become Poet Laureate, Larkin, who’d recently died, and Heaney were the titans. I’m afraid I was sadly unaware of most women poets, apart from Plath (I read The Bell Jar but didn’t appreciate her poems then at all), or of poets of colour. My school was all-boys, largely White and I daresay very sexist; and the English Literature curricula were equally non-diverse. Contemporary poets were largely invisible to me, alas.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I try to write or revise poems every day, which is tricky because I have a very demanding day job which takes up a lot of my energy, but I’m not especially systematic and I don’t try to force poems out against their will. I often find that the best way to trigger poems is by reading other poets’ work. Typically enough, though, poems can start arriving at inconvenient times, e.g. during meetings at work or five minutes into a 90-minute run.
5. What motivates you to write?
Habit and the urge to “say something”, to improve as a poet and to try new things and new forms. I suppose any writer writes because they think that they have an original contribution to make.
6. What is your work ethic?
Well, it took 30 years from the publication of my first poem to the publication of my first collection, so perseverance and patience must be part of it. I try my best not to let social media take up writing time. For me, two pieces of excellent advice have stood me in great stead: firstly, to read no books other than poetry for at least a year, which I greatly enjoyed; and, secondly, to tackle ‘form’, i.e. to try writing sonnets, ballads, sestinas, whatever. I love the fact that when I start a poem I know that somehow it will find its form, which could be very formal, syllabic, free-flow free verse, whatever.
Getting feedback from others is very important to me too. I’m on the Poetry Business Writing School programme, alongside some really fantastic poets, and I (irregularly) attend a group called the Red Door Poets, so I get a fair few opportunities for workshopping poems and trying different exercises and ideas.
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I’m not sure many of them still do, though I’ve retained a fondness for most of them. Lowell and Williams are perhaps the only ones from those days whose style has influenced me to any degree. I appreciate Heaney now much more than I did then.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many poets I like, and all because they write poems which are so well-honed and so beautifully readable, but here are some particular favourites, in no particular order: Paul Farley, Pascale Petit, Peter Sansom, Ann Sansom, Geoff Hattersley, Clare Pollard, Kathleen Jamie, Hugo Williams, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Tracy K. Smith, Paul Muldoon, Roger Garfitt, Sinéad Morrissey, August Kleinzahler, Zeina Hashem Beck, Sasha Dugdale, the Dickson brothers, Jacob Polley, Alice Oswald, Tracey Herd, Tim Dooley, Maura Dooley, Julia Copus, Liz Berry, John Foggin, Martina Evans, Tamar Yoseloff, Alison Brackenbury, Jean Sprackland, Nick Laird, Frances Leviston, Marion McCready, Annie Freud, Nichola Deane . . . I could go on and on!
9. Why do you write?
Because I have to. It’s an essential, wholly integral part of my life.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
None of this is original, and is basically common sense: read widely and read well, and practise, practise, practise your writing. Go to readings. Believe in your own ability, but always with humility, in the spirit of always wanting to improve. Don’t rush to try and get into print. When you feel you’re ready to find out what others think of your writing, take a course or two, if only for confirmation that you’re on the right lines. Only after that start submitting poems to journals. Keep at it. Don’t be complacent. Write the kind of poems you want to, rather than what someone else tells you to, and follow your instinct. When you get poems rejected, look at them with fresh eyes and ask yourself what is about them that caused them to be turned down and ask yourself if they really are the best they can be. Work hard at your craft, don’t settle for half-baking your poems and try to be your first and best critic.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I’ve got about two-thirds of a second collection written, provisionally named The Sugar Content. But there’s no rush: it took until 2017 to get my first collection, The Evening Entertainment, into print.