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 M. C. Smith
is a Welsh poet from Swansea. He is published in Icefloe Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, Seventh Quarry, Wellington Street Review and Back Story. He is the editor of Black Bough poetry. Twitter: @MatthewMCSmith @BlackBoughpoems FB: MattMCSmith ‘BlackBoughpoetry’
‘Origin: 21 Poems’ is on Amazon KDP and is £7.00
1. When and why did you start writing?
I started writing quite intensely as a teenager in my attic bedroom. I had views over the Swansea valley (I miss the sunsets) and the hills around my community. I used to look up at Drummau Mountain, where there are farms, woodland and traces of Neolithic culture. I’ve written about this in a piece called ‘Teithio / Journeys’, for Icefloe Press. And at the edge of the city, there were some starry nights beyond the glow. I listened to The Doors on repeat and went through notebook after notebook writing aphoristic poems. I’m sure a lot of poets start with Jim Morrison – ‘ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’.
Then there was a gap. I wrote bits and pieces in my 20s and 30s, but I had a lot of other things I was into, including academic writing while I did a PhD, a lot of fad hobbies after this and then work commitments and parenthood became all-consuming (but ultimately rewarding, of course). After almost 25 years, I had a couple of drawerfuls of poems, gathering dust.
2. What else were you influenced by in your early reading?
As I mention, The Doors and Jim Morrison were key influences on my writing and some of their lyrics from ‘The End’, ‘Celebration of the Lizard’ and ‘Moonlight Drive’ are chillingly elemental. This led to reading Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, the Symbolists, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas. Later, a lot of post-war American and Welsh poets.
I remember reading ‘The Force that through the Green Fuse’ at the age of 15 and being struck by the pulsing rhythms and the vivid choice of words. How Dylan Thomas directly translated nature into language was striking and ingenious. I love some of Emily Dickinson’s work. Much of her work is the product of an isolated imagination, estranged from too many influences.
My first poet is R.S. Thomas – bleak, harsh, existential poetry. I love ‘Counterpoint’ and ‘No Truce with the Furies’. T.S. Eliot’s aphoristic, fragmented modernist poetry reminds me to look outside the self and I love the polyphony in his writing. Wallace Stevens has real style and wit and although I can’t write like him and don’t aspire to, I’d love to have written ‘Sunday Morning’. All the American poets I studied at Swansea Uni like the imagists, Gary Snyder, Ginsberg, Levertov, Rich – they’re poets I go back to.
I wrestle with my favourite. Sometimes the solemn, haunting ghost of Alun Lewis drifts into my mind and the austere, uncompromising voice of R.S. Thomas fades. Then Alun Lewis gets barged out of the way by the beery, brilliant, bardic, Dylan Thomas.
3. When did you first publish your poetry?
Everyone approaching 40 needs a mid-life crisis. At the age of 39, I came up with a bucket list, of which writing a poetry book was one. In my 20s and 30s, I lost interest in writing and had very little idea about literary presses, or submitting. I decided to spend a year collating a poetry collection and wanted a quick and easy self-publishing experience before my 40th birthday. I worked hard for 12 months, burning the midnight oil and went with Amazon KDP, self-publishing ‘Origin: 21 Poems’. This was a real catalyst to learn the craft, send other work off, go to open mic evenings, locally, and start a Twitter profile. It’s been a whirlwind experience in the past year 18 months as I’ve gone from being a guy at a desk with no clue and no real links with any poets, to now being involved in the poetry community locally and globally. It’s been nice to see good sales of my self-published book and a second edition of the collection, which is refined and tweaked. I was grateful to have the fresh and expert eyes of Kyla Houbolt, Ankh Spice and Laura Wainwright look over it.
4. You dedicated ‘Origin: 21 Poems’ to your father and two of your teachers, a friend, as well as your family.
Yes, my father died of cancer in 2012. I spent the last ten nights of his life in a fold-down bed next to him in a hospice. I have written about this in the poem ‘Dying King’, which is published with Anti-Heroin Chic. Like so many people, I find poetry a way to commemorate him and let his essence live on, despite being grief-stricken. I’ve written a lot of poems about him and I hope many would relate to the sense of loss and the attempt to make something of him – his soul – live on in words.
I also dedicated the book to Huw Pudner – an inspirational teacher at primary school. He helped me deal with having a stutter and gave his pupils an enriched education. He attends open mics now and likes my book, thankfully. He features in my Icefloe Press piece, which is about a school trip he led across Drummau mountain, where he opened up the local countryside to us despite the perils of aggressive farmers and dogs. Then there was Prof. M. Wynn Thomas of Swansea University; an expert on Welsh Writing, American poetry and Walt Whitman. An absolute guru and character. I did a PhD with him on Robert Graves and Wales, finishing in 2006. What a mind. No-one who meets Wynn forgets him.
I must mention my best friend, Michael. Although we only see each other a few times a year, due to distance, he always asks me how my poetry is and had enthusiasm for it when we were teenagers. He’s a talented writer himself and an Assistant Professor of Psychology. I’m proud of what he’s achieved since school. He’s reminded me many times over the years that I should write and I’m grateful for that.
My family always inspire me and I have written various poems about them although I’m quite private so I tend to avoid discussing them in any detail.
5. You mentioned stuttering. Does this still affect you and do you enjoy reading your work in public?
My father stammered and my maternal grandfather stammered. I had no chance. I started when I was 6 years old. The stammer and I waged a long war against each other and it’s been interesting. I’m fine most of the time and do poetry readings and tough jobs to challenge myself. In a strange way, I quite like the remnants of the stammer now. Like an old friend you can’t quite shake off but can ignore most of the time. Reading on the circuit is exciting but everyone gets a bit nervous. It makes me pause more and I’ve had a lot of compliments about how I read so performance has given me an exaggerated sense that I can do almost anything! I’ve kind of buried the stammer now but I think it gave me an interest in sound and language. I’ll write about it one day and exorcise a few more demons! Most people would have no idea I’ve had a speech problem.
6. How would you describe your poetry?
Hard question. I write about people, nature, transcendence, the power of myth, layers of time and cosmology. I love mysticism and attempting to use language to physically and mentally affect people. I’m also interested in shamanism and different ideas about the power of the imagination. Patrick Jones said my writing is like Seamus Heaney and Gillian Clarke. Prof. Daniel G Williams said Dylan Thomas, David Jones and Vernon Watkins. I’m taking those comparisons any day.
7. What are you working on?
I’m working on my second collection and have poems out to submission. Last year, I was writing cosmological poems but I’ve gone back into the earthly past now. I’m writing deep time poems inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’ and doing my own research into ancient and neolithic cultures. I’ve done a bit of exploration of Gower, places around Wales and the West Country and this finds its way into my writing. I have irons in several fires, to use an irritating but apt metaphor, and am editing Black Bough poetry, my micropoetry journal, again soon. I’m looking forward to working with Jack Bedell, Ankh Spice and Laura Wainwright, as well as a mystery artist.
I’m also mentoring/ assisting several poets. Last year, I offered assistance with several poets in editing chapbooks – this was fun and a great learning experience.
8. What will you be working on in future?
My second and third collections, which have distinct themes. I have a lot of poems to choose from and need to put in a lot of shifts to edit, refine and collate. This will involve a lot of work but I’m hoping to complete my second one this year. I also want to experiment more with prose poetry as I’ve really enjoyed and been tested by this type of writing but I get a sense of freedom from it outside some of the constraints of poetry. I’d like to guest edit another writing publication as there are so many cool journals out there and continue to work with a range of artists and writers. I’m looking to record some of my work.
I should enter competitions more and increase my submissions. But it’s important to pace yourself and get your work out when it really has been worked over.
9. Black Bough is a really successful venture. What motivated you to start an online poetry publication?
On Twitter, I noticed a lot of poets complaining about rejections and frustrated about long waits to hear anything. I also noticed that it was hard to read people’s work without having to spend a lot of money on journals all the time so I started a free publication anyone can access and submit to. I’ve since learned that there are a lot of journals out there that are free. I had no concept of how popular it would be and the quality of work that would come in. I have worked with amazing people in the past year and getting Robert Macfarlane’s blessing to do an ‘Underland’-inspired poetry edition is as good as it gets.
There have been six editions of Black Bough and I have great memories of all the people I have worked with. In 2020, I’m looking forward to nominations of poets for ‘Best of the Net’ and the Pushcart Prize and I hope I can do this for at least a few years then I may go on to something else. I’m a restless person.
Thanks for this opportunity, Paul.
The Soft Fall of Midnight
I know the soft fall of midnight:
the film of dew on dark buds’ lips
a scent of lavender pressed underfoot
the celestial stream in the shallow brook
the pulsing throb of turning carp
in slick pool below willows’ dark
the fox’s tread and backward stare
the owl’s descent in the thicket’s air
hear the hush of shrouded hills
a quickening wind in star-filled fields
a curve of dawn in eastern light
drink the bitter wine of night
(first published in Other Terrain: Dec, 2019)
I am with you. I am always with you.
You pulse with the click of the drive.
The dying king.
I press your paper-thin
shroud of skin, as thumbs curl
over balsa bones, ridges royal.
My eyes probe famine’s faultlines,
scan this lucent husk,
your twilight mask.
Under your arm,
now thin, translucent, I once slept,
sheltered from terrors in the night.
Now, I keep watch.
How did it come
Morphine dulls your silent ward. It keeps you
from fires in the fields,
from the sibilant hiss of the underworld,
the gaping maw of night.
We are skin, my dark
follows your dark.
Above tides, I feel winds of unconquerable spirit.
I stand at the edge, choking with loss.
(first published by Anti-Heroin Chic: ‘Grief issue’, Nov. 2019)