Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Matt Nicholson

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.

Small Havocs cover

Matt Nicholson

is a poet from East Yorkshire, illuminated by the poetic glow of the City of Hull. He has just launched his 3rd collection, Small Havocs, which explores, in short-form poems, moments and snapshots of the hopes, dreams and disruptions that make up all our lives. As with his two previous collections, There and back to see how far it is, and, We are not all blessed with a hat-shaped head, Small Havocs has been warmly received with critical acclaim for its range and Matt’s singular voice. So, whether you experience Small Havocs from the page, or at one of Matt’s hard-hitting performances, be ready to lose yourself in everything from the dark and the sinister, to the tenderness and the humanity of modern lives fashioned from Small Havocs.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I think I have always felt an urge to scribble down ideas, often in some rough kind of poetic form, right back to primary school and through horrible attempts at teen poetry and song lyrics, but I think I would say that I properly started writing poetry in 2014. Having moved back to the Hull area where I was born and lived to the age of 9 before spending 30+ years down south, I joined a local writing group and after several months of the group enduring extracts from my attempts at novel writing, they collectively begged me to try something different, namely poetry.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I don’t think I can give any one person the credit/blame for introducing me to poetry, but I do remember 3 poems from my English classes at Secondary school that really blew the doors off my perceptions of poetry. The first was “Against coupling” by Fleur Adcock which, with its opening line “I write in praise of the solitary act” had somehow made it into an anthology to be taught to 15 year old boys by slightly dubious old male English teachers. This poem, once the 15 year old tittering had ceased, showed me that a poem could be both extremely personal and yet universal, unashamedly honest as well as being taboo. It was a liberating moment. The second poem that further served to capture my attention was “Churning day” by Seamus Heaney, which I think was in the self-same anthology. I was immediately lost in Heaney’s descriptions of the moments and minutiae of rural Irish life and in particular this poem about making butter where he describes the golden butter as “coagulated sunlight”, an image that has stuck with me ever since. Completing the trio of poems, I remember reading Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the first time around 15 years old, and absolutely loving the rhythms and the structure of it, the musicality of the refrain, whilst not having a single clue what any of the words meant. I think I realised at that point that poetry was not just about meaning, it wasn’t about solving a puzzle, it was as much about enjoying the sound and the shape and the interplay of the words, and that I think is very important.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

To begin with, especially at school, I thought all poets, ancient and modern were some kind of distant elite, who inhabited an otherworldly realm of pure art and understanding, who just woke up one day as poets and were immediately accepted into the realm of creative superbeings…but when I started writing poetry at the local writing group in 2014, in my forties, and I started going to open mic nights, workshops and more spoken word events, I suddenly realised just how inclusive and contemporary poetry could be. It was like finding my tribe, people of all ages, often much younger than me, who were as desperate to express themselves in poetic ways as I was and to listen to and to read pretty much all the poetry they could get their hands on. I remember going to one open mic night where they had Helen Mort as their guest reader and she was reading from her collection “Division Street” and I was blown away by her work and possibly even more so by the fact that someone so talented was standing there reading it in a pub, and 10 minutes later I could get up and read my poems as part of the open mic. I think the pendulum swings back and forth a bit as to whether the page poets, and the academic poets, and the traditional poets are revered or resented by the contemporary and the more performance orientated writers, but the contemporary scene is so varied and mainly very open and welcoming that I don’t perceive any dominating presence of older poets traditional or contemporary.

3.1. Why were you “blown away” by Helen Mort’s work?

“Division Street” and Helen’s reading from it really struck me as being so immediate, so able to transport me from one perfectly described moment to another, switching from massive issues to the miniatures of life, without ever lecturing or sentimentalizing. I was struck by the vast range of the characters, emotions and intensities that made up her poems.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I do have a fairly consistent writing routine, preferring to write during the daytime rather than burning the midnight oil. I have a habit of sending myself emails every time I have an idea or if I come up with a form of words during the day, so I tend to start the next day eating breakfast whilst going through those random self-emails. If I find there are any half decent ideas, I tend to collate them into one email and send that to myself ready to look at later in the day. Then I to go out, either for a walk, to the shops or, less frequently, to the gym, to get myself moving and to let the ideas develop a bit while I’m doing something different. I usually get to my desk before lunchtime and start writing based on the ideas I’ve emailed or on any project I’ve got on the go. I always try and get to a first rough version of something before I stop for lunch so that I can come back to it after lunch and get it to a state where I can put it aside for a few days/weeks to settle before coming back to it to finish it. I believe quite strongly in maintaining writing habits and in pushing through the dry times, even if that means just writing what seems like nonsense on the page. It’s not an exact science but routine definitely helps me.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

Most of the time I like to respond to moments, pinpoints of time, either that I am experiencing, or that I remember, or that I have observed in other people’s lives, usually emotional moments, or moments that demonstrate a much bigger idea, and I like to try and climb inside those moments and where possible squeeze everything relevant out of that moment. That’s what I get most satisfaction from and that is what motivates me the most in my writing.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

Without any doubt the writers I read when I was young/starting out influence my work today. I think writers can be influenced by so many mediums and genres, from song lyrics, prose, film, to other poets. I would say that their influences can be seen very generally in how I write, maybe in what motivates and satisfies me about writing, but I think, in your own work you probably don’t want what you write to be too similar to those you have read. Writers are definitely a sum of their experiences and interests, but that has to blend to identify their own unique voice as much as possible and to leave it to the readers and the reviewers to speculate on your influences rather than allow them to be obvious.

7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I know it sounds a bit corny but you’ve got to admire anyone who is committed to writing and getting their work published in these difficult times. It is really difficult to single out individual writers, but locally I admire Hull poets Dean Wilson and Peter Knaggs amongst many others, because they are uniquely of the place they work in, they are able to move a reader or an audience from hysterical laughter to chest aching tears in a moment, and because through it all they are excellent humans. In the wider world it’s really impossible to single out individuals amongst so many talented and generous writers. Recent work I have admired includes Kingdomland by Rachael Allen and Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky because both of them took me completely by surprise in as much as they were like nothing I had read before and yet they had me totally engrossed and asking a billion questions as a result.

8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I don’t think some writers have a choice, they have to get their ideas out onto a page, even if it’s just for their own eyes to see. I am sure it’ll be similar for painters, photographers, comedians, and all forms of expressive art, but for me writing, and in particular, writing poetry is the outlet I have found works for me. I guess you could say that writing is therapeutic and as such, it is something I need to do to keep me level, and if I am honest, I am terrible at drawing, or painting etc, so I probably wouldn’t get the same catharsis from those creative pursuits.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Once I had advised them to seek someone much more qualified to answer that question, I would revert to telling them that the only way to become a writer is to write, often and regularly, and to keep writing even when the ideas dry up and your submissions get rejected. Hard work and persistence are the two common denominators amongst the successful writers I know, and it really is a discipline that seems to reward you more the harder you work, and persistence seems to create the moments where any talent you have gets to shine through.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

Small Havocs came into this world kicking and punching exactly a week ago, delivered from the printers and ready for those obligatory social media posts with pictures of the book arranged in piles on my kitchen table. The collection is made up of mainly quite short poems that act as snapshots of, postcards from, flashbacks to, definitive moments that have made up my life or those of people I have known, observed, or imagined. The title is a deliberate oxymoron and also speaks to the predominance of hyperbole in modern life. Now the book is here, I am working hard to plan how to perform/read these poems at the poetry gigs and events that I have booked in over the next few months, mainly across the North of England, but hopefully further afield as the year unfolds. Beyond Small Havocs, I am continuing to write and submit work to magazines, journals and competitions, mainly to keep my writing habit going. Later in the year, funding permitting, I am very excited to be going to Poland, to be the featured poet on a cultural exchange project which is intended to produce a series of poems mixed with other artworks to form a show that will be performed back in the UK…I can’t really say anymore about this project at the moment, but I am just starting to learn to speak some Polish and do some research.

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