Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Matt Abbott

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 three options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger, or an interview about their latest book, or a combination of these.
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.

A Hurricane in My Head cover [1524x2339]

Matt Abbott

is a poet, educator, and activist from Wakefield and living in London. His debut one-man spoken word show Two Little Ducks earned 5* reviews at Edinburgh Fringe 2017 and on a 22-date UK theatre tour in 2018. The show’s poems were published as his debut collection by VERVE in 2018.

Matt’s debut kids’ poetry collection A Hurricane in my Head was published by Bloomsbury in 2019. It was one of National Poetry Day’s Selected Titles which led to a live appearance on Blue Peter. Matt formed indie spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs in 2015. He fronts indie band Skint & Demoralised and is an ambassador for Eureka! The National Children’s Museum.

He’s had a series of high-profile commissions including national TV ads for Nationwide Building Society, Leeds United FC’s centenary kit launch, Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 General Election campaign, Cancer Research UK, and the European Youth Forum.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I was 17 years old and studying at Sixth Form College. I’d always been obsessed with lyrics and storytelling in songs, but never seen it as a feasible output because I wasn’t musical in any way. Indie music was in a golden era at the time (2006/07) and I got heavily into a band called Reverend & The Makers. Their frontman, Jon McClure, used to perform short bursts of poetry before some of their songs. Through that, I got into Dr John Cooper Clarke. I felt as though this was something I could instantly have a go at, and “hit the ground running”, so to speak. Within a few months, I was compèring indie music gigs around Yorkshire, and that was where my career as a poet began.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I would say that Jon McClure introduced me to poetry that appealed to me. Obviously I’d studied it at GCSE, but that felt as irrelevant to me as algebra. So, Jon certainly opened my eyes to poetry, and in terms of what went on to become my career, yes – he introduced me to it.

2.1. Why did Jon McClure and Dr John Cooper Clarke feel relevant?

I suppose the main thing was the relatability. At the time, I saw this as being distinctly northern working-class. Throw in a bit of uncouth rebellion, kitchen-sink realism, articulate obscenity, politics, and humour. In hindsight, the fact that they were both heterosexual white men also would’ve played a part in that, but then that’s hardly unique in poetry, is it?

Poetry at school always felt extremely old-fashioned, abstract, academic, dull… I’d been obsessed with lyrics since a young age but never once been excited by a poem. Also, I think it’s important to note that both Jon McClure and Dr JCC performed their poetry in music venues. So it was “rock and roll”, it was unexpected, it was against the grain… and that excited me a lot.

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

At the time, my only exposure to poetry was the GCSE Anthology, which was almost exclusively by dead white people. But it wasn’t just that they were old or dead – some of my favourite writers now are old or dead – it was the subject matter and the language. As in, “ye olde garden path did shine so grandly upon thine morning” or whatever (that’s an ad-libbed example, by the way – not a quote). It didn’t feel relevant or relatable to my life in any way.

Now that I’m immersed in poetry and have been for nearly a decade, I’m well aware that older poets don’t dominate or ‘rule the roost’ any more. And in fact, in the contemporary ‘spoken word poetry’ scene, ageism is a relatively big factor. Anybody upwards of say 35 seems to struggle slightly as a result.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I wish more than anything that I had one! I’ve been a full-time poet since late 2015 and have still always struggled to carve out writing time. Usually, I have to spot an opportunity a few days in advance and make sure that I set it aside for writing.

At the moment, I’m working on a verse-novel which involves typing at my desk. In which case, my routine would be to make myself a coffee, disable any access to social media on my laptop, turn my phone off, stick an instrumental playlist on (usually an artist on Bonobo or some chilled hip-hop instrumentals), and not look at or think about anything else for at least two hours.

When I’m writing poetry or lyrics, I tend to either go to the park and lean against a tree, or go to a pub/cafe and sit in a quiet corner. And I’d write in a notepad as opposed to typing, always with a black UniBall Fine Eye pen, and would still listen to the same kind of playlist with my headphones on. Oh and even when I’m in the pub, I don’t drink alcohol when I’m writing – I’d get a hot drink and a soft drink.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

Predominantly social and political issues at the moment. In my early ’20s, I became obsessed with ‘kitchen sink realism’ and so storytelling and characterisation were my main inspirations for the next couple of years, but as I approached my late ’20s, social and political issues took over. In particular, working-class causes, and the human side of politics. Whether it’s the impacts of Tory oppression or the refugee crisis, I always look for the human angle.
What is your work ethic?

6. How important is form and rhyming to your poetry?

Form doesn’t play a massive role. Occasionally I use it to try and frame and structure a very loose idea, but more often than not, I’ll abandon it en route to a final draft. Rhyming is much more prominent for me, but very much depends on the primary audience and the subject matter of each specific poem. I feel as though certain poems have to rhyme, and certain poems most definitely have to not rhyme.

Also, I’m aware that for some, rhyming can ruin a poem. But I also think that when it’s done well, it can massively elevate a poem. I guess my musical influences play a huge role in this: I’d get such a buzz from hearing Eminem or Alex Turner cram a load of syllables into a few bars with clever rhyming involved and have always wanted to try and achieve that in some way.

6.1. How do you decide which “certain poems have to rhyme, and certain poems most definitely have to”?

I guess it’s firstly pace and secondly subject matter, and often the latter will dictate the former. So a gentler, more subtle, or more serious subject matter almost certainly won’t rhyme and will be a bit slower. A punchier, more forceful, or more angry poem will rhyme.

Audience-wise, if for example it’s a poem about football, or it’s political but for a wider political audience, I’ll make it rhyme. This sounds odd but if I’m writing a poem with social media in mind (i.e. for a campaign, for example), it’ll rhyme. But if it’s in a collection or a show, for example, it almost always won’t. It’s almost like writing “pop” poems and writing “art” poems, if you get me.

Also, a few of my new poems were actually lyrics for the latest Skint & Demoralised album, and I tend to always rhyme in my lyrics regardless.

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

I didn’t actually start reading poetry properly until my mid-20s. So, for the first section of my career (aged 17 – 25), I’d only ever listen to stuff, including poets (Dr JCC, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gil Scott-Heron, etc.). However, in my early ’20s, I read a lot of novels and short stories which still influence me now. Mainly the British new wave of literature from the late ’50s: the ‘kitchen sink realism’ writers such as Shelagh Delaney, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, and John Braine.

Other hugely influential pieces of text were ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce and ‘Sons & Lovers’ by DH Lawrence. The first poets to start influencing me “from the page” would be Charles Bukowski, Salena Godden, Helen Mort, and Kate Tempest. They definitely still influence me a lot now, although it’s probably not very apparent, if that makes sense.

7.1. What was it about the “kitchen sink” writers that influenced you?

They were stories that instantly felt like they reflected my world, even though they were from the late ’50s or early ’60s. Distinctly and unapologetically working-class and mostly northern English, bar Alan Sillitoe who was from the East Midlands (and so is pretty much northern English in the context of what I’m saying).

I felt like they reflected my world significantly more than anything I’d read before, which tended to be either American, or set in London (or Scotland in the case of Ian Rankin), or fantasy, or whatever.

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

At the moment, most of my favourite writers are female. I’ve always preferred female company and looked up to women, but growing up, I wasn’t immediately exposed to as many female writers.

Some of my favourite political poets are Salena Godden, Joelle Taylor, Kae Tempest, Sabrina Mahfouz, and Jess Green.

That said, probably my favourite contemporary novelist is Richard Milward, and I’m currently working through Irvine Welsh’s novels in chronological order.

8.1. Why are these writers your favourite political poets “Salena Godden, Joelle Taylor, Kae Tempest, Sabrina Mahfouz, and Jess Green.”?

I just think that they frame political situations, and the human impact of certain political situations, in a much more visceral and powerful way.

Plus I guess I just feel as though women’s voices need to be heard much more and that these voices in particular provide a well-needed alternative perspective on the world.

8.2. What do the novels of Richard Milward and Irvine Welsh bring to you?

I suppose they feel like the most relatable novels to me, in terms of language, social setting, subject matters, etc. The “kitchen sink” novels of the late ’50s/early ’60s really captured my imagination because they were in working-class social settings and always from a slightly rebellious, anti-establishment perspective. But with Richard Milward and Irvine Welsh, they’re (mostly) very contemporary, extremely colloquial (including dialect in the case of Welsh), and include a lot of references that excite me – be it specific locations, football, music, etc. With literature, you always like to see your own world reflected to an extent.

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

You can only become a writer by reading a lot. The more you read, the better your writing will be, in theory. Read things that immediately excite you but also take yourself out of your comfort zone as well.

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

I’ve been working on my debut novel since August last year. It’s a slightly experimental novel which intersperses first-person prose with third-person poetry. I don’t want to give away any more than that at this stage. I’m planning on starting work on the lyrics for the 5th Skint & Demoralised very shortly, and also have a concept in mind for my second grown-up poetry collection, as well as a couple of follow-ups for kids’ poetry collections, but there’s only so much that my brain can process at once…!

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