Monday, 29 August 2011

An interview with Matthew Stewart

You're writing from a very unusual perspective for a British poet. Can you tell us a little about how you came to be living in Spain, and how it (and bilingualism) informs your poetry?

Well, I read Spanish at university, came out to Iberia as part of my degree and then decided to return once I’d finished my studies. Spain excited me as a counterpoint to the strictures of a suburban Surrey upbringing. Once over here, I started off doing a bit of English teaching, before moving into translating and then export. These days I’m the export manager and blender for a winery down in deepest Extremadura, which is one of the most remote and least touristy regions in Spain. I live in the town of Almendralejo, where I’m the only native speaker of English.

All the above very much does inform my poetry, which is often still set in Blighty. First off, my view of life in the UK is enriched by having constant points of comparison with Spain. I now value certain aspects of British life more, while questioning others that I previously enjoyed. There’s obviously the danger of falling into typical ex-pat nostalgia for a caricatured homeland, but I guard against that by spending as much time back in the UK as possible. In literary terms, my experience of contemporary Spanish verse, poetics and live readings provides me with an additional perspective on the UK scene.

My development as a poet has also been heavily influenced by not having any English speakers around me for the past fifteen years. I might speak bilingual-standard Spanish, but certain ideas, feelings and frames of reference are inevitably missing in my everyday conversations and end up being channelled through poetry. Teaching English as a foreign language, meanwhile, forced me to get to grips with the nuts and bolts of the language so as to explain it to my pupils. That additional understanding then fed back into my poems.

Yes, one of the first things that struck me about your poems is how hard each word is made to work – there’s no flab there at all. Did you ever encounter difficulties placing short poems (a lot of those in the chapbook clock in at 10 lines or less)? A lot of magazines seem to shy away from both short and long poems, and plump for a default size of around 12 to 24 lines.

I’m aware there are certain editors (and readers) who feel “brief” is inevitably synonymous with “insubstantial” or “unfinished”, but then there are also many who value the way words have to graft in shorter poems. Being different might be an initial hurdle when approaching editors, but often ends up being a plus in the long run.

Nevertheless, I do feel that brevity is an underrated quality in contemporary UK poetry. People sometimes encourage me to spread my wings into longer forms, implicitly and even unconsciously undermining my previous work, when I’m actually more interested in exploring further the possibilities that short poems offer. I sometimes feel like a short story writer who's asked why he/she isn't a novelist.

I know from my own experience that Helena Nelson of HappenStance is a very hands-on editor, willing to ask for rewrites and to get you to argue each poem’s case. I loved that whole process of putting my chapbook together – did you?

Many poetry publishers seem to look for finished manuscripts these days. There’s less time and inclination to work with a poet in bringing a collection together. However, Happenstance proves the exception.

As an editor, Helena Nelson enables poets to gain a greater understanding of their own verse. She doesn’t try to impose a house style, far from it, but forces you to justify your own poetics from the nuts and bolts of semantics and syntax out towards their ebb and flow through a poem.

I still follow countless erroneous paths when writing poetry, but my work with Helena has helped me pick up on those mistakes far more quickly. While revising poems myself, I now try to imagine what holes she might pick in them!

Are you a big reviser of your work before you send it out? I find myself taking longer and longer to do so as I get older, and I’m not always sure that’s a good thing…

I’m afraid I’ve always been extremely slow in my writing process. The brevity and compression of my verse means that slight tweaks make all the difference, and those slight tweaks tend to wait for their moment.

In other words, just as I need the filter and warp of memory to set off on writing a poem, so I have to stash the first draft for a number of months. Once I’ve fallen out of love with the piece, I can go back and rework it, before putting it back away and letting more time go by. This cycle may continue for years until a final, often minimal change just somehow makes all the rest of the poem click into place and come to life.

As someone who can get a bit fetishistic about notebooks, pens and certain writing conditions, I have to ask, are you the same? I’ve been trying to work out whether I really need those certain things, or whether it’s just become a sort of superstition.

I do tend to write in the same room, so that my surroundings become an irrelevance and I can thus concentrate on the page. I’m not particularly fetishistic about pens, etc, but notebooks are key - I can’t envisage writing poetry straight on to a computer screen.

This is because my poems go through so many incarnations. I choose, discard and then retrieve threads that would be lost to me forever via a delete button. My writing process often feels like doing a puzzle, trying a piece in one place where it initially looks right, only to realise its perfect fit is elsewhere. What’s more, rereading old drafts enables me to retrace my steps, spot wrong turns and take another path through a poem, doing so over and over until I find the way.

Can you tell me a bit about your use of syllabics? It’s very unobtrusive, and all the more effective for that, I think.

There are many misconceptions about syllabics, as if their use were only worthwhile as an exercise for novice poets, as if writing in syllabics consisted of ignoring stresses and mechanically counting syllables, as if line-breaks were rendered arbitrary.

In fact, there's a subtle syllabic music that runs through all English-language poetry and lyrics, lying just below the stresses, at times somewhat drowned out by the heavier resonance of the latter. When writing poems I never need to count syllables - I instinctively notice and feel them.

What's undeniable is that stresses are a key element to the rhythms of English. By this I mean that any English-language poet writing in so-called pure syllabics simply must also be aware of stresses. I find that syllabics enables me to play with anapests, iambs, dactyls and trochees within a musical framework of lines and stanzas, a game that inversely provides me with greater freedom to do so than in free verse, all because the whispering music of syllabics underpins the verse. Rather than ignoring stresses, I'm doing quite the opposite, using them to create and disrupt aural expectations, seeking to bring together musical effects and semantics.

Readers with attuned ears do often pick up on these cadences, although I don’t need or even want anybody to notice immediately my use of syllabics. Instead, my aim is that they should do their work quietly, contributing to a poem’s overall effect without showing off and shouting “Look at me!”

Are you working on a full collection at the moment, and if so, do you see it taking any particular thematic direction?

Inventing Truth took a long time to bring together, and my current focus is very much on helping it find an audience. Happenstance have invested a lot of time and money in me and I want to repay them. To that end, I’m actively seeking readings in the U.K. this autumn and next spring..

As regards the long-term future, I’m building towards a first collection, part of which will include the most representative pieces from Inventing Truth. My thematic and poetic directions are progressing from this pamphlet rather than breaking with it.

Matthew Stewart was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1973. Following a comprehensive school education, he took a degree in modern languages at St Peter's College, Oxford. He has lived in Extremadura, Spain, for the past fifteen years, where he works as the export manager and blender for a local winery. His poems have been widely published in UK magazines and he blogs at

Instructions For Coming Home

Your fingers will have to trespass
through umpteen kitchen drawers. Let them.
The gas rings will purr. That's their sound.
Hack at a spud. Defy its eyes
with your knife. Crack eggs and watch them
splutter. You'll remember this smell
used to greet you at the front door.
Lever them free, the spatula
no less a tool than any spade.
Now confront the day, bite by bite.


Ten years on and perfection’s lost
its distant lustre. My accent

seeps away. Every few minutes
I let some vowels tug me back home,

back towards the cadence of who
I am or was or was or am.


for Josefa

When you trace your wrinkles, criss-crossed   
like the fine scars of unknown wounds,
and speculate how they got there;

when you’re sure you hid the stained scarf,     
the note and the bent bronze bracelet
for some significant reason;

maybe you can’t remember what
you forgot, but you remember
you forgot, which is worse, far worse.


litrefs said...

Thanks. I live in a somewhat bilingual household and have a non-poetic job, so I can appreciate the benefits of a distant viewpoint.

I still have trouble with syllabics. I guess to a non-rhymester a rhyming poem looks as if it's a poem built around the rhymes, or a poem with rhymes tacked on. The more subtle the rhymes, the more one wonder why one should bother with them. For me, a word change in the text (from "red" to "crimson", say) has an effect that swamps anything at the syllable level. But I have trouble with line-breaks too.

Matthew sounds as if he knows what he's doing, and why. It'll be fun to see what he comes up with next.

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