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.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Behind The Arras

Just a quick note to point out that the Behind The Arras website, which covers all things theatrical, also features reviews of poetry readings and open mic nights from all over the Midlands.

Many of them are by Gary Longden, who wrote this review of last Monday's Shindig, although he's far too modest to point out that his open mic spot was one of the highlights of the evening. It's a great resource, though - browsing it you realise how many good regular events there are out there.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Julian Cope vs Bill Drummond

I recently found myself re-reading Julian Cope's autobiographies, Head-On and Repossessed. I think I bought them when they first came out as a single volume in 2000, but after enjoying them a lot at the time, hadn't picked them up since.

Cope's story of the Liverpool punk scene, the glory days of The Teardrop Explodes, and his on-off solo career in the 80s, is never less than entertaining, not least because you're never sure quite how much to believe. Amid all the tales of feuds, drug-fuelled road trips and transformation from teen idol into shamanistic rock god, though, there's lots of interesting stuff on stardom and the workings of the music business, as well as on the nature of creativity. It's a bit of shame he hasn't written a further volume covering his increasingly eccentric solo career since 1990, including his emergence as a megalithic expert.

It's an understatement to say that Ian McCulloch, Dave Balfe and Bill Drummond don't come out of the books too well, so in the interests of a bit of balance (although I am a long-term Cope fan), I've ordered a copy of Drummond's own book, 45. As the arch-scamster who created The KLF, he ought to have a good story to tell.

While searching for it online, I also came across his late 80s (and pre-KLF) solo album The Man. Most copies on there cost £25-plus, but I managed to snap up a used one for £7. It turns out that he was backed on the record by my old favourites The Triffids (minus David McComb), so it's got curiosity value for me, if nothing else. It also contains a song called Julian Cope Is Dead - I wonder where he's coming from with that one?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Last night's Shindig

Last night's Nine Arches Press Shindig at The Western in Leicester was the usual entertaining and thought-provoking mixture of open mic and featured readings.

After I'd managed to get through my set without dissolving into a fit of coughing (I seem to manage to catch a heavy cold a couple of days before all my readings now) Deborah Tyler-Bennett read from her new Nine Arches chapbook, Mytton...Dyer...Sweet Billy Gibson, as well as from other recent collections (including the excellent Pavilion). There's always a terrific stripped-down energy to her poems, and she always reads well too. I enjoyed her set a lot, and I've been enjoying the book this evening.

The second half, hosted by Crystal Clear Creators, featured a hugely entertaining short story from Alex Plasatis, and a set from Leicester poet Roy Marshall, who has a pamphlet forthcoming from CCC. His poems are compact and poised, packing an awful lot into very few lines. I'll look forward to seeing his collection.

In between times, in the open mic spots, Gary Longden's paean to Rebekah Brooks was great, and one of the lines from Mark Goodwin's poem remained bouncing around my head for most of today, but all the readers were of a reliably high standard. What I also find really interesting is how certain ideas and themes emerge during the course of each of these evenings, from a very disparate range of poets.

I also bought Angela France's Nine Arches chapbook Lessons In Mallemaroking, and picked up a copy of Tony Williams' extraordinary All The Rooms Of Uncle's Head for review. Lots of reading ahead - looking forward to my week off from Monday. 

Oh, and as usual, my set:

Things Left In Hotel Rooms
Black-throated Diver, Lochindorb
Summer Breeze

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Best British Poetry 2011

I'm delighted to have a poem - Pluvialis - included in The Best British Poetry 2011, which anthologises poems which have appeared in British-based literary magazines and webzines over the past year (it originally appeared in Iota). The book's edited by Roddy Lumsden (there'll be a different editor in each subsequent year), and runs to 176 pages with, as you can see from the link, a long and varied list of featured poets.

The format's similar to the Best American Poetry series, and similar anthologies that have appeared in countries such as Ireland and Australia, with each poem accompanied by a note by the poet about the piece's inspiration and form.

It's published on September 1st, and costs £9.99 ($16.95).

Pluvialis, I should add, also appears in hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica, which you can order direct from me, or from Nine Arches Press. If you click on the cover of any of the poetry collections on the Nine Arches site, you can now read extracts.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

New at Nine Arches

There are plenty of new publications worth looking at over at the Nine Arches Press website - poetry from Tony Williams, Angela France and Deborah Tyler-Bennett, and crime stories from Joel Lane, for starters.

You can read extracts from each of the poetry books by clicking on the cover then following the link in the sidebar. That includes hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica - click on the link to read more, or to buy.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Great, or overrated?

I was reading this rather intriguing article last night, prompted by a tweet from John McCullough (you could be forgiven for thinking that John's tweets are becoming the sole source for posts on here). I tend to agree with Elif Batuman says there - that the right book has to reach you at the right time. Sometimes, you'll go back to a book that had previously left you cold and wonder what on earth it was you hadn't liked about it, rather in the same way that I have no idea at all why I disliked tomatoes as a child, when these days I find it nearly impossible to get through a meal that doesn't contain them.

It's set me thinking which books I'd choose for this sort of article. I've got a couple in mind (one novel, and one poetry collection), but I want to have another look at them over the next few days and see if my opinion has changed at all since the last time I tried to read them.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your suggestions - 'classics' or canonical books that made you wonder what all the fuss was about...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize

Alison Brackenbury sent me a link to the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, which carries a prize of £1,750 plus publication of your manuscript on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rather unusually, it's only open to poets who have published no more than one previous collection, although you'll need to read the small print there to see exactly what constitutes a collection. Well worth considering entering if you're looking for first publication, or if you've been working on a follow-up to a debut collection or chapbook.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Of the moment

A post on John McCullough's Facebook page led me back to this Auden poem - Mark McGuinness also has some interesting things to say about it here. Well, it was either that or The Wasteland, and you need to keep something in reserve in times like these.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Still scorching

After that post about Jason Ringenberg the other day, I trawled You Tube for videos of Jason and the Scorchers in their heyday. I'm reluctant to say that this, their cover of Dylan's Absolutely Sweet Marie,  was their finest moment - there were plenty of great originals on their first two-and-a-half albums - but it was certainly their big attention-grabber, and remains one of my favourite Dylan covers. Warner Hodges' guitar solo still sounds, as Ringenberg put it himself the other night, thermonuclear.

Anyway, I was glad I made the effort to get along to The Musician. It was sauna-like, as you'd expect, but the support act, The Breakdowns, were pretty good in a Wildhearts sort of way, and Jason Ringenberg didn't disappoint at all. He's aged well - there's a bit less hair under the stetson, but he's still positively lanky and has the energy and enthusiasm of an 18-year-old.

A lot of his set was drawn from those early albums - White Lies, Lost Highway, Broken Whisky Glass, Blanket Of Sorrow, Shop It Around and Harvest Moon all made appearances - but there was more recent material too, from his solo albums and from last year's Scorchers reunion album, with Twang Town Blues a highlight. He even played a couple of his Farmer Jason songs - Honky Tonk Maniac From Mars and Moose On The Loose - which left you wondering what on earth the good farmer's primary school-age audience make of it (although, if it means they grow up to be Jason and the Scorchers fans, how can that be a bad thing?).

Throughout it all, he maintained the difficult-to-perfect combination of boundless energy and wry wit that made the Scorchers such a great live act all those years ago, and closed with the afore-mentioned Dylan cover (I'd never seen him do it before).

I bought the recent Scorchers (Halcyon Times) album on the way out, and it's really pretty good, far more in the proto-alt country vein of the early records than the country-metal they got stuck on in the late 80s. A gentleman, as ever, Jason chatted modestly and signed CDs, a true pioneer of what now gets called Americana. I hope he's back soon.

Even deeper joy

Following my post about Professor Stanley Unwin the other day, I received this email from my friend Mark Jones, in Cardiff.

"I saw your posting about Stanley Unwin and wondered if you've ever seen his 1960s TV series The Secret Service.

"It is truly bizarre. As it was made by Gerry Anderson it's a mix of long-shots of Unwin which then cut to his Supermarianation double for close-ups. He plays a country priest who works for B.I.S.H.O.P. (British Intelligence Special Headquarters Operation Priest) and owns a device which he uses to shrink his gardener Matthew for special ops. He lapses into Unwinese quite regularly to confuse the bad guys.

"Sadly it also confused the show's producer Lew Grade, who thought it wouldn't catch on in America. Sadly it didn't catch on over here either. But all 13 bonkers episodes are now available on DVD. It helps if you drop some acid before viewing, needless to say.

"Think of it as Thunderbirds meets Sergeant Pepper and you've just about got it."

I do remember seeing a lengthy clip of this, maybe even an entire epsiode, years and years ago, but I had no idea it was out on DVD. I'm on Amazon as I write...

EDIT: My colleague, fellow birdwatcher and moth-botherer Mike Weedon has pointed out that Tim Unwin, a fellow inmate of Media House, is actually the Prof's grandson. Respect.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Deep joy

Great piece here about Professor Stanley Unwin - Wayne Burrows says: "While many examples of creative linguistic mangling are seen as difficult and experimental, with the riotous dream-prose of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce or the beautifully slippery poetry of J H Prynne high on many readers’ lists of works to avoid (more’s the pity), it can also be noted that in other contexts, exactly the same poetic and literary procedures can result in widespread popularity. Professor Stanley Unwin’s deadpan twists to ordinary speech and such tropes as the radio lecture are a perfect example."

If you haven't the slightest idea what Wayne's talking about, look up the Prof on YouTube - there's any number of videos of him in full flow. Utter genius.