Matthew Clegg. Writing on the Edge.
My first exposure to Matthew Clegg was through the wonderful Longbarrow Press site, where the archive is a treasure trove of poetry, presented not only as the written word, but in sound and sometimes video. Matthew’s ‘Edgelands’, which is a collection of 50 tankas, fascinated me because it was such an extraordinary observation of the type of landscape no one would normally consider worth writing about. Performing his poems in situ created an immersive experience for the listener.
I became particularly interested in how Matthew goes about crafting his poetry and why he was so drawn to his subject. So when Longbarrow Press published West North East, a collection of Matthew’s poems, I had a very good excuse to interview him.
How did you know that you wanted to be a poet?
The truth was that I wrote my first poem because wanted to impress a woman. I was trying to draw some attention to myself. I couldn’t think of anything better at the time. It worked for a little while, but the stuff that I was writing wasn’t very good, because I wasn’t really reading poetry and didn’t know a lot about it. But I did get something just from that process of sitting down with an emotional impulse and taking it somewhere. It became something that proved useful to me, usually when I’d messed up.
I started reading a lot more in my twenties because I couldn’t get a job. I spent a lot of my time reading everything that I could buy or get my hands on in public libraries. I’d take the books to the various employment schemes I went on, which were more tedious than I can describe. But I used to have a copy of T.S. Eliot in one of my pockets, and a selected Ted Hughes in my other pocket. So when no one was looking at what I was doing I would get them out and read them. Whatever else I’ve struggled with, there’s always been poetry to enjoy. I fall out of love with it every now and again – usually because of the cultural and professional baggage that comes with it – but poetry has been something sustaining and regenerating in my life.
I’ve been told by a lot of writers, in whatever genre they’re writing in, that reading is very important. What difference did it make to your poetry?
One important process was tuning in my particular antennae and sensibility. I was trying to find correspondence in what I read with what direction I might need or want to go in. So making choices about what to read and following trails of influence and learning from that. I had an anthology of English poetry, and I worked through it backwards: Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, and Wordsworth were early passions. Then I followed trails from them, and branched out from that anthology. I think those early days as an independent reader were when I started to take responsibility for myself as a writer; finding what I needed to read and finding what I needed to learn from writing and writers. I was making all the decisions. Nobody was telling me what to do. This was before creative writing courses, generally, but in my early days I really was more or less alone with my poems and my reading. I idealised autodidacts like Blake and John Clare. I learned independence through this, but also developed a habit of feeling slightly out of step with people who’d received more intellectual ‘grooming’.
You’re a poet who’s interested in place and psychology associated with place.
Place for its own sake doesn’t interest me, but place as a predicament that a person or people find themselves in does. If a person has no money, then they are likely to find themselves living in places that a wealthy person wouldn’t choose. I’m drawn to people who are trying to strike up or maintain a connection with their place – town or country, or in between. I’d like to think I was connected, or looking for connection – but of course, disconnection creeps into our lives all the time. Sometimes we need to disconnect. I walked through a kiddies park the other day, and there was dog-shit everywhere, and I wanted to disconnect from that. I want to disconnect when I see the canal or the river looking like a waste tip, or when it feels like urban areas are being turned into environments for cars or money-making, not people. But I’ve decided my poetry isn’t about that feeling of wanting to look the other way.
Edgelands is interesting because you’re choosing to write about places that people don’t give a second thought to, because they pass them by, or certainly wouldn’t want to linger in them. What drew you to that particular environment?
I don’t know whether it’s a question of being drawn, or just that throughout my life I’ve found myself in those kinds of places. Sometimes it’s simply the actual landscape that I’ve lived in or near. Sometimes a landscape gives me a feeling analogous to the feelings a predicament has given me. A landscape can feel like loss, or grief. It can even feel like an illness. So, in finding myself in those kinds of environments, or predicaments, I guess I have tried to find something of value there.
I don’t think it’s been something I’ve sought. I don’t think ‘Where’s the next Edgelands landscape I can go and write about.’ It’s more a case of ‘Well, if you find yourself in these places or predicaments, what can you discover’, and how might that challenge conventional notions of what environments and predicaments poetry comes out of. I think some of those conventional notions are a block on the spirit of real discovery. I see part of my job as being about trawling for the raw poetry of wherever it is I happen to be. I’ve lived in Grasmere and I’ve lived in Hillsborough, and I’ve found plenty of raw material in both landscapes.
To tell you the honest truth, though, maybe I do feel better about finding the poetry of East Leeds and Hillsborough and Flamborough because it feels like trying to put these places on the poetic map. A very successful writer once told me that ‘Everything has already been written – all we can do is push the bones of what has gone before around in the dust’. Parts of my brain see his point, but other parts think, hang on, who has written the poetry of Crossgates Arndale Centre? Who has written the poetry of telesales pools and casino car parks?
Well, this is what some poets are discovering right now. They are part of a tradition that flows through writers like Larkin, Eliot, Joyce and Wordsworth, for example, but they are pioneering too. Every time you leave your house with your eyes open, you are pioneering in some small way. If nothing else, you will start to regenerate those conventional pastoral or metropolitan notions of where poetry lives and breathes. I think most of the Longbarrow poets do that – and so do most decent contemporary poets. By refreshing language and our notion of the poetic, they are also refreshing our notions of what is valuable – refreshing our values.
It is interesting because you’re using internal as well as external landscapes.
Yes. There was time when I had the notion that Edgelands was as much about a state of mind as it was a landscape. It just so happened that the state of mind and the landscape converged. So that the landscape was the right place for that state of mind. Interestingly, it also became the antidote to that state of mind, eventually.
I have found that poets seem to be able find words for subjects or objects that most people would find mundane, and then go on to make them extraordinary. Do you think this is something that comes naturally to a poet, or is it something that develops because you enjoy using words?
I enjoy finding the right words, the words that feel right for the predicament or landscape. So part of the joy of writing a piece like Edgelands is that I feel like I’m discovering a vocabulary in the field. I’ve never been the kind of writer who goes to the dictionary or the thesaurus, looking for words that might be underused. But I like going into the world and opening up my senses and letting that lead me to the vocabulary.
Sometimes I can be led towards an idiom. Some of the poems in the first section of West North East are set in the part of Leeds near where I grew up. In the case of those poems it was definitely about tuning my ear back into the idiom and type of language you would hear in pubs and car parks in particular streets. They wouldn’t be words I would expect to find in a conventional poem, but they are the right words for that landscape and that predicament.
You’re talking about finding the right words. Is there something that’s similar to music where a particular sound appeals or a group of words seems right?
With the process I employ when I’m composing a poem, I try to compose aloud, so I’ll say lines and phrases to myself after I’ve written them – read them aloud to myself, until the sound is right to my ear. So sometimes that means putting on voices, putting on an idiom, trying to test the sound of it aloud. I think it’s an intuitive thing when you feel you’ve got the right texture of sound. You can think ‘Oh no, that sounds too formal, or that’s too smooth.’ It may be that I can’t hear a word or phrase being said in that predicament or landscape. I’ve used words or phrases in poems that some might find coarse or even offensive – not because I want to give offense, but because they carry the right feel. Rough words can have a music too, as they do in passages or Chaucer or in Joyce. But sometimes the right words are fine and delicate. As a writer who wants to move through different landscapes, I need to be able to move up and down language registers.
I haven’t got the nerve to go into a pub and read poetry anymore, but I can imagine going into a pub and asking myself ‘How would my poem about this place bear up here.’ If I think ‘No, it would sound out of place’, then I’ve not found the right words.
I’m uncomfortable with the notion of conventional poetic idiom, in other words, words that sound like poetry. I’m suspicious of it. It’s a kind of autopilot.
With the process of becoming a poet, do you write poetry then, when you look at other poetry, begin to see it differently? Then you write again. How does this iterative dynamic work for you?
I read something and I’ll find it exciting, so I want to do something like that. That’s how it started for me. I wanted to make sounds like the things I was reading. I wanted images to crackle and leap around like that.
I think, as I got older my relationship to reading changed a lot, and I’m not so clear what the relationship is now I’m forty-four. It all seemed a lot clearer when I was twenty-four. It was like ‘I want to write a poem with images that have the electricity of a Ted Hughes poem.’ Now it’s more that I feel the pressures that my writing’s responding to are coming out of the difficulty of being around this long, and having the life experience that I’m trying to filter, and I’m finding it harder to marry that to a direct reading influence. So it feels like I’m reading more broadly and taking a little from here and a little from there.
I’m still discovering the notes I want to sound. They modulate with each new predicament or project. Oddly, in reading Tu Fu and Li Po in translation recently, I heard some notes and tones I felt I needed to release in my own poetry. But the poems I wrote didn’t sound precisely like Li Po or Tu Fu. The first version of ‘Chinese Lanterns’ was called ‘Li Po in Hillsborough’, but once I’d put my Li Po in Hillsborough, his tone and idiom began to change. Once I’d put him in my brain, his poetic vocabulary had to change too – much for the worse, no doubt.
Reading classical Chinese poets has helped me find a new way of releasing certain fresh tones and turns into my poetry. I was expanding my own repertoire through that. I don’t believe in the single voice formula – that a poet needs to find a single, recognisable (or marketable) voice. Of course our voices modulate and change. But I do feel that this business, for me, is a quest to find something authentic. It’s not just about wanting to put on Ted Hughes’s or Derek Walcott’s boots anymore.
When do you think that switch over to taking possession of your own writing identity occurred?
That is a good question, and it’s really easy to tell interesting fictions about that and to mythologise it. I think for me it took place in a kind of lull in my writing career when I was most unsure about how I wanted to proceed as a writer. It was about being uncertain as to whether I even wanted to pursue a professional writing career anymore. I guess it was at a period when I was trying to pay the rent and find a paying job that I could settle to or believe in, and worrying and fretting about those things. I felt a long way from that poetry world I’d idealised in my twenties. My life seemed separate from my little poetry ‘career’ and I didn’t like that. So it just became a question of whether I wanted to tune my poetic idiom into the world I was living in. I had to commit to that, even if it left me feeling out of step with the professional poet thing. I felt strongly about this. I don’t know if I was out of step. Maybe I wasn’t; but I felt like I was out of step. I still do.
That’s when I started to make what I saw as integrity decisions, rather than opportunity decisions. There were about seven very jaded, shadowy years after I left my residency at Dove Cottage. I’d lost my compass. It really wasn’t as important to me anymore to be a poet on stage amongst lots of other poets doing poetry and winning awards and CV-building. Maybe I wasn’t talented or flexible or biddable enough. It seemed like there was something else I was supposed to do. That thing might be small and with narrow appeal, but it’s ongoing.
In a way it’s like taking a ‘leap of faith’ and becoming self-reliant, rather than using someone else who’s been before and trying to stand on their shoulders.
Yes. I think that’s true. Speaking for myself, I also think it was more about trying to stop fixing on notions of success or what might draw attention, win a competition, fit into a magazine or raise my profile. It was like finding a quietly bloody-minded streak and vowing ‘I’m going to stick at this and see where it takes me’. What else do I have to trust in?
When you’re working up a piece of poetry, you will often go and visit a particular location to take in your surroundings. Are you taking notes in situ or do you just absorb it and write about it later.
Both. Hillsborough is probably a good place to talk about because it’s in two of the sequences in West North East (Edgelands and Chinese Lanterns). I’d lived in and around Hillsborough for a number of years, so I had absorbed it. Then when I started on Edgelands, I would have a daily routine, where I would get up and conceive a route and go out with my notebook, walking that route, trawling and picking images out of the landscape. Then I would come back in the late afternoon and work on some of those notes, trying to mould them into the form I was using at that time (tankas). In the evening I would read a Japanese anthology of tanka. Then go to bed.
Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning with a response to the Japanese poems I had been reading in the evening.
The next day I would get up and start all over again. I did this for the whole summer. Because of the nature of my work, I rarely have work in the summer. So I went through the whole of that summer (three months), virtually performing that routine every day, until it got to the point where I realised I had to stop or I would have been doing it forever.
I started working on Chinese Lanterns maybe three or four years after I’d finished Edgelands. I had this realisation that my relationship with Hillsborough had changed. I felt differently about being there. I felt much less in synch with Sheffield generally, probably due to things that had happened in my personal life. Things like difficulties with employment, relationships that changed or ended, problems with my health. I started to feel as if I were disconnected or displaced in the place where I had been living a long time – that place that I thought of as home. So the idea of resurrecting Li Po to inhabit Hillsborough made sense to me, because it allowed me to explore the idea of displacement. There are all sorts of reasons you can feel displaced. You don’t have to have come in from another country. You just have to have unsettling things happen in your life. So again I went out taking walks around Hillsborough, around the locale.
I found myself looking for signs of similar displacements; like people who were old and out of synch with the young drinking culture that was taking over Hillsborough Corner; or someone with a really severe disability trying to navigate through a Saturday shopping crowd. Or I’d see an old guy on the bus, who no one would sit next to, because he stank.
I ended up finding all these correspondences with my own feeling of dislocation.
When I initially interviewed Brian (Lewis) and he told me that he had decided to put the Edgelands poems into a matchbox, I wondered how you felt about this.
I loved it. I thought it was beautiful, I felt pure pleasure when I saw it. I thought it was perfect, apt and creative. I didn’t care about any impracticalities (it’s not the most comfortable reading experience reading from a concertina in a matchbox). I have a matchbox of Edgelands and am fearful of touching it because I don’t want to damage it. But as a concept, as an object that’s beautiful in itself, and a statement about the nature of the work, I thought it was a brilliant innovation of Brian’s. We accepted that there might be some difficulty with it as a reading experience, which is why the pamphlet came out alongside it.
Occasionally I’ll take it to a reading and I’ll get it out and unfold the concertina and you get that little gasp from people as they see it. That’s when it clicks in their heads just how much care has gone into making that object. I think that creates a positive energy. Whenever you see any craftsman come up with something that’s obviously a labour of love, there’s something affirming about that. I feel flattered that someone’s undertaken that labour of love for a project of mine. I feel very lucky that it’s out there even though it’ll never be something that can be mass-produced and, of course, the price is going to put a lot of people off. But I’m really glad Brian did it.
This is one of the features of poetry that Longbarrow Press publishes; the care and attention that be put into producing the work as an ‘object’. Your collection West North East is unusual in that it has been produced by a printer. Does the fact the Longbarrow Press takes such care in producing poetry as ‘objects’ make a difference to the poet?
It makes a difference to me as a writer. It would persuade me as a reader. As a reader I don’t find myself so responsive to hype or blurbs or other writers advocating other writers. If a publisher decides to condense the CV of the writer onto the back cover, I can react against it – as I react against the pushy salesman in PC World. I don’t find myself very responsive to that. But I do find myself responsive to care. If I see care taken in something, then I start to be convinced that it must be valuable if someone cares that much about it.
Then you pick up the object; pick up the book and look at it; open up the pages. If I see the layout has been done with the same care, I find myself much more open to the material and much more eager to own it. So I think Brian’s strategy is one that would win me over as a reader.
Another thing Longbarrow Press is becoming known for are the recordings of poetry in situ. What sort of experience was that for you as a poet?
I’d always loved the idea from the start. Going back to what I was saying earlier about wanting to test the idiom of the poetry against the landscape or predicament that it’s come out of. It always made sense to me to record readings in those landscapes: it enriches the texture of the audio experience. I think the best of the audio experiments that Longbarrow have been doing are arresting and beautiful. Even the ones that we’ve done that have been less successful, I’ve still thought that they were worthwhile experiments.
It seems to me that poetry needs to make connections with communities and landscapes and predicaments. It can’t afford to separate itself. And on a purely audio level I don’t like listening to sterile recordings. I’m aware that some people don’t like distracting ambient noise and I hope that the way we’ve used ambient noise isn’t distracting. We hope that it creates a texture that makes it easier to enter the landscape of the poetry. We don’t want to interfere with your concentration.
You do use sound when you’re reading poetry at readings. How does that work for you?
It enhances about how I feel about reading. It gives me a feeling of connection and empowers me as a reader. I would hope that a listener is canny enough to know when a reader is reading with some sense of authenticity and integrity. I feel more confident when I’m reading within earshot of the landscape my poetry came from. The hardest readings I’ve done in my life were where the setting of the reading is a long, long way from the predicament or the landscape of the poetry. I start to doubt the project or the potential to make connections. So in that sense I hope the listener feels they’re experiencing a more authentic projection of that poetry than they might in a more sterile setting. Sometimes you have to bring an atmosphere with you. Brian can play a 5 second recording of Flamborough seagulls and then I can read a Flamborough poem and feel a little more connected to my source. I hope it helps the audience feel more connected too. It’s not that I don’t trust the words. It’s more a case of providing the right atmosphere for the words to flourish.
You’ve done workshops in the field with people. How did that work?
Better than they’d go in the classroom. To be out in the world where things are happening – to be out in the world where there are things to hear, to see, to touch, to smell – this is more of a switch-on for an artist than some neon-lit oblong, inside a building. I always enjoy the moment as a facilitator or a tutor when I realise I’m superfluous to requirements, because someone’s so interested in some old clock tower that they’ve seen or that they’re looking through a grille fence at something that’s going on in a building site. I don’t need to steer their experience anymore, because they’ve been sucked into a connection of their own. I think that’s what I want.
How do you run the workshops?
What I tend to do is select some reading material, which I think will generate ideas or offer formal examples. At the beginning of the workshop we’ll talk about those influences and then we’ll go out into the environment. In the early stage of the workshop I might be more directive. Then I’m hoping for that moment about halfway through the walk where the participants no longer need anyone to be directive because they’re following their own impulses and their own curiosity. In fact they’re slightly irritated with me if I suddenly interrupt their thoughts with some thought experiment I’ve devised. When that happens, then I feel confident that the experience has been a real one.
What do you get out of these workshops?
I get a dialogue and a sense of sharing. Sometimes I might feel useful. Sometimes I might feel confirmed that this pursuit is not as marginal as I’d thought and that lots of people have these impulses, these interests, these curiosities and that they come together, share ideas about it and have an experience together about it. They can offer advice, empower each other, feed off each other. It feels like a little fight back against indifference or feeling isolated or displaced.
I don’t like rushing workshops or doing them ad hoc. I like having the time to set them up properly and do them carefully. Because the worst possible experience is walking away at the end of the day and feeling like you’ve short-changed people; even if they’ve not paid much money or no money at all, but just invested their time. I still like to feel like I’ve been able to offer some fresh angle.
What are you working on at the moment?
The sequel book to West North East, which is going to be a different set of landscapes. The most recent sequence I’ve been working on is called ‘The Navigators’. (which will probably be the overall title of my next collection). It’s a sequence about the waterways, canals, rivers and cuts. It started in 2008 when I wrote about six or seven historical poems about the navvies and boatmen who worked on the waterways.
Just this summer I moved to Mexborough from Hillsborough. Moving to Mexborough gave me access to more South Yorkshire canals and waterways, and what I wanted to do was bring my exploration of the waterways more up to date, to add a more contemporary counterpoint to the historical stuff that I’d started.
I’d been doing lots of walks and expeditions along the rivers and waterways, trying to feel my way into the kind of environment they are now and what goes on in and around these startling, beautiful and sometime heavily neglected spaces. But this has meant I’ve had to depart from the traditional forms I was adopting with the historical poems. For example, I’d been writing ballads and four-square quatrains. Recently I’ve been experimenting with free-verse and open form poetry, which seemed more suitable to spaces that had lost their traditional use. The waterways have entered into a transition from work to leisure – and many different kinds of leisure. There are dog-walkers, fishermen, pleasure boats, kids just swimming, or messing about. I’ve written about bird-watching and canal-surfing – the pleasure and the danger of waterways.
The spaces around canals and waterways are often indeterminate spaces. I guess I’ve been trying to find a form which is also less fixed, more in transition.
This will comprise the middle section of a book that also collates my Dove Cottage lyrics and my poems about the coast and the sea. It will be a journey that starts with rain falling in the Cumbrian lakes. It will follow the rivers and canals of South Yorkshire, and will finish with Orpheus on the Argo, singing the sailors to sleep. Port of call will include Croyd, Staithes, Robin Hood’s Bay and, once again, Flamborough Head. There is more personal memory, myth and history in The Navigators than there is in West North East. Some of the poems were started 14 years ago, some amongst my most recent work – but they feel like they belong together.