[This interview was conducted in May 2007 when Matthew Sweeney was visiting the International School Basel in Reinach, Switzerland. The interview was conducted by Kate Anthony a student at the school, and I was asked by Padraig Rooney of the ISB if I was interested in posting it. The "book coming out in July" that Sweeney refers to is Black Moon.]
Matthew Sweeney was born in Donegal, Ireland in 1952. His collections of poetry include Blue Shoes (1989), The Bridal Suite (1997), A Smell of Fish (2000) and Sanctuary (2004). His Selected Poems was published in 2003. In addition to writing books he gives readings at poetry festivals and schools and conducts workshops for both adults and children.
Why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing in Secondary School, when I was about fifteen. I didn’t take it too seriously at the time. Sometimes I did it to make myself feel better. I had another friend who also wrote and we used to compare what we did and encourage each other to do more. If he came up with some new pieces and I didn’t have any I would want to come up with something to show him, that sort of thing.
Did you receive any other encouragement?
I didn’t receive any encouragement from my English teachers. When I showed three of my best poems to my Head of English he just glanced at them and said “Poetry is something one grows out of.”
What were some of your early influences?
I read a lot when I was a child, and I think when you read a lot and become immersed in the pretend world of the book it makes you want to create those pretend worlds yourself. When I was about ten or eleven, I was first introduced to poetry. I liked the sound of poetry, the mystery of it, and the way that a story could be told in a very short space, leaving some of the story for the person reading it to finish in their own head. Then when I actually started writing my own poetry, I took some poems that I liked and used them as models for my own writing. I have very little memory of this time, but I do distinctly remember that I took Coleridge’s ghost poem, ‘Christabel’, and used it as a model for a piece of writing of my own; trying to keep something of the shape and the rhythm and the sound effects of the original poem.
Who were your favourite authors as a child?
My favourite book as a child was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I liked the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson, both the novels and the poetry – and the poetry was always aimed at children. I liked, when I came across them, some of the poems of Walter de la Mare, the English poet, and some of Yeats, the Irish poet’s early poetry to do with ghosts and fairies.
Then when I was older and really starting to get going as a poet, around twenty, the poet who was primarily important to me, and from whom, I think, I learned the most was the American poet Sylvia Plath. The Czech German writer Kafka was also important to me.
Why do you try to write stories in your poems?
I don’t know. One of the influences on my writing is the oral storytelling in Ireland and I remember noticing how much fictionalizing went on in these stories, because when I heard the same stories over and over again from an old grand-uncle of mine they would have changed. They would keep changing all the time as if fictionalising was part of it, and those poems that I mention by Yeats and de la Mere, they were stories too. Another kind of poetry that was important to me early on was the anonymous ballads of the Scottish and English border, and they tend to be stories told in a very short space.
I like the fact that in poetry you can tell a story in a short space. I remember doing a reading once and in the audience was the English novelist Beryl Bainbridge who said to me afterwards “You poets are all the same. When you tell a story you leave half of it out, you begin in the middle and you finish before the end.” And she added, “For example, I wanted to know if such and such fitted in the story but you didn’t tell me.” And I said, “I don’t care, it’s up to the reader to decide that.” Later on I was working with students in Guernsey, and this girl said to me after working with me for a few hours, like a light finally came on in her head “So the reader of the poem has to, as it were, finish writing the poem?” And I just looked at her and said, “You got it, baby!”
Do you like doing workshops and readings?
Yes, I like doing readings, and I also like doing workshops, although workshops are a bit more draining. Readings are draining in a different way, you have to get really up for them, and the adrenaline has to get pumping before you can do it. And you have to give a shape to your reading; the whole thing has to have a sort of shape. A workshop is a bit more low level a performance, but it is a performance in itself. I suppose a workshop feels more like giving golf lessons whereas a reading is more like playing in a golf tournament, to use a golfing analogy.
Do you find that your poems have anything in common?
I think what you have to do in writing poems is find your own distinctive voice. I’d been publishing poems for a few years before I wrote a poem that I could tell immediately nobody else could have written – it was so distinctively me. And once you discover that territory, then you have to try, as you keep writing and publishing, you have to try extending that territory as much as possible in all directions. But you should always be able to look back and see where you started from. When I published my Selected Poems, which I took from six or seven books, it was very nice to see that some English critics who had had difficulty with some of my earlier works, suddenly understood Suddenly it all made sense to them to see the whole lot fitting together and the very early stuff they could see in a way they couldn’t see before, by looking at it in the context of the later stuff. Sometimes you need a bit of space for somebody to see – it’s the same for a painter, a composer, you need to see a range of work to begin to make some sense of the distinctive world of it. I would hope that each of my books would have a slightly different feel from any of the previous ones so that I would be introducing an element of variety to the distinctive world. But of course they would always have some kinship.
You might notice, if you look at the way Selected Poems is organized chronologically, that I couldn’t write those early poems again, no more than I could have written the book that’s coming out in July twenty years ago. And that’s a good thing. I heard this analogy used one time about a poet, and someone who didn’t like his work said “all his books are the same – its just like rolling out a big roll of tweed and every time a book is ready, cutting it with a pair of scissors, and in a few more years, cutting another piece off again. You line all these rolls of tweed up and you can’t tell one from the other.” That seems, to me, to be a terrible thing to have said about you.
What advice would you give writers trying to develop their own voice?
Read a lot. Read poetry and try to see how poems work, try to define that voice, what gives the poet that distinction, what it is about their work that tells what that poet is trying to do. And read poems that you don’t like, but that other people do. Read these and analyze what makes other people like them. That’s the only way to develop a true voice and variety in your work.
The only other thing I would say is, keep writing. I was already writing to a standard that people wanted to publish in magazines when I wrote that poem where I could feel it was my own voice. It was almost as if I had to wait until the voice decided to make itself heard. Some other people got their voice very early and others have to wait awhile. It doesn’t really matter how early or late you get it, all that matters is you get that voice, and you can’t force it – it’s either going to come out or its not.
What elements do you think make a good poem?
I think ‘freshness’ is a crucial element, the element of surprise. A definition of the American poet, Robert Frost’s is “Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen.” So the language has to be fresh, fresh from life and not some clichéd language that people think is the language poetry has to be written in as opposed to the language you use in your daily discourse.
I think images, very clear, startling images, can stay in the mind of someone who has read them. I think poems can have a nice noise to them, a kind of music that can be a dark music or a warm music, all kinds of effects.
I also think that poetry works on the senses: the visual sense, the sense of hearing, speaking – if you say a poem aloud you can feel somehow the rhythm of it. I sometimes read aloud to people poems they have found in a book and they get so much more sense of the poem than what was thereon the page when they read it. The last time I did it was the work of a poet who was a long time dead, whom I hadn’t even met but just saying his poem aloud just brought it alive. And poems can also be very tactile, you can get a sense of touching something from what is described in the poem. So I think the senses have a very important role to play.
In addition to publishing many books of poetry, you also wrote a children’s book, Fox. Do you prefer writing fiction or poetry?
Poetry. Fiction is a hard slog, because it’s much more conscious mind driven, whereas poetry has more to do with the unconscious. It’s impossible to write poetry whenever you want to. You can try to do that with fiction, but when you write poetry it’s because something has grabbed you – the old word used to be inspiration. I would like to think of it another way, when something’s got hold of me, something’s caught me, something that’s like an itch that I have to write to get rid of. An image is given to me and I have to make sense of the image. When you’ve got that shape, when a real poem grabs hold of you, then your unconscious mind is pushing that poem out. Robert Frost puts it really beautifully, “I like it that a poem begins as a tantalizing vagueness and in the art of writing it either finds its thought, and becomes that poem or it comes to nothing.” That idea of a tantalizing vagueness, something that you’re trying to get clear, its just little things coming to you and you’re wanting to break through into clarity as in Frost’s comment. There is no guarantee you’ll get there, no guarantee the poem will get written. In other words, you have to be prepared to fail to get success, which is something that Samuel Bennett said - he said “Fail, fail again, fail better.” You just keep trying to get it better, and that unconscious mind is pushing the poem on. Part of the crafting of a poem is the conscious mind working with the unconscious mind to try to get the promptings of the unconscious mind to come down on the page in a way that feels crafted and has the necessary tension and cadences and sounds of a poem.
With prose, there’s a bit of unconscious mind working in it, but on the whole its more conscious mind driven, therefore there’s all this tinkering involved – drafting and drafting and drafting. It feels more like building a snowman – you know, I keep on having to add bits here and take off bits there. It takes a long time, in my experience, to write prose, but on the other hand, there’s a real satisfaction in getting the snowman right, even though it takes a while.
But with poetry, I might only write one or two poems in a month, and that would be a good month, and most days I wouldn’t be able to write a poem if you put a gun to my head and said “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t write a poem.” But for those few days where I’m working on it, it’s easier than slogging away at fiction every day. Poetry is more like a conjuring trick than a snowman – pulling something out of nothing. They’re both valid forms of writing, and I know a lot of people who write both – but they will tell you the process is very different.
Why do you think people tend to read fiction as opposed to poetry?
I think most people are afraid of poetry. And I firmly believe that most of the reading public would be pleasantly surprised if they allowed themselves to be shown a way into the world of poetry. You know, I have a few examples of that happening:
There’s a primary school in East London where I sometimes work and both the Head Teacher and the School Secretary have become fanatically interested in poetry from my working with the kids. So much that they go to poetry readings in London and buy poetry books. They both said to me that they had no idea before they discovered poetry what an important part of their lives it would become.
Also, I remember doing a reading once in London, in the Irish Club in Eaton Square, and in a room across the corridor was a Chopin piano recital. This woman came in late and sat down and I could see immediately that she was in the wrong room and was too embarrassed to get up and leave. She was squirming for a while and then she stopped squirming and started to listen. She came up to me afterwards and said, “I was in the wrong room,” and I said I could see that, and then she said, “But I really liked it. I didn’t think I would. I have a friend who’s been trying to get me to go to poetry readings for years, and I told her I wasn’t interested. But I’m going to go back and tell my friend that she was right and I was wrong because I didn’t know poetry could do that.
Then there was another example, I did a reading in Budapest last autumn and there was a woman there who was the wife of the Irish cultural attaché. In a restaurant afterwards she said “I don’t know anything about poetry but that was fascinating – I didn’t know that poems could connect so much with the world we’re living in - I did not know poetry could do that.”
So there are some examples of people who didn’t exactly give poetry a chance but were brought along by the current. They were very pleasantly surprised by what it had given back, but there is no way we will ever convert the vast majority of people. Most people think poetry has nothing to say to them about the world they’re in so they’re not going to look into it.
But for those people who do discover poetry, what do you think it is that makes it so appealing?
I think the magic and mystery in poetry can be so surprising. When I read poetry I often find it makes me look at this world in a different way, and freshens it up for me. I just think it can make the world a richer place for those who truly like poetry.