AN INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW SWEENEY
The poet who meant most to me when I was starting out was Sylvia Plath. I had two books of poems only in the
mid 1970's - 'Crossing the Water' and 'Ariel'. I carried them everywhere with me. A lot of the poems I was writing then were riddled with their influence. And I went up to Ted Hughes at a party in the 80's organised by Faber and he was on his own and I went over and said, 'I just want to tell you that Sylvia was the poet who meant most to me when I was starting out and that I had those two books and learned much of what I'll ever learn about writing poetry from them. Possibly more from 'Crossing the Water' although I know now'Ariel' is the better book..' And he said to me ' I used to think that. I no longer think that. I now believe that everything Sylvia wrote was touched by her own particular magic.' And then I told him that I had done two of her poems from 'Crossing the Water' in a workshop that week at the South Bank Centre where I was writer in residence and he smiled and said 'I remember Sylvia writing those poems. We were in America and she thought she was writing like Elizabeth Bishop.' Which is fascinating because you remember the poems and think 'Of course! Yes! Yes!'
Richard Marshall Interviews Matthew Sweeney
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: You've no other job. You're just a poet. You're not like TS Eliot working in a bank or Kafka in an Insurance company. How easy is that these days?
MS: I'm lucky enough to make my living as a poet. That doesn't mean sitting at home writing and expecting the royalties to come in and pay the rent and the restaurants because they won't. They help a little bit but like now I'm putting my tax together - late - and there are all these different strands, and royalties will be one of them but they really only come into play in a year where you deliver a new book. Most of the income comes in from other stuff like readings - I do a lot of readings throughout the year , and I go into schools and have residencies - sometimes big ones like 15 months at the South Bank or short ones like at this school, Hounslow Manor. I do radio stuff. Every
now and again something good happens and it just happened recently. I'm working on a new collection - my Selected Poems is coming out in March and looking beyond that I've got twenty-five poems or so. I sent these to the Arts Council Of Ireland hoping that they might give me readies in terms of a bursary and I got a letter last week saying that they're giving me a nice one. So that takes a lot of the pressure off. You can make a living as a poet but it's a very precarious living. I remember going to my tax accountant and I was ten thousand down on the previous year and he thought I was fibbing but I wasn't fibbing. I said, " Look this is a bad year, last year was a good year, next year will be a good year" So the difference can be these awards. Or residencies. Some poets like Seamus Heaney or even Carol Ann Duffy will probably sell enough copies to be able to turn down most of the work they are offered. Obviously, Seamus more than Carol Ann because the Nobel Prize comes with a load of dosh. But most of us couldn't do this. I don't know how many of us would make a living as a poet, probably no more than a dozen in this country - maybe I'm wrong. Maybe twenty at the most. And all of those would do the range of stuff I do. With maybe one exception. I write for kids as well . And when you write for kids it often goes with going into schools and working with kids. And some of my poet friends won't do that. They don't or can't write for kids. They go into a school a couple of times and they ring me up and they're panicking. How the hell do you do this stuff? They ask. 'I'm going up the walls and it'll take me a year to recover.'
3AM: You're coping well with it here at Hounslow Manor School.
MS: It's a nice school.
3AM: When and where did you get started?
MS: I started reading poems at Secondary School. I went to a boarding school in Ireland and increasingly I didn't like it there. There was a lot of bullying going on. It was in '65 to '70. The teachers didn't pay any attention to it. To make myself feel better I started writing. A friend of mine was doing the same so we encouraged each other. I didn't keep any of that stuff. I destroyed it, maybe a couple of days after writing it. And a lot of the stuff - I remember sitting in the library one day taking one of my favourite poems, Coleridge's ghost poem ‘Christabel’, and using it as a model to try and write my own thing so I was trying to learn the ropes the way any writer or artist picks up what
they do. One day I showed my Head of English three of these poems - I gave them to him as he was walking along the corridor, thinking that he'd take them away and say something encouraging a day or two later . Not a bit of it. We got to the classroom door and he handed them back to me and said 'Poetry is something one grows out of.'
3AM: :So writing is basically a revenge strategy?
MS: Absolutely. Auden says that poetry makes nothing happen. He was wrong. Poetry can make lots of things happen. And because the school was run by monks, monks keep appearing in my poetry, usually having a very very bad time!
3AM: You're an Irish writer. It seems there are many fine writers of poetry coming out of Ireland. Heaney, Muldoon, Paulin.
MS: The Irish thing can be exaggerated. But there are some reasons why it might happen. Where I come from in Ireland, Donegal, the oral story telling tradition was very prevalent. You got used to hearing people fictionalise and also pretending to remember. But if you listened to the stories they told four or five times they would keep changing. And I like that, and still in Donegal if I'm in a bar and everyone's singing they'll say to me
'Give us a poem.' So I'll give a poem and people will listen to it and then maybe they'll ask me for another one. I don't think I'd risk doing that in my local in Holborn. So there is still some kind of a place for poetry . But I wouldn't exaggerate it too much. It's not seen as a ridiculous thing, Though, and sometimes, on very few occasions, you get to be made aware of the fact that traditionally in parts of Ireland the poet had an important role to play. For example, one of my poems published in the late 80's was called 'Where Fishermen Can't Swim' How that came about was that there was this young teenager who drowned - a lot of the kids there leave school early and go unemployed, or work on the boats. He was working on a lobster boat and he drowned because he couldn't swim and I was left in no doubt by some friends of mine in Donegal that I was expected to respond to this. I remember the poem took a long time and normally if a poem is taking a long time I just throw it away - fuck off, I don't want you, I can't be bothered with you - but because I felt I had to write this one I really stuck at it and put it through draft after draft after draft . In other words, I wasn't going to let it go because there was that thing on it. Another example - a cousin of mine died and I was told by her brother that he wanted me to come up with an elegy for the funeral. And again I felt this total duty to do this. And I really like the poem that came out. This year I was asked to do a thing at the Ledbury Festival on where poems come from and I was with a young poet called Greta Stoddart and we were talking about this and putting drafts up and one of the poems I did was that elegy. It's called 'Goodbye to the Sky' and is from ‘The Bridal Suite’ and I showed them these scraps of paper that were its beginnings. I'd gone to Devon and scribbled on the British Rail timetable, and on something else, and I told them I'd come back from Devon with no idea where these bits were going to go. But when I was trying to write the elegy - and it wasn't coming easy, because one thing you have to do with any poem is to try and find a fresh angle, and with elegies and love poems you have to try a little harder because there are so many of them and it's easy to sound clichéd - so I kept moving away from the obvious and then to my astonishment these scraps of notes I'd made started coming in and things started to come together .To my satisfaction I realised that it was those things that I had fluked upon that were absolutely necessary for giving me the angle of the poem. I'd been fated to go to Devon. I couldn't believe it, it was in a nutshell how poems come about.
3AM: So where would you place yourself in terms of poetic tradition? You mentioned the oral, storytelling, vernacular line.
MS: I don't consider myself an oral poet. I believe very strongly that a poem exists in two territories - the visual, read territory and the oral, heard one. And I want my poems to work both ways. My friend Thomas Lynch in America is a poet and an undertaker and he has a jingle that goes like this ' Before it is a written and read thing, it is a heard and a said thing' and I like that. One important experience that makes me write as I do is having done a German degree in what was then The North London Polytechnic and in the University of Frieburg. I did the German degree because I love Kafka. That was the motivation for doing that. I really like all those writers I studied there. I often read in Germany and the readings go down well . I was reading in one of the German Universities - in Berlin one time - and this old Professor called Schumann took me out with some of his best students to a restaurant and said to me 'Mr Sweeney I have been thinking as I listened to you this evening and as I read your poetry before you arrived - and please tell me if this is nonsense - but I have been thinking that you are maybe continuing a line of German literature which contemporary German poets do not.' And I said, 'The line you're talking about is Buchner, Kleist, Trakl, Kafka, Grass, Boll.' He said 'Exactly. Can this be so?' I said 'I studied and I love each of those writers.'
3AM: So why are you so drawn to them?
MS: The tradition I come from, the Irish Tradition, is open to what I call Alternative Realism - it's open to going beyond the borders of realism. It's also open to mixing up the humorous and the serious. And in a way that the English tradition is not so open to. And so I saw round the back the same thing with a little bit of darkness added and that appealed to me - European darkness. So I made this big connection and it was wonderful. Exciting.
3AM: In England there is a preoccupation with class. In the European one there's more overt metaphysical stuff.
MS: Maybe ,yeah. That's a good point. A lot of the irony in English writing - and irony is much more important in English writing than in Irish - a lot of it is to do with that. Also, I was coming back from Vancouver last Monday on a plane and there were these two writers with me - a poet and a novelist - Jackie Kay and Jake Arnott - and we were talking about what novelists we liked and I opted for Marquez and Arnott said 'I don't like him at all. All that Magic Realism.' I turned to him and said ' Only an English person could say that.' I said 'I don't even like the words Magic Realism. I like the words Alternative Realism. Can you not see this is all about metaphorical connection?' And this is not really in the English tradition or hasn't been for a long time. Or if it is in the tradition it's marginalized. It's over there on the periphery. It's not central. Whereas Flann O’Brien is central to the Irish thing you know.
3AM: What about Beckett?
MS: I love Beckett. I adore Beckett. And Beckett had a similar suspicion of realism. I've always had a suspicion of it. I feel it's fine as far as it goes but the culture I come from doesn't just stop at it. Beckett's very important to me. When I was in my final year at school (we were twenty-three miles north of Dublin) my head of English took three of us out to the Abbey Theatre to see what's become a celebrated and quite notorious 'Waiting For Godot' with Peter O'Toole in it. Beckett apparently hated the performance. I thought it was amazing. I'd never come across anything like it. And I came away from that theatre thinking two things – that I hadn’t a clue what was going on there
and also – that it was amazing. That it was the most amazing thing I had ever come across. And it reverberated in my head for weeks afterwards. I never met Beckett. I had a letter from Beckett and I lost it. I was editing a poetry broadsheet in the 70's called 'The Cracked Looking Glass' and I wrote and asked Beckett for a poem . This spidery handwriting came from Paris and I've lost that little letter. He subscribed to the magazine. He signed a cheque. He's a very Irish writer.
3AM: So contemporaries - who are the writers we should be reading?
MS: There's some really good writing going on now. For me the Irish novel I've liked the best in the last ten, fifteen years is ‘The Butcher Boy' by Patrick McCabe . Very dark, a powerful book, and much better than the film. The tone is what carries it through - it's a lesson in how tone can make or break a book. I'm very interested in the American Yugoslav born poet Charles Simic. I like what he does. The fable like quality of it. The way it's serious without stating 'I'm serious.' It seems to be much lighter than it is. I like that effect. The subterranean pull of a piece of writing. Its seems to be nothing when you first look - and some of the reviews Simic gets , well, people don't
go there. They stay on the surface and just throw it away. Again, it's tone. And again it's there - they can't make the
effort to move into his imaginative culture to see what he's doing. The poet who meant most to me when I was starting out was Sylvia Plath. I had two books of poems only in the mid 1970's - 'Crossing the Water' and 'Ariel'. I carried them everywhere with me. A lot of the poems I was writing then were riddled with their influence. And I went up to Ted Hughes at a party in the 80's organised by Faber and he was on his own and I went over and said, 'I just want to tell you that Sylvia was the poet who meant most to me when I was starting out and that I had those two books and learned much of what I'll ever learn about writing poetry from them. Possibly more from 'Crossing the Water' although I know now 'Ariel' is the better book..' And he said to me ' I used to think that. I no longer think that. I now believe that everything Sylvia wrote was touched by her own particular magic.' And then I told him that I had done two of her poems from 'Crossing the Water' in a workshop that week at the South Bank Centre where I was writer in residence and he smiled and said 'I remember Sylvia writing those poems. We were in America and she thought she was writing like Elizabeth Bishop.' Which is fascinating because you remember the poems and think 'Of course! Yes! Yes!' ' And we talked about her some more and talked about some of the pieces that would later be in 'Birthday Letters' that I'd started to see around and then I left him alone and was leaving about half an hour later when one of the women from Faber came up to me and said 'Ted wants to take you to dinner. So I went to dinner with him and his and Sylvia's son Nicolas and it was wonderful. I went to home thinking "That's as near to Sylvia as I'm going to get."
3AM: What do you think of Ted Hughes as a poet?
MS: I think Ted Hughes is very uneven but his best poetry is wonderful. Those first two books. They still read so powerfully now. I can’t imagine the effect they must have had in the poetic community when they came out first. And I find 'Crow' very interesting, although some of the obituaries were really scathing about it. I find it very interesting because it tried to connect with that European tradition. At his best he's terrific. He dipped a bit towards the end and the 'Birthday Letters' and the 'Tales From Ovid' are not as brilliant as people are making them out to be, although they are a good bit of a return to form and in the 'Birthday Letters' there are some poems such as 'You Hated Spain' which are as good as anything he did. But some of the poems that - and I'm biased in this because I'm such a fan of Sylvia - but some of the poems where he went over the same ground as Sylvia did are ill judged because in almost every case Sylvia's poem is stronger. Whereas in 'You Hated Spain', what makes it such a wonderful poem is that he manages to echo Sylvia and give us a picture of Sylvia yet remain being Ted. It's an amazing poem. It shows you how the whole book could have worked.
3AM: Did you get the feeling that he was writing a book at the time?
MS: He told me that he'd been writing these poems since the late 60's, early 70's and that he would never publish them until he was dead. Obviously he changed his mind. The most recent poet who has been important to me is someone I was a fan of in the late 70's - I used to go to all his readings - the Scots poet WS Graham. I think he's wonderful. He died some time in the mid '80's and is a very innovative poet. Very dramatic. Frost said somewhere that a poem is nothing if it is not dramatic and read Graham and you see what Frost said coming right out.
3AM: You like Sorley MacLean?
MS: I like him but he wrote in the Gaelic language and you can only glimpse what's happening in the English. And there's an interesting thing going on there. I know this from the Irish language poetry and I know it because one of my poet friends comes from the Isle of Skye - Angus Mac Neacail and I remember Angus took me under his wing and he became my mentor which is a fantastic thing for any young poet to have. I'd go to him once a week and he'd say to me 'You think you've written a masterpiece' and he'd get out his red pen and he'd say, 'We'll see about that!' (Laughs) And he'd say 'Now, this bit sounds nice but if you follow it into the corner does it stand up? No, it doesnae.' It was great. He gave me all this hard William Carlos Williams discipline and a suspicion of lushness and excess. And when he moved back to Scotland he stopped writing in English and was only writing in the Gaelic and he sent me his own translations of these poems with all these abstractions that he would never allow me to have and stuff that seemed a bit clichéd and I gently asked him what he was doing. He said 'You see, in English you couldn't get away with that sort of writing because there's a lot of traffic gone down that road, a lot of water under the bridge. In the Gaelic however - and you might not believe this - this is still fresh, this is still allowed in poetry. It hasn't become hackneyed yet.' And Pablo Neruda has a line somewhere where he talks about that. He says that in Europe everything has been painted which means that there's more still up for grabs in South America,. I think there is something in that and you can tell MacLean's power although I would also say it's a power that's stuck in the middle of the twentieth century. Whereas WS Graham for some weird reason seems to be prefiguring the twenty-first century. It's very hard to say why, or why Kafka is very much more relevant today than Thomas Mann. Nobody can know when they write whether their stuff will date quickly or not - Yeats says somewhere in his Autobiographies 'None of us can say who will succeed or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.'
3AM: What do you make of all this Heaney vs. Muldoon argument? Heaney looking back, Muldoon looking forward?
MS: I'm not going to be drawn onto one side or the other on this. There's too much of that kind of thing going on. Both poets like and respect each other and each other's work. Muldoon's work is very ludic, very post-modern in all its tricksiness and getting cleverer and cleverer.
3AM: Is it about writers who don't want to write about the writing and would rather approach culture and stuff as a series of soap operas?
MS: I think so. Muldoon's kind of writing is perfect for that kind of post modern stuff - perfect for articles and books and all that kind of thing. Its not necessarily a bad thing (Although it might be for some) and its not what all Muldoon's poetry is about . For instance there's the long poem from the "Annals Of Chile', the elegy 'Incantata', which has loads of emotion , and is an amazing poem. And I like Heaney too. I reviewed the last book – favourably, needless to say. It's so good for the Irish poetry football team that we have two classy players like that.
3AM: So what about your own poems?
MS: I have a Selected Poems coming out in March which is nice because I haven't had one of those before - not in England, in English - Cape are putting it out, who did my last two collection. It's quite a spare book. We've kept it to about 130 pages and that's out of a lot of books . That was a really good thing for me to do. It was very clarifying. You're going through the stuff and you're throwing this out and this out and you get a feeling that after it will be a clean sheet again which means that you’ll be freer to try new things in the next book, maybe things that you wouldn't have had the nerve to try before. An interesting stage in any book is when I get to a point where I see a new book taking shape but with this new stuff I’m doing I haven't seen that yet. I just see all these poems coming that are slightly different and I'm just enjoying the difference and the way they are flying around. And I'm in no hurry anyway. The 'Selected' isn't until March so I'll wait until after that before I start thinking 'OK, so now we have all these poems, lets move towards a collection.' Every collection has to have its own character and all of the ones I've done have had completely different characters. Just as much as my two kids have different personalities.
3AM: You sound positive about poetry. I was reading an essay by Mandelstam a little while ago where he complains that there are too many people writing poetry and not enough reading the stuff. Is that something you're aware of?
MS: I think that is a danger. I like to make the point when I'm doing workshops in schools or whatever that reading and writing poetry are two sides of the same coin. You can't expect to write poems if you don't read them. And what makes me optimistic is seeing how you can read at a festival to a couple of hundred maybe and they really seem to like it and there's a queue to take books away and you realise that very few of those people would be writers. So
somehow poetry supplies something for them in their lives and that's nice and how it should be. And I think one of the reasons for that, and why there might have been a small poetry boom in the last fifteen years is because a lot of poets are learning how to get up there in front of an audience and be decent to their own lines in putting them across. This goes back to reclaiming that oral ground that is also part of the poem. It's nice to come into schools, doing writing with kids and seeing them enjoy what they do - maybe they're reluctant at the beginning and then despite themselves they get into it. In every class there are always a couple of kids who are more original , more inventive than the rest and I used to wonder if these would be the people who would be published by the big publishers fifteen years later. I don't necessarily think that anymore. Maybe if they enjoy writing poems they might become readers of poems. Poetry needs readers of poems. >