Matthew Sweeney is known for his ability to lead a reader astray by his cordial wit, his sinister twists and his unpredictable lucidity. The poet of image and narrative, is internationally recognised as one of the freshest and most original. Over 20 years, Sweeney had over ten books published, received numerous awards and is still tirelessly writing new poetry. In his exclusive interview for The Wolf magazine, he invites us into his own poignant world.
You tend to spend a lot of time abroad, especially throughout Europe. How do you describe the state of European poetry in general?
My time abroad does not bring me much contact with European poetry. My contact with it would be via translated works or German poets I try to read in their original language.
When I'm abroad I tend to meet European poets mainly at festivals. Because I've been spending time in Romania I look at what's been going on there. Recently published was an anthology of 10 Irish poets giving versions of poems by 10 Romanians. Of course in British poetry circles poets like Marin Sorescu and Nina Cassian are already well known.
You mentioned being quite fond of Eastern European poetry.
How does it differ from West European, or more specifically from
poetry in Britain and Ireland?
I mentioned Sorescu earlier and he is an excellent example of
Eastern European poets, their often sharp and oblique way of
looking at the world, with a cheeky humour and irony. Ristovic, the
Serbian poet, is another example of someone side-stepping the
literary, and I find that very fresh and attractive.
Another favourite of mine is Vasko Popa. In Holub and Sorescu this
obliquity was necessary to bypass censorship. In Britain such a
tactic was unnecessary but it inspired young writers to pick up
some of this more sophisticated style of writing that Eastern
European poets had.
What is your view on poetry in translation, and how much is
lost in the translation of a poem?
I don't agree with Frost that
Poetry is what's lost in
the translation. It is true that some poets translate better
than others, some poets are easier to render in other languages.
All of the people I mentioned above, come into English very well.
One of the reasons for this is that they don't work so much
with overtly literary components, like rhetoric. There is a clarity
in their work which tends to be quite filmic and visual.
The more visual poetry is, the easier it comes into another
language. In my case, people who have translated my work say that
the one thing that makes the poems come across well is their visual
aspect. The poets who depend more on rhetorical and philosophical
elements, for example Rilke, are more difficult to bring
successfully into the English language.
Do you think that people in Britain are neglecting poetry
not written in English and why do you think this might be the
It's fair to say that in England there is probably not as much
interest in poetry written in other languages as in a country like
Ireland, perhaps because Ireland has always thought of itself as
European. For example the Ireland Literature Exchange provides
money for foreign publishers who wish to publish translations by
In Britain you just need to look at publishing houses to see how
few include in their lists translations. Bloodaxe, Carcanet and
Anvil are the big ones that do it. Cape don't do any. For Faber
it's a rarity.
Magazines like Poetry London that offer space for poetry in
translation really draw attention and make you realise how many of
the other magazines ignore it. This is a shame, as during my own
development, the study of German literature showed me that there
was another way to write poetry.
What is the best language in the world?
While I was in Japan recently, I was asked if I was happy with the
English language and would I like to write in another one. My
answer was that English is a wonderful language, full of subtlety
and that I had no desire to write in any other language. For me
it's English. There has been so much good poetry written in
this language over the centuries.
Who are your favourite post WW2 European poets?
I really like the Scottish poets WS Graham and Edwin Morgan. Many
Scottish writers are experimental and varied. They've never had
the attention they deserve. I also like Sorescu and Holub.
How has the way you write poetry changed over the years in
comparison to the time when you were in your twenties?
As a writer, one always has to first establish one's own
distinctive territory. I remember the first poem I wrote that I
knew was in my own voice. And I'd published plenty of poems in
small magazines before that. When I wrote that particular poem I
thought 'Shit! No one else could have written this one!'
Which was a nice thing to notice. It's similar to going to an
exhibition of a painter's life's work and seeing how he or
A lot of my early stuff was influenced by Sylvia Plath and for a
couple of years I just had two of her books which I read all the
time. Then I did a year in Germany and came across Peter
Huchel's poetry and I can see how that began to affect me.
My first collection was full of influences and it took time to
shake them off. That's why there is only one poem from that
collection in my Selected Poems But influences are good for you.
You are only going to be drawn to poets that you are
temperamentally suited to anyway.
Shaking off the influences is a gradual process. Ideally you should
be extending your own imaginative territory book by book. Nowadays,
I am often accused of being surrealist, but I disagree. I just go
with my instincts.
My preferred description of the territory I often inhabit is
alternative realism. Like Beckett, I have always been suspicious of
conventional realism and its limitations.
You wrote a book called Writing Poetry with John Hartley
Williams. How did you come about writing it?
I was Writer in Residence at the South Bank Centre and got a phone
call from someone saying Hodder and Stoughton wanted such a book
for their Teach Yourself series, and would I be interested in
writing it. My response was it wasn't not as simple as writing
a book about basket-making, but I said I would think about it.
While at the South Bank I jointly ran workshops with other poets,
including John Hartley Williams. Sometime later I had a letter from
John saying he would like to write a book that would interest young
people in poetry, but he didn't want the hassle of finding a
publisher. I phoned him back and said 'I have the publisher
John, but I'm not sure I can stand the hassle of writing the
book'. So we met up and talked about it, then went to see the
editor at Hodder. She invited us to send her a projected list of
contents, which we did, making sure the book sounded a bit
different and fresh, as we'd warned her it would be.
The publishers didn't seem too appalled by our initial ideas
and so that's how the book came about.
Why is poetry the most neglected form of
The literary editors don't give a shit about it, that's
why. Do you see how many poetry reviews appear in the Sunday papers
now? Very little. Fiction, by contrast, gets a lot of space. So
many mediocre novels get review coverage. My editor at Cape tells
me that a big reason why poetry book sales are going down is
because of a lack of media attention. Another reason is the
perceived inaccessibility of poetry.
This country, bad as it is, does far better by way of poetry than
most other countries. Far less attention is paid in places such as
Germany, Romania and Hungary. I have met people abroad who
couldn't believe that I make a living from being a poet.
Festivals such as Ledbury, attract audiences of maybe 200, but very
few of those would actually buy the books. The simple reason is
that certain people enjoy hearing poetry being read, rather than
reading it for themselves. This is a perfectly natural response.
To quote my friend Thomas Lynch 'Before it (poetry) is a
written and a read thing, it is a heard and a said thing'. I
agree though, that first of all it has to work on the page, but I
also feel that it has to work when it is read out. >In Japan I
saw books sold with a CD in the sleeve , of the poet reading the
work aloud, and I don't understand why Western publishers of
poetry have not picked up on this.
Overall, I think a lot more people would like poetry if they let
themselves get close to it.
Another reason for poetry being unpopular is that too many people
write it, and read nothing written by anyone else. I seem to spend
my life judging poetry competitions. You want to see the amount of
clichéd, abstract-ridden shit that's out there. Those
people either show that they've never seen a contemporary poem
in their life, or that they have seen it and dismiss it, thinking:
'This is not poetry, what I'm doing is poetry, this stuff
has lost its way'.
Of all forms of art, which one do you think is closest to
Film. If I was asked to describe the poetry I write I would say
that it is imagistic narrative. I think it is no coincidence that
the imagist movement in America started off in the 1920's when
film had just begun to get going. I remember once being stuck for
an ending of a poem, and I said to myself, if I was making a film
of this, how would I end it. I knew exactly what to do then.
The subtlety of film, the way it conveys something immediately,
that is what poetry at its best does. When I look at someone like
Plath's poetry, it's film.
Of your work, what is your favourite collection?
Oh Lord! A hard one to answer. I'll give you a predictable one.
I think I'm very close to a new collection, that is my
When you write a poem, do you leave it inside you to mature
a little, or do you write it straight away, and later make
If I were to leave it inside myself I'd forget. Sometimes I
have something inside me that may or may not be a poem, but I
scribble it down anyway - momentary uncertainty can fuck up a poem.
Then I leave it and think about it. Some of the poems that I wrote
this summer, I had no idea where they were going, which was
exciting. I like it when that happens.
Tell us about the new book you mentioned earlier.
I'm really going to have a good look next month to see how
close I am to a new book. Having a collection is not just about
having enough poems, it has to cohere as a volume. Every book of
mine feels different to me. It's like having different kids.
I'd like to show these new poems properly. I like to show my
poems to other poets to get their reaction to them. Some caution is
a good thing when publishing new work.
Then again, you can write a poem and think 'Hey this one is
good, I want to get it out there, let them see what I'm writing
If you went back in time, which poet would you like to get
Berryman. He would be good company, a bit wild and unpredictable.
We might get on.
Interview: Nicholas Cobic