Matthew Sweeney

Mimi Khalvati

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.

NICHOLAS COBIC: You tend to spend a lot of time abroad, especially throughout Europe. How do you describe the state of European poetry in general?

MIMI KHALVATI: 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 case?

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 Irish writers.

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 she developed.

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 literature?

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 poetry?

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 favourite

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 corrections?

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 now'.

If you went back in time, which poet would you like to get drunk with?

Berryman. He would be good company, a bit wild and unpredictable. We might get on.

Interview: Nicholas Cobic


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