The Poet and the Poetry Reviewer

Author, historian and poet, Mathew Lyons in conversation with writer, artist and reviewer, Rachel Stirling.

RACHEL:  When did you know that you wanted to write?

MATHEW:  Quite early on I think. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t really entranced by books of one kind or another – or when I didn’t want to write in some way. Who inspired you to write?

RACHEL: The author of every book I have ever read and those I haven’t reached yet. Reading is joyful. I was, am, and always will be, such a bookworm. What led you away from the short story form, towards poetry?

MATHEW: Good question. Fear. Self-doubt. Those are the negative reasons. And they definitely have some purchase. But I also like the concision of poetry. The fluidity of form. The reduction of an idea or an emotion or a narrative -however you want to define narrative – into its barest possible expression. That’s very appealing. I am beginning to write more fiction now – short and long form. We’ll see what happens. The things that prompt creation are different for all of us, I think. My imagination tends to be both quite visual and – paradoxically maybe – concerned with interior spaces. How about you? Are the catalysts that motivate you to create the same for writing as they are for sculpting or painting?

RACHEL:  I’ve given that one some thought before, and it comes down to one word – reply. I’m a reserved person, a listener rather than a talker. When the world happens to me, as it does to all of us, creation is my response, my reply. It’s that simple and that complex. The writing seems to be reserved for those responses I can begin to articulate. It’s usually my way of finding my own thoughts among the noise.

MATHEW:  Who do you think of as your audience for each?

RACHEL:  I don’t. I never give a thought to the audience when I’m working. Does that sound awful? I simply work. The only exception to that rule would be in the case of a commission, which I take on rare occasions. The audience my work finds, if it finds one, is always a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been wondering which poets you like to read.

MATHEW:  The poets I go back to mostly are probably Auden, MacNeice and Tennyson. Especially MacNeice. But I go through phases of reading a lot by different poets at different times. Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Amy Clampitt, Derek Walcott, Billy Collins, Yeats, Byron, Rilke, Neruda…I could go on. I used to read the imagists a lot and I think you can see their influence clearly in my work. HD in particular. Which contemporary poets do you read most?

RACHEL:  I have a great deal of time for Robert Peake, George Szirtes and Mark Fiddes, but I am blessed with being able to read a vast amount of poetry. Sometimes I actually spend the most time with poets I understand the least. In that sense the question works differently for me. I spend my time working with the difficult to follow. My favourite poets? Rilke, Keats, Mary Oliver, Byron, Frost, Auden, Heaney – so many.

MATHEW: Szirtes is wonderful. His Twitter feed is a joy too! What do you look for in a poet?

RACHEL: They are all so different! [laughing] Poets and poems are a glorious puzzle. Here you have a person who has, often with great skill, distilled the experience of a lifetime into a few lines, and they are asking you to see them. I see the job of a reviewer as being willing to take the time to do that. I take every poet as they come, a new life, a new experience, a new approach, I don’t like to comment on anyone’s work until I have read quite a lot of their poetry. I do enjoy elegance of language. I also appreciate the usual courtesies and promptness goes a long way to helping anyone with a deadline, obviously.

How do you define a poem?

MATHEW: That’s difficult. A frame of words and phrases that allows the reader to respond imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually? Form is important. I don’t write too much in formal metres or structures but one of the things I list out for- or feel for – is the shape a poem is going to have, how long the arc of it is. I sometimes have to wait for that, even if I know I have the outline of what is going to be in the poem and what its core images and phrases are going to be. Rhythm is very important to me – not just the rhythm of the lines but the way that the ideas and images are interspersed. I think of my poems in spatial terms. I don’t know how usual that is. Phrase-making matters a lot to me too, the ability to put words together in a way that is both new and memorable and startlingly true. That’s what I look for in other writers and it’s something I strive for in my own work.

What do you look for in a poem?

RACHEL:  Effortlessness. There is a kind of beauty, as gentle as breathing, when a poet finds the right words to express their thoughts. The thoughts don’t have to be beautiful, and the poet may have wrestled the words to the page as if bringing down a wildebeest, but when they are the right words, everyone can breathe. Then the near misses interest me. Of course, to work these out you first have to work out what the poet is trying to achieve and how. Sometimes in the pursuit of this you also stumble on the why, but not always. It’s necessary to understand the what, the how is where it gets technical and the why is a gift of comprehension beyond the page. Sometimes a poet gives away more of the why than they intend and other times next to nothing, they are a barely open book and we get a sideways glimpse at the pages. Sometimes what a person doesn’t tell you is the most interesting thing of all.

What do you look for in a poem? How do you start? Do you begin with very structured intentions or do you write and see what arrives?

Mathew:  It varies to be honest. But what usually comes first is a line, or a phrase, or an image. i collect them – and at some point one will come along that seems to pull the others into its orbit and I will piece a poem together from those basic elements. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I start with doesn’t necessarily end up in the finished poem though. There are lines and images that have been in and out of various drafts of different poems before I find what feels like its home. The process can take years. Sometimes a poem will come more or less whole, of course. And other times I will have a sense of precisely what I want or need to say. But usually it is more worked at – and more allusive. How do you critique a poem? Where do you start? How important are formal considerations? – or do you prefer to focus on thematic and verbal issues?

RACHEL:  I begin by putting aside all thoughts of critique and reading the poetry. I usually make three passes through the whole body of work. The first pass is for pure enjoyment. It usually leaves me with an impression of theme, rhythm and ideas. I make a brief note of these and any obvious poetry forms, such as sonnet or villanelle, then I go back through the work again to check that I haven’t caught the wrong end of the stick, or indeed the wrong stick. On this pass I pay more attention to the language and technical considerations all the while asking myself what the poet is doing or attempting to do. Again, I make short notes. On the third pass I choose one or two of the poems that I consider to be typical of the collection, or particularly interesting, and I take them apart, very gently, looking at the rhythms and sounds and the technical aspects of construction. Often at this stage that it will occur to me which poetry a poet likes to read, a bizarre side-effect of having read a lot of poetry. At the end of the process I usually have enough information to write my review. I don’t consider any structure or classical form to be better or worse than any other and I don’t prefer classical forms over modern interpretations. I do like to recognise each poem for what it is and think about whether it is a good example of its type, and how it differs. The interest often lies in the difference. Sometimes a structural hiccup is a poet’s exclamation point Your writing interests me because you have such a broad range. You have fiction and non-fiction work running side by side with your verse. How do you divide your time between journalistic or historical writing and the intricacies of poetry?

MATHEW: Ha! Well, copywriting, journalism, editing, etc are all there in order to pay the rent. The noise of it kills the ability I have to write creatively, well certainly as far as poetry goes. Poetry requires a kind of intellectual space – I need to withdraw a little inside my head so I can hear the words clearly, get a sense of rhythm and weight, and also hear or feel the way they resonate for me intellectually and emotionally. It’s a separate thing for me. It’s also a space to reflect on myself – my thoughts and feelings, my responses to the world. I hesitate to call it a form of therapy because it isn’t, but the two things occupy similar states of mind I think.

RACHEL:  You’ve published several books written largely from a historical non-fiction perspective, most recently The Favourite. How did, or did, the research for that book feed back into your poetry work?

MATHEW:  I’m not sure that it did, necessarily. At least, not yet. I can see that the theme of my previous book Impossible Journeys resonates subtly here and there in my poetry. The idea of impossibility, hope against hopelessness, is something I can see I’ve returned to, not always intentionally. And my first book on Tolkien and the ancient history of the English landscape I think helped clarify for me something about how we experience the physical world intellectually and emotionally. But I consciously used poetry to help me with the writing of The Favourite. I worked very hard on the prose of that book at a time when my private life was beginning to go through a fair amount of turmoil. I lost my way quite often – but I found that reading contemporary poets like Medbh McGuckian, Jen Hadfield,  and Jane Griffiths helped me to focus on the clarity of expression. Why do you write fiction as opposed to poetry (as far as I know) while thinking deeply and writing about the poetry of others?

RACHEL:  I did pass through a phase of writing song lyrics but that is as close as I have come to writing poetry. I’m not a poet, as far as I am aware. The things that I need to say simply seem to come out in story form. Poetry is an intricate dance and I don’t consider that I know all the steps. Maybe that will change in the future. I look forward to finding out. I also review novels, short story anthologies and other written work. Poetry is the most beauty in the shortest amount of time. It takes me time to think through work to my satisfaction and so, in order to paint, sculpt and write, I am drawn to the work of poets. Poetry is a great deal of literary feeding in a very small space. It helps to ground me in a creative place. What are you trying to achieve when you write?

MATHEW:  To get the idea out whole, to find its ideal form and expression. I don’t think I ever have or will – but it’s important to try!

RACHEL:  And where do you go from here in terms of creative writing?

MATHEW:  I have more non-fiction projects to pursue and, as I said earlier, I’m working on some fiction. I don’t necessarily think of them as very different as writing projects. I try to make my non-fiction writing a pleasure to read and as a historian the human elements in  any story are very important to me. I’d like to start publishing my poetry properly and working towards a collection. How about you? You do so many different things. What is on your horizon creatively and critically?

RACHEL:  This year I will be making headway with my Tower-of-Babel-sized review pile. I have a great deal of reading to do. I will be reviewing poetry every month for Sabotage Reviews, and I will be working on my own novel ‘Indigo’. My spare time, should I find any, will be spent completing a sculpture that I started about a year ago. She is currently wrestling her way out of the stone, which looks uncomfortable, bless. The lovely thing about sculpture is that you can simply down tools and walk away, safe in the knowledge that the piece will keep. It isn’t quite that easy to shelve a painting in progress…

Mathew Lyons can be found here:

and @MathewJLyons on Twitter where you can also find me @Stirlingwriter