Messy Continuum: An Interview With Matthew Welton
, December 22nd, 2013 05:05
Sam Riviere speaks to poet Matthew Welton about form, function, shunning the autobiographical and the "meaning" of language
Matthew Welton is a poet who's become increasingly admired by and influential on an emerging generation of UK poets, but his work remains difficult to categorise – British in sensibility, yet orientated towards European and US poetry traditions, an acknowledged part of the mainstream, with books that are formally daring and often experimental in structure – The Book of Matthew (2003) concludes with 39 variations of the same poem, while 2009’s We needed coffee but we'd got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we returned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle sound of the wind contains an assortment of innovations: a systems-based sequence using the 2002 World Cup draw, a series of meditations on airports, and a set of wordless poem-shapes among them. Eschewing the urge towards glib epiphanies and received meanings so abundant in contemporary UK poetry, his poems follow the more intuitive sense of their own music, and in their discussion, exploration and detonation of fixed notions of copies and originals, versions and variations, rhythm and repetition, they seem to presage the recent expansions in the field of conceptual poetry, as well comment on the spate of poetry plagiarism cases of which, strangely or not, he was himself a victim. This interview focuses on the development of Welton's writing practice and its relationship to poetic tradition and experiment.
Your poems, in their prioritising of sound and fascination with patterning and repetition, seem to me, in the best possible sense, to be out of step with the mainstream tradition of British poetry. I'm curious about what led you to poetry in the first place, and who might feature among your earliest enthusiasms? Reviewers have emphasised the significance of Wallace Stevens for your work, but have also recognised the influences of Queneau, Christensen, and other writers who have actively investigated the outcomes of applied writing systems and restraints. As an adjunct to this observation, are there any particular poets, writers or artists of a British tradition whose works you initially felt drawn to, or have recently become interested in?
It always felt like my interest in poetry came second to my interest in language. I'm fascinated by the potential there is in language to do all kind of things that no one's thought of yet. If poetry is the word we use for what happens when we put words together in surprising ways, then I'm okay with the things I write being called poems – I guess that's why I read poems – but I'm not interested in approaching things as if there's some indisputable border between what's poetry and what isn't, or taking the view that there is only one particular tradition out of which the poems being written now can come.
For me the idea of beginning with having something you want to say and then putting it into words is about the least interesting thing you can do with language – I mean, that's just the nutrition part, isn't it, there's no flavour in that – but we can also think of language as a bi-product of communication, and since we've got all these words and grammatical conventions and things at our disposal I figure we might as well use them for making something beautiful or fun or whatever.
I still really enjoy poetry where it feels like there's something being said – Michael Symmons Roberts, say, or Sarah Jackson – but I like stuff that feels arbitrary too. Nathan Hamilton's Dear World anthology is one of the most exciting books I've read this year, and in it I've come across poets like Emily Toder and Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, who seem to be doing something nicely gratuitous with language. Maybe in my thirties my reading solidified around the bunch of poets I go back to most often – R.F. Langley, John Hall, Inger Christensen, Lisa Jarnot, W.S. Graham, Thomas A. Clark – and for a while I was feeling like I should try to leave those influences behind. I seem to have got over that now, but at the same time am these days less deliberate about wanting to imitate other writers. If it feels like it's there it probably is.
Your first book, The Book of Matthew, features quite a few rhyming poems, often with some additional requirement or complication – alternative consonantal and assonantal rhymes, or the repeating of rhyming sounds over multiple stanzas. It feels like you've moved away from end-stopped rhyme in recent-er poems, or perhaps beyond it – almost as if the associative structures and strictures of a rhyme scheme have been transferred to a different order of organisation, the patterning of entire poem sequences, or more rigorous surface restrictions (only four letter words, etc). I'd be interested to hear your current feelings or assessments about the use of rhyme as you see it? I'm also wondering if rhyme, on a sort of more essential level, like, as a mediator of language's at-once arbitrary- and instinctive-ness, feels at all important or present in your writing practice? You've written that your work's related to the "meeting of tradition and experiment" – would you conceive of rhyme and alliteration as such traditional elements, to be met with experimentation, and if so has this taken you into other areas exploring the musicality of language?
There's a bunch of reasons why a writer might want the words at the ends of the lines in their poems to rhyme. Here are some of them: rhyme gives their poems a neat structure and people like neatness; rhyme is a way of asserting an affiliation to a particular idea of tradition – when people talk about 'traditional' poetry what they often mean is poetry that uses rhyme; rhyme is a way of asserting an affiliation not so much to some general abstract unspecific idea of tradition but to a particular approach that is used by particular poets and, in doing so, you are admitting an influence or possibly even flagging up an allegiance – possibly here I'm thinking of how John McAuliffe's poems read like they're written by someone who's really absorbed a lot from Paul Muldoon; it is difficult to use a strict constraint like rhyme and still make the words in the poem feel inevitable, and so, in forcing yourself into that extra mental effort, you might come up with something more beautiful or unusual or original than you would otherwise have done; rhyme sounds delightful or beautiful or fun, just like musical instruments sound delightful or beautiful or fun, and people like it when they hear rhymes in poems.
Of the reasons on that list, the two that have seriously mattered to me are delight and constraint. And I figure that my idea of the kind of aesthetic I'm after with each poem has become well enough defined – or, in the process of writing the poem, becomes well enough defined – that, my pursuit of the poem I want to produce becomes enough of a constraint.
I suppose I stopped being curious about what was possible with end-rhymes but probably still get excited about making phrases where the repetition of particular sounds come round very quickly, so, for example, there's the sentence in Waffles that goes 'The zesty, underdressed kid wants to ruck and run, and sets off at a wander round the yonder round the pond around the middle of the middle of the middle of the mind.'
Of course, there's no need to be all-or-nothing about this: you can use end-rhyme in one poem and abandon it in the next, though I guess there must be writers for whom it matters that they should either be counted in or out. Was anyone expecting John Ashbery was going to lurch into the use of end-rhyme before Chinese Whispers came out in 2003?
I'm wondering if I should point out that chronologically there was quite a lot of overlap in the writing of the two Carcanet books and the poems in the Waffles pamphlet, so, while their publication dates certainly mean that there's a first, second and third book, there's never really a time when I'm not working on a number of projects. None of the Waffles poems was finished before The Book of Matthew came out but there were certainly whole lines or sentences that I used in the Waffles poems that had been sitting in my notebooks since I was working on the Book of Matthew stuff.
There was an article in New Scientist a couple of years ago which discussed the symbolism of sound in language. Apparently this was being re-investigated for the first time since linguists such as De Saussure argued the relationship between sound and meaning is essentially arbitrary. That that idea has ever been completely sold is odd, as on some level the aesthetic sympathies of word-sounds seem really obvious. Two of your pieces that I find the most mysterious, and at the same time, perhaps strangely, the most affecting, are 'This is delicious to say' and 'I must say that at first it was difficult work'. Before, when I've brought these pieces into a poetry class, and had a class read them aloud, a peculiar atmosphere has descended – I might explain it as the development of vastly differing internal landscapes, which were overlaying the shared ones, of the classroom, and the sound of the words. Both of these pieces, in a sly way, seem to include lines from their own methodologies – "The music, rehearsed with different words". Is some transparency or playfulness about the method important?
There are probably two principles on which my approach to questions like this is based, though those principles possibly contradict one another: I understand language as being something that works differently in different contexts so, for example, among the things that might make a poem a poem is the idea that the sounds of the words create a kind of pattern, or music, or at least perspective; but that there is no fundamental difference between the different contexts in which language operates, so we will probably still come across patterns of alliteration or metre etc etc in an employment contract or an engineering textbook or cricket commentary or the conversations we have in the pub etc etc.
I guess the thing I do when I'm making a poem is to simply limit my use of language in such a way that it sounds as if I'm actually saying something – as if there was something I wanted to say – and that the only way I could say it happened to require me to use all this words that happen to rhyme with each other or to use alliteration or to have the same rhythms
And damn – if I'd been asked whether I discussed the poems' methodologies within the poems I wouldn't've said yes, but it's like your presenting me with the evidence here, isn't it. I guess, though, that if I do flag up what's going on in those two poems, it's a less essential part of what's going on in them than the actual putting-together of the words.
In a recent radio interview you said you "wouldn't want to burden the reader with meaning." I read something where John Ashbery says, "Language has its own meaning, which is separate from meaning as communication, or so it seems to me." Would you go so far to say there is ever a kind of meaning in the words that exists apart from their literal or metaphorical meanings?
In September there was a little festival in the park round the corner from where I live in Nottingham, and the poet Greta Stoddart was running this great little stall called the Poetry Prescription Booth, and she'd got printouts of all these poems about heartbreak and joy and friendship or whatever, and the idea was that people should come and talk to her about whatever they happened to be going through in their lives and then, rather than packing them off with a pocketful of Prozac, she would give them a poem that addressed the personal stuff they were dealing with. And she had a folder of these poems that I already knew by people like Charles Simic and Paul Farley, but it was such a weird experience to be thinking about them in terms of their 'subject matter' because that's really not the way I read. Whenever I look at a poem I'm thinking mainly about its music and it always seems important that, to some degree at least, it should actually be unlike anything I've seen before. I guess when we talk about innovators we're generally thinking about the way they put together the materials they use. This is what Veronica Forrest-Thomson is saying in the intro to Poetic Artifice: that when you're trying to do something new or something demonstrably your own there's the risk that if you are experimenting with the meaning/content/subject you're going to be pretty stuffed if you try and do something original, which is why writers like Sylvia Plath end up excavating their own really really private stuff, though, if instead you put the emphasis on trying to explore the formal properties of language, or poetic language at least, there're still acres and acres of unclaimed territory.
'Identity' might be an odd word to turn to when discussing your work, as the personas or characters that inhabit the poems usually feel kind of notional to me: sketched, or provisional, almost as if the choice between an 'I' or 'we' is that of the 'channel' the poem's set to, rather than an explicitly defined personality with thoughts, memories, a past, etc. This is connected to another thing that sets your work apart from your contemporaries, its seemingly total disinterest in poems that invite autobiographical readings. On poetry courses there's always some talk of the role of language in constructing identity and subjectivity, as well as the social functions and frictions of poetry. In your feeling, what potential is there in using language in a way that seems to determinedly not reference those sorts of objectives?
Perhaps this is related – it was fascinating to hear you speak (on Radio 3 the other week) about your methods of composition, and your use of large notebooks. This made me wonder if you have a history in visual art? Also, while I'm asking about your writing methods, where would a poem usually start with you – a specific phrase, hearing something? How does the process play out?
As a teenager I was always been most interested in reading books – some fiction, some poetry – but I did my BA in politics, though towards the end of my second year I made friends with a bunch of people who were studying photography. And that kind of made me realise that I could stop pretending that I wasn't interested in making something too, even if the material I wanted to make things from was language. I guess really it's just a big messy continuum. There are certainly visual artists whose practice includes doing things with words – like Martin Creed or Sue Tompkins – and whose work excites me in the same way poems excite me, and there's stuff not made out of words – Martin Creed's conceptual work, or Euan Uglow's paintings – that makes me think ah-I'd-really-like-to-do-something-like-that-in-a-poem.
It would be tricky to identify the single particular point where anything I've ever written really began. I've always got a notebook in my bag and use that for jotting down words or phrases all the while. And then when I get the time I go through my old notebooks and pull out stuff that I think will go together. That's where the A1 sketchbooks come in. I just keep moving things around until I begin to feel happy with the fit. And somewhere along the way there's usually some bigger conceptual thing going on too.
In Waffles there's this line: 'I think that what I'm saying with the words I use || is stuff which, by the sound of things, I might not mean.' Throughout the work there's a sense of distrust, a restlessness and busy-ness, connected to the 'dance' of words being kind of trapped in their own ring – never really meaning more, never really representing. This seems in your poems more cause for excitement than anxiety. But there is still a definite palette to your poetry: coffee, sunlight, bees, weekends, melon-/lemon-yellows and -greens, a girl, a breeze. I'm thinking of internal landscapes again, I guess coloured as much by sound as signifier – you seem drawn, perhaps unusually, to fairly harmonious, or undisrupted surroundings, the poems feel kind of 'of a piece', or even of a place – somewhere sort of fecund, verdant. Perhaps a little derelict. Even the airport poems a have a kind of meditative tranquility to them. Are there specific effects you're seeking through this consistency and repetition, which gives your work such a particular identity – whether through the repetition of phrases, or of 'feel', if I can call it that?
The palette thing is certainly something I'm aware of though even when I'm using any of those things you mention – lemons, coffee, whatever – it doesn't feel like I'm being formulaic about it. I still want each word to feel like it fits the composition. When the Manchester Art Gallery reopened in 2002 there was a Michael Craig Martin show in one of the very big rooms, and his work – the constant reuse of all those generic images of things like scissors and light bulbs and stepladders with the heavy black outlines – probably quite consciously made me feel okay about sticking within a recognisable vocabulary.
I think the dereliction thing is maybe only a way of trying to solve some of the problems of language. I love the way R.F. Langley poems sometimes use non-grammatical sentences – 'Apples. Twigs. Icicles. Pigs. The owl that watches as we try a phonecall from the isolated box.' – but I've never felt that was something I could do very effectively. But by just giving the nouns Langley makes the things in his poems feel kind of definitive. In my poems I always feel it's tough to use nouns without having to throw in the verbs and even adjectives too, and once I start doing that all those ways of qualifying what I'm saying then things grow slightly shabby. Like in 'Got loose and let some', there would have been no point in using adjectives like clear and audible to describe the character's voice because those are practically the defining characteristics of a voice, so it ends up being 'hoarse or harsh or loose'.
Waffles by Matthew Welton is available via and published by Egg Box