Photo Credit: Pavla Alchin
Matthew Caley is a poet and writer. His debut collection Thirst (Slow Dancer 1999) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. His other collections include The Scene of My Former Triumph (Wrecking Ball Press 2005), Apparently (Bloodaxe 2010), and Professor Glass (Donut Press 2011).
Matthew has been twice commended in the National Poetry Competition and is a former Poet-in-Residence at the Poetry Society Café. His latest collection Rake was published by Bloodaxe earlier this year.
Hi Matthew. Congratulations on your latest collection Rake. You’ve described it as being based loosely on the observations of an ‘immortal, time-travelling rake’. Your previous collection Professor Glass also adopted a persona in its poems. What drew you to assume these characters, and do you see them as being symptomatic of the fact that the narrating voice in a poem is never truly that of the poet?
Ta, Spotlight. Of course, as soon as you write it’s not ‘you’, no matter how autobiographical or direct the work is or appears to be — so all writing is a persona. Both these books may seem like they use personae — but I’d always privilege language, the actual play with words, over notions of ‘voice’ or ‘idea’. The text on the backs of these books are always provisional. They are designed to give people a way in without over-determining any supposed subject — if you read them carefully, they deny as much as they affirm.
Professor Glass is very early work — ‘a lost 2nd collection’. The poems were a bricolage of the different types of language you find if you hang around art schools long enough — art-speak, academic-speak, business-speak, management-speak, acronyms, student vernacular — I’d note them from source and build them into poems.
I remember one Dean saying once ‘the rooms will be prepared for interim decant and fenestration’. So they were quite loose and experimental — started with no idea of a ‘character’ or ‘personae’ — that seemed to emerge from the technique, if at all. If you think of the words Professor Glass they could also be an alien’s description of a TV or computer-screen.
Years later, when Andy Ching of Donut said he wanted to do something of mine, I sent him all 50 or 60 Professor Glass poems and he whittled them right down and did most of the sequencing — he’s very good at that and, as it was old work, I was very happy to let him. As only a fraction of the original poems were included it perhaps appears more like a ‘narrative’ than it might otherwise — but we both thought it worked very well in the Donut format.
Rake is different again. Unusually for me it went through quite a few working titles as it evolved — Favourite Love Poems, As Any Lover Would, Cavalier, Cavalier, and My Hypothetical Lovers amongst them. You could put those titles above the work and it would still hold up. The word ‘rake’ as a 17th Century debauched young man was a contraction of rakethroughhell — as in, you’d have to rake through hell to find someone like that.
It’s also ‘rake’ as in the tool — both noun and verb, raking through memory, nails raking down a back, thin as a—etc. And it’s also a nod to the tremendous Townes Van Zandt song ‘Rake‘ from Delta Momma Blues. That song figures the rake as some kind of revenant or vampire, someone for whom desire disturbs the natural order of time. And we know that it does.
The title [and the text on the back of the book to some degree] hang in counterbalance to the poems. It’s what Guy Debord called the best relation of text and image — ‘neither complimentary, nor indifferent’. They are not ‘explanation’.
There’s a lot of secret architecture in Rake — yes, they are individual poems but we worked very hard on the sequencing. Andy was an initial tremendous help here too. We can disagree and kick against each other and not fall out. There’s all kinds of interconnectedness and counterpoint going on, cross-referencing — it’s very much a connected book.
I sometimes think of my stuff as hypertext where the links are in the ether. I was consciously trying to hone and pare down in this book — information-overload was part of the purpose/technique of previous books, but with this one I wanted to be sparer. But of course, that’s relative.
Finally, and simply, I wanted to write a really beautiful book — forget for a second all the complications of the term — just a really beautiful book — with edge. Others can judge if it is.
French writers and poets pervade the collection – Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Yves Bonnefoy, Tristan Corbière. Can you tell us a bit more about your fascination with these writers and how they’ve influenced you?
Firstly, they help with the edgy beauty. These poets are masters at it. Regarding Laclos — recently, I’d set myself the limitation of only reading epistolary novels [there’s too many contemporary novels — and too many bad ones — to keep up with, so you need a limit] and after Dracula and Moby Dick I re-read Les Liaisons dangereuses and was reminded what a brilliant novel it is — both in the hardness of its construction and the tactics of both book and characters. Yet they get destroyed when real love — like a virus — punctures the cold pose and the game playing at the very end. That fitted my purposes really well, as something like that appears to happen to ‘the rake’, though in his case it takes several centuries.
With the others, Baudelaire was an early and continuing fascination — it’s that urban sensibility and how he was already living the 21st Century dilemmas well before us. Plus, many years ago, I actually had an on-and-off affair with Jeanne Duval — take that as literally or metaphysically as you want. But she occurs and re-occurs in many guises in my work. I have no control over her.
I have lots of very cheap second-hand anthologies of French poets lying around — every so often, just as your own poem might suddenly strike you, the need to grab one of these anthologies, rifle through, see something that ravishes you and put down a parallel version arises.
I’m not a studious translator. I have very little French. They are bi-lingual editions but from quite a while back so the English translations are old-fashioned and fusty, usually. That gives me scope. Sometimes I can read the whole book and nothing hits me. Other times, instinct tells me to make a raid on one of them. A poem jumps out. It usually happens very quickly.
In Rake they fit in as ‘cover-versions’ and it’s usually what the book needs at that point. They punctuate the overall architecture and work with the theme of time-travel. As I’m very influenced by 19th Century French poets anyway — and as I’ve customized them pretty thoroughly — they might be pretty indistinguishable from the other poems. But sometimes — as with the Bonnefoy — the process enables you to say what you wanted to say, but in a way your own procedures might not have conjured.
The new book also heavily features the tanka form, which I understand you tackled as a means of breaking away from the long, loping lines your poetry is often associated with. I’m curious how many tanka you composed in getting to grips with the form, and do you think it taught you anything new or brought another dimension to your writing?
I wanted to curtail my own breath. But also, in a contrary way, just to do something quite a few people frown upon. I wrote really shitty tanka for about 18 months in ‘training’. For me, form has to be internalized, it’s not a mould to be filled up, it has to be a spur. Over time I began to instantly recognize 5 and 7 syllable phrases — free Kentucky Fried Chicken; deep vein thrombosis; inappropriate touching — and build from those. The earliest tanka in Rake is probably ‘Thursday and Bladerunner from the rental’ — after that one I could get going.
I’d never have written anything as bare as ‘The Kiss’ without this experience — that’s as plain as I can get. Then [damn!] my long-line reasserted itself and the single tanka turned into run-on stanza form. The first poem to do that was ‘The Confluence of The Elbe and The Upa’, which I feel was a breakthrough for the book [though no-one in the UK wanted to publish it — it got published in the USA, eventually].
Syllables make you concentrate on your tenses, line-breaks, contraction and expansion of phrases. It also produces particular rhythms as 5 syllables remain connected to the pentameter. I write very quickly so it’s a minor break on my speed. I rarely need to count now [though I do check later] and I’ve continued post-Rake to use syllabics almost exclusively and it’s shifting to an even looser use of them — always 7 and 5 but not necessarily in tanka-order. It’s quite perverse really, but it works for me.
But finally, the syllabics aren’t important to the reader — hearing them read aloud they’d never know it was that precise. It’s an internal tactic for me. Form counterpointed against resistance to form.
As well as being a poet, you have a strong background in graphic design. Do you think this bleeds into your poetry in any ways, whether it be in your use of imagery or how much attention you give to how a poem is laid out on the page, or are they two separate disciplines?
O my freelance days were a lifetime ago… Since then I’ve collaborated with artists and musicians, written a book on the song in cinema, worked in art-schools [though that may be coming to an end]. These activities, together with the earlier record sleeve design [that’s how long ago it was — 12inch x 12inch square], are all connected — as is poetry — with ‘the triangle of image, text & sound’ — my overarching theory. No space here to expound in full.
Poetry is the most concentrated form of it and cinema the most expansive — but it’s the same principle. A film theorist like Kracauer and a poet like Pound both had not dissimilar notions of it. Maybe there will be a book on it one day, but the last academic book I did nearly killed me. It’s not that I’d rather write poems but that I have to, and they take up more and more of my head.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?
Well, I spent five days recently at the 11th International Poetry Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia. Many very interesting poets, a whole Danish contingent including my good friend Thomas Boberg and many more. I was there six years ago and it’s a wild time — reading on balconies, reading under a huge arch with a red flag in a town square, reading at the Serbian Slam Championships, boat-trips down The Danube; quite surreal and strange at most moments.
The Serbian people have a great reverence for poetry which is very sincere, but can sound strange [in translation] to our more cynical ears. After one reading someone came up to tell me I was ‘the soul of England’! Not a title I particularly want to take on, especially at the minute! Someone else — a sweet man who introduced everyone to me as his father [and one person as a horse] — presented me with a bag full of shirts, plastic trinkets and pink plastic fly-swats on the day I left.
What else? Reading with Mark Waldron in Nottingham Five Leaves Bookshop and at Ledbury, with Kathryn Maris at Cubitt Street Studios, with Andrew McMillan at the inaugural South Downs Festival, great gig at The Crypt in Islington, Nicki Heinman’s excellent poetry and jazz night at Dalston with Tim Cumming… O there’s too many to mention. It’s been a wild year.
And upcoming on November 5th is Aldeburgh for the launch of an anthology of poets who were sent up the lookout tower. Rake ‘n roll. Please join us if you can.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s from Rake. It’s dear to my heart because it’s a mystery to me, too. It had a strange genesis. I was walking by myself in a forest in a remote part of the Czech Republic carrying only one, large book — the electric blue John Hopkins University Press edition of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”.
As I approached a clearing I had a mad, cinematic vision of someone emerging from the other side of the clearing carrying exactly the same book. The possibilities of this are of course extremely unlikely. This lead to the refrain part in my head. I hummed that over and over, curtailing my trip to run back to the house where we stayed and the whole three part poem unfolded from nowhere — no redrafts, bang.
Looking at it now it seems it could either be a glimpse into the more malignant side of Modernism, or a future, Retro-vision; or maybe, because I’d been away for 5 weeks and not spoken English with anyone I was simply missing my poetry comrades. It could be a declaration of superiority, a parody of the elite artist’s complaint, or a complaint that Zukofsky and his ilk aren’t talked much about in the UK. It could be about poetic ambition and indifference — it’s probably all and none of those. Under the Rake title, it might be [if there is a rake] three separate time-trips in quick succession.
Anyhow — it’s what Townes Van Zandt called a ‘sky-song’ — written by ‘a giant pencil in the sky’.
Long after the Czech episode, I was in a Columbian café in Brixton Arcades having breakfast with the redoubtable Wayne-Holloway Smith. We both said ‘What are you reading?’ and simultaneously delved in our bags to both produce the exact same edition of Gertrude Steins’ Tender Buttons. Snap. So it can happen.
notes for The Plateaux
On an isthmus un-
able to lift itself out
of the zinc-grey surf,
wait on continental drift.
I have seen horses sing off-key,
green leaf within green leaf
a perfect symmetry, but met no-one coming my way
carrying a copy of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”;
not by the Recreation Centre, Bon Marche
or the lights hung in the tree outside The Ritzy
has anyone come my way
carrying a copy of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”,
I have seen what the endoscope can see,
the sweet blue sea,
instruments on a tray
but rarely, if ever, has anyone come my way
carrying a copy of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”,
I have heard goats cough at the blue sky, a wan sun
workers ostracize workers from the party,
but never, coming my way, anyone resembling anyone
carrying a copy of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”.
Along the line of a zinc-grey, low-lit corridor
one is drawn to the glow-
ing square replete with back-lit attendant, where
you will discover the lost property room of the crumbling opera
house, stuffed as it is with so many unclaimed boas,
binoculars and pince-nez, a
realm of brass-rails and feathers.
Once there, ask in Demotic French for Monsieur Drellard’s curio-
umbrella, sign for it and go.
This you may know as