Hi Matthew. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Reading your poetry, there is a sense you are a proponent of the short lyric form. I’m curious if your composition process tends to involve longer first drafts that are subsequently pared back, and how much tinkering and revising is involved in getting the poems ‘right’ when the language is so condensed and every word counts?
From the first draft onwards, my poems already tend to be short. In fact, rather than shrinking, they sometimes grow slightly, draft on draft, as extra layers emerge over months.
I always start my poems off in my A4 notebook, using a pen so that nothing can be rubbed out. When I reach “a first final draft”, I type it up on my computer and print it out. These records are crucial to my writing process. If I wrote directly on to a screen, I’d lose all the blind alleys and red herrings that I often later pillage for other lines in the poem, juggling the components until they fall into place. The physical act of marking a blank page, meanwhile, is also significant. There’s no delete key in my notebook!
Once the poem’s printed out and placed in a folder, that’s far from the end of the process. I’ll read the poem a few more times over the next few days, but then I’ll force myself to put it away and slowly fall out of love with it.
After a couple of months have gone by, I’ll look through the poem once more. That’s when previously unnoticed faults tend to show up. I’ll try to sort them out back in my notebook, often referring again to those records of my first set of notes, before typing up “a second final draft” and stashing it for a further period. And so on and so forth.
This process continues until there comes a point where I go back to the poem and feel no more changes are necessary. On a few occasions, this occurs quickly, but it usually takes at least a year from start to finish.
You published a pamphlet in 2012 called Tasting Notes which used the back labels of bottles of wine as a springboard for half a dozen related poems. Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of the project and in what ways (if any) you feel they complemented each other?
In my day job, I’m the blender and export manager for the Spanish wine co-operative Viñaoliva, selling their wine all over the world. I write the back labels, brochures and website copy, as well as, of course, the tasting notes.
My editor at HappenStance Press, Helena Nelson, suggested I should also write about my job in my verse. I was leery at first, due to the cheesy connotations of verse about Bacchus, etc, but then I realised I could have a lot of poetry fun with wine jargon. I started writing poems that played advertising copy off against the wines’ real story, and Tasting Notes was born.
Moreover, I’m convinced that poetry benefits from a tie-in with the physical world. Such tie-ins not only cast a new light on verse for lovers of the genre, but they also gain new readers for it, people who thought poems could bring little to their lives beyond weddings and funerals.
That was the driving force behind Tasting Notes: many copies were sold at wine trade fairs or tastings, while we launched the pamphlet at the Poetry Book Fair in London together with Spanish tapas and a whole Ibérico ham on the bone.
Your poem ‘Villalejo’ won first prize in the National Library of Scotland’s ‘To home and beyond‘ poetry competition in 2014. What was the inspiration behind this poem, and did you get a chance to see the ‘Voices from the Commonwealth’ display it subsequently featured in?
I wasn’t able to make it up to Edinburgh that summer, but the most rewarding aspect of this prize was the knowledge that my verse was involved in another physical tie-in via the context of the exhibition, thus reaching new readers.
Villalejo is the name of an invented town, an amalgam of several spots down here in deepest Extremadura where I live. As such, it features implicitly or explicitly in much of my recent poetry, often as a counterpoint to my childhood in the UK.
In fact, this poem has developed into a two-hander in my full collection manuscript, and is now titled ‘From Farnham to Villalejo’. More and more, I’m bringing my short poems together in groups and sequences to complement and build on each other.
I understand your debut full-length collection is due to be published with Eyewear next year. Can you tell us a bit more about the collection and how it develops and continues the themes of your previous pamphlets?
For any full collection, the ordering of poems is difficult and crucial. For a set of so many short pieces, the challenge is even greater.
In my first full collection, which has taken over twenty years to complete, themes and storylines are now more layered and complex than in my pamphlets, while I’ve also developed and nuanced my use of syllabics so as to play with aural expectations and create richer effects that weave their way from poem to poem.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?
During the rest of 2016, I’ll be arranging readings for next year to promote my full collection (always open to offers!), while working away on my Rogue Strands blog like always. I’ve got a number of very interesting and intriguing titles on my desk awaiting a review right now.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘Making paella with David’ portrays a shared father-and-son act. Its thematic tension lies in the implicit awareness that this intimacy is the inevitable precursor to distance. The son’s autonomy is becoming evident and cannot be avoided. The father forces himself to hold back instead of intervening as his child uses a knife.
The poem first appeared under a slightly different guise in Inventing Truth, but this is a new version from my full-length manuscript.
Making paella with David
I watch his fingers learning how
to shell langoustines, exploring
their cartoon-alien faces
and train-track bellies. He giggles
at calamari tentacles,
snaps the glassy spines in half.
Just now he slung an apron on
and told me he’d help. Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It’s time to let ingredients
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.