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AofA People – Matthew Caley – Poet


9 Minute Read

Since his debut – Thirst [Slow Dancer, 1999] – was nominated for The Forward Prize for Best 1st Collection, Matthew Caley has published four more collections – the last three from Bloodaxe – and read everywhere from Novi Sad, Serbia to The Globe Theatre, London; from Prague’s Alchemy to Wayne-Holloway Smith’s living room. He’s recently taught Contemporary Poetry /Creative Writing at The School of English, St Andrews University, The University of Winchester and The Poetry School. He has just given the StAnza International Poetry Festival Lecture 2020. His 6th collection is Trawlerman’s Turquoise [Bloodaxe, 2019].

Where do you live?

Crystal Palace, South London

What do you do?

Poet

Tell us what it’s like to be your age?

It’s strange as this questionnaire is forcing me to think about it and I rarely do. No idea why – when I was thirty and people accused me of being thirty I didn’t like the definition of it – I might lie upwards as much as downwards just to avoid definition or pre-conceived ideas. Maybe because I was hit by poetry/art very early on – and couldn’t really do anything else very well – I’ve just stuck doing those things – poetry, putting out books, readings, collaborating with artists, teaching art or poetry since the beginning – it’s a narrow seam and therefore my basic drives and actions and life remain pretty much the same and they don’t necessarily rely on physical fitness – though I feel Ok –- so it doesn’t feel so different.

Or I don’t notice the decline!

Plus, I don’t write directly from actual life and what happens to me. I write out of wordplay and structures and imagination. Some poets write their first book about childhood, their second about amorous relationships, their third about marriage, swiftly followed by decorating and divorce. My work messes with time and follows no chronology, it draws from life but tangentially, so there shouldn’t be much stress on age in it particularly.

I had a big party when I turned 50 and another when I turned 60 but they weren’t really about that. I discovered that a ‘big number party’ is the only way to see friends you haven’t seen for years. They’ll turn up for that. So it wasn’t really about me or my age but just a grand excuse to catch up. So I don’t view myself through the lens of any age. I’ve met people in their thirties who think they are old. It’s all relative. Of course, you can’t escape how others see you. Or noticing how certain people react because of your supposed age. I notice them noticing but I don’t care. So that solves that.

I would also think that whilst your stated aim to change the image of older folk is a great one, that you must also have to be careful to avoid—as any of these pro-these people or pro-that movements do—ghettoising yourselves. All persons are persons –just at different stages. I want to be around all ages of people -and luckily again – at the moment – I can be. This happens much more naturally in other countries than here I find. Children, teenagers, young adults, adults, older folks etc should be all mixed up in the same spaces. I don’t want to know only one strata. That’s stultifying. Advertising and social spacing can force people into their own age group. It’s good to mix it up. The media often stereotype older people so the image should be combatted but outside of the media folks need to mix it up themselves.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

More books! Two daughters. A flat. I know my insides and my outsides. I know where to stand in relation to the source in order to get a poem. I know it’s not my drive that does it. The arc of propulsion that drives the poems started before me somehow and I just keep in its slipstream and end up where it takes me. I’ve narrowed down what I do so it’s more focused. If I’ve gained any wisdom then I probably don’t notice it be because you can’t re-construct exactly how you were before. Learning and skills are invisible once you’ve mastered them. You have changed, but there’s no former you to compare with. On Magazine’s- [the post-punk group’s] -‘comeback’ LP Know Thyself their songwriter and lyricist Howard Devoto has a song ‘Dear Howard of Course’ which is a song to his younger self. But much of his younger self had been filmed or recorded and maybe he has a better memory than me. Much of the LP deals with ageing, though in a typically oblique way, there’s a song called Holy Dotage! But it’s a fired-up fast song. I would guess there are losses and gains but sometimes the losses are good and the gains not so good. I have a bad memory which means I don’t tend to dwell in the past much so I’m usually dealing with the present. The now is all we have so its best to deal exclusively with that or you end up in the ether.

What about sex?

I’ve always had great fun and luck in the amorous world. It’s hard to talk about it overtly – not because of prudism – though our current culture can be strangely prudish –but because our current moment could but not misread it.

Since meeting Pavla and seeing my daughters born it all changed. Now it’s blood-ties and love. A different thing. But also I think discretion in relationships is a very underrated virtue – you make yourself vulnerable in amorous relationships and whoever or how many people are involved, what goes on is a beautiful, private thing. Those might seem strange in a world where people post videos of their genitals to each other quite merrily and overshare at every opportunity. This vies with the overall prudish culture to make a strange mix. I feel very grateful for all my past relationships, brief or more substantial, with some very strong, powerful, original, and beautiful characters. They all meant a good deal to me. But Pavla and I have been together for 20 years now and have two daughters. She’s a very strong character herself and an artist. Love and sex are both mutual and mutable things, their form changes virtually every day – if you drift with it. Being with one person isn’t so different from having a few lovers because everything changes all the time. If you keep alert they renew themselves.

And relationships?

Of course, there are many different types of relationships – not just the amorous world. I’m lucky again. I’ve got a wide range of friends – men and women of all ages and types. Because I’ve taught in art schools and poetry schools I regularly meet 18-23 year olds. I know quite a few young poets. I meet my daughters’ friends. So I have some ‘young’ friends and friends of all types. It’s just that I don’t see any of them very often because I’m too busy or always travelling about – though I have friends scattered everywhere so I see those when I travel – but with friendships – they usually hold up if they’re meant to.

How free do you feel?

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ as yer man said. No-one’s truly free under Capitalism or Communism. It’s just seeming degrees of it. Freedom is internal.

What are you proud of?

I find that word a bit iffy – it gets misused so much. There’s a danger it can become a kind of vacuous Facebook meme type word. An Award Ceremony word. Like the word ‘hero’ has become. But if there’s another word then I take great delight – I like the word ‘delight’ – in my daughters. Mina is [13] a musician-playing violin and viola, in all manner of orchestras and quartets and solo and Iris [19] is studying Animation in the Czech Republic which is a brave leap forward. They are delightful and I delight in them and who they’re becoming. And Pavla, of course, who has put so much into them.

What keeps you inspired?

I read that Leonard Cohen quote a while back – the one where he says, ‘If I knew where good songs came from I’d go there more often’. It’s a good line but I was dissatisfied with it – why can’t you climb back up the rope ladder to the source? I’ve spent 6 years working on that. It’s not ‘inspiration’ which I’ve found is a flimsy and insubstantial friend. It’s a mixture of internal ‘athletics of the mind’ – technique[s] and knowledge of timing. Then you can go there when you want and get the poem you want, when you want. I’m much closer to getting that. I’m not perfect at it yet but it’s getting much closer.

When are you happiest?

Most of the time. My default mode is pretty OK – most of the time. [That really annoys some people I notice.] So if I get happy then I’m really up. I’m happier being a ‘hired’ gun rather than full-time. I’m happy ‘on-the-road’ gigging. I’m happy to get back to my beauties. I‘m a cup more than half full and slightly above the brim person.

When in Chartier in Paris. Having coffee on a frozen balcony. Listening to The Punch Brothers or Fleet Foxes or Lankum or O’Hooley & Tiddow at a concert with all the girls. The Rabbit fair, Konice, Moravia. On the road. Everywhere. It’s portable, happiness.

And where does your creativity go?

I prefer the word ‘imagination’. Always into the poems, the books.

What’s your philosophy of living?

I try not to have one! Stand in the place where you live. Be in the minute you’re in. Reduce your worries to a minimum. Walk everywhere. Advice is the worst way of giving advice. Develop out of what you lack. [Baudrillardian. Barthian. A bit of Schopenhauer. Kristeva. ] You don’t need much. Know what you do need. Avoid elegy and nostalgia. Don’t carry a phone. Tell the time by laundrettes. Appreciate everyone, especially your enemies.

And dying?

It’s another imaginative leap – until it isn’t I guess.

Are you still dreaming?

I rarely dream. The poetry replaces that, maybe. The world is enough.

What was a recent outrageous action of yours?

You should see some of my line-breaks.

Doing a Poetry Residential at Ty Newydd in North Wales


5 Minute Read

There’s something about starting a new pursuit and passion when you’re older. It’s stimulating in a different way. I began writing poetry when I was 55 ten years ago. Partly, because it was non-commercial. I knew I’d never earn any money from it – so it could be purely words and me. Unlike the world of freelance journalism that I’d inhabited for the previous 25 years, which was getting more and more like a hamster wheel.

I sought a certain sort of freedom of literary expression for its own sake. And I found it at City Lit and City University in evening classes with all sorts of contemporary poets from Roddy Lumsden to Annie Freud to John Stammers. The latter had an invitation-only group, which I eventually was able to join and Wednesday afternoons became the highlight of my week. They still are.

Last year, I published my first pamphlet Tantric Goddess at the age of 64 on Eyewear. There was a flurry of readings including a Tantra evening at Book and Kitchen – this wonderful little independent bookshop in W11, which has now sadly shut down – with friend and writer, Monique Roffey. I read from my pamphlet and Mon read from her recent erotic novel The Tryst, then we did a Q & A afterward on tantra workshops. We loved it, there was such an easy, intimate flow to the evening.

A year later, I felt like I needed to get out of the almost comfort – despite the ruthless taking apart of each other’s poems – zone of The Group and float my poetry evolution elsewhere. I had just discovered – how had I not known – that Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales is actually three miles away from my partner’s farmhouse. I saw they had a masterclass – surely mistress class by now – with the former national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, at 81, a grande dame of the art and Robert Minhinnick, another revered Welsh poet and eco-activist. We had to send off poems and be invited. Phew, I got in. Apparently, they chose 16 out of 30 applicants.

The week before I was feeling a little anxious. How would my London/Yorkshire attitude go down? I also knew I wanted to be committed to this course. No staying up late with other poets, I was going to be devoted to the workshop itself.

I drove into the village of Llanystumdwy, along the river Dwyfor and found the long driveway to Ty Newydd. It is a grand old house – where the former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George had lived – and painted in white and blue with a long, narrow library designed by marvelous architect and eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, the man responsible for the wonderland of ‘fallen buildings’ that is Portmeirion down the road.

My room, well, our room – I’d yet to meet my roommate – was right at the top of the house. Oh, yes, the long-forgotten joys of the single bed. Eventually Thirza – I learned later that this was a self-appropriated name – turned up and so began our week of negotiating this space. Actually, she was very well-behaved, although definitely a late night poet. On the last night, she outdid herself and didn’t get to bed until 3:30am.

 

I managed to resist. I told you I was going to be a good girl. At last. Thirza, who is older than me, obviously wasn’t rebellious enough in her youth and middling years! She was lovely, by the way, kind, supportive and didn’t complain about my snoring.

The first night was meeting each other and eating delicious food, a good portent for the week. We also got to interview each other in the library and then introduce the group to our partner. An exercise in listening and remembering. And absolutely no run of the mill – where do you come from type questions – for Thirza. She recounted her love of gardening, Italian and her strange obsession with the dishwasher.

The next morning –the workshop ran from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning, which seemed short but turned out to be intense – we started for real. With Robert. Who is an elegiac poet of distinction but in person quite dramatic and direct. And funny. Oh, I have to say there was only one other person on the course from London. This was heaven in so many ways. There were poets from up north and many from Wales. There was that song with us all the time.

Robert had brought an envelope of abstract nouns that he’d prepared earlier. We got one each, looked it and started writing with his prompts. Unlocking the muse suggestions. What does this word taste like? Where is it? What does it feel like? I got jealousy – a shameful feeling with which I am very familiar. We wrote for 15 minutes and then read out to each other what we’d written. The first public declarations. The others had to guess what our word was. Well, they got that mine wasn’t pleasant. One of my lines was – ‘You are a twisted priest’. Robert liked that. Other abstract nouns were dread, fear, joy, wonder, mystery and we began to form an impression of each other as poets.

It was fun. The afternoon was with both tutors and eight of us brought along poems without our names on them. We handed them out and critiqued them publicly. And then wrote little advisory or appreciative notes on them. The first one was called Goldfinches and very accomplished – about the First World War and vividly expressed. I’d put one in called Identity, which was about race, my son and partly about Grenfell. Funnily enough, it hadn’t gone down well with my group in London but it did go down well in this group. I got a lot of positive feedback and some questions. One was about my usage of bastard mango, ie was it gratuitous or actually the name of a mango. It was, I’m glad to say, the actual name of a mango. I found it very useful although the shape of the table meant that we couldn’t really have flowing conversations. And 16 turned out to be a challenging number of people for optimum inclusion.

Later on, we divided into much smaller groups of four to look at each other’s poems. Ones that we’d brought with us. My group retired to that fabulous library with the view over to Cardigan Bay and we were serious about our endeavor.

Incidentally, ‘serious’ is one of Gillian’s favourite words and now at the ripe old of 65, I can finally appreciate it. And sink into it.

We were Alison Lock – a poet and short story writer from Huddersfield, Julia Usman – a poet from Swaledale who travels to Dubai a lot to visit her husband, and Trish Reith – a poet who lives in Biggar, Scotland. It was delightful to find four women who liked talking about poems and poetry as much as I do. There were occasions when we almost had a chat but Trish kept us in line. Poetry, first.

The reason we liked our fours – the others in the group agreed – was that we could share equally. We spent an hour each day with our four poems. Someone would read one, the others would comment, then the poet in question would respond to the comments. We all found it incredibly instructive. And we discussed questions like – how do we bring political events into poetry. Make them personal in some way, I think we agreed.

Later in the week, we dubbed ourselves The Crones. Part of AoA’s vision is to reclaim words like crone and old, in order to make us feel more relaxed about ageing and less in the eternal pursuit of youth. I could immediately see a Crone Tour on the cards.

And it was Halloween while we were there. In fact, Trish had a poem called Mission Time, which was about the original pagan festival, Samhain. And it just so happened that the Crones were the cooking crew that night ie we chopped vegetables for the Lobscouse, a tasty stew that I’d never heard of but apparently fed to sailors in Northern Europe for years – so we performed Mission Time as Crone-witches. It seemed to go down a storm. As did the Lobscouse and the wine.

There were readings in the library in the evenings – initially Gillian and Robert. Gillian read a few from her vast selection, while Robert tried a new long poem about his mother on us. He’s written about his mother before – she’s diagnosed as schizophrenic – but not a suite of poems like this, they will be set to music, they was a triumph. On Wednesday, we were treated to the poems and personal stories of Kim Moore whose collection The Art of Falling has won prizes and many plaudits, there’s a moving 17 poem sequence in it where she describes an abusive relationship she was in. ‘And in that year, my body was a pillar of smoke’. From Barrow, she’s got a new collection that features poems about sexism as she’s also doing a PHD on the subject. She read a couple of poems from this new collection All The Men I Never Married – they are lyrical, incisive, brave.

The week unfolded and I found I enjoyed the workshop mornings where Gillian or Robert would offer poem prompts – like think of an object which has a memory, where is it etc. Mine was the kitchen sink in my childhood home in Yorkshire and turned into a poem where I remember my father washing me in this very sink. It was, I said, a look back in sweetness to that time, rather than when I was a bit older and life with him was a lot more difficult. There was something about the challenge of this deadline that I relished. And their lyrical nudges. Gillian would say – make sure it includes a hallelujah line. Robert would say – make sure it’s powerful. And then there was the important advice – don’t have a summing up line at the end. I liked it when Gillian suggested we look up and over our shoulder for that last line.

On the final day, we were to assemble – Jude Brigley, Anne Phillips and Rufus Mufasa were the fine editorial team – an anthology of our work, the Secrets of Cwtch Dan Star (the cupboard under the stairs) inspired by Rufus’ intoxicating poem that combines Welsh and English.

That evening, we all did a five minute reading in the library. My roommate and I were the hosts with the hopefully entertaining and serious introductions. It was our pleasure to acknowledge this work and these poets. We had a ball. Of course, I wore one of my minor feather headdresses…

https://www.tynewydd.wales/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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