I talked to Matthew Stewart about his first full collection ‘The Knives of Villalejo’ (Eyewear, 2017), which has been 20 years in the making. He previously published two pamphlets with HappenStance, ‘Inventing Truth‘ in 2011 and ‘Tasting Notes‘ in 2012.
PART 1: SPAIN, WINE AND LANGUAGE
Paul: The collection is full of the flavours and landscapes of Spain and, in particular, Extremadura. How did you end up in Spain and how long have you been there?
Matthew: I studied French and Spanish for the liberating effect of foreign languages and culture, ending up working in Spain as a language assistant in my year out because my Spanish was worse than my French. I applied for León, Cantabria and Asturias, and they sent me to Extremadura instead, down in central south-west Spain. That was twenty-four years ago.
Paul: You studied modern languages. Which are your favourite Spanish words?
Matthew: I relish words from our local dialect here in Extremadura. “Morrón” is a favourite, meaning stubborn and pig-headed. It reflects the best and worst of local society in this part of the world.
Paul: Would you agree that speaking a foreign language gives you a freedom? What drew you to Spanish? Does it allow you to become somebody else?
Matthew: As a teenager from a middle-class family in suburban Surrey, I found that speaking a foreign language was hugely liberating because words in French or Spanish weren’t loaded down with connotation or implicit judgement. Foreign languages enabled me to play characters, try out a persona and work out who I was. Of course, once I settled in Spain and delved more deeply into Spanish, I soon realised that all languages are equally as loaded, especially in small towns. However, by that time, I was comfortable enough in myself to inhabit both sides of the fence of inhibition at the same time.
Paul: Who are your favourite Spanish poets, and why?
Matthew: I enjoy work by Luis García Montero, Antonio Gamoneda and Ángel González, but my favourite Spanish-language poet is actually Argentinian: Julio Cortázar. Luis García Montero and Angel González are both associated with the so-called “Poesía de la Experiencia” movement, i.e. poetry that’s rooted in experience. They get up close to life so as to understand it rather than stepping back and viewing it via an esoteric, codified filter (as is common in certain contemporary Spanish poetry). González is from an earlier generation that was exiled due to the civil war, and he died in 2008. García Montero, who lived through the transition to democracy, continues to be prolific. [read Matthew’s article on García Montero here].
Antonio Gamoneda, however, stands alone in the Spanish poetry world. A self-taught provincial poet who spent most of his working life as a bank clerk, his most acclaimed verse often consists of pared-back emotion expressed through abstraction. It would sound ridiculous in English, but in Spanish it’s something special and has won numerous major awards over the past few years. As for Julio Cortázar, he might be best known as a novelist and short story writer, but his poetry is idiosyncratic, accessible yet demanding, playful but intensely moving. If you speak Spanish, get hold of “Salvo el Crepúsculo”, his collected poems [in translation as ‘Save Twilight‘]. It’s terrific! Like so much of his work, it is genre-bending too, blending prose with poetry, with quotes in English and French, etc.
Paul: Which poets do you feel have influenced your writing?
Matthew: When I started out in the mid-90s, I felt hugely alone in my poetic tastes, as anthologies and magazines at that time were full of poetry that was anathema to me. Larkin was my point of reference and departure. I didn’t care about his political and social opinions. I wasn’t bothered that most of the poetry world had turned their back on him. I only knew his poetry moved me. It was accessible yet layered with complexity, and I aspired to that achievement. Over the last few years, the attitude towards Larkin has shifted slightly in the U.K. scene. There’s now a new generation of poets who studied him at school and who embrace his work without fear that they might be tarnished in some way by his views on other issues. I’ve even noticed his influence on poets from the U.S., especially the likes of Joshua Mehigan.
Paul: Your poems are distinctive, often brief and plainly written, honest and without flourishes. Would you agree? How did this style or ‘voice’ develop?
Matthew: Ever since childhood, I’ve always been instinctively contrary, reacting against groups and prevalent opinion. This attitude was then encouraged by my experience of the tutorial system at Oxford, where the adoption, structured defence and in-depth exploration of a personal viewpoint is not only encouraged but rewarded. As a poet, I’ve consequently developed along those lines, delving deeper and deeper into myself, evolving further my method. Brevity, meanwhile, is a defect or a quality that’s accompanied me throughout my life. It drove umpteen teachers mad! I know no other way of writing.
Paul: You work in the wine trade. You have a poem titled ‘In the Wine Trade’. What are your favourite wines – some are suggested but maybe you have some tips?
Matthew: My choice of wine depends on the context. If I’m having tapas and a good gossip with friends, the last thing I want is a complex wine that makes me stop to think. On those occasions, a red Vinho Verde (yes, they do exist!) is ideal. On the other hand, a mature Rioja, delicate Ribeira Sacra or layered Oloroso are incredible sipping experiences, especially when matched with the right dish.
Paul: To what extent is wine like a poem? How is it not?
Matthew: There are wines I admire technically but cannot bring myself to like. The same goes for certain poems. There are wines that aren’t objectively great, but they just fit a moment perfectly. The same goes for certain poems. Moreover, I expose myself to constant judgement and rejection every day of my life thanks to poetry and wine. In both cases, I send off samples: to wine importers and poetry magazines. In both cases, rejection is far more prevalent than acceptance. I’ve had to harden myself to this fact, to learn that a dozen rejections don’t matter if a single excellent wine importer or poetry journal accepts what I’ve offered.
PART 2: THE BOOK
Paul: The book begins with a quote from Julio Cortázar on ordering, affinity, chronology and the heart. Why did you choose this quote?
Matthew: As a kid, I was obsessed with planning ahead. As an adult, I’ve inevitably come to realise that life is packed with unexpected events. This collection charts that journey.
Paul: You love kitchens, as suggested by poems like ‘Formica’, ‘Artes Culinarias’ and ‘Making Paella with David’. Can you tell us more about your cooking and what living in Spain has taught you?
Matthew: Learn a country’s cuisine and you’ll understand its society. Both are inextricably linked through climate, meal times and family routines. I love cooking roast dinners, summer puddings, paellas and griddled cuttlefish. They talk to me about where they come from and where they’ll end up, pleasure and necessity combined.
Paul: What determined the poems you chose to include in the full collection and those you left behind? How did you sequence them?
Matthew: The poems in The Knives of Villalejo form a narrative arc. They seem autobiographical at times. However, as mentioned elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a tool in my poetry. “Faction” ensues. The reader is invited to construct a story and make his or her own connections.
Paul: How do you sharpen your knives in Villalejo?
Matthew: You won’t tease a spoiler out of me! Read the book to find out…
Paul: The phone and phone calls appear in at least three poems. What is you relationship with the telephone?
Matthew: Living abroad, especially prior to the expansion of the internet, involves a close relationship with the telephone. In the mid-90s, my only conversations in English were my weekly calls home to my parents. The telephone represented a lifeline and a frustration, and that love-hate relationship has continued ever since.
Paul: Texting or speaking?
Matthew: Speaking. Words without a voice are like red wine served chilled: they lack the necessary nuances.
Matthew: By exploring other voices, we come to a better understanding of ourselves.
Paul: Fatherhood is also at the ‘heart’ of your book with many poems featuring ‘David’. In what ways has raising a child shaped you as a poet and observer of life?
Matthew: Even as a child, I was painfully aware of the slip-slip of generations. My experience as a father has only served to accentuate that awareness still further and to savour every moment.
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.
Paul: You have poems about Chipiona in Andalucia on the Atlantic coast, and on Madrid seething with migrating sheep, as well as the hillsides and vines of Villalejo. Which inspires you more as a poet, mountain or sea?
Matthew: Neither. I’m a small-town boy in both the U.K. and Spain, and that’s reflected in my poetry.
PART 3: POETRY LIFE
Paul: You have long-running poetry blog, RogueStrands. When and why did you start it, and what in your eyes makes good blog?
Matthew: I started Rogue Strands back in 2009. I’d been enjoying Matt Merritt’s Polyolbion blog and thought I’d have a go myself. I soon realised that it was a great way to feel part of a community. For me, good blogs avoid self-obsession and axe-grinding, while also pulling off the awkward balancing act of remaining a personal project. Blog posts live longer than social media but should remain brief, encouraging readers to make discoveries for themselves.
Paul: You have an impressive track record of magazine publication. Is there a secret to sending out your work? What has publishing in magazines taught you?
Matthew: My publishing record in magazines is not so good if we bear in mind that I’ve taken over twenty years to accumulate those credits. You mentioned in an earlier question that my poetry is distinctive, which also inevitably means it’s Marmite – i.e. either loved or loathed – so only a few editors at any one time are receptive to my work. One key benefit of certain magazines is that they tend to generate a feeling of belonging in their contributors and have thus enabled me to encounter new poets and friends whose aesthetic is not so far removed from mine.
Matthew: Nell doesn’t tell you what to change when she’s editing. Instead, she opens up potential routes for you to explore, enabling you to get to grips with your own writing process, inviting you to improve. This capacity for suggestion, for understanding each poet and helping them on their way without any imposition, is what makes Nell an outstanding editor.
Paul: Do you have a regular poetry group in Spain or do you tend to workshop poems with other poets online?
Matthew: I eschew writing workshops and structured courses, due to the idiosyncratic nature of my method. I understand their value for others, but I prefer to write alone and simply send my finished work to a couple of valued friends for their opinion prior to unleashing poems on the world.
Paul: What are you working on now? When might we see a second collection?
Matthew: Poems grow over months and years, often unconsciously, inside my head, before being written in a few minutes, put in a drawer for a several weeks and then revised, again and again, until the shifting of a few words or prepositions suddenly brings them to life. As a consequence, I have absolutely no idea when a second collection might be ready….
Paul: What are you reading?
Paul: Where does the poem begin?
Matthew: My poems begin with the truth. They then reach out for an authenticity that lies far beyond the truth, aiming to generate a jolt of recognition in their readers.