Matt Merritt is a poet and wildlife journalist from Leicester. His debut pamphlet, Making The Most of The Light, was published by Happenstance in 2005. The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches Press) is his third full collection and follows Troy Town, (Arrowhead, 2008) and hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches, 2010). Matt’s poems have appeared in The Forward Book of Poetry 2009 and The Best British Poetry (Salt, 2011).
Hello Matt, congratulations on your new book which I’ve been enjoying very much. This is your third full collection and I wondered if your motivation for writing has changed over the period since your pamphlet was published?
Thanks very much, Roy. I think the short answer is no, my motivation has really remained the same. I started out writing pretty much for my own amusement, and although it’s very gratifying to then find that other people enjoy it, I don’t think you can really write with that in mind, or at least not directly. You can just trust your instincts, and hope that they’ll continue to lead you down paths that you and others find rewarding. There’s an element, too, of feeling that you have to write. Not in the sense that the world desperately needs to hear what you’ve got to say, or that you’re possessed by ‘the muse’, or anything like that, just that my best poems, I think, have always started out from me trying to get something straight in my own head, and then trying to work it out on paper.
That’s really interesting. I think the sense of thought in process comes across very clearly in much of your work, particularly in the new book. It occurs to me that this sense of unfolding and exploration is what makes many of your poems compelling.
You have a very distinctive voice, a recognisable style, but your work contains lots of variations in approach. Some of the poems in the new book are gently humorous, some are quietly meditative, some slightly surreal. How would you describe your own work?
Wow, that really is a difficult question! I think that’s partly because I came to poetry mainly from reading it and then wanting to write it, rather than having studied it academically, so I still find myself, a lot of the time, uncertain where writers fit into the poetry canon, as well as of some of the more technical aspects of poetry. It’s not that I don’t think such things are important, just that I’m very slowly catching up with what I might have learned had I studied English beyond A Level.
For the same reason I’d really struggle to describe my own work. But I don’t mind that – when I read a poet I’ve never come across before, I prefer it if I’ve got no real idea about where they’re coming from.
I can certainly relate to what you said about ‘catching up’. And thank you very much for answering that question Matt, I know it was a tough one!
You read and review a great deal of poetry. Are you aware of any long standing influences on your own poems? Also, I know you are a fan of RS Thomas. I wonder if you could mention some of the qualities that attract you to his work.
Yes, Thomas is certainly someone whose work I go back to a lot, although oddly enough he’s not the sort of poet I’d expect myself to like. For starters, I’m agnostic, at best, whereas obviously much of his work is concerned with his faith, and his struggles with it. And although I am half-Welsh, I find it hard to identify totally with his Welsh nationalism. But there’s his style, too – he often seems to ignore the old ‘show, don’t tell’ dictum, for example. Thinking about it, though, maybe that is one of the things that attracts me to his work – he gets away with breaking ‘rules’ like that because he’s a one-off. I like the fact that, except maybe in a little of his later work, there’s so little flab. Everything’s pared down to the essentials – that’s probably the one feature of his writing that I do find myself trying consciously to imitate.
As far as other poets are concerned, when I first started writing I’m sure I was mainly influenced by the poets I’d studied way back in school – Larkin, Heaney and Hughes (I still go back to Hughes a lot), plus New Gen poets like Armitage and Hofmann whose work was the easiest to get hold of. Since then I’ve read widely but very unsystematically, so I probably tend to absorb influence from whoever my current favourite might be. If I was asked to name favourites right now, Tomas Tranströmer, Jeremy Hooker, John Ash, Lee Harwood, Karen Solie, Penelope Shuttle, Colin Simms, Robert Hass (oh, and fellow Nine Arches poet Simon Turner) would all be in there, but how much any of them are influences I’d struggle to say.
Prose is certainly an influence, too, especially natural history writers like JA Baker. I bang on about his two books – The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer – at every opportunity and I won’t apologise for doing that again. They’re full of poetry. There’s a poem in the new book based on an essay by an American ornithologist, Pete Dunne, too – writers like him feed into my own work.
In terms of structure or shape on the page your work is extremely varied. Some of your forms are subtle variations on traditional forms, but often you seem unafraid to be experimental, for example in the use of line breaks, spacing and size of stanzas. Is the shape of the words on the page as important to you as flow or meaning of the poem? Do you deliberately try different approaches to keep things interesting for yourself and the reader?
Yes, the shape definitely matters, although I’d be hard put to explain exactly why I want a certain shape for a particular poem. I think a large part of it is what you suggest, though – it goes back to what I mentioned earlier about keeping things fresh and interesting for myself, and hoping that the reader sees it the same way. I think the more widely you read, the more you realise how many possibilities every poem presents, so I tend to try several different approaches with each piece and then follow up whichever seem the most promising.
Poetry is still described as mainstream or experimental in some quarters. You seem to straddle these classifications. Would you be interested in describing your work in terms of these divisions, and are they useful when applied to your poems?
Well, I think I’d tend to get called pretty mainstream, although I don’t think it’s a particularly useful binary division to use when applied to any writer. A lot, maybe most, cross the divide on a regular basis, and to me the labelling just serves to put readers in the opposite camp, and casual readers, off trying writers they might otherwise like.
That works both ways – I see ‘mainstream’ used as a shorthand for a fairly traditional lyric style, but it too often takes no account of subject matter, or of things like geography. It’s hard to be mainstream if you’re physically outside any such thing.
On the other side of things, ‘innovative’ or ‘avant garde’ too often gets used to mean forbiddingly difficult, which can’t be a good thing. To take a couple of writers I mentioned earlier, Lee Harwood and Colin Simms would usually get categorised in the non-mainstream camp, but I don’t think either is particularly difficult – if anything their work is very open to the reader.
Although you explore a wide range of subjects, unsurprisingly perhaps in the light of your work as a journalist and editor, much of your poetry is concerned with birds. I really admire and enjoy the way you approach the natural world from so many different angles. You often seem to capture the character or essence of the wild subject in its environment and it’s as if you are translating the experience of the watching birds onto the page. I wonder if you’d agree that qualities such as patience, close observation, and the ability to be unobtrusive and merge with your environment have informed your writing. I also image an important quality for a bird watcher and nature writer is having the resilience to try again another day if nothing shows up! Would you like to comment on what your job as a journalist has brought to your work?
In purely practical terms, I think journalism is probably a pretty good day job for any poet to have, simply because no one thinks it’s strange if you suddenly start scribbling in a notebook, or hammering away at your keyboard – it’s not like some jobs where you’re desperate to get home at the end of the day to try to get the poem in your head down on paper. And, now that I work in magazines, where there’s only really one deadline a month, it’s reasonably easy to fit poetry in around work – that helps a great deal.
I’d never really thought before about what you mention regarding resilience, but yes, I think that’s very true. I’d go further – to me, the greatest joy of birdwatching is that you so rarely find exactly what you’re looking for. You go out looking for one thing (although I don’t do much in the way of rarity-chasing), and usually find something entirely different, but equally absorbing, and to me that’s exactly what the process of writing a poem is like.
What you say about patience, close observation, and being unobtrusive is certainly true, too. There’s a poem in the new book called Watching Woodcocks that wrestles with that a bit, and I think that thing of trying to merge with the environment, or even to remove myself from it, if only briefly, is probably becoming more and more important in my writing.
Along with celebrations of the variety and mystery of the natural world in your work,
there are also notes of anger at its destruction. How much do you think your poems give an accurate reflection of you and of your concerns? Do you feel poetry is a medium that enables you to express thoughts and emotions that you might otherwise not?
Up to a point, yes, it does, although probably less so with the more ecologically-concerned poems – for the most part they deal with a lot of the same concerns that my writing in my day job does. But poetry can bring those issues and concerns to a whole different set of people. It works the other way, too. I’ve been involved with an organisation called New Networks For Nature, which aims to raise awareness of ecological issues through all sorts of art forms, but also to interest the conservation world in that art. These are issues that I think are of absolutely vital importance, but I suppose it’s a case of poetry helping to get the message over in a gentler, more subtle way – I can save the lectures for my day job!
As far as my poetry giving an accurate reflection of me and my concerns generally, I suppose it depends on the poem. I’ve certainly written plenty that are directly personal, but I do that less and less as I get older. It’s not that I have anything against confessional or directly personal poetry in itself; it’s just that I’m not sure I lead an interesting enough life to provide source material for whole books of it.
One of the strengths of your poems is that they can read and appreciated or enjoyed by a ‘non-poetry’ reading audience. By this I mean they are not obscure or alienating. I’d like to relate this to something Don Patterson said in an interview last year, that poetry has a ‘moral obligation to clarity.’ I wondered what, if anything, this phrase might mean to you, and if the concept of clarity is important in your work?
Well, I have to say I’m not keen on that idea at all – I don’t really think poetry or any other art form has a moral obligation to clarity. Partly, of course, that’s because what’s clear to one person isn’t going to be to another, so you could get into an appalling mess trying to second-guess what every individual reader will bring to your work. In terms of subject matter, every poet’s going to have their own interests, obsessions, even, and to me part of the pleasure of reading poetry is that they take you into their own world and allow you to discover it in your own way. I worry at times that the sheer amount of natural history in my own poems will put readers off, especially without explanation, but in my better moments I suppose I hope that the poems will engage them with that subject matter in a way that purely factual writing can’t.
There’s also the fact that it IS an art form, after all. We don’t expect clarity from music, for example, so I’m not sure why poetry should be any different. Surely it can be enjoyed for its own sake (sometimes, at least), rather than with the intention of ‘getting it’?
That said, I’m no fan of obscurity for its own sake, or poetry that sets out to be a puzzle that the reader has to solve. I think that’s one of the things that puts casual readers off poetry, from both sides of the mainstream/alternative divide, that expectation that they’re going to be asked to explain it. That probably goes back to the way it’s taught in school, though.
Thank you Matt.
Three poems from The Elephant Tests
Watching Woodcocks, 25.4.10
The birdwatcher’s problem becomes the poet’s.
How to remain within the frame, yet unobserved,
how to frame something that is in a moment
more bat than bird,
more branch than bat,
more leaf-mould than branch.
How to sift countless stories;
a bird witlesse enough to be trodden on
yet capable of carrying its young
away from danger on its back, a bird
that escapes the dog days
by flying to the moon.
How to use that prized pin-feather;
for fishing-flies, for fans, for removing
motes from eyes. In ancient China,
for stimulating the clitoris.
For painting woodcocks
flickering at the edge of vision.
How to make yourself
more camera than birdwatcher or poet
before you are gone
into the black bead of its eye.
Each is an infinite number of forests.
To move your position a matter of inches
is enough to remake what moments before
seemed immutable, to bring to brief focus
what is simultaneously past, present and future,
boneyard, nursery, pleasuredome and larder
according to need or fancy. Boundaries
between them remain imperceptible –
a slight change in the gravity of air, a scintilla
less moisture reaching the sun-starved floor,
and a different subspecies of pandanus, maybe,
or a whole new genus of ant, or hoverfly.
To go on is to step inside the sky, to imagine yourself
closer to heaven, to see past the seedpods,
the new growth, the whitened deadwood skeletons
to a sense of lives moving beyond lives.
Black-throated Diver, Lochindorb
sky hung heavy on hills
black with last year’s heather
sky sprung with the drip-
drip of meadow pipit fright-music
sky groaning under the wind-worried
weight of cloud
the bird is here somewhere
is nowhere then
is a head held high
in the troughs between each swell
is one sleek perfected thought
there and then not there
Watching Woodcocks first appeared in Birdbook 1 published by Sidekick Books.