Under the Poetic Influence
The poetry world this week said farewell to one of my first poetic influences, Matthew Sweeney.
Matthew Gerard Sweeney
6 October 1952
Lifford, County Donegal
5 August 2018 (aged 65)
Cork University Hospital
Clonmany New Cemetery, County Donegal
(from the Wikipedia page on Matthew Sweeney)
Tributes have been paid to poet Matthew Sweeney, who has died aged 66. The Lifford, Co Donegal-born poet, who lived in Cork, had motor neurone disease.
He had launched his most recent collection of poetry, My Life as a Painter, in April at the Cork World Book Fest.
He was a member of Aosdána, which honours outstanding contributions to the creative arts.
A prolific writer, he had published numerous collections of poetry, including Inquisition Lane (2015) and Horse Music (2013).
Other collections included The Night Post: A Selection (Salt, 2010) and Black Moon (Jonathan Cape, 2007), which was shortlisted for both the TS Eliot Prize and for The Irish Times Poetry Now Award.
He also co-wrote a satirical thriller, Death Comes for the Poets (2012), set in the world of contemporary poetry, along with English poet John Hartley Williams.
He moved to Cork after living in London, Berlin and Timisoara in Romania. A graduate of the Polytechnic of North London and the University of Freiburg, he was writer in residence at UCC from 2012-2013.
Poet Theo Dorgan described him as “one of the finest poets of his generation, a craftsman of the highest achievement, with a distinct music all his own”.
(from the obituary by Marie O'Halloran in The Irish Times)
Blue Suede Shoes
I have very precise memories of the first four books of poetry I owned, three of which have been mentioned a few times in these blog posts. First was Sir Walter Scott’s The Lord of the Isles, bought for 2p from a jumble sale at my junior school; second and third were related to my A-Level English class, The Poems of Thomas Hardy and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems. The latter two were my first influences — I spent two years trying to write poetry with Hardy’s gloomy perspective on life. Then came Blue Shoes by Matthew Sweeney.
Blue shoes was a present from my parents. They knew I was enjoying the poetry I was studying and that I'd started writing my own, and so they picked out Blue Shoes for me. Goodness knows why they picked that particular book from the poetry section of whichever bookshop in Harrogate it was but I am very glad they did.
Blue Shoes was published by Secker & Warburg in 1989. They purchased it as a signed copy and I loved the tone and shape of the poems. I guess it was more pamphlet-sized than a full collection, but there was such beauty in its mien. I remember most of the poems fitting on one page and, I suspect, this still subconsciously influences me — my poems are often short and they don't feel finished until I've extracted only the essential core.
The second book of poems by Matthew Sweeney that I owned was one I bought myself. Cacti, again published by Secker & Warburg in 1992, by which time I was a student in Swansea studying chemistry of all things. all the things I loved about Blue Shoes were present in Cacti too
Meeting the Poet
In the mid-1990s there weren't many jobs being advertised for chemistry students who really wanted to work in poetry, which meant I stayed in Swansea twiddling my thumbs for a few more years after graduation. In 1995 Swansea was the host city for the UK Year of Literature and one of the artists who came to read was none other than Matthew Sweeney. I have no recollection of which poems he read, but I do vividly remember going up to chat to him after the event. He signed my unsigned copy of Cacti and my previously-signed copy of Blue Shoes for a second time, adding the comment, ‘Your first book!’. Matthew asked me if I wrote poetry myself and I answered that I did ... apart from a couple of friends and my family that was the first time I'd told anybody that I was a poet!
Following in the Footsteps
This was now the second half of the 1990s and the internet was not yet widely used. I had access through the computer labs on the university campus, and managed to track down the address of Matthew’s publisher, Secker & Warburg. I didn't own my own computer but I did have a word processor which I'd used to write up my chemistry degree final project. I had typed up all of my poems as I wrote them, so I collected what felt like the right number for a collection, printed them out and used one of those plastic binding things that slide up the long edge of the pages, and then I sent them off to Secker & Warburg. I had no idea about having a track record in poetry magazines so I just thought a good cover letter was all that was needed to interest a publisher in my work. I can think of many publishers who wouldn't even bother to reply to such a speculative submission, but the lovely people at Secker & Warburg wrote me back, explaining that they didn't publish unsolicited manuscripts, and they returned my manuscript to me too.
The Continuing Influence
On YouTube there is a video where
Neil Astley filmed Matthew Sweeney reading a selection of poems from the book [Horse Music] at his home in Cork in February 2012. Here he reads six poems: 'Horse Music', 'Fans', 'The Tunnel', 'Sunday Morning', 'The Slow Story of No' and 'Booty'.
Matthew Sweeney's work is used in this film with the permission of his publishers, Bloodaxe Books.
On the creative writing MA course I will be starting in October, Horse Music is one of the books that we will be reading. a tingle traversed my spine at the realisation that I'd be able to connect with the poetry of Matthew Sweeney again in Swansea, even if sadly not with the poet himself.
The Colour of a Poem
The very first poem by Matthew that really caught my imagination was The Colour of Telephones, from Blue Shoes. I still possess both of my Matthew Sweeney books but, sadly since I'm no longer able to read the text and haven't found any of the poems online, they have been lost to me ever since I lost my sight. Grasping at straws I found an electronic copy of the Selected Poems of Matthew Sweeney available from Kobo. These are not free downloads and their books are usually in one of the Digital Rights Management protected formats, so I'm pretty sure they are legit ... and in the hope that The Colour of Telephones might be in the Selected Poems book from 2002, I made my purchase ... and was delighted to discover it was one of the contents :)
Selected Poems by Matthew Sweeney
Representing the best of ten books and twenty years' work, Matthew Sweeney's Selected Poems is a magical mystery tour into his strange, unsettling world. Readers familiar with his poetry will be used to being led astray by his cordial, confiding wit, ambushed by his sinister twists, taken in by his intimate, untrustworthy narrators. Those who are coming to the work for the first time may feel a measure of alarm and disquiet at the way the poems shift - almost without your noticing - from a fireside chat to a tale of terror, from the commonplace to the hallucinatory, from the surprisingly real to the really surprising. These are the secret, spiky narratives from the arch story-teller, the mixer of hilarity and menace, the past-master of fractured realism. The world would be a poorer place without these oblique but oddly lucid poems from Matthew Sweeney's haunted imagination.
(from the synopsis to Selected Poems)
I'll end with that poem but first let me share the title poem from my pamphlet, Dressing Up which I intentionally tried to resonate with The Colour of Telephones by Matthew Sweeney. This is my rendition of Dressing Up at the Abergavenny Writing Festival back in April 2018.
THE COLOUR OF TELEPHONES
What colour is your telephone?
Is it blue, like mine –
blue in a blue-painted room
where the sun, at dawn,
comes down the stairs
from the roof-garden?
The colour is more important
than you may realise. Did you
send back a beige phone,
like I did, or is beige
your colour, your everyday?
After the maze of connection,
through subterranean tunnels,
it’s essential to visualise
the person you speak to,
not just fix on a voice,
and the colour of the receiver
held to a mouth and ear
is a necessary detail,
as necessary as hairstyle.
You should give it to friends
when you give the number,
should keep it from strangers.
When you inherit a phone,
change the colour –
it’s your personality, your secret,
a secret you should share.
#MatthewSweeney #Secker&Warburg #Deaths #Telephones @MarieOHalloran2 @IrishTimesCultr