Angel C. Dye asks the questions
So the last time we spoke, you were getting all excited for the Vicar’s Picnic festival. How was that?
It’s a fantastic festival. They call it the biggest little festival in Kent. And it’s true; it combined the feel of a big festival with the intimate family atmosphere. A group of people who failed to get Glastonbury tickets a few years ago went to the pub to console themselves and ended up forming their own festival. I performed at it last year and enjoyed it very much. So I was delighted to be invited back. In fact I think I invited myself! It has got bigger every year and I think there were some 3,500 there this year.
I hear you were thrust into the limelight on the last night?
Indeed. This year we were given a bigger and better stage for poetry but in retrospect its physical location was a challenge. To increase footfall and momentum we dispensed with the timetable and kept rolling. That helped; the only problem was that we wrong-footed the festival director who was just about to announce my ‘headline’ set, only to find out I’d already done it! So he whisked me off to the main stage to perform ‘We Are Thousands,’ the last of my three promo films, instead.
How did that go?
There are a few tub-thumping lines in that poem which really worked in that context. Obviously I hadn’t written them with that unexpected moment in mind, so I got very lucky there.
In another interview you said you wanted 3,000 people to have your words on their lips. And there were about 3,500 people at the Vicar’s Picnic. Tick! Dream achieved.
Well, I really just meant that I wanted more people to hear my stuff. We all want that. But, yes, it’s funny in the light of Vicar’s Picnic that I had plucked that particular number out of the air. Look, I won’t pretend for one minute that the festival crowd left with my words on their lips. They were waiting for the Fratellis, not me! But they cheered, individuals commented favourably afterwards, and the festival director who took the gamble of putting me up there said I hadn’t let him down. So I think it worked. From my own perspective, I just loved it.
Now give us a potted history of Matt Chamberlain.
What’s a potted history?
Your life in a capsule?
I was brought up in Lancashire, went to University in north Wales, lived in London for a bit, then moved to Kent about ten years ago. I was always good with language but didn’t think I could be a writer until three or four years ago when a strange set of circumstances arose.
Oh, do tell.
Well, the short version is that I lost a friend at a time when health scares and deaths were circling around me. Fed up, on a train, I started scribbling poetry and one thing led to another.
Aw, I am sorry you had all those horrid things collide but trains are the writer’s new birth canal don’t you know?
What a lovely poetic thought. Pass me a mop.
Here you are! So you are a well-travelled man. Does Kent offer you anything different?
Well, Medway (where I live) has a DIY feel where art is concerned. People get up and do it without permission and they appreciate each other for doing it. The rest of Kent has plenty going on too, by the way. Faversham I hear is getting a bit of a kick soon.
Where else can people hear you perform this year?
I have been concentrating a bit more on writing and a bit less on performing, so the diary is not full of gigs. But I’m going to show my funny little face a bit more. I love Chatham’s Roundabout Nights; I’ve not been nearly often enough to Inspirational Nights (also Chatham); Clea Llewellyn’s Sun Pier House nights have made a comeback; Olby’s in Margate is one I enjoyed recently and would like to get back to; I’ve got my beady eye on London and Gravesend. I recently did the Canterbury fringe and hope to be invited back. And I am really looking forward to your ‘Wanted Dead or Alive Poets’ series in Faversham. As you know, I was supposed to do the first one – on Plath – but can’t make the date. I certainly look forward to subsequent nights. I think the philosophy behind them is great. I think you are challenging us all to do different things.
Thank you. Yes, we all need to be authentic and unique and we all are, but I think it never hurts to be wiggled a bit in the comfort zone. Some will love it, some won’t. And for those that are responding right now, I am really pleased at how people are using classics to spin off new ways of thinking and writing. Going to miss you as spotlight act, though. I was really intrigued as to how you were going to surprise us.
And then you surprised me instead, by moving the date! It’s a conspiracy! In actual fact, you have in Jon Terranova a serious Plath lover. He will go down a storm. He’s a cripplingly intense yet beautifully warm poet simultaneously. And a lovely man. I’m sorry I’ll miss his performance. Would you film it and send it to me in the Bahamas?
Is that ‘Up North?’ Yep will do. I can’t wait to hear him. He has created all new material for the night. Ssh… don’t tell him, but he was my inspiration for the project. Which is your favourite of poems/ books you have written?
Lowering Awareness is the best of my three ‘solo’ books by a mile. It isn’t perfect but I think it’s obvious the writer slowed down, thought about it, applied a bit of quality control. You can always improve but I am proud of that collection. But then there’s another book – a collaboration – and I feel sure you’re just about to ask me about that. . . [Matt crosses his fingers like a hammy actor]
Haha! So . . . Your new book, created with Spreken . . . One Man’s Trash has just been published. Please tell us more.
Well, thank you. What a pleasant surprise to be asked about that! One Man’s Trash intends to be a little nugget of positivity wrung out of mouldy dishcloths abandoned in dark corners; two poets-in-a-pickle writing themselves and each other into more interesting places. The basic concept was to take a dull photograph and see some beauty in it. Early purchasers are saying nice things about it so perhaps we pulled it off. But, to be frank, even if everyone hated it, we’d both still say that we are uplifted and improved as writers as a result of the project. Can I say what a great collaborator Spreken has been? An excellent writer with a no-nonsense approach. When the project first got underway, a friend said to me flatly ‘You’ve picked a good ‘un there.’ He was right.
How did it feel to use the word ‘shit’ in a poem?
Did I? Ooh, aren’t I edgy?
You balanced it beautifully. I adore the one about all the loving hearts involved in making mess in a kitchen. I will call on you when mine has been trashed.
I performed that one recently at Woodville Halls,Gravesend by the way. Ha! You haven’t got my number.
I will find a way. So where can we get our hands on One Man’s Trash?
You can visit the website of the publisher, the marvellous award-winning Wordsmithery. These people have buttons you can click on. Or you can collar Spreken or me. Whichever way you choose, our gratitude is a given.
Hmm if you send my mum a free copy,would you like to headline on September 19th at Wanted Dead or Alive Poetry Nights? You will need to do a set inspired by Auden.
Really, I would love to do a set. A great challenge. I will try to do the theme justice. Thank you very much.
You are welcome. I think a lot of your poems could fit.A pigeon in a park told me you have been practicing villanelles. Any more projects in the pipeline?
Just germs of ideas. And most germs get sniffed out into a tissue. I prefer to be on the last lap of something before I own up to it. I am doing some party events as a private poet. People like that. Someone to entertain the guests with a poetry performance post dinner Lets the host off the hook.
Is one of these germs pinning itself to a goldfish?
Have you been spying on me?
Yes, of course I have! That’s what good journalists do.
Don’t they just? Yes, ‘pin me to the goldfish’ is the working title of the next solo book. People who attend Chatham’s wonderful Roundabout Nights might get the private joke. Anyway it’ll be a little while before this book sees the light of day. I find you have to write them first.
Yes! I have about 130 working titles and ideas for poems at the moment!
Well, don’t just sit there. Go and hammer them onto a page. I want a first draft on my desk by the end of next week.
I believe you may have more tricks up your sleeve, or are they hush hush for now?
Ah, you may have seen me pondering but that’s not a reliable guide. As I say, I need to be fairly well advanced before I’ll start revealing. I had a friend once who was constantly announcing his dreams and ambitions. At first I found it inspiring but quickly I realised that he spent most of his life explaining why he hadn’t done this, that or the other. He sounded like he was constantly making excuses for failure. But in fact he wasn’t failing at all. He was succeeding with one or two modest things at a time, just like most people. But by announcing that you’re going to be an astronaut, barrister, brain surgeon and heavyweight boxing champion, all by next Thursday, you condemn yourself to this life of explaining it away. I just prefer to make sure a thing is right before I show it off.
Good point. I declare to the world what I am doing so then I am compelled to follow through.
I’m not keen on being compelled!
What advice would you give aspiring writers/performers?
Don’t aspire! Just do. After each poem or performance you can look back and identify improvements by all means but avoid planning paralysis. Dreaming and plotting is good but you have to get round to doing it.
I’m a dreamer and plotter. The 16 year old me dreamed big and was put off by a vicar quoting King Solomon: ‘There are too many books in the world!’
Ah, but if we remove those by Jeffrey Archer, that’ll create space for yours.
Ha ha. You have a sore throat, who would be your stand in?
Every poet I know has a more attractive voice than me, so take your pick! But actually I don’t think anyone else on earth can own your emotions can they? I tried to produce an audio-book version of Binge Thinking and, because I couldn’t manage the studio time required for recording them myself, I decided to go for a royalty-share partnership with other narrators. The project remains ‘parked’ because I auditioned a number of people and I just didn’t want any of them. They did nothing wrong. They all had great sonorous voices, not like my thin squeal, and they all read competently enough, but none of them put the emphasis or emotion in what I consider the ‘right’ places.
What else do we have to look forward to?
Donald Trump is only temporary, right?
Yeah, he will be impeached and you will be doing rap at Glastonbury about him.
Prince William is more likely to rap at Glastonbury than I am.
After that Vicar’s Picnic feat, I do not think it will be too far off.
I’m a million miles off!
How are your poems born?
They are conceived in the heart and delivered quietly to avoid waking the maternity ward. But once they take their first breath they bawl for attention. Actually, more seriously, and going back to One Man’s Trash, the process has changed as a result of that project. I look more carefully before I start writing down words. You have to if you’ve been ordered to write about a bin big or a rotten apple! Also, the influence of another poet alters your ‘voice’ as well as your process. Spreken has said that my wide-open unguardedness influenced her and I am clear that her more metaphorical approach has changed and improved me.
Which poem would you read/ quote if you were to be executed at dawn?
I might find myself repeating “little body, do not die” from John Betjeman.
What is your desk like?
Immaculate. Tidy desk, tidy mind. Or maybe it’s empty desk, empty mind. Either way, you could eat your supper off my desk. But please don’t.
What sort of music would your poems be set to?
Err, I really don’t know. Any ideas?
I think Marc Almond would have to sing some of the more tragic or voyeuristic ones such as ‘I Can’t Look’.
Yes, I’m ok with that.
What lives in the spaces between your poems?
Supreme confidence and serious self-limitation. I don’t say that at all facetiously. It’s true. There’s a confidence but also extreme caution. Those two things really need to do some kind of deal eventually or I will go dizzy. But, for now, they have this running battle and nobody is sure who is in the ascendency this week. It’s like Mike Baldwin versus Ken Barlow.
Do your poems talk to each other?
No. They lead quite separate lives. Each one is a self-contained thing; a little dig at (or occasionally tribute to) the world. They are pretty curmudgeonly things except after a couple of drinks when they let their hair down. Like me.
I do not believe you. The poems tell a story, they do link, themes run through. By throwing them all together, you create an alchemy you did not expect.
You may be right. I haven’t analysed them in that way – the writer is possibly distracted by the actual subject matter while the hearer can step back.
I think poems come alive according to what is in a reader’s heart. They awaken to particular calls or need.
Yes. The hearer/ reader sort of takes ownership of your work. You hand it over to them. You still own the freehold, but they choose their own décor.
You begin with a self-portrait where you are happy to be you and end with one where you are not. Did the book take you on any journey of self-discovery?
Actually, you’re mistaken there. The final poem does not say I don’t want to be me. It says I want to possess no name. Not the same thing.
Names take away identity though. Or perhaps a person can be freer without one. What do you write about?
I started out writing mostly about people and relationships. Especially difficult ones. Then I had a phase of writing about the physical landscape. Recently, through the One Man’s Trash project, I’ve been writing about slithers of beauty within mundane or unpleasant or anonymous things. I suppose the common thread in all of the above is that it’s a focus on small things.
Are there recurring themes, aspects you revisit?
I think I’d say injustice. And love, obviously. Everything is about love or the absence of it, yearning for it, enjoyment of it, need for it, rejection of it, abuse of it, or whatever. But injustice is a slightly less obvious but very important theme for me. Again, I’m going small on this though. I don’t step back and observe the gigantic injustices in global politics etc – not because they don’t matter, but because my instrument doesn’t quite manage that note. Other people say brilliant things about them but, temperamentally, I tend to see the injustice in people’s interactions far more vividly. It sounds flippant to say that a governmental assault on defenceless people doesn’t plunge as deeply into my flesh as someone being deliberately disingenuous, but I’m afraid it’s true. I’m not so proud of that, actually.
Would it be true to say that injustices are still explored in One Man’s Trash but now they are given a new hue, i.e. the conclusion is that there is beauty in everything?
Good thought. I’d thought it was more about squeezing beauty out of the bland rather than the unjust. But, thinking about it, I suppose I did take on racists in United Circle and Spreken did have a good old swing at oppressors in Missing the Point. Well spotted!
So is poetry relevant today?
I’ve always struggled with that sense of the word ‘relevance.’ It seems to be used as a synonym for ‘popularity’ or ‘suitability.’ Poetry isn’t the most popular art form but it works for some people sometimes and not for other people at other times. I don’t think relevance is very often relevant!
What are you reading currently?
Zack Davies’s poetry collection entitled ‘ Let the big fish swim.’ I bought and read it last year but have just picked it up again. He is observant, warm, vicious, serious and hilarious all at the same time. Zack, I mean, not his big fish.
Viciously warm. I am intrigued.
He really is. He makes me laugh out loud, nod in solidarity, and feel like I am in on his clever jokes. Yet he exposes vanity so ruthlessly that I’m simultaneously slightly wary. Not of him, but of my own conceit. He’s an exceptionally clever poet.
Describe yourself in two poetic lines.
‘I own this face’s simple smiles, which bubble up at sparrow squabbles, and I only rent corrosive heartburn tears.’ That’s from ‘I am this man’ by a bloke called Matt Chamberlain.
That is cheating! Now, off the cuff in 5 words.
If I could do poetry off the cuff I’d be Ian McMillan!
You may have to as an after- diinner poet! Ok. If you weren’t a poet you would be..?
I’d be me but without any poetry.
I could never imagine a Matt with no poetry. Like a teddy with no stuffing.
I have too much stuffing.
Could you be a radio poet? Tell us about the new CD ‘Our words on your lips’.
Ten Kent-based poets each recorded two poems under the expert tutelage of Lenny Bunn. I think he started out thinking of it as a social experiment but as the recording and editing and mastering etc has progressed, you can see these poets and their voices sort of getting under the skin of a bloke who normally works with musicians. It was fascinating to watch him in the control room. We’ll wait and see what market there is for the CD but, in any case, it was a joy to do.
I really look forward to it. I am giggling at the thought of you as a social experiment.
Can poetry change lives?
Yes. But then again everything probably changes your life somehow. For me, poetry has changed the way I see things, definitely.
Do your poems make you cry when you write/ reread them?
Only the comedy ones. That’s a joke. Are you crying now? Yes, some poetry makes me cry. More often it produces a less visible sense of melancholy which is a much more powerful state of mind than actual crying. But I do feel helped by bringing sadness or anger or longing to the surface, exploring it, revelling in the language of it.
Who is boss? You or the poem?
I quite like the concept of servant-leadership so I suppose the answer to that question is : both!
Do you have any rituals around creating poems?
Oh you must. That is sad. Aren’t you meant to be in a garret singing to starlings and the like? I have to have the right pen, it has to be ‘the one.’ It will take me ages to pick it, oh, and a gilt inlaid very expensive notebook and then it is too perfect to write in. I jot all my themes, ideas in a bit of pebble dash on the page and build a skeleton, then flesh him and dress him, then strip him back down to pared bone and then layer him up again with skinny sub threads, and there is usually wine, and cheese and chorizo. And I am usually in gorgeous cafes or beaches or alone at 3 a.m. looking at the stars.
Oh, you are a proper poet then if you have the right pen.
Definitely. There must be something. You can’t write in a vacuum, or in the loo. Well perhaps you do…
Disgusting – interview over!
Diva moment! Are you like the Queen then? Everyone knows she never goes to the loo and wears huge knickers.
Yes, I am very much like the Queen.
What would your epitaph be?
‘Couldn’t be arsed.’
I do not believe it. You have been very productive in the last few years.
Productive. Isn’t that a kind of cough? I suppose you’re right. I have done quite a lot in a fairly short space of time. But that’s because I’m really industrious in bursts. I haven’t always sustained it. I go to ground too easily. And doing a bit less isn’t a bad idea in terms of quality control.
My epitaph will be ‘She made it,’ or ‘…and still they don’t believe me.’
That would require a bigger headstone than mine.
What do you want people to say about your poems?
I like the things people have said already. I’d like more people to say it. People have said the poems express complex emotions simply and accessibly – I like that. People have said they carry powerful thoughts in a gentle or quiet way – I like that. You have said, on the contrary, that those damn poems brutally smash their fists into your heart – I like that too.
Have you had good feedback from One Man’s Trash?
So far, yes.
Erm… less humility please. I need some quotes.
Ok. Well, Mark Holihan called it a “luminous description and gregarious exploration of life’s detritus”. And Setareh Ebrahimi said “there’s a precious fragility about it”. They’re both quite lovely descriptions, aren’t they?
Oh yes. I am savouring my copy. Like top quality chocolate, a daily relishing melt on the tongue as I do not want it to run out. Actually it is exactly the size of a big choccy bar.
But One Man’s Trash won’t melt in your pocket. It has so much going for it.
They are still romance poems, aren’t they, in the sense that finding beauty in bowls of washing up is actually very romantic? That is my favourite one.
Yes, I also think of it as a romantic poetry. But then again I always think that about any writing. I pretend not to because people look down their noses at romantics. But we are what we are.
Oh, so foppish! ‘We are what we are!’ One good bit of feedback I recall used the expression “owning the words”.
Yes, that was high praise from a source I respect greatly.
You do own them, especially in performance. Your inner self is wrenched out on show. You totally inhabit the world you make.
I’m very touched by that description. It’s true that I do feel very wrung-out when I come off stage. Thank you for noticing.
Not your usual compliment is it, ’Oh you look totally wrung out’?
I’ll settle for it. Especially if you say it in Les Dawson’s voice.
What preparation do you do for performing poems?
I do two silent read-throughs just before the gig. The first focuses on the structure, reminding myself where the pauses should go and where harder-to-deliver phrases are. The second, more important, inward rehearsal is picturing the subject matter and really feeling the emotion. You might call it getting into ‘character’.
Are there ghosts of other poets in your work?
No doubt, but I am not very conscious of them.
That is good, to only have subconscious ghosts! You will have to search for traces of Auden in them now. What if you woke up and your poetic heart was stolen?
I’d hold an inquiry, followed by the urgent installation of a new poetry burglar alarm. I’m not sure it’s possible for someone to rob your heart, or your poetry heart. I can imagine the day when I don’t have the heart of a poet anymore but it would be because I’d exhausted the poetry well or I’d been turned off poetry or I had been captivated by something else.
Acting. You can act when the poet blood runs thin. You’d be a great actor with your magical changing face and transformative energy and that physicality.
And will ‘they’ give me money for that?
I am serious.
Are you kidding me? I described you previously as “suffocatingly serious”!
Oh yes, you did. But didn’t we also laugh our heads off?
Ha! No I’m serious about the acting thing. You really should make more of a feature of that plasticine face.
You are not the first person to mistake me for Wayne Rooney, you know! Actually, I am just pondering one or two things in that direction. Not acting as such, but possibly a slightly more theatrical strand. Perhaps. . .
And where can people find you if they want to know more?
Google will know. But what advice do you have for them if they want to know much less?
That is lazy! Save your ‘I can’t be arsed’ stuff till you get home. You’re on my manor now and I want all your Twitter and Facebook and website stuff on here NOW!
Sorry. On Twitter I am @MartinLatchbeam for some mad reason. On Facebook I am Matt Chamberlain Poet. My website is www.mattchamberlainpoe.wix.com/poetry
See? Much easier when you do as you’re told. Matt, thank you.
Thank you too!
One Man’s Trash is available from the authors or www.wordsmithery.info/