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An Interview with Matthew Welton: On his new collection, collaboration and the making of the Frank O’Hara opera... August 2009 Podcast 4, Series 1 Length: 18:09 mins File Size: 8.31 MB

We needed coffee but we’d got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we retuned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle sound of the wind.

A Poetry Book Society Recommendation Published in July 2009 by Carcanet Press Carcanet Press Ltd, Alliance House, 30 Cross Street, Manchester M2 7AQ, United Kingdom

website: www.carcanet.co.uk

phone: +44 (0)161 834 8730

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Introduction: Matthew Welton was born in Nottingham, lives in Manchester and has published two poetry collections, with Carcanet. His first collection The Book of Matthew (2003), was a Guardian Book of the Year and won the Jerwood-Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. He was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2004 and was awarded a Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowship in 2008. He lectures in creative writing at the University of Bolton.

The 101-word title

Narrator: First of all, can you talk about what made you decide on your unusual 101-word title? Matthew Welton: One reason I came up with this 101-word title, was, if you follow my logic, that I really didn’t want it to have a 101-word title. Basically, when I published my first book, I had a couple of very lengthy editorial sessions at Carcanet with Michael. We went through the manuscript in great detail, and there were things that he didn’t like that he asked me to change, and if I could justify what they were doing there, he would keep them... If my explanation wasn’t good enough for him, then I would end up changing it or dropping it from the book. There were a number of things that were negotiating chips. We did a bit of deal making as we went along. What I figured would happen was, there would be absolutely no way that that Michael would like a 101-word title. So, I figured if I put it in there it would be a hostage to fortune that I could use in the horse trading process. So when he said, ‘you are going to have lose the title’, I could make like I was really sad to be losing something... And I would say, if I’m going to lose that then you would have to agree to X,Y or Z. And I was really expecting Michael to say that you can’t have that 101-word title, and then I would say that I was very sorry to lose it — a bargaining counter — but I gave it to Michael and he said ‘Brilliant! A colophonic title... Just like in the old days, 200 years ago, when people used to have titles that were actually descriptions of the contents of the book and would take up an entire page’. So, he called my bluff and cornered me really...

On the differences between the first and second collection

Narrator: Your first collection The Book of Matthew was described as playful, witty and irresistibly memorable, and the title poem borrows its structure from Roget’s Thesaurus to spin thirty-nine variations on sounds, images, and rhythms. Your new collection is described as audacious, mischievous, even outrageous. Can you talk about how your work has developed since your first publication? Matthew Welton: When I was writing my first book I think I was trying to test myself or prove something to myself and there were all kinds of things I was obviously learning to do as I went along. I’m always trying to do things I’ve not seen before. But also, I think the first time around I was trying to do a lot of things that were challenges to myself — never writing in the first person, or trying to write, say, using iambic rhythms that didn’t sound like they were thudding like a man with a wooden leg or something... And this time, I wanted to do some looser things. Often the challenges came about from working with other people. So, for example, the sequence Four-letter words;

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all of the words in that poem are made up of four letters, but that began as a musical collaboration, as a song cycle that I wrote with the music composer Larry Goves. We came upon that as a collaborative idea from sitting down drinking coffee for a very long day. We said, ‘If we are going to work together then it is going to be this and it is going to be this... ’ You know like in those war films where you have generals pushing things around a map of Europe... we would be setting up all of these imperatives and so on: ‘I’m going to do this’, etc. We were trying to collaboratively outmanoeuvre each other, if there is such a thing. He was using all these chord clusters that had some resemblance to four letter words, musically. That is something that I wouldn’t have arrived at if I had just done it on my own. I am very interested in those kind of imperatives, those kind of strategic approaches but I reckon there is no way I would have come up with that particular one... Similarly, something like the Japan and South Korea 2002 sequence which is based on the structure of the World Cup of that year, was something I did with a painter called Clare Bleakley who was obsessed with football and football stadiums. So, that poem ended up having one sentence written per match of the World Cup tournament. That was following her imperatives, and there was something somewhere involving using a dictionary in quite a systematic way. Those are my responses to challenges set by other people. It was really nice to be doing something without thinking: ‘I’m going to write this and try to put it in Poetry Review or Stand or PN Review or any of those places. It was all to do with there being a different audience for words that wasn’t necessarily reading the poetry magazines. The first time I wrote a book, I spent a lot of time looking at what was in other people’s books. There was always that acknowledgements page saying ‘These poems appeared in...’ and would list twenty poetry magazines... And to an extent, I wanted to do that the first time around, but the second time around I thought, ‘I am not interested in that anymore’. Narrator: So your second book contains several of your collaborations with artists working in different artistic mediums (music and visual art, for example). When you came to include these pieces in the new book, was there a sense of having to alter or refit them to make them work as poems on the page? Or did you want to keep the integrity of the collaborations by leaving them unchanged? Matthew Welton: That’s a great question, but no, not at all. It’s not so much the integrity of the original in terms of it being a record of the collaboration, but even if I was writing something that wasn’t a poem in

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fax: +44(0)161 832 0084

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the first place — it was meant to be textual art or a song lyric or something — I try to make it water tight. I try not to let it fray. And so I felt that they, to extend the metaphor, did hold water, could work in different contexts... I hope. I am not specifically writing to cater to different audiences, but I am aware when I write something that I need to be doing something with the vocabulary, with the sentence structure, with the rhythms within the lines, between the lines, between stanzas. There are all kinds of things that are going on, when you put words together, that are inescapable. So to some extent you have got to be aware of the word histories, whether that is pure etymology or whether that is what you are alluding to, i.e. things that other people have written. I think language is, at best, the best fit approximation of what goes on in life... It is like having a picture that is quite crudely pixelated and obviously you try and make it look as smooth an and un-technical as possible, which is the game. The technical side is inescapable while at the same time, [I'm trying to] not look like I'm doing it too studiously... wearing it lightly if I can. Narrator: You’ve mentioned language and word history as playing a part in your poetry. Are there other influences such as writers or artists that have informed your work? Matthew Welton: Yeah, a changing raft of influences every time. There are certainly times when I‘m trying to imitate. For example, Four-letter words was written as a set of songs. There is a big section in that of made up words, where we began with twenty of the most common four letter swear words that we could think of and we made anagrams of all of those swear words, so to speak. That was certainly influenced by some of the songs that the composer György Ligeti wrote, where he is using convoluted language because that is the only thing equal to the music he was trying to write. I just thought it would be very interesting to try and make a language that was purely there for the music of a specific song. I think it does a job. Obviously it doesn’t make denotative sense, but maybe that is not what is about anyway... For some of the schematic things, I was certainly paying heed to some of the writers from the Oulipo group like Raymond Queneau or Harry Mathews. Although I think with a lot of those writers, they are more successful at concealing the seams, whereas I think it is often quite clear if there is an imperative that has dictated something I’ve written. Who else? Raymond Roussel is fascinating, isn’t he? My other long term collaborator is an artist/curator Chris Evans who works a lot in sculpture parks. He was doing this project, a book called Magnetic Promenade and Other Sculpture Parks. He asked me to write something for it and as a starting point he said, ‘why don’t you look at the Locus Solus by Roussel’, which is a novel from about 100 years ago about a guided tour around a sculpture park. I’ve only read it in the translation (my French isn’t up to reading novels by Roussel in the original), which doesn’t translate the ploy which is used, which is that apparently he has this homophonic thing going on with every sentence. So that in each sentence there will be a word that rhymes with something in the next sentence... [and so on]. And that way there is a method of procedure... I also read that book by Roussel called How I wrote certain of my books, which is published by Exact Change. That is where Roussel describes that method, which I needed to read because it is not clear from reading the English translation in the John Calder edition. The poem that I wrote for that was called ‘I must say that at first it was difficult work’, and I twisted the imperative a little bit and I wrote 36 sentences which roughly rhyme with that. So off the top of my head... The messiah was the worst for discussing the waitresses The mercedes is hers but she drives in reverse The music station in Amherst was affected the worst The rehearsals resumed with indifferent music... That kind of idea. Who else was I interested in? When it by Inger Christensen came out a few years ago in English translation for the first time, that really spoke to me because she is a poet who could do incredibly formal things, very much of her own devising, but yet [the poems] were certainly not stilted or stunted by the imperative. It is very interesting because the cliché

Carcanet Press Ltd, Alliance House, 30 Cross Street, Manchester M2 7AQ, United Kingdom

website: www.carcanet.co.uk

phone: +44 (0)161 834 8730

fax: +44(0)161 832 0084

email: info@carcanet.co.uk


is that it is meant to be male writers who do all of the formal, procedural, structural type stuff, and female writers who leap from the soul, as such. I think that as a generalisation, that is absolutely pure evil. And as I’ve already said, I think that however you are looking at language, it doesn’t work like that. A great counter to that is someone like Inger Christensen who writes this erudite, beautiful, smart, emotional, intelligent, formal, late modernist poetry... Narrator: Your new collection is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2009. How do you feel about it? Matthew Welton: It’s really nice that it should come even before the book came out! I think, when my first book came out, the buzz was afterwards because there were reviews coming in, and all of that was very new to me. This time, I think I was aware at some point that reviews would happen, and that people would react to the book, [but] I was really not expecting there to be a reaction two or three months before it came out. So, when I heard the Poetry Book Society had chosen it for one of their autumn recommendations, it felt like a very good start to the life of the book. The Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowship Narrator: In 2008 you were awarded a Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowship with the composer Larry Goves, who you have worked with on numerous collaborative projects. In what direction is this project is taking your writing? Matthew Welton: It is another chapter in this collaborative thing. If this book marks my acknowledging that one thing I always wanted to do in creative endeavours... my priority wasn’t only to write poems for the rest of my life, but to find the tools through which I could meet people and find things to work on. I was never very good with a paintbrush or a camera, or as a musician or any of those kind of things, but I didn’t think that was any reason why I shouldn’t as a writer get into areas where it was more natural to collaborate. The common view of the writer is that they’re a solipsist or an autocrat or something and you go off to your garret or wherever it is, until your book comes out. So, I’d collaborated with Larry Goves on three or four things of different kinds like spoken word, or song cycles, things that have been written for me to perform with his ensemble the House of Bedlam, or other groups like Psappha, things that have been written for orchestras and chamber ensembles. He was always keen to do an opera, and I was like... ‘Ahhh, you’ll never get me up in one of those!’ He kept asking and I kept saying no, until eventually he had this idea that we should do something loosely drawing on the poetry of Frank O’Hara. Not using Frank O’Hara’s poems but using kind of imitations. And presenting something certainly not over biographical... We think of O’Hara as someone who tells his life through his poems. Obviously there is more to it than that; there is a certain angle, there is some spin when you write what you’ve been doing between one and two in the afternoon and put it into a poem. We were very interested in the film 32 Short Films about Glen Gould, which has some acted scenes which are based on Glen Gould’s life, but also recordings of his music, interviews with people who played with him, animations, and things that are like pop videos. We thought if we could do something drawing on O’Hara that wasn’t really a narrative but painted him as a curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and as a member of the New York School and as the author of all of those ‘I do those I do that’ poems that begin in Lunch Poems... then there would be some fun to be had. So, I’m spending most of this year wrecking my head trying to do that. It is proving to be really hard to do! It is a more extended, more multi-dimensional project than anything I’ve ever done before, but it’s heading in the right direction. It has taken me three or four months solidly working on it to find how to like it. I think I began by doing the first section and threw myself into that, and then I didn’t know where to go. I’ve worked out that as with a shorter poem that I might write, I can do a bit here and a bit there, and get the bearing of the whole as I progress rather than doing it in a more linear fashion. We are writing it for Aldeburgh music, part of something called the Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowship. They have five fellowships running all at once. I suppose they also know that there are as many ways of writing an opera as there are

Carcanet Press Ltd, Alliance House, 30 Cross Street, Manchester M2 7AQ, United Kingdom

website: www.carcanet.co.uk

phone: +44 (0)161 834 8730

fax: +44(0)161 832 0084

email: info@carcanet.co.uk


operas. Notionally we have 24 months to do it in. Once we deliver a bit to them they’re going to give us a workshop. Then they have to get a pile of conductors, directors, set designers, musicians, singers, etc in the same room... Perhaps they are enjoying not having that headache just yet! Narrator: Matthew Welton’s new collection ‘We needed coffee but...’, priced £9.95, is available from the Carcanet website, Amazon and all major bookshops. His poem ‘Springtime’, set to music by the composer Larry Goves, is now available on CD in the London Sinfonietta’s Jerwood Series from London Sinfonietta's website.

Related Carcanet Books ‘We Needed Coffee but...’ by Matthew Welton The Book of Matthew by Matthew Welton it by Inger Christiansen Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara Why I’m Not a Painter and other poems by Frank O’Hara, edited by Mark Ford The New York Poets: an anthology edited by Mark Ford (With works by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler)

Related Links London Sinfonietta Aldeburgh-Jerwood Writing Fellowships 32 Short Films about Glen Gould ‘Four-letter words’ webcast composition by Larry Goves, lyrics by Matthew Welton The House of Bedlam performs electronic and instrumental music with spoken word

Further Reading Magnetic Promenade and Other Sculpture Parks by Chris Evans Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel How I wrote certain of my books by Raymond Roussel (Exact Change)

* Please note the podcast script is summarised Photo Credit: Dominic Chennell Narrator/Producer: Eileen Pun Transcript edited by: Eleanor Crawforth Carcanet Press, September 2009

Carcanet Press Ltd, Alliance House, 30 Cross Street, Manchester M2 7AQ, United Kingdom

website: www.carcanet.co.uk

phone: +44 (0)161 834 8730

fax: +44(0)161 832 0084

email: info@carcanet.co.uk

Carcanet podcast 4: Matthew Welton on his new collection, collaboration & the Frank O'Hara opera  

* Matthew Welton on his new Carcanet collection, 'We needed coffee but...' (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation), and his current project,...

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