Interview with Matthew Caley


Matthew Caley's new pamphlet, Prophecy is Easy, is coming out with BluePrint Press, which follows his collection, Trawlerman's Turquoise. He teaches poetry at Royal Holloway, University of London. He needs no introduction here, his writing expounds on the small details turning them upside down into ideas that distort and transform the everyday world.

A pamphlet, Prophecy is Easy, of some of your loose versions of French Surrealist/Modernist poets is just about to come out from BluePrint Press. How did this work arise? 

Spontaneously. By the usual Jungian chain of co-incidence. 

My most recent and sixth full length collection Trawlerman’s Turquoise had come out end of Sept 2019, and I was doing as many readings as possible - tiny bookshops, big festivals, pubs, weddings, bar mitzvahs, both before and after Yule. I had just finished StAnza 2020 in early March, with more gigs to go, on what I [slightly ironically] dubbed the ‘TrawlerTour’, when Lockdown happened.

I found myself back at the flat, not with any official job at the time, trying to feed the family on Mentoring poets and other odd bits of work, but with more time than is usual, so thought I’d better do something useful with all the excess energy I had saved up from the curtailed gigs. 

Firstly, I got my next full-length collection in first MS form - even though it’s not going to be out for ages yet and will no doubt change, bit by bit, like The Argo, no doubt. I thought this would take a long while but it came together surprisingly quickly. I was ‘in the zone’.

After that, still ‘high’ from touring I fell back on what I’d done occasionally before, started working on ‘loose versions’ of [mainly] French poets. [Three versions from Czech poets are in the current issue of Modern Poetry in Translation]. The first one was from Tristan Corbière - a thing called Marais De Guerande. I was fiddling with the last line when a message pinged onto my screen from Carol Anne Duffy [she’d contacted nearly all the poets there are through their publishers] asking for poems from poets in Lockdown for Manchester Metropolitan’s Write Where You Are Now project. The Corbière thing was perfect - about pestilence and such - so I sent it off by reply and up it went.

This is where you come in. Next day, I grabbed a copy of The Dover Book of French Poets that was lolling un-noticed for years on my shelves and it broke open on an Andre Breton poem called The Marquis De Sade. I just thought- ‘here goes!’ and dived straight in. Three quarters of the way through my version, another message pinged onto my screen, this time from you Tom [!] asking if anyone had any De Sadean poems [unbelievable, as if you were spying on me through my through my computer à la VideoDrome. You’re Debbi Harry]. I sent it and you kindly put it on your website. Done.

From there the thing gained its own momentum. I started doing more, then posting them up on Facebook every few days and a few other people asked for them, including Bill Herbert for his Postcards from Malthusia site, and a couple went into a bigger anthology Pestilence from Lapwing Press Etc. Etc.

It’s sweet to do something without too much thought or design but get that instant return. Usually there’s much more waiting to be done. And especially during the Lockdown period. It was communication. That heightened it.

In a little over two weeks I completed about 40 versions, sometimes four or five a day, just crazy really. Then the pace slowed, then I slowed, then suddenly felt really tired. Then stopped.

Later,  - I recovered quite quicky - Jo Colley got in contact somewhat out of the blue to say that Julie Hogg and herself, who run BluePrint Press, were wondering if I’d like to do a pamphlet with them. BluePrint do little pamphlets from poets ‘in between’ their full-length collections. They’d done a lovely edition of Paul Summer’s poems and illustrations and I thought some of the versions would suit that.

You describe the work as a desecration of the French surrealists, which in some ways mirror the surrealists’ desecration of the biblical and social fabric of their times. What is the desire to poke holes into the structures of the past to find your own way to speak? 

I was probably referring to the amount of violence my very loose versions do to the originals. The rather cavalier approach I took to them, - no ‘research’, taking a part of one poem, a fragment of another, not being particularly bothered with history or context or accuracy. It was meant to be carefree and spontaneous and … well in the Author’s note I say “I would liken the originals to a trampoline off which I jumped to land in the next-door garden. And we don’t have a garden.” As I wasn’t expecting for any of them to go public I was just having a rip-roaring time. The Dover Book I relied on most as my crib was a re-print from the 1950’s so a fairly conservative selection.  I was less interested in poking holes than in the unashamed beauty of much of the work. Our current moment can appear to be so focused on the socio-political it can seem as if ‘beauty’ is some odd, radical category. Their work has a belief in the aesthetic that is hard to come by these days. They were a mix of Modernist and Surrealist poets both I guess, but, as you know, schools and labels aren’t really so fixed, they help historians keep things simple, but really each poet is their own cosmos. But that thing kept happening, that poems written in completely different contexts seemed to be commenting on Lockdown. How much of that is the originals’, how much my take on them, I have no idea, apart from one ‘retro-fitted’ line it wasn’t conscious. I wrote them in a kind of fever. [Sic] [Sic]. But it happened time and time again.

The British poetry scene has a long tradition of drug use which has remained largely unspoken. How do you understand the desire to shift, refocus, disturb and even explode “consciousness” as a part of poetry? 

[ Names, Tom, names! -Wendy Cope and her habitual crack-pipe?. ] Well, between Baudelaire’s ‘artificial paradise’ and Rimbaud’s ‘systematic disordering of the senses’ lies the elusive truth. The ‘disordering of the senses’ might be more ascribed these days to our relationship to the diorama of Late Capitalism rather than drugs. [One can posit say the heroin trade as the purest form of Capitalism - an utterly non-essential product with a built-in return-for-more clause. I’m amazed more Governments haven’t taken it up.] The lure of the simulacra - consumer-advertising and digital media -the virtual realities everyone is addicted to, we sink further and further into a kind of stupefied hyper-reality. So much of our current reality is unhinged I’m not sure how LSD or other things would match it, everything would look the same. The bad trip of Michael Mcintyre’s Big Christmas Show in a box-set say, or a post-Election party at Trump Towers.

Taking any drug is an experience, and everything we ingest alters us somehow, but it’s what you do with any experience that counts. An ineffably boring person can be ineffably boring when they’re straight and still ineffably boring when they’re high. I know, I’ve met them. I reckon Charles and Arthur were interesting totally sober, too. Aldous Huxley and Aleister Crowley and those types of pioneers seem somewhat arcane these days though, as indeed do The Surrealists. But I’m interested in the arcane, the left-behind traces of things, those discredited avenues. They’re full of fervour and pathos.  There’s a poem in one of my books called Quaaludes [a very ‘70’s type of drug] that was written purely because it’s such an extraordinary word. It sounds like a rare sea-bird. You write something like that and people worry you should be in re-hab. But poetry seems largely [with some great exceptions] to display the need to be be very responsible at the moment. Perhaps it needs to be.

Three fav books...? 

Not necessarily Surrealist in the strictest sense at all and not really ‘favourite’ either!---01/ William Burroughs Cities of the Red Night -like De Sade and Bosch fusing Pirates of the Caribbean and noir detective stories in the middle of a sexual plague. A hilariously frightening and awful vision. It saw the AIDS epidemic before it happened. Not sure the moral police would allow a book like this these days.  02/ Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons- better than much of what The Surrealist’s achieved [in my humble opinion]- a kind of pre-L-A-N-G-U-A-G-U-E book. And very funny, too. Utterly contemporary. 03/ Peter Redgrove’s The Weddings at Nether Powers. He’s just a complete magician. Endlessly sustained flights of vision, ancient, contemporary, pagan, full of fetishes, beautiful, bawdy, unfettered. Rich. We just watched a new Czech documentary on the animator/film-maker Jan Švankmajer. He and Redgrove share something in their very meaty, earthy, sometimes scatalogical vision and unrestrained exuberance. These are not normally English traits.

Is there contemporary surrealism or have the idea of surrealism just fallen into the odd image category? 

No and yes, to that. I’ve decided I don’t really like the tag Surrealism-it seems to smother everything it touches and often means bad dream analysis or bad-dream analysis. It can be a cover-up for having no secret architecture. I very much like some of the work but it doesn’t seem to be a current thing. With CGI and Fantasy and Dystopian realms so easy to construct and access and merge with, that path seems blocked off. [That’ll mean a massive Surrealist revival around the corner]. Can’t see many poets out there as ephebe’s to David Gasgoyne’s precursor?. If there were any I’d be interested. Please let me know. I’m no doubt missing something.

I met you as a tutor. Poetry has had a long tradition of oral culture in terms of teaching, the idea that reading poetry is somehow not enough to write it. Is this something you agree with or is there another idea of what teaching poetry can be? 

Living is important, too. Teaching is one of the few things a poet can do to keep the werewolf from the door, so you may as well try to commit to it. For aspiring poets I think it’s less important to join a Poetry Workshop than, if you do, to know exactly the right time to leave one. I don’t agree too much with Harold Bloom but I do agree when he said something to the effect that any true student will find the teacher they need [and vice-versa] at exactly the right moment, without looking. That might be a dead poet, a living academic, a poem, another poet, just another person. Bloom says teaching is a branch of the erotic [nothing sexual] ie just finding what it is you need and getting that stuff. The true student fulfils their own need through someone else and buggers off.  The true teacher is un-depleted. It only happens rarely despite the numbers studying. Timing is crucial. When to encourage, when to kick butt. You can’t do that in University’s anymore [kick butt] or most formal teaching scenarios. [There goes my teaching career -such as it is.]. Ken Smith kicked my butt at a crucial moment years ago.  [It was probably in a pub]. I savour the bruise. It was propulsive and saved me several years. Younger poets are too smart these days anyhow to teach too much to, they’ve mainly got it sorted. I was cloud-headed for ages at their age. Teaching maybe makes you harder on your own work. That’s a good thing.

What else are you working on?

Always the next book – working-title Goodbye Green Afro - but also - seeing as my Dover crib was all guys I started investigating the 19th C French women poets and have been doing some versions of those, posting on Facebook as before. I’ve started slightly earlier than the period Prophesy is Easy covers. Jean Gautier, Renee Vivien, Louise Colet, Nina De Villard and others. It slower, too, as I’m working again at the moment. One survey of European anthologies showed that the French had one of the lowest percentages of women poets represented, so you have to dig a bit harder. But there’s some great stuff. And a few anthologies and websites. Fusing what I do with what they do creates another thing.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

One of the aforementioned newer versions from French 19th C Women poets…-

The original -from what I sensed- was draped in a kind of Sapphic languor and drowsy anxiety, with a hint of both shame and defiance. Not my everyday state - but that’s what I’ve tried to get at.  Keep writing. Keep safe. X

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