Posted January 22, 2016
Matthew Byrne graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2012 and has been writing, organising poetry nights and festivals, and taking part in workshops ever since. He co-edited the UNSUNG poetry magazine and organised UNSUNGfest in Manchester, both of which aim to shed light on poetry and provide poets with publicity.
Now he lives and works in Beijing and is the creator of SPITTOON, a monthly poetry night that seeks to bring Beijing's diverse group of poets together to share their work. SPITTOON also consists of a 'poetry-in-translation' segment, which explores poetry in other languages and its translations. So far the audience has enjoyed Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Afrikaans and Mauritian Creole poetry, and Matthew invites anyone interested to get in touch and share poems in their mother tongues.
Matthew has also been published online and in anthologies in Britain. His poetry focuses on family, his experiences of holidaying in Ireland, and exploring our relationship with the small and seemingly mundane.
When a window is left open in the summer
because the air is thin honey
the admirer might forget to close it
and the room will take in night.
After a long evening the door will open
and the confection of past hours
will gush down the landing,
the slow smell of flowers and fading heat.
The breath of what’s left in the room
gets shocked into moths at a light switch,
their locations are a lottery,
they are randomly made out of night.
On the first day the air was thick cloth
and the waves were shedding themselves,
strange moths hung on boat like scales
or blinked in the river light.
I felt their presence around me,
older than the kings of Connaught.
When we passed through a half built town
that looked like an empty film set,
I saw the torn webs between the jetty rails
packed and twitching.
I woke to the sound of claws at around five
when the morning aches
and lay there trying to dream them away,
but they persisted. So I gathered my sleep up
and climbed the steps to the deck.
Through the translucent glass of the deck door
I saw our refuse bag speared by a gang of birds:
a mixture of rooks and seagulls.
One huge bird with a curved beak
scattered champagne corks, cake wrappers, hidden cigarette butts.
After an evening of laughing
we were restaurant fed and full of wine
so we retired back to our cabins.
Tired of irregular pleasantries
and eager to keep them fresh,
we had dined well. I even
dared to tell my father what I never tell him,
suitably hidden in a joke.
We had said enough to bring sadness
so we kept to ourselves and slept it off.
Now that I have sadness in my thoughts
this memory defends itself;
the rough, plaster walls of Shannon View,
our family house.
As a child I drew my right hand across it
with my eyes closed
and I remember its rasping touch,
It has become a brittle pewter memory
of action and light.
We moored a night near Lough Ree
and passed Shannon View the next day
having asked my grandmother
to meet us at the quay.
She waited smiling and wringing her hands
by the marina her father used to own.
For a moment she almost jumped aboard,
like she might have decades ago,
and we shouted no at that sketch of a girl.
I watched her through my binoculars watching us.
Once powerful infant in standing water
threshing meals in scum; blind wire of reflexes.
When you cracked through pupa and flew,
found your way in this pheromone gloom,
was it the walrus breath heaving
round the dark, drunken room
that lured you? Or from fog to fog
you found my drinking, smoking body?
When the light comes, you splatter red
like the others on the white wall.
Sharp calligraphy of a hit,
take my blood, make it insect.
Sometimes it strikes me
Sometimes it strikes me
that I might have missed love
when a small thought
of that straw haired girl
mimics my child heart,
I seek condolence in memories.
I watch lovers climb up the sunlight
dancing too hard and laughing too much
threshing gold out of their hair
onto sepia streets and shifting dust.
Does it ever strike you
that you might have missed love?
Like the leering groan of a missed train
as it creeps away slow then gone,
your lovers have bathed, tired of the living
with empires of feeling
they sleep on thrones
of whatever you've given them;
that first dance at the club
the sound she made when she forward rolled.
When did you realize that writing was an important part of your life?
When I was 17 or 18, I went to college, I was under-stimulated and ended up playing a lot of poker in my free time. I’d go home every night after a poker game and walk my dog, a beautiful black lab, and she’d go running high-speed into the hedges under the full moon ... and then it just hit me, that I just felt like writing. I didn’t like college, but I liked going home at night, walking my dog, and writing.
Do you have any recent projects?
I feel like I could have been more creative over the past three years in Beijing, but that being said, there’s a definite Beijing theme to my writings. There’s a lot of interesting things happening in the writing scene here. Some people have organized a workshop which brings together all the poets in Beijing and gives them a deadline to work with. I find it difficult to nail myself to the wall and work, so I work well with deadlines.
I’m looking to write a pamphlet about China. I think it’s interesting for people back home to read about your experiences here – to distill the experiences then bring them together in a pamphlet. It’s a New Year’s resolution to write more.
Favorite word to use in writing?
I like Ted Hughes – short, sharp. I don’t like writing poetry that uses words with too many syllables. I like to craft it and bring the music into the poem – bring out the music that’s already in the poem.
How do you describe the process of writing?
I have an analogy for this but it’s a bit rude. It’s like needing to go to the bathroom but not having the equipment for that. It feels like there’s a pressure inside, like a secret bladder you need to release. It seems very simple to sit down and write but it’s just not that simple. Whenever I am in the mood it’s not when I can sit down and write. So even though it sounds pretentious, I wish I could get a dictaphone.
You reference less-referenced insects like moths and mosquitoes.
Thanks for noticing that. When I was a kid, I was terrified of moths, the way they shuddered the light. I used to kill them as a kid, and then one time I got really upset about it. I actually woke up once in a moth in my throat, I breathed in a moth when I was sleeping, and in a way it’s quite an intimate relationship. There’s a certain mystery to them. I also had an intimate relationship with mosquitoes, as they pretty much infested my house in Beijing. Mosquitoes consist of a magic. As if they could just land on a wall outside and through a process of osmosis go through the wall. They’re like pure evil. There’s something vampiric about them.
I feel like your poetry references night and moon a lot.
I’ve always liked the ethereal quality of a moonlit night. It’s inspiring. Especially where I’m from in England, the countryside, it can be very beautiful. To answer very simply, I mentioned walking my dog during those college nights. It was a bit of a dark time. I starting smoking, listening to Mars Volta for the first time. I don’t know, but it was a time that lent itself to being a writer.
I find your poems to be descriptive and also reflective. Do you agree?
I’d agree, and … thinking about my poems featured on Loreli, there’s a poem with more hidden meaning, and that’s the one called "Shannon Trip." That poem was very interesting for me to write. It was written during this Celtic Tiger recession, you know there were all these ghost towns half-built, and you had this impression that the Irish, as soon as they got their hands on some money, they made these ridiculous towns. My point is, I grew up with an appreciation for the richness of Irish culture, having been raised by Irish people. So writing "Shannon Trip" was me trying to be reflective on Irish culture, in my recent trip to Shannon.
I think back now to when I was a younger man – which I can say now that I’m 27 – and how I’d just get up on stage and recite a poem I’d written and memorized. And they often weren’t very good, but I didn’t know that then. Since doing my MA, I’ve learned more about how to edit my own poems. I like to think of (poetry) as more of a science, something I can engineer. I like that – it allows me to be more reflective.
How has living in Beijing influenced your writing?
To be honest, the poetry I’ve written in China isn’t the most optimistic. And most of them aren’t particularly pleasant. I like to write about the canteen at work. What I mean by that is the regimented madness there, and the huge amounts of food that are processed through it. And I don’t know if I’m qualified to do this, but I want to write about being Chinese. Can I do that?
The poems I write here are grittier, darker, and have more Beijing to them than when I was writing in England a few years ago.
What do you hope for from your poetry?
I’ve always wanted to do poetry, since a young age, but I feel I’ve been too lazy. Recognition and fame would be nice, but really I just want to feel like I’ve done it. Carol Ann Duffy had dinner with someone once, who told her her poem “Prayer” was read at her aunt’s funeral. To know that this piece of work that you made is being read at someone you don’t knows funeral -- that would be my greatest dream.
Talk about your on-going poetry events at Spittoon.
You have to understand it in the context of UNSUNG. I used to run these UNSUNG events in Manchester, and it was raucous good fun. In Beijing now, at Spittoon, there is an incredibly international crowd, and you get a strong sense that there is a wealth of stories. Spittoon acts as a conduit to bring poets together but also to bring people from around the world, in Beijing. It's for them to contribute their own stories about their own countries. I just felt that all the energy was already there. There’s a great poetry night at The Bookworm, Word of Mouth, and I felt that there was enough energy for another poetry night. And it’s turning into a nice community of poets and people who love poetry.
What’s contributed to its success? Because at first there were only a few people, and now it’s like a packed house every time.
A mixture of charm and intimidation. Apart from that, its informal nature. I think people have an impression that poetry is something done in a dusty lectern and you have to sit and listen to every word to understand it all. So when people come out to spittoon, they are surprised by the variety: slam poetry, page poetry, poetry-in-translation, people pouring their hearts out on stage. Like I said, it’s using the energy that’s already there, and shaping it. And people are having fun doing it.
So tell us about the poetry-in-translation.
Yes it’s a segment of the night, and it's a chance for people to hear the poem in its original language. First reading is its original, second reading is the English translation, and third reading is original again. This way, A. People become more aware of the country of origin. And B. people become more aware of the music of the poem. Because in translation, you lose a lot of the brilliant crafty of the original. So far we’ve had Afrikaans, Arabic, Maritian Creole, Chinese, and Spanish.
What do you think is the difference between listening to and reading a poem?
That’s an interesting question. In both situations you’re looking for something different. If you’re on your own, you may be looking for solace. You’re looking for something in a more introverted way. But in Spittoon, for instance, you’re drinking, with friends. There’s a chance the poet chose one of their more entertaining poems. And I really have faith in the crowd at Spittoon. The people who come take each poem for its merits, and don’t judge it, and don’t expect it to be entertaining. And that empowers the poets to write as they wish.
Advice to young writers?
Don’t be afraid to write. In a way I’m telling this to myself. If you write something you don’t’ feel is good, discard it and keep writing. Know that you’re good enough, and if you’re serious about it, you can really improve. Read a lot of poetry, go to poetry nights, go to workshops. Even if you think it’s a work of art, someone can always give you feedback. I guess what I’m saying is get off your ass.
And for people thinking of organizing a poetry event, just know that poetry is rock n’ roll. It really is. It’s so cool. I’ve run out of words now.