Matthew Byrne is a UK-born poet and the founder of Spittoon. Until very recently a fixture of Mado Bar, [RIP] Spittoon is now at Ball House. This monthly poetry free-for-all provides a space for Beijing's writers to assemble and get the fresh work on its feet. It's invaluable as a stage in a process, but Spittoon has also become a place for the community to meet, share ideas and take heart. The reading series has also recently mutated to include a monthly fiction night at Other Place [Spittoon Fiction] and a roving, pop-up edition called Spittoon Salon. No poetry or fiction in this space today, but I sat down with Matt to talk about the impending launch of Spittoon Magazine.
CW: With these questions, is it okay with you if we go backwards chronologically?
MB: Completely OK with that.
CW: I don't care what your feelings are on the subject. I was just being polite.
MB: OK, thanks Max.
CW: What's this Spittoon Magazine all about, and when can I hold it in my hot little hands?
MB: The first Spittoon Magazine will be a collection of the best poetry and fiction written in Beijing that we could find, printed with illustrations created especially for the work featured. As each issue is released, we will also release a selection of articles, interviews and translation pieces that explore the literary scene in Beijing and ultimately, China. We want to try our best to represent what we feel is a compelling and diverse literary scene, both with English speaking poets and writers but also, just as importantly, Chinese poets and writers as well. We are looking forward to building our distribution network in Beijing but also in other cities in China. We already have a Spittoon night in Chengdu where we will consider their writer’s for the magazine and distribute copies – It’s our aim to create Spittoon nights in other cities in China, and increase distribution for the magazine.
CW: Where and when did you have this idea? Was this always the plan?
MB: I had this idea sat at my desk in my office – it seemed to me a natural progression after the succession of the poetry and fiction events. There seemed to be a discernable wealth of talent in many languages that needed representation and a magazine would be the best instrument to make that happen.
When I was living in Manchester, I created a little indie poetry and fiction magazine called UNSUNG that was a distributed at a monthly poetry night. It was loads of gritty fun, so I suppose I wanted to replicate some of the thrill of having an object to distribute that consists of poet’s and fiction writer’s hard earned work.
CW: What are the origins of Spittoon? How did this start?
MB: Spittoon started because I thought it’d be great to start a poetry night in one of my favourite bars in Beijing, Mado Bar– a moment for Mado bar everyone– the ambiance of the place seemed to work through a complex calculation of grunge and cats to arrive at the state of greatness it achieved. Apart from that fairly accidental decision, I feel Spittoon has helped to harness a lot of the energy that was already in Beijing into definable nights. Our poetry night run by myself and our fiction night run superbly by Chris Warren. I feel like the magazine is the next reasonable step down the road of developing Spittoon, by consolidating the content of the poetry and fiction nights and providing new material and translation.
CW: How has Spittoon changed since its inception?
MB: Spittoon was originally created as a poetry night and it was initially a challenge gathering up enough writers to read. Through the evolution of Spittoon Poetry, the different ‘stages’ with their variable time slots grew out of it, 7 minutes for regular slots and 15 minutes for feature slots that serve as more of an expose on the writers– getting to know their work more in-depth. Spittoon Poetry’s ‘Poetry-In-Translation’ feature has proven to be extremely popular, featuring work in Chinese, French, Spanish, Arabic, Afrikaans, Sinhalese and Mauritian Creole to name a few. The translation works by presenting the poetry in its original language followed by the translation, so the audience hears the music of the poetry but can also get a good glimpse into its meaning.
We’ve had a succession of translators who have put a lot of hard work into their translations, Ceci, Poornima, Chen Bo (Steve) and Judith Huang to name a few! The Spittoon Fiction night evolved under Chris’s management to consist of a ten minute fiction slot and 500-word limit ‘flash fiction’ slots.
CW: In weeks to come, I have a feeling we will be hearing more about Spittoon Salon– but what is Spittoon Salon?
MB: Apart from a budding hair styling enterprise, Spittoon Salon is our initiative to spread the word about everything Spittoon. The nights are organized by Simon Shieh, who is the poetry editor for the magazine, and they exist as targeted readings around Beijing and possibly beyond. We were lucky enough to have our first Spittoon Salon night in Xiding Daoist Temple in Haidian District, an absolutely beautiful venue that provided a wonderful backdrop for the poetry read on the night, centered on the theme of ‘water’. The salon readings will be a great chance to increase knowledge about the Spittoon collective and the distribution network for the magazine in the future.
CW: How's that going?
MB: Really well! We’ve got loads of great venues lined up on top of our two home venues: Ball House for Spittoon poetry and The Other Place for Spittoon Fiction (both based in Gulou).
CW: Pretty sure you're a creative writing MA and a life-long reader. With that in mind, how does Spittoon relate to other reading series (or, now, journals and zines) that you've been around, read, or been apart of? (On that note, do you think Spittoon represents any cohesive Beijing style (of writing)?)
MB: In my own mind, Spittoon is related to UNSUNG Magazine in its processes for submission but I’ve really enjoyed how we’ve developed the editing team, giving certain members certain tasks to lighten the load on all of us. Everyone seems to be enjoying it and I feel like we are all learning together. We’ve had to set up the process and infrastructure for the magazine from scratch, from editing to coordination on Trello, design on InDesign and all the learning that goes with that. We’ve had to assign each other roles and have assumed other ones naturally – it’s been a really enjoyable process.
CW: Back to the magazine: who's on the team?
MB: Our designers and lead illustrators are Rowena Chadowsky, who is one of the one in a billion who can set type by hand, but now she uses InDesign and Mike Manjarrez, who’s skill with pen and stylus (and sense of humour!) have made us very grateful that he’s with us. Our chief poetry editor is Simon Shieh whose efforts and hard work have helped to compound the future success of the magazine and our poetry editor is Kelly McNerney, whose past experience in editing and great eye for poetry has been invaluable. Our fiction editor is Chris Warren, whose drive and determination have brought greatness to the fiction section and turned the Spittoon Fiction night into a complete success. Then there’s me, Matthew Byrne who very much enjoys making magazines and literary collective stuff happen with these lovely people.
CW: What are your goals/plans/thoughts on the future of the magazine? Or for the future of Spittoon at large?
MB: I’m on the verge of thinking about maybe considering deciding on deliberating making my mind up whether I should make it my life’s work or not. It feels like there’s a real chance to set up Spittoon nationally, having a poetry/fiction set up in significant cities that are consolidated together by Spittoon Magazine and a burgeoning web presence. We achieve integration with foreign writers and Chinese writers together through translation– perhaps what we do could have an educational aspect in the future, we’re willing to partner with any organization that are willing to partner with us! After a certain amount of time the work that we’ve done could be exported around the world – it would be an honour to portray China’s literary scenes in the favourable light they often deserve.
CW: What's the biggest challenge you guys have run into?
MB: We’ve had to learn everything from the ground up. InDesign has been a big challenge for us but everyone, particularly Rowena and Mike, have really risen to the challenge. Finding a printer was hard and negotiating things like paper price, thickness, colour, getting things illustrated, negotiating meetings… it was and still very much is a load of stuff.
CW: You writing anything right now?
MB: Well, you know. I wrote a short fiction piece that I quite enjoyed writing recently about an Anglo Saxon village. It was fun to let my imagination wander round that little world I made for myself during a particular down time at work. I’ve got a lot of poems flying around my mind right now; it’s just a case of getting them down on paper. Lucky there are groups like Simon Shieh’s poetry group and other groups that provide the opportunity!