Matthew Rice

An Interview

Colin Dardis

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Colin Dardis: Keen followers of the Northern Irish poetry scene will be familiar with your work already, having been published widely in reputable journals on both sides of the Atlantic. What was the first piece you got published that made you feel you were making progress?

Mathew Rice: I was a bit fortuitous there. I was familiar with the work of the poet, Brendan Cleary, who lives in Brighton; however, he is originally from Whitehead, where I happened to be living at the time. I was in the local one Saturday afternoon, for the football, and was introduced to Cleary by a mutual friend.  He was over visiting his mother. You can imagine my surprise!  He knew my father, Adrian's work. I had only started writing in earnest, and he told me he would like to see some work.  So I sent him some poems, and he asked if he could put them in his magazine he was editor of, The Echo Room: again, you can imagine my surprise! 

So I found my first six published poems alongside Simon Armitage, Geoff Hatersley, Matthew Sweeney, Martin Mooney and Helen Mort, to name a few, in the famous Echo Room. So I was thrilled, and I guess that's when I felt I could do something in poetry, seeing my poems in print alongside big names. And Brendan was, and remains, a great encourager.

CD: You’re currently studying for a BA Honours in English Language and Literature. How has your studying impacted on your writing? Do you feel it is a prerequisite for emerging poets to hold an academic qualification in order to prove their worth (especially to editors and other poets)?

MR: I don't feel it is a prerequisite for emerging poets to hold academic qualifications. I always say that had John Martin from Black Sparrow Press refused to publish Charles Bukowski because he didn't hold an academic qualification, we'd never have known the work of one of the American greats. Likewise Raymond Carver, Dennis O'Driscoll, among others. I do feel there is a certain strand of editors who are perhaps influenced by the sight of a big University on a poet's bio, but I always go along with the words of Derek Walcott: "If the work is good, it will get published, no matter what."

A qualification in academia can sometimes help an emerging writer, especially if they are being taught by established writers, but I do not believe it is a guarantee that quality work will be produced. However, I would say that studying towards a degree or another academic qualification, certainly helps you to focus in on the work, and can be an inspiration for the production of poems. For me, I just decided I wanted to get my degree, it's something I'm interested in, and I would like to be able to teach at some point. But I don't believe the two - the study and the writing – necessarily go hand in hand as a poetic requirement. It's about whether one respects the gift.

CD:This particular strand of editor you mention - we know they are out there -  are they killing (or at least, dramatically reducing) what poetry can be and who can write it?

MR: I believe that poetry can be reduced by an editor that over emphasises the academic requirement. Don't get me wrong, there are world class poets who all came through big universities: Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Don Paterson, along with many younger contemporary poets, both here and on the mainland. But for every university educated poet you have an O'Driscoll, a Bukowski, a Carver, even the likes of Paul Durcan and Damian Gorman, to a degree (excuse the pun…). 

Heaney had the perfect balance; he had the academic background, but his poetry had the heart and soul of a man experiencing the life around him and in him. In my humble opinion, the spirit and the love in a poem can be deadened by an overly academic approach, so to speak. But at the same time, I love Hill's long poems about the deep history of England. I don't mind having to work at a poem, but there must be a payload in the offing. The strand of editor we are talking about can put a beginner off, or galvanise them into determination, by the same token.

CD: In ‘The Weight of a Rock’, your poem opens up with the lines:

          “The rock in my hand

          is unconcerned by the human value

          I place in its symbolism”

( taken from FourXFour Issue 13 - )

Your poetry feels very direct and natural – a tree is a tree, a fish is a fish – without a lazy overreliance on symbols that curses a lot of poetry (mistaken for imagery). It almost feels Beckettian: “no symbols where none intended.” Where do you stand on the use of symbols in poetry?

MR: I put a lot of trust in the word that says what something is. That is to say, I believe that if the poem is good enough the symbolism will come through if it is intended. When you read a poem like 'Anseo' by Paul Muldoon, it is, on the surface, a very simple description of a school friend and his later militant life. But look at the title, for one thing: 'Anseo'; 'Anseo meaning here, here and now ...'  The here and now of the situation the boy in the poem grew up, and the resentment the teacher bred into him, which is then being visited upon others years later, the knock on effect of bullying, really.

Muldoon places that knock on effect into an Irish political context. So the boy, Joe Ward, becomes a symbol of the downtrodden Irish, rising up against oppression. But this is all handled by Muldoon in a manner that is making no attempt to hammer the point home, the simple skill of the language does that. So I believe symbolism can be important in poetry, but I would find it hard to disagree with Beckett. The trick is to make it seem natural.

CD: On the subject of seeming natural… in your poem ‘The Smallest Thing’ ), you state “It can be the smallest thing | that brings you back to basics”. Would this be a fair comment on how you approach the composition of poetry?

MR: hat would be a fair comment, yes. I find that if I start simple I can add the layers as I go, if layering is required.  Sometimes a poem MUST be pared back. Other times, a little bit of risk is what is called for. Heaney said that the best poems get written when the poet becomes self-forgetful. I wrote a poem a few months ago called 'At the Lights', and when I read it back I felt I had gone beyond myself a little. It had a metaphysical feel, philosophical almost. You could say that there are symbols ever present throughout it; although the natural sense of the language offset any tipping over into 'difficulty', I thought.  It was subsequently well received by people I trust, and the main reason that seemed to be echoed back to me was the 'natural feel' of the language, despite the poem's apparent complexity. So I begin simple, and sometimes the poem stays simple, and other times it builds and morphs.

CD: Looking through your work, the unfamiliar reader might be forgiven for thinking that it was from the pen of an older writer: there is a voice of steadiness and patience throughout, one that admires nature, rationality, and seems to have little interest in the glorious anarchy of youth. Is this more indicative of your mindset, your environment, or just your literary influences?

MR: I had, as that man Heaney said of Zbigniew Herbert, 'no young poet life', so to speak. I wrote all my stories and poems as a child and then stopped when I started secondary school, sport taking over. (Though my father has kept a lot of those childhood scribblings). I didn't pick up a pen again until I was 27, and by then I had done a lot of reading, and had been around poets like Ian Duhig, Tom Paulin, Harry Smart, Mel McMahon, through my father, Adrian, being involved with Abbey Press; not to mention the artist Ross Wilson, who I regard as a kind of artistic stepfather. So I had been exposed to the real articles. 

I'm not saying that my poetry is 'the real article', I'm merely saying that I had begun to write poetry from a relatively mature perspective, having absorbed the vibes from those great names. And my father has had a massive influence on that also, hammering me for producing juvenilia for the sake of it; he's a harsh critic, but fair and honest. So I began from that footing, which I suppose could go some way to explaining your observation.