Dog Ear Feature – Interview with Matthew MC Smith

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Matthew MC Smith is a Welsh writer from Swansea. He is a Best of the Net nominated poet, and his work has featured in The Broken Spine Artist Collective, Anti-Heroin Chic, Barren Magazine, The Lonely Crowd, and Seventh Quarry Press. Matthew is also the editor of Black Bough Poetry, a micro-poetry press with six thousand followers on Twitter. Each week Black Bough hold Top Tweet Tuesday which encourages poets the world over to share their work and have it commented upon by a host, both of our poetry editors have had the honour of hosting this event. In 2020, Black Bough’s Deep Time 1 and Deep Time 2 held the top two positions on Amazon’s poetry chart.

For context both of our editors have appeared in the inaugural Black Bough Broadside. Shortly afterwards Matthew posted on Twitter an opportunity to submit a collection of work to him, which he would help polish to a manuscript submission quality. Both Paul and Alan were lucky enough to have their work guided by Matthew for a period of twelve months. Alan’s work would go on to become Neon Ghosts (2020), published by The Broken Spine; Paul’s work would become disintegration (2020) published by Animal Heart Press.

AP: To begin, I’d like to ask Matthew what it was that inspired him to start up with Black Bough Poetry?

MS: First of all, I do feel like us three have a history. I certainly feel privileged to have looked over your work, and learning from that. I think the style of my editing has probably helped some of your poems because what us three have in common is that we like to unpack, and cut down our work so that it is, for want of a better word, chiseled. We do like very pared down poems. Coming to the question, I started Black Bough in the flash of a second. I went on Twitter when I was 40, I’m now 43. I was in a situation where I probably had about fifty followers, and had a few people who had showed interest in my poetry, but when you only have about fifty followers it is incredibly difficult to get read. What I was reading in the literature community online was that a lot of people were very despondent about rejections. It just seemed that every day, every week there were really good poets that were talking frequently about how difficult it was to get published. So, quite naively I thought why not start an online press? Why not just have a website and ask for poems, and publish twenty or thirty poems, two or three times a year? The rest is history, because as soon as I put out an account with a logo, requesting micro-poetry, with the kind of poetry I said that I wanted, it was literally like drawing bees to a honeypot. The short form is incredibly popular now, because of haiku, because of song lyrics, and fashions as well. Micro-poetry and instant poetry are incredibly popular. The first edition ended up far bigger than it probably should have, and I spent far too much time on it. But I was very proud of it, considering my skill set at that point. The second edition was crazy, and featured a hundred and ninety-seven poets. I learned a lot from the Apollo 11 edition. It was a really beautiful thing, but my God, did that take time.

PRM: One of the things that you have tapped into, that many other presses don’t, is that poetry is a communal thing. You have targeted a community of poets that maybe felt disenfranchised, or alienated by the popular traditional publishing routes, and you have created, particularly with Top Tweet Tuesday a very community-based press. How important do you think it is to generate interest in the way that you have, and what is the trick behind doing that, without causing people to be suspicious that it is about self-gain, which Black Bough certainly isn’t?

MS: I have never spoken about this previously, but I guess the inspiration about the social inclusion is a previous job. I used to work in community development in South Wales, I used to work in community development in anti-poverty projects, but also in community participation projects. So, over a period of thirteen years, I saw the potential of people, when you involve them and empower them. There is a tension of course, because when I run my normal press, I have to reject writers. I have to reject certain pieces of work, and I have to be quite clinical about that. But when it comes to Top Tweet Tuesday, that’s completely different. That is about participation and celebration. It is about people having that boost/ I think it because the experience of writing poetry is completely atomised. Everywhere you go, everyone is an individual. There are obviously small communities of people, but it’s a very isolated experience. That leads to people not getting read. So, my purpose, and with The Broken Spine, all we want to do is give people who have got a talent, whoever they are, whatever community they come from, whatever their age, whatever background, that opportunity to get read. It is not about getting awards, and funding, and all these wonderful things. Fundamentally, it’s about getting read and feeling part of something. That’s the very basic ethos behind the grass roots side of Black Bough. You can see it in other presses as well. Top Tweet Tuesday gives anyone at all that opportunity, unless their poems are offensive in some way. Primarily, it’s about boosting people. I would like to think that I am an altruistic editor, but as soon as you set up a press, you get attention. People want to know who you are, for a lot of reasons. They want to read your work, so I think it has led to me getting read too.

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AP: I think there is a similarity with what you are doing on Tuesday and what we are doing with our Discord server, in that we are trying to foster that sense of community, and we are peopling it with poets and editors that we trust, who have a keen eye, ensuring feedback is valuable. One of the reasons we are exploring other platforms is that Twitter can be unpleasant at times, and I was wondering how you would handle it if something were to go awry during one of your events.

MS: It has happened. A number of times. We have had poets present work that is not suitable for a broad-based audience. Sometimes this is unintentional, from people who are not savvy, or politically literate. While I have a host, behind the scenes I will monitor for anything that is risky, or threaten the integrity of the event, or put the writer at risk. People will sometimes post something on social media, and they will expose themselves to getting called out. Sometimes this is fair, other times it’s unintentional. We need to create a safe-space, and what you’re doing with Discord is tightening that up. On Twitter it is a battle, and there have been some sticky situations, but generally people tend to behave and at the moment it works okay.

PRM: It’s a tricky situation, because you are balancing something which is spectacularly inspirational for people who might otherwise not have a voice, against people who might be ready to cancel people. I wonder how you view the role of the editor, because people like us, we do write about things that may not be controversial in our own lives, but may irk other people. Should an artist be censored in your opinion, or is art something that stands alone?

MS: I think people need to self-check, or use buddies to read their work before they put it out there. People who can offer that advice. I do think we need to be careful. I think that it is easy to cynical about cancel culture, and there are some unpleasant examples. But at the same time, cancel culture is there for a reason. If you look at the #MeToo situation, and other situations that reared their heads on Twitter, they are important. I think about the freedom of the artist but I also think the concept of freedom anyway is an illusion. I think sometimes as poets we think we write in this glorious vacuum, but we are products of our culture and we regurgitate culture and I think we need to be careful. I think as presses we need to be mega careful, and we need to make sure that we’ve got our own checks and balances in place, that we’ve got a team who are diverse. It’s fraught, as your question even kind of implies the whole thing is fraught.

AP: I just wanted to follow up with Matthew on one point that he made about the importance of shutting down certain things online. I used to write, and perhaps still will when the opportunity arises, for Planet Slop, a pop culture focused website based in Liverpool. They recently released the 1st edition of a podcast called That Time, and it was about the time Deirdre Rachid was locked up in in Coronation Street. The idea of the podcast was to explore the way in which people reacted, and the newspaper headlines, the mass hysteria. Would you believe Tony Blair commented on it? The Home Secretary had something to say too! It was on the front of The Sun, The Express, although strangely The Mail stood back from it. But that’s where we were in 1998. Whereas now, people who are cancelled are often rightly shut down, so things have moved on. Maybe young people are taking things a little bit more seriously than they were back then, when the world was a simpler place.

MS: I think men have to think very carefully about how they operate, what we write, how we write it. I think that you do read some literature sometimes which does kind of display a toxic masculinity. It isn’t always easy to identify the boundary between the poet, and the voice in the poem, and sometimes it sort of dissolves. I just just think we have to be, in 2021, just careful and really sensible about having too much of a male gaze. We need to work to make sure that we don’t just reinforce kind of traditional power structures, and traditional views which we might not realise, but which can be very damaging. There are poets, who you can see every day, presenting these masculine displays on Instagram or on Twitter in their poetry and writing, and it is quite cringey actually and it is outmoded. I’m not saying that we need to completely destroy traditional masculinities, but what we need to do is weed out the unhealthy aspects of traditional masculinity because some of it is appalling. The presentation of women can be appalling and the presentation of men as well can just be incredibly unequal, so I think council culture is good in many ways. It just needs care, and I think people who do cancel others out need to just make sure there is reason for it, really legit reason, because what you don’t want is somebody to absolutely be destroyed in an unwarranted fashion.

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PRM: Tell us about your recent chapbook release, is this one-off project, or is this something that you’re going to look to sustain into the future?

MS: Okay well, similar to you and other presses there are a lot of projects which are quite secretive. I have all sorts of things planned, as I’m sure you do too. You’ve stayed tight-lipped and what that’s done, with the introduction of new people on your team and the new projects, is mean that I can see The Broken Spine just growing exponentially. I think we’re almost like cousins The Broken Spine and Black Bough like, like you know really friendly cousins there’s no rivalry. There’s a lot of similarity. We’ve just published our first chapbook, and it was always planned for the autumn of 2021, and it is the first individual author that I have published, rather than an anthology edition and the collective. It is called Under Photon Crowns by a Swansea writer called Dai Fry. Dai and I have been working with each other for a while now, although I didn’t actually know him before about two years ago, but he started to send me his poems he got published in Black Bough, and I really liked his mystical, incredibly visionary, fresh new voice. He’s an incredibly striking poet, and I always planned to have his chapbook first for various reasons but it has been accelerated. I think it’s sold about a hundred and fifty copies, which considering COVID, and that we have been unable to do live gigs except online it has done really very well. It’s been a creatively meaningful process. Going forward, yes, I’ve got plans for chapbooks, and I got a number of writers who I’ve already spoken to and in the pipeline. There are some big plans for anthologies, and next year there is going to be some really exciting stuff happening.

PRM: Matthew you are a very distinct writer, you have a very unique style and from the work that I’ve read of yours, some of which that we have published. You also have a very distinct sense of place, I know that you are very proud of your Welsh heritage and sometimes that comes through in the work you write, and the work that you that you publish. Are you able to tell us in your own eyes what kind of writer you are, and how you would categorise yourself as poet?

MS: It is difficult to see yourself in a more objective way, but I have thought about this and I think that what I write about tends to be about memory and cultural memory. It’s about time, landscape, and sense of place. I also write poetry about family. Anyone who’s read my poems will see a lot of grief there, because my father died nine years ago; an extremely traumatic situation for all of my family and also for me. So, I think some of the things that have happened, the things that I’ve experienced go into what I write. Sometimes I’m a very impersonal writer and I will write about external things, but obviously there is always that personal take, there’s a personal angle. Sometimes what I write actually surprises me because it is very personal, so I tend to flip constantly between being personal, and really striving to be very impersonal. My prose tends to be freer. I will write about anything and everything. Whereas I think my poetry does tend to be very thematic. But as I say, if I’m writing prose, I even write about Star Wars, I’ve written about childhood memories, I’ve written very immediate, impressionistic pieces. I try to be versatile, and I try to challenge myself. One good thing about reading a lot of poems as a reader and as an editor is that it’s always pushing me to try new things. I get inspired by incredibly different styles I like Alan’s film noir stuff which is very different from what I write. I definitely think that some of the things I write have probably been inspired by Alan. Then with you, Paul, you tend to write confessional male poetry, and I think it’s really very interesting. I think it’s quite difficult to be a male confessional right there in suddenly in 2021. There are very exciting possibilities, for example in your last chapbook, I love fact every single phrase seemed to be loaded, absolutely loaded with an undercurrent of emotion. So, I’m inspired by anything and everything, and I’ll try anything. But yes, I probably do have a style. I just think that voice is a voice that I’m always trying to challenge because I want to make sure that I’m not always writing in the very same way as I don’t want to box myself in.

PRM: You certainly helped me particularly craft my poems into what I like to call the flesh and bone. I was starting out with forty-line poems that became twelve really important lines, which takes a great editorial eye. The confessional can be about bravery, but it also is a stylistic thing in the sense that you write about your own personal experience. We all have our own styles, but we all have influences too, and if you are a wide reader which you evidently and inevitably are, because you edit a successful press you have to read widely, but also you support the community and buy books and read widely for pleasure. How important do you think that is to develop a writing style? If you were speaking to somebody brand new to poetry, but has clearly got a passion for it, and maybe even a talent for it at very young age, how important do you think reading is for them?

MS: I think first off, my usual advice is to write read write read write read, but I think as well if you read too much you can become a very derivative writer. I personally think the reason why I started being published at 40 was because it felt natural for me. I would encourage people to spend some time actually writing before they attempt to get published. I would also encourage people to be part of writing group, or creative writing course, or find some writing buddies so that they’ve got people who will give them honest feedback. The thought of me looking back at stuff I might have had published in my twenties, I’m so glad I didn’t publish anything back then. I think if I had had poetry published then I might have regretted it. I think when you’re a bit older you might be more selective about what you put out there. Having said that, you look at some of the younger writers like Lizzie Kemball, and Katie Stockton, and a whole host of young writers and they are incredibly talented and you think why should those people even consider waiting until they are older? But I have to be honest at that age, I didn’t have that talent, or the judgement, or the savviness of people like Lizzie and Katie, Mari Ellis Dunning and loads of other writers. I think people should do workshops, or they should experiment by putting their stuff on social media. In terms of reading, read widely maybe even looking at reading lists from colleges and universities. If they don’t want to do that, if they don’t want to go down that road of going to college or uni, fine, but have a look at what students are reading and get clued up. There are some poets who can read not very much, and be amazing. But I do think that I read a lot of poetry, and some of it some of it probably could do with workshopping and honest feedback.

AP: With this in mind, what are you reading at the moment? Do you have a favourite childhood book?

MS: Looking back as a child I had a Wentworth Classic, I can still see it now, a graphic novel, about 1985. It was Oliver Twist but it had incredible artwork. I think it was about twenty-five pence from the shop, but it was it was one of those books with fantastic artwork in it and that really stands out. When I was six, I member I just loved this book so much that I memorised it. Beyond that the other books that really stand out as a child are books by English writer John Masefield who was the Poet Laureate. I was born in nineteen-seventy-eight, and when I was six a BBC TV series came out and it was called Box of Delights and I remember watching it and being totally enchanted. It was one of these BBC TV series with no CGI, but they but they did have lots of camera tricks, and things like that. The story was a perfect children’s Christmas story, which was also very sinister. I bought that book and asked, and I asked for some of his other work. I read lots and lots as child, but I wouldn’t say I was absolutely prolific. I was more interested in being outside to be honest, and playing with toys. I was massively into toys and cartoons. Going into my teenage years, like all Swansea people, I ended up reading Dylan Thomas, and then that leads to symbolist poetry. and you’re listening to song lyrics and stuff. For me, it was the Doors, I could probably go on Mastermind answering questions about their songs. The lyrics are so perceptive. I started to read Welsh writers such as Alun Lewis, a wartime poet and then RS Thomas. RS Thomas now is in many ways kind of superseded in Wales by Dylan Thomas, but RS Thomas is the most austere writer you could possibly get. If you want power in your poetry you, go and read RS Thomas. He is completely uncompromising. I love all the aspects of his work. In terms of reading stuff now, I loved both of your chapbooks. EE Cummings, Wallace Stevens. You read a poem like Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens and you go Oh my God! I love Sylvia Plath and there are so many poets that I could spend three hundred hours talking about them which I promise I won’t.

PRM: I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all the work you do in the community, boosting hitherto little-known poets and I am sure that your work is appreciated up and down the country. I would like to finish with rather open-ended question, but an important one I feel, where do you see Black Bough in a few years’ time? You already achieved so much, is there more that you want to achieve, or is it just a case of it’s not broken don’t fix it – carry on doing the great things that you doing? Or do you see this being a potential career for you in the future?

MS: Oh, well career wise, if you want and buttons not pennies, then start up a press. I mean unless you literally do strike gold and you have extraordinary backing that is not going to happen. If I went into this for money, I would have stopped a long time ago or I would have a second job. If I wanted any extra money on top my normal job, then I would never ever set up a lit mag. What I have done is not done for that. What I would like to do in the future is to raise enough income so I can support chapbooks, without having to take it out of my own pocket or have any form of risk. If you do have a little reserve, you can do things. When I do write chapbooks. I want to do them for the art, and that is not pretentious, that is genuine. I want to do it because I have identified a writer, who should be out there and who might not be commercial at all, but I know they will have a hat full of massively loyal fans. So as soon as that book comes out, it is going to hit some people between your eyes. I don’t mind publishing some more well-known people, but to be honest I know that those people will probably get a deal somewhere. What I would rather do, is publish people who are completely unknown, who will almost have material talent, and then they will go on to other things. I just think it’s just more interesting. I’m 43, I’ve got a lot of other things in my life still, if I am going to dedicate my spare time to this, I want to do something that a bit different, not the same old thing and just promoting same old writers. I can see that with you, I can see that with The Broken Spine. You’re doing it as an edgy indy press. What you’re doing is you’re trying to do something interesting, distinct, and separate. To answer your question, going forward, you’ve heard it here first, there will be a Deep Time III and it is going to be markedly different and that’s going to be next year. So, you’ve heard it here first. I have been reluctant to even think about it or talk about it because as soon as      I do, things begin to snowball, as with all presses. But that is something that I am really interested in. That will be a big thing, but there’s an even bigger project. The future project that I’ve got will involve dead poets and also poets from the here and now, and it’s going to be a very interesting fusion. You know when you know that something is going to be popular, and is going to attract a lot of interest from writers this well this one will. I won’t say anything more, other than this is probably going to be 2023, but when the when the submission call comes out, I’ll probably panic. It will probably take me eight months just to answer the emails, so yeah that’s that’s one thing and that’s going to be a bonkers project. I think the combination of writers who are no longer with us, and those writers from the here and now; and who those writers are, that are no longer with us will probably blow a few peoples minds.

PRM: Sounds wonderful. Sounds brilliant! You must keep us informed! I must have missed the submission call for The Doors themed collection, I was taking a break that was much needed after a very hectic six months.

MS: Freedom-Rapture is now long-overdue, it was inspired by a Debbie Harry and The Doors fusion of Riders on the Storm and Rapture. It is literally one of my favourite songs, and I think I play it every single day. I thought after how intense the Deep Time projects were, we needed something different. So, this time instead of being inspired by a book, I thought let’s use a song, and I chose one for purely purely selfishly reasons. It is obviously to do with Jim Morrison, and I put that call out. The artwork is by a Swansea artist, and the response has been incredible. The second book really celebrates Jim, and serves as a eulogy to him too.

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