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National Poetry Day: Henry Normal and Matthew Welton

6 October 16 words: Aly Stoneman
We spoke to the two Nottingham poets about their upcoming collaboration
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Angel Row Writers

How did you first meet?
Matt: Henry and I were part of a writing group called Live Poets Society, which Henry helped set up, that used to meet in Manchester in the early nineties and was the place where I took the first step towards publication. The group included comedians, poets, singers, etc. I remember Henry saying that there was always more than one answer to any question. For example, if someone asked when you wrote your first poem, you might talk about the first poem you had published, or the first one you were happy with, or the first one you showed anybody. That inventive approach really opened my mind.

Henry: It’s nice catching up with Matt in Nottingham 25 years later. When I was working on my book, he looked through the manuscript and gave me advice. Like the Karate Kid, he’s now become the master.

What inspired you to plan a joint book launch at Lakeside Arts Centre, with poet Ruth Fainlight as the special guest?
Henry: Matt and I were in Hockley eating a pizza and talking about poetry, and we realised that both our books were coming out around the same time. National Poetry Day [Thursday 6 October] felt like a good day for the launch and the Lakeside’s a lovely theatre. I’ve never played there, so I’m really excited.

Matt: We both grew up in Nottingham, moved away, and then found a reason to return. Holding a shared launch event sounded like fun. I teach in the School of English at the University of Nottingham, and we invited Ruth to become an honorary lecturer a few years ago. She comes in occasionally to discuss the students’ work with them, and it is always a joy to hear the attentive, compassionate, intelligent things she has to say.

You have three very distinct voices, what will be your format for reading together?
Matt: The things that writers have in common are more important than the differences. I don’t see much difference between poetry and fiction, or published and unpublished writers, or between poetry of different types. Although Ruth’s poems could be characterised as occupying that quietly formal British mainstream ethic, Henry has been seen as a performance poet; and I’ve been associated with the experimental tradition, there is something plainly poetic about what we all do. If the evening has a message, that’s part of it.

Henry: I’ve not given it a minute’s thought. I like a bit of anarchy as part of poetry, so I’m happy to turn up and see what happens.

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Henry Normal

What are the key themes in your new collections?
Matt: The title The Number Poems sets out the way that these are formal poems, but not necessarily in a conventional way. I love using language as a material and feel my imagination is suited to working within numerical constraints, so the forms of the poems in this book are to do with fixing how many words or sentences or lines will be used, or setting up a sentence and repeating parts of it, changing particular phrases as you go along, or selecting words that can be used both as nouns and verbs, and then working through the permutations.

Henry: Staring Directly at the Eclipse is a quiet act of defiance. There are many things we are told are not good for us to look at too closely. I’m interested in science and nature and the difference between what you think, what you feel and this idea of the spirit. Some of the poems try to grapple with that and other poems are about how, as you get older, you think about what life’s all about and what lessons you’ve learned. My son Jonny is autistic, so the idea of human perfection, or human imperfection, runs through my work.

Such as in your poem, Photo Bombing God?
Henry: I’d got three images in my head: I’d got a photo of me and my son; the DNA double helix; and a brilliant drawing by Da Vinci of what you might call the perfect man (Vitruvian Man). And those three images run through the poem. It’s about the fact that DNA is supposedly what we actually are and this image Leonardo has come up with is supposed to be the correct proportions of a man; and then, of course, there is the reality of what you are and what your son is.

Do you have a favourite poem in your own collection?
Matt: The monkey poem. It’s actually called Construction with phrases but in every verse the poem mentions this kind of character called “the monkey in the mind”. He drinks a lot of coffee, is full of big ideas, and generally likes to give people a hard time.

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Matthew Welton

Does your relationship with Nottingham resonate in your work?
Henry: I got started as a poet as part of the Angel Row Writers library group run by Wendy Whitfield. The first person to stock my debut collection Is Love Science Fiction? (1986) was Ross Bradshaw at Mushroom Books, so it’s lovely to be publishing Staring Directly at the Eclipse with Ross [Five Leaves Publishing] all these years later. I can’t pass myself off as being posh because I’ve still got my Nottingham accent and I use words that I have to explain sometimes, ‘cos they’re from Nottingham. I’ve educated myself outside of school – I co-wrote The Royle Family, for example, and there’s an observation on life you can get there because you have been on a different journey to those in academia.

Matt: The idea of living among a community of writers matters a lot. Having writers like Sarah Jackson, Jon McGregor, Lila Matsumoto and Richard House around can be an inspiring, affirming and reassuring part of my writing life. It is a beautiful city with an appetite for culture and creativity, and all the things that are part of that – buildings, parks, galleries, cafes, bookshops – are very conducive to taking reading and writing seriously.

And Nottingham is now a UNESCO World City of Literature…
Henry: Having the award as a focus and events like the upcoming Nottingham Festival of Literature (Tuesday 8 - Sunday 13 November) and Nottingham Poetry Festival (April/May 2017) will help in the cohesion of local talent and bring in some big names for international glamour. Nottingham is thriving, and outside of London and Manchester, I’d say it’s one of the main places for arts and media.

Matt: The UNESCO thing is a wonderful opportunity for readers and writers in Nottingham to develop their ambitions in all kinds of ways. The City of Literature director, Sandy Mahal, is full of energy, compassion and brilliant ideas. Cultural life in Nottingham just moved up a gear.

Future plans?
Henry: I’ve got a book coming out in 2017 about living with autism, based on a radio show I did recently on BBC 4 called A Normal Family. It received very good reviews and was about my life with my son.

Matt: With The Number Poems only just published, I’m in that fun place of sketching out what comes next. I’ve got an idea for the weirdest novel ever written. Like my poems, its form is as important as its content.

Poetry Book Launches by Matthew Welton and Henry Normal, with special guest Ruth Fainlight, Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts Centre, Thursday 6 October, £5 - £8. 

Staring Directly at the Eclipse, Henry Normal, Five Leaves Publications, £9.99 / The Number Poems, Matthew Welton, Carcanet, £9.99.

Read two previously unpublished works from the two poets

Lakeside website

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