YoungWriter Magazine Logo Guest Author Photograph

Interview with Matthew Sweeney

Matthew Sweeney was born in County Donegal in 1952. He went to school in Ireland and to University College, Dublin, then studied English and German in London and Germany. He has worked for the Poetry Society and often runs workshops to pass on his skills and insights. His own poetry is not full of obviously poetic techniques, but it is rich with tone and suggestion and humour (often rather black humour!). His subject matter, too, can be dark. If you ever get the chance to hear Matthew read his own poetry go grab it. His wonderful voice will accompany them in your mind when you read them.

Why do- you write? Do you think poetry has a purpose?

I write because I have to write, because the writing comes - not all the time, by any means, and not very often. I tend to write in spurts, with months of no writing at all in-between. I’m talking about the poetry here - with fiction, such as Fox, it is necessarily more methodical and regular, but even here there are days when one can write nothing. Does poetry have a purpose? No, except to satisfy some urge or need in the writer. But society would be all the poorer if poetry didn’t exist.

Who were or still are your influences? Which poets do you most admire?

The poet who was most important to me when I started getting seriously going first was Sylvia Plath. The Czech-German writer Franz Kafka, although not a poet, has also been influential, and Robert Frost has much to say about the writing of poetry that I’ve found useful. I don’t think that any poets, once they’ve found their voices, continue to have influences, although most of us keep an eye out for what’s being written. I have a particular interest in poetry in translation. Faber’s selection of the Serbian poet, Ristovic, for example, was one of my favourite books of recent years. I am a big fan of the Scottish poet WS Graham, and my favourite poet who writes for children is Charles Causley.

How has your use of language been shaped by your Irish heritage? Do you think this heritage is something to try to distance yourself from or to embrace?

It is often said that behind the English of an Irish poet is the ghost of the Irish language. It is certainly true that some of the phrasing of Irish English is coloured by the Irish language, and this is bound to be represented in the poetry. I don’t know how I can measure the extent to which I have been shaped by my Irish heritage. Living abroad for so long, as I have done, and embracing the German language and literature at college, have complicated matters. Anyway, it doesn’t do to be too aware of one’s heritage, or know too much about where the writing comes from.

Your poetry is often quite sinister, all the more so because of the sudden, subtle twists you produce in the last few lines of your poems. Where does this come from?

The sinister? Is it just temperamental? Or is it linked to my hypochondria? Or is the Irish heritage kicking in here? Black humour features prominently in the part of Ireland I come from. My grandmother used to speak of a joke with a jag in it. And from my perspective this world we live in is a very precarious place. So it is temperamental.

How much, or little, do you change your style when writing for young people?

In many ways there isn’t a lot of difference between my children’s and adult poetry. The latter is often darker, and rhyme is a more pressing option in the former. But I’ve put some of my children’s work in my adult Selected, and vice versa. I’ll let Auden have the last word here: ‘While there are some good poems which are only for adults, because they presuppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children.’

What are your personal plans for the future?

I am currently trying to finish a new book of poems, provisionally called Sanctuary. There is also the little matter of a book of short stories that I am ten years late in delivering to Cape. And it is not inconceivable that I might try another children’s novel. There is a sort of beginning somewhere.

And, finally, what advice would you give to young poets?

My first advice would be to read contemporary poetry, as much of it and as wide a range as possible. It’s impossible to write poetry without reading it. I’d also advise any young poet to get to know other young poets to share work with. And, if at all possible, find an older poet to act as mentor—some of the Regional Arts Associations have recently established mentoring schemes. Failing that, hector teachers to get poets into school or college, and if all this fails, go on Arvon courses. And be prepared to scribble as often as possible in a notebook, and not worry too much if it doesn’t always come out right.

Thank you very much, Matthew Sweeney!

Read more interviews of leading authors by children.

YoungWriter was a magazine published from 1995 to 2003 by Kate Jones.
We here at Myst Ltd had the pleasure of producing the magazine for Kate.
Sadly, Kate passed away in 2010.