‘The other side of the glass’: an interview with Matthew Clegg

An interview with Matthew Clegg (conducted by Paul Brookes in July 2022), encompassing a range of subjects including confidence tricksters, populism, marketing, the Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, film noir, urban environments, and the methods employed in crafting his third and most recent collection, Cazique (Longbarrow Press, 2018).

An earlier version of this interview appeared on the Wombwell Rainbow site in July 2022 (as part of the Wombwell Book Interviews series). Many thanks to Paul Brookes for conducting the interview, and hosting it on his blog.

1. How did you decide on the order of the poems in Cazique?

Usually, when arranging a poetry sequence, I look for a principle to organise the structure. In West North East it was fugue (as in a musical fugue, and fugue state). For the organisation of the sequence ‘Cazique’, I stole a principal from Paradise Lost – chiastic structure.

Basically, you arrange themes or ideas in an A, B, B, A pattern. Ideas or themes are paired, then arranged so they echo or develop: the last poem echoes or develops the first poem, then the second to last echoes or develops the second poem, etc. This will meet in the middle with an obvious pairing. So, there is an (almost hidden) symmetry or pattern to this, which I hope ties in with the psyche of the speaker – a conman narrating a story of his life.

There is a further level of structure: the sequence (very roughly) moves through the three parts of rhetoric (or the rhetorical triangle): logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos appeals to reason; ethos appeals to character; pathos appeals to the emotions. The conman character is slippery: is he a conman being sincere about his art and life, or is he a conman applying rhetoric in order to appear sincere about his art and life – a conman setting up a longer con.

I hope the structure reinforces this slipperiness (is that a paradox?). Each assertion is echoed by a doubt, and each doubt is echoed by an assertion. Round and round we go, in a circle, a cycle, building unease – seemingly nearer to the truth, but feeling it slip through our fingers. This is how I experience our modern reality.

2. How important is the urban environment in your poetry?

I grew up on the edge of East Leeds – near Cross Gates (often spelled Crossgates). On one side of Austhorpe Lane were suburban estates, and on the other side were cow fields, agriculture, woods, (long-ago) landscaped pits. I travel both directions in my writing: I’ve written about the urban, about edgeland spaces and places (especially in and around Sheffield, where I’ve lived most of my adult life), and about greener spaces – both cultivated and wild.

The speaker in ‘Cazique’ has found himself in Mexborough (South Yorkshire) – which was where I was living (cheaply) when I wrote the bulk of that sequence. Sense of place usually drives my sequences, on some level – place intertwined with culture, history, local character; place intertwined with language and economy.

Despite his grandiose plans, after his fall from wealth, Cazique ends up back where he started, in a small South Yorkshire town. He watches (so-called) small town people living (so-called) small time lives. He watches closely, bubbling with both identification and reaction.

On some level, I think ‘Cazique’ is very much about the kind of places that are left behind by the modern economy – the kind of places that might feature on the (phony) ‘levelling up’ agenda. The character of Cazique is a sort of post-Thatcherite Edmund the Bastard – a demonic social climber. But the thing is, he can never quite climb free, and the smalltown life he reacts against becomes both his purgatory and his afterlife.

On a weird level, he almost becomes an elegist for those places. Perhaps I’m saying too much here. I don’t want to overdetermine the text for the reader, but these were the kinds of thought spinning round my head when I was composing.

Yes, the urban environment is important in my poetry. I think urban and suburban spaces are as rewarding as non-urban spaces. I embrace the ethic of looking for beauty or interest in (so-called) unpromising places.

Socially and politically, the conditions and economies of less glamorous urban spaces (like Mexborough) tell us a lot about our culture – who is thriving, who is struggling, who is making the most of where they are and what they’ve got, and who doesn’t give a damn about them, really.

3. How does storytelling and a narrative arc figure in Cazique?

The character ‘Cazique’ tells different parts and versions of his story across 42 poems. They are arranged in the chiastic structure I’ve described.

It’s a sort of trickster cycle. Variously, he appears to confess and come clean; to express regrets and remorse, and then to express no regrets and no remorse; he tells us how he got hurt and damaged, and how he hurt and damaged others; he addresses those he has betrayed or hurt, pleading with them to forgive, and then speaks about those he has enjoyed hurting or betraying, readying himself to do it again.

He says he wants to be saved, and warns anyone against trying to save him. He tells us how he took the name ‘Cazique’, and what the name gave him; and then he speaks of the too-heavy cost of being ‘Cazique’, fishing for our compassion.

The first poem might imply confession before a fresh start. The last poem might imply final testimony before suicide. It’s not so much an arc as cycle of assertion and doubt. Do I believe ‘Cazique’ lies down in the snow to die? No. He slips through the fingers of his own poems. He’ll raise an eyebrow at whatever ‘we’ believe he is telling us.

‘Cazique’ has always been around, but he’s born to thrive in the post-Trump, post-Johnson age; in the age of marketing and post-truth and curation of self / image. Years back, I actually found a website titled ‘What Marketing Can Learn from Conmen?’ Brazen. High production. Right in your face.

4. What made you choose sonnets and tankas for the first section of the book?

‘Officer’ is a sequence in the voice of a mid-level worker in the corporate public sector. It’s about the breakdown in communication between employee and employer.

Version 1 was just sonnets. I think I chose sonnets because the sonnet is a tight, closed form. I wanted something to reinforce the speaker’s sense of being in a professional straitjacket – how many of us feel when our complex selves are pressed into a very regulated / curated role or public-facing persona.

On another level, I was playing with trying to feed this aristocratic poetic form with very unpoetic language – the language of corporate professionalism – a rigid, flatlining language, the Dalek voice of bullet points, Actions, & SMART targets. Fundamentally, I find that kind of language inadequate to reality, but it’s a powerful way of exercising control.

I think there is quite a tradition now of feeding the sonnet with language / themes outside its original remit: the effect can be ironic, subversive, dissonant. I became unhappy with version 1 (published as a pamphlet in 2007), so version 2 (in the Cazique book) was expanded to incorporate a new sequence called ‘Zipped File’.

‘Zipped File’ is written in tankas: the idea is that they offer some kind of counterpoint or undercurrent. These are private epiphanies. The officer’s more personal thoughts and feelings have fled into the tankas. A different kind of nuance lives there, almost underground.

The whole thing is designed to go round in a loop. Just when it looks like the officer is going to resign or break down, the reader is following the tankas back to the beginning of the loop. When I worked in such a role, my biggest battle was with my own inertia. I was feeling about to resign for too long. Somehow, I kept on looping, not progressing, not stopping. With each repeat, I was a little less mentally healthy.

A hostile critic once called this sequence ‘neither here nor there’, which is (unintentionally) rather apt. The officer is indeed unable to commit to properly staying or properly resigning. Staying and resigning have merged into ‘neither here nor there’. The officer is sort of zombified. Ok, that’s how I feel about it now – a long time after the event. Hopefully, I won’t need to write such a sequence again.

5. In the first section, what is the role of the birds mentioned in both sonnets and tankas?

There are several creatures in ‘Officer’. They feature both as themselves and as some kind of symbol, I guess, as creatures often do in poems, where there is usually a tension between letting creatures be ‘other’ and making creatures ‘mean’ something in our world. The swift in ‘Think Positive’ is life knocking from the other side of the glass between (larger) reality and the (smaller, tighter) corporate reality.

Equally, I can’t think about swifts without thinking of Ted Hughes’ brilliant ‘Swift’ poem in Season Songs – a poem brightly engaged with life and death on the most meaningful level. I also think of the ‘birds flying high’ in Nina Simone’s barnstorming ‘Feeling Good’. Other creatures include: flies dying in a corporate stairwell in midsummer; a bluebottle trapped in the officer’s fridge; vulnerable beetles crawling a city pavement; an owl on a street lamp, at 5.00am; and a hornet the officer finds in his sheets.

In Dante’s Inferno, wasps and hornets are what chase and sting the sinners who never chose a side in the struggle of conscience. I suppose this relates to that theme of being ‘neither here nor there’ again, and needing to wake up and make an existential choice. It’s the recurring theme of becoming zombified, or of the human spirit slumbering in a corporate role.

There’s a brilliant short story by David Constantine that I love. It’s called ‘The Loss’, and you can find it in his collection Under the Dam. It’s about a successful corporate figure living beyond the moment he feels his soul leaving his body. It’s very modern, but haunted by the terms of the old moral universe.

6. How important is form in the other two sections of Cazique?

It’s certainly very central to the second sequence, ‘Holodets’ (holodets is a Russian meat jelly made with garlic). This maps a relationship and breakdown of communication between an English poet and a Russian immigrant.

‘Holodets’ moves between three forms. There are sonnets, addressed to the immigrant (who is sometimes a muse, sometimes a sharp critic of the poet, as both man and artist). There are little songs, addressed to the immigrant’s baby daughter. These are written in a form stolen from Yeats’ poem, ‘To a Squirrel at Kyle-Na-No’. They are very short and sweet, sometimes bitter-sweet. Then there are (Northern) English versions of lyrics from Pushkin and Mandelstam – versions of those poets that the Russian muse would probably struggle with, for all the same reasons that communication is breaking down between the mismatched lovers.

I was playing with form as a kind of intertextuality and (like in ‘Officer’) sometimes I was trying to feed the forms tones, voices and material at odds with the forms: again, to play with dissonance and irony.

Structure is probably the main driver in the third sequence, ‘Cazique’, although I have played with form as allusion and intertextuality there too: especially the poem ‘A Ghost Will Come’, which is written in the same (tortuous) form as Yeats’ ‘All Soul’s Night’, and ‘Logos: Speeches for Two Occasions’, which uses a form adopted by Peter Reading in his ‘Going On’ sequence, a form he’d taken from classical Greek or Latin verse.

I enjoy form. It gives me something to work with and against. Sometimes I enjoy the challenge of pitting my wits against a demanding, tortuous form; letting the rhymes and constraints force me into new and divergent ways of thinking: of working myself slowly through a process of surprise.

7. I remember you once saying Peter Reading was a big influence on your writing, and also Derek Walcott.

They were both poets I’ve tried to learn things from, and they were both poets who made me feel that a poetic project was a meaningful thing – no mean feat in a world that often ignores poetry. I don’t mean their work justified itself in sales or fame or prestige for the author (a side benefit, not a goal), I mean their art was a sustaining cultural force or energy.

One of Walcott’s great creations has to be Shabine, the mixed-race sailor-poet who speaks his 11-part dramatic poem, ‘The Schooner Flight’ (from The Star-Apple Kingdom, 1979). I heard a version of this poem on Radio 4 in my early 20s and was instantly riveted. It’s an amazing blend of vernacular Caribbean and high-register, Miltonic language. It’s musical, dramatic, meditative, full of political ire against the legacy of colonialism and current corruption; balanced by celebration of the islands and loving-tenderness towards people. I’ve been chasing some of the effects of that poem for years and years.

I was introduced to Peter Reading’s Ukulele Music (1985) on Neil Roberts’ contemporary poetry module at Sheffield University (again, in my 20s). I was taken by the ironies and black humour. I admired the way Reading applied classical meters to the kind of grotty/gritty urban material I recognised from my life, but felt was often excluded from poetry. I also relished Reading’s Bakhtinian collage of voices: voices from up and down the social hierarchy, but often coming from the underclass or the margins. One of the most appealing voices in Ukulele Music is Viv: the poet-persona’s beleaguered but irrepressible cleaner, and self-proclaimed ‘life of the party’.

Both Walcott and Reading are masters of structuring a poetry volume, stealing methods from other genres: the classics, drama, the novel, music, etc. Many of Walcott’s book covers are his own paintings, and Reading’s Bloodaxe books are clearly (partly) the fruit of his own flair for design. The flavour of their poetics ran all the way through their projects. I greatly miss the arrival of new books from them.

8. In Cazique I can hear hard-boiled crime novels. How did these influence the diction?

That question genuinely finds me without a readymade answer. I’ve not read many crime novels – apart from a handful by Chandler. I do love film noir, though. Anything with Bogart and Bacall in, but especially Key Largo. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Polanski’s Chinatown. Curtis Henson’s L.A. Confidential. Anything good about corruption and corruptibility. I recently read Robin Robertson’s noir-influenced poem/novel, The Long Take, and I enjoyed that a lot.

Is Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent a crime novel? I’ve re-read that several times. Also, Conrad’s Nostromo, a great novel about material interests and human corruptibility. And of course, Heart of Darkness.

As far as TV drama goes, I watch and re-watch The Wire, religiously, and that has to be the pinnacle of a certain kind of crime show – one with a social and political message about careerism and corruption and larger structures. I love Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness (1985), especially for mood and sense of dread. Bob Peck was terrific in that. That was the era that also produced Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1987). HBO’s Deadwood was a dialogue revelation to me, and I became a devoted fan of Mad Men – Don Draper as existential anti-hero.

Your question was about diction, wasn’t it? Without being sure, I guess the kind of film and TV I’ve mentioned here is more likely to have had an effect on my writing than crime fiction. I hugely enjoyed the adult-orientated TV that came out of the (so-called) second Golden Age of TV. The Sopranos, The Shield, Justified, etc. All have compelling anti-heroes with great lines and dialogue. At the end of the working day, Ruth and me like a great TV show to get engrossed in. We both enjoy the darker end of the spectrum.

9. Cazique is also spiced throughout with references to Shakespeare, Robin Hood, Lorca, and Bowie. Why this blending of so called “High” with so called “Low” art?

Those are all sources with which the character Cazique self-identifies. Cazique is a chameleon and a social climber. He identifies with so-called transformer artists like Bowie and Lou Reed; with Shakespearean villains like Iago, Macbeth, Edmund the Bastard; with Milton’s Satan; and sometimes, yes, with people’s champions like Robin Hood and Lorca.

Cazique is protean and harlequin, sucking energy from every source he can get his hands on. He’s inspired by the 19th century Scottish confidence trickster, Gregor MacGregor, who gave himself the title ‘Cazique of Poyais’ – a ruse that fuelled MacGregor’s greatest and most cruel con – selling land to settlers, land in a settlement in the Mosquito territories of South America. This territory was pitched as a land of milk and honey, but settlers arrived to find it abandoned and unprotected. Disease and fever were rife.

I see parallels with Brexit.

More generally, blending so-called ‘high’ and so-called ‘low’ culture does seem to be where we are, now. Walcott described his own art as ‘bastard’ or ‘mulatto’, embracing the melting pot of the Caribbean. I’m not Caribbean, obviously, but I also embrace the idea of melting pot and certainly see myself and my culture as mongrel or moggie.

My background isn’t ‘high’, but it was hugely exciting for me to discover the so-called poetry canon in my 20s. When the actual circumstances of my life were fairly poor (difficult home life, unemployment, government training schemes, crappy jobs), I could charge my imagination with Keats or Wordsworth or whatever.

But my earliest interest in art was inspired by the art-pop/post-punk of the 1980s, and by popular TV and film. I love Jonathan Lethem’s essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’. He writes about how we inhabit this chaos of signs and texts and images. He embraces art as collage and appropriation. The perfect illustration of what he means might be the Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things, which so many of my students love. I love it too.

10. What do you find fascinating about “identity”?

That’s a big question. I’ve gone to the dictionary for help: ‘1. the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.’ I guess Cazique might see himself as self-made. A construct. A series of appropriations. A performance or fiction. Under all that, a damaged psyche, a smorgasbord of memories, a dynamo of energy, a series of repeating behaviours.

In the modern world, what with social media and media generally, self or identity seems increasingly curated. I was listening to Liz Truss talking about her experience of school – this narrative about poor standards and deprivations, etc., when it’s fairly clear (if you know the area of Leeds she’s from and the school she attended) that this is a construct designed to appeal to a certain audience. It begs more questions than it answers. Look at how most populist politicians curate themselves – Farage, Johnson, whoever.

Let’s try and get past that sort of thing, then, and maybe try to explore the more everyday. As a university lecturer, I’ve talked with a colleague about the kind of assumption students can make about you, just because you are a lecturer: that you are culturally ‘upmarket’ and have always been culturally ‘upmarket’. They have no window or insight into where you came from, or what you were like 30 years ago. Most of that stays hidden from many people – like imposter syndrome or that sense of unbelonging.

Then there are the roles, personae, and temporary configurations we adopt or perform for people (or ourselves). For my first girlfriend, I played up to a role she constructed for me – just because I desperately wanted a part in her life. God knows what role or persona she adopted to please me. Identity seems to be a hot topic now, important to people in all kinds of ways, whether in terms of race, gender, sexuality, whatever, but, equally, it’s very complex, very slippery, a domain to be approached with a healthy critical intelligence.

11. Once they have read the book, what do you hope the reader will leave with?

I don’t think Cazique has been an easy book for Longbarrow Press to sell. It hasn’t attracted reviews. It’s not a book that many of my friends have talked about with me, either. I suspect it’s hard to market or promote. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s hard to like. Whatever it gives with one hand, it takes away with the other.

It doesn’t fit in the box my previous books fit in – the landscape box, the edgeland box. It’s difficult (although I don’t mean intellectually). I think it’s my best book. It’s the book I had to dig deepest to write. The book I should’ve written years ago, but didn’t have the resources to pull off.

Anyone who reads this book is likely to be in a very small minority. If they like it, or see anything in it that’s valuable, I hope they spread the word. Longbarrow Press will be grateful for any sales. I hate the idea of the press losing money because they took a chance on a weird book like Cazique.

I hope those that read it will leave with something they want to return to. The character of Cazique hopped out of any box I tried to lock him in.


Click here to read ‘The Outside Inside’ by Matthew Clegg, a short essay on the role of the ‘conman’ – historical, contemporary, imaginary – in shaping Cazique

Cazique is the third full-length poetry collection by Matthew Clegg. A beautifully produced 96-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press. You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.

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