Known as the ‘Tree Surgeon Poet,’ Matthew Plumb is an experienced forester and increasing presence on the UK poetry scene, who’s love and appreciation for the land he lives and works on continues to provide a steady flow of inspiration for his writing. Originally hailing from the Black Mountains, he has enjoyed a life-long connection to nature, and much of his work focuses on his personal interaction with and experience of the world around him. Matthew’s personal enjoyment of writing and literature doesn’t end with his own work, though, as he also facilitates writing workshops with young people and runs an interactive writing platform designed to support new and emerging poets. With a first poetry pamphlet in the pipeline, and many more projects underway, I was excited to meet with him to find out more.
Can you tell us a little about how you first became interested in writing and poetry?
I began writing poetry seriously just before I turned twenty-one, which is quite late, really. A mate, having a clear-out about a year back, found a poem of mine in a yearbook from our little junior school. I have to say, at eight, I had it going on; I have no idea what has happened since! The poem was about a salmon and took in the whole lifecycle of the fish.
Remembering back again to school, my first unforgettable interaction with a poem was at GCSE level: ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen. I had never read anything as visual, or felt so involved in a piece writing, and I have been trying to write my way to that standard since my early twenties.
And what purpose does poetry serve in your life now?
The reading and writing of poetry provide constant fascination and thrill. The writing side is all about the hunt for the right image and feel, which is set with failure and frustration. But writing things I am happy with is really satisfying. The reading side to writing is nothing but enjoyment; the experience of reading someone’s heart is life affirming.
Ondine Leaving the deeps with her voice and her coat her singing haunts all the pretty fishies to do as she and quit the buoyant seas. She crams his pots with a charm from her throat, besotted lobsters craving every note. Shoal in the net flood the deck to a squeeze, cool bodies and a steel quick to bellies. Stone on stone on the scale nudge up a hope. He lands his catch for lingerie and frock and town steps out in a pretty rumour of the secret he knows he cannot keep. Her buried coat and the movement of clocks, the netting needle and rule of weather. Her seven years and her seven tears to weep.
Through Depths of Height Something about night and honeysuckle, eloping mood sighs of supple verdure, the balm and thrill spill of nature sugar, how right, this time of night, sky is purple; little shimmer before each new sparkle, nature symmetry, nature manufacture – how deep the sea brings black into texture, divine real time and impulses simple. Something about love of moving father mystery gentle, myth in my system fable my action quietly core of core, sensory harvest of summer nurture. The rhythm, having no real precision, has no after for me, from no before.
So, who/what has been the biggest inspiration to your work so far?
Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd was the first time I had experienced the English language being used in a way that I liken to Ali showboating in the ring. Hardy took the language and made it perform like a money-no-object firework display. Mesmeric. I saw in his writing a way to celebrate the language.
Specific to poetry, I always return to Blake when short of a contemporary collection, and having been born and raised in Wales, I have got some pretty serious Dylan OCD. I love Robert Frost and William Stafford, and I am regularly left elated and envious of e e cummings’ work.
More recently, I have been influenced by Les Murray’s Taller When Prone, and Alice Oswald’s, Falling Awake. Oswald’s womanliness is the womanliness of nature and her poetry has a lovely, gentle affinity, that is spare, but completely involved.
And in what ways has your upbringing in Wales influenced your writing?
Growing up in the Black Mountains meant the outdoors became a place to explore without any real aim. That freedom of wandering physically and mentally is a natural state, and that connection with nature led me to write with that freedom.
Wales is a land that literally speaks in the voice of the land; I mean the land informs the language, and I feel that informs my subconscious to want to write the land. There is so much variety in terms of subject that the challenge of capture is infinite. Nature constantly replenishes my interest in, and enjoyment of writing.
Solar Eclipse in Llangwm Hollow Mimic of dusk trying to tip the horizon sheathing moon instils belittling cosmos cooling the prim hope of our celandine morning. Purple invading blue with black that wraps the stars. Science has no hypothesis to gauge surprise, affinities missile their weight through thinning skies. Egg-full birds berate the purposeful confusion, profound security of no constants, the poignant close to cruel of every sly turning. How near we are when we plummet into how far.
Sker Lazy mounds of ochre brine shouldering and walling out – September swings the trim of waves to overhead – a sweet suggestion out of a lightning storm of the hammer of the sea to come. Harvest time. Quiet time. Renewal touched in a wave rain numbed, all the founding ache in us our sounding form, and in the climbing mass of the wave we are bred rhythmic and too little doubt, while the oceans oil our spine.
So, how do ideas come to you – can you describe the creative process?
There is always the initial, visual prompt, but the acoustic experience, as well as the experiences of taste and smell and touch all combine. Then the dreaming process kicks in. Poems can take anything from an hour, to months and months to write and the dream process is as vital for the poems that flash out and those that have to be constantly summoned and coaxed.
And where does your tree surgery work fit in?
I love cutting and the intimacy with nature that line of work involves. Cutters are always a good bunch; aware and concerned by the pressure we have inadvertently placed on the natural world, we cut to manage and replenish. There is a lot of awareness amongst us. I like to think we are wardens of a beautiful, very vital facet of the natural world.
As well as being a writer and tree surgeon you’ve also done a bit of voluntary work. Can you tell us a little about the time you spent with refugees in Calais?
Calais was a little while ago now. I spent my time over there cutting log for fuel and building bases for shelters. I ran a poetry workshop at the theatre in the Jungle. The last time I went over the authorities were demolishing the camp and it was a distressing experience; the derision and loss of hope was very sad.
How would you describe the situation as you saw it?
It was a very tense place to be. Being vocal about our reason for being there was not a good idea; you had to be careful who you spoke to, and how much you said. That was not something I had thought about. A friend of mine put up a sign outside her partner’s office here in the UK encouraging people to drop clothes and bedding there, which I then took over in my van. There was no way you could do that in Calais, the place would have been smashed up and torched.
Poetry Workshop in the Jungle Drawing together a crazy oscillation of feelings after visiting a refugee camp and creating a rational, cognitive response, I think, is something I am always going to struggle to achieve. The first thing me and my two companions saw driving into The Jungle, was a tall and very beautiful black woman, mid-twenties, with a load of swagger. She was attracting the lewd attention of every man who passed her and the sexual charge was the last thing I was expecting. I have no idea what her gig was, but I assumed she was a refugee. My companions had been asked, well, told by female volunteers at the warehouse, to dress in nothing that would encourage the male refugees to make advances, and they moved around the camp easily enough. This first perspective, the behaviour of those men, was for me, a massive negative. Leading a poetry workshop in the Theatre was manic. My fellow writers were early to mid-twenties, male, mostly Afghan, and were all over me straight away, touching my hair, hugging me, laughing. The theme of the workshop was 'journey', but they mostly wanted to write about love, the sky, and a better life, which I expected. One participant, who I could tell was going to be really good, did one in the first five minutes and came back towards the end of the session with a lovely clutch of poems he had gathered from other people in the camp. This one stood out as a tight little haiku: Four men on four chairs Talk through life with lofty airs. Four chairs left empty. In just over an hour a lot of life experience and aspiration was laid down and then it all stopped. The lads gave me back all the pens and paper I had provided, grabbed a hacky-sacky and went into this really energetic game of mass piggy-in-the-middle! job done! Moving about the camp is probably the most harrowing and evoking experience of my life. The main drags are stoned, and there is a basic level of sanitation; plumbed in water at set points, portaloos that hum of decomposing shit, and the reek of piss that has ensconced itself the latent smell of the earth. Shops, of the stores variety, and the coffee, all of them shanty. The school was awesome, the bookshop, the youth centre. The Ethiopian church with its gable-end mounted cross gave the sky line an unforgettable composure. Everything shanty, everything low, in a low, level expanse of industrial wasteland with a high fence against the highway, and banked up earth ringing the rest of the perimeter. Virtually out of eye sight. Activity everywhere, and a strange, gnawing sense of boredom and frustration, and exhaustion, dragging through your body as you walk through the madness of abandoned tents, or not, ripped open, clothes strewn about, food scat over the ground, faeces here and there, and the utter disillusion of traumatised people coming down on you like a sleep you really need to take. People want solutions, or just a solution. I think it is ludicrous to expect that there can be a solution to a situation that is worsening. I believe individual European societies have to view themselves as a singular entity, as does the European Union as a whole. Society in terms of oneness, society as an individual with emotions and a psychology that can be affected by action. I believe how we treat refugees now will affect how we behave as a society in the future. How we respond to hardship or threat, or the opportunity of prospect or good. I believe that if we do not consider human beings to be composed of potential, to inherently veer towards kindness, and that we treat people appropriate to these factors, we are likely to damage ourselves. Originally published on Plumb Poetry, 26 FEBRUARY 2016
You also run a literary organisation called Poetry Pulse. Can you tell us a little about this?
Poetry Pulse is about getting emerging writers engaged with developing their writing through sharing their work with each other. The project is a cooperative; poets supporting each others’ poetry through participation. I felt dislocated from the poetry coming out of universities, and the often political writing of the underground. I hoped Poetry Pulse would fill this void.
Finally, do you have any advice for new/emerging writers?
Read. Read poetry, read novels, academic journals, newspapers, crisp packets. Read the books your friends tell you you will like. Reading the dictionary is fascinating. Read poetry in languages you cannot speak and see how timing in writing is the music of the word and voice. Write to enjoy the privilege of being able to write and to read. I think this is the way to write poems that you are satisfied with… Perhaps even proud of!
About the Author
Matthew Plumb has been writing poetry for over ten years and has decided to get on the viral spiral, well, give it a go. He is a City and Guilds ticketed Tree Surgeon, and was recently accepted on the Writers of Wales Database.
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Photo credit: Nick Southern