AN INTERVIEW WITH MATT NUNN – POET
When asked to interview someone I admire I didn’t have to look far. I knew, to find satisfaction, I had to believe in my subject. However, you often have views of people but on reflection find your views to be incorrect. Was this going to happen to me?
I first met Matt Nunn in April 2014. I’d not long retired and needed something to replace my work and take my mind off other things going on in my life. Whether a writing challenge was to be the answer for me I wasn’t sure. The fact that It is now 2021, have three books published, and Matt is still my Creative Writing mentor, speaks for itself.
When my chance to interview him came to light I was quite anxious … how should I voice my questions… how far could I push him? I was putting us both in a difficult position here, so I thought long and hard about the questions I wanted to ask.
Finally, I decided if I wanted to find what lay behind the real Matt Nunn, what made him tick, no holds should be barred. If he preferred not to answer any of my questions then that was for him to decide and not for me to surmise.
So here goes. My quest to find the real Matt Nunn – poet.
My first question was designed to take Matt back to his childhood to see what shaped him into the poet he later became.
“I had a vivid imagination,” he told me. “I would write stories designed to make my brother laugh when we were bored.”
Of course at that time Matt had no thought of becoming a writer. At that age he didn’t even realise what ‘a writer’ was… and as for a poet… what the hell was one of those? But even then he had a feeling deep down, a need to express himself.
I next asked about any obstacles he’d encountered once the need to become a poet came to light. Being a poet for a young man, a football hungry young man, appears unusual. I wondered how his peers accepted this.
“I became a vegetarian a couple of years before I became a poet,” was his reply. “This had already marked me down as a weirdo. Pursuing an off-beat path, such as a scrawler of words was to be accepted from such a strange chap.”
He explained his need during that time was to get away from the dead ends his life was moving towards. He hoped through poetry he could walk new paths, ‘become a specimen of opposition and strange habits’. He hastened to add he wasn’t lazy, indeed ‘I was working damned hard on my craft and trade.’
I felt an upsurge of energy when he spoke of finding new friends, writing friends, people who understood, a time when he mixed and matched his two sets of friends to suit his mood and I sense things got better.
So when did your writing journey begin. What finally triggered it?
“When I was nineteen the government decided to pay me … to be creative. There was a general election on the horizon and the dole queues were rising. They decided to shovel cannon fodder into some sort of training. Most were ill-suited and would get nothing out of it. But I wanted to get something from it and in the end, by an accidental route, I did.
He told me of the theatre course, ‘an acting course for the desperate’ he called it, where for the first time he was able to see a chance. His idea was to begin the course on Wednesday and by Friday he would have written a play… and been declared a genius by the following Thursday. He was inspired. He would become a playwright! Beginning with his usual passion he wrote the play, the play that was going to make him famous overnight, ‘a living genius’… which of course it didn’t … deflating an already deflated ego even more, leaving him with all hopes shattered, and offering no other option but to quit, with his playwrighting dream in ruins. However, undaunted, or undaunted but not outdone, he signed up for a music course, which fortunately he found more to his taste.
“I took every chance and class I could. I already had some chords on a guitar, so I leant more, and then bought a piano and learnt that. I tried to learn drums, but my rhythmical sense never caught up with the prescribed beat, so I took singing lessons. Not a sweet songbird, but a ruddy great pigeon with a bad case of the blues and a rotten sore throat. I learnt studio craft, mixing everything… anything that would give me the break, I wanted to follow the crack of sun in the grey sky that I could see and follow it to the end of my rainbow, where all my dreams would be made.”
At last Matt felt he had purpose and he began writing songs… songs the world needed to hear!
“People who heard them (the songs) kept laughing, noticing the lyrics, and talk turned, not to my music, but to them. Deep down I knew this was my talent. People began muttering the word “poetry” and accusing me of being a “poet.” Maybe I was not a pop star in waiting, waiting several miles down the back of the queue, but a poet, an actual poet writing poetry. I tried to drown all this out. I still wanted to be a musician – that was much cooler than doing this thing called poetry. I hadn’t read any poetry, I certainly didn’t’ own any, nor had I ever heard of any of these sad sacks who apparently concern themselves doing this dusty old trade of whacking words down onto the slab – and telling other similar dusty old gits that this was their thing called poetry. I felt relieved and I felt free. I was a poet and it felt marvellous! I decided I could never be anything else from then on… and I haven’t been. I’ve always been a poet. That’s who I am!”
Why did you choose poetry and not prose?
“It chose me.”
Matt said he would think nothing of writing ten poems in a morning, then turning his hand to writing short stories and then a novel. However, at that time he had no idea how to craft anything and no real idea of the techniques of writing. His head was full of novels but he had no knowledge of what should be done with them. He had no doubt they would one day be published because at heart he knew they were good.
“I decided to continue to do this, write poems, for the rest of my life – then I’d look to conquer the stage as a playwright, the airways as the penner of sporadic plays, plus a sitcom and a drama series. I was thirsty to do everything and anything, and it would all come together as I envisaged!”
Poetry was to be his springboard. He sent a whole batch of poems off to a big magazine and joy of joys a couple of months later he had his first two poems published … along with a cheque. He had done it! He was only twenty one and had already made it as a poet! So he sent off more poems, some coming back as rejections, but others offering better news. People began to recognise his worth as a poet, his talent. He devoted more of his time to reading other poets, joined poetry groups, began to get asked to do poetry readings … so he did … it was another step up the ladder to where he wanted to be.
“By this point I felt the need to generate new stuff and to follow where I was being led and to where I was leading myself. Poetry became my creative occupation and everything else fell by the wayside as I kept stoking the fires with new poems.”
And because he was concentrating on mastering the poetry form Matt became more and more adept. He even wrote a few short stories during this period, which were acclaimed, indeed suggested by ‘some fairly big, published names’ that he should seek a publisher. However, he decided that although they worked as one off stories, they didn’t fit well enough with each other to go into a collection.
This is another side of Matt we see … the perfectionist. Never content with offering second best… and sometimes putting himself under great pressure because of this.
“I knew how to tell a story but not how to write a short story, and it showed. I was also mad busy with work, editing, teaching and running a publishing company. My third poetry collection had come out, and I was flavour of the month and being asked to read and teach all over the country.”
Along with this hectic professional life Matt also now had a new child … and his mental health began buckling beneath the weight of it all.
“What I’m saying, to answer your question is I didn’t especially choose to be a poet, I became one because it seemed to be the quickest route. My other writings all happened in isolation, opportunities were missed, or not pursued for very good reasons … and I became too tired to pursue them. So nothing ever quite rose to the challenge to change my alter-ego from being a poet and just a poet.”
Did your work give you the freedom you’d envisaged or were you hampered in any way by society. Is there anything you would change?
“I just wanted to find and become me … and it has allowed me to be me. That’s quite a freedom!
Who were your earliest influencers?
“Well, this is going to sound conceited, but my earliest and biggest influence was myself and my burning desire to get on with doing it.”
Did you have a poet role model and if so who was it? Can you still see their likeness in your work or have you moved on to develop your own style?
“No not really. I was always determined to be my own person as a poet from the start and I never wanted to be in thrall to anyone else. This again comes from the idea of just getting on with it and not worrying about the past, not caring or understanding the revered cannon, just writing as myself. I thought that was the only person worth writing as.”
Did you find a mentor to guide you, or a creative writing group?
“I did have a mentor, but he found me rather than me finding him. When the now renowned creative writing programme was being founded back, I think, in 1996, David Morley its founder and all-round head honcho, was casting round for the up and coming writers from the West Midlands, and somewhere or other my name came up. He contacted me and I was in. He opened my eyes as a writer.”
“In what way?
“I’d been a poet for about 5 years and had had success, but very soon I realised I didn’t know as much as I thought and with his help I started investigating all these new possibilities and putting them into practice. It wasn’t long until all this became apparent in my work as my standard of writing went up several notches. Perhaps more importantly he introduced me to the idea of teaching creative writing.”
Can you explain this?
“As a programme, early on, they were stretching their tentacles far out into the community and running creative writing classes. Without much ceremony, or warning, he chucked me into the deep end and told me, as part of the course, I was going to be sent to Redditch library to run a workshop. It was a fateful, red-letter day, as I’d never given the thought of actually teaching creative writing, that was the province of other people, not for the likes of me. I mean who was I to stand there and tell, well gently nudge, how to be a better writer. I was 26 and much, much younger than anyone else there. I’d never have done it in the first place without David, nor would I be anywhere as near as good a poet as I am, and it all came about because he saw some talent in me and backed me to learn and get better”
Do you feel able to write about anything or are there some subjects you feel uncomfortable writing about, either personally or socially. If so what are they?
I write about being from the age of 16 onwards by and large, because those are the scars I need to scratch, the sores I want to bleed from, the sources I need to exhume and examine.
I’ve never written anything about my immediate family, or indeed many of my friends, or any of the relationships within. Partly because of privacy and keeping something from the outside world, but mainly because it’s not within my zone of interest as a writer.
However, amongst the ideas for my next book are poems about my family, albeit very loosely. I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of my great friend and leading modern Welsh poet Jonathan Edwards and the way he writes about his family. They’re not personal reminisces as such but re-imaginings of his family. I’m playing with ideas around my great-grandfather, great-grandmother and two of my great-great Grandmothers. I never knew any of them, but family conversations and a bit of family tree research has thrown up this unlikely quartet as possible subjects of poems by their poetic descendent.
I’ve never written much about my childhood. However, again I have recently gone against this, as the last poem I wrote was about being eleven and the loss of friends I suffered when we moved from a house in a suburb, where I felt comfortable, to a house in a village which felt distinctly alien. I think this poem was lodged deep in me for a few years wanting to be written, but it took going for a lockdown walk with a friend for it to appear. We walked to the top of the winding road out of Knowle that eventually leads to Balsall Common and it suddenly flash-backed that was the route we took on the day we moved, 39 years before. The poem of my feelings and associated trauma suddenly began to become urgent and in need of popping out of my oven.”
Do you jot things down on bits of paper as they come to you until something takes shape, or do you head for a computer and write with great purpose, editing as you go?
“I try and jot things down on paper, I also store ideas in my head, sometimes for years. My brain is an over crammed folder of half-ideas, obtuse angles and contradictory shapes, no wonder it hurts so much! It can take years for a poem to be ready to come out and be born, I still from time to time go and visit ideas from twenty years ago that have been sunbathing and lying dormant in some distant and apparently warm crater in my brain.”
If you find an idea you want to revisit, how do you go about that?
“When they call me, shout to me they are ready, I begin patting them down and interrogating them to find their shape, to find their meaning, to see if they are worth further effort. If they can survive the pummelling I’m about to give them, the extreme exercise I’m going to feed them into, if they are anything more than just a scrap of an idea, I go from there, usually down unexpected side-roads following maps that are drawing themselves in glorious confusion.”
When does the computer come into this process?
“I don’t touch my computer with poems until they’re finished and ready to be put to bed, to join the waiting list for publication.”
As many of your answers reflect, your language skills and use of language is unique. Is this something you were taught, or has it come quite naturally to you?
“It’s pretty natural, I guess. It sort of evolved over time from the original tiny acorn. I think how it came about is, I started writing poetry without ever having read very much and I certainly had no understanding of the craft of writing a poem. When I wrote my first poem I was still technically in full-time education and in-between I’d sort of forgotten how to punctuate properly and all rules of grammar. So from this untutored mess were born early poems of carnage and chaos which bore little resemblance to what had been written by anyone before. Full stops and commas were inserted invariably in the wrong place, with a million grammatical errors littering them. All this tone deafness and accidental anarchy of grammar gave my poems a different, jagged, other worldly sense and a real freshness. This alien newness was what people latched onto, especially when I performed live, so it kind of became my calling-card, though in truth I’d never meant it to be, it just happened.”
So because of its success you decided to keep it like that and perfect it?”
“I’m very conscious of how words sound and the effect of how you say them, so it’s the same principles it’s just slicker. Writing on the off-beat and in hard jags gives you more space to explore and roam between the words and their meanings, which I like, explore and exploit to their maximum each time I write.”
At what stage did you decide to publish your work?
“The first moment I started writing poetry seriously I knew that I wanted to be published and was going to be eventually, the thought of not being so never entered my head!”
And when did it eventually happen?
“In the end it took 10,11 years to get, “Apocalyptic Bubble-gum,” my first book out. It felt wonderful to see the culmination of all the hard work come to fruition and to be able to hold it in my hand. I’d been published in many magazines and anthologies up to that point, so I wasn’t unpublished as such, but that moment, my first book, had a magic and a thrill of its own and I couldn’t stop beaming, nor looking at it, when I got my first copies of it.”
Are you still as pleased with that first book as with books published later?
“As I say, I was already 10 or so years into my writing career and I’d already achieved a fair bit, so I was fairly experienced, and the poems inside reflect this. It’s not raw, nor untutored, like a lot of first collections. Whilst I still had a lot to learn I did know quite a bit too by that point and that shows.”
What did it mean to you, being published?
“It’s just about the greatest feeling ever! To have written something that somebody has thought worthy of putting out there with the expectation that other people, people on the whole you may never meet, will get a tingle, some kind of recognition, or be educated or enchanted by your humble words, is an amazing sensation. And it never goes away. Next year it will be 30 years since I had my first poems published in a magazine and it’s as much a thrill now to get something published, to get anything published and recognised and given a thumbs up in some way, as it was the first time it happened.”
Which do you believe to be your most accomplished work?
“I’m proud of my five books, though I can see flaws in all of them. If I had to nominate a best, I think it would be my third collection, “Sounds in the grass”, but others disagree and tomorrow I might say it’s one of the others.”
Have you a favourite poem?
“The next one I write, because I’m intrigued at how it will turn out. Also, if you get better as you go along it ought to be my best one ever, just like the one I wrote before, and the one I will write after it!”
Is there a particular theme you keep returning to, and if so what is it and why?
“I do like writing about being about 18, because so much is decided about who you are and who you will be around that age, and that interest me.
I had severe mental health issues at this point, which I didn’t know were severe mental health issues because nobody talked about such stuff. I didn’t know it existed, so I had to suffer all this alone… and problems with girls. I’m starting to think at 50 maybe I should stop writing about being a teenager so much, but it still fascinates and I seem to be able to slip back into those clothes very easily.
I also write a lot about Birmingham, Solihull and the West Midlands and what it is to come from here and how our identity is formed by being neither north or south. I always celebrate being a Midlander and what I see, hear and smell etc. I like writing poems about Sheldon, Solihull and Shirley and think more should too. It’s a fertile patch and should be a mecca for poetry lovers everywhere.
I have noticed a lot of my work, especially the stories and maybe the novel(s) too, revolve around a lonely man fighting against the world, trying to make some kind of mark before others snatch it away from them again.”
As you told me earlier, your journey began as a poet long before you turned to teaching. Do you find teaching gives you as much artistic release as writing poetry and has it helped you as a poet?
“No. I use a different part of my head, still creative but a more practical district of my head space when I’m teaching. I’m thinking more about my students and what I can shovel up for them to learn and transform themselves into being better writers. So when I come to plan and execute the classes I’m not really thinking about myself, but those on the receiving end, they are my main focus rather than me, or my poetry.”
As one of Matt’s students this is all too obvious. His lesson plans and his feedbacks are second to none. He wills us to do well. Failure is not in his vocabulary… and therefore not in ours. Whatever Matt does he puts enormous strain upon himself. He wants to be the best, or at least the best HE can be. Not too long ago he told us, ‘I read all your work a few times before I feed back to you, to get a feel of your writing, gather my thoughts and consider.’ How many teachers would do that?
“What teaching has influenced and taught me a lot about is prose,” he continues, “and how to craft and tell stories successfully. Because as I left poetry behind and was re-purposed more as a creative writing master, I found I needed to explore new, sometimes entirely uncharted territories to give my students new challenges. I discovered how to write a memoir, novels, short-stories etc and to do so properly. Also all the genres such as sci-fi, fan fiction, and all the rest, oh and of course biographies, plays, screenplays, you name I’ve taught it. I need to know considerably more about the subject than my students. Teaching creative writing in all its myriads has influenced my prose writing an awful lot, because I have had to learn, and sometimes very quickly, how to do everything I ask others to do. All that stays with me and is poured into my other writings.”
Which one, writing poetry or teaching, do you hope to follow long-term and why have you decided this?
“Both, but neither. From here on in, I’m looking at running things as a writing business and my activities will be chosen and done in such a way to serve this model. Everything I do will have to be pitched in this way and make economic sense, and lead to other projects and opportunities that make equal economic sense. People don’t like to hear these truths about artists, they like to think of us all being happy, jolly and doing what we love … whilst existing on fresh air, or the magic, invisible money fairy, rather than the very harsh realities of being a creative professional who has to earn an income and work incredibly hard in order just to survive. My writing, for the time being, is going to have to be centred around generating content that can be sold. First of all to publicize myself and what I have to offer, then to go on and begin to provide me with a passive income from continual sales. Poetry doesn’t do this. It takes you time to write. A few people buy it, but not in great enough numbers to justify concentrating on it over other forms of writing. I’ve also got to sell myself, which terrifies me. I hate selling myself as I feel it is fake and it will expose me as a fake too. My ego is not large and is quite fragile and these are the pins that prick and deflate it. But I have to sell myself, otherwise I won’t get anywhere with any of this and I’ve got to create a brand for myself.”
How do you visualise doing this?
“Over the coming months, as social media platforms are assailed more readily, a blog will finally get launched, my website will return, reviews will be written of other books to get my name out there. Much writing and writing energy will be going on building this brand. I know it has to be done, though I don’t want it to be done, but if it’s not done then I’ll be done as a writer and I’ll have to do something else. Creating a brand and selling it is where it’s at now and I must get used to it and get on with it.”
Have you got a plan for building this brand?
“I aim to use any method available to the modern writer, all arsenals will be called up when required, from self-publishing, e-books, traditional publishers, hybrid publishers, blogs, anything to get new work out there and humming away earning money. Small amounts maybe, but hopefully each will generate something continually for a long time. To do this successfully, to create all this content, I know I’m going to have to publish a fair bit, so I’m going to be open to all-comers, writing in all shapes and sizes and I will undoubtedly be cruising down avenues I wouldn’t normally have thought of.”
Can you give me more idea of the type of things you’re considering using?
“I have some ideas for e-books that would be quite different from what I would normally write, but these are the kinds of publications that create passive incomes and I need to turn on all possible income streams as quickly and as deeply as I can.
I’m thinking about short-stories, novels, some kind of memoir cum writing guide that I’m writing at the moment, non-fiction, ghost-writing, anything I can get my hands on and get out there asap. It’s about generating an income and also my name. The more you do, the more you sell and the more your name gets out there, remembered and respected, the more people come to you with new projects.
I’m also looking to offer small practical solutions, such as writing great and cheap resumes for anyone who wants a well-crafted one to give them a better chance of landing a job … and if someone wants to ask me to do a play, I’d love to write one! In actual fact if anyone wants to work with me in any kind of writing then I’m open to all offers! Anything for a new craft to develop, a new package to sell, which ultimately leads to new doors being opened. I’m for hire!”
What will happen to your first love … poetry? Will you not find it hard to hide away from it?
“Poetry fits into all this, but it’s squashed near the bottom, because as I say it’s not as financially viable as other writing. I still love writing poetry. Poems will come, just not as often as they always have and they will be low priority, when I have spare time, when other things have been done. Mind you if someone offered me a deal for a new poetry collection right now I’d put all this aside and get on with doing one. That spark, that hunger will always be there, always burning, just a bit dimmer than usual for the foreseeable future. It’s time to move on and challenge myself a bit more, and by doing so produce many more works … and also, hopefully, a slightly better income. It’s time to regain confidence in my talent as a writer and go for it again. Nearly every aspect of being a writer I’ve attempted has been successful and people have enjoyed nearly all that I’ve written, no matter what the genre. Now that I’m 50 I need to stop dilly-dallying and reach again for the stars, because the view of life from atop the hill does get narrower once you reach half-a-century.”
And teaching, how will that fit in – or won’t it?
“I’m looking to concentrate more on mentoring, coaching, editing, being the guy you call up to fix a problem with your manuscript, the guy you know you can trust. One-to-one’s and bespoke courses to educate, to help achieve more dreams, more than they ever believed possible. It’s what I’m good at and I want to continue with this. There are sites where you can sell mini-courses and I shall definitely be looking at doing that very soon. I have the resources and knowledge to do so, though, gulp, you often seem to need video content to really give value for these courses, which sounds hideous to me. But … if that’s what it takes…! What I’ve started moving on from and will hopefully complete as soon as it’s feasible to do so, is teaching in person in a class.
I’m a writer, not a teacher. A writer is what I am, a teacher is what I do. But I feel I’ve achieved everything I possibly can as a teacher and now it’s time to move on.”
Matt says he despises tutors who take the easy option of just turning up, not interacting much with their students and doing the minimal work.
“They are lazy and contemptuous and nobody ever gets better from going along to such classes, nobody is challenged and the hierarchy stays the same. I despise them, and I would and never will act like that, but then such tutors are merely doing what they’re paid for, they clock on and clock off and spend the rest of their time writing, or pretending to write, or getting on with whatever it is they want to be getting on with.”
Here I feel his passion. The passion he has displayed during the time I have known him. The passion that sets him apart … and that has sometimes brought him to his knees.
“I, on the other hand, the hard working, conscientious one who cares deeply about my students… make it my task to make them much better than they ever dreamt was possible.”
He tells of lying awake at night trying to think of new ideas and exercises; of standing in the shower trying to think how to fix a student’s flaws. He speaks of spending hours and days researching and learning new techniques in the name of making his students better writers … not spending his clocked off time writing and getting on with things … because he is loyal and worries about not doing his job properly.
“and for this they are getting paid the same meagre fee. Who is the stupid one then in all of this, the bad teacher, or the good teacher?
What I’m talking about is earning a pittance… but compared with the complete and utter pittance I’ve earned over recent years that would be a huge leap forward! Working, teaching and mentoring especially, gives me more flexibility with the work. It means everyone can, if they want, follow whatever programme or course they wish, to their own great benefit. It means my experience can be on tap and switched on in a more efficient way and that will only make for better writers, greater writers and I will get a fairer reward for my efforts. Everyone, I think, is a winner! It’s time for change and a fresh start, a new beginning that is the same old but remixed.
Sometimes I feel I can ace it and it will be a breeze but other times, I think I will be exposed as a fraud, to be shown up as the rotten writer, person and teacher I am, the fool I often see when I stare into the abyss behind the mirror.”
Here I see the Matt with conflicts… with anxiety always close at hand. He is constantly giving himself a bashing for no reason… and I suspect always will. He constantly worries about failure… this man who has achieved more than most of us will ever achieve. I guess it’s in his make-up, and what makes him the great poet he is. If he is the fool he sees in his mirror, what does that make the rest of us! I for one will be signing up for one of his courses… and I can’t wait!
One thought on “A Poet’s Life”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this excellent interview. J.M. Hulme delves deeply to uncover Matt Nunn, the poet, writer, teacher and humble man he most certainly is.
As a very appreciative student of his, I count myself extremely lucky that our paths have crossed.