by Anita Foxall.
“When I think about how I was as a kid, I feel like writing was inevitable. My brain was just always very busy and teeming with imagination and I didn’t have any outlet for it, so when I got older and toys and willing participants on the playground fell by the wayside, I wrote. What else could I do?”
This is how Southampton poet Matt LT Smith describes his many beginnings within his poetry path.
As a child he was very imaginative: always completely absorbed by the worlds in his head; always trying to get his friends to engage in all sorts of fantastical adventures. He could vividly see imagined monsters, but was never good at drawing and this is where words came to his aid, though stories weren’t really there yet. Lego at home and playground at school kept all those stories in his mind. One of the poems that illustrates this quite well is Lemon Squeezer, where he describes how as a child, at his Nan’s place, he would pretend the lemon squeezer was a spaceship.
Matt still carries stories around with him, but poetry wasn’t his first genre of choice to share those stories; in fact, his initial ambition was to write video games, which is one of his passions. He wanted to put people in the worlds that he created in his head, just like he had done with his friends when he was a child. Writing video games is still something he would love doing, as “researching video game narrative design is a geeky hobby” of his. He was particularly taken by the Metroid games, due to the conveyed isolation and being alone on a harsh alien world versus the freedom of exploration, and these two features are still very present themes in Matt’s poetry today.
Interestingly, the first poem that Matt read in an open mic was one about being afraid of leaving the house, which is something that is very palpable for him, that is being alone and having to face a wild world outside. This was also the theme that was essentially the backbone for his spoken word/hip hop album he made with his brother for his creative writing MA.
And thus we come to to Matt’s introduction to poetry, which happened when he was, as he describes, “an angsty teen, with angsty teen worries”. At some point his fantasy world was replaced by a more introspective view of his own being, which enabled him to embark on a path of self-discovery. It was also at this point that he was introduced to spoken word by listening to Sage Francis, as a recommendation from his brother, which prompted to start writing poems and raps himself.
It all started in the confinement of his bedroom, with his headphones on, listening to rap, never believing that could one day be him, due to his shyness and nervousness. Getting in front of a microphone without the community he has to support him now, was simply not something he could conceive at the time. Though this was the push he needed to start his poetry journey, this was not yet his big start.
After attending the first semester of his Creative Writing BA at the University of Winchester, he started questioning if he had made the right choice and considered dropping out, despite his good grades and the fact that the course was overall going well. However, one day after he went to a guest lecture delivered by poet Antosh Wojcik, who had just graduated from his degree and who had just won the Roundhouse Slam, things changed completely. Antosh spoke about his path, about the spoken word world, and read them some of his poems, which got Matt completely captivated. Not only did he then realise this is what he wanted to do, but it was also clear for him that he could actually achieve it, and this was the moment he finally allowed himself to be a poet.
Furthermore, at the end of the lecture, Antosh gave him some advice and encouragement, and even offered to stay in touch, becoming an early mentor to Matt and marking the real beginning of his poet self.
After this experience, he ended up being lead to to Poetry Platform at the Railway Inn in Winchester where he got further encouragement and support from Poetry Platform’s illustrious host Stephen ‘Ripper’ Mizen.
Matt is quite impressed that a lot of TV shows, such as Fleabag, Barry and Atlanta move very much like poems in the way they utilise abstraction. He really likes the fact that Atlanta occupies this surreal space just next to reality, which actually makes it get to the heart of reality, and in his opinion makes it the best way to capture “the essence of something, a feeling, a time, a place, is not reflection, but refraction”. He also said that he can “identify the implausibly plausible and the serendipitous” that his writing reflects really tie in well the one reality of these shows, so he really connects to them.
Other sources of inspiration for Matt have to do with the renaissance of the Hip-Hop concept album this last decade as seen with albums like Undun by The Roots, To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar and Splendour & Misery by clipping. All of these have taught him how to write poems that speak to one another, in a continuum. He affirms that listening to To Pimp A Butterfly especially brought a big shift in his writing towards considering a broader narrative across his poems.
When it comes to poetry, Matt has never had a constant favourite, but those who have stuck with him and that he has been carrying in his head at the moment are Kaveh Akbar, Jacob Sam-La Rose and Gboyega Odubanjo. He is a fan of strong resonant images, such as ‘Then at night, stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years / to die in the back of an eye’ from Kaveh’s poem ‘Do You Speak Persian?’ in Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
Jacob, who is also his mentor, has a poetry sequence ‘Speechless’ from his collection Breaking Silence and in its 5th part he renders an image of scribing for a boy in a school, which is an image that gets to the heart of the work of using poetry to help others find a voice, and it’s like nothing Matt believes he has ever seen. This for him constantly affirms how he thinks about the work he does with people with dementia on the Finding the Words project with Anvil Arts.
While I Yet Live by Gboyega Odubanjo is a poetry pamphlet Matt strongly believes every poet should own, and ‘Confessions in 3/4 Timing’ is one of his favourite poems. “No pamphlet title has ever rolled this perfectly into a poem and should inform how every poet titles their collections forever more, ‘while I yet live let me do dumb shit still’ is just everything”.
After all these “beginnings”, Matt now considers spoken word his home, and for all of those who have interest in this area he recommends Antosh Wojcik’s show How To Keep Time which he finds sublime, and encourages everyone to see when they have the chance. Laurie Ogden’s ‘Words First’, London 2015, is a poem that has seriously helped him right himself during a health scare and throughout the in and out of hospital odyssey in his life.
He struggles with the angst of having too many poets that he would love to name, there are too many. He has named a few though: Rachel Long; Christy Ku; Ian Goldberg; Beth Phillips; Mollie Russell; as well as more Barbican Young Poets with specificity as well, “but very truthfully I’d be listing names for a long time so please, please, please, look up the Barbican Young Poets programme and download the anthology PDFs on the website, and if you’re at the Barbican Centre pick up a copy from the gift shop!”
To add to this Matt knows that the community he lives in has supported him a lot, due to the various spaces and events that allowed him to thrive.
Finding the Words
“Finding the Words is a project developed by Flis Pitman from Anvil Arts focusing on working with people with dementia, taking down their words and creating poetry, music and dance from what they have to say,” explains Matt.
Matt is the Creative Lead for Poetry, whose job is to take participants’ words and create poetry with them. “It’s very similar to a found poetry approach, as we’re looking to capture what participants say verbatim. We’ve completed two full runs so far, on which I was assisted by poet Mollie Russell who is an absolute goth poetry superstar who you have to check out!”
There is a whole lot more to this project though, where poetry becomes the lyrical basis for music which is put together by Creative Lead for Music Ed Adams. He is the one who engages participants with music and gets a feel for what they like, which then results into songs from their musical taste. Afterwards the Creative Lead for Dance, Amanda Watkinson, runs sessions that aim to get participants moving. She choreographs simple dances with them to the music that ultimately they helped/started the creation of.
Matt finds it a real honour to continue working on this project. “The touching experience of reading something someone has said back to them and watching them recognise themselves, and realise the significance of what they’ve said, that it can be treated as poetry, is something I will always cherish.”
Barbican Young Poet
Barbican Young Poets was definitely the other big start for Matt. This is a programme lead by poets Jacob Sam-La Rose and Rachel Long and they have doubtlessly created a tight community of young poets. Matt knows Barbican Young Poets is the force that has been secretly pulling the strings in his poetic life long before it even entered his life. He feels that everything before allowed him to grow into becoming a poet, but it was definitely Barbican Young Poets that finally rooted him in poetry. It grounded him and gave him the confidence to continue allowing himself to be the poet he had already become, and reach even further.
Over the last ten years, Jacob, who Matt believes to be one of the hardest working people in poetry, built a proper, solid family of poets, who he mentors and guides. Matt states: “The effect of his presence is seismic on the UK poetry scene and even beyond; and BYP alone, and the space, and the permission to build a community and family that he has, gave us all, as young poets, one hell of a legacy.” Consequently Matt developed profound love and adoration for every single poet who has come through the programme with him; the poets, as well as their work, far beyond the core programme.
Mentoring young poets is definitely what Matt would like to see lined up for his career and his future. Based on his experience and the path he went through, he states that in order to become a poet you have to “give yourself permission to write what you want to write”, which is something that is a whole lot more complicated than it sounds, because it is a constant process, a constant strive.
Moreover, he also strongly believes that it is of extreme importance to learn from your surroundings, to immerse yourself in the community whenever needed, as it is there that development and growth lie, from the people that surround us. Besides, writing shouldn’t be a solitary thing, “community is everything.”
Poetry by Matt LT Smith
When My Brother Wrote My Headstone
The doctor’s prognosis is I need a name,
born so tiny they fear I might shrink out of existence.
Mum wants to call me Lukas.
She doesn’t get a say
between the seizures and the blood transfusion
as doctors try to name me alive.
Andrew rushes to the reception.
Dad trudges behind, feet hollow,
Lukas on his tongue,
his first son’s oblivious footsteps
echoing through the white walls ahead.
At the desk Andrew insists his brother’s name
Dad doesn’t correct him.
I barely leave a scar.
The surgeon who zips Mum up is a seamstress.
Mum will live to sew up my well-loved teddy bears.
Later I imagine Mum with a hole in her belly,
stitched up after autopsy.
She doesn’t know my name.
I try to Google my way out of a paper bag.
Inhale, watch the walls constrict until
nose is pressed against
I’ve always had doctor’s handwriting,
I trust my self-misdiagnosis
when I write it down.
When my left eye peeps it through glitches
and static CRT TV screens.
Bad signal isn’t just a lie I tell
to hang up the phone.
It’s a summer’s day.
It’s a hot shower.
It’s a walk in the park.
It’s searching my symptoms
and finding a tumour.
Crying on my 21st birthday
before tearing off the wrapping paper
to an electric piano.
I’ve always wanted to learn the piano,
but only boys cry after.
Men overcome phone anxiety,
impersonate a broken metronome
to the voice on the other end
worked over by a butcher’s mallet,
not a hint of leather on her,
‘We won’t make you come in
on your birthday.’
The next day
I tell the nurse my left eye
is a thermometer.
It’s the window by the backseat
and the kids won’t stop fogging it up,
they write as much
as I do.
The doctor makes me premature again,
consigned to the incubator
with translucent skin made of film reel
of his blank face
with no context.
He flips a coin into the void.
I won’t know if it’s heads or tails
until it hits bottom
until the chime echoes upward
cutting through the music
poaching the ivories from my fingertips.
That’s the price of my new superpower.
I’m still waiting for the day
having a thermometer for an eye
comes in handy.