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  • Jack Bennett

Matt Abbott: ‘capturing individual moments that paint the whole picture’

Since the publication of his first poetry collection Two Little Ducks in 2018, the poet, educator and activist Matt Abbott has not slowed down. I caught up with him over video call from his home in East London, at a time when he is now balancing four very different projects. 

From the refugee crisis, to Brexit and football, Abbott’s poetry takes on an instinctive development, “going with your gut”, he says, “with one idea or piece of research sparking ideas for further poems.” He went on to explain how he doesn’t necessarily follow form or structure. Laughing, he admits that four projects is “maybe a bit too much”, with conviction he says that he “needs to pick one and run with it”

“I never thought I’d be sat on my own, in an East London flat, watching us being promoted without even playing, in an empty stadium.” Abbott reflected on the recent news that his home football team Leeds United had been promoted to the Premier League. This lifelong passion will serve to inform and frame his next poetry collection. He admits that in the time since his first collection was published, he has struggled to discover the next starting point. “It's only Leeds United getting promoted that’s given me the idea,” he says. “I was 15-years old when Leeds were relegated, and obviously now they are promoted I’m 31 and the things that have happened to me personally and the world in that time frame is insane. That 16 years, the way I've changed and grown, coming of age and masculinity and privilege will all feed into a poem representing each one of those years. That's something I can do.”

“I love the way that the Leeds United journey serves to bookend the collection. Some of the poems will document my experiences as a football fan, but I don’t want them to be poems about football. Rather they’ll focus on fan culture, working class communities, white demographics, and masculinity”, aspects which Abbott sees as underrepresented in the literary world.

“Alongside that, the collection will tap into my experiences of being in a band and the dissolution of that project, as well as my moving to London and the development of an acute drinking problem for a period of time, to marriage” he says. 

“If I look at where I was stood next to my dad at Bolton when Leeds were relegated, to now sat in my East London flat, crying when the team was promoted, these stories and experiences can be mapped in between.”

These experiences and insights into a particular cultural setting, Abbott feels will highlight the important discussion to be had surrounding issues of “white privilege” and why unfortunately now individuals support movements in support of Brexit for example, and demagogic figures such as Tommy Robinson. He emphasises the importance of creating a dialogue to discuss and understand these pervasive issues. 

Citing as particular influences upon his poetry, the work which developed in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, which formed part of a new wave of “Northern gritty realism”, Abbott recognises the commencement of a conversation in art which was subsequently dropped. 

“They were emerging from a wave dealing with the aftereffects of the Second World War so it’s totally different in that respect. But with the level of oppression faced by working class people in the 1980s, from the Miners’ strike, to the demonisation of football fans and the Hillsborough tragedy, the wounds which were caused by that have never been healed.” Abbott declares. “There's a direct line from that, to the emergence of racist discourse in contemporary British society. This is something horrendous which needs to be addressed and talked about, to understand why these changes occurred, unpicking its roots.”

“I've always been fascinated by Charles Bukowski and Frank O’Hara”, something he admits you maybe wouldn’t initially glean from his poetry, “but the American poets of the 1950s and 1960s, focus on the underclass and the alternatives in society.”

Further inspiration came from Abbott’s obvious love for music. In particular, the lyrics of Paul Weller, Squeeze, The Streets and Bob Dylan. “Imagery is so important to me in lyrics and poetry,” he says. “Creating a degree of relatability which are so vivid, a sense of representing me as a person. Which is what everybody wants. The way poetry can create a snapshot of something which grabs you without having to say too much, too literally. You got to leave the gap for interpretation, for me poetry is that magic moment between what you mean and what the audience interprets. That crucial little space.”

Importantly, Abbott reveals one fear he holds in the work that he produces, that of it being “misconstrued as my defending people who are racist, which I not doing whatsoever. I'm looking at the journey which led to current culture,” he says. Going on to emphasise that he feels a desire to “contribute something valuable to the conversation, and as a working-class individual I’m in a unique position, there are few working-class individuals in poetry.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to write about things which are happening to you now, you require that distance from events”

Considering the translation of personal experience into poetry, Abbott recognises the need for distance from the events under discussion. “Sometimes it’s hard to write about things which are happening to you now, you require that distance from events,” he says with conviction. “I'm not writing about now, it’s about me as a teenager, experiencing individuals at the Leeds United games who were involved in the BNP, which I’m trying to make sense of with the distance I now have from it.”

After visiting Calais in 2016, his experiences there informed a strand of the Two Little Ducks collection, although Abbott reveals: “I’m paranoid people think I went there to get content for poetry. Which was not the case at all.”

“All the things I’d heard or read about it, everything I expected to see wasn’t there at all and everything that I did see I would never have expected. I couldn’t register what I was seeing, hearing and experiencing, so I just had to write about it.”

Abbott places emphasis on the notion that with proximity to events, places or people there comes a greater level of sensationalism. Reflecting upon these experiences in poetry required a large degree of personal processing, before condensing them down into poetic form. “It’s about “capturing individual moments that paint the whole picture” he says. While also foregrounding how “writing about conversations and micro experiences provided a window onto the wider experiences.” At the same time, though, Abbott was conscious of not adopting another person's perspective within his poetry but maintaining his personal voice. 

“With poetry you need to cut to the bone. If I'm going to try and win somebody over, I ask myself what as a human being can you not ignore, what cuts the core. I'm attempting to lay bare what I saw not my opinion through the poetry.” 

Crucially, the three interwoven strands which made up the collection Two Little Ducks, are connected through the notion of a stick or twist decision to be made in life, to stay or go, leaving behind what you know to start afresh. The title of the collection, he fondly reminisces, came from attending bingo halls with his grandma as a young boy, a place he still feels most at home in. Abbott explains, “this was a way to instill in the reader a degree of empathy with these experiences through a degree of relatability”.

Thematically, recurring throughout Abbott’s poetry is the notion of identity, something which he discusses, is undergoing a definite period of crisis, factionalism and disillusionment. This creates, according to Abbott clear binaries within society and politics. 

“There is a need to elicit a response through sensationalism, something which is fed through the media, rather than providing the balanced and nuanced. There's a need to pick your side combined with a democratic openness to voicing opinions. The national identity as a result is totally fragmented.” Through poetry, Abbott is attempting to utilise his position and voice as an artist to produce an element of realisation in audiences. “I'd rather make a strong argument that goes against the grain, that’s what I’d like to do” he conveys unreservedly. 

Rejecting the established educational world of poetry in favour of greater independence of expression is something that Abbott upholds within his work. “You should create art for the love of it, to nurture yourself and whatever other people think of it is up to them” is his conviction which is evident throughout his work.

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