Matthew Sweeney: ‘I prefer not to dwell on my inevitable demise’

As he launches his latest collection of poetry at Cork World Book Fest, Matthew Sweeney tells Colette Sheridan about his attitude to life and creativity while also grappling with motor neurone disease.

Matthew Sweeney’s latest collection of poetry, My Life As A Painter, will be published by Bloodaxe Books this week.

The Cork-based Donegal-born poet, who has motor neurone disease, is not allowing the diagnosis to stunt his creativity.

Tell us about the burden of having motor neurone disease:

My sister died of motor neurone disease in 2009. When the grim detective work was taking place trying to pin down what was wrong with me last year, I happened to take a trip to Donegal. I stood at my sister’s grave and asked her to please not let me end up with the hell she’d had to endure, and which I’d seen too much of.

What is your attitude to the Grim Reaper?

Mortality has always been part of the subject of poetry but is best not dealt with too directly. Derek Mahon in his celebrated poem for Albert Camus, Death and the Sun warns about looking at those two fellows head on. Metaphor is one’s ally here, that and imagery. Like most people I prefer not to dwell on my inevitable demise. Where the poems take me is another matter.

Is poetry helping you cope?

The poems can help. Franz Kafka in his last diary entry, on June 12, 1923, said in connection with his fast progressing illness: ‘It happens whether you like it or not… More than consolation is: you do have weapons.’ The weapons he alludes to were his writing and I have found the same thing.

While I was waiting for the diagnosis, and since that horrible news, I have been writing a big sequence of strange, dark poems, sometimes blackly humorous, that has become my response to what is happening to me. I try to never allude to the illness directly.

It’s possible I will have to drop those few pieces, and just stay in the weird, metaphorical film world that the bulk of the poems conjure up. Their darkness will leave no reader in any doubt of what I’m really writing about.

These poems are not in this new collection although some will soon be starting to appear in periodicals. I do think that having the positive attitude I needed to write these can only be beneficial to my dealing with the illness.

Where does your vivid imagination come from?

The imaginative nature of these new poems is not so different to that of the poems I’ve always written — one could say that everything I’ve written previously has prepared me for this later work. They all come from the same unconscious.

Even when I was a child I tended to live in the imaginative world of the books I devoured. This helped me to write for children. I have found that children are more prepared to accept poetry than adults.

What has given you most joy in life?

Poetry has been central to my life, and despite the lack of money it brings, I would do it all over again. How many people really value my poems? I wouldn’t say they’d fill a very small theatre, but there are some.

I remember once doing a reading with Carol Ann Duffy in Birmingham. Afterwards a long queue formed of people wanting her to sign books and I had no one — until Carol Ann told me off for neglecting my fan, and I turned to see this young man holding a pile of my books he wanted me to sign.

What will be your legacy?

Mostly what awaits the poet is posthumous oblivion. Maybe there will be a young man in Hamburg, or Munich, or possibly Vienna, for whom my German translations will be for a while important — and might just contribute to him becoming a German language poet with Irish leanings.

Certainly one thing that’s pleased me in recent years was a suggestion in a review of my last book that I may be responsible for some younger poets venturing into the weird, more surreal zone. That would be something.

The Cork launch of My Life As A Painter takes place at the Central Library on Wednesday as part of the Cork World Book Fest.


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