INTERVIEW: Lisa Matthews talks to Jazmine Linklater

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Lisa Matthews is full of the same calming, friendly energy this cold morning in Durham as she was performing at Durham Book Festival at the weekend. We’re at a cafe to discuss A Year in Beadnell, the ongoing multimedia project she’s working on with partner Melanie Ashby. It was a beautiful, moving event at Empty Shop HQ on Saturday – the first performance so far to come out of the project. I want to find out a bit more about the broader context of the piece and the artists behind it (you can read a review of the event here).

Matthews is predominantly a poet, having gone back to education as a mature student while still working. In 1998 she bit the bullet, quit her job as an information specialist in libraries and went self employed as a writer. “I was a poet and I just wanted to do things with poetry and to write,” she smiles, recounting how she was lucky enough to fall on her feet after studying. “I was poetry editor at Mslexia for a few years”, back when they were getting going in a tiny attic in Jesmond. “We just started out as a really small arts company to begin with. I was there working with Debbie whose vision it was, so that was a great job to have. Being the poetry editor was really important to me.”

It’s a surprise then, when she reveals that as recently as three years ago she was diagnosed as dyslexic. “I didn’t realise there was anything wrong,” she says, matter-of-factly. “At school I just knew there were certain things that I couldn’t do, and I started reading poetry just because it was short; it was very practical.” From this concentration on what she could mange, her love of poetry grew. “It was just one of those things that I thought was natural, to be thinking in metaphors and creating imagery. I just thought that was what everybody did really.” She’s now been a practitioner in the field for over fifteen years. “You just have to hold you nerve,” she says, probably registering my awestruck demeanour. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, put it that way. It is hard sometimes, and I totally self-fund. I don’t work for any body else, I run my own business and it’s very tough, but I’m doing what I want. You just have to follow what you want to do, and it will be alright.”

The second brain behind A Year in Beadnell is Matthews’ partner Melanie Ashby, a practicing fine artist and commercial designer. She holds an MA in English Literature (“she’s much more well read than I am,” Matthews quips) and previously read biology at Oxford. Suddenly the inner workings of their creative relationship begin to make a lot of sense: “We always have this ongoing thread of debate, because I say that everything’s made up, whether it’s physics or poetry.” It’s clear from the way Matthews talks that Ashby is much more the scientific mind. Matthews’ personal relationship with science is definitely rooted in her practice and fascination with words. “The brevity of scientific dialogue is really interesting as a poet because it feels very distilled, the way a poet uses the distillation of language.”

It’s language that’s the inspiration for the project. Rachel Carson, the late American marine biologist and a name I’ve personally never come across, is one of the catalysts of the piece. Matthews is animated as she describes Carson’s Silent Spring, a book that was given her, in fact, by Ashby. It was published in the early 60s, concerned with speaking out against the use of DDTs and pesticides. “It was very controversial, obviously as she was up against the whole pharmaceutical industry, the entire world didn’t like what she had to say.” She’s clearly enamoured with the work as a whole, but it’s in discussing the prologue that really reveals Matthews’ passion. “I remember that it absolutely took my breath away when I read it,” she shakes her head, “hardly anyone did this at the time in a science book, but she did a piece of creative writing at the beginning: imagine the birds not singing in the environment. And it’s a stunning piece of writing.”

Matthews reckons that by now she’s managed to read just about everything Carson has written, and just as much about her. It’s lovely to note that in all those years she never thought of her own practice in relation to Carson’s, and never actively planned on using her writings. “She kind of kept creeping back, so now I know when something comes and tugs on my collar, to listen to it.”  A Year in Beadnell grew from this gentle pull on both artists. While on the one hand the project did grow out of Carson and her work, it also grew organically from a simple yearning to be by the sea. “I’ve always loved the sea, I don’t know where that comes from,” Matthews muses, laughing now, thinking back to the humble starting point for the piece. “I knew to take a pen and some paper, and Mel took a camera. We took some recording equipment… That was it really. I think, if you feel compelled to do something you should often follow your instinct, and we definitely both have with this.”

Since then the pair have been photographing the sunrises and sunsets at Beadnell throughout each of their stays, collecting specimens found on the coastline, and archiving images of things they have come across. Matthews explains that one of the reasons for keeping logbooks was simply to retain information in an empirical manner, rather than allowing their emotional engagement to be washed away by time. Simultaneously, though, the project has taught her to “look and observe and be a witness in a place, to actually notice things. Because I think everything about modern day life is about the opposite of that, it’s not about noticing it’s about actually forgetting what’s going on, so you can just be a better consumer.”

It’s wonderful to hear that the coast at Beadnell remains relatively untouched by the human impacts of the present day, but Matthews is concerned for the future of the sea. She touches on proposed wind farms off the Northumberland coast, with an observer’s conflict between the energy crisis we’re facing and what sustainable energy systems embedded in the ocean might do to local marine ecosystems. “Rachel Carson in one of her books said the sea wouldn’t be used the way the land was, she couldn’t envisage the sea being farmed. She was writing in the mid-twentieth century and she thought that the sea was sort of sacrosanct, but you see how much is happening. As a scientist she would understand [that] we need to do something otherwise we’re buggered. We might even be past the tipping point with non-sustainable energy sources, but we really don’t understand how this is all going to play out. You know people are worried about the bees and the effect that will have on pollination, but without healthy marine ecosystems we are equally in trouble, and just throwing up huge wind farms, what effect is that going to have?”

Almost immediately after the last word she adds the comment, “we’re not campaigning with it, though; it’s not a call to arms or anything.”  For Matthews the project is an opportunity to exercise her practice, and to reflect the world in visual forms alongside her poetry. While she does mention that all works of art might be considered political to some extent, she believes that “as an artist it’s your responsibility to make the best art you can, as a mirror really.” What’s particularly striking in hearing her talk about A Year in Beadnell is the relationship she has with Rachel Carson’s work. “She’s made me see that I’m an animal, on this planet, and we’re really all in it together and we’re all inextricably linked, so I think that as an artist if you just express that and explore it with your artwork then hopefully, somewhere out there, the message might come through. And that’s what I think about all art really. The only thing I can really do is write poetry and be an artist and that’s it. But maybe that’s enough.”

Matthews and Ashby will be returning to Beadnell for their final stint this December, before pursuing some different platforms with the project. While they will continue to show the work through performance, a print journal is also in their sights down the line. And there’s one idea that Matthews keeps coming back to: “I’ve got this mental image of a big poetic choir, like a sort of spoken word choir,” she tells me, almost welling up remembering the success of the ‘spontaneous sound installation’ they made in collaboration with the audience at Empty Shop this weekend. “I could have cried. There was something about everyone doing that together that I found profoundly moving to be honest.” The process of removing text from the page is increasingly important to the project. “I don’t want to talk at people as a poet, I don’t like it when that happens to me when I’m in the audience, so Mel and I are really conscious that we are all in the environment together,” a view that neatly reflects how Carson’s work has influenced her personal thought process.

It’s the hope that, eventually, A Year in Beadnell will manifest as a big installation, in situ, on the coast at Beadnell. “It will be great to get the project out into the world, and work collaboratively with other artists and with audience members and people interested in the environment.” At the minute she’s dreaming of a reworking of some texts by Carson, but as everything with the piece the ideas are fluid. Matthews and Ashby are still waiting to see what happens, and I personally will be waiting eagerly to see what comes next.

Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.