Friday 26 November 2021

On Making Things Up: In conversation with Lila Matsumoto

Editor’s note: Lila Matsumoto’s new collection, Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water (a Winter 2021 Poetry Book Society Recommendation), is at once plainspoken and spellbinding – a sure antidote to the charged language of our times. We’re deeply grateful to Lila and her publisher for this short interview, which took place over email. 

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations, Lila – I thoroughly enjoyed reading Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water, and you must be pleased about all the positive attention the book has received! I wonder if you could start by telling us a bit about how this latest collection builds on your earlier work (either your first book and pamphlets, or your wider practice as an artist and musician)? 

Lila Matsumoto (LM): Thank you, Theo. TTPSW collects poems and poem sequences that were written over the last two years or so. Some of the poems were originally written for particular contexts, such as for a song for Food People  (a band I play in) or as a live performance with visual elements. It’s to the credit of my incredible publisher Prototype for helping me to produce a book that ‘houses’ these discrete pieces, and at the same time keeps the flavour of their original context through elements such as typography and illustrations.   

TK: Something that struck me from the very first section of your collection was how your poems deal with being a writer. Not only with the practice of writingbut the paraphernalia of the writing life – attending book launches, literary conferences, and the like. How would you describe your relationship with your own identity as a writer? 

LM: I would probably describe it as ambivalent! I have been thinking about the artifice of the ‘writer identity’, as well as the artifice involved in writing: making things up, embellishing, presenting life through uncanny lenses. When I was a student I worked for a few years at a book festival. Although I appreciated the context of coming together to have conversations around writing, I felt uneasy about the pageantry. Lauding writers is fine, but many of the events centred on the authors rather than on their writing. There also seemed to me an assumed alignment of the books’ texts with the authors’ personal lives. Books such as Rachel Cusk’s Outline series, Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island, and Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal guilefully and hilariously unpack and brew more trouble about the meeting points of writing and the writing life.

"[...] I saw her art for what it really was: not a punctilious crafting of rare materials, but a reckless haunting of obscure works, made flesh in modish lingo. It was a tricksy turn of pen, a vaporous bauble. But who am I to criticise – I, too, have a searing desire for recognition, and have committed textual crimes in the name of amour propre. I have plumbed my own life for material, dressed up its feeble outlines, and have stuffed descriptions of sensual delicacies in every chapter." 

(from 'In Order to Make Words Pleasurable') 

TK: Many of your poems are structured around intricately-constructed tableaux or imagined scenes. Their matter-of-fact delivery locates these scenes in ordinary life, and yet there is also always a touch of the unbelievable, or a farcical twist. How do your poems grapple with reality, especially at a time when so much of what we read on the news sounds absurd – stranger than fiction? 

LM: My poems grapple with reality insomuch that the scenes described are rooted in details and events I have observed around me. I’m not very good at creating stories, but the world is already littered with them, ready to be repurposed. Of course, the descriptions may be of artworks, overheard dreams, and fictional accounts.

It’s interesting how it’s impossible to ever describe anything objectively. How does the mood of the time affect our perception and articulation of a scene? Description, I think, is always at the service of mood, of style. Maybe a poem is a Rube Goldberg machine, subsuming details to fulfil a logical yet fanciful will.

TK: A less serious question! In one of your poems, 'Cattle Market', there's a butcher yelling: 'This lamb shank is as tender as a...' Was this based on an actual scene, and if so, what did this real-life butcher compare the lamb shank to? I'm dying to know! 

LM: I used to regularly go to a flea market in Nottingham, which you entered through these ornate blue gates with sculptures of cow heads mounted on top. I was always intrigued by the butcher’s stand, which was on a raised platform in the middle of the market. You could see, over the heads of the large number of people gathered around, the butcher pacing his theatre with his headset microphone and a piece of meat that he would sometimes raise over his head. I never did hear what the lamb shank was compared to – it was a whiff of a phrase I heard in passing. I liked how the unresolved mystery added to the allure of his celebrity.

“There was a gardener in my family. Actually he was my father. He grew rare vegetables, they looked very ageless. He said, if vegetables could speak they would have a long story to tell us.” 

(‘Things We Ate’)

TK: Finally, a good number of your poems are rich with natural imagery, and rooted in a language and landscape of tender growth – I'm thinking especially of the father tending vegetables in your poem 'Things We Ate'. How would you describe these poems' (and your own) relationship with the natural world?

LM: I think that like a lot of people, I feel a sense of despair over the environmental crisis we have generated and live in. A question I think about often is how the poem can relate to or tell the crisis. What is the scope of the small thing’s affect in the face of the big thing? What kind of pressure is put on art from stances of fear and inventiveness? Poets such as Samantha Walton and Maria Sledmere have written eloquently on and about the complex relationship between poetry and ecology, melding creative and critical modes. I love that phrase of yours, ‘tender growth’. The act of tending vegetables might be a good analogy for poem-making as well as a model for environmental stewardship.


Lila Matsumoto’s publications include the poetry collection Urn & Drum (Shearsman, 2018) and the chapbooks Soft Troika (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2016) and Allegories from my Kitchen (Sad Press, 2015). She teaches poetry and creative-critical writing at the University of Nottingham and plays in the bands Food People and Cloth. Her latest collection is Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water (Prototype, November 2021).