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Meet the Doctors: Lisa Matthews

The fifth of our eight Is There A Doctor in the House? poets is Lisa Matthews. Primarily a poet, Lisa also writes prose and does lots of other things associated with literature, writing and creativity. However, at the heart of her practice are the succinct, perception-changing lines, forms, discipline and imagery of poetry.

Hello Lisa – what’s your PhD about?

Lisa: Originally, my thesis was going to be an exploration of my ‘Strange Bedfellows’ teaching methodology. However, since starting, the focus of my research has fallen squarely on my own writing practice. I wanted to avoid going down too much of a pedagogical road, although I am very interested in what we do when we teach Creative Writing and while I know my research will have pedagogical benefits and applications, I wanted to spend this time to explore different areas of my own work and where it fits into the wider literary, critical and pedagogical landscape. I made a decision, about 6 months in to my research, to concentrate on my actual writing process so my thesis is now practice-led and is looking at the role of Confessionalism and surreal imagery in my writing and the writing of other poets. I am particularly interested –and always have been – in the work of American poet Anne Sexton, while I am also trying to grapple with the surreal aspects of Selima Hill’s work. My thesis is the first time an original collection of poetry has been contextualised alongside the writing of Sexton and Hill. The juxtaposition of the confessional and the surreal is one of the beating hearts of my own practice and my PhD is a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time reading some amazing work while unpacking my own process and writing a new collection of poetry into the bargain.

Tell us a bit about what you’re planning to offer in your lecture/workshop.

Lisa: My research is still in its relatively early phase and I’ll be sharing my experiences to date in the context of using a database to facilitate research and manage the huge amounts of poetic imagery I have to digest. The lecture will be about what it’s like for a practicing poet to undertake a PhD, as well as sharing experiences around the unexpected development of my proto-imagery database. In the workshop I’ll be more hands-on and asking everyone to look at their own imagery as well as that of other poets.

How are your studies affecting your writing?

Lisa: It’s a rare gift to have time to read and draft poems. As I run my own business (I am 100% freelance) and as an itinerant researcher/writer I tend to do a lot of my own writing on the fly. I religiously carry and use both a Dictaphone and a generative journal and keep a note of anything worthwhile that comes into my head or crosses my eye line. Sometimes I’ll do that for weeks, even months on end, before sitting down and having a huge writing purge where I create new poems out of the mess. I often don’t draft much as I see my journal as the gestation space. It’s been odd thinking, “I will write a new full length collection” as part of my thesis. As soon as I did that every idea I had in my head fell out and I had a bit of a blocked period. Which is rare for me as I find most things endlessly fascinating. My previous three books all grew very organically out of my writing/working life, I never planned any of them. So this PhD collection is profoundly different. It’s also tricky separating my free time and other project reading from my PhD reading. I read Sexton and Hill all the time anyway, but now they are also the critical focus of my PhD. That’s not really a problem as such, but it is different. I am trying to demarcate but already I can see – for example – that my reading for a separate drama project I have in the pipeline is bleeding into my doctoral research. At the moment I am not fretting about it and just trying to go with the flow. That’s the plan for now, who knows what will happen in the future. The good news is that is hasn’t really inhibited my writing again, not since that initial recalibration period when I did suffer a bit of a block. Writing more critically and developing an academic style is proving more of a challenge, but I have a feeling this is a pretty universal experience for all researchers. I am trying to think of my academic writing as an extension of my poetic writing practice and want to develop my own academic voice. It’s a work in progress and it’s hard to strike the right balance. I am not good with long, impenetrable and complex words and sentences but I have already found lots of great academics writing in engaging and accessible ways.

What’s been the best eureka moment in your research?

Lisa: Actually there have been a few. Firstly, I found some tapes of Sexton reading some of her poems. Not sure how I hadn’t already come across these recordings before as I’ve always been a huge Sexton fan, but hearing her speaking voice was wonderful. It’s so rich and evocative and to hear the words I know so well coming out of her mouth still gives me goose bumps when I listen to them. Her close friend and colleague Maxine Kumin recently died and I am so sad that I never got to hear either of them read. If a time machine is ever invented this is one of the first things I’d do – get myself back in time to a Sexton/Kumin live performance. Secondly, since beginning my research and developing a more doctoral awareness of my writing practice I have started to see my poetry in a whole new way, and as part of a larger female literary tradition. I had no sense of that before my PhD and felt very isolated as a working class, women poet. Now I can see there is a context for my work and that’s been very exciting. Thirdly, I was finally able to be assessed for dyslexia – something I have always suspected I have. My PhD researcher status means I have access to some amazing student/researcher support at my university. Having a diagnosis has helped a lot as I’ve always struggled to read large bodies of text. Novels take me an age to read and academic books and papers present a particular set of challenges for me. Now I know why this is and the awareness alone is empowering. I will be accessing more support soon and everything I am doing is helping me read and write better. Being open about this has been hugely liberating after years of creating elaborate coping strategies and passing myself off as someone who does not struggle to read.

Which other lectures/workshops are you going to sit in on at the festival?

Lisa: I will be going to all that don’t coincided with mine. Everyone’s contribution looks really interesting so it’s hard to pick one out. It’s the kind of event I’d come to anyway, even if I weren’t presenting at it.

Are you going to put “Dr” on your credit cards?

Lisa: You have to ask? All being well, it’ll be my first act after my viva. My mother already puts “MA” after my name when she writes to me and my family are really proud of my academic achievements, as am I. I was the first member of my family to go on to higher education, albeit as a mature student, and part of me still can’t believe I am doing a PhD, as I never knew any academics growing up. So the “Dr” title will be going on all the cards and anywhere else I can shoehorn it in. A PhD, especially doing one part-time while running a business, is a massive undertaking. It’s by far and away the hardest thing I’ve done to date and I won’t be shy in using the title whenever I can. I’ll have earned it.

Lisa has been a freelance creative practitioner since 1998. A published, professional writer and editor, her poetry has appeared widely in journals/anthologies and she performs her work in the page-poet style. With extensive teaching experience from primary to post graduate, Lisa is passionate about working with other writers, creatives and students to facilitate inspiration and develop creative response and technique. She has taught at several UK universities and her current doctoral research – at Northumbria – is focusing on her innovative workshop methodology, Strange Bedfellows. Lisa has founded or co-founded several major creative writing initiatives including: The Blue Room (a space for emerging women writers), ProudWords (the UK’s only writing festival for LGBT people), How Gay Are Your Genes? and Stemisty (both art-science research projects with Newcastle University). With specialisms in art-science collaborations and Medical Humanities Lisa has been an itinerant creative writing academic since 2002 and positions/tenures include: Royal Literary Fund Fellow, Arts Fellow, Fellow of Literature & Science and most recently, Visiting Research Fellow at the ESRC Genomics Forum, Edinburgh University.

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Image: Pictorial notation of an Ojibwe music board. Image credit: Wikimedia