Matthew Sweeney
Poet in the National Library for the Blind

Matthew Sweeney's collections for adults include A Dream of Maps, A Round House, Blue Shoes, which was a Poetry Book Society Choice and Cacti. He has published two poetry collections for children, The Flying Spring Onion and Fatso in the Red Suit and two novels, The Chinese Dressing Gown and The Snow Vulture. He has been Writer in Residence at the University of East Anglia, at Hereford and Worcester, the Royal Festival Hall. Born in Donegal in 1952, he has lived in London for some years.


After months of planning, and several meetings in different parts of the country, we are ready to get my National Library for the Blind residency up and running. There will be a launch in late June, probably in Manchester. It is to be hoped this will reach the general Arts World as well as the visually impaired, and an element of media interest would help in this regard. In the meantime the residency will be launched on the web.

I have already sent three poems to be put on the website, and I am preparing an initial letter or bulletin, similar to this, saying what I plan to do. Further bulletins will follow, from time to time, during the residency. I will also choose a poem of the month to go on the website, and announce the books of the month that I'll have selected from the NLB poetry stock. And, depending on demand, I anticipate the possibility of occasional internet surgery sessions where I choose and discuss on-line one poem from those sent in by readers to be posted onto a 'your poems' site on the bulletin board. Of course, readers will be welcome to make their own responses to this poem, or the poem or books of the month, or any other aspect of the residency. We want Internet discussions to be taking place on the bulletin board.

Non-Internet readers need not despair, however. The possibility has been discussed of reproducing the poem of the month in braille, on request, where there is no alternative source. Likewise, key comments and questions could be brailled and inserted into any poetry books being issued, and the same material could be sent to non-Internet readers who have expressed an interest in the Poetry Project.

Quite apart from all this there will be public readings and workshops, and maybe surgeries. Depending on how many workshops there are, I envisage some being analytical (where previously written poems are brought along to be discussed in detail) and some being generative (where new pieces of writing are created during the session). I am keen to perhaps run a series of linked workshops in London, as I did before, with the help of the RNIB, during a previous residency at London's South Bank Centre in 1995. There will also be visits to schools and colleges for the blind. A link up has already been made with James Nash, reader in residence in Kirklees, with a view to collaboration there, and possibilities exist of events later in the year at the Oldham Literature Festival, the Manchester Poetry Festival, and - in conjunction with Calibre - in Oxford on National Poetry Day.

And away from all the public stuff, I will be reviewing the current NLB poetry stock and suggesting new titles to be added. At some stage I will run a poetry workshop for the NLB reader advisers, and will have input to a Reading Group session on poetry. I will also be making a recording of some of my poems to go on the website, and at the end of the year I hope to gather together an anthology of poems produced in any area of the residency - this would be done in braille, large print, audio tape and on the website.

These are our plans at the outset, but I am sure that as the residency gathers momentum, more possibilities will be thrown up, ones we haven't envisaged yet. This tends to be the way with residencies, but for the moment we've plenty to be getting along with.


I have a blind friend with whom I play fiercely competitive games of Scrabble on his braille-enhanced board. He invariably beats me - as often as not with a seven letter bonus he saves up until near the end. It never ceases to fascinate me watching his fingers roam over the raised braille dots as he decides what he can do. It seems as if his fingertips can take in that board better than my eyes can.

It's the same with poetry. He occasionally comes to readings I do and weeks later can quote back to me entire poems I read - all from that one hearing. It would take me hours of re-reading to learn a poem off by heart at this stage. But he has the poems instantly in there. It's an amazing thing to witness. As is the importance he attaches to poetry in general.

When I began my mid-90s residency in London's South Bank Centre, then, there was one project I wanted to do - a series of linked workshops with blind writers. If my friend was at all typical, I felt sure there would be a demand for such an activity. I was also curious to see how blindness might affect the way a person wrote.

Before the residency ended I ran those workshops - on three Monday evenings in April/May 1995. They weren't confined to fully blind writers but also included participants with lesser visual impairment. I had great assistance and guidance from the RNIB in setting the workshops up, and they proved very successful and interesting. I found I had to approach the workshops slightly differently - I always bring a load of poems to my workshops, usually in the form of photocopies to be distributed, but in this instance I brought along tapes and crackly records from the Poetry Library of the poets reading their own poems. This was better than photocopies. I also set out to choose examples of poems which brought in senses other than the visual, in as pronounced a manner as possible - Roethke's 'My Papa's Waltz' was one, I remember - and in the process realised all over again how important the senses are to poetry.

Skip three and a half years, then, to the end of '98, when Christina Patterson (formerly of the South Bank Centre) approached me to see if I'd be interested in a Poetry Placement at the NLB. I was, indeed, and when I made my first trip up to Stockport, to the offices of the NLB, I found they were so interested it had to be a residency rather than a short placement.

The first evidence that the residency was up and running was visible only on the internet. I began by putting a few poems on the NLB's website, together with a bulletin outlining my plans for the residency. The actual launch of the residency was in Manchester in mid June. This included a reading, and a demonstration of the impressive website. The next time I went north, in July it was to the NLB itself, for two days of varied activity, including the recording of some of my poems for tape and the website, and two in-house workshops - with the poetry selection group, and the Readers Advisers - where the emphasis was as much on how poetry is read and 'sold' to people, as on the actual writing of it. There was also a meeting with Cathy Bolton of Commonword publishers, about choosing poetry for a short anthology to be jointly produced by Commonword and the NLB. (This was duly done in a hotel room in Liverpool in September.)

This initial emphasis on reading, rather than writing, became symptomatic of the way the residency would shape up. In this it differed from my previous residencies, all of which had the writing of poetry as a major focus. I may even have thought that what a residency was about was advising people how to improve and develop their writing, and in my initial plans for this residency I'd written about the workshops and surgeries I hoped to run. These didn't happen, because the residency developed its own momentum, and the reading of poetry was its emphasis.

So I went through the NLB's poetry stock and made recommendations of titles to be added to it. I chose books of the month from the existing stock, and these were announced on the website. I continued sending bulletins in - for these I fixed on the idea of writing about my various comings and goings, and in the process giving NLB readers a picture of a poet's life. I went back several times to the NLB for more in-house sessions, looking at poetry. My last visit in December showed how much poetry had taken hold there - it was a voluntary lunchtime session where people brought along favourite poems and read them aloud, and the turn-out was large, the number of poems read was considerable, and the majority of them were contemporary.

One exception to this avoidance of the writing-aspect of poetry was the visits I made to visually impaired schools. I visited three in all - one in Kent, one in Liverpool, and one in Worcester - and got the kids writing. And very satisfying visits they were, too. I go into a lot of schools, and anyone who does knows how easy it is to get blasé about schools' workshops, but the enthusiasm with which these visually-impaired kids threw themselves into the writing exercises was a tonic. I can still hear the variety of noises in those rooms - the clicking of braillers, the tapping of computer keys, the low exchanges between blind children and their teacher-scribes. Even here, though, it wasn't all writing. I did a reading from my children's poems in each school, and one of the children subsequently sent an email to the NLB, asking if any of the poems I'd read were available on tape. They weren't. I'd omitted to record any of the children's poems, so on my next visit to the NLB I set this right.

The preference for reading rather than writing spread to my own poems, as well, in that I wrote nothing at all during the bulk of the residency. In November, though, I came up with three poems. None of these deal directly with any aspect of the residency, but they can be said to have a slight oblique connection. In this they are true to poems I have written during previous residencies.

Before ending this report I have to say how vital to the success of the residency was the involvement of Linda Corrigan, the NLB's Readers' Advice Manager. A residency always needs one keen, committed person in the host organisation to liase with the resident poet and be an enabling presence for the project. Linda was that person and more.

One last thing to come out of the residency is the simultaneous co-publication in braille of my forthcoming book, A Smell of Fish, in March. (Cape are doing it for the visually unimpaired.) I told this to my blind friend on New Year's Eve, as we braved the throng on Waterloo Bridge, his white stick clearing a path through the crowds. He was very pleased.

- Matthew Sweeney

Matthew Sweeney's work with the NLB is available at
Young Poets Network