With a striking cover design by Ben Edge, Matthew Hedley Stoppard’s The Garland King’s titular character sits on a white horse with his head drowning in foliage and blossoms. You hear his voice throughout the collection, muffled by the greenery that climbs from his torso to his crown and probably quite congested from all the pollen up his nose. This isn’t the voice of Stoppard – not quite. In fact, it’s the voice of John Haddock, current Garland King incumbent and someone slightly resistant to giving away the man beneath the mask (of flowers) – but as the poet assumes in the poem, he might have been feeling a little daft.
Matthew Hedley Stoppard is a poet and children’s librarian from Derbyshire, now living in Otley. His poetry collection, The Garland King, was published in 2020 but was swept along in the disappearing time of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Not that The Garland King was lost entirely to those years; rather, as Matthew pointed out, it has garnered more attention than his previous two books.
There is something unique to the collection, and when Matthew and I caught up in a noisy Chesterfield pub, I tried to pin down what that was. First, we talked about dragons. It turned out we were both reading Christopher Hadley’s Hollow Places, and I mentioned my love of the myth of the Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh. Matthew had read some of my own folk poetry (one about a dragon) and we started to discuss different forms the genre takes.
I asked him what being the Garland king is like, but he just wouldn’t tell me, so the poem sort of came from that.Matthew Hedley Stoppard
I noticed your collection feels like you’re not necessarily thinking about folk literature or poetry in the traditional sense – you don’t really draw on any folk myths or stories.
Yeah, so I’m more interested in what people are doing to keep customs and traditions going – because it’s such a powerful act, seeing things that are actually happening in front of you. That’s what interests me most. So the myths and things didn’t really come into it much. Maybe the Mummers plays did, like ‘Saint George’ or ‘the Derby Tup’.
I’m more interested in what people are doing or what people are thinking. I met the Garland King. If you go to Castleton on Oak Apple Day, you can go into the garage where they make the crown and you can watch them put it all together. He was there and I had the idea for the poem so I asked him what being the Garland king is like, but he just wouldn’t tell me, so the poem sort of came from that.
Why do you think he wouldn’t tell you?
I don’t know. Maybe it should be kept a secret – which worked because I took from it what I wanted. Most of these customs involve some sort of disguise, which is what everyone does every day – so I just saw it as this irresistible metaphor; putting on masks, putting on foliage.
In every poetry collection, you’re making your own mythology.Matthew Hedley Stoppard
Do you think you might have then made your own myths or stories in The Garland King?
Yeah, but I think most poets try to do that anyway. You’re trying to make your own story of yourself, so I don’t think that’s specific to a folk tradition or folklore. In every poetry collection, you’re making your own mythology. When you’re writing about something, in the moment it might seem quite dull but, as a poet, you’re making it into a myth.
So, are you a character in lots of these poems?
No, I think I was more a character in the first book than this one. At the start of the lockdown I did a tutorial with Wayne Holloway-Smith, and he said what I’d like you to do is put the real lines between the poetic lines and have that disruption in the narrative to allow people to see what you’re really feeling.
Do you have kids?
I have two kids, yeah.
Because I notice you write from a father’s perspective, and I wondered if that was your voice, or a version of your voice.
Probably everything I write is focused on that. Both my kids nearly died. The first one, Fran, had an infection in his hip which sort of spread towards his lungs. We were in the hospital for two weeks trying to get this infection off his hip. And then my youngest one, Ted, had a massive lump on his head…
Ah, the eggs… ‘Now he fears eggs’.
Yeah, we realised that it wasn’t going away so we took him to the doctor and they said it was a tumour, but he was really lucky because it was benign. So there are references to that. The collection was making sense of that. You know, you’re a poet, you write poems to make sense of what you’re going through – it’s sort of cathartic and it just so happened that at the time we were looking at the Mummers plays and started Morris Dancing – so it was all real.
When I first had the idea of having folk traditions being the influence of the book, I thought I was gonna do it like a method actor, so I joined the local Morris Side. And then I thought I’d do a bit of travelling.
Where did you go?
So we went to the Bury Mount; I went to see the Burryman in Edinburgh, South Queensferry. I was really more interested in the Derbyshire customs – well dressing was always nearby, and with the Morris side you see all the rushbearing.
You said that you’re more interested in the customs than the tales, but are there any literary references in the collection?
Probably because of being in Leeds, Ian Duhig is, like, the Leeds poet and he wrote a poem called ‘The Lammas Hireling’, which is basically about a witch’s familiar. At the time I was reading a lot of Vahni Capildeo, and she delves into folklore. D. H. Lawrence is always an influence. He references Derbyshire so much in the books, and he mentions Mummers in The Rainbow.
See, the thing I thought of when I read ‘The Garland King’ was Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. I don’t know whether you’ve seen or read it. it’s set around May Day and the main character, Johnny Rooster Byron, has this particular voice that I heard in your poem. And then the first part of ‘Shaman’ reminded me of the album cover of Kate Bush’s Never Forever.
Any link to Kate Bush, I’ll have it – and Jerusalem. The voice in ‘The Garland King’ was the idea that the only cultural references that this person would have in contemporary times would be folk ones, but he’d still have the vernacular of swearing or slang – but rather than referring to Ed Sheeran he’d refer to Morris Dancers. So, all the modern-day equivalents would evaporate and the ancient ones would come to the fore.
Do you think there’s a particular kind of voice in your book? Reading a few of the reviews, they say it comes from a particular working-class male perspective.
I don’t know what other way I would write because that is my background. I grew up in an ex-mining town which has its own modern-day folk tales – political ones as well. I think the way I write the poems tries to imitate the metre or the cadence of the dialect. I’ve lost my accent now.
I wanted to ask you about the birds. There are a lot of dead birds in the collection. What’s that about?
There are so many songs about them, so many folktales as well, that there’s not a lot of territory to explore with them. Maybe I was just thinking of birds in an anti-sentimental way for a poem.
The bird world is quite brutal – Ted Hughes covered that a lot – and we do brutal things to birds. We have chickens, and during the lockdown, I had to kill birds for the first time because one of them was ill and there was no one else to do it. My next-door neighbour, when he knew I was doing Morris Dancing and we had feathers in our hats, brought round a brace of pheasants he had shot that day. And I thought, OK, what do I do now? So we plucked and ate them ourselves… and maybe that changed things?
I think I was trying to write an anti-sentimental bird poem. I don’t know whether you’ve been to many writing workshops but you get those trite bird poems – birds are beautiful and they are amazing – but there’s a bit more to it than that.
Yeah, at the last writing workshop I went to I wrote a bird poem, but it was more about being eaten by an owl. It was based on this walk my partner and I went on last November in Sherwood Forest, and we went around three o’clock and heard this owl hooting in the woods as we were leaving. I think it was one of those moments like having your path crossed by a hare – one of those strange, folkloric moments – but in real life.
I think the hare is the folkloric one isn’t it.
Yeah, it’s all hares and witches.
I mean that’s part of the folk tradition in itself isn’t it, believing in magic. It’s in the literature I’ve seen, being a children’s librarian.
These books seem to be less about the smoke and mirrors of wizardry and more about connecting with the earth.Matthew Hedley Stoppard
When you’re curating the books for kids to read, are they heavy with folklore? Is that a theme?
We are under pressure to have a lot of the popular stuff, which I honestly don’t like, but it is the hook that gets them in. Witchcraft definitely appears way more in young adult fiction, and the folky stuff appears in primary age books. One of the best things I’ve read for kids was Melissa Harrison’s By Ash Oak and Thorn, which is sort of a riff on a book from a long time ago called The Little Grey Men, but it incorporates folklore and folk traditions, put in a contemporary context of consumerism.
I think it’s all about the connectivity between individuals, like how a belief in witchcraft can bring people together. These books seem to be less about the smoke and mirrors of wizardry and more about connecting with the earth and how it can save their characters.
You can order The Garland King by Matthew Hedley Stoppard from Valley Press. For more info on the poet himself, follow Matthew Hedley Stoppard via his Instagram page. To find out more about the featured image by Ben Edge, head to benedge.co.uk.