AWS #2: Matt Alton

Matt Alton is a poet based in Brighton. His poems speak of male vulnerability, chronic illness, grief and change, whilst finding playfulness in the heaviest moments. Matt is a slam winning poet, whose work has been published by Ink Sweat & Tears and Flights, and commissioned by Poems By Post.

He is also my younger brother and we grew up skating together. In the following interview, Matt reflects on his approach to skateboarding, developing fibromyalgia, a chronic illness characterised mainly by chronic pain, and how these things have impacted his poetry.

Follow Matt on Instagram here.

Chris Alton: What attracted you to skateboarding, and how did you start?

Matt Alton: I started skateboarding in Year 5, because one of my teachers, who'd previously been a professional surfer, set up a skateboarding club. I remember there being a taster session on a portable miniramp from the local indoor skatepark.

I had a go; held someone’s hands as I dropped in. I felt like I could do it ok and probably got some praise; and enjoyed that. I was 9 or 10 and I loved it.

CA: What were your early years of skating like?

MA: I find it quite difficult to remember what I was like before skateboarding and my memory of my childhood is pretty patchy. That probably has something to do with smoking a lot of weed at skateparks.

Before skateboarding I was perhaps quite timid and risk averse. But with skateboarding, I just jumped in. I had my knee pads, and my elbow pads, and my wrist guards, and my helmet, which kind of swallowed me up [laughing]. And I was just keen to try. I didn't mind falling.

I think, as a child, it was very good for my confidence levels, and ability to try new things. Because the nature of skateboarding is that you're always throwing yourself into new things.

CA: You mentioned being a bit timid or risk adverse before getting into skateboarding, which actually surprises me. Skateboarding must have been quite transformative for you, because your trick selection typically involved going very high, very fast. You leaned towards big ramps and grabbing your board; and there was a controlled aggression to the way that you skated. What influenced that?

MA: I wasn't interested in flip tricks for years and years. Towards the end of being a skateboarder I was doing the occasional kickflip or heelflip. But it took me 6 or 7 years to learn them.

CA: Which is really unusual, because when most people are starting out kickflips are top of their list.

MA: I do wonder if it has something to do with breaking my ankle just before my 12th birthday? Our Dad was going to come down from London and take us to Mount Hawke Skatepark in Cornwall; we lived in Devon at the time. But he had to put his visit back by a day. So as a consolation, our Mum took us to Tiverton Skatepark.

That day I learned frontside lipslides on the quarterpipe. I'd done a few and you said, “let's get it on film”, so I did one for the camera and you said, “Oh, I didn't get that one. Can you do it again?” So I did it again and came off the end of the quarterpipe. I landed with my foot half-on-half-off the edge and rolled my ankle over. It wasn't a clean break. It was something a bit more complicated than that, so I was in a cast for 6 weeks and on crutches for 12.

So whenever I thought about flipping the board, there was always the possibility of something going wrong, like landing primo, which was really off putting to me. I didn't like the idea of making my ankles roll over, so I decided it wasn't for me and discovered bowls and going fast and high.

Above: Japan to flat, Matt Alton at Cantelowes Skatepark (photo by Laurent Shinar)

CA: Are there any tricks you're particularly proud of; tricks that you'd consider the pinnacle of your skateboarding?

MA: There was a moment when I started to improve significantly, when I was about 16. I spent about 6 weeks in London staying with our Dad and went to Cantelowes Skatepark almost every day. Skating that bowl was big for me, I learned loads of stuff. There's a channel gap; you go from a quarterpipe, into the vertwall, whilst clearing a 4 or 5-foot gap over a roll-in. After that, I started to gain momentum and learned how to skate bowls. I also learned more technical tricks on miniramps and some tricks on ledges and rails.

CA: There was also a Melon to flat over a 7-foot quarter at Ashford Skatepark.

MA: Where I aired out of the top of it? Yeah, 'fattie-to-flattie', as they call it.

CA: One of the fattiest.

Above: Chris Alton, Harry Lintell and Matt Alton skating at Ashford Skatpark (filmed and edited by Ant Osmond)

MA: It was huge, yeah. Ashford became my local, even though we were living in Folkestone. I was very confident there and knew how to skate it.

CA: So when you did that – that fattie-to-flattie – you did it on a 9-inch, old school shaped deck. I wanted to ask about your set-up choices? Most skaters are really picky about what they skate, but you seemed happy to skate anything.

MA: Because I wasn't flipping the board, it didn't matter so much. As long as I had something to stand on! I didn't want to change my trucks too much, because I was proud of my indents. And wheels; I just wanted them to be 56mm plus. When it came to decks, I liked something bigger than an 8.25″.

The deck that you refer to was one I'd had for years. I'd been using it as a cruiser board. When I snapped my deck I didn't have any money, so I put my regular trucks and wheels on it. It just worked for me; I liked the big platform to stand on.

CA: Do you remember your pink set-up?

MA: One Christmas I decided I wanted a pink set-up. I'd had a pink cast on my ankle and I was growing my hair long. So I didn't really care that it was something I was supposed to be doing, as a boy.

Pink wheels, Pig I think. Pink trucks, Krux. Pink deck, with a clown stencilled on it. Pink bolts. Pink griptape, which was a terrible idea because after a couple of weeks it was basically brown with mud.

CA: I’d like to pick up on that idea of not doing what you were supposed to be doing as a boy. In retrospect, do you feel like you were pushing against gender norms in some way?

MA: I didn’t have the language to talk about gender norms or to think about what I was doing as rebellion. But somehow I knew how to express my dissent. As I grew up, I became aware of how male dominated and masculine skateboarding could be.

I had a group of friends at Ashford Skatepark and there were only a handful who I could talk to about my emotional life, but for the most part we never had those conversations. So perhaps as a 13 year old, my pink set-up was a way of signalling that I wanted things to be different.

CA: In your late teens you developed a condition called fibromyalgia. Amongst other things, it meant that you were no longer able to skate. Could you share a bit about that experience?

MA: I was 18 and I'd just finished college. It was a time of not knowing what I was doing. I’d done very little work throughout secondary school, skating, and smoking a lot of weed, and I got pretty good GCSEs. Taking the same approach with my A Levels hadn’t worked so well, and now I had these terrible grades, which I didn’t really care about, but also had no idea what I was going to do next. I got a job in a call centre that was a 3 minute skate from my local skatepark. And I'd just got together with a girl that I'd been in love with for about 2 years. So there was the good and there was the bad.

When people develop fibromyalgia or ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) you can often see that it's specifically connected to some form of trauma. But with me it's more difficult to pinpoint how it came about.

One day, both of my knees started to feel strange; then it soon became all consuming pain where I could hardly leave the sofa or go up and down the stairs. I was going to the doctors every few weeks to try and figure out what it was, but nobody knew what to do. I saw an acupuncturist who was confident that he could 'fix me', which didn't happen. Having gone from skating being my social outlet, my creative outlet, and my physical outlet, it was just taken away. I just had all of this pain and it was unclear where it was coming from and why it was, but it was very real. I felt hugely depressed and felt I had very little support.

As an 18 year old, I'd never knowingly met anybody who had a similar chronic illness. There weren't spaces on the internet – like on Instagram now – where you could share information with people. I didn't know anything about it; my friends didn't know anything about it; the people I’d been skating with didn't know anything about it and I just stopped seeing them. I suppose I fell off the map for them and I wonder what they thought. But they didn't really check in with me. There was one person – Steph – who was friends with the skaters. She'd come round sometimes. I didn't really have anyone else, which put a lot of pressure on the relationship I’d recently started. Eventually, when she went travelling she broke up with me.

Whilst all of this was going on, the pain had been spreading throughout my body, until it was everywhere. A body that had previously been free and freeing, capable of risk and of doing impressive things, of bringing me joy. It became a body that caused me pain and meant I wasn't able to do anything. That first year was probably the hardest.

[Here we took a pause in the interview]

CA: As your brother, I know that you haven't always considered yourself to be creative. Earlier you described not being able to skate anymore as – amongst other things – a loss of a creative outlet. However, when you started writing you proved your younger self wrong. So how did you start writing poetry, and what was it like to have a new creative outlet?

MA: Previously, when I said that stopping skating was a loss of a creative outlet, that's a retrospective reflection. At the time I didn't see it as a creative practice. It was just what I did. But through conversations with you and my own exploration of it through writing, it’s become very clear that skating is a creative thing.

In summer 2019 I went on a course at a Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, where they had free places for people under the age of 30. I'd spent time there before, working on a research project, and it felt like a homely place. I wanted to spend a few days there, so I found a course that had a pretty vague description of what was going to happen and thought, “well that'll be a nice weekend.”

I don't think it was made clear in the blurb, or I just missed it, that it was a writing course. So I turned up and there were all these people sitting at tables with notebooks. And I was like “why are all these people sitting at tables with notebooks?” The first session started and the person leading it was talking about how we're all “writers here to write” and I'm thinking “oh God, what have I done?” And it was a revelation. That weekend it felt so clear to me that this was huge; that something huge was opening up before me; that the possibilities were massive.

CA: What are some of the main themes that have emerged in your writing since?

MA: If I look at everything that I've written, the overarching theme is male vulnerability. I noticed that in the Brighton spoken word scene the male voices were often more detached from the emotional experience or the experience of being in a body. And I noticed that mine was more immediate, perhaps. The main things that I write about are; my experience of chronic pain; and the death of our Mum 6 years ago.

Above: Poetry is the New Skateboarding, by Matt Alton (filmed and edited by Full Tang Visual

CA: Could I ask about your poem Poetry is the New Skateboarding? Where did the idea stem from?

MA: I wrote it during a course where I was writing a poem every day for a week. One day I had this idea that I wanted to write about skating, which I hadn't done before. I made some notes, but I thought it was a bit rubbish. So I left it for a bit, made myself lunch, and sat in front of my computer. I pressed play on a skate video and started eating, but I decided, no I don't want to watch this right now. I changed the tab to a poetry reading and started watching that instead. Then I thought, hang on, this is interesting. My interest had been with skateboarding, but now I want to engage more with poetry.

The poem introduces what my life was like aged 18, skating every day and that being the most important thing. Then I look at myself at 19, when I was taking loads of painkillers and spending all day sitting on the sofa. And then I look at my life now I’ve started writing, how the world is lit up to me, full of possibility. I realised that I could talk about the act of skateboarding and the act of writing a poem, using phrases and images that described them both at the same time.

For me, the best writing is an exploratory thing, where not only the reader or listener learns something, but it’s clear that the writer is changing their understanding through creating the poem. While writing Poetry is the New Skateboarding I came to the realisation that while poetry and skating are clearly very different, the processes by which they come about and the places they’ve filled in my life are similar.

CA: The poem builds a lot of bridges between poetry and skateboarding. There are lines in there that are about a line of poetry and a line of sequential tricks. You speak about rhyming and it's interesting to think about rhyme in skateboarding. It's interesting to transpose the language of poetry onto skateboarding or vice versa, because it opens up different ways of thinking about each. Do you think growing up skateboarding has influenced your approach to poetry?

MA: Transposing the two languages onto each other has absolutely enhanced my understanding of both, and it’s ultimately led to a greater understanding of my body’s relationship to the wider world. There's a line in that poem that goes: “I'm feeling it in my body adjusting my perspective to the shape of things, tuning in to the curvature of the situation.” That listening to the world and to my body is something I have tried to do when practising both.

I think the best sort of skateboarding has variation in speed, height and sound. Flow and variety. Sometimes something happens by accident and that's exciting. While poetry and skateboarding tend to be quite individual pursuits, exciting things happen when you're with other people. You do your best skating when the people around you are doing their best skating. And the best poetry happens when you're in conversation with other poets who you might find; in person, in a workshop, or in a book published many years ago.

Skating has also given me plenty of practice with failure. You'll read a poem and it seems so effortless and it flows so easily, but actually the poet has spent years developing their craft, then even with that poem it hasn't fallen out of their pen like that. There have been many drafts and many people giving feedback on it, the poet making minor and major changes to it to get it to that point. So with both it's commitment to hard work, when the goal is for it to seem effortless.

CA: Is there anything you’re working towards or have done recently that you’d like to share?

MA: At the end of last year I had my first paid feature set at a night in Brighton. It was great to have 15 minutes at the end, to think about how to use the time and the shape of the story I wanted to present. I’m keeping the wheel of submissions (and rejections!) turning, and hoping to add to my publication credits soon. You can read some published poems in Flights, Ink Sweat & Tears and Poems by Post.

As well as regularly attending writing workshops, I’ve recently started mentorship with the T. S. Eliot shortlisted poet Daniel Sluman (I recommend his book single window) who’s helping me polish my poems and generally being a great support. In the longer term, a few years down the line, I’d love to publish a pamphlet and eventually a full collection, although for now I’m keeping working to make my writing the best it can be.