Matt Layne

A People’s Poet

by Brett Levine, Photo by Jerry Siegel

Every year, on a day just after Halloween, Matt Layne leads the roll call of the departed at Birmingham’s Dia de los Muertos. “In 2004, the third year of the festival, I read poems in the alleyway attached to Bare Hands Gallery,” he explains.  “Then, after I went on the Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage to Hayneville, I wanted to find a way to incorporate a reading of the names of the deceased into Day of the Dead in some way.” This search for connections, and interconnectedness, is an integral part of Layne’s approach to creativity, which usually involves community and collaboration.

“I’ve always been interested in poetry. I probably first became aware of it in Cricket magazine when I was about six or seven,” he says. This early exposure to poetry resulted in Layne pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English at UAB where he worked with leading Alabama poets including Jim Mersman and Bob Collins. Layne also started exploring the intersection of performance and poetry at that time. “Throughout my career I’ve been more focused on performing my poetry than I have on publishing,” Layne says. This willingness to engage with the community led Layne to participate in the Nappy Crow Feather Medicine Show, where he came of age as a poet. “There were so many people participating at that time,” Lane reminisces.  “We had myself, Charles Tortorici, Kregg Wilhite, Dennis Hunt, Art Price, and Randy Gachet, who was writing and performing poetry at that time.”

By the mid-1990s, a community had formed around the former Books bookstore near UAB. “We held readings every Friday night,” Layne recalls. “We would usually have about twenty people reading, and Craig Legg would have chili in the crock pot. There were also places to buy drinks nearby.” The energy surrounding the readings resulted in a poetry stage being included at City Stages.  “The poetry stage was a little chaotic,” Layne laughs. “Eventually, the Birmingham Police Department ordered the stage shut down, and with it went the PA system.  We simply stood on the stage reading and voice projecting.”

In 1996 the poetry scene was changing, and poetry slams were becoming more popular. “Creatively poetry slams were not the right fit for me,” Layne muses. “Of course,  we all want an enthusiastic response to our work, and I fell into the rut of performing the same poems which had scored well again and again rather than creating new work. I felt like I had moved from the supportive community we had built at the bookstore into a place where poetry was a competition.  I only did slams about a year or so.”

At the same time, Layne’s formal focus on poetry was receiving a substantial boost. In 1996 he won the Hackney Poetry Award at Birmingham-Southern College, and in 1998 he received a recognition that allowed him to take his work to a national stage. “The National Society of Arts and Letters held a competition inviting artists across all fields to create an American archetypal figure. I won the regional competition, and went to Ann Arbor for the national competition to discover I was the only poet.”

Although Layne has published in creative journals for many years, the process of publishing is of less significance than the act of performing his work.

“I think poetry is a challenging field for publishing opportunities. Over the years, I have had periods where I will place more emphasis on publishing, but I would rather engage an audience and experience the immediacy of that process than focus on putting poems on a printed page.” Layne participates in a number of poetry groups in Birmingham, including the Big Table Poets, but he is also the Associate Editor of the Steel Toe Review, where his main focus is poetry.

“Poetry is there when I need it,” Layne remarks, “and I think part of the process of writing poetry is being willing to sit with something.” He continues, “I wrote a line many years ago—‘there’s an iron heart ringing’—and I didn’t know how to use it or where it would go. At Day of the Dead this year I read a poem called ‘Giant Steps,’ which was in memory of Guillermo Castro. It says in part, ‘rugs bunch up/uneven stairs/too dim lights/there are patches of ice/if sleeping dogs lie, there is no truth/the night is darker for lack of you.’ ‘Giant Steps’ gave me a place where I could explore and examine both my grief and my joy.”

Layne continues to write, to perform and to share his work with live audiences and on the page or screen. “I really enjoy the craft of poetry. I am often reminded of a line by Lawrence Ferlinghetti—‘the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime to a high wire of his own making.’ I suppose I am just trying to ride the wire between the performance and what’s on the page.”

6 Responses to “Matt Layne”

  1. Barry Marks says:

    It’s about time someone noticed Matt, one of our city’s (hitherto) unsung heroes. His poetry is clear and moving and his tireless efforts to promote poetry and literacy in our community make him a vital asset. Thanks, B Metro!

  2. Joy Ledvina says:

    Lovely article about Matt – our unsung hero.


  3. Tom Gordon says:

    Fine, fine article about a very thoughtful and talented man who is indeed an asset to our community.

  4. Debra Love says:

    So great to see Matthew Layne celebrated! Well deserved!

  5. Matt Layne says:

    Thank y’all! I was so honored to be recognized by the wonderful folks at B-Metro. What a beautiful magazine!
    Big thanks to Brett Levine and Jerry Siegel!

  6. Brian M says:

    Poet Matt Layne, who I met in Mt Brook circles, is a treasure to this city. Matt’s poems, In Eve’s Defense and In Absentia, are golden examples of his work. What I love most about your writing, Matt, is it’s deceptive accessibility. It reads like pulp fiction and then you hear music. -Brian M (Birmingham AL)

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