Matt Windle: Poetry & Fighting
By Chris Akers
Late June 2011, I found myself in a small room at the back of the pub in the centre of Birmingham, waiting for the poetry to begin. It was the first time that I had attended a spoken word night and truth be told, I didn’t know what to expect.
My only experience of spoken word nights up to that point was reading or watching fictionised scenes in a television drama, in which a middle-class audience pretentiously click their fingers instead of clapping their approval at the poets, as if the clicks are the audience’s secret handshake which only those in the know understand.
Yet this night is not like that at all. The poets are younger than me, the audience has a mixture of all different kinds of people and there is no clicking of fingers, only clapping and appreciation of the poems that have been recited.
Seemingly inspired, three months later, I went onto that same stage and performed poetry for the first time.
Poetry and boxing have had a longer relationship than people may have realised.
Arthur Cravan, poet and nephew of Oscar Wilde, had one professional fight against Jack Johnson, a year after Johnson had lost the world heavyweight title to Jess Willard. Johnson knocked him out in six rounds. Poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was also known to be an admirer of the sport. And there seems to be more interest in poetry in modern boxing as well.
“When you talk about anything, no matter what it is, the more people you’ll find that do similar things,” says Matt Windle, one of the poets that performed on the first spoken word night I attended on that June night, and a professional boxer in the flyweight division.
“Within the boxing world, very rarely anyone brings up and mentions poetry, because why would you. But there are quite a few people within boxing that seem to have known some amateur coaches that just write poetry about the lads or the gym or one of the champions, and they just write it for a bit of fun and it’s a pastime and that’s it.”
It was through his poetry that as Windle says, “I got to be known a bit more in the boxing world because it’s what I actually do as a job. So I might say that I’ve been to work today and someone will ask what I do for work and I’ll say I’m a poet. It instigates the conversation that way.”
As he explains, poetry and boxing have become intertwined for a long time.
“There’s a poet called Vernon Scannell who boxed as well. Roald Dahl was a school heavyweight boxing champion. Lord Bryon, I don’t think he was a boxer, but he liked boxing and boxing training. There’s a museum in the Midlands that has gloves that Bryon wore. And then if you go back to Ancient Greece and Roman times, poetry and combating in some form was popular. Boxing is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. So it’s something that goes back a long time. The more you delve into it and the more you dig, the more that you find parallels between boxing and poetry.”
Windle’s knowledge of poetry is impressive and his passion for it comes through when he talks about it. Yet school for the most part wasn’t something he enjoyed, though English was something that he was attracted to.
“I was always fine with primary school,” he explains. “I remember having some poetry lessons at school and I was quite good at it. I enjoyed writing and storytelling. And then at secondary school, it transitioned a little bit into rap and the musical side of things. Even though I was writing rap or MCs, I was still writing, so still a love of English as well, although I didn’t necessarily think that at the time.”
However, his time in a mainstream school came to an end when he was excluded and transferred to a PRU school.
“PRU is Pupil Referral Unit,” says Windle. That’s where you go if you’re not in a mainstream school. I was at a school in Year 10 and we had to write either a story or a poem. The teacher said the story had to be two pages and the poem had to be one page and I thought ‘Ah, I’m going to do a poem!’ So I did this rhythming poem, as I was quite confident, and had beats to do rhyme and that sort of stuff. So it was thanks to that.”
The teacher of that lesson recognises the talent that Windle had for poetry, pushed him a little bit, and encouraged him to pursue it. This included the teacher given Windle a form in his next English lesson. In many ways it made him reconsider what poetry was all about.
“The teacher at my next English lesson, she had the (Birmingham) Young Poet Laureate application form in her pigeon hole and she put it on the desk in front of me and said ‘I thought of you when I saw this.’ I read it and didn’t know what it was or what it meant. I didn’t know you could be a poet, as stupid as that might sound, as everyone that I had studied was either dead or old or posh. So I didn’t know you could be an energetic, real-life young poet. It just opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
Alongside this, Windle was a big boxing fan, his family watching the big fights involving Naseem Hamed and Lennox Lewis in the 1990s. His passion for the sport started at a very young age and began with the theatrics of another event that is set in a squared ring.
“My enjoyment for boxing started back in the 90s. When I was six, seven, eight years of age, I was massive into wrestling and WWF as it was at the time. So that’s where my initial passion for watching people fight in a ring for a championship began.
“I was always aware of boxing and I had an Argos punchbag where you had to stand on the board and it would spring back to you and cheap boxing gloves. But my mom didn’t want me to box properly, so I went down the football and athletics route. I was decent at football and very fast, so they were my two main sports.”
Yet the exclusion from a mainstream school and subsequent transfer to a PRU school wasn’t just a sliding doors moment for his poetry, but also his participation in the ring.
“It was when I got excluded at school, with my PRU school I was only there for three mornings a week so had a lot more time on my hands to do other things. I didn’t just want to sit in the house all day playing on the Playstation. I still wanted to be proactive and create opportunities for myself. I also wasn’t playing football anymore, as I was banned by the F.A for fighting with parents, so I wasn’t doing that as a sport. I just wanted to something to take up my time and do it and at that time, my parents allowed me to start boxing.
“In the January of 2006 is when I went to Warley Amateur Boxing Club for the first time. I started doing boxing training in October 2005, but I started to go to Warley Amateur Boxing Club to learn how to box properly. I wrote my first poem in the English lesson in May 2006. I did my first poetry performance in August 2006 and then had my first amateur fight in October 2006. They were two things that I went from being neither to both within a 10 to 12 month period. They were hand in hand and both came from no longer being in a mainstream school.”
His work with poetry involves going into schools and teaching them poetry.
“It’s largely schools but not excessively. And then it comes down to what the school or the client wants. What I offer in schools changes based on what the schools want or the age of people I’m working with. I also do commission and bespoke pieces for organisations, if they’re celebrating a particular occasion or launching a competition or want to do some sort of advertisement, they may contact me to write a poem about it. Predominantly I visit schools or work with youth organisations and develop and design work around inspiring young people to feel more confident with putting pen to paper.”
Like a kid entering a boxing gym for the first time and learning more than just how to fight, Windle’s lessons help give kids a purpose beyond its original intent of reciting poetry and learning how to write poetry. Like how a boxing gym can be a solace to help people with structure and help control their emotions in a disciplined way, poetry can be the vessel by which a child can express their thoughts, frustrations, and what is happening in their environment in a way which better articulates which they think to the outside world. Yet as Windle describes, poetry can sometimes be initially daunting for young people.
“Whenever I mention poetry at the start of the day, I see the horror in their face as if to say ‘I can’t do poetry!’ or ‘I can’t rhyme!’ They then have to understand that they don’t have to rhyme. I even give them a few tricks of the trade to make rhyming easier for them. But ultimately my job is to encourage people to pursue their passions no matter what it is. It doesn’t have to be poetry nor boxing. It’s just what they are passionate about and what makes them happy, to go after it and pursue it and not listen to any of the negative noise that may come their way. Just be confident enough to be themselves.”
So impressed was someone with the work that he was doing, that he was nominated to be an official bearer for the London 2012 Olympic torch relay.
“What happened is that I was working in a school in London and the teacher was so impressed with how the day went, as some of her students that she can never get to engage with writing were focused. After my session, they tried to do a maths session and they found one of these lads, who doesn’t engage in English, writing lyrics and poems in the back of his Maths book. The next day a girl came in, who they had trouble getting to do homework, with all these poems that she wrote overnight. There wasn’t any homework set. She just went home and started writing poems by choice.
“I didn’t even know about Olympic torch bearing for the games. When the teacher saw that they were looking for nominations and why people should be chosen to carry the Olympic torch, he entered me in it. I didn’t know anything about it until I got an email saying that I’d been nominated as an Olympic torch bearer.
“There were 88,000 people that were nominated for it and 8,000 people were chosen. So nominees had a one in 11 chance of getting it. Fortunately, I was one of the 8,000 people that had the chance to officially carry the Olympic torch. It was a fantastic day and occasion and probably one of the best days of my life and the Olympics were a fantastic event for the country. There was such unity, community, togetherness, celebration, joy, passion, and pride that derived from the London Olympics, that I was immensely proud to be a part of it.”
While he may hail from Birmingham, the job of going into schools take him to all parts of the UK and the world. As well as going as far north as Newcastle and as far south domestically, Windle has also done workshops in schools in Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany and Austria. Schools in Kuwait have done his online classes. The job has allowed him to visit countries he wouldn’t dream of going to.
And like how there are different styles of boxing that can derive from different countries and cultures, the way that rhymes are said can differ with various accents.
“It’s not just about how it looks on a sheet of paper written down in the Queen’s English but about how it sounds when it comes out of your mouth. Go to different areas and children can rhyme with words in their accents that I can’t rhyme with in mine. It keeps it fresh and original for me.”
Returning to the boxing, how much longer does Matt think he will box for?
“I don’t know how far I’ll go. Largely comes down to whether or not I get the right decisions that I feel I should get. Ijaz (Ahmed), the guy I fought for the Midlands title two years ago, he’s now the WBO and IBF European champion. I feel I beat him fairly comfortably and that was my first 10 rounder. So had I got the decision instead of him, it could have been me getting the phone call for that European title shot instead of him. With how far can I go on, it largely comes down to having competent judges that can score the fights correctly.
“With what’s in the pipeline, I don’t fully know yet. I’ve given my manager some options to work on and he’s speaking to people and we have things in principle agreed. But we’re just waiting for stuff to be sanctioned.
A few weeks since the interview took place, it has been announced that Matt will be fighting Neil McCubbin for the vacant light flyweight Commonwealth title in Sheffield on June 11th. Win and he will be Britain’s lightest champion at any level for over 100 years.
Thankfully Windle can get into the gym to train again. Like boxers, teachers have been affected massively by the pandemic, and this has affected his ability to go into schools and inspire kids.
“It’s been tough over the last 12 months with schools being closed and then when they are open, many schools aren’t accepting external visitors. Being doing outline workshops through Zoom and that’s ok. That works better with primary schools than with secondary schools, though it’s never quite the same as actually being there in person.
“I just hope and pray that I can continue to deliver workshops and visit schools, as that’s what I’m good at. I love poetry and all that comes with it, but my biggest passion is being able to get in and work with young people and poetry is just my vice which allows me to do that. I feel that I am good at it, that I can give confidence to young people to be themselves, to be their own person and make them believe that they can accomplish whatever they would like to in life regardless of what their background is, what their educational route was and what they’ve had to endure. Ultimately just give them a few different career options.
“As I said, I was always into writing and always pretty good at writing poems, even at primary school. But I never actually thought I could be a poet. Just trying to show young people that these different jobs exist and it can be something to get them to strive to achieve whatever it is they would like to. That’s my long-term goal ready, is to continue to make a living by visiting schools and inspiring young people.”
A couple of weeks after the interview, Windle posted a status update on his Facebook describing a class he had taught. The kids enjoyed it and were on track with their work. The teenagers who were described as hard to reach even asked to stay in the class for an extra hour.
This sums up how combining the physicality of boxing with the emotional expression of poetry has helped give the kids Matt teaches a purpose, as well as the belief that their lives can be better than what others think they are destined for.