Sebastian Matthews: An Interview with Serena Agusto-Cox

December 17, 2010

Poet Sebastian Matthews

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

I start by assuming they aren’t ready to hang on my every word. I hope they want to but just need a little help getting into the mood. I will start with a poem that I hope has some extra energy, a little spark—maybe something funny or dramatic—and I try to introduce the work in such a way that a conversation with the audience begins to develop. What I am aiming for is that back-and-forth talk inherent in all good readings. The work should provide any necessary biographical info. Too much back story provided by the poet can kill the reading’s momentum. The banter should merely frame and light the work at hand.

More and more, I see giving poetry readings as akin to stand-up comedy. Problem is, I’m not that funny.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

Powerful in different ways. Though I am an advocate of work, and of performances, that bring the two strengths together. If a spoken word performance wakes up an audience, that’s great. But the poet needs to take the opportunity afforded him or her to present their strongest and deepest work. Likewise, a strong “page poet” can’t just mumble his way through a poem anymore. The work has to rise up into the air, as my friend Keith Flynn insists.

As for making humanity more tolerant or collaborative, I don’t know. I guess I have lost faith in humanity. We’ve done such a bum job of late. I think it’s a person-by-person crusade. A good poem should seduce a listener to want to work hard to understand it; they have to provide the platform for the work to reform itself. In this way, yes, poetry can revolutionize someone. In my mind, true collaboration is revolutionary by nature.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

That’s funny. I have lots of obsessions, but only a few I feel comfortable sharing. I am obsessed with collage—both with the collage method and the physical act of cutting and pasting. I am a bit obsessed with the collage artist, Ray Johnson, and his early work at Black Mountain College. I am obsessed with Black Mountain College. (Obviously, as a poet, I like making lists.)

What else? I am obsessed with following the NBA season. I am a Knicks fan in the east, a Suns fan in the west. I watch a few games but catch most off the Internet. Every morning. Coffee and the NBA scores from the night before. I love all the little news, like players rehabbing injuries, obscure records being broken, etc. There’s a history to it that I share by having been a fan for over 30 years, since I was a kid.

I am obsessed with my son, Avery, who is seven. Obsessed with for once beating him at Wii tennis. And with walking my 10-year old dog. Taking snapshots. Building fires. I should stop there.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I have done all of the above and found them all incredibly helpful (some more than others). I have moved into a new stage, though. I call it my Una-bomber paranoid phase. I hole up in my house and work on my “pieces,” which have become half-literary and half-collage art. It’s hard to describe.

A few years back, I put together an issue of RIVENDELL (a journal about place)

that focused on “woodshed to workshop,” which I see as the movement back and forth between solitary work and communal creativity. I think we all live somewhere on that continuum. Going to Bread Loaf or Swanee, that’s as social as a writer can get. Staying home for a month and working on a novel or a book of poems, that’s a retreat into the woodshed (a jazz term). I think a place like Vermont Studio Center provides an excellent balance. You get lots of free time to write and some lovely social time. I also love that writers come after the visual artists there. It’s good for our egos.

I think Michael Ondaatje’s book with the film editor Walter Murch, The Conver-sations, is a must read for any writer.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

No, I don’t think we have an obligation to dispel the myth. We’re too busy making new ones. Maybe our job—as teachers, as well—is to replace the old ones. Truth is we should all be learning how to read our work as best we can. There’s nothing like a strong reading to send new converts home with a poetry jones. Bad readings bore readers, and this only confirms what they thought coming in.

I have given my share of crappy readings. But I am working on my act. A dancing bear might help.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

Oh yes. Not songs though. Whole albums. Lately, it’s been Bill Frisell, especially his album with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. Old favorites include Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Red Heart the Ticker (a Vermont-based Indie band), old Dlyan, Cassandra Wilson, Joni’s Blue, Van Morrison, Bach cello suites, King Sunny Ade, Nick Drake. The music needs to have a groove, a quiet swing to it. If there are words, I need to know them so thoroughly I can ignore them. It’s really a current (like coffee) to ride along.

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

I have always lived with, around, among and in relation to writers. It’s in my family. But I must say over the last decade or so, my poetry friendships have deepened and grown in importance. I have a small circle of poet friends who serve as my posse. I am in their posse, as well. We meet up at AWP conferences and go looking for novelists, hoping to start a rumble ala West Side Story. I have always loved the idea of gangs dancing together as a way to enact violence. (Whoops, that’s an obsession. See, don’t get me started.)

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

Walking, making collages, taking breaks from the work, hanging with my family, shooting hoops with my son, traveling, etc. I try to spend as little time at the computer as possible, if that makes sense. I go to cafes with pages to mark up. I even write on some of my favorite walking trails. It only works when you’re good terms with the rocks and roots.

There’s something entirely unhealthy, or unbalanced, about writing. At least for me. So I try to build a life around it—which includes a small amount but not a large amount of teaching—to balance the equation.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

An awesome question. Chocolate, of course. Coffee, if that’s a food.

As for writer’s block, I don’t believe in it. The little weasel is imaginary. Make a quick PB&J sandwich and get back to work, I say.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I don’t believe in ideal writing spaces, either. They’re traps, literally. I write (as I am now) at my kitchen table, willfully ignoring the desk in my study. I write on the trail, in cafes, on planes. That’s what’s great about poetry—as opposed to a novel or a long essay—you can take your work with you, in your pocket, in your slowly deteriorating brain.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I am working on a novel. It’s loaded with collages and photos. I call it a graphic novel, but really it’s a bunch of illuminated pages. I am also writing essays on writing that look to other art forms for inspiration. Putting the finishing touches on a new book of poems. That’s about it. It’s already too much. But it’s fun. I like the full stove of bubbling over pots.

Thanks for letting me answer these refreshingly quirky questions. Perfect angle on this weird “po” biz.

Thanks to Sebastian for answering my quirky questions. Please do check out a sample of his work below:

The Sadness That Resides in Everything

You see it in the carriage of the woman

once a man, in her careful

navigation of cobble, hands jammed

in the pockets of her leather jacket; it trails

like a scarf, lingers in the shadow

that slides along the church wall, hovers

around her booted ankles in a swirl

of trash and crushed leaves. It makes you

want an accordion player to follow

behind her in perpetual serenade, though

that too would be devastatingly sad—

the old musician stumbling finally

to bed, the accordion left in the hall

to fart itself into restless silence.

And you can spot it in the young man

allowing life to stream around him:

it’s carried in his shoulders,

that hang on a broken coat hanger,

and caught in hands that mime

knotting a rope from a boat decades

shipwrecked. It’s there in the dusty

old dog napping on its side

in a depression of sun, and in

the young girl’s hard pull

against mother’s restraining hand.

In storefront signs, handbills

blowing down the street; in the clouds

huddling above your head. And

there in your chest, hard

as a plum pit, cracked and brittle;

and in your eyes squinting

into the day’s last sun; in the fleeting

look that no one cares to read, reflected

in the window of the kite shop

closed for the season.

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