Matthew Roth: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

February 23, 2011

Poet Matthew Roth

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 am perfectly content to claim the mantle of poet, if only because saying so might inspire me to write something. Power of suggestion, etc. I also teach at a great little school in central Pennsylvania, Messiah College. Add to that husband and father, fledgling Mennonite, tender of illegal backyard chickens, bread enthusiast, and now we’re well into the archipelago of mundane islands barely worth a visit.

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?

All these forms can be powerful and legitimate. I don’t worry too much about the utility of poems, even though I find them useful and could point to plenty of examples where poems and poets have affected society. I try to write good poems, and I enjoy good poems by others. Fortunately, there will always be as many kinds of poems as poets.

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

In the realm of poetry, I’ve recently become obsessed with understanding the long sentence. Most of the poems that astonish me employ these wondrous, serpentine sentences that suspend, for an almost unbearable length of time, the resolving gesture. In the non-poetry realm, birds falling from the sky for no reason (although I should mention that my book, Bird Silence, provides some tentative answers!). I’m also hopelessly obsessed with Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire. Don’t even get me started.

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).

Workshops were very important to me while I was a student, but my best education took place outside of class. I was lucky to have wonderful peers everywhere I studied. This is the real value of graduate creative writing programs–the community of writers. As for books, my students love Chad Davidson and Greg Fraser‘s Writing Poetry, and I often find myself inspired by their wisdom and examples.

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?

Labeling readers as mainstream or non-mainstream seems as unhelpful as trying to judge which Americans are more “real.” To then try to write for one imaginary group or another seems like a waste of energy. To those poets who want to return to the 19th century, I invite you to read a month’s worth of poems from the daily newspapers in 1877. When you’re finished gouging out your eyes, give me a call.

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?

I need a quiet room. I tend to write first drafts longhand, then revise on the computer.

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

Sonnets + Hip Hop Abs!

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?

I wish I had some kind of healthy routine to share, but mostly I’m driven by the terror that if I don’t write now, I’ll never write again.

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

I tend to write in my office, where my books are, but it’s far from ideal. I once spent a summer as a fire lookout in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. Hauling my books up into the tower wasn’t a lot of fun, but once I got settled, it was about as great a writing space as one could hope for, except during lightning storms.

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

I am currently on sabbatical, so I’m hoping to finish the next book.

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

No Mark

There was a high stone wall
separating our land—the small yard,
half sand, where my father grew

tomatoes—from the royal preserve.
Years ago, I was told, the king himself
hunted there among well-ordered trees,

made camp by the stream that coils
through its heart. There was even—
still it’s there, though overgrown—

a small orchard of sweet peaches
and apricots. Now thickets
lie stripped by a tangle of deer,

the high wall my father disappeared
behind one day, overthrown
by slow degrees of frost and thaw.

Many days, I have stepped through
a breach, found myself in that
odd, forbidden state, my own

and not my own. And once,
beneath the government
of a twin row of sycamores,

I found the hoofprints of a horse,
each shallow C filled in
with tarnished bronze. Amazed,

I followed, until the hooves
stopped short in a clearing
by the edge of a small reflecting pool.

A stone in its middle made it look
like a human eye. To one side
a thick-trunked magnolia leaned.

This must have been April,
the water clotted with pink,
fleshy petals. I stood wondering

when all at once the surface cleared
a moment, and I started
at the sudden flare of my face

peering into the pool, or well,
or deep oubliette, where I lay
staring up at the shadowed face,

which hovered like a stone
in the sky’s open eye. Somehow
I knew, whoever it was,

he had not come to save me.

–published in Bird Silence.

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