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

March 21, 2011

Poet Matthew Thorburn

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’ve participated in enough poetry readings – on both sides of the microphone – to recognize what an act of generosity it is for anyone to come to a reading and listen to my work, especially in a city like New York where there are so many other things they could do instead. So when I get up in front of an audience to read, I always begin by saying thank you. (All those who work so hard to organize, publicize and host poetry readings deserve our endless thanks too.) Then I read an opening poem that I hope will pull the audience in: something quick and vivid, something that might make them laugh, or at least smile, and make their ears perk up.

This doesn’t necessarily come up in readings, but people might be interested to know that, unlike most poets I know, I don’t teach. I’ve always made my living as a writer of practical prose – ads, brochures, press releases, web copy – whether for a college’s office of university relations, a public relations agency, or a car company. Currently, I work in the marketing department of a large international law firm, where I write or edit a lot of the firm’s marketing materials and manage its in-house design team.

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?

I think the most powerful poems are those that really work in both mediums – as words arranged on a page and as words spoken or read aloud. As a reader/listener, I want both! After reading someone’s poems in a book or journal, I want to hear her or him read them. It almost always gives the poems an extra depth. I love to hear poems in the poet’s own voice – to see where she puts the stress, where she pauses, and so forth.

I agree that writing can help people feel more equal or become more tolerant, but the kinds of writing I see doing that are speeches and sermons, or op-eds and letters to the editor, not poems. In my experience, poems work on a smaller scale: one curious person opening a book or journal to see what’s inside.

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

I do have a few. I’m fascinated by Vermeer’s paintings, the way he paints the light. Just recently I’ve gone to see those in The Frick Collection, in New York, and the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. I’d love to make the rounds and see all of his paintings eventually. (It’s probably do-able; there are only about 30.) I also love jazz, especially the recordings of Thelonious Monk, which I keep in more or less constant rotation on my iPod. And when it comes to fiction, I find myself doing more and more rereading of old favorites. I revisit Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels – The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land – every couple years. And I’ll never get tired of Penelope Fitzgerald’s nine perfect little novels – “little” in terms of their page counts, not their ambitions or accomplishments, which are tremendous. (Poets can learn a lot from the work of both of these fiction writers.)

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 participated in workshops as an undergrad and later attended an MFA program. One of the biggest benefits of these experiences was developing a feeling of community – getting to know other poets at a similar point in their writing lives, people I could talk to about poetry, and share poems and books with. The actual work of writing is solitary, of course, but it helps to feel like you’re not in it alone – even though you are, when it comes down to it.

I’ve also participated in the occasional class or workshop at the 92nd Street Y. A one-on-one poetry tutorial with Grace Schulman was especially helpful. She offered close critical readings and gave me very astute, specific advice on the poems I was writing then. A workshop at the Y on writing book reviews, taught by Ben Downing, was also very good, and helped me become a regular reviewer of poetry.

I’ve read my fair share of how-to books and collections of writing prompts and advice. But what I recommend is to read collections of essays by the poets whose work you love, to learn more about how they read and write poetry, and see what you can take away from that for your own work. I’d especially recommend Marianne Boruch’s collection, In the Blue Pharmacy.

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?

I don’t think anyone’s obligated, per se. Personally I just try to write poems that are accessible – otherwise, who will read them? But the truth is that there are all kinds of poems out there, with varying degrees of clarity, accessibility, difficulty and – for lack of a better term – experimental qualities. One thing you could do, if you want to get more people excited about poetry, is to show them that range of possibilities, so each hypothetical poetry reader could find something that appeals to her or him. Who knows – it could be Ted Kooser, but it could also be Rae Armantrout. I think it’s a mistake to underestimate readers or try to dumb things down in order to appeal to a mythical everyman or everywoman.

The thing is, a good poem is a work of art. Good poems should be challenging, to some extent – just like good paintings or plays or movies. This is true for any art form: if you the reader/viewer/audience member aren’t interested in it enough to be willing to put in some effort, you’re not going to get much out of it. A good poem should require, but also reward, multiple readings. It’s a balancing act, an effort on the part of both writer and reader: I reach out to you and you reach out to me.

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 used to listen to a lot of instrumental music (mostly jazz, sometimes classical) when writing, but over the past couple of years I’ve come to find it too distracting. Now I go for quiet.

As far as routines, I like to have my desk cleared off so I have room to work. And I like to have a cup of tea (or a glass of iced tea) within reach. Basically, my routine, such as it is, is about keeping it simple and focusing in on the writing at hand.

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 find that the new friendships I make tend to be with other writers. And I seem to meet them at places like the Sewanee Writers’ Conference or AWP, meaning that typically we all live somewhere else – so more and more of my friends are long-distance friends.

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

For my writerly health, I try to read as much as I can, both poetry and prose, including things that may seem like they wouldn’t inspire poems, but sometimes do, like The Economist. (I also read all these things just because I love to read.) Also I try to go to poetry readings whenever I can. Reading or hearing other people’s beautiful or haunting or heartbreaking poems is inspiring and reminds me of the wide range of what’s possible, beyond whatever little corner of poetry I’m working in at the moment. Of course, bad readings can be helpful too: then my mind wanders and I may find myself thinking of some phrase or image that sparks my next poem!

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?

My challenge isn’t writer’s block. It’s more often finding the time to write – being able to set aside a block of time in which to shut out the everyday busy-ness of life and just think about poems. As I mentioned above, I’m a big tea drinker, but beyond that I don’t have any special writing foods – though I would never turn down a homemade chocolate chip cookie.

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

I write in a second-bedroom-turned-office painted “haystack yellow” and filled with books, with lots of light and a nice view of the Bronx. My desk is actually a kitchen table, one of the first pieces of furniture I bought when I moved to New York, which has been my desk, or sometimes my kitchen table, in a variety of apartments over the past 10-plus years. This is where my poems get going, though once I have a solid draft on paper I usually carry it around in my pocket so I can work on it on the subway or during my lunch hour.

This is actually very close to the writing room of my dreams, which for some reason I have always imagined being a warm yellow color. My ideal writing room would just be larger, and I’d have two desks – one for poems, one for all the admin stuff, and both with lots of drawers.

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

I recently finished – I think it’s finished – a manuscript called This Time Tomorrow, a collection of poems set in China, Iceland and Japan. So now I’m working on some new poems, feeling kind of in between projects. I’m not sure how these new poems might eventually fit together, though I like that not-knowing and plan to stay in that gray area as long as I can, then see what I’ve got.

On the prose front, I recently finished a longer piece on Chinese poetry – partly a personal essay, partly a review of David Hinton’s wonderful anthology Classical Chinese Poetry – which will appear in the first issue of a new magazine called Rowboat: Poetry in Translation. And I regularly write book reviews for Pleiades, so I’m waiting to see what’s available to review for the next issue. I’ve been reading new books by Clay Matthews, Kimiko Hahn and Collier Nogues, so I might write about one of them. With prose, I do best when someone asks me to write about something – that’s how the Rowboat essay came to be – so I’m always open to “assignments” from editors.

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

Just Like That

God, I never felt lonelier
than when the shinkansen would pull in
and I heard that electronic chime—
the one to tell us passengers
here comes the next stop announcement
in Japanese. It almost sounded like
someone’s phone, because no one’s phone
sounds like a phone anymore,
or a ringtone version of a Milt Jackson line,
a vibraphone riff from somewhere
in the middle of one of Milt’s ten thousand runs
through “Django” or “Bags’ Groove”
or “Two Bass Hit.” I missed hearing him
twice back in Michigan, years ago
at the Serengeti Ballroom and the Bird
of Paradise, and now missed him all over again—
missed my cds and headphones, the live
and studio versions, the alternate
takes and outtakes, but especially his solos
that strayed beyond what I’d given up
precious brain cells to store away
so I could replay at will. My dream job,
back when Milt was still alive, would have been
to be John Lewis in his tuxedo at the piano.
To play like that, of course. To play at all.
But also to be so close I could listen
to Milt every night, every night—
those ten thousand sweet transactions
between the mallets and the vibes.
This string of four or five notes, not quite
a melody, not close to a song, might’ve been
a little something Milt threw in for flavor
or to egg John on, something to go back to
throughout his solo, like an inside joke
or an old lover’s name you can never
really let go of, just the way I keep hearing it
now, lonelier each time, as we slide
into Shinjuku, Shiojiri, Nara, Shin-Osaka.

Originally published in Brilliant Corners

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