Weekly Prose Feature: “An Interview with Sebastian Matthews” by Justin Bigos

February 22, 2013

Sebastian Matthews (Photo by Charter Weeks)Sebastian Matthews is the author of a memoir and two books of poems, most recently Miracle Day (Red Hen Press, 2012). He teaches undergraduate creative writing at Warren Wilson College and serves on the faculty of the Low-Residency MFA at Queens University, Charlotte. He is working on a novel. 32 Poems previously published an interview with Sebastian Matthews by Serena Agusto-Cox in December 2010; to read that interview, click here.

Justin Bigos: Your latest book of poems, Miracle Day, has much to admire, but I suppose what I admire most is the generosity, the almost self-effacement, of the speaker. For example, in the poem “Hearing Ilya Read for the First Time,” we not only hear the speaker’s entrancement by the poet Ilya Kaminsky, but also the crowd’s—and then we are given the surprising final image of a fiction writer who with great bravery must step to the podium and read after the show-stopping performance of Kaminsky. In another poem, dedicated to you father, the poet William Matthews, on the tenth anniversary of his death, your speaker seems to step completely out of the scene at the end, giving the poem, in a sense, to your father and his father, visions or maybe ghosts, studying a wine menu at a bistro. So while your speakers are very present in the music of their language and force of observation, they are sometimes absorbed into what they witness and love. I think the dual quality I’m trying to describe is captured in the last line of your poem “Zones of Providence”: a speaker who is “besotted admirer and blurred subject both.” Okay, now I’ll step away and let you talk. Tell us about these “mid-life songs” of Miracle Day.

Sebastian Matthews: Well, first off, I want to thank you for inviting me to talk about my poems, and about this book. It’s an honor. And just a little strange because I have been so removed from the book ever since it came out. I might even say estranged, for my family was in a huge car accident, a head-on collision, and it has taken now a year and a half to make our recovery. It’s been hard, as one might imagine, and more than a little time- (and energy-) consuming. I had to drop a lot of things just to make it through. In fact, I am still in the process of dropping things, so much so it feels at times like I have very little left to hold onto. And I guess the poems were one of the first things to drop. It was easy—the whole book, really—for I’d written the poems and so they were out there already in the world in some small way. Maybe too easy, for now I have almost forgotten them. So it’s a treat, and a surprise, to be asked to return to them, if only to say a few things about their conception.

I like your ideas about stepping out of the poem at the end. I’d never thought of it quite like that before, but that might be my ideal ending for a poem—getting it so right in voice and scene and music that the voice behind the thing can disappear, step off stage, and the whole thing might keep moving for a while on its own. It’s a little like when a narrator in a novel was just a second ago talking to you but all of a sudden is nowhere to be found. The reader is left in the scene unfolding at his feet.

Before the accident, I used to dream often of driving a car on a highway—one of those small curvy ones on the west coast—and in the dream I’d get to the point where I lost track of the car and was steering from somewhere behind—the dream had split one car and driver into a pair—so now I was unable to see where the car was actually going; and I’d have to steer blind, so to speak, guessing where the car would bank for the turn or when it would pass another car. I don’t have that dream anymore. But it was always an exhilarating and anxious feeling, a kind of fuck-it-I’ll-play-it-by-feel experience that I think writing poems can be like at times. Why not simply let go—a parent behind his child letting go of the bike—and see where the small craft ends up?

As for “mid-life” songs, that phrase first became attached to many of these poems as a kind of joke or self-criticism. I was writing too many of the same kind of poor-me-I’m-getting-older poems. They were too tame and self-involved. As an antidote, I started writing what I called “braggin’ pomes,” which were shorter, more emotional poems, with an often pissed-off or hyped-up narrator—poems about playing basketball or creating music. But also poems responding to perceived slights, possibly paranoid and most certainly with hackles up. There are obvious potential pitfalls in this kind of poem, as well, but it felt worse if I didn’t attempt them. Garrett Hongo, an early supporter of my work, had told me it was time to write about different subjects; and I remember reading Tony Hoagland about tone and how he feels poets nowadays are afraid of being a little mean. There are both types of poems in the book—introspective and brash—but only the “mid-life songs” subtitle stuck.

JB: I like the connection you make between your dream and the writing of poems, and I do feel that in many of your poems you are doing just what you describe, kind of “going on your nerve,” to quote O’Hara. Many of your poems seem to thrive on the unpredictability of consciousness and feeling, the paths they take, the paths they veer from. For example, your prose poem “Ars Poetica Blues” takes a sharp, surreal turn at the end; the last line reads: “And the bottles on the table rattle as the milk truck tanks roll by.” To my ear, the key moment before that image, the hinge, is the statement, “And no one cares.” At that point, the poem seems free to find its own way, regardless of who’s listening. Do you feel similar moments in other poems you’ve written?

SM: Well, “Detour Ahead” worked a lot that way. I knew I wanted to write about the drive I took from a conference in North Carolina into New England and through Pennsylvania. I had taken a misguided detour through Philly that plopped me down into a whole new place—both geographically and emotionally. Like the drive, I knew I wanted in writing the poem to explore this realm (to talk about how the detour altered things) but wasn’t sure what I’d do when I got there. So when I got to the point in the story where I was driving in circles around downtown Philly, lost and trying to find a way back out, I was also lost and circling in the poem. I had written that I’d been listening to Bill Evans, which is true, I was listening to Evans throughout the detour drive, but I’d forgotten about it until I remembered, sitting there at the desk, the whole Scott LaFaro story—his dying tragically young in a car crash—and that began to focus me again. So as I drove on up through the city, and through the poem, I had a new rhythm and pulse that had become attuned to the Evans tune and its steady rhythm. And, in that way, the whole last part came to me out of the blue. I had the song on as I was writing the poem, and in my head I was back in the car, and the whole thing was, as you say, “free to find its own way.”

Like many poets of my generation, I guess I am an adherent to Hugo’s whole “triggering town” idea. That you don’t have to end up where you started.

JB: It’s interesting that you see the influence of Hugo as generational. I think I’m only about ten years younger than you, but when I finally got around to reading Hugo’s Triggering Town, I both felt exhilarated by it, and also that I had somehow already read it—maybe because it’s now “in the water,” so to speak. Can you talk more about Hugo, and his influence on your poetic “triggers”?

SM: Yeah, I might be wrong about the generation thing. The book’s definitely in the water though. Just today, in an Intro to Creative Writing class, I had a student apologize for “wandering off topic.” He said, “I tried to stay on topic but I kept drifting.” And, of course, for me drifting is what it’s about—the little improvisation inside the song’s structure.

Hugo was a big influence all around for me. His poems, The Triggering Town, the “autobiography in essays” that came out after his death. (He even wrote a great—and strange—detective novel.) He just seemed so sad and so earnest yet so in love with the world, especially the small and unnoticed and underappreciated things. Along with James Wright and, to some degree, Robert Bly and William Stafford, Hugo made clear to me how important it was to pay attention to the everyday—to see beauty in it, to get at the dark parts—and to raise it up for inspection.

Hugo has always reminded me of Rilke but reincarnated as a circus bear or a minor league baseball clown. I got to meet him a few times, first when I was a kid and he came to Boulder, Colorado, to teach. He was there the day I got attacked by a dog while riding my bike up on an old mountain road. He was a very warm-hearted guy, attentive to kids. He loved baseball and ice cream and dogs (though not the beast that bit me). What was not to like? And I spent a little time with him in Seattle just before he died. He and my father were friends; I was in high school and so joined my dad on his visits to the hospital. It just killed me to see Hugo that sick and my father that bereft.

JB: Miracle Day is divided into three sections, “Early,” “Middle,” and “Late,” and preceding each section is a kind of introductory or interstitial poem that is set in a different font than the rest of the book. These poems seem to add an extra layer of authorial presence over the pages. Can you talk a bit about your choice to include these poems as both separate and integral to the collection?

SM: I have seen other books that do this and always liked it. Though it’s a little different, my father’s A Happy Childhood used those Freud poems as load-bearing posts. I wanted the three longer poems in Miracle Day to do some of that work—and it felt right somehow to place them at the front of each section. It was Red Hen Press’s idea to put those three poems in a different font. I was reluctant to do it at first but have since grown to enjoy the affect.

With the whole “Early,” “Middle,” and “Late” thing, I wanted to play with the idea of mid-life as this zone one moved through in stages. I finished the book just before I turned 45, so I was jumping the gun a little. But once I laid the thing out that way, poems began migrating to their appropriate zones. And it made a kind of emotional sense to start with the cell phone poem and end with the driving poem, which put the black ice poem center. It’s the way I’ve come to put together collections of poems, it seems. Is there a manual for how one goes about the process? Hopefully not—but I bet there have been AWP panels about the idea. The kind of panel I usually avoid.

JB: Earlier you mentioned the car accident you and your family were in a year and a half ago. I confess that when I read your poem “Left-Handed,” I initially thought it was about this accident, but at some point I realized—mainly because your wife is absent from the poem, and the injuries are not as severe—that it must have been a different accident. And the road as an image of peril pops up in other poems in the collection. Your neck of the woods is Asheville, North Carolina, a place near and dear to my own heart, and last summer, on the way from Texas to Asheville, my wife and I were also in a major car wreck—and, except for a couplet, I have not been able to write about it. Can you talk a bit about writing from—or maybe through—trauma?

SM: As you know, a serious car accident turns your life around. It’s one helluva big-time scary wake-up call. The accident I wrote about in “Left-Handed” was certainly scary—a little something black ice can do—but my son and I escaped from that mishap with only minor injuries and frayed nerves. The recent crash (and hopefully our last) really created some damage. My wife and I were first confined to our beds then to wheelchairs for the first bunch of months. Luckily, our boy was unhurt. But, still, everything in our life changed; and even now, a year and a half later, we are still coping with the long-term effects of the crash, emotionally and physically.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to write about the crash, at least not for some time. I had jotted down a few small poems, a handful of lines, while in the hospital, but pretty quickly all my energy got sucked into rehabbing, caring for my family as they cared for me. But about six or seven months into the recovery something burst inside and I felt a powerful desire to purge myself—my body, my brain, my heart—of the feelings and memories that had welled up. I had become haunted by the experience—in particular, by the fact that the man who ran into us head-on did so because of a fatal heart attack. Something about his bad luck running into ours—of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And because we were on our way up the mountain to celebrate “family day” with our son who had entered our lives exactly eight years before. That some force had plowed in and upended our happiness.

What allowed me to respond to this catastrophe at all was the idea of writing a little every day for a month, which was the main concept of The Grind, an internet experiment in writing that Ross White and Matthew Olzmann have created. You join a group of like-minded writers—poets, prosers, hybrid writers—and together witness each other’s journey through a month of writing. It doesn’t matter if you only write five minutes each morning, you still have a built-in audience of writers attempting the same thing. So about 10 months out, in June 2012, I wrote a series of poems, one a day for a month, that I now call the “Dear Virgo” poems. For some reason, I began writing faux-horoscopes to myself in a mocking, bitter voice. Something about the mean-spirited and angry voice felt appropriate. And though I wasn’t writing directly about the accident, it felt like I was at least releasing some of the raw emotions surrounding the event.

I tried again in August of the same year, this time with the plan of writing “head-on” about the accident—to meet force with force. And so I sat down and started writing poems about specific aspects of the accident—the crash itself, the first five minutes after when we weren’t sure how bad things were, the hour I spent trapped in the car, the first days of ICU, etc. One of my last poems was a letter to the man’s son. And, as with the first “Dear Virgo” attempts, I made a photomontage image for each poem so that, by the end of that second month, I had created 60 poem-collage pairs; and by then I had literally written myself through the experience. I was totally spent and felt like I’d never write another poem ever again. But it was worth it, for I felt more myself and more present in my life. Less haunted. Ready to try something new.

As for “writing through trauma,” I think that’s a good way to phrase it. Writing about trauma can only take you so far; you begin to move past your subject only when you break your gaze from it. You start out writing about trauma but before too long you’re in the throes of despair and writing about a chair. As Charles Baxter so sagely put it: “People in a traumatized state tend to love their furniture.”

JB: It’s clear from your poems that you love music, in particular blues and jazz. In the poem “The Living Room Sessions,” the speaker listens for the first time to Lonnie Johnson: “the voice is Billie Holiday/ grafted onto a bottleneck guitar, dragged/ down a long dirt road.” In another poem the speaker delights in an Eddie Locke drum solo, as Locke’s virtuosity and showmanship moves “way past decorum.” Can you talk about this ekphrastic impulse in your work?

SM: Would love to. It’s one of my favorite things to do, writing off the trigger of music, or art, or film. I don’t think the work I produce in this vein is often very good—though I get a few good ones here and there—but it’s the act itself that counts. It’s a kind of practice for me, a way to warm up—for I know I can always listen or look carefully and respond on the page. Al Young used to have our workshop group listen to music and write off or out of the song. I remember picking an epic Mingus song and writing page after page. Which reminds me of one of Al’s criticisms of my work. He said, “You sure write pretty, but what’s it about?”

And, if I think about it a little, the poems that do work, as I think the two you mention above do, it’s because there’s an intensity attached to the listening act. It’s not just art for art’s sake but also an experience I am trying to get at—an analogous soul. The Locke drum solo poem came to me in a fit of frustration and humor. I had been trying to write something with the album on in the background and as the solo kept going and going—I’d not heard the song before done this way, live—I had to put down my project and simply marvel at the audacity of the musician taking up this much space inside a performance. It’s as if he were saying, “Shit, if Trane can go on for half an hour, why can’t I?”

In Geoff Dyer’s book on jazz, But Beautiful, which ranks as one of the best books on the subject)he paraphrases George Steiner by saying that all real criticism in art is simply one artist responding to another. I love the idea that art is often spurred on by other art, and that the artist, the poet, has to look back as well as look forward when creating new material. Not so much the anxiety of influence as the joy of call and response. Anything you can do, I can do better.

JB: Returning a bit to the subject of western Carolina, can you tell us a bit about Black Mountain College, another subject of some of your poems? I’m particularly interested in your personal connection to its legacy.

SM: Well, more than anything, I am a big fan of Black Mountain College and its legacy as an experimental, “arts-based” college. I look to it as a model—an ideal, really—for my own teaching and the work I do with the undergraduates at Warren Wilson College. I love the way Albers and Co. exploded the traditional classroom and in doing so let in so many other forms of learning.

I spent a few years first on the board of and then working for The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, which allowed me to learn more about the storied history of the place while getting more deeply involved with the Asheville area arts scene. During that time, I worked with the director of BMCM+AC, Alice Sebrell, curating a show of Ray Johnson’s early collage work. I had a great, good time working on that and learned a ton in the process.

As for the legacy of the “Black Mountain” school of poets, I must say that I am only passingly influenced by that avant-garde thread of American poetics—as embodied by Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, and others. Creeley has always been my favorite of the bunch, though, and I have become a huge fan of Jonathan Williams’s work, as poet, editor, and photographer. Over the years, I have gained more and more respect for the work of poet and teacher M.C. Richards.

Part of my interest in BMC comes from my belief that all art is, at its root, place-based and time-bound. We write out of a particular time and place, one of a chorus of voices working together to do some good in the world—by witnessing it and singing its truths. When I moved to Asheville in 1999, it made sense to learn more about the Southern Appalachian literary scene—both in the past and in the present—and also about Black Mountain. I have only scratched the surface, of course. But it’s where the impulse for the literary journal Rivendell came from—and why along with co-editor Ryan Walsh I spent a year gathering work for the Southern Appalachia: Native Genius issue. Paying my dues, you might say.

JB: Aside from Miracle Day’s dedication (“to my friends”), the book itself has more than a few poems dedicated to friends. And I notice that the dedications, unlike the current trend in poetry collections, are not in the “Notes” at the end of the book, but right there next to the poems. On the other hand, the dedications are not epigraphs, but instead appended to the ends of the poems. Off the top of my head, the only other poet I can think of who does this is Stephen Dobyns, but maybe there are more. Is there a reason you dedicate your poems in this particular way?

SM: I think this idea of being time-bound and place-based plays into this tendency, as well. I write primarily for, or in the light of, my friends and their own work. And though we may not live in the same place, they are my first and most important community of readers. I think this is true for most writers—our friends become the ground under our feet. That sounds a little weird but hopefully I’m making sense here . . .

I put the dedications at the ends of poems because I wanted the reader to see the connection directly—even if they don’t know the person for whom I am dedicating the poem. It’s not so much an after-thought or a note at the back of the book, which feels a bit academic and formal. More like a letter, in the vein of Hugo’s letter-to-friends poems. Tips of the hat. But I didn’t want to put them at the top because that reference might color or overpower the poem itself. It felt right at the time, though I don’t think I’ll do it that way again.

JB: Let’s end our conversation with fatherhood, a theme that runs throughout Miracle Day. In the title poem, you write: “One of the gifts of fatherhood,/ my brother once told me, is to be summoned/ from the dingy corridors of your inner life.” Can you tell us how fatherhood has changed you as a poet?

SM: Well, it’s made me a better man. Which can help, though not always, with writing poems. But you’re talking about change as a poet. That’s a cool question. Off the cuff, I’d say being a dad has made me write about different things—or to see the same old things from a different vantage. I am not sure I have written any great poems about being a father, though I think the “East Village Grille” poem is the closest I’ve gotten. There’s such a risk of sentimentality when writing about one’s son, the love for a son, what it means to be a dad, etc. It’s an easy rut to fall into and a hard one to climb out of.

But I guess the reason I love that remark from my brother (I think I added the corridor metaphor) is that it’s really quite obvious but remains startling in its truth. You can’t be as self-centered as you want to be—and poets require lots of time and space to daydream—when you have to work on getting your kid off to school, helping with homework, witnessing soccer matches, and talking your boy down from running away. And, in the case of Avery claiming his right to change families, my wife and I have to jump fast and furious into our boy’s frame of mind in order to avoid patronizing him. Not a good time to raise a rhetorical question or offer a simple bribe.

Traci Brimhall*: Has the process of writing different books felt like serial monogamy? Do poets change their writing practice over time, writing in coffee shops one year and in a converted chicken coop the next? Have their obsessions narrowed in or broadened? Spill the beans, poets!

SM: In many ways my obsessions are always expanding out. For the last set of years I’ve been content with following the whim of my interests wherever they take me. Something like following a butterfly for an hour and calling that my walk for the day. Never the same butterfly, never the same exact excursion.

But even that type of practice (if you can call such play practice) begins to become routine. What started as an expansion morphs into a contraction. I keep taking these “butterfly” walks. The change comes when I go looking for new places to walk—for new starting points. Or when I jump in a car or jump out of a plane or decide the kitchen table is my platform and dive off it.

32 Poems: Now, Sebastian, provide us with a question for our next interview.

SM: I’m curious when and how much you think about the point of view of the poem you’re working on. Do you say, “I’m going to try a second person address for this poem,” or do you find yourself switching from “I” to “you” halfway through the composition process?

Justin BigosJustin Bigos is a doctoral student in English at the University of North Texas, where he serves as Interviews Editor for the American Literary Review. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in magazines including Ploughshares, New England Review, Indiana Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Collagist. With Kyle McCord, he co-directs the Kraken Reading Series, based in Denton, Texas.

*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. On February 15th, we published an interview with Traci Brimhall.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com.

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