Weekly Prose Feature: “Usually a Window, But Occasionally a Stage: An Interview with Matthew Olzmann” by Emilia Phillips

May 31, 2013

Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann (Alice James Books, 2013)Matthew Olzmann is the author of Mezzanines (Alice James Books). His poems have appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Inch, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. With Ross White, he coedited Another and Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. He’s received fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, the Kresge Arts Foundation, The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Currently, he teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Warren Wilson College and is the poetry editor of The Collagist.

Emilia Phillips: First of all, I’d like to praise your uncanny ability in panning for gold when it comes to finding subject matter—a skill that also insists some pretty killer titles as well, like “Man Robs Liquor Store, Leaves Resume” and “NASA Video Transmission Picked Up By Baby Monitor.” How do you locate what you’re going to write about? Do you keep a journal of interesting things? Do you immediately set out on the poem or do these subjects stick with you for a while before you write? Or do you make it all up?

Matthew Olzmann: Thanks, Emilia. I try not to be afraid of my own bad ideas, and let’s face it: both of those poems had the potential to be big failures. While I’m equally likely to “make it all up”—and I often do—these titles, in both instances, were initially triggered by actual “news” stories, and the lines that followed those titles were mostly speculation, invention, and answers to questions I asked myself about some imagined situation.

The challenge in that type of writing is to transcend the bombast of the tabloid-headline-esque title, to build upon the novelty of that opening moment, and to create something that somehow builds upon that initial moment of surprise. When I say, “I try not to be afraid of my own bad ideas,” that’s because I’ve written poems that begin in a similar fashion, but they go nowhere. Actually, that’s usually what happens, but I keep writing them; in fact, I’m excited to write them. I’m drawn to the odd, freak-show moments of American life, and if something surprises me or puzzles me or leaves me feeling the slightest bit of awe—an event, image, or a piece of language—that’s a place or a subject that is often roiling with possibilities.

So, I guess the answer to part one of this question is: a lot of trial and error. I try to write about things especially when I’m not sure if I’ll be able to actually turn them into poems. And often I can’t, but if I write enough of them, a couple might make it through the gap. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I’ll have a plan when I sit down. But most often, it’s more of a notion, a single image, a word. Then a lot of making things up. A lot of guessing. A lot of questions that begin with “what if . . . ”

I usually don’t keep a journal of ideas or notes because I try to write everyday. This pretty much wipes out the reservoir of backup ideas, thus rendering the journal a little bit useless. But this also frees you to relentlessly attempt the absurd. When you’ve got nothing in front of you but a blank page (and the terror that it will stay blank), you’re willing to try to write about anything, no matter how odd, or how strange.

EP: Your poems, for me, insist their entireties, their unabridged arcs. It’s impossible to locate pith and difficult to quote only a couple of lines at a time as they often function dependently on one another for narrative, syntax, nuance, or gravity. When you do arrive at a gesture of statement or commentary, it alloys the abstract with image, eschews platitudes or takes them to task as in “The Man Who Looks Lost as He Stands in the Sympathy Card Section of Hallmark” where we have a speaker who addresses a/the poet in the second person:

       you want to place a hand on his shoulder, say,
It’ll be okay. But you don’t.
Because you also look like a crumbling statue
narrowed by rain, because you too have been abandoned
by language and what’s there to speak of or write
among so many words. There are not enough words
to say, Someone is gone and in their place
is a blue sound that only fits inside
an urn which you’ll drag to the mountains
or empty in an ocean with the hope
that the tide will deliver a message
that you never could. Because even those words
would end like a shipwreck at the bottom
of clear water.

Words fail us, especially those in such bromides that appear on greeting cards. How do you overcome words’ ineptitudes, especially when taking on subjects with gravitas like death or hunger? When writing, do you ever feel that you’re working with subpar materials (the English language)?

MO: While it may seem contradictory, we often turn to poetry specifically because words fail us. There are limitations to language, things we can’t express adequately and things we can’t express at all. So we turn to metaphor; we turn to poetry. The poem, when it works, doesn’t just declare an emotion, it makes that emotion tangible; it allows us to actually understand that experience with greater speed and clarity. An elegy, for example, doesn’t merely say, “I’m sad,” or “I have lost someone.” The job of the elegy isn’t to simply “announce” grief, but to make it palpable so that we can comprehend its depth and magnitude. This is the paradox: the “subpar materials” are the tools of this trade exactly because they are subpar. So we try to combine them to make something new, hoping that the new expression will work more effectively. We don’t have a word to sufficiently and accurately express longing, or loss, or desire, or any of the countless and subtle variations within those emotions. If we had such a word, we would repeat it over and over, without end. In the absence of such a word, we try to “overcome words’ ineptitudes” through metaphor, through figurative gestures that stumble toward making these abstractions less abstract. For me, it’s impossible not to feel the insufficiency of language when trying to build something new out of it. However, those same flawed building blocks simultaneously leave me awestruck and stunned. Maybe Jack Gilbert says it best in opening lines of “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”:

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite.

EP: Seeing your answer, I return to this moment in “A River, Briefly Parallel to an Eight-Lane Super Highway”:

Some would correct me here, say:
No, that’s not a “river,” but a “stream” or a “brook.”
But the river doesn’t care about its name,
it would never correct you

Here, you seem to take on two issues: first, the limitation of language, specifically of the words “river,” “stream,” and “brook” in describing the body of water; and, two, a potential challenge to your precision. Since many of us are products of workshop, I can’t help but wonder if we, as readers, have been rewired to automatically look for fault in what we read. What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel any obligation to head off this kind of criticism and, if so, how would you go about doing this? Any advice for us on how we should approach reading?

MO: I think there’s some truth to the idea that the context in which we view something might impact how we view it. Maybe we’ll experience a poem differently if we first encounter it in a magazine rather than in a classroom. However, my first reaction as a reader isn’t a critical one in terms of “these parts aren’t working correctly,” but an emotional one: I am filled with joy, saddened or bored. This in itself, can also be a form of critique, I imagine. But in general, the reader in me is very different from the writer in me. I came to the writing of poetry, only after developing a love for the reading of poetry. I had to train myself, later, to unite these different impulses—to read as a writer—and that was the main reason I went back to school after years away from it; I wanted to learn how that emotional reaction I have as a reader is produced by very specific strategies employed by the writer. Even now, in my most critical moments, I think I tend to approach good writing with a sense of awe. And in my most analytical readings of a poem, I’m rarely trying to find the flaws of a piece but simply struggling to understand how the various mechanical elements contained in that piece work together (or don’t) in order to create a particular response in the reader. I don’t think there’s a rule for how people should read. We all read different things for different reasons and therefore have unique expectations of the experience. We want it to entertain or teach us something. We want to escape from our lives for a moment, or we long to learn the names of trees. But I hope as writers, we occasionally remember the reverence we had for books before we set out to write them.

EP: Incredible answer, Matt, and I think your stance of generosity in reading and toward the readers’ needs also reveals itself in your use of tone. Your poems have a tonal generosity: they don’t stagnate emotionally but, rather, continually develop and ebb so that in a single poem, like “For a Recently Discovered Shipwreck at the Bottom of Lake Michigan,” a long poem in the form of an epistolary apostrophe, we encounter the absurd, the meditative, the unsettling, hilarious, and devastating. A sample:

April 6th, 2010
Dear Shipwreck,

So what’s it feel like to have everything inside you still “intact”? That’s what I want to feel like. But I’ve actually never felt my “insides” at all—I think they’re positioned in a way that keeps them from banging around. When I was small I would jump up and down for hours trying to make them Rattle. Nothing. I am an empty rattle.

P.S. Please write back.


May 9th, 2010
Dear Shipwreck/Dear Metaphor for God,

I was thinking of Bashō today, and I wrote you the following poem:

O, Shipwreck, untouched by moonlight,
molested by billions
of writhing quagga mussels.

What do you think? Is “moonlight” too heavy-handed? Not believable enough? Let me know your thoughts . . .


June 29th, 2010
Dear Mister-Too-Good-to-Write-Anyone-Back,

Fuck you, boat. I don’t care if you didn’t like that poem. That’s no excuse for ignoring my letters. I will say this real slowly for you:

Write. Me. Back. You. Dick.

The tour de force of your poems resides not within the intensification of one flat concern but in the tension between many, sometimes conflicted, concerns. I often leave your poems feeling as if you haven’t prescribed an emotion for me, as so many poets try to do, but rather have introduced a nucleus of questions, swirling with positive and negative charges.

How conscious are you of tone when you’re writing the initial draft and then revising? Do you find it easy to vary tone if you work on a poem over a long period of time?

MO: I’m semi-conscious of tone when writing a first draft, and very conscious of it when revising. Tone being the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter of course informs the reader’s relationship toward the subject matter as well. Ellen Bryant Voigt says that tone is “what the dog registers when you talk to him sternly or playfully: the form of the emotion behind / within the words. It’s also what can allow an obscenity to pass for an endearment, or a term of affection to become suddenly an insult.” In an initial draft, I’m not always aware of the numerous factors that can shape that “emotion behind / within the words.” I’m only aware of the words themselves. In terms of later adjustments and creating tonal variation: I haven’t found any specific formula for how long I need to work on a poem to get these things right. In general, it’s easier for me to revise if I haven’t looked at the poem for a little while. Sometimes that means a couple of days. Sometimes it might be a few years. The challenge in revising is to achieve an outsider’s level of impartiality. You’re trying to read your poems objectively while essentially guessing how a reader (other than yourself) will experience what’s been written. Then you make (what you hope will be) the proper alterations.

EP: I’ve often found that students have a hard time at first removing themselves from the poem to create that kind of “outsider’s level of impartiality” that you mention. As a mentor or teacher, how do you help a student get to that level? Do you have specific exercises or advice that you give them? When and how did you first get there?

MO: That’s something that I’m still working toward, but, to some degree, that perspective—that particular brand of objectivity—comes from reading a lot. As a writer, you might be able to make a reasonable guess as to how a reader will respond to a poem or part of a poem, because you remember how you (as a reader) have responded to similar strategies, moments, and elements in poems you’ve read. We know the impact of words only because they’ve impacted us. Frequently, students who are new to poetry haven’t read much poetry. So what we try to do is get them reading and show them how to learn from those readings. You try to simplify, to look at one device, craft element or strategy at a time, and then help them articulate how whatever effect they’re drawn toward has been achieved in the poem that we’re studying.

EP: Are there any particular writers that you return to if you’re stuck on a poem or a project? If so, what about their writing motivates you?

MO: Not really. That happens more organically and randomly for me. Every once in a while, I’ll read a poem that will offer a solution to something I’m working on, and there’s a rotating ensemble of several dozen poets I find myself constantly rereading in general, but there’s not one particular poet I’ll turn to when I’m trying to “fix” a poem. Usually, when I get stuck, I prefer to simply pace back in forth in the hallway, letting the frustration build until it turns into despair. Or I’ll stubbornly type the same line over and over, deleting it over and over. In terms of reading when I reach an impasse, I like to read the newspaper, essays, or some other nonfiction to pull me out of the poem and back to the world. As far as poems go, those are moments when I like to read poems that are new to me rather than those that are familiar. So I might turn to a favorite magazine or journal. There are too many too name, but New England Review, Indiana Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, and APR are a few that have long been favorites of mine.

EP: When I first began working for a literary journal and started reading submissions, I saw trends and flux in subject matter, approaches, form, and craft. When a new Discovery Channel special premiered, its subject would appear more frequently; for a few months, I’d see an outrageous number of ghazals. In all of these instances, I said to myself, “I don’t have to write this kind of poem.”

As the poetry editor of The Collagist, do you notice trends in submissions? Do you ever respond to these trends in your own work by either taking them on, to task, or by walking away from them?

MO: I definitely notice trends in subject matter, and I’ve started to think that this is a healthy and natural effect of artists being engaged with the world they live in. We respond to what we’re witnessing, experiencing and wondering about. If there’s a huge event—an oil spill, a flood, a national tragedy—a few months later there will be poems addressing that or triggered by that. It’s not always an avalanche of one poet after another turning in similar poems, but if you’re reading hundreds or thousands of poems, you definitely can hear the echoes. And yes, even TV shows appear in those currents.

I don’t consciously try to respond to those trends, nor do I try to avoid them. Besides, in the moment of writing something, it’s impossible to tell what common subject you might be writing into. Some of these subjects that surface in clusters are actually kind of odd and fleeting; one month we might get ten poems about zombies, but none for months before or after that. Writing is a solitary act, and who knows what other people are writing when you’re sitting alone with your paper and pen?

EP: What do you believe are the obligations of poets for mentoring young writers in the classroom, through organizations like Kundiman, or one-on-one?

MO: It’s hard to answer this because it seems to vary so much from poet to poet, teacher to teacher. Poets have different strengths, experiences, and interests and should bring all of that to the classroom. When I think of my own teachers, each of them had something very different to offer, and they each had different methods for sharing those gifts. Some helped me gain or develop one particular skill (for example: showing me how to think associatively, how to edit a line, or how to make the poems I was reading more relevant to my own writing). Others simply introduced me to the books I needed to be reading at a particular time. Others showed me what it means to be a citizen of a writing community.

Likewise, with organizations—there’s a tremendous diversity of goals, opportunities and possibilities from one to the next. Kundiman has a very specific mission: it’s invested in mentoring an emerging generation of Asian American writers and supporting their stories. Part of how it mentors that group is by creating and making accessible a community that isn’t always possible for its participants. The first time I went to their retreat was in 2006. Previously, I had few experiences with being around other Asian American writers. There were maybe three other Asian American writers that I knew in all of Michigan. I was twenty-nine years old, and finally finishing my undergraduate degree, and I had been in very few classes that discussed any Asian American authors. At the same time, I was working on poems about mixed race identity in Detroit, and feeling isolated in relation to this topic, and unsure how to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Kundiman helped me crack out of the shell of a localized and isolated environment, meet other writers with similar concerns, and become part of a larger conversation. There’s a community there that I feel very invested in that I wasn’t able to find or enter previously.

EP: Your wife Vievee Francis is also a poet. Would you mind talking about how your work may influence one another? How you share work? Collaborate?

MO: We don’t necessarily collaborate, but we’re definitely involved in each others’ work. We read to each other. We comment on drafts of new poems. But this isn’t in an every-night-is-writing-workshop kind of way. It’s more like being a fan and just listening to the poems of someone you admire. We’re definitely each others’ fans and biggest supporters.

Dana Levin*: What’s behind the curtain?

MO: From my personal experience with curtains: usually a window, but occasionally a stage.

EP: Now, provide a question for our next interview.

MO: Frank O’Hara once said, “Only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American Poets, are better than the movies.” If you were to write a similar list, what poets would you include?

Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. To view Dana Levin’s interview, go to May 24th’s Weekly Prose Feature: “‘Invention Aids Understanding’: An Interview with Dana Levin”

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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