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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.

{ 2 comments }

Poet Danielle Sellers; Copyright Chris Hayes

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?

My mother loves to tell the story of me, age 4 or 5, called up with the other children by the preacher at Old Stone Methodist church in Key West. When I arrived at the front of the church, all the other children were already seated, the preacher had begun his sermon, and I interrupted with a big wave and an overly-enthusiastic, “Hi, Kids!” So once that would happen, what people would most likely find out about me is that I’m a single mom to a very silly girl, much like the one about whom I just told you. I’m a foodie, and a lover of animals. I do rescue work when I can. I am spiritual, but not religious.

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 have never been moved by spoken or performance poetry, but perhaps I’m not attending the right events. I’m open to persuasion.

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

I’ve watched The Young and the Restless faithfully since I was a child. One of the many obsessions taught to me by my late maternal grandmother. That, and baking, and growing daylilies. Unfortunately, her obsession with cleaning and ironing never took.

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 been faithful to the workshop scene since college, but I find the readership of one or two close friends to be the best kind of intimate discussion. But it’s hard to find friends whose work you admire who aren’t insanely busy. I do have several good readers I’d like to keep in a brass bottle, to call on them whenever I wished. But then they’d be servants, not friends, and that would defeat the purpose.

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?

My poetry has been called accessible, but I don’t think it was meant as a compliment. I don’t think poets are obligated to dispel the myth of poetry. I do, however, think it’s a poet’s obligation to write their truths. This doesn’t mean a poet should be honest at all times, but he or she should write honestly.

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 only listen to music if I’m writing about music. Otherwise, I need silence, which is why writing with a toddler and a house full of animals is almost impossible. Even if the tot is asleep, a good train of thought can be easily broken by the shrill yip of a cocker spaniel. Writing in cafes or libraries doesn’t work for me either. I’m too easily distracted by goings-on.

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’m sad to say my friendships have changed. I still keep in touch with pals from high school and college, but my fellowship with other writers is more immediate. It’s important to feel as though someone “gets” you. When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, we had a very small, intimate class, and most of us were about the same age. We are still very close. I also made good friends with my classmates in the MFA program at Ole Miss, and count them as some of the most important friendships of my life. Friendships have also been made at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which I’ve attended twice, once as a participant, and once as a scholar. Even for those who choose not to attend MFA programs, conferences like these are key to a writer’s development and socialization.

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

I quit exercising altogether. It frees up time for writing.

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?

First, I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s a crutch. You’re either writing, or you’re not. And it’s ok if you’re not. If you’re a real writer, you will come back to it, eventually. I think it’s very important for a writer to spend time living life, soaking it in, and then to make sense of it in a poem later.

For me, food isn’t directly related to writing, though I have a lot of food in my poems. I always write on an empty stomach, just coffee and cream, first thing in the morning. When I get hungry, which is usually in the afternoon, I stop writing for the day.

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

My writing space is definitely not ideal. I don’t even have a desk at the moment, just the dining room table.

I visited my mother in Key West, my hometown, last summer. She was renting a charming little house with a large screened porch. I took a little desk out there and made a writing space. For several days I wrote, it was very hot, and sweat, even under a fan, but I wrote for eight hours straight every day, even when it rained. Astonished at what poured out of me.

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

I’m working on a second manuscript of poems, love poems, mostly, and anti-love poems. Poems about motherhood and domesticity. Like with my first book, the idea of place plays a strong role, though almost none of the poems take place in Key West, but rather at various locations in the south. The material is emotionally very difficult, which makes me a slow writer, but I’ll get there.

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

STRANGE-COUNTRIED MEN

My daughter, alive only twenty months,

climbs up to the World Market

polished oak table, to rearrange

my fall tribute of gourds and maize.

She takes a withered husk

in her mouth, new teeth gnaw

the dry texture. Her fingers

grip the technicolor kernels.

I think of our Cherokee ancestors,

Georgia and Mexico, who married

young and hungry, forced

from the lush Smokies to the bluffs

of Cooter, MO. On the other side,

Stonewall Jackson’s a distant cousin.

She has his blue eyes, stubborn

streak, and the aptitude to shoot.

Senator-talk moves through the house:

immigration cases on the rise, the need

for an electrified perimeter, protection

from the outside. Now, my daughter

flaps her arms like a turkey, feathered

boa slung across her human neck.

Her father volunteered to kill

Sunni and Shiite men in war.

I married him for his blue-collar

arms, nimble hands

and thick cock. He liked me tan,

soft-bellied, full with child.

In the desert, he wrote letters

home, the squat script promising

me daughters. He delivered one,

but does not love her well.

–previously published by Old Red Kimono

{ 1 comment }

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 think my first approach would be self-deprecation; in fact, I’d probably make a joke about having spent quite a few years in costumes and wigs […]

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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 would call myself “a woman poet entrepreneur.” I like making things happen and creating communities. For example, I edit Mezzo Cammin, an online journal of […]

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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 […]

{ 1 comment }