Gregory Lawless interviews Matt Hart
GL: The first poem in Who’s Who Vivid, “Completely by Accident,” begins with a kind of problematic ecstasy, “I was in a fix / I was sloshing with joy,” and thereafter catalogs a series of privations/aggravations, non sequiturs, and scattered pronouncements: “I have always understood ‘nothing’ as a series of zeroes…No one delivers the ice that I ordered. / No one controls my remote from the forest.” The poem, it seems, devolves from the “fix” of “joy” into a more complex amalgam of emotional states, ending, ultimately, on a dark, parabolic note—a kind of cross between Mary Shelley and Gerard de Nerval:
From the myths of beginnings to possible worlds,
I have often been wrong about philosophy in public.
When I boiled this evening’s lobster this morning
I screamed and invented a monster.
“Completely by Accident,” as seen above, concludes with a parodic exclamation of artistic ambivalence. The speaker “screams” before his own invention, like Victor Frankenstein recoiling in horror at the first glimpse his pet monster. I love how fun this poem is, but I love it also because it features a kind of signature polarity in your work. On the one hand, your poems often pursue and, in turn, deliver the pleasures of surrealist simultaneity, the shock of the irrational, the joy of novel linguistic constructions; but on the other hand, your poems are just as frequently filled with impossible longings (as seen in these lines from your newest book, “I wish I had a bike / made of leaves”), which imply a deeper absence, and pain. So, how do you negotiate both the joy and the sense of loss/impossibility precipitated by creating the playful and fabular worlds of your poems? And why did you choose “Completely by Accident,” a poem of such emotional oscillation and exuberant crisis, as the figurative welcome mat to your beautiful book?
MH: I’m so glad you referenced Frankenstein right off the bat, here, and I’ll get back to it in a minute, but first I’d say that that polarity you describe in the work—between joy and pain, sense and nonsense, presence and absence, denotation and connotation—is super real for me. It’s something I think about all the time. Experience is full of shadows and reflections, and these are often the very things I’m trying to activate in my poems, the life that life points to, the depth-charged layers beneath the surface.
Of course, in the actual process of writing I almost never know what I’m doing—I try to not know what I am doing. I find the poems in the same way I’m finding the answer to this question: by writing it/them. Ultimately, I’m looking for a way to see the shadows and reflections of experience (the mysteries, doubts and contradictions) with the same intensity—with the same sense of realness—as the things themselves. This gets weird. Even writing about it is weird. But this is one of the things poetry’s really good at doing: presenting the world as it is and as we imagine it (which can be contradictory) at the very same time.
Now, Frankenstein is one of my favorite books, because of the narrative inside a narrative inside a narrative structure. There’s always another layer. And that scene where Victor recoils in horror at the sight of his creation is to me one of the best and most instructive in all of literature. What does one do in the face of the things one makes? Does one behave responsibly or irresponsibly—and what do those two things mean? There’s definitely a mad scientist streak in my work—and certainly in “Completely by Accident,” yet all I invent there is a lobster—a creature to be sure, but not a monster. I scream in the face of my own failure to compute. But how that happens in the course of the poem isn’t altogether clear. It’s a recipe, but one that can’t ever be followed the same way twice, which is lucky, but also frustrating as hell. Every time I sit down to write I have to learn to write a poem. Sometimes “It’s alive!” Sometimes it’s body parts. Sometimes it’s those zeroes. “Completely by Accident” had to be the first poem in Vivid, because it provides the blueprint for everything that follows. Make a mess. Lose control. Go off the rails. Scream if necessary. But keep one eye open to the possibilities that arise as a result, whether it’s lobster or monster or a long night in the margins. What is it the poem wants to do? How can I help?
GL: The final poem in Who’s Who Vivid, “To the People Know Better, Let Me Say in My Defense,” features a complex inventory of self-identifications. The speaker claims to be “of,” among other things: “the mind,” “the gut,” “the testicles,” “the nostrils,” “the bedsheets,” “the toy chest,” “the sincerest / apologies / and best wishes” and others. Obviously attempting to account for the self in this way doesn’t clarify the speaker’s notion of self, but radically complicates it instead. Could you tell me how your poetry both works for and against attempts at self-identification? How, in other words, does (your) poetry both help and hinder the quest for self?
MH: I often tell people that my poems aren’t about anything; rather they are demonstrations of a particular way of paying attention. This isn’t entirely true (I hope), but it does point to, and make possible, a kind of shifty instability of the self, among other things. What I’m paying attention to in my poems is the collision of experience and language and the marvelous ability of both to evade one another even as they constantly crack each other’s skulls, even as they kiss and make up. But it’s these collisions and evasions that I’m also trying to house/contain in the poems as well , so oddly I’m building the poems as they’re falling apart, or I’m tearing them apart as they’re being constructed. This doesn’t only help and hinder the quest for the self, but for anything the poems address or attend to—which is a-okay with me. I like when life is simple, but I like when art complicates our emotional and intellectual experience of it. Poems make it possible not only to think about who we are, but who we aren’t, who we could be, who we might’ve been, who we seem to be in spite of our best efforts to be/or not to be “that person.”
Human life is manifold and various, and as a result language, which is an invention of that life, is a reflection of its uncontainable variety. Poetry, in its mis-use and mis-management of language, is a compact burst of what’s possible.
GL: “The world is wicked by definition; my job is to stay aware of it.”—Philip Whalen
“Aside from the wolf, things go well.”—Richard Hugo
The two epigraphs (quoted above) for your newest book Wolf Face, which is due out in the coming months from H_NGM_N BKS, are wary, tragic and ironic. Your poems frequently revel in, well, a lot of things. I often get the sense that you’re pleased with the world for the sensory novelty it always provides and the ideational chaos it incites: “I thank everyday for the blessing / of nonsense,” since such novelty and chaos fuel your poems. Yet these quotations from Whalen and Hugo cast a hunted feeling over the collection. They suggest that to enjoy the world and its wildness one must account for and be aware of evil, danger, etc. Why did you feel these epigraphs appropriately introduced or colored your poems? Did you mean to suggest to the reader that there’s a deeper awareness of the sinister, the malevolent, the dangerous in this new book than in your earlier work?
MH: I meant to suggest to the reader that things aren’t always what they at first appear to be, so it’s a good idea to keep a lookout. Putting this book together, the thing that struck me is how much joy there is in these poems—and actually in my real life as well. Since the last book came out my personal life has become increasingly more stable—more “lovely in lovely in lovely in love”—and I’m constantly in awe of the fact that, as my four year old daughter says, “life is great.” This is not something I take lightly, given that I know full well how life is NOT great for a huge portion of the people on this planet. I am also well aware that one’s luck can change in an instant—knock on wood, I’m not tempting fate. I turned forty last year. I think about dying all the time. I don’t want to die, and yet even amidst all this life, it’s out there somewhere doing its work. I’m truly thankful that I get to be a poet, a father, a husband, a friend and that life is stable even as the poems spin more and more wildly out of control into the ether. And yet there’s this little nagging part of me that’s always worried that it’s all a mirage or a dream or some other ephemeral thing. Those epigraphs are on guard duty. I hope they ward off the evil spirits.
GL: There are a couple of poems in Wolf Face, “Flamingo Effusion” and “Blackbox Cockpit Voice Recorder” in particular, that reference friends, fellow artists and spiritual peers. The former lists well over thirty people by first name in a vast dedication for “the people [you] love / and [who] love [you] back,” and the latter names several poets whose work you’re enjoying while reading submissions for Forklift, Ohio. According to one of my professors from grad school, poets use coteries, groups of friends, etc, as a way to build new or enhance existing aesthetics; such socially-conscious poets invoke and/or mobilize their ideas of what art or poetry can be by inscribing a new ethos through collaboration and community. Does this notion or sense of imaginative community allow you to, as you put it in one of your poems, “walk / into a legendary sympathy”? Or something else? How would you characterize the community you’ve mentioned/constructed in these poems, and how does it affect your work as both an editor and writer?
MH: Hey, this is great, and I’d like to answer by way of saying first that there’s nothing imaginative in my poems. There’s no speaker. No made up anything. I’m speaking. The poems are primarily descriptive—though often the descriptions are mismanaged (rearranged, blown apart, mixed and matched) or mis-used (de/re-contextualized) to try and give them their own new life on the page. My point is that there’s not much of a filter when it comes to the details. The details are the details. It’s their arrangement, their shape that’s reconfigured.
With that in mind, the community is, as you alluded to in your question, a referenced thing rather than constructed or imagined. I know it’s a subtle distinction, and some people might think I’m splitting hairs here, but it helps me when I’m writing the poems to know that I’m connected to real people and a real world through the writing, that there is an audience, however small, of people that I’m writing for and to and with and through. It’s a huge relief to know that the material for the poems is whatever’s actually around me, not something I have to make up. As Mary Shelley put it, “Nobody creates out of a Void. The materials must first be afforded.”
But I couldn’t create in a Void either. I have to be an audience member. Community is the artist’s greatest asset. I operate with it and against it. It is the form of my poetic life. It informs my poetic life. All those people who get mentioned in “Flamingo Effusion” and “Blackbox Cockpit Voice Recorder” (and elsewhere in the book) are in the poems, because they’re in my life. The poems and the life aren’t separate things, they’re the same thing. Poetry is how I make the world make sense, and for better or worse most of the people who understand that way of proceeding are either people who I love and who love me and/or they’re other artists, so it seems crucial to build a community out of those folks first (then one can branch out from that place of resonance and relative security). The community provides critical and material support and tension.
I want to be intimately connected to other people, genuinely interested in them and their interests, and my way of trying to plug into that is through poetry I have things to say, even though I don’t ever know what they are when I sit down to write, and I want a community around me that’ll talk back once I figure it out. Call and response. I feel lucky that Forklift’s been around for as long as it has, because the community around the journal is super alive. I love reading and getting to know new poets, and I love too the constant reminder that there are lots of other people out there doing the same thing I’m doing with both similar and wildly different interests from my own.
Additionally, if I might digress a second, I think one of the big differences between the poems in Who’s Who Vivid and Wolf Face occurs on a material level (I’m thinking about this, because of the Mary Shelley quote above). In Vivid there’s a lot of deliberate messing around and messing up and radical manipulation of language via process/parameters to see what will happen if… Whereas in Wolf Face, I started in most cases with descriptions of actual experience, e.g. reading Forklift submissions, feeding the baby her peas, or whatever happened to be most pressing right then and there. Often I was writing the poems in the midst of whatever experience I was attending to that moment.
This became sort of a necessity after my daughter, Agnes, was born. I was home with her a lot when she was a baby (when a lot of the poems in Wolf Face were written), so to take care of her and take care of the poems I was making constant notes, changing diapers, making bottles, etc. then putting things together in the afternoon/evening after my wife got home from work. There’s a full-throttle domesticity (however strange) throughout the work in Wolf Face that was only in its infancy in Who’s Who Vivid. Ironically, it actually took having a real infant in the house to allow me to attend to that fully.
GL: One of the things I really enjoyed doing for this interview was going through your work and making a sort of greatest hits file of lines that caught my attention. I noticed that many of my favorite lines from Wolf Face made direct personal statements to the reader; they frequently departed from the associative mode to strike a more intimate (though sometimes ironic) tone. For example: “I do what is done / to me. It seems important to hurt” (38). Or, “the pain is the thing that sticks with me” (69). Or, “you feel like a fraud deep-frying / In wonderland” (30). And, “I am joyful / in my blue plaid mind, even as I think / terrible thoughts against my wife, /my daughter, the leaders of my country” (26). These lines seem to burst on the page with cathartic force. But many of these apparent revelations seem to result from digression as opposed to meditation. These perspicuous moments, in other words, are often preceded by more associative, opaque or absurdist language. Could you tell me a little about how these two modes of utterance work together in your poems?
MH: Yeah, this is exactly it. I have to find those moments of clarity through the mess and marvel of infinite possibilities. Every once in a while things come into focus. Hopefully that’s an experience that a lot of people have (and that a lot of people are troubled by and/or enjoy). As you’ve noted there’s a lot of play in the poems. I’m a dork who loves language, and I love all the places it leads—wind farms, Vicodin, dead ends, love. I’m not afraid of meaninglessness. Things can be meaningless on purpose—for a reason. What I am afraid of is pointlessness, so I’m always looking to come to a point, a place of resonance that radiates through the poem(s) backwards and forwards and upside down.
And yeah, sometimes this is ironic—it employs irony—because in the process we come to know something we already know, or we realize that everyone else has known it and we’ve been in the dark. I do want the poems to provide the reader with a sense of going through something to get somewhere. “Beauty is difficult,” wrote Pound in The Cantos, and increasingly, in our time, so is clarity, so is rationality, so is feeling and knowing even a tiny piece of the world (the self) with any certainty. That’s why nonsense is, and must be, serious business. I keep looking for a clear true thing in all the accumulation. It’s like trying to find a particular needle in a warehouse full of them. (There are no more haystacks. Haystacks are easy. They exist in meadows, pastures, impressionistic paintings. There is no need to find a needle in a haystack; one merely enjoys the haystack…)
In a recent essay Tony Hoagland talks about vertigo as a characteristic of a lot of contemporary poetry, and certainly that sort of full-speed disorientation is something I delight in, but it also makes me nauseous. I spin in order to find a place to stop spinning. The problem is how to stop (and go again) significantly.
GL: As an editor, you get a different look at contemporary American poetry than the rest of us. From this vantage point, what pleases you about our moment in poetry, and what troubles you about it too?
MH: To answer the second part of your question first: I don’t think I’m troubled about it. I used to be troubled. But I don’t want to be troubled anymore. History works out the trouble.
What pleases me is that poetry seems as alive and vibrant and anxious as ever. I don’t know if I can really characterize it beyond that. There’s a great small press community, but I think it’s really always sort of been that way—if one only knew where to look—lots of outlets, lots of ways to proceed, more ways than are imaginable to do it yourself. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Certainly the internet’s changed things, given more people access. Now one can actually be a poet in Ohio who is connected to the larger community of poets residing on the coasts and everywhere else. But that’s been the case for a while—it isn’t a characteristic of this moment. Poets have always been resourceful about using whatever technology was available to them to get the work out to readers: mimeograph, copy machine, internet, pdf, etc. I’ve been publishing a journal now for most of my adult life, and it’s always seemed like there have been hundreds of other small presses going strong right along with us. It’s exciting. I’m really happy to be a part of it.
GL: So what’s new with Matt Hart these days? What direction is your poetry headed in now? What are you reading, thinking?
MH: Currently I’m working on two manuscripts—one called Debacle Debacle, which sort of picks up where Wolf Face leaves off, except that every poem in it could either be described as a fuck-up or a flood. The other manuscript is called Sermons and Lectures, Both Blank and Relentless. It’s a largely unpunctuated long poem in about 55 sections that weaves together references to early punk rock with various philosophers and philosophical positions as a way to talk about things like felt need and desire, responsibility and faith, hatred and love. I’ve been reading some of the sections from this manuscript out lately, and it’s been a ball because they’re super musical. Some of them even rhyme. So I’ve been trying to read them in a way that’s part hellfire and brimstone preacher, part anarchic punk rock. I used to play in punk bands, and reading these poems I get the same thrill that I got playing rock shows. I want to give the poems a different life in the air than they have on the page. Actually this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I didn’t have the right work. Now I feel like I have the right work.
As for reading, I’m always reading lots of books. The current stack consists of Dear Sandy, Hello: Letters from Ted to Sandy Berrigan, Rilke’s Duino Elegies trans. by Gary Miranda (recommended to me by my pal Malachi Black, who’s both a terrific poet and a lightning bolt), The Typewriter Is Holy by Bill Morgan (not my favorite book about the Beats, but it might make a good introduction…) and Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems—MARY RUEFLE! Also, finally just read Revell’s translation of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. It’s not my favorite work of Rimbaud’s, though as always Revell breathes new life into whatever he translates. As for Rimbaud in general, I’d much rather read the Illuminations, which ARE absolutely modern (and everything before and after whatever’s modern). Anyway, there’s something about A Season in Hell that just seems so Emo to me… Did I just say that? Yes I did. I’m also reading Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare as well as the lyrics on The Monitor, the new album by the band Titus Andronicus. Everything’s connected. Everything repeats. Whitman. Lincoln. Jefferson Davis. Finally, I’m totally digging Michael Schiavo’s pdf only journal The Equalizer—and not just because (in the interest of full disclosure) I have poems in it—but because I think it’s such a great idea for getting poems to readers quickly, efficiently, democratically, virally. Clearly, it’s a labor of love. What more could you want?
Thanks for these questions, Greg. Really great to have this conversation with you.