The poem is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see--it is, rather, a light by which we may see--and what we see is life.

Robert Penn Warren

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Interview with Matt Hart

Matt Hart is the author of four books of poems, most recently Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012). A fifth collection, Debacle Debacle, is forthcoming from H_NGM_N BKS in 2013. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band TRAVEL. This fall he was a Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Texas, Austin.


DS: What’s your earliest memory of poetry (either yours or someone else’s)? What do you think led to your strong attraction to poetry, or poetry’s attraction to you?

MH: My earliest memories of poetry are pretty negative actually. Mostly they’re of being told in one setting or another that I’d gotten it wrong. That what I thought the poem was about wasn’t it at all. One particular instance with “Ode on a Grecian Urn” really left a sour taste in my mouth. I just couldn’t relate to the antiqueness of the language, nor the idyllic subject, and while I had pretty good teachers, I was wildly resistant to everything at that point and/or wanted to do things so radically my own way, that it was probably a nightmare trying to teach me anything. I heard what I wanted to hear. And this made interpretation particularly tricky, especially when the teacher clearly had in mind a right answer.

DS: I’ve always thought that the main difference between poetry and prose is that poetry allows for more interpretation. The reader is allowed to incorporate his or her baggage (or perhaps positive energy) into what he or she gets from the poem.

MH: Yeah, of course, right. But I think so many students, especially at the high school level get turned off to poetry early on, because it’s presented like a puzzle, a thing to be solved—rather than as a thing to engage with, to converse with, to sit down at the table and go haywire together. I realize that last part doesn’t make any sense. But yes, poetry allows for a different, more acrobatic, more up close and personal kind of reading. That doesn’t mean there aren’t meanings to get, but that those meanings are nuanced, because poetry activates the connotative associative atmosphere of the language, which allows me and you and everybody we know to collide with that atmosphere and find him or herself THERE! 

What was funny with regard to my high school experience was that I loved song lyrics, especially Bob Dylan and The Dead Kennedys and Hank Williams—protest music, folk and punk and twangy country stuff. I played in punk bands. I wrote my own songs. What changed for me with poetry was getting into college (where I was a philosophy major) and as a Junior taking a poetry workshop with Tom Koontz and being exposed to poems like “Howl” and Etheridge Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up” and the Charles Bukowski book Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (I loved that one, still do—though I haven’t read it in a long time), “Some people never go crazy/What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

DS: I have probably spent more time with The Essential Etheridge Knight and that orange Bukowski book than I’ve spent with any other poetry books. Initially, I couldn’t think of any overt connection between their poems (style, themes, etc.) and your writing. Those poets seem to infuse their work with authentic raw emotion, though, and you seem to operate that way, too.

MH: Well, Etheridge spent a ton of time in Indiana (including in prison in Michigan City, and then later as a teacher in Indianapolis), so there’s that connection. But yeah, I want to connect viscerally with the poems and hopefully with readers as well. The older I get, the more I think authenticity is a matter of being open to change—maybe on a dime. That it’s a matter of not being static—of staying open to possibility, to poetry as a kind of constant re/activity and a way of being in the world. The Beats and Knight and later the New York School provided me with a way into poetry that made sense to me, because the poetry seemed infused with the life, and the life was infused with the poems.

That said, looking back, I think the poems I loved early on were performative, irreverent, and political—often with surreal elements. I liked William Carlos Williams quite a lot too for what I took then to be a kind of generous simplicity, a concrete plainness, which I now realize isn’t simple at all. As for Keats, of course I love him now. He’s one of my favorites, as are the Romantics in general: Clare, Coleridge, Shelley—some Wordsworth, not so much Byron, but I’m impatient with him. Some day I’ll get with Byron too.

DS: How have you been able to become less “wildly resistant” and relate to the Romantics and others? Or have you changed in ways that welcome poets you might have rejected earlier?

MH: Oh, definitely the latter. I grew up. I became over time less angry. I fell in love and I fell in love with poetry. I encountered the poets/poems mentioned above, along with others like Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, etc. that were resistant in all the ways (and more) that I was. These poetic points of resistance (to the conventions of the tradition, but also to conventional decorum and the status quo) provided me with a window into the art, which I was in some sense waiting for. I needed a portal, a vast void to climb into and GO!

So there were a lot of reasons why poetry struck me when it did. I loved that a poem was in some sense always a song, but one that contained the words AND the music. The words were the music; the music was (the) words. No cantankerous band mates necessary, no heavy lifting, no special equipment. To write a poem, one needed words—something available to all of us. But the poet’s job is to in some significant way misuse and mismanage the language (a kind of resistance) to create aesthetic effects/affect. One didn’t need to be rational all the time (remember I was a philosophy major). One could press one’s face up against the noumenon in poetry, one could taste the meadow, revel in the cool clarity of contradiction, snuggle up to nonsense.  Finally, it was expressive, not overqualified, not a thing to prove. It was a thing to be and to BE in. In a poem one could make and remake the world, vision and re-vision.

DS: When did you first find your own voice as a poet? How have you been able to incorporate other influences while still maintaining that voice?

MH: Gosh. Do I have a voice? It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me. To me it feels like I’m always trying to find my way, like I’m stumbling around in the dark, and every once in a while I trip over something, and for a couple of moments there’s a flash of bright light, a little clarity, and then everything’s plunged back into darkness. Was that the dog or the ottoman? A buttercup or a body? Writing poems is for me always explorative, which is thrilling, sometimes terrifying, and often, too, a bewildering wilderness of doubt—highs and lows and everything in between. So maybe my voice is voices (plural—or just flashes of things against the screen of the ghost in machine). Writing is a process of pitching out beyond me the sounds/images to see if and how they bounce back—I’m sending out a call for a response that I can hopefully shape into something else entirely.

As for the second part of your question, that’s easier. One doesn’t have to try to incorporate one’s influences; that happens automatically, if one pays attention. We’re all constantly filtering everything we’ve read, been told, experienced, or remember through our unique weird brains. You can’t help but be original if you keep your eyes open and avoid being a numbed out, passionless, too cool to feel anything zombie. I truly believe that we’re all a lot more similar than we are different from each other, and yet there’s nothing more strange than any other human being on the planet. On a more practical note, though, if one trusts the writing process and keeps trying things out, resists one’s habits, and continues to explore the possibilities of a practice, the influences get incorporated, mulched up and reintroduced to the soil (whether we want to acknowledge it or not).

DS: How do you think our current culture (including increased availability of information via Internet, reality TV shows, etc.) influences us as writers? Forklift, Ohio, is forward thinking in its content, but it also takes pleasure in throwback-style artwork and tactile elements that wouldn’t be possible online. It seems like Forklift leans toward a future that both celebrates and pokes fun at the past.

MH: Obviously one of the main things that has changed over the last 20 years is the speed at which we can access (though maybe not fully absorb) small and massive chunks of data/information. I think that to be influenced in a really significant way, one had to go to the trouble—one had to do real research, which required going somewhere where the information could be found, or acquiring the resources oneself. It was a more rigorous process. Now one just pulls up the Internet, and there’s almost anything. Of course, the cost of this is that the depth of exposure to the things that influence us may not be quite as great. And the things themselves may be a little more flimsy, e.g., reality TV or an “excerpt” of something I can read online. But hey, there’s give and take to everything. We gain a lot; we lose a lot. I have students now who can’t read the comments I write on their papers if I write them in cursive because they never learned to write in cursive. Of course, they have all sorts of tech skills that I don’t know anything about…. Anyway, the more direct answer to your question is: Speed of access and the quantity of information we can access RIGHT NOW have really impacted contemporary poetry, though I’m not at this point willing to go to the mat and talk about how particularly. I feel it. And I feel like I read it and write it.

Maybe that dissonance you’re feeling with Forklift, Ohio, between looking forward and looking back, has to do with the fact that Eric Appleby (Forklift’s designer/publisher) and I were both born in the late sixties/early seventies, and thus grew up without personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, etc. As a result, we sort of wobble back and forth between embracing technology/contemporary attitudes about it, and having some kind of nostalgia for the world we grew up in—not to mention also an interest in the late 19th and early 20th century avant-garde, engineering manuals, factory parts catalogs, old cookbooks, etc. There’s a sense—maybe one shared by lots of people of my generation, I don’t know—in which I want to live significantly in my own time and be a part of that, and yet I also long for something that seems lost to me now, even if I can’t explicitly say (or don’t want to say?) what that is. Again, it’s a feeling. We definitely aren’t trying to make fun of the past. I’d say we’re trying desperately to hold on to it, while also living in the present and looking to the future. I want all of it at once—which is simultaneity, which is Apollinaire. I want Apollinaire.