An Interview with Matthew Olzmann

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos 

Justin Bigos: First, congratulations on winning the Kundiman Poetry Prize for your book, Mezzanines, which will be published by Alice James Books in April 2013.  I’ve been admiring how the book, and each poem in it, carries a very palpable existential weight, but usually with a light touch.  The voice can be very funny, often conversational, and it never takes itself too seriously.  It’s a very likeable voice, and I don’t think that’s so common in contemporary American poetry.  And so I’ll begin by asking how important it is to you – as both a reader and writer – to feel that the voice on the page is a likeable, regular person, someone you might get some beers with, maybe talk some hockey, maybe some astronomy?

Matthew Olzmann:  Thanks, Justin.  As a reader of poems, I’m actually drawn to a number of types of voices, and those voices don’t necessarily have to sound like or represent likeable people.   They can do that—and that’s certainly appealing to me—but they can also be confrontational, cynical, or even evil.   They don’t have to be regular people either.  In fact, sometimes I turn to poems as a way of leaving the regular behind. In those instances, I might prefer to hear the voice of God in a poem, or the voice of a dinosaur, rather than my next-door neighbor.  So instead of saying that it’s important for the voice on the page to be a likeable, regular person, I’d like to say that it’s important for the voice on the page simply to be considerate of the reader.  And all I mean by that is that the poet is using the voice of the speaker—regardless of the speaker’s particular persona or tone—to make some kind of connection with the reader.

JB:  Your poems thrive in part on a speaker’s eye that watches a world transform, and the watching—as voiced through poetry—becomes a creative act.  In your poem “Revisions,” the transformation seems necessary for survival; anguish is turned into beauty.  A tumor becomes a “cream-colored trumpet lily,” “broken dinner plates, pieces of pearl./ The ringing phone at midnight, the voice of a lark/ building a nest by your window.”  I’m building up to a big question here: Can art save us?  Gilbert Sorrentino would say no.  Gregory Orr would say yes.  I’m on the fence, and I’m wondering what you have to say.

MO:   Can art save us? It depends on the word “us.” If I’m talking about myself, then my answer would be an emphatic “I hope so.” Certainly, it’s given me a better life than I would have had otherwise.   But if we’re talking about individual artists in general, then my answer is probably not.  It’s impossible to ignore the massive amount of artists who are not “saved” by art, who are marginalized, or feel alienated and are living (or already lived) quick, tragic lives.  Maybe art enhances our lives, but I’ve known too many artists to think of “salvation” as a simple achievement.

However, if the “us” in that question is society as a whole, then the answer is more complicated.  Graham Hough’s book, An Essay on Criticism, has a passage that I keep returning to.  He says:

The moral experience of the individual is confined by his personal circumstances, his time, his nationality, his class.  He can extend it, in a theoretical and abstract fashion, by a number of studies—history, anthropology, philosophy.  But through literature he can in some degree actually experience, by imaginative identification, other modes of being.

I’m fascinated by this idea that literature helps us to transcend the narrowness of our own familiarities and allows us to have experiences that would not have been possible otherwise.

I feel like we’re entering an age where, more and more, we as writers are going to be asked to defend what we do.  Literary arts organizations are fighting for their lives.  Magazines are seeing their funding slashed.  Writing programs are being forced to explain why creative writing is important.  What Hough says there is as good of an answer as any as to why this is important.  I’ve read poems that have offered me the chance to live in different centuries, to walk through hell, to see the traffic moving through blood vessels, and to view the world through the eyes of people of different races, orientations, and religions.  Can that save us?  Maybe, or maybe not.  But it helps us to live deeper, more fulfilling lives.  It creates a more understanding planet.  It calls on us—as individuals—to be more empathetic and humane.  And, ultimately, it helps us—as a society—to be more worthy of the “salvation” that we’re seeking.

JB:   While I wouldn’t call most of your work surreal, when the surreal does emerge in your work it emerges with great force.  Are you influenced by Breton, or Koch, or other poets who wake us with disorientation?

MO:  This is such an interesting follow-up to your previous question.  In some ways, surrealism was a reaction to catastrophic events in the world (namely, World War I).  Since early practitioners of surrealism hoped to create art that would jar people away from the types of thinking that spurred such devastation, an argument can be made that the surrealists believed art could “save” us.  At the very least, they believed art could change us, and could impact society in a powerful manner.

I don’t know if I would have fit in their club or not, but I’m interested in the imagination, the impossible, flights of speculation, unanswerable questions, and the weirdness of contemporary life.  To answer your question about “disorientation,” I’m interested in using the “odd” and the “bizarre,” not necessarily to “disorient” the reader, but to provide a metaphor for contemplating the strangeness of the world around us.  Many of the things I’ve written about that seem absurd—magnets taped to the heads of crocodiles, NASA videos intercepted by baby monitors, rabbits being shot and used for fuel, dead beetles stuffed with cocaine—came straight out of newspaper headlines.  I’ll find myself staring at those headlines, asking, “What does this say about us?”

JB:  I love American cities, and the city that your book returns to most is Detroit.  I am sad to say I’ve never been there.  What for you makes Detroit different than, say, Pittsburgh or St. Louis or Boston?  Are you like one of your crocodiles, whose “memory/ like a compass” draws you back home?

MO: I can’t speak with any degree of authority on those other cities, but I know they all have Super Bowl banners hanging in their stadiums.  As a long-suffering Lions fan, that’s something that makes me look in the directions of those cities with a certain amount of envy.  And even though we’ve only won a grand total of one playoff game over fifty-something years, I keep telling myself this will be our year.  Or next year.  Or the year after that.  I think “We’ll get ’em next year” is the official team motto.

What is Detroit to me? Home. The city where I was born.  And I’ve lived my entire life near that city.

Currently, my wife and I are living in North Carolina where I have a teaching fellowship for the year. This is the first time I’ve lived outside of Michigan, and the change in environment has been exhilarating and wild. Since the move down here, I’ve been constantly looking around, and comparing what is “here” to what is “there.”    Here are a couple things that they’ve got in North Carolina that they don’t have in Detroit: copperhead snakes and six billion types of spiders.

This reminds me: I want to thank you, Justin, for introducing me to the idea of the “wolf spider” the other day.  I haven’t seen one yet, but it sounds like they took two animals I’d prefer to avoid, and—through the miracle of modern witchcraft—created one nightmare creature that (I’m sure) feeds only on human bone marrow.

But this area also has stunning mountains, rivers, and fog that hangs like smoke just above the tree line.  There are amazing restaurants where all the waiters can tell you exactly where your food was grown, and who grew it.  There’s store after store filled with things people made with their own hands.

It’s also the most environmentally conscious place I’ve lived.  I’m teaching at Warren Wilson, and one of the students recently told me, “If you stand in one place for too long, you might get recycled.”

The poem “Crocodiles” that you referred to is interested in place, both literal and figurative, and how we find our back when “displaced.”  I feel like—since moving here—I’m in a transitional space where my relationships to concepts such as “home,” and “place,” and “Detroit” are in flux.  That said, it’s obvious that it’s a place to which my writing will constantly return.

JB: Whoops.  Looks like I forgot to tell you about the bear snakes.

MO: Shit. Does that exist? You’re an evil man, Justin Bigos.

JB: One of the clues I have that you write a ton of poems is your creation and participation in “The Grind.”  Can you tell us about that project?

MO: It’s similar to the type of the “30/30” thing that a number of poets do every April.  The main difference is that this doesn’t stop at the end of April.   The project has been going nonstop—with a constantly changing cast of writers—since October, 2007.  It now has well over 200 participants, and frequently spans multiple continents. There’s now also a fiction component and a revision component.

Initially, we didn’t plan on the The Grind (or “The Grind Daily Writing Series”) being a long-term writing project.  It began with four poets—Ross White, Dilruba Ahmed, Zena Cardman and myself—who all agreed to write a poem every day for a month.  At the end of the day, we’d send a draft to the group.  There was no feedback or anything; we were just generating poems.  It was intended to be a one-month thing, but two of us kept going the next month with a few new writers.  And then again the month after that.  Each new month, some of us would take a break, and others would jump on board.

I’ll sometimes participate for several months in a row, sometimes every other month, sometimes more sporadically.  Regardless of whether or not I’m participating in the series, the act of writing something every day has become an integral part of my writing process.  I’ve found that if I haven’t written anything in a long time, the pressure I face when I return to the writing desk becomes intense.  Everything has to be perfect.  I need a certain block of time.  I need a clean desk and a cup of coffee. I need an “idea” and a room without distractions.  But when I’m writing every day, that pressure is gone.  It becomes liberating; if you know that you wrote seven rough drafts last week and will write another seven next week, then you’re free to fail on a huge level with whatever you try today.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even good. This process frees you up to not only take risks in your writing, but to actively pursue them.

JB: Aside from writing poems, you also serve as Poetry Editor at The Collagist.  I was chatting with a friend the other day about literary magazines, and how they typically declare two things: first, they do not have what they often call a “prevailing aesthetic” and instead publish what is only “excellent”; second, if you want to know what they publish, “read the magazine.”  Maybe I’m being a bit daft here, but if I know their only criterion is excellence, why do I need to read the magazine?  Also, even if they did have an aesthetic, even loosely gleaned, why is that necessarily a problem?  As an editor, do you find you have any kind of aesthetic?

MO:  It’s a good idea to read the magazines you send your poems to for a number of reasons.  Obviously, one might want to get a sense of different editors’ tastes and preferences, but you also want to know if those magazines or journals are venues that you actually like.  Will they display your work in a manner that is acceptable to you?  Is their audience an audience that you want to connect with? Is it a place that you’d be proud to have your work featured?  The selection process for publication is actually a two-way street.  Editors choose the work they think is best suited for their publication, but first, contributors “choose” the publication by deciding whether or not to even submit their work.  There are seemingly a million publications out there, and The Collagistwould not exist if people didn’t send us their writing.

I don’t know if “excellence” is the only criterion for me.  I’d say “interesting” is more important than “excellence.” I’m not even sure I know what excellence means.  Is it a poem that has been perfectly “polished” through a series of workshops? Maybe. But many times, I’ve accepted poems that were a little rough around the edges, but I was excited by what the writer was trying to do.   We get a few thousand poems each year, and can only accept a small fraction of those.

As for my own particular aesthetic, I hope it’s constantly evolving. As an editor, I get especially excited when I read a poem that is doing something I’ve never seen before.  (In addition to learning what a magazine has published, reading it before submitting lets you know what a magazine has not published).  I’d say I’m open to possibility, but am mostly drawn to poems that contain a certain degree of empathy, poems that do not take the reader’s attention for granted, poems that create an experience for the reader, rather than poems that simply make the reader a passive witness to the speaker’s private experience.

JB: What are you working on these days?  I know you’re up at the Bread Loaf conference in Vermont right now.  Is Bread Loaf a place you get a lot of writing done, or is it mostly shenanigans?

MO:  These days, I’m working on several new poems, and some pieces of short fiction. But Bread Loaf isn’t the place to go if you’re looking to get a lot of writing done. That’s not really part of the conference.  It’s more about lectures, craft classes, workshops, and discussions with other writers.  It’s a place to go to listen to writers talking about the work of writing, and to become part of that conversation.  But what I’ve mainly gotten from the place is friendship and a sense of camaraderie from being among the other participants.  I’ve been fortunate to attend the conference for the past four years on a variety of work-study scholarships (first as a waiter, then on social staff).  So, I’ve been working at the conference: serving food, pouring drinks, etc. The folks I got to work alongside of have been wonderful writers, but also, many have become good friends.  That’s probably my favorite thing I found out here: friendship.

JB: Thank you, Matthew.  For your poems, and for the conversation.

MO: And thank you, Justin.

Matthew Olzmann’s first book of poems, Mezzanines, was selected for the 2011Kundiman Prize and is forthcoming from Alice James Books (April 2013).  His poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Rattle, The Southern Review, Gulf Coast and elsewhere.  Currently, he is the Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow at Warren Wilson College.