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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 sp