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An Interview with Matt Hart

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos: Your most recent book of poems, Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless, throbs with exuberance, with the routine yet unpredictable pulse of daily life, with the music all around us, and inside us.  The poems are expansive with what is and what might be.  They are free.  So, first: thank you.  I don’t always feel that the poems I’m reading are a gift.  Yours are – and they know they are.  I think that’s one of the defining qualities of your poems: an intentional giving, even while the poems themselves thrive on the contradictions within intention.  Maybe we can start by you describing the particular book.  How did you get started writing it?  Where has it taken you as a poet?

Matt Hart: Man, it’s so nice of you to say that you feel like the Sermons and Lecturespoems are a gift to the reader.  I really love hearing that, as those poems felt, and still feel, like a gift to me too. So much of the book was written in a series of ecstatic bursts.  I sometimes felt like I didn’t know how the poems were being written.  And while I don’t want to get too Jack Spicer about it and start going on about spooks and Martians, many of these poems felt like transmissions, if not from the ether, at least from the past.  I think I told you already that there were times writing these poems when I would sort of wake up typing, as if out of a trance, and there would be this page full of words that I would then get to wrestle with and revel and try to shape, mostly via collage, but there are lyric and even narrative moments in the book as well.

That said, a lot of the actual content was also inspired by discussions I was having in a class that I was teaching, where we used punk rock lyrics as instructions for reading various literary works.  It was a lot of fun, and I would get so charged up by the things that the students were saying.  Then I’d go home and blast off poems.  Or rather the poems would blast me. They were in the air.  I just had to tune in. In the process, I realized how much my years playing in bands and being immersed in music had defined my poetics, and also my life, and that went into the poems as well.  From punk rock, I got that contradictory urgency to make something and destroy it at the same time, to create a space where everything holds together, but might fall apart at any second—to make the self and self-destruct, then pick up the pieces and start the process again.  I also got from punk rock (or through it) the acute desire for stability and calm in the wake of chaos and exhaustion.  Often the balance and ebbs and flows are created formally in the poems, but it’s in the content too, the juxtaposition of the fragment barrage with declaration, wide-eyed descriptions and/or ordinary existence.

I should also note that some of the book’s main themes have to do with inclusiveness and the idea that as human beings we’re all more similar than we are different from each other, and that these similarities are the grounds for empathy (which is itself the ground for celebrating difference).  We have to find our feet with each other first.  We have to be willing to listen and imagine ourselves in the shoes of our neighbor. I don’t want to get too political about it, but culturally speaking, I feel like all the focus on difference over the last 50 years at the expense of our most human similarities has taught us a great deal about how, and when, to object, but it does a horrible job of teaching us how and when to listen to each other, to look and pay attention and be quiet.  Diversity is great—and deserves to be celebrated and promulgated, but the grounds of that are the recognition that we’re all a lot more similar than we are different.  This is something I can’t prove.  It’s something I believe.  It makes me—allows me to—love everybody, even my enemies.  Really.  The poems in Sermons and Lectures deal via inclusion, love, and creative explosiveness (not to mention also via the shades of Walt Whitman and Soren Kierkegaard and Johnny Rotten, among others) with exploring this belief.  These ideas were ones I figured out, found a way to articulate, after the fact of writing the book, but they were what I believed going into it.

Finally, I should also mention that concurrently with the punk rock class I was teaching, my father and my uncle were researching our family history, and it turns out that I come from a long line of preachers and drunks.  Go figure.  My great great great (that might be one too many greats, I can never remember) grandfather the Reverend James Hart of the Folsomville, Indiana, General Baptist Church, for fifty years, stipulated in his will that at his funeral he should be stood up at the pulpit in his coffin with his eyes open staring at the congregation. I love that story.  People fainted during the service.  It was mayhem in the church.  And hearing that, it occurred to me that the difference isn’t that great between being a punk rock singer or a hellfire and brimstone preacher or a really dynamic lecturer/teacher.  All of that got wrapped up in the book, too—which maybe it would be good to point out is really only five poems: three long sequences and two shorter pieces that try and set the stage for, and make sense of, the more sprawling works.  That said, my hope is that one can sort of dip in and out of the book—read around in it—and still get the sensibility of wild inclusiveness, a thing both coming together and falling apart all at once.

JB: Yeah, I noticed that the two shorter poems, “Lamplighter” and “Amplifier to Defender,” in some ars-poetica way comment on the book as a whole.  They feel a littleSpring and All – though, I’m not sure that Williams’s book is always read with the notes.  I’ve thought for awhile that the best works of literature are those that teach the reader how to read that particular literature.  And so what at first might be strange and disorienting eventually becomes, not familiar and boring, but in some way a cohesive and still strange world of words.  Does that make sense?  Can you talk a bit about your impulse to give the reader a kind of helping hand?  Did you write these two poems after the rest of the book?

MH: Man, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here when you say, that sometimes providing the reader with a helping hand through the book takes “what at first might be strange and disorienting” and allows it to be “a cohesive and still strange world of words.”  I hope that’s what happens exactly.

“Lamplighter” was actually one of the last poems I wrote, and it was clear to me almost immediately that it would need to be the first poem in the book, that it somehow shed light on, and introduced, the concerns (both of form and content) of the collection overall.  “Amplifier to Defender” came somewhere in the middle of the process.  For a while I actually thought that it was a part of Debacle Debacle (my H_NGM_N book that’s coming out this spring), but then I realized that 1) it was addressing directly (as opposed to demonstrating) the ways that I was using language in the larger Sermons sequences and 2) that it might, as you note, provide a reader with a window into thinking aboutthose larger sequences.  I’m always happy when a book teaches me how to read it, and I hope that those poems can be instructive in that way. I think I felt like it was necessary in this book in particular, because of all the collage elements.  There’s no doubt that the book mostly only points toward the narrative of a life without explicating those events particularly (it cuts up the narrative of a life and rearranges it in fact).  This is by design.  The poems, their composition, their existence is not just about life, they are life, and an extension of so many things: reading, listening, conversations, dinners with friends, playing with my daughter.  Somehow I wanted to get at the blur and speed of that—the notion that it’s all flashing before our eyes, and we get to decide how and when to pay attention.

JBSermons and Lectures is filled with references to punk rock bands, and often includes titles of songs and lyrics.  You’re also in a rock and roll band called Travel, and I’m betting the direct current running from poet to reader in your work has something to do with playing a million punk shows in tiny sweaty venues.  Your record Blank Sermons . . . Relentless Lectures uses much of the poems in the book for lyrics.  Or is it the other way around?  How do the music and the poems live together?

MH: The poems definitely came first and the lyrics second.  The lyrics are in fact cut-up versions of the poems, mainly mis-dis-re-arranged (re-collaged) by Travel’s bass player and my Forklift, Ohio, partner/publisher Eric Appleby. Blank Sermons…Relentless Lectures is Travel’s eleventh full-length record, and I think for most of the previous ten the process for generating the lyrics has been pretty much the same, i.e., I write poems, and then Eric cuts them up and reassembles them in his (or Travel’s) image.  However, it was perfect doing a Travel record to coincide with Sermons and Lectures in particular, because of all the collage that’s being employed and deployed in the poems from the start.

Travel’s songs might best be described as collages that (usually) sound like songs.  Recording for us is getting together and improvising (making racket!) for hours.  We record everything, and then our guitarist/keyboardist Darren Callahan, takes those raw tracks and cuts them up, loops them, and runs them through various weird programs and effects to build songs.  This process often takes several months to complete.  Meanwhile, Eric starts making the lyrics out of whatever poems I give him, but he doesn’t show them to me until I step up to the microphone to record the actual vocal tracks, which are themselves then also improvised, and subsequently cut-up, looped, etc. In this is the idea—not a new idea at all, as it’s one Apollinaire championed—that artistic materials can always be cut-up and reassembled to create new works and new effects/affect.  Collage is the medium of infinite liberty and possibility.  It sees something new in something old.  It radiates rather than delineates meaning.  It’s métier is coherence, not narration, not representation (note: the latter two modes are also ones I love).  My hope is that Travel’s songs (which are collages of collages) allow the poems’ language and music to exist in the air in a totally different way than they do on the page. I also hope that the two projects very clearly talk to each other, expanding the possible windows into each of them.  One of the parameters I gave myself during the initial recording process (I play guitar as well as do the vocals) was that I was to avoid playing any chords or notes.  I failed miserably at that, as it gets really really boring after ten hours of doing everything possible to avoid melody and/or its foundation.  Nevertheless, there’s a lot of banging and feedback and scraping on the record—that’s me.  What’s really funny is that some of the songs are almost poppy.  However, the first song on the record is deliberately difficult.  To paraphrase Dean Young, one has to go through the slaughterhouse to get to the sea.

JB: There’s a reference in the book to a jello mold of Jello Biafra at a kids’ birthday party.  I can’t resist asking if you actually made that.  If so, you win the Coolest Dad of the Galaxy for All Eternal Time award.

MH: Sadly, no. That’s something imagined, not executed.  My daughter’s only six, so not (yet) a fan of The Dead Kennedys, but someday I hope she will be, someday soon!

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