Matt Hart is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012) and Debacle Debacle (H_NGM_N Books, 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.
Interview with Matt Hart and Meg Tuite
Ever since I saw the electricity sparking at a reading at AWP and saw Matt Hart reading some of his high voltage poetry, I was a fan. I have two of his collections that I keep on my desk. Debacle, Debacle, and Wolf Face, that are blasts of volcanic brilliance in all possible facets and colors. Thank you so much, Matt, for being the featured writer for our month of video readings at Connotation Press. I love this venture into the world of Wallace Stevens, the blackbirds and the number 13. Do you have a thing with numbers and if so how do they radiate in your work and your life?
Thanks, Meg. This is one of the weirdest first interview questions I’ve ever received, so thanks for that.
Numbers are incredibly strange to me—the sort of forthrightness of their abstraction (I’m not even sure what I mean by “forthrightness of abstraction” but that seems right). They’re incredibly useful, and yet they also don’t really exist, i.e.13 is not in the world unless it’s 13 of something. My personal relationship to numbers has mostly always been a matter of terror/irritation/shame, as a result of my terrible math skills. Nevertheless, I often find myself counting things and/or thinking about things that can’t be counted—stars, clouds, the number of waves that hit the beach in a day—the unfathomable-ness of everything and of nothing. Maybe one of the reasons I love poetry so much is that it’s usually so obviously finite. One can count the lines and stanzas, the syllables in each line, the beats, the stresses. I always love counting the lines and then afterward going through and counting the sentences contained in them to get some indication of how they’re playing with and against each other… “How soon it will all be over,” one knows going into a poem. And then the poem reminds us: This is also true of life—joy and suffering, pain and tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. And yet, as finite as poems are, poetry is also about containing the uncontainable, saying the unsayable, walking up to the limits of language and fire-breathing an inexplicable (and unaquantifiable) mystery into the Void—just to see. It occurs to me too that so many of the parameters of poetry’s received forms are numbers-based—the 14 lines of the Sonnet, the 6 end words and 6 stanzas, followed by the tornada (which always makes me think of a “tornado”) (tercet) of the Sestina, the 5 lines of the Cinquain with their 2, 4, 6, 8 and 2 syllables respectively. Often a poem’s form can be “measured” (at least in some small way) (usefully) numerically, while its content cannot be. Parameters provide some limits to work with and against, a line in the sand about which to make a decision that delimits potentially everything. How many decisions go into a work of art? Of course, all this counting makes poetry sound so rational, which it’s not—at least the poems I like are not. Part of what I love about the Stevens poem is all the things it doesn’t say, the thousand things its 13 ways of looking at a blackbird point to—all of them both present and unaccounted for.
That was beautiful, Matt! I have always been fixated on certain numbers and so I had to ask what they meant to you.
Do you remember the first thoughts of poetry when you were a kid? What drew you to those blackbirds?
I don’t remember anything about poetry from when I was a kid. I barely remember anything that happened to me before college (at least that isn’t horrible). In high school my experience of poetry was pretty negative. It just seemed so highbrow and secret-code-elitist or simply not relatable to me in my time. (What am I saying? I didn’t think about my time. I did think about myself.) The poems I was exposed to had what I then perceived as a decorative quality to them that I just had no interest in. I wanted to play in a punk rock band forever. I couldn’t see then how wild, for example, Keats really is. It wasn’t until I got to college and I had some really visceral experiences with poetry (and poets!) that turned my world upside down that I started to understand how much poetry as an art form is (like punk rock) about the violation of decorum and the messiness of human being that I was able to get over my pretty vacant (though always earnest) punk rock self.
I’ve said elsewhere that Etheridge Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up” was a window in for me—something that made forceful sense at a critical moment. But it was also the Beats and the Smaller Midwestern Poets and Patti White—not to mention my friends who helped sustain me and my interest—in those early days with poems.
Birds—the ones that fly anyway—have always been fascinating to me. They defy gravity. They transcend and sing and disappear into the clouds, the blue, the sunset, a nest. They can swoop and soar and make racket in the trees. And yet they’re also nasty as hell, with their oily feathers and parasites and the way they shit all over everything. The way they scream and scream and scream. The way they blather on, on repeat repeat repeat. They have razors for fingers. Some have shivs or awls or saws on their faces. Some are predatory, some are prey. Stevens’ blackbirds are philosophers, reticent and cold and mysterious. They don’t sing or even squawk, they watch as they’re being watched. They suggest the presence of an absence. As I say in the piece, they are black holes and ghosts, they are dense with grave possibility. Not even light can escape. Not even with wings.
DAMN! Your answers are poetry and music and I imagine you rocking as you write them. I'm guessing that music plays a large role in your work? You're in a band called TRAVEL. Do you have a link you can share with us of your band? And do you write with music as a catalyst? What is your writing day like? Is there a certain time of day and place that work best for you?
Here’s a video for “Logic in the Trenches” by Travel:
The song was on our record Blank Sermons…Relentless Lectures, which accompanied the boxed set version of my book Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless that Typecast published in 2012. The album uses cut up versions of the poems in the book as lyrics. Travel’s music is always collage based. We improvise and then cut up the improvised tracks, and those fragments (usually with lots of added bells and whistles and vacuums and teapots) we then assemble into songs. Same goes with the lyrics. I write poems, and the other guys in the band cut them up and rearrange them and/or delete pieces of them/add to them. Then when I step up to the microphone to do the vocals, they hand me the lyrics. My vocal tracks get chopped up, looped, and re-dis-arranged in various ways. Of all the bands I’ve been in over the years, Travel’s definitely my favorite. It’s so much play just to see what happens if… and the collage process is disorienting in a way that often it’s impossible to tell who played what on the final tracks. I love that—that the process overwhelms and sort of obliterates us as players/musicians.
With that in mind, music definitely plays a huge role in my poetry, but I don’t listen to music when I write. For me, that would be like trying to focus on listening to two different songs at the same time. Poetry is music, and when I’m writing I’m listening hard to what the language seems to want to sing and say and be. That said, I often appropriate lyrics from things I’ve been listening to, and in a few cases, rhythms as well. Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless in particular is full of musical references, especially to early punk rock, which was, and still is, very important to me. Those poems are part punk rock vocalizing, part hellfire and brimstone preaching, part trying to let poems be as big as the world. Often writing those poems, I would wake up typing, and there would be sprawling in front of me the core building blocks of something. The poems, then, are streamed and assembled things—associative and collage-like in their juxtapositions and in the ways that they radiate rather than delineate meaning. And yet, I’m definitely trying to say things in that book about love, and friendship and the human predicament, of being in one body and nobody, eternally wanting. “Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. I didn’t use that as an epigraph, but I should’ve. Here’s a link to a video of me reading “Amplifier to Defender” which is the book’s central poem and thesis. It’s not a collage, but talks about the way I was thinking about poetry at the time and what I wanted the poems in Sermons and Lectures to do.
Generally speaking, my writing process is exploratory and variable. I type on an old Remington Noiseless or I write in an orange FIELD notebook, or I type directly into the computer. I can write anywhere that I can find some silence. I never know what I’m going to write when I sit down. I don’t tell stories. I root around in consciousness and memory and SEE what’s there, what’s happened and is happening. I pay attention to what’s around me: a drawing of a rainbow-flower in a vase, the mailman coming up the walk, the stacks of books and papers on my desk, the sound of my daughter singing, as she washes her hands upstairs in the stainless kitchen sink. I try and see where these things lead me—and it’s almost always to something that’s on my mind that I don’t have any idea about—the gravity and joys of being. Many of my poems also document and record in various ways the activity of writing/thinking in language (at least in part), because writing isn’t separate from my life anymore than being a father or a husband or teacher is separate from my life. Writing is the way I make sense and nonsense of experience, the way I very seriously play at being to be. And if that sounds ridiculous, it is, and it isn’t. Art feels like such an amazing series of entanglements entangled: materials, experiences, people, memories, choices, entrances, exits, trances.
That sounds willowy, trifocaled and makes my spleen happy!
Who are the writers you keep around you that inspire you? And bands?
Writers and bands? Oh Meg, if I start actually writing about this I’ll be here all day and all night, and I can’t be here all day and all night, so a couple of silly lists will have to suffice—but I would note that these are always in flux…sort of…more or less….
The writers that I go back to again and again: Guillaume Apollinaire, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, Linda Gregg, Lyn Hejinian, Dean Young, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Hugo, James Wright, Jack Gilbert…
Bands/Musicians—this tends to fluctuate even more. I really love all kinds of music: Hank Williams, Eric Dolphy, Black Flag, La Dispute, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Jawbreaker, Charles Ives, Galaxie 500, Cheap Trick, The Sex Pistols, The Minutemen, The Germs…
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE! Thank you for that list. I had to play some Hank Williams after reading your response. It is impossible to replay all the influences and inspiration and like you said. Your daughter upstairs and the sound of her washing her hands and singing is a poem in itself.
Tell me about your journal, Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety. This name of the journal makes me very happy. How is it working as the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the journal? Do you get inspired by some of the work that you publish?
Eric Appleby and I started Forklift, Ohio back in 1994. This spring we published our 26th issue, and in the last few years we’ve started publishing chapbooks and books as well. Last year we did Wolf’s Milk: the Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney translated by Chad Sweeney and this summer we’ll release Eternal Patrol by Russell Dillon. On deck we have what is bound to be a kickass book by Katie Byrum.
I’m happy that the name of the journal makes you happy. When Eric and I were trying to come up with a name for the journal, we wanted it to be something that would evoke the similarity that we feel exists between poetic language and other specialized usages of language, e.g. the language of cooking, or safety, or philosophy—which all find ways of taking the language we normally use and making it colorfully, deliciously, and sometimes mind-bendingly, weird. Eric and I actually met as philosophy majors at Ball State back in the early nineties, and while there we did a journal called Nausea Is the Square Root of Muncie with some of our other friends. After college we both ended up in Cincinnati and wanted to find a way to become more a part of the literary community, and starting the journal was one way to go about that. We never dreamed it would’ve gone on this long. In 1999 or 2000 we started trying to make the journal an object that one would want to hold onto and handle as much as read. To facilitate this we began using all kinds of strange materials for the covers and strategies making and bind the things, which over the years has included/involved: drill presses, nail gums, Schluter Ditra (a flooring material), metal clamps, antique rifles, duct tape, chalkboard paint, corks, wine and most recently tar paper.
As for being the editor and being inspired, part of what I love about working on the journal (and part of what’s driven us to keep it going all these years) is getting to see first the work of all of these new young writers, like Carrie Lorig and Layne Ransom (to name just two), who are doing wonderful, assertive, and strange-marvelous things. It’s terrific also to be able to help define an ever-expanding community of writers, not to mention to publish the younger folks alongside more established voices. We’ve been so lucky to have people like Dean Young and Mary Ruefle and Bob Hicok in the journal. They’ve all really helped legitimize what we’ve been doing, and it’s made all the difference in terms of the audiences we’ve been able to reach through what we do. I never cease to be amazed by the writing we get to read for the journal both by established people and younger people alike. It certainly influences the way I think about poems—the possibilities for poetry. I love being surprised. I love being speechless. That’s inspiration.
I have to get some copies of your magazine! The use of the antique rifles, duct tape and wine have me hooked. And I know that the work must be as exciting as your hair. I know that’s true!
What is one twisted thing that Matt Hart has done that made total sense to him but set the world around him clutching their spleens and intestines?
My hair…of course.
What does Cincinnati do for you? Are you from there originally and if not, where do you hail from?
I moved to Cinci in 1992. It’s a great city, a river city. It has lots of hills, lots of little neighborhoods with their own unique personalities. The cost of living is super low. I met my wife here, and we live in Westwood where she grew up. My friends are all here. We have trees. It’s home.
Originally, I’m from Evansville, Indiana—also a river town. But I left there when I was eighteen and haven’t lived there since. It’s a lot like Cinci in some ways, just smaller and not as culturally exploded, though from what I’ve seen on visits back to the farm that’s changing, too.
I didn’t really grow up on a farm. I grew up in a subdivision—which is one of the reasons I left in the first place.
The Art Academy sounds like a very exciting place to teach. How long have you been teaching and does it stimulate your work or slow it down?
I’ve been teaching at the AAC for thirteen years, though for the first ten I was an adjunct. They finally gave me my wings a few years back. Now I’m the full-throttle poet in resistance (not residence). I’m fortunate to have some fantastically imaginative and even from time to time visionary students there. The school has recently added a (creative) writing minor, so that’s exciting… On the other hand, art students do what they like, which sometimes means they don’t come to class, they disappear during the semester and come back weeks later looking like Joaquin Phoenix—or sometimes just a phoenix. They turn in a pair of shoes made of lead instead of a research paper. They bring a toaster to class, make toast and turn that in as a poem. They draw distorted and disorienting pictures of their professors as Batman or a duck-rabbit… I should note too, and not without some amusement, that some of my students even have good reasons for these academic and aesthetic violations of convention and decorum. One has to take everything on a case-by-case basis. Context is everything. I think they’re terrific, even the irritating ones.
Nothing slows down my work. I thrive. Everyone and everything in my life is potentially a poem. People who know me know this well. They also know that I write poems by any means necessary. I will put anything else (almost) on hold for poetry.
“Everyone and everything in my life is potentially a poem.” Now that’s a hellava quote. Give me a quote that speaks to Matt Hart. Something that stays with you.
“A poem must be a debacle of the intellect.”—Andre Breton
“I believe in desperate acts, the kind that make me look stupid.”—Blake Schwarzenbach
If I give you a first line, will you follow it with a second?
'I have navigated the trampoline of your stomach...'
and misunderstood entirely the enormity of its gravity
Thanks so much for doing this interview Meg. I hope it’s okay.
Okay? It’s rocking like the wind out here in the desert right now, Matt, and I believe it will travel into snake holes and every juniper bush will hold a whisper of Matt Hart on it. I can’t thank you enough for your pure brilliance and electricity that radiates through all that are lucky enough to hear/see/sing your words!
And can’t thank you enough for the bonus video, ‘In Love With Sound.’ That speaks volumes of the rocking volcano that is, Matt Hart.