Matt Mauch Interview, with Nicelle Davis
In the poem “Where I-494 delineates suburban Bloomington from suburban Richfield” the persona transitions from watching winter clouds, to elephant skin, to prostitution, to being a horse, to being a fly, to being a hot slice of pizza on the roof of God’s mouth. Ah, brilliant! Your lines light my imagination to a point where I nearly miss the urgency of the poem’s narrative—the persona is about to crash, may even be trying to crash their car. Is this masking intentional? How do you think this layering reflects life?
Yes, yes, yes: the layered masks, as you call them (or as I’ve ham-handedly cobbled your two questions together, into one), are directly related to the narrative. The various masks, in fact, are the scenes, you could say, between the plot points in the narrative, and in that sense the technique is structurally consistent with what I love about most of the prose fiction I hold dear. Scary: I just called something I do in a poem a ‘technique,’ which implies—or it does for me, anyway—a conscious and repetitive application of a skill, which isn’t how this or any of my poems are made. Yet when I look at it analytically like this, like I would were I an English major (which I used to be), I can see, in this poem, the echoes of the fictional scene/plot-point jousting. But the only conscious and repetitive thing I do is the work itself—the putting my butt in the chair at the edge of the daily abyss and writing, which is another kind of scary. ‘Technique,’ though, is something I associate with poets who write in received forms or metrically. Free verse writing, which is what I do, is a process of discovery. Form emerges from that process, and it’s different for each poem. Doing the work, engaging in the process, that, I think, is my only real ‘technique.’
And I’m not sure that it—what we’re talking about—mimics life so much as it is life. Who was it that said ‘Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”? George Harrison, I think (or one of The Beatles, anyhow). And what happens when you pay attention to what’s happening when you’re making other plans is the layered masks/plot point scene scenario you and I are discussing, as reflected in this poem.
I generally set my alarm clock to wake me way earlier than I ever need or intend to get out of bed. My snooze is preset at 7 minutes. For a good 45 minutes, then, I cycle from dream state to awake state. It’s a kind of calisthenics that I like to think strengthens the poetic/metaphorical mind. I start the day in a state where the difference between dreaming and consciousness is rendered irrelevant. I’m in the safety of my bed, under my blankets, cat one or cat two or both at my feet or by my side. It’s sort of like being in a poem written by whatever is arbiter between our conscious and dreaming selves.
I have had the not-so-much-fun experience, recently, of moving a relative stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s into an assisted care facility. This relative was sitting on the bed in the apartment that was to become her home, and she was talking aloud, going from this to that. Whether the thises and thats were memories or fabrications I’ll never know. I know that some of it I recognized as verifiable history, and as much of it I didn’t, and some of it was recollection from the packing and moving and other events of that very morning. What blew me away was how much I recognized me in her. What Alzheimer’s had done to her brain, how it works like a reverse maturation as the afflicted adult becomes evermore childlike, is very similar to what I intentionally do with my snooze button during those 45 glorious minutes every morning.
If you ask me, Alzheimer’s, art, and insanity are half siblings. Each is a place where the imagination blurs the normal narrative. All three are feared. One is revered. But only by some, and that some holds no political power. It’s a funny world.
Winter is a reoccurring image in your poems. What about this season invites you to use its grey canvas for your words?
The winter I know best is the kind of winter with a shit-ton of snow and wind-chill factors between 20 and 50 below zero. On the really cold, cold nights, the weather men and women tell you that you can toss a glass of cold water into the air and it will evaporate into a white cloud before your eyes. And it’s true: you can do that.
You don’t choose where you were born, and you don’t choose where you grow up. I grew up where winter, duration-wise, is probably the longest of the four seasons. We can get snow in October, and we can get snow in May. So I know winter is in me, is a huge part of me.
I lived in Florida for a year-plus, way the hell back when. I liked a lot about Florida, but the one thing that kept telling me to “move back,” i.e., to the North, was the lack of four distinct seasons. Perma-green and me aren’t from the same area code. I promised myself that when I moved back I wouldn’t ever bitch about the weather, and I’ve kept my promise. I embrace winter. I dress in layers and put on my beaver-skin cap and mittens and walk when no sane person (see above) would.
The strange thing is this: I’ve always had the impression that winter hasn’t made it into my poems, except in cameos. Most of my poems originate in the summer. The ideas for the poems are things I record throughout the year, but the actual composition—the invention of each poem—has always been a summer thing for me. In summer I make new. In fall, winter, and spring, I revise.
So to hear you say that winter invades my poems to such a degree that it’s noticeable really thrills me. I’ve been afraid that, as a summer composer, I wasn’t giving winter its due. I’ve felt, since Florida, that I need to be winter’s advocate. I thought I was a lousy failure at it.
You are the master of the long title; your titles could be poems on their own. What does a poet have to gain from a title?
Are you at all familiar with the work of Bill Holm? He was, perhaps, too much of a regional poet (a silly distinction, that, ‘regional’) for you to know his work, you not having ever been a Minnesotan, but Bill, who I had the pleasure to correspond with and meet, was all about poetry and music and freedom, and against anything conventional.
Bill wrote this wünderbar collection of poems called Boxelder Bug Variations. Are you familiar with the boxelder bug? If not, do a Google images search quick. Got a picture of one in your head? Okay, let me assure you: they’re harmless. But they invade houses every fall en masse in this part of the country, seeking—like all of us—a warm bridge from fall to spring. If there’s a way to keep them from beaming themselves, a la Star Trek, through our walls and into our homes, those who know it keep it a secret. We live with them just as the catless among us live with mice in the winter.
So, Bill being Bill, he wrote this book of praise for the bug, a collection of poems, prose poems, musical scores, flash CNF, and art. It’s the book that taught me what a long title could do, could be. To date, I haven’t written a title as long as some of the ones in Bill’s book. It was Bill’s book, though, that led to me writing my very first long title for a poem.
I had taken a slow road trip to New Orleans, along the Mississippi, headwaters to delta. I drafted a series of poems along the way—it was a summer trip—and eventually settled down to revise them. There was this one poem that I simply couldn’t get to make sense to any sort of reader I could imagine. I started flipping though books on shelves, looking for an answer, when I opened Bill’s bug book, and voila: I wrote a long-ass title that did what needed to be done to ground the poem—to make it make ‘sense.’
So what that first long title was for me was like a fedora, or a retro flapper dress, or boat shoes, or a full Windsor knot, or a first tattoo, in that you either try it on for size and move along, or you decide ‘Hey, this is me—is my style—I’m gonna adopt this as my way, my truth, my light.’ I’m not sure that I gain anything from that, the tendency to make a title long rather than short.
That said, I think titles are über-important to each poem. I spend a LOT of time getting them, in the free-versist’s way, right. If you could ever see the evolution of my poems in time-lapse cinematography, you’d see that the last thing I am—both generally and especially with my titles—is an adherent of the ‘first thought, best thought’ school. What you can gain from such a hard-won title, as a poet, is a sliver of entry—a sliver like the space your foot creates when you stick it there to stop a closing door. It’s the sliver that allows in a shaft of light, and that light is what it might take for a reader to see—really see—what you set in front of them.
What new poetry projects do you have in the works?
I have two new poetry manuscripts that I’m working on, called, respectively, Were You There the Night the Hot Chick Slow Danced with B-Teamer (and Everyone Gasped)? and Bird Brain. The poems here are from those manuscripts. As well, I’m writing some flash nonfiction in the form of annotations to my book—my first collection of poems—which has just come out, Prayer Book. I’m making the flash CNF annotations available on my website (mauchmauch.com), and call them—because I think of them as a whole—‘The Book of Matt,’ or ‘Annotations to Prayer Book, Mostly in the Tangential Vein,’ or ‘A Dead-Sea-Scrolls Versions of God’s Poetry is Waiting to Be Discovered in Cave in a Place as Go-Figure Surprising as Utah,’ or ‘My Publisher Asked Me for a Craft Book and All He Got Was This Lousy, Dean-Young Inspired* CNF’
* “THE WRITING OF POETRY IS NOT A CRAFT. WE ARE MAKING BIRDS, NOT BIRDCAGES.”
It’s kind of like an old fashioned serial, as I’ll be posting the pieces on my website as I complete them. As well, I’m editing an anthology called Poetry City, USA, Vol. 1, which is collection of poems read at the inaugural Great Twin Cities Poetry Read, held on the last Friday of April 2010. The GTCPR is an event I organized at which some 25-30 poets read a single poem each, and then we had a pretty great party at my house afterward. Poetry City, USA, Vol. 1 contains all the poems read that night, plus some essays. The launch party will take place on the last Friday of April, 2011, at the second annual Great Twin Cities Poetry Read. The after-party promises to once again be spectacular. It’s free and open to the public, the second annual GTCPR. And if anybody reading this decides to attend, come up to me, the emcee, afterward. I’ll give you directions to the party.
In the poem “Fourth recitation prior to the consumption of organic psilocybin” you personify the work like with lines such as, “The word like in like a sad old woman / is allowing itself to be used as a veil. What would you say to a new student of poetry about the power of similes? What do you think “like” would like to be like when he / she grows up?
I suppose that ‘like’ would like to be a metaphor when it grows up, but in doing so it would be voting against its own socio-economic interests. You’ve heard, yes, that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting drunk? ‘Like’ tends to vote for the rich people it thinks it’s going to one day be like. It’s not, though, ever going to become a metaphor—it will be never be president or a senator—because it doesn’t have any of entrenched and monied influence that the metaphor does.
If I could counsel the ‘like’ I’m describing to you, I’d say, “Hey, ‘like,’ you’ve got to be a millionaire three or four times over to be able to afford to run for major public office. What you need to do, ‘like,’ is realize what you already have, how much the chicks actually dig you, no matter how much they act like that’s not the case.”
After getting ‘like’ on the right path—at least until it drowned itself in its sorrows and beer and longed to be a metaphor again—I’d say to a new student of poetry, “Are similes what come out when you spend your time at the abyss? Are they the light it makes the most sense to try to see with? Are they what comes out when you tug at your holster? What you pull from you quiver? Are they the stones you step on as you try to cross the river without getting too wet?”
If the student answered yes to any of the above—or to any of the 88 other ways I could ask it—I’d say, “Well, what do you need my permission for?”
I think it’s important not to squelch creativity I’m not familiar with. I really don’t like to mess with somebody else’s invention process. I might say to the student, “Go with whatever you want to go with, and show me the poem.”
Once I had the poem, I’d have opinions to share. Sharing those opinions, I’d think that ‘like’ isn’t the only thing that allows itself to be used as a veil. I.e., let me introduce you to me, myself, and I.
Where I-494 delineates suburban Bloomington
from suburban Richfield
Driving is driving plus plus when it’s driving like a fish
in water, which is what driving is like beneath a winter sky
that looks like a body of water’s surface
as seen from below, first winter sky since the last one,
which is the coolest way I’ve ever said “six months,” as in
six months without the sky looking like a scarf of clouds,
all rumpled and creased, made of elephant’s skin
but without the elephant hairs, skin
as seen in close-ups of elephants taken by Nikons
pointed and operated by people who know that selling the shot
will earn them enough to buy a cheeseburger, but a cheeseburger
only gets you so far, so they take more close-ups, shoot landscapes
equivalent to three squares a day, 365 days a year, year in and
out as the great fortune of being able to do what you love
becomes doing what you love for money, and the market
has a say in that, and with markets pointing and clicking
at you, well, you can’t help but feel prostituted, which is worse
than feeling whored out, and I say that having felt both, so
why right now wouldn’t I mind being a whore for the sky?
Why wouldn’t I mind opening all the way up to these clouds
moving north en masse? March of the deliberate. Clouds like a river
of ice. And if I block out traffic in the lanes left and right,
use my visors like the blinders on a horse, put my face
for a dangerously long time to the windshield, if I say
wind, great nostrils, maybe I’ll feel like a horse, not driving
but driven, prodded by a rider beneath whom I’m toiling,
only I can’t envision who my rider might be, but damn it
I’m carrying a rider’s weight in my back, and I don’t know
why I thought being a horse would be better than
being me. I still haven’t crashed. Instead of a horse
I’ve become an insect flying over elephant terrain,
coming in for a landing on an elephant’s ear, which means
elephants and the bugs that pester them have everything
to do with the winter sky announcing that one
mitten will be lost for every four pulled on, everything to do
with minor crashes on ice, with their thousands of dollars
in damage, all this Africa infusing, which isn’t taxable, nobody
will pay you to be that fly, if that’s what the insect I am is,
if there are flies as green as emeralds who don’t have agents
to sign release forms and negotiate royalties for the photos
free lancers take of them, flies as unrepresented as
as the ones I shoo off the uncovered food we eat when
we eat outside in summer. I can’t believe I still haven’t
crashed. If I could ascend to the heavens
I’d burn them, like pizza, like I was hot hot hot, like the clouds
were the roof of God’s mouth.
The question the Farmer’s Almanac answers
about winter is whether it will be mild or harsh,
which is unfortunate, since the question I have is,
Is it a licker or a biter?
The old wish for fire
and a cave and bear grease
and a family of warm bodies
to huddle with under fur
and heated stones
has evolved into the wish that your nose
had its own space heater,
that your glasses were filled with see-through anti-freeze.
Over the years and among the species
the constant among the winter wishes
is to be small and sheltered and inside
of something. Peculiar to you is the wish
that your ride would arrive on time.
Squirrel is to tree hollow as
bear is to den as you are to the chocolate
center of a Tootsie Pop,
sheltered by hard candy
it takes an as-yet-unknown number of licks
to break through. Weird that we know
how much an atom of iodine weighs.
Weird that the people of the future
wishing they were sheltered and small
will look back and think
we were dumb.
A flag, though less patriotic as such, is more egalitarian
after it’s been converted into a torch,
can spread its message writ small
on tiny pieces of ash.
The people we say are stubborn as mules
are harder to burn than flags. The person we call
brave is braying en route to a revolution
we support, else he’d be just another jackass.
And what are you if you want to drive a tractor
and flat bed loaded with bales of straw
like some kind of parade float
throwing candy to the kids
because it gets you close enough
to hear which your townsfolk
mistakenly identify the straw bales,
calling them hay, keeping a mental list
of the faces of the ones who do
under the heading IDIOT?
How about if after overhearing
a boy call a more realist than impressionist elk sculpture a moose
you want there to be a test with the difference on it,
with something painful the consequence for failing?
I had my hands and face slapped
by my mother in public places,
am surprised I didn’t grow up to be a scientist
who publishes papers people read on the toilet
that say eating dirt is good. Go ahead:
wear the skin of an animal and nothing else.
Stop manicuring and bathing, strap on antlers,
perfume yourself with animal piss. The animals you want to believe
that you are not you will still be able to tell
you’re not one of them.
You get to be such an old, old dog
you have consider what to do with the flies
conferencing in and on your pelt.
It might all boil down to a foot in a shoe
and as long as it’s petting you a kind of complacency
you call diplomacy owns the day. Maybe
to the flies in your fur you say by not saying
a thing, by lying there, Mi casa su casa,
can I get you anything to drink?
Drink: If you’re not the vodka
or the lemonade, or getting the hell drunk, you’re
the ice that dumbs down the mix.
What sort of father
do you think you would have made anyway?
Fourth recitation prior to the consumption of organic psilocybin
Willpower is controlled by a switch on the wall. It’s a standard
on/off switch. For the price of a cheeseburger and a good beer
your handyman will install a dimmer. If you’re handy enough
to install it yourself, you probably call it a rheostat, probably
hear the word rheostat and think of your dead grandfather,
of how he took a language with the word rheostat in it
to his grave, which is why you job-shadow handymen
like a sad old woman trying to recover
some princess you’ve lost. The word like in like a sad old woman
is allowing itself to be used as a veil. The constable
of similes says like used like that isn’t living up to its
breeding. If in wet bark you can see an officer
of language law you’ll believe, as does
the western meadowlark, anything you tell yourself.
The eastern meadowlark, which is nothing like
you or me (and is less like the western variety
than you’d think) uses the word like
as if it were a bridge, is always getting to the other side,
flirting with a .400 batting average. Western
meadowlarks are playing on unmarked fields. None of them
have gloves or a catcher’s mitt. It’s hard to be a fan,
there’s no switch to change that. It’s
a lot like life, is what Detroit Tigers Sportscaster
Ernie Harwell, and a gazillion to the tenth power
others, including the face of Jesus in the woodgrain
of my bathroom door, and men named Will Power,
have said. I say that if they were toys, these meadowlarks,
there’d be a switch on their backs. You could toggle
from the flute-like warbling of the western bird
to the simple whistled call of the eastern one.
Scientists with time on their hands, relatively speaking,
say the two-toned offspring
produced after drunken eastern-western
meadowlark one-night stands
are infertile, that it’s the price of interbreeding
where the ranges of the sub-species
overlap. the cycle of a day is a lot like a rheostat
in super slow motion. Sterile or not, what we have to look forward
to is a break in the clouds, a starry sky at night, called
by lovers loving apart place where our gazes
overlap, ensnarl, enfold.