Poet Matt Hart will be reading with novelist Patrick Wensink @Java Bardstown for the February 22nd installment of Speak Social at 7:30pm. I haven’t spoken with Patrick Wensink—who’s readings have been known to become drinking games as Erin Keane will tell you here, and who also had “four days of (internet) fame” after receiving the world’s “nicest cease and desist letter” from Jack Daniels whiskey— but I was fortunate to catch up with Matt (busy poet, father, educator, and musician) to try and dig up some insight for those of you who may not already be aware of this prolific, regional powerhouse of written and spoken verse.
Brandon Stettenbenz: Let’s clear the air. This interview is not going to be as awesome as the one you did with BookSlut (it’s really worth a read!); of course that was a few years back… Since then, you’ve put out a book with Typecast Publishing here in Louisville, called “Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless.” Your band, Travel, also did an album inspired by the book. Can you fill us in on that experience?
Matt Hart: I’ve been a big fan of Lumberyard (the print magazine that Typecast publishes) almost since the beginning. I think it’s really exciting what they do with typography, exploding the poems, reconfiguring and re-contextualizing the various moving parts of the lines and stanzas, emphasizing the visual, material, and sculptural (not to mention, wooden and concrete) qualities of language. There’s something radical and radicalizing about their vision, and the DIY nature of the thing is something that really resonates with me and with my background, both with Forklift, Ohio (the magazine I co-founded and edit) and in punk rock.
With that in mind, I was only maybe a third of the way into the poems that became Sermons and Lectures, when I started thinking that Typecast would be the perfect publisher for that book. The poems are so full of fracture and speed, and the material quality of the language that comes through in the collage technique is a prevalent mode of the book’s poems. Of course, there are also numerous references to early punk rock and the idea that everything might fall apart at any second. It seemed to me to that the book had a lot in common with the Typecast aesthetic and vision, so I approached Jen Woods about it, and she liked the manuscript and took it on. I don’t remember exactly when in the process I got the idea to do a new Travel record using cut-up versions of the Sermons and Lectures poems as lyrics, but it all sort of came together right around the same time. The resulting record, Blank Sermons…Relentless Lectures, is one of Travel’s best, I think; full of noise and skronkiness that actually ends up sounding like music. Go figure.
Working with Typecast, and with Jen in particular, was truly a wonderful experience. She really helped me with ordering the manuscript, but more than that she’s a really careful editor, and I think she understands my aesthetic sometimes better than I do. I hope I get to work with her and Typecast again at some point. But regardless, I know that we’re friends for the long haul. She really is my Weird Sister.
Note: (Typecast Publishing is an immeasurable asset to our literary scene here in Louisville, and a growing force among American small presses. You can check out their impressive catalogue here, including Lumberyard magazine #10 featuring Mary Ruefle, Maurice Manning and more)
BS: I’ve read and heard mostly the poems from Sermons, but in older and more recent journals I’ve observed that your voice has remained loud; there’s really no other way to describe it whether in print or in person. Do your see this as a product of your punk/rock n’ roll roots and/or an intrinsic personal trait?
MH: Well, okay, I get that. But I think of my more recent work, especially the post Sermons and Lectures stuff that’s been appearing here and there, as really domestic, romantic, nearly pastoral in some of its tonalities and urgency toward melody/rhapsody/narrative. In fact, if I could have my way, with my new book Debacle Debacle, I would whisper the poems to one listener at a time. Sadly, that doesn’t usually fly so well against the backdrop of espresso machines and clinking beer bottles. It’s hard at most readings to be desperately, energetically, and personally low volume—almost no one would be able to hear the poems!—even though that’s often how I hear them in my head, and certainly the way I read them out loud to myself as I’m writing them. It’s the way I imagine someone else reading them too.
I should say also that just reading poems in a monotone is so incredibly awful to my ear that I just can’t allow myself to do it. Poems are alive. They have their own peculiar voices. At a reading I’m not trying to read them the way a reader would/should read them. That’s a thing done in the privacy of one’s mind, one’s mouth, one’s soul—if we’re lucky. Poets need to realize when they’re reading in public that they’re performing. There’s an audience in front of you, and they deserve a thing delivered, a call for their response. But also the poems deserve to be inhabited and brought to life.
That said, I always try pretty hard to create something of a dynamic range in the work—all one volume all the time gets kind of boring. With Sermons and Lectures, which takes a lot of its inspiration from punk rock and hellfire and brimstone preaching there’s certainly a lot of “loud,” but that’s contrasted with very modulated quiet passages. The final sequence “Blood Brothers and Weird Sisters” has a much different tonality than a lot of the rest of the book. It’s a denouement and a finality—a last gasp—and is the result of a kind of necessary exhaustion, a gradual fade out. It is true that often at readings I like to try and build momentum (which itself often comes with increasing the volume, either incrementally or radically)—to make poems ramp up with a fever, to press their bewildered faces against the infinite—whatever that is. I definitely think that this desire for a dynamic range in the work comes from my background in music. The “louds” I want to be really loud, but the “quiets” should be barely audible, so that people have to lean in and stop breathing.
BS: The other unique thing your poems have impressed upon me is a feeling of constant work, struggle, striving, experimentation, and change that seems to extend through absurd, metaphysical, political, and historic landscapes that are ultimately examining your own past and present. What I see more than anything in your work is a tenacious drive to examine and expose the self, to unearth and divulge your own thoughts (in this instance I’m assuming the narrator of your work is most often yourself as opposed to a generalized “the self”). Do you see poetry in general or at least your own as a mode of growth, self examination, perhaps therapy or necessary release from the pressures we all face; an exorcism/meditation if you will?
MH: I think I believe that artists always get to the universal via the personal (which is a paraphrase of something the painter Robert Motherwell said). But I don’t think of the poems as therapy. I’m not solving mental problems; I’m blasting off with joy or being awe struck or playing (which is a very serious thing). My poems are mostly exploratory, [meaning that] they point back to the process of their making and/or are demonstrations of a particular way of paying attention (my way of paying attention)— which I hope is something recognizable to other people, something they can connect with/to [via similarities] they find between my way and their way. I want my poems to open a window in the reader/listener’s life—from me to you, from you to me, and back again, forever. In other words (with other worlds), to create and court experiences of empathy is ultimately what I’m after. Empathy is (and this is a paraphrase of something Dean Young has said) the imaginative act of putting yourself (figuratively, metaphorically) so entirely and intensely in someone else’s shoes that you feel what they feel. For me, empathy is a kind of visceral entanglement of the self with the other—one that’s entirely based in the notion that we are a lot more similar than we are different. But it’s also those similarities which are the basis for appreciating and celebrating difference.
Of course, first and foremost, and whatever the aims, the poems have to be the best poems—as poems—that I can make, and I try to do that any way I can. I don’t want to limit possibility. I want to delimit it. My books are all really different from each other by design, because I am always trying to find new opportunities in the language—both in its form and its content—to reach out, to shock and be shocked and get a charge from our common humanity. I’m not worried about establishing a voice. I have faith that a voice will emerge from the activity of ranging far and wide wherever my interests and attention take me.
BS: Your new book from H_NGM_N Books (“Hangman” when you say it out loud) is called Debacle, Debacle. Folks can pre-order it here, an option that’s been up for only about a week. H_NGM_N also put out your last collection, so I assume you’ve forged a good working relationship with them. Could you tell us about the new book, your experiences working with H_NGM_N and a bit about them as a publisher?
MH: Well, just to be clear, H_NGM_N did my 2010 book WOLF FACE, but Typecast put out my last collection Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless in 2012. And in between those was a collection (mainly of several chapbooks) called Light-Headed that came out from BlazeVOX in 2011. My first book, Who’s Who Vivid, came out from Slope Editions in 2006—don’t wanna step on any editorial toes here.
As for Debacle Debacle, Nate Pritts, who founded, runs, and edits H_NGM_N, is a friend of mine from grad school. We’ve kept in close touch over the years, and all that time he’s been such an incredible champion of my work. I’m really grateful to Nate for his faith and trust in my process and poems. He’s truly my brother in more ways than one. As it turns out, many of the poems in Debacle Debacle respond directly to poems of Nate’s, or to ideas that we were both thinking about and discussing at the time the poems were written—ideas about friendship and the creative process, our respective domestic situations, my dumb (and very dumbly—I won’t go into it) broken foot. It’s funny, though, those poems seem to have all been written such a long time ago—2009-10 (a few in early 11). I’m two manuscripts beyond them now, but I’m excited that the book is finally coming out. I deliberately haven’t really read them anywhere, so that I can figure out how to do that when the book is in the world as a book. I just did one of those NEXT BIG THING interviews where I talk all about Debacle Debacle—its origin story. Anyone who’s interested can see it here. I’ve really loved working with all of the editors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. Every one of them has been terrific and insightful. There aren’t many instances, I don’t think, where you get to work with your best friends, so I feel really lucky to get to do that.
BS: Another new accomplishment/change came in the form of a visiting Assistant
Professorship this past fall at the University of Texas, Austin. I’ve never been to Austin (unfortunately!), but I’ve spent plenty of time in Cincinnati. They must be very different places. I must admit, I’m completely in the dark about both schools, though I’ve heard and read a few things about UT’s Creative Writing MFA. How did you like Austin; was it a big adjustment? Did you find more enthusiastic students at UT than the Art Academy of Cincinnati, or perhaps a larger pool of creative writing students?
MH: I loved being at UT. The city of Austin’s great, but I was so busy that I didn’t really spend much time wandering around—though I did get to see Dinosaur Jr., Pianos Become the Teeth, La Dispute, and Willie Nelson w/ Asleep at the Wheel (not all on the same night, of course). The music scene’s intense. Anyway, the big difference between what I was doing in Texas and my usual gig at the Art Academy was that at UT I was teaching grad students, which I loved, in addition to undergrads. All the students at UT were awesome, but I found the grad students in particular to be wild and bewildering with brightness and all manner of full-throttle inspiration and anxiety (which can be an artist’s best friend). I adore them all—really. They made me such a better teacher and writer. I actually wrote about 75 poems while I was there and quite a lot of prose on poetry, too. It was poetry twenty-four seven, which is really different from my normal life. I’m married (14 years!) and I have a six year old daughter. My family couldn’t come with me to Texas, so in terms of that, I didn’t have the usual (very good—and very necessary for me) distractions of family life to contend with. Thus, I got even more work done than usual, but I was also missing my home life terribly. I loved being in Austin (where I have some amazing friends, in addition to the amazing students), but it’s also really good to be back home in Cinci.
As for the Art Academy, that’s a great gig too. It’s art-college—undergraduates—so all of my students are artists, my colleagues are artists, and there’s an incredibly high degree of interplay between visual and written expression. The whole building smells like oil paint and words. And I have some awesome poets that never cease to up the ante and challenge me as a teacher and a poet. I’ve been teaching there now for thirteen years, and I really do love it.
BS: Cincinnati is just a stone’s throw away, so I assume you’ve read here before (apart from the sneak peak of Sermons you laid on us at the Writer’s Block open mic in 2011). Louisville is also a music-centric town, bar town, etc… has your (I’ll venture to say) distinct brand of exuberant reading been well received here, historically?
MH: Louisville’s a really fun city—a lot like Cincinnati actually—with its river life and little neighborhoods. People in Louisville have always been really warm and welcoming to me. I’m excited to be coming back. Of course, I’m always glad to get to see Jen Woods and her husband Bill, both of whom have become great friends and collaborators (not just with Sermons, but) in various kinds of mischief over the years. For me, a reading is always a time to reconnect with old friends one already knows and also to meet new people and potentially make new friends, not only in terms of the art, but on a personal level as well. These days I like readings more for who I get to see and meet than for anything having to do with people seeing me read—though reading is an incredibly invigorating and gratifying experience. It’s fun to share the work.
BS: Poetry in general, especially performed live can be a thing of energy, and you seem to plug right into it before cranking the gain up to eleven. Are you hoping to get the Speak Social crowd riled up on the 22nd?
MH: I’ll definitely bring a good energy supply—I do hereby promise. I have lots of new poems, and I’m excited for the opportunity to see how some of them fly in the air. Can’t wait. See you on the 22nd!
Bio (from the author’s own page):
Matt Hart is the author of four books of poems, Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006), Wolf Face (H_NGM_N BKS, 2010), Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2011), and Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012), as well as several chapbooks. A fifth collection, Debacle Debacle, is forthcoming from H_NGM_N BKS in 2013. Additionally, his poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Big Bell, Cincinnati Review, Coldfront, Columbia Poetry Review, H_NGM_N, Harvard Review, jubilat, Lungfull!, and Post Road, among others. His awards include a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. 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.