Poet Chris Mattingly Talks Rural Roots and Kentucky Blues in His New Collection “Scuffletown” (Typecast Publishing, 2013)

Poet Chris Mattingly, whose new collection Scuffletown (pre-order here) is forthcoming this month from Louisville’s own Typecast Publishing, will read April 20th 7:30pm at Seidenfaden’s (1134 E Breckinridge St  Louisville, KY 40204) with fellow Typecast authors Amanda Smeltz (who’s coming down from Brooklyn, NYC just for us!) and Matt Hart— a line-up not for the faint-of-heart.

 

Brandon Stettenbenz: TYPECAST PUBLISHING (Louisville, KY) has a unique approach to publishing. They create one-of-a-kind books and assemble them by hand, ensuring that each collection has its due as an artifact worthy of ownership. Can we get any spoilers about the design, presentation, or packaging of Scuffletown?

Chris Mattingly: It’s the size of a Moleskine cahiers journal—which is what all of the poems from the book were drafted in—and the cover was letterpressed at The Firecracker Press in St. Louis.  In terms of the printing, the cover has a deep impression, some gritty noise, and nice shades of color that conjure river clay, in my mind.  The book feels good to touch.  It feels substantial.

BS: Matt Hart recently told me that Jen Woods is a “really careful editor”, and I read once that she told M. Bartley Seigel “this is going to hurt” before taking the red pen to his This is What They Say manuscript. Assuming that the recollections and ruminations in Scuffletown are hard-lived truth or nearly so, do you think developing this personal collection with an invested, supportive editor like Jen was easier or more difficult, than it would have been with a less intimate press?

CM: Easier.  The personal connection to the editor—well, to be clear, editors because Lindsey Alexander actually did the bulk of the hands-on editing with Scuffletown—was important to me as a poet and person.  To be honest, I wanted for this book to come out of this region in every way possible. This is almost [from a] political urge to grow and cultivate things—not just food—locally.  That said, I do want the book to achieve an audience larger than the local region!  This is where aesthetics comes in: For a long time, I’ve respected what Jen has done with the magazine (Lumberyard) and the work she’s done on Typecast Publishing’s previous collections of poetry.  So even though the book was created almost wholly on a local level, I believe Jen has created an audience that transcends place based on her aesthetics.

BS: Do you feel that the book ended up better because you were able to work locally with someone who, as a fellow Kentuckian, understands Scuffletown and the stories that emanate from that place (fictional perhaps in a similar way to Wendell Berry’s fictional “Port William” is an analog for his native Port Royal, KY)?

CM: Yes. Like I said, Lindsey Alexander was the editor of Scuffletown.  Lindsey, being from a Louisville family that has roots in Barren County, I fully trusted her ear.  Going back to the last question, it is important to note that we were able to cultivate trust through a personal connection based in part on both of us having deep family roots in rural Kentucky.  Also, because we were both in Louisville, we were able to sit face-to-face and talk about the book.  During these meetings, I was able to see the jubilance with which Lindsey approached the manuscript.  Seeing that joy eased any apprehension I may have had about someone putting hands on my art. For me, this trust would have been harder to achieve if I was working with a distant editor strictly through, say, email.

BS: Scuffletown contains confessions of realities beyond regret, and yet the speaker/narrator recalls his grim histories with an elegiac nostalgia. Talk a bit if you would, about the contradicting emotions that are captured so well, in my opinion, by the speaker’s raw, simply stated recollections.

CM: You’re right there is nostalgia, and that’s because it’s my childhood.  I am nostalgic about all sorts of elements of my childhood, not just the good.  I’m often equally nostalgic, or sentimental, about summer bike rides out to stripper pits as I am about sitting around the fire pit drinking whiskey with my mom after a domestic dispute.  The reason, however, is more complicated.  What I know is that in those moments, like in the poem “Bon Fire,” the mother and son connect in ways that many children never connect with their parents.  In that poem, the son becomes the parent to the mother, and in that, there is an opportunity to nurture, comfort, and even counsel the one who would traditionally be in that role.  I think there’s also something about healing and forgiveness that informs the tone you’re talking about.

BS: Getting through the collection can be difficult, not because of any tough abstractions or thick lexicon, but because of the emotional gravity involved. I have to admit, I’ve not shed tears in public for years, but as soon as I cracked the book (pg. 3) a poem titled Bonfire (mp3 here) took my knees out from under me. How would you foreword or foreworn Scuffletown to average poetry reader? To Kentuckians or others familiar with places with Scuffletown?

CM: Think of the poems in terms of the blues form.  We play the blues, we sing about hard times, sadness, and violence as a way of keeping it from having power over us.  This book is like that; it’s me singing, testifying.  I want it to be like the experience of hearing Skip James sing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”: no matter how down-low and rough [it] seems, in the end, you feel strangely empowered, maybe even connected to the speaker’s, or your own, experience a little more.  If so, maybe the work will be validated, the experience redeemed.

BS: Level of education and manner of speech are addressed repetitively in Scuffletown, and near the end the speaker even indicates that he’s lost some part of his identity by leaving words unique to his region of origin behind. Laying judgments like “genuine” and “truth” aside, why did you decide, after college, that you would continue or return to writing in form and dialogue befitting your Kentucky heritage (as opposed to adopting non-regional standard English and traditional narrative forms or classical forms)?

CM: That’s what this project called for.  I wanted the language to insinuate place.  The themes in this book aren’t just regional, they’re American, but I think each region has a different way of understanding and dealing with those themes.  One way this shows through is the language we use.  For example, one poem ends with: “Let me beat on your for a while.”  The idea, because of who the speaker is, is that she is basically saying, “I love you” in her own language.  The line comes from an actual experience:  One day, while fiddling around in the root garden, I overheard my neighbor say, “Git over here baby girl an’ let me beat on you fur a-while.”  Because I am a sucker for a good expression, I stood up smiling while I felt the chaos of language resonate through my body.  The little girl, 4 years old, was tickled, squirmed a little and simply said: “Naw, Mamaw.”  The expression, make no mistake about it, was one of affection and tenderness.  The old woman was basically saying let me love on you with pinches, squeezes, nibblin’s and rough ticklin’.  An idea conveyed in a language that insinuated place with all its intricate familial, regional, historical, and class workings churning through my head like so many gears.  Truth-be-told, I was moved by the way her expression entangled love and violence.  And I was startled by what murked the surface of the quirky words: the brutal truth and wisdom of love’s deeply textured experience.  The way pleasure is complicated by a hurting place peppered her tongue with subjective experience that burned like bourbon in my chest as I said the words over and over later that night.  And I was startled again by the way her words evoked a place beyond the backyard in Louisville, out past the hills of her East Kentucky upbringing, and into a psychic region in a league with, say, the bullfighters, gypsy flamenco guitarists, and death infused dancers of Garcia Lorca’s duende.  Or better, Blanch was like Feste, the jester in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, who imparts real depth of understanding beneath a sheen of comical ease.  But of course, she was just talking, being her own danged self in her own danged backyard.  She was not weighing each word or measuring each syllable, calibrating lines, and synching up sounds with meaning.  She was not trying to raise a place from out of the seasoned lumber of the written word.  The way we poets do.

BS: You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University here in Louisville. Would you like to tell readers who may be unfamiliar with that program about the Spalding writing/academic community?

CM: It’s a close-knit community that also is very much linked to the larger Louisville community.   I think it feels linked to the wider community because during the residency—it is a brief-residency program—many of the readings and seminars are open to the public.  As far as the instruction, it was ideal for me because it is more of an apprenticeship experience.  While workshops are the backbone of the residency, the bulk of the semester is spent one-on-one under the guidance of a master.  I worked with three different poets, one poet twice, and I always like to liken my experience to that of the young poet who’s exchanging letters with Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.

BS: Seidenfaden’s here in Louisville is a neighborhood bar, and you’re also performing for Holler Poets at Al’s Bar in Lexington on April 17th. Do you prefer to read your poetry, rife as it is with hard luck and hard drink, in a bar as opposed to a lecture hall, classroom, gallery or other formal setting?

CM: Not really.  In a way, it seems more important to read these poems in a formal setting, but I do feel at very much home in taverns.  When I was a teenager, my mom worked in a neighborhood tavern.  I used to go in there to watch her work and listen to the stories of the people at the bar.  Also, my uncles and dad went to neighborhood taverns, so I grew up going there with them, too.  As far as Seidenfaden’s goes, on quiet nights, it’s like home: I’ve done homework there; I’ve hung out with my dad there; I was hired for a job while hanging out there; my friends and I used to spar and shadow box inside on slow nights; I’ve watched the World Series there; I’ve walked down there from the house just to unwind; And the poems do seem to ideally fit into that context.

BS: I’m betting both readings will be rowdy and raucous. You won’t wanna miss the party, dear readers! Clean out your ears and wear your stompin’ shoes. Bourbon is optional but recommended; tip your bartender(s).

Chris Mattingly is the author of Ad Hoc and a translation of Anglo-Saxon riddles A Light for Your Beacon both from Q Avenue Press. Mattingly holds an MFA from Spalding University, cultivates a great big garden, plays banjo, sometimes travels ridiculous distances for burgoo and chess pie, and is the eighth-generation Mattingly to live in Kentucky. He currently resides in south-east Georgia where he teaches at East Georgia State College

Advertisements

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s