Clay Matthews has published poetry in journals such as American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. His most recent book, Pretty, Rooster (Cooper Dillon, 2010), is a collection of sonnets written in syllabics. His other books are Superfecta (Ghost Road Press, 2008) and RUNOFF (BlazeVox, 2009). He teaches at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee, and edits poetry for the Tusculum Review. His poems “The Deer Woods” and “The Years” were published the Spring 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Over the past year or two, I’ve been unable to really think in complete sentences. Maybe I never have, but my poems have become these collages of fragments and images lately, and so I’m never really sure how they match up, or how to match them up. Both of the poems in this issue were taken from lots of notes—days of scratches on the computer, on receipts stuck in my wallet, in a journal. The hardest part was trying to figure out if there was anything there, and if my eye/ear was capturing anything that I felt someone else might be interested in. Additionally, my daughter has become a sort of mythical/real star in a lot of my poetry recently, so she gets wound up in those poems, too, in all the strange and beautiful and true and metaphorical ways children come to exist in our lives.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned more patience, I think. I write less than I used to, largely due to spending a lot of time with our little girl, teaching, editing, and so forth. But I think I’ve learned to wait and look/listen. Maybe I force poems less. Maybe I just have less to say. Whether it’s a muse or an alien that sends the signals, though, I think we’re on better terms. I’m more thankful when the words do come, because if the last five years have taught me anything, they’ve taught me that poetry is often a game of hit or miss—and I miss often. Realizing that, I think, has helped give me a better sense of when I actually get close to the mark I’ve set for myself.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I’ve worked with both The Tusculum Review and H_NGM_N in some capacity over the last five years—so I have to give a shout-out to those two. They’re both awesome journals, and Wayne Thomas and Nate Pritts are fantastic editors. Beyond that, there are so many that I really love: The Southern Review, Blackbird, Forklift, Ohio, diode, thrush—I could keep going and going. Each of those journals feels very much like its own thing. The editors hold to a strong aesthetic, but they don’t pigeon-hole the work either. I can read any of those journals and get a sense of cohesiveness, even as the work ranges all over the spectrum. They’re fantastic.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?
I think I might. His stages align somewhat closely with Poe’s discussion of “The Raven” in his “The Philosophy of Composition.” For me, the language often comes first—the lines, the images, etc. Or, it might be a specific thing I’ve witnessed that I just can’t shake. Consciously, I feel like the emotional concept comes from those lines—how they begin to come together. I feel like it’s a discovery I make in the poem, while writing, and less something I’ve obsessed about before. On the other hand, I’m not always especially cognizant of whatever emotion I’m gnawing on at the time, so it’s entirely possible that I go through Larkin’s stages without realizing it. On the surface, though, I usually feel that I discover that emotion while writing rather than dwelling on it beforehand.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
I’m a huge Whitman fan, and I literally get goosebumps every time I get to the section in “Crossing Brooklyn Fairy” when he writes:
“We understand, then, do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish, is
accomplished, is it not?
What the push of reading could not start, is started by me personally, is it
I mean, in that moment for me, he’s climbed out of the ground, held me by the shoulders, and looked me in the eye. Sure, we can claim this is a gimmick or a rhetorical structure, but for me, the great works do more than that.
As Robert Pinsky pointed out in The Situation of Poetry, whether a work is labeled Romantic, Modern, or Contemporary, it still faces that enormous gap that exists between “language and experience.” That gap is inherent in language, and it’s inherent between writer and reader, too. My credo, though, my foolish, eternal hope for writing, is to cross that gap. Or at least to try.
I’ve always been enamored with the concept of authenticity/sincerity in writing because of this. Going back to Whitman, I guess I could just call it presence, too. I don’t care if a work is avant garde or traditional, lyric or narrative, if it speaks to me, if I somehow see some shadow of the author or speaker’s face, if I feel that a work is speaking to me honestly (and pretty much just to me, just in that moment), I really just go kind of nuts for a little while. It’s one of the most beautiful things in life—to have someone reach across the gap, to express some sort of faith in the power of the words and language to come alive on the other end, even knowing that structurally it appears futile. It’s subjective and changes daily, but man, oh, man, what a thing when it happens. I’m getting fired up just writing about it.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I have so many people to thank here. My first creative writing teacher was Dr. Susan Swartwout at Southeast Missouri St. U. She taught me more than she’ll ever know, and she opened the doors to this entire universe of contemporary writers I never had any idea existed. At Oklahoma State, Lisa Lewis continually pushed me to grow. I’d gotten good at writing these kind of down-homey poems, and she called me out on it. It’s a lesson I’ve kept with me, because I tend to get in a habit of writing a certain type of poem, and then I’ll have to find a way to break out of that to discover something new. Ai taught me so much about music, probably without her even knowing it. She could literally read through a poem one time, change a few things to alter the rhythm, and transform a clunky movement into melody. It’s easy to miss the music in her own poetry sometimes because the writing seems so seamless and it moves right through itself. It moves that way, though, because she had an absolutely incredible ear. My wife, Jan, who is also a poet, teaches me daily about what a poem thinks it should get away with and when and where it fails to do that. She, too, has taught me a lot about music, and to be patient with a piece. I also learn from all the writers I’ve ever loved, and from life—my family, friends, pets, seasons, and so forth.