Matthew Olzmann is the author of two poetry collections: Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013) and Contradictions in the Design (forthcoming from Alice James in November.) He is the 2015–16 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina and coeditor of Collagist, where he edits nonfiction and poetry. His poem “Letter to a Cockroach, Now Dead and Mixed into a Bar of Chocolate” can be found here. It appears along with two other poems in the May/June 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
Rather than writing about the origin of the chocolate, you wrote a poem about the cost of your own convenience, directed to a creature who might have died along the way. Why did you choose to direct the poem to the cockroach—as opposed to the cacao bean, the ship, or the person who made your shoes?
The poem didn’t initially address the cockroach; that came up much later in revisions. In earlier drafts, the poem felt too flat—more of a catalogue of odd facts—and moving to the direct address felt like a way to humanize or personalize the subject matter, to reach for a type of empathy and to implicate the speaker. Any of the other possibilities you mentioned could’ve been intriguing choices as well, and when the poem eventually began moving toward a “letter” form, I did try out a few different options. For me, that’s what makes revision both exciting and frustrating. The infinite doorways one can wander through. For this reason, I’m not the type of writer who keeps multiple drafts of poems. If I have several versions of the same poem, I can become paralyzed through indecision. So I have to make a choice and pursue it. If it doesn’t work, I try to retrace my footsteps back and begin again.
As in “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” you take something widely distributed, and familiar to your reader, and twist it into a story that feels specific and personal. Can you talk about your process—do you begin with the personal, and work to the product? Or do you begin with the soda or chocolate and find your way to something deeper?
I don’t have a specific process for those moments in poems. Sometimes it starts with the personal and leads elsewhere. Other times it goes in reverse. For me, the initial subject matter of a poem is often an illusion, a vehicle to talk about some other, larger issue. Getting to that issue can involve a long process of trial and error, digression, false starts, and putting disparate things next to each other until you find the metaphor. As for using these widely recognizable objects: I think a challenge many writers face is the task of making the world of the speaker recognizable to the world of the reader. Sometimes having familiar point of focus (a bottle of Mountain Dew, Spiderman, a Campbell’s soup can) can create a type of resonance simply by being loaded with associations or memories that are common to many people.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Like anyone, I’ve received a lot of bad advice. When I was starting out, I had a hard time sorting through it all. For example, when I was seventeen or eighteen, someone told me, “If you read a lot of poetry, you’ll sound like everyone else.” That one’s at or near the top of the bad advice column. It was especially problematic because my interest in poetry came from being a reader of poetry. But I found myself suddenly worried about things like, “Am I going to sound like everyone else? What does everyone else sound like? Is it OK to be reading this book?” Another gem in the bad advice depository was this: “Don’t write poetry until you have an experience worth writing about.” That was also pretty stupid. Everyone has experienced fear, grief, doubt, and love, and that body of experiences is worth writing about and can fuel a lifetime of writing. These pieces of terrible advice stand out because I didn’t have many competing voices of reason back then to cancel them out. I was trying to figure out things on my own. At one point, I dropped out of college—or took a semester off that turned into five or six years off—and was trying to learn how to write by wandering through bookstores, local readings, and libraries. It’s possible to do that, but poetry is vast and trying to learn it by yourself can be a haphazard undertaking. I sought out advice where I could find it. I made a lot of questionable decisions (see: dropping out of college). I had experiences that “were worth writing about” and, as a writer, some of them set me back several years.
Are there other poets writing in a similar vein—to unusual creatures (or inanimate objects), about commerce or similar themes—whom you might recommend?
Kenneth Koch does this in his New Addresses, and a number of those are poems I admire. But the first person who introduced me to the epistolary form was David James, a professor at Oakland Community College. He has a chapbook of epistolary poems, I Will Peel This Mask Off, full of poems where the speaker addresses his feet, his mouth, death, the future and other entities. I took a couple classes with him when I finally returned to college, and those classes were transformative. Just as bad advice can set you years back, finding a good mentor at the right time can speed things up by setting you on the right path. Being introduced to the epistolary mode in his class was a revelation for me. In many ways, I’d always been writing letters, but hadn’t been cognizant of that until I was made aware of the form; my earliest attempts at poems were usually things I wanted to say but didn’t.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
All three of the poems that appear in this issue of the Kenyon Review are from a new collection of (mostly) epistolary poems that I’ve been working on for the past several years. While the vast majority of the poems are letters, there are a handful that are about letters or post offices—not necessarily letters themselves—but still tangentially connected to that world. Additionally, I’ve been working on some short lyric essays, some flash fictions, and some new poems that don’t fit into this new manuscript. I like to work on many things at once, and shuffle between them while revising.