Poetry as Psychology: An Interview with Matt Morton

Matt Morton - Photo

Matt Morton has been a Finalist for a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Finalist in the Narrative 30 Below Story and Poetry Contest. He is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and his poems appear or are forthcoming in West Branch, Quarterly West, Forklift Ohio, Colorado Review, and Cincinnati Review, among other journals. Two of his poems, “Anachronistic Elegy” and “Lullaby,” were published in 64.1, the most recent issue of CQ. Originally from Rockwall, Texas, he lives in Baltimore, where he is a Lecturer in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Find more at www.mattmortonpoetry.com

Q: Many of your poems seem to inhabit some sort of altered state of dream or memory. What does this poetic space outside of the body proper allow you to do in your poetry?

A: It allows me the freedom to go wherever I want without feeling limited to a particular physical space. I really enjoy participating in workshops, but one question I’ve been asked a lot is “Where is the speaker?” The speaker is in his or her mind! Where is Henry in the Dream Songs? Where is John Ashbery’s speaker(s) ever? I understand the desire to be absorbed into a specific moment and fixed location; some of my favorite poems—Mark Strand’s “The View” and James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock…” among many others—do this. Still, I’m generally more interested in discursive poems. Poetry as psychology, as an illustration of the movement of a human mind through a chain of thoughts, a procession of images or memories or ideas. The way our minds move during waking life is much closer to so-called “dream-logic” than we realize: We often think via associations, and, unsurprisingly, many of those associations have to do with memories that something in the present—the smell of a campfire, the particular green shade of an evening gown—is calling to mind.

There is an excellent G. C. Waldrep interview somewhere online in which he argues that (I’m paraphrasing) what happens in our imagination is just as autobiographical as what happens in the “real” world. I find this extremely compelling. One thing I’m always telling my students is that they should not feel limited—when writing fiction or poetry—by the physical space in which a given piece begins. When you’re grocery shopping, yes, you are physically in the supermarket for 20-30 minutes, you check out, you leave. But where is your mind during that time? You’re rehearsing a speech, your grandfather’s funeral is in three days, how amazing/terrible was the sex you had last night, did what you said on the phone offend your friend, you’re waiting on test results and your phone is about to die and was that woman in the cereal aisle just making eye contact with you? In any given moment, your experience in the world is as much comprised of those memories, hopes, anxieties, daydreams, as it is your observations of your immediate physical environment. Helen Vendler has argued that “mimetic accuracy—one not only of visual representation but also structural and rhythmic enactment…is the virtue, the fundamental ethics of art.” If you agree with this, than surely the realm of the mind is essential territory for exploration in poetry. It’s what I’m most interested in, at least.

Q: Gaston Bachelard has written of these altered states as “reveries”: “Poetic reverie gives us the world of worlds. Poetic reverie is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds…Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.” How does your engagement with and habitation of reverie explore these worlds?

A: I’m not sure I consider the world of the poem, or the world I inhabit while writing, any different from the world in which I go downstairs to check the mail. Having said that, the act of writing a poem can lead to a kind of attentiveness that is difficult for me to achieve when I’m doing almost anything else. When I’m truly attending to what I’m writing, I become less self-conscious; as a result, my mind is able to move more freely than it would otherwise. Not only is this liberating in itself, but it is essential when I’m writing associatively in order to discover something: the more I expect from the next line, the less likely I am to surprise myself.

Q: In your poem, “Anachronistic Elegy,” you talk about memories and how, after three days or ten years, they never seem to fade. How does the trace of memory flow through and haunt your poems?

A: First, memories do fade, of course. I don’t remember as vividly as I once did what it felt like to be a child eating a funnel cake at the Texas State Fair. I no longer get as sad when I think about people I’ve loved but don’t love anymore. This, in itself, is sad—a reminder that time is always passing; we can’t hold onto it, no matter how desperately we would like to store it up in the “memory bank.” I’m thinking about the end of Quentin’s section in The Sound and the Fury: For several pages, he obsessively repeats the word temporary while his father effectively taunts him, “you cannot bear to think that someday it will no longer hurt you like this.” Of course, the frantic speaker of “Anachronistic Elegy” is in no place to realize this—he almost certainly doesn’t want to. Even in our worst moments, it’s comforting, at the very least, to imagine that our pain is significant enough to last. And, of course, when we’re distraught or consumed by eros, it truly does feel as if the feeling will last “forever.” How could I possibly ever not love her, how could I ever stop mourning him? And yet.

As far as memory informing my poems, this just seems to naturally follow from a concern with how the mind works. How can what’s happening in the present and what we’re expecting from the future not be intimately connected with the past? I can’t imagine a poem that doesn’t involve some sort of reflection, which necessarily involves a consideration of the past. Unless you are writing a poem about the moment in which that poem is being written, you are dealing with memory. In “Lying in a Hammock…” Wright casts the poem in the present tense and we’re totally absorbed in this idyllic scene in a specific moment and—then the last line.

Q: In “Anachronistic Elegy” you use “I”, while in “Lullaby” you use “you” as the perspective. Why did you choose one perspective for one poem and a different perspective for another poem? How do these different perspectives add to your poems and help convey the message you are trying to get across?

A: “Anachronistic Elegy” is as immediate a poem as I’ve written: it was written extremely quickly from the perspective of a speaker whose mind is frantically (perhaps manically?) trying to make sense of a very recent experience. Anything other than the first-person would have been at odds with the mimetic accuracy of the poem. “Lullaby,” on the other hand, began as a kind of Ashbery pastiche, so I was intentionally experimenting with multiple points-of-view and shifting pronouns. While addressing a general “you” can have a distancing effect that I often find unappealingly ironic, it does signal for the reader that the poem’s interests are (ostensibly) not solely those of the speaker. One issue with the first-person perspective is that, no matter how much we claim to recognize a distance between the poet and speaker, we usually end up equating the two. Although I write in the first-person singular or plural more often that not, I’ve been experimenting lately with different approaches to signal that the speaker is a kind of quasi-persona—that I don’t necessarily agree with everything the speaker is saying. These experiments have had mixed results. Using second- or third-person pronouns may be the simplest way to clarify the writer’s intentions.

Q: Who are some of your favorite poets? What about their writing spoke to you? Do you find that how they write influences how you write?

A: Dean Young was the first poet whose work really moved me, and the tonal shifts and playful association of his work have been extremely influential on my poetry. I read Elegy on Toy Piano in one sitting. I was a junior in college and was going through a period of depression and severe anxiety. Discovering another personality that was so acutely aware of mortality and yet so full of joy—I can’t overstate how important that experience was.

Larry Levis’ Winter Stars, with its almost casual movement from memory to memory, was another early influence. More recently, the surreal set-pieces in James Tate’s The Lost Pilot have been very influential; “Manna,” from that collection, was likely the formal inspiration for “Anachronistic Elegy.” Other favorites include Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, D. A. Powell, Bob Hicok—it’s a long list.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with unconventional grammar and syntax and have been studying The Dream Songs, reading lots of Hopkins and Cummings. I’ve also been working through Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems and am amazed at the energy and precision she achieved through compression. “Child” is a perfect poem. “Tulips” is a perfect poem. My tendency is to write longer, and right now Plath’s work has me really excited about the possibilities for the shorter lyric.

Contradictions of our time: An interview with Aaron Sanders

Aaron Sanders photo

Aaron Sanders is Associate Professor of English at Columbus State University where he teaches literature and creative writing. He holds a PhD in American Literature from The University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Utah. His stories have appeared in Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and Beloit Fiction Journal, among others. He just finished a novel, Whispers of Heavenly Death, and he is working on a TV pilot called Good Missionary. His story, “I Dream of Alan Arkin,” appeared in 62.1 of Carolina Quarterly. “Upon the Ground” was recently published in 64.1 (Summer 2014).

Q: Barthes, in his essay The Writer on Holiday, states that knowing the quotidian realities of a writer, far from dispelling the myth of his superhumanity, in fact makes his existence seem even more unreal. “For I cannot but ascribe to some superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue pajamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as universal conscience, or else make a profession of liking reblochon with that same voice with which they announce their forthcoming Phenomenology of the Ego.” So, to interview a writer, rather than make him seem more like us or make us seem more like him, makes the whole world feel more magical. Barthes was against this. How do you feel about the apparent paradox?

A: I don’t disagree with Barthes. What I might add, and he probably says this elsewhere, is that another problem with the writer interview is that the writer can’t be trusted. That’s the other side of the paradox. The more we talk about the process of writing the further we get from what writing is… The truth about writing is that it is lonely and pretty unremarkable. I get up every morning at six and sit in front of a screen. That’s writing.

Still, I love writer interviews because they function almost as a support group. I hear the frustration and despair in our voices. And the questions are often questions without answers. On a recent episode of Fresh Air, when Terry Gross asks Lena Dunham (yes, I love Girls) how she decides whether or not she is sharing too much of her personal life in her work, Gross is asking a question without a real answer. Dunham is polite in her response, but what can she say? Her entire artistic project is built on a persona that at least feels like she’s revealing too much of her personal life. In fact, Dunham’s response can only build on that persona, i.e. her answer is performative (just as my answer to this question is performative).

David Foster Wallace has this great essay in Consider the Lobster, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” about his fascination with athlete autobiographies. He’s obsessed with these narratives because he believes they might teach him something about athletic genius. What he finds is that great athletes are not very articulate about what they do. Indeed when they do speak of it they speak in cliché. Wallace’s argument is that this is part of their genius: that they have no idea how to talk about it. That seems to make sense to me. Writing is like that.

Q: Barthes—I’m on a kick with him today—said over fifty years ago: “What I claim is to live to the full contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.” What’s the contradiction of our time? In other words, what is the condition necessary for the creation of truth?

A: Broadly speaking, the contradiction of our time is that art (made-up shit) gets at truth. This has always been the case, I suppose, the idea of holding a mirror up to nature and whatnot. But it feels like more of a contradiction now. Discourse is more fractured than ever, and it seems as if we gravitate to discourses that reify what we already believe. We don’t like people or ideas that run counter to our worldview.

It strikes me as odd that people my age go to places like The Daily Show for news. I think we understand the artifice, and we appreciate that Jon Stewart acknowledges the artifice. No one is pretending that The Daily Show is CBS Nightly News. Something about calling attention to the artifice allows The Daily Show to get closer to a version of what’s really going on than something you might see on CNN.

The modernists understood this. Call attention to the artifice and the representation becomes more accurate. Picasso’s Cubist phase reminds me of this. The Sound and the Fury, too. All narrative is constructed, and all narrative is unreliable, and yet at its best, a constructed narrative can get at truth. That’s an exciting contradiction.

Q: “Upon the Ground” deals with some of the most pressing issues we face as a society: fundamentalism, self-doubt and violence justified through love. What’s the goal for you in writing this challenging story?

A: I wanted to write a story with the same narrative momentum as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and I wanted to do it by imagining how an obscure 19th century Mormon ritual called blood atonement would play in the present.

Certainly, what interests me about blood atonement is its connection to fundamentalism. I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be a reasonable, rational person who happens to believe in a doctrine with death as its consequence. I didn’t want the ritual itself to be up for debate in the story; I wanted the conflict to be about everything leading up to the ritual.

To me that’s what is interesting about belief. I think we all have blind spots. We are mostly rational beings that allow ourselves a sliver of irrationality. You might be having a conversation with a longtime friend and stumble onto that irrational thread. In those moments I find myself staring at that person wondering how it is he or she can think this or believe that or whatever. But that’s just it: I have my irrational blind spots too (of course I can’t tell you what they are because I don’t think they’re irrational at all).

Another issue at play in the story is, of course, sexuality. I’ve always felt that one contradiction (now I’ve got contradiction on the mind) in Mormonism is its celebration of sexual freedom as found in its polygamy doctrine on the one hand, and its attack on homosexuality on the other. It seems to me that a religion with a history of being persecuted for, among other things, its sexual beliefs, would be more understanding of sexual identities outside of hetero-normal sexuality. The Mormon Church is decidedly not more understanding.

This is why Jonah Solomon has to be gay and a believer. Those two parts of one’s identity are often imagined as mutually exclusive, and I don’t think that’s a given. In the world of the story he’s done the best with the hand he’s been dealt, and when circumstances dictate it, he will even give his life for those he loves. I like Jonah, and every time he says goodbye to his son, my stomach turns.

Q: There is a lot of non-verbal communication going on in your writing. As a writer, why do you think non-verbal communication can be so much more powerful than verbal?

A: First of all, thank you. I think this is a technique I’ve developed more as time has gone on. Why is nonverbal more powerful? One reason why might be that nonverbal communication leaves more unsaid, which allows for a more textured interpretation. As soon as a character says anything, language can only go so far to convey meaning.

This is another set of contradictions: less is almost always more, and dialogue is not a representation of how people speak. Dialogue is only one of many ways to move the story forward. Maybe that’s it. Stories that use more nonverbal techniques feel more textured and more complete.

Introducing the UNC Student Spotlight!

Each week we will be featuring the work of a talented undergraduate in the creative writing program. Find selected works and a short bio through the new left margin sidebar. Check back every Monday to find out who’s up next!

week 1: Coco Wilder

Photo Coco Wilder

Coco Wilder lives in Carrboro, NC. She gets along well with people who care about place, memory, women, and coffee. Read her work here!

Summer Reading for the Fall Semester

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“My heart is a bear trap with a fox’s paw caught
in its teeth.”
                - Joseph Mulholland

The new issue is out! For the rest of this poem and much more, pick one up on campus at Davis Library or the UL.
If you’re among our subscribers, expect yours in the mail soon!

End Is Nigh Winners Announced!

This winter, as part of our End Is Nigh contest, we asked you to send us your dispatches about anxious endings, anticipated apocalypses, doomsday prepping, or getting right with God and family before it all comes crashing down. Contest Judge Jim Shepard was so pleased with the quality of submissions, that he couldn’t select just one grand prize winner. Instead, we have two winners and two runners up:

Grand Prize Winners ($575 each):
“When Trains Fall From Space” by Ian Bassingthwaighte
“Cold Snap” by Robin McLean

Runners Up ($150 each):
“Blood by Blood” by Dominic Russ-Combs
“A Brief Chronicle of Jeff and His Role in What is Colloquially Known as ‘The End of Civilization’” by Caitlin Campbell

“When Trains Fall From Space” and “Blood by Blood” will appear in the next issue of the Quarterly, with “Cold Snap” and “A Brief Chronicle” following in the fall.

Explaining his selections, Shepard writes:

Given that the apocalyptic and the post-apocalyptic seem to be everywhere in our mass culture, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that the entries in the Carolina Quarterly’s “End Is Nigh” contest would have been of such a uniformly high quality, but they were, and choosing the most accomplished from among them was hard. For Runners Up, for example, I chose two stories that could easily have won any ordinary contest: first, “Blood by Blood,” with its evocation of a brother love that survives despite everything, and an imminent endtimes balefully anticipated by a hardscrabble place and a hardscrabble sensibility. And second, “A Brief Chronicle of Jeff and his Role in What is Colloquially Known as ‘The End of Civilization,’” a story that deploys its intricate intelligence with such ingenuity that it transcends its archness and lurches into the realm of the disquieting.

And the stories I chose as Co-Winners are of such dazzling achievement that I think they’d win any contest. On the one hand, there’s the heartbreaking and oddly winsome “When Trains Fall From Space,” which pulls off some of the most unlikely premises with the blithe panache of a Miranda July, and then there’s “Cold Snap,” which is a harrowing and wry and compassionate rendering of a sensibility so damaged by the more quotidian forms of isolation that the oncoming end of the world seems like a seamless extension of the loneliness the protagonist has been riding out for years. Four excellent stories: an enviable array, for any magazine. I congratulate all four writers on their artistry, and heart.