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.

Leaving Behind and Returning Home: An Interview with Michael Parker

On Tuesday, April 22nd at 7pm, Michael Parker will read from his recent novel All I Have in This World, at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. He’ll also be appearing at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Thursday, May 1st at 7:30pm.


UNC Chapel Hill graduate Michael Parker is currently a Professor in the MFA Writing Program at UNC-Greensboro and holds a faculty position with the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Author of six novels and two collections of stories, Parker’s work has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize and has been featured in various journals such as the Georgia Review, the Washington Post, and the New York Times Magazine. His short story “Love Wild” appeared in issue 44.1 of Carolina Quarterly in the fall of 1991, and in the Winter of 1996 an excerpt from his scrapped project Lake Amnesia appeared in CQ 48.2.

Lee Abbott said of his work, “Only Michael Parker can tell a story you don’t want to quit about folks you don’t want to leave…He has us all in mind—all of us who are needy and scared and running fast from the past, all of us who believe in magic and miracle, all of us beleaguered and bewitched by love.”Parker is the recipient of the Hobson Award for Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and has received fellowships in fiction from the NC Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Parker self-admittedly has, “…a habit of writing ‘road trip’ novels,” which explore the universal hope that either a temporary change of scenery, or a permanent geographical transition will be the thing that wipes the blackboard of our lives free from unfortunate mistakes and sour memories. For most people, though, and for Parker’s characters, these road trips “…rarely heal their wounds. It might provide some temporary peace of mind or soul, but it’s ephemeral.”

All I Have in This World susses out the relationship between tragedy and redemption and explores two strangers’ unexpectedly shared journey for reconciliation.

-Ryan-Ashley Anderson

RAA: In the Author’s Note of All That I Have in This World, you say you woke up in the middle of the night with the idea that catalyzed the writing for this book. Is that typically how characters and stories come to you, all rushing and intrusive, begging you to leave your life for a while so you can get it all down?

MP: My stories (and novels) usually start with an image or a phrase. Rarely do I begin with an idea. I suppose the spark of All That I Have in This World can be classified as an idea—a man and a woman, complete strangers, who meet in a used car lot in West Texas and decide, after knowing each other less than an hour, to purchase a car together. But it’s also an image. I saw these two people in that car lot and I realized what they were doing there in a matter of minutes, but I think I had to see them first.

Often it’s a phrase—sometimes overheard—that sparks a story. Sometimes I begin with a title, which is unfortunate, since it is rare that the publisher allows you—or at least me—to keep the original title. But on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter if that remains the title of the book, since whatever gets you into the story is golden.

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Girl Meets Language

By Caitlin Bailey

Bring me to the lip of the evening again, again;
palm my best parts. If we’re lucky, rain. You like talking
your way inside me, swelling the dark with spondee.
I am split air, tessellated sky. Tell me how it used to be.
Let me gorge myself even on truth, your crooked verbs.
Words forever the best meal, gorgeous mash of syllables.
Here our bodies lead secret lives, cusped and crashing.
Know everything dazzles in the right light.


Caitlin Bailey’s work has previously appeared in Bateau, Lumina, Paper Darts, Poetry City USA, Vol. 2, and elsewhere.
She is learning to live in the woods after many years in the city. More of her poems appear in the Carolina Quarterly 62.2.

Trust, Monotony & Infidelity (with 50,000 Strangers) – An Interview with Dan Jones

Dan Jones will be reading from Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With The Help of 50,000 Strangers) at Flyleaf Books on Monday, March 24, 7pm.

Dan Jones, editor of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, which is featured in the Style section of the Sunday paper, has been sifting through other peoples’ love stories for nearly 10 years. “Modern Love” is neither an advice column, nor a dumping ground for lovers spurned. Rather, it showcases essays by people of all ages, from all over the globe, who have something poignant to share about love. Be they retirees who are finally finding love for the first time, or young divorcees whose failed love has led to unexpected self discovery, Jones attempts to include essays that are as varied as they are well written.

Jones assured me that he has no advice to give and that his power lies solely in the ability to choose the right stories to share, at the right time. Nonetheless, I felt the urge to confess to this man I’d never met. Having been confessed to by so many others over the years perhaps he had mystically come to possess both the absolving qualities of a priest and the pathologizing abilities of a savvy psychiatrist. How many Hail Marys, Dan? What exactly is wrong with me, anyway? How many bouquets of flowers am I in debt for?

One of the most attractive qualities of “Modern Love” is how the writers’ experiences are as unique as they are relatable. Even in the essay about an Indian couple in an arranged marriage, aspects of their experience felt universally relatable. Now married for two decades with two children, Farahad explained, “the slow discovery of another person and the unraveling of layers of mystery are part of the fun of arranged marriage.” Jones concluded that, “…in arranged marriage the goal is to figure out how to be married, not whether to marry.” Every piece has something to teach. No love story is too taboo.

“Modern Love” is a vehicle by which the confessions of people like you and I, who have something valuable to share, make it out into the world. Dan says of storytelling, “We’ve learned how to live from shared narratives and stories retold for thousands of years. Learning from the stories of others has so much more meaning than just trying to follow a set of rules.”

Dan’s passion for representing a broad range of love-related experiences in all their forms, combined with encouragement from colleagues and friends, drove him to write Love Illuminated, a book which explores the search for a long term relationship in today’s world of buzzing electronic distractions.

“On the way (to love), there are all kinds of ways of delaying, and ways people have relationships that seem to be a series of short term experiences, but most of what I hear from people, by far, is that people are looking for the love of their life and then trying to figure out whether they can hold onto that love once they’ve found it, or eventually have to let it go and move on again.”

Love is a grind, and Dan tries, through thorough curation and thoughtful interpretation, to present what he has learned from all his years reading about the experiences of over 50,000 people who all want, as Eden Ahbez once said “… just to love and be loved in return…” forever and ever, Amen.

This month, Monday, March 24, Jones will be reading from Love Illuminated at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill at 7pm and I spoke with him to get some behind the scenes insights about his experiences both with writing this book, and curating Modern Love over the years.

- Ryan-Ashley Anderson


Ryan-Ashley Anderson (RAA): Who and what gets published by “Modern Love”?

Dan Jones (DJ): “Modern Love” is a reflection of what’s submitted. The story has to be one that is well told enough to be considered, and typically about 1 out of 100 gets published. The column generally reflects the readership which consists of people who are actively interested in writing about and exploring these issues of love. This impulse to figure out the formula for love is more experimental than traditional because there are so many new problems. As my father said, “Relationships are so much more complicated than I ever would have thought they were.”

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