How has your first book changed your life?
99. Matt Hart
How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Slope Editions? How often had you sent it out before that?
For a couple of years after grad school I was sending various versions of two manuscripts around to all the contests, but without much luck. Eventually some good friends and great readers suggested that I collapse the two manuscripts into one big monster. That's when Who's Who Vivid emerged and went on a rampage through the Vermont countryside. One night in a very injured state--those villagers are a bitch!--it met Ethan Paquin in a starlit meadow and had a few smores. Ethan then carried the manuscript on his back to Chris Janke at Slope Editions, and about six months later I got a call from Ethan saying they wanted it. I remember the beginning of the conversation exactly: "Hey Matt, it's Ethan Paquin, how are you?" "Good," I said. "Are you sure?" he said. "Yeah, I'm good..." To which he responded, "Well, you're gonna be a lot better in minute..." Then he spilled the beans. I was thrilled of course--in shock really. I remember I said, "Like, it's official? Can I tell people?" He laughed at that, but I couldn't believe it. Ethan also had excellent suggestions re: both ordering the manuscript and the title--he was the one who suggested Who's Who Vivid, in fact--which was way better than any of the fifteen or so titles I had before.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It was a cold afternoon in late January, and I came home after a day of teaching to find the boxes waiting for me in the living room floor. I let them idle. I took off my coat and checked my email, ate an apple. Or maybe it was a tangerine... Anyway, I put my coat back on and took the dog for a walk around the block. My wife was out running errands, and I thought I'd wait until she got home to open up one of the boxes. But then, when she did get home, I hesitated, so we cooked dinner and ate it and watched TV. It was literally hours before I could bring myself to check out the book, and then it was days before I could actually read it. I was terrified that I would find typos or want to revise everything. In the end, I was pretty happy with it, excited by how it turned out and proud of the poems.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yeah, Chris and Ethan at Slope Editions allowed my friend Eric Appleby, who does Forklift, Ohio with me, to design the whole thing, so it was a homegrown endeavor. What's funny is that the picture on the cover wasn't the initial cover idea. In fact, I don't think I had an initial cover idea. I went to my friend Chris LaCoe's house to have some pictures made for an author-type photo, and he had these Indonesian monkey masks on the wall. Something about them struck me in the moment, so I put one on and grabbed a volume of an Encyclopedia off a bookshelf. LaCoe started snapping pictures, and suddenly we had a cover photo.
I also love what Eric did with the title on the front cover--especially the eerie orange lighting and the rendering of the word "vivid" in that weirdo blue with its raised "i"s--like eyebrows, or missile silos, or me and myself (you and you), rising up literally out of the blue. I like too how he repeated the gesture of raising the vowels in "vivid" on the title pages and also how he raised the "a"s in "matt hart" on the inside title page, as well. Makes me think of mirror images, and echoes, and who's who. Vividly.
Before the day you first saw your book, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
Honestly, I'm not sure what I thought. I mean, I was really excited and anxious about it, but I think that my previous experiences with having records and CDs released told me that things in my life wouldn't be all that different. There's no before and after, just more work--which is pretty great considering the sort of work I'm lucky enough to be doing.
Nope. Though obviously there are more opportunities to do readings, teach, and think publicly in writing (like this). I both enjoy these opportunities immensely (especially the readings) and also find them severely frustrating/challenging (the writing in prose). I mean, it's weird--one writes some poems in lines and fragments, and then all of the sudden people want reviews and essays written in complete sentences and paragraphs with proper punctuation and MLA formatting. I'm not complaining. Truly it's an awesome honor to be asked to do these things, and it's even fun to do the work, but writing in prose is a ton more difficult (at least for me) than writing poems. Hats off to fiction writers, essayists, journalists, etc. I don't know how most of 'em live with so many rules--grammar, syntax, standardized punctuation, left to right, top to bottom down the page. It's enough to make one's head spin off into its own reality television show about the usual ways of sense-making, only to find in the process that sense-making hurts like an alligator to the face.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
If anything, I think it's been all surprises. Things keep happening. Some people have even read the book and said they were moved by it, which for me is huge. I don't write in a vacuum; I want to work in the Vast, not the Void, and I want to work with (and for) other people, too. Maybe it's cheesy, but for me at the root of poetry is singing, expressive and energetic--a blurt into the world on the lookout for other people, who I can relate to and who will sing back better and louder than I do. In other words, I write to communicate--however strangely or far-fetched/stretched the notion of communication becomes in my poems. The long and the short: I've made a lot of new friends as a result of the book, which is maybe the greatest surprise of all.
What have you been doing to promote the book and how do you feel about those experiences?
Amanda Nadelberg and I went on a little East-coast-ish reading tour that Slope Editions helped organize after the book came out. We hadn't met each other before and agreed to drive around in a car together, so it could've been a disaster. As it turns out, however, the two of us hit it off immediately, bonding over BK Fish sandwiches and all manner of animated conversation. One funny tour anecdote: Amanda and I worked our way from NYC back to Cincinnati where I live, and she stayed with my wife Melanie and I. During Amanda's reading in Cincinnati, my golden retriever, Daisy, got into the guest room where Amanda was staying and ate 6 twenty dollar bills. When we got home that night there were little pieces of money all over the floor. The best part is that Amanda took the fragments and got the bank to give her 4 or 5 crisp new twenties. I still don't know how she did that. Anyway, Amanda's one of those new, post-book, out-of-the-blue friends that I mentioned in my answer to the previous question.
Beyond the tour, I've been doing tons of one-off readings, AWP, teaching when and where I can. I've been playing in bands since I was fourteen, so reading/performing in front an audience is something I've done a lot. I still get really nervous though. There's something really raw and nerve-wracking about reading one's poems in public--no tube-distortion-feedback, no squeal-crunch kick the drum set over--everything that happens is the result of the connection between the voice and the words and their delivery and projection to other people in (a) space. Bands--especially punk bands like the ones I play in--take the stage and the space and the audience and try to obliterate/overwhelm/win it. In contrast, reading poems I feel wrapped in the space and the audience--even surrounded/smothered by it--struggling to get it all wrapped up with me or be devastated it. Seriously, readings for me either go well or they're TERRIBLE. There is no in between. When they go well it's transcendent, when they don't I'm crushed. That sounds weird, but it's true. Oh well...
What was this question about? Oh yeah, promotion... My blog has helped, MySpace helped, Amazon, Good Reads, public transit shenanigans--whatever--one more reader (even if they don't like the book) is another reader I didn't have before, and maybe even another reader of poetry in general.
How long have you been doing Forklift, Ohio? Would you say that editing a journal helps to promote your work?
Eric Appleby and I co-founded Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety in 1995. He does the design, and I do the editing. Tricia Suit is the Test Kitchen Director. And Dr. Kevin Eggerman is our primary Safety Consultant. Also, three issues ago we added Brett Price as an Associate Editor, and that's really been great for the guts of the journal. He keeps Eric and I (the old men of Forklift) on our toes. We've just finished issue 17, and 18 is already in the works. Initially, doing the journal was a way for us to combine our fascination with industrial graphics and big machines with our love for both poetry and cooking, but over the years the journal has also become a way for us to remain connected to the DIY grass roots of poetry where we feel most comfortable and inspired.
As for whether editing the journal promotes my work, I'm sure it doesn't hurt. If someone likes the journal's aesthetic then they very well might like my personal aesthetic as well. I mean, as much as I try to seek out a wide variety of work for the journal, I'm sure that something of my taste is fairly evident in the poems we ultimately decide to publish.
My writing is always directly influenced--even shaped--by the things I read. And as an editor I'm lucky to read a lot of great new work--much of it by younger poets who don't have many publications under their belts, and for whom poetry is (as yet) an activity of urgency, emergency, and joy. The benefits of this for my own work seem both obvious and incalculable, and I think I'll just leave it at that.
Be yourself. Do things your way, in your time, by your rules and standards. Don't compare yourself to anybody else. Believe in something, and demonstrate that belief in everything you do.
I wish that somebody would've given me this advice, and (weirdly) many people did. I just wasn't always able to hear it.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
Besides the above, first and foremost, don't take a break. Write every day--even if it's only to revise a few words. Beyond that, read and think, and involve yourself in the world of poetry--give (and go to) readings, send your work out, read and comment on the work of your friends. Maybe start a journal. Maybe keep a blog. There's no one way to do it. How you get into the mosh-pit is up to you. And it is a mosh-pit--people get eaten and burned up by it--but once you're in it, struggle like hell not to fall down. Of course, you will fall down, which is why you must also all along the way be genuinely interested in other people and as generous with them as you would like them to be with you.
It's made me a lot more critical of my own work and process. I can't revise right now, because I feel almost compelled to obsess over, and destroy, work in a way that I rarely did before. I think I'm in a/the post-first-book phase--I call it a phase, because other people I know have told me they felt similarly after their first books appeared--where I'm putting an extraordinary amount of pressure on myself not to repeat myself (myself), to produce a second publishable manuscript, and to do both in short order. Everything seems so ridiculously great right now--all the conversations and the little bit of interest/attention that the poems have gotten--and I want to keep up the momentum. This is, of course, a ridiculous way to approach art-making (see advice above). So to counteract this feeling a bit, I've been trying to slow down--steadily writing my poems in whatever shape they come to me and setting them aside for a while, moving on. I'll revise later when my head isn't on fire with desire and worry.
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing practice?
People have said and written some really amazing things about the book--some of which I intended and some of which I had no clue about. It's always interesting to have someone connect your work to other work or the world in a way that you hadn't considered, especially when it seems right on in retrospect. For instance, I've always liked Walt Whitman and have read him off and on, but I never studied him until somebody mentioned that they found some connections to Whitman's work in what I was doing. Wallace Stevens, too. Really? Yeah. So in that way maybe the critical response has had a more profound effect on my reading than on my writing process--at least thus far. But, as writing is always an extension of reading for me, these new tunnels into the worm-hole of poetry will show up in my poems down the road if they haven't already. I'd say, too, that the critical response has made me consider and articulate my poetic positions (my sensibility, certain formal concerns, and various contradictory party memberships) far more deeply than I otherwise could probably stand to do.
I'd like more money and more time.
Yes, I'm spending money and spending time.
The short answer here is yes. How do I know? Because it changed me, and it's changed other people I know. And me and the people I know are as much a part of the world as anything. I've quoted, probably a hundred times, Gregory Corso's poem "Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday" where he says, "I love poetry because it makes me love / and presents me life." That's so good, I always think--not to mention (at least for me and mine) true. What's great is that it isn't just poetry that has the power to do this--to make us love or flip our wigs or fly off the handle. For me, it's the thing that works best, but for other people it's Sufi Mysticism, or carpentry, or clown college...
Yeah, my answer is evading/begging the question a bit. You asked if poetry can change the world, and I answered with what that means to me in terms of particulars--the change poetry has had in me and others who I know--and also with the notion that all creative, active, thoughtful human endeavors can be an equal (to poetry) force for change as well. But when it comes down to it, the "world" is an abstraction that I can't possibly contend with. It's a noun that doesn't stand for a containable fathomable object, but for an ever amendable, corrigible, shifting set of contexts and geographies and possibilities. Will poetry stop people from killing each other, or rectify social and political injustice? Will it feed anybody or adequately respond to a natural disaster? No, it will not. But the way I see it, none of those things are world problems, they're problems that individual people deal with in a variety of different (incongruous, even contradictory) contexts, places, languages, etc. And since it's also my belief that every human being has an imaginative creative urge--a need to express him or herself as a part of the larger universe--tapping into that--that is, each person tapping into his or her propensity for changing their circumstances in a creative, emotional and exuberant human way--will and does change the world. But god and the devil are both in the details.
a poem from Who's Who Vivid by Matt Hart:
Someone says sparrow blown against a wall.
in the taste of Chianti, and the men who drag
Then someone punches a hole
my aversion to sour candy, my allergy
in the night. Somehow we realize, almost
. . .