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“Only the Hush Settling Over the Houses”: An Interview with Matt Morton

Matt Morton has poetry appearing in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. A finalist for a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, he is also the recipient of the Sycamore Review Wabash Prize for Poetry, a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the John Hollander Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He serves as associate editor for 32 Poems and is a Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.

His poem, “What’s That You Said?,” appeared in Issue Fifty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with interviewer Darby Price about collage and discourse, the value of quiet moments, and how the act of writing should be fun.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of your poem, “What’s That You Said?”

I wrote “What’s That You Said?” in early February 2013, and it’s one of the few poems that I can vividly remember writing. I was an MFA student at Johns Hopkins at the time, and I had just finished teaching for the day—I think my introductory creative writing class had been discussing the roles of myth and magical realism in Gabriel García Márquez’s story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” The class had gone well, my students had been particularly engaged and insightful, and as a result I left feeling energized. Walking across the quad, the two and a half lines which would eventually open “What’s That You Said?” popped into my head, as cliché as that sounds. I realized I wanted to write a kind of “image list” poem, based around the idea of miscommunication. As soon as I got home, I sat down on my couch with my laptop and quickly wrote the poem from start to finish. I had been in a writing rut that winter, and the hour or so I spent working on the poem was a reminder that the act of writing should be fun, something that brings you in-the-moment delight.

Sound is an important sense throughout the poem—from “The brook / babbles beside the trail,” to “the freeway all blare / and whoosh.” On the other hand, the poem ends with silence, “which signifies absolutely / nothing, and makes what little difference there is.” Can you talk about the structure of this poem, and why you ended where you did?

When I attempt to write poems like “What’s That You Said?,” I start by listing disparate images and statements that are organized under a general umbrella heading or thesis of sorts—in this case, the problem of communicating or connecting with other people in a world oversaturated with sounds and stimuli. With these poems, my hope is that my mind during the process of writing will eventually take the poem in a direction I wasn’t expecting, moving beyond a mere list or collage toward something of greater psychological or emotional importance. Whether or not this happens during a first draft usually determines whether the poem ends up being interesting to me, and whether or not I spend any more time working on it.

In the case of “What’s That You Said?,” I began by using sound devices, particularly assonance and internal rhyme, to generate one sentence after another. This is especially evident in moments like “It was snowing, and it was going” and “. . . gobbledygook. The brook . . .” About halfway through the poem, around “You were sure / you understood what all this was about,” the poem spring-boarded from the list of images and situations into what feels to me, at least, like a more logical, linear discourse. Writing the second half of the poem was one of those exciting experiences when, just as you’re finishing writing a sentence, the next sentence seems to materialize effortlessly. As far as ending the poem where I did, it was in a sense purely intuitive—something about the syntax and near-iambic pentameter just felt conclusive. But the content of that final sentence also seemed appropriate, with its affirmation of the value of quiet moments—quietness in the sense of both one’s physical environment and, more importantly, one’s psychological state. Those moments are essential if we are to experience the world clearly, and they are increasingly difficult to achieve.

It’s always interesting to look at poems you’ve written in the past and realize how your outlook has changed over time. Does quietness and a sense of calm make merely a “little difference”? Is the importance of mental clarity the only thing that affects the quality of one’s life? Right now, that level of bleakness seems slightly overstated to me, although I’m still happy with how the poem moves in terms of its rhetoric and syntax.

Interwoven throughout the poem are several moments of confusion, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation, from the title itself to the speaker’s statement that “the sky is blue, but I can never remember why, / just as the bull elk that defines the meadow / communicates something it can’t understand.” How do you see the speaker’s role in this poem, particularly as they relate to those moments?

It’s always interesting for me to think about the speaker’s role in a poem that moves via associative logic, a poem that isn’t confined to a single moment in time or a given physical space. In “What’s That You Said?,” the speaker doesn’t explicitly enter until the lines that you mention, which occur about two-thirds of the way through the poem. Still, whether or not there is an “I” in the text of a poem or not, it seems like there is always an implicit speaker (or speakers); when a poem that employs lots of leaps or elements of collage succeeds, it is because each of the images—no matter how unrelated they may seem on a logical level—intuitively seems to belong. I think that this sense of unity is a result of the composite or associative poem being the product of an individual consciousness, one that presents a specific series of thoughts that occurred to the writer on a particular occasion. Maybe that’s why revising composite poems is so difficult—you’re no longer in the same psychological place that you were while writing the original draft, so any new images, aphorisms, or declarations tend to feel grafted-on and overly self-conscious.

As for the speaker’s role when he explicitly enters “What’s That You Said?,” I was hoping to raise the stakes of the poem by making the speaker more vulnerable, by acknowledging, “Hey, this happens to me too.” Re-reading the poem now, it still strikes me as a moment when something genuine (if not especially profound) is revealed, and in the context of “What’s That You Said?” I think it makes sense for the speaker to lament the fact that, a lot of the time, he doesn’t really know what’s going on.

On a somewhat related note, over the past couple years I began to realize that self-deprecation was becoming a kind of twitch for me, like I felt as if I needed to apologize for assuming I was allowed to write anything in the first place. Tony Hoagland has written intelligently about this tendency; in one of the essays from Twenty Poems That Could Save America, while discussing what he calls “the hapless, distracted poems of the moment,” he argues that “Not being able to find the truth, or feeling capable of such a quest, not feeling qualified to possess or enunciate it, is another kind of neurotic tragedy.” Of course, as humans, sometimes we do feel confused, overwhelmed, or at the mercy of external forces, and there certainly is a place for expressing those thoughts and feelings in poetry. But I don’t think anyone is obligated to admit to a false sense of powerlessness—or to feel embarrassed for putting their thoughts on a piece of paper—as a prerequisite for writing and maybe publishing something that other people may or may not read.

What are you reading right now—and/or what have you just finished reading?

Generally speaking, 2015 for me was the Year of A. R. Ammons. I had never been exposed to any of his work in a classroom and rarely had heard anyone even mention him. Discovering his work through a friend—the collections Glare, Coast of Trees, and Garbage, in particular—has had an enormous impact on my own writing. Ammons’ voice somehow manages to combine a disarmingly conversational demotic register with high rhetoric and profound philosophical observations. He is humble but never servile. His poems are extremely “personal” (in the sense that they explicitly reveal a lot about Ammons’ psychology) while also being incredibly inviting to the reader.

More recently, I have been reading and re-reading Incarnadine by Mary Szybist, Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips, and Richie Hofmann’s wonderful debut collection, Second Empire. As far as non-poetry reading, last month I read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and just last week hopped on the Karl Ove Knausgaard My Struggle bandwagon—I’m hooked on those books, although I’m still having trouble articulating to people why I find Knausgaard so captivating.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently revising what I hope will be the final poems to be included in my first full-length manuscript, which I plan to begin submitting to contests and publishers next fall. I have been putting off this process as long as possible because it seems like every time I have enough poems to make up a manuscript, I make what feels like a new step forward in my writing and have to scrap five or six older poems that no longer seem good enough! As far as the manuscript’s organization, I’m still thinking about what order would best serve the poems and the manuscript as a whole, but my goal is ultimately to have a collection that is initiated by, but moves beyond, poems sparked by disillusionment—disillusionment with the nuclear family, with the limitations of romantic love, with one’s own mortality—and poses possible answers to the questions, “How should we live?” and “What does it mean to have a good life?”

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