Matthew Olzmann’s first book of poems, Mezzanines, was selected for the Kundiman Prize. His second book, Contradictions in the Design, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in November, 2016. His poems, stories and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Necessary Fiction, Southern Review and elsewhere. He was the 2015-16 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina, and currently teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
March 3, 2016
Katherine Masters: How do you begin a poem? Is it a matter of inspiration, is it something you set out to do with a chosen theme, or is it both?
Matthew Olzmann: It’s very rarely a matter of inspiration. I try to write a little every day, and that quickly wipes out your reservoir of backup ideas. Often I sit down, unsure what I’m going to write. I like writing just for the process of writing. I like the way it makes me slow down and think something through. Sometimes it’s just writing out thoughts, writing a scene, writing a sentence, and then if something sparks or seems promising when I return to it, then that’s when the real work often begins: revising and developing the idea. I think C. Dale Young once said that drafting a poem is like an artist gathering materials, but revising a poem is an artist shaping the materials. So the poem truly begins in revision, when I have something that I want to try to expand and develop.
Joe Angeletti: In that process, how often do you stay close to the original form or idea that you thought of? Or are they sometimes just complete revisions?
MO: In revision, one of two things usually happens. I can tinker at a poem, just making small changes—a word here or there, line ending, inverting the order of two different clauses—or a complete reimagining of the entire poem. I might like the first stanza, but I not anything else that follows, so I restart using that stanza. Or there might have been an idea that I was trying to convey, but I’m not excited about any of the ways I actually said it. Small adjustments, or a massive overhaul. It seems to vary between those two extremes.
KM: You write with a wide variety of form, and I’m curious if you choose each form before you start a poem or if form comes to you in the processes of writing and revision.
MO: If I’m writing a received form like a sonnet or a villanelle, those never happen by accident, so you have to just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a villanelle or a sonnet,” but with free verse, the form can sometimes come more organically, and the shaping starts to happen later in the drafting process. But I think that all poems, in some way, have some sort of formal structure, whether it’s rhetorical, tonal, etc. I don’t know what a formless poem would look like.
JA: Are those rhetorical or tonal structures that influence your choice in line breaks? They’re very thoughtful, so are they determined by the word you want to end with? The word you want the next line to begin with? The sound of the word?
MO: A villanelle has its own particular demands with two lines repeating, and in writing those, I will initially fluctuate between a few possibilities until a couple of them seem to really stick or to really capture my interest. If the poem is free verse, the shape of the line might emerge over time, through a process of trial and error where you’re discovering the particular possibilities that various line endings might offer.
KM: Your poems have many wonderful endings that kind of nudge the reader toward a message without wrapping up the moral in a bow. For example, in “Bigfoot and the Placebo Effect,” the final lines suggest broad implications without being too explicit. How do you know when to stop?
MO: That’s a question that I often ask myself, because I frequently go on too long, and then in revision I look back and realize that I’ve been repeating myself for the last three stanzas in some way or another. Closure is a complicated subject, because generally when you think about closure, you’re talking about how the poem’s final moments expand or bring together or intensify or complicate various thematic or narrative or tonal or emotional threads that have already been introduced. What I’m generally interested in or drawn to as a reader in poem endings are associative moments that bring the reader in. Moments where you as the reader are starting to make connections on your own, where part of the poem happens inside your head, and you’re making the final leap with the author or with the speaker of the poem. As a reader, I’m interested less in the poems that are telling you about an experience and more in poems that are trying to create an experience and involve you in it. So as a reader, that’s what I’m drawn to in a poem’s closing moments, and as a writer I hope to move toward that in my own poems.
JA: What feelings in the reader do you consider most when you’re crafting the themes that will make those associative moments? For example, in Mezzanines, there seems to be a theme of materiality and significance changing with the scale of perception. How do you anticipate your readers’ perceptions of those themes?
MO: It’s hard to even guess. I think that the biggest challenge for a writer is to be able to anticipate what the reader is feeling, to look at your own work through a stranger’s eyes and imagine what they’ll experience when reading it. Are they going to be surprised? Are they going to be confused? You’re constantly trying to walk a very fine line between things being spelled out too much and the poem becoming boring and predictable or the opposite: being too elliptical and the poem becoming confusing. You’re always having to guess how the reader is going to be responding. I think the thing you strive for most as a writer is tension or interest. You just want the reader to want to make it from one line to the next and to feel like they’re not necessarily laboring or confused or left behind or fading out. So engagement is something you’re always pushing toward as a writer.
JA: When you hear readers respond to or at least propose themes they see running throughout your book that you didn’t really have in mind when you wrote the poems, what kind of effect does that have on your writing process? Or is it just feedback that you enjoy listening to?
MO: I’m always interested in how the reader experiences something that I wrote. When making this book, a lot of the poems were written independently of each other, one at a time, without not necessarily having each other in mind in terms of how they connect thematically or emotionally or in terms of a narrative. Overtime, you become aware of the relationships between your poems, especially when organizing a manuscript. But different readers will notice different attributes, and it’s always interesting when you’re allowed to see your work from someone else’s perspective.
KM: How long did it take you to write Mezzanines?
MO: I think the oldest poem in that book was written in 2006, and the newest poem in the book was written in 2012. So there is a range of about six years there, but the bulk of the poems were written between 2008 and 2010. I started shaping it into a manuscript in 2010 and sending it out into the world, and then a year later I returned to it and revised it, added some new poems and did it again, sending it out. Six years from the oldest poem to the final version of the manuscript, but two years for the majority of the poems to be written.
KM: When you say some of these poems were written in 2006, do you have a sort of expiration date? Poems that you can’t go back to? Or can you work on a poem for ten years?
MO: You can work on a poem for as long as you have patience to work on it, but I don’t have a set expiration date other than a loss of interest. I think that would determine when the poem is no longer salvageable. If I no longer care about it, then I’m moving on. And it may not even be a conscious thing. I may just slowly forget about something I wrote eight years ago because I worked on it, and it didn’t work; I set it aside, then worked on it again, and it didn’t work again, and slowly I might become immersed in other writing projects and, eventually, I might lose track of it. If I was given the opportunity, I would love to revise some poems that were still in this book, but at some point you want to focus on your current work and let something be its own thing.
JA: In this collection, and some of your other poetry, but specifically here, titles tend to function in many different capacities, either as an introduction, label, or sometimes the first line of the poem. What significance do titles have for you, in poetry in general, and in your own poetry?
MO: Titles are the thing we identify the poem by. They’re the name. That’s one primary function, to distinguish one thing from the next. If you went to a movie theater and every movie was just titled “movie” or “untitled” it would be very difficult to choose. But beyond that, titles can introduce a particular subject. They can provide some larger context or offer some sort of expository argument or thought or stream of information that you don’t want to have to burden yourself with once you get into the poem, when you want the reader to just hit the ground running. They can be used for misdirection, to create a set of expectations that the poem will then be working to intensify or overthrow. There are as many strategies for titles as there are poems.
JA: Many of your poems, like “Breathing Water” or “Crocodiles,” are shaped by elements of science or natural facts that fit very well into the metaphors you’re creating. What is your process for taking those facts, whether scientific or just data, and making figures out of them?
MO: Sometimes it is the fact itself that interests me and I start asking questions about it. What would this fact mean in a larger context? For the poem that you’re referencing about the crocodiles, I saw a news story that said scientists were trying to tape magnets to the heads of crocodiles as a way of disrupting the way they use Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate, so they wouldn’t keep coming back to the same backyards. As a writer, you start asking questions. Isn’t that kind of sad that they have this ability to do this, and they’re trying to make it home and they’re walking across roads and runways to return? And then the metaphor starts to become apparent as you think it through, as you ask questions about it. A number of the other poems in the book began like that—with sort of newspaper-ish headlines, “NASA Video Transmission Picked up by a Baby Monitor.” That also was something I saw on a news story, and it had a sort of headline-esque feel to it. I’d written a lot of those poems but the challenge would always be to make a poem that was as interesting as the headline. Often the answer for me was no. So, many of those poems didn’t end up here. There has to be an element of discovery.
KM: When you’re building a collection of poems, and the themes of those poems are so complexly layered, what is your process for selecting and ordering the pieces?
MO: Mezzanines is a collection of poems that didn’t necessarily have one common binding element. There’s not a recurring character or historical event or story that the poems are trying to tell. A lot of the poems, in general, were written completely independently of each other without me thinking, “How does this poem speak to other poems that I’ve written?” I rarely write poems as a sequence or series, so the process of trying to determine how they fit together (or don’t) when you haven’t thought about it can be challenging. There were a lot of poems that didn’t seem to fit. So I began by selecting which poems were my favorite at the moment and then choosing other poems I had that I thought might complement or contrast with some of them in an interesting manner. It was a lot of putting poems in different orders and then discarding poems and putting new ones in and then moving them around again. The order of the poems kept shifting, and even after it was accepted for publication, we went through a couple rounds of edits right up until it was published. I think we added five poems to the manuscript after it was accepted, discarded a few, and changed the book title. Ultimately, as a reader, I’m always sort of in awe of the poets who have a single vision that guides an entire collection, and I’m really interested in those types of books, but I haven’t written one yet.
JA: Are there any poets whose writing on a single subject in that way particularly stands out to you?
MO: There are many poets I admire. The list is somewhat infinite. But for a book that has a single subject that binds the whole collection together, I was just rereading Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which talks about Lead Belly’s life and the world he lived in, and all the poems are about that one title character. My wife, Vievee Francis, is a poet who can return to a single subject and mine it for material in a way that I’m not able to do. If she wrote about a glass of water, there’d be a poem about the person who made the glass, a poem about the river where the water came from, a poem about human thirst in general, and suddenly she’d have ten poems on that one subject. It’s a way of seeing the world that I really admire.
KM: Who would you consider to be your influences?
MO: I think every book I read probably influences me in some way, but some of the poets I’ve recently been returning to are poets like Wislawa Szymborska, Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, some of my teachers such as Steve Orlen, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Martha Rhodes, Brooks Haxton—they’re poets who taught me, both as my teachers and through their writing. Also, a lot of contemporary poets like Jamaal May, Tarfia Faizullah, Cathy Linh Che, Patrick Rosal, and Jennifer Chang. And, of course, Vievee. The list is kind of endless. I think most writers are always in conversation with the writing of the world around them.
JA: Thinking of that conversation that writers are having about the world, are there any trends that you’re seeing right now that are exciting to you, or any stand-out media trends that are paving the way for something?
MO: I don’t know about trends. I just think there’s a lot of interesting work being generated right now and there’s plenty of room for all sorts of variations in style and sensibilities. There are so many MFA programs and writing conferences, and so many people who have devoted their lives to studying their craft. People are trying new things every day. There are videos online of people performing their poems that have a million viewers, festivals with thousands of people in attendance, poems in online magazines that are suddenly shared over and over again. I don’t know if that’s what you mean by a “trend,” but poetry certainly seems to be something that increasing numbers of people have access to; it’s becoming more and more available and shareable.