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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
by Justin Bigos
Mezzanines, by Matthew Olzmann
Alice James Books. $15.95.
Matthew Olzmann’s debut collection of poems, Mezzanines, reminds me of the poet-critic James Longenbach’s retort to Robert Frost’s claim that free verse poetry is like playing tennis without a net. According to Longenbach, “[I]t is like playing tennis on a court in which the net is in motion at the same time that the ball is in motion.” Both in terms of form and content, Olzmann’s poems serve, return, and volley from various distances and velocities, always attuned to the necessary adjustments in torque necessary to the making of good poems – a game which, in the hands of a extraordinary poet, must make up the rules as it proceeds.
In the very first poem in the book, “NASA Video Transmission Picked Up by Baby Monitor,” the speaker says, “There’s so much/ to be afraid of, so much to gaze at and be wrong about.” Inside Matthew Olzmann’s gaze, we find his poetry. We enter spaces such as shipwrecks, the mouths of gift horses, and houses that are architecturally built to look like human heads, and the spaces lose their surface sheen of the surreal as the speaker dwells inside them, and moves around inside them, looking, thinking, imagining, and ultimately transforming perception into vision. In “Shipwrecks,” the speaker imagines the long-drowned crew of a wreck looking up toward the surface of the ocean, thinking that “the surface// is really the sky. And those shadows, cast/ from the hulls of newer, more modern ships,// are only passing clouds.” In “Was Blind, But Now,” a blind man given sight sees the world for the first time, and finally, his wife: “now/ a cloud of purple sandpipers, the limb/ of an olive tree, a field.” Sight transforms into vision, and
image transforms according to vantage point. Olzmann’s vantage is always on the move, often incorporating the speaker’s, the subject’s, and the reader’s all at once—giving room for all of us in his poems.
There are references throughout the book to current cultural problems, such as xenophobia; the American government committing “torture to protect democracy”; and the “little convoy of hate” of the Westboro Baptist Church, which travels the country to picket the funerals of gay people, most famously that of Matthew Shepherd. The “witness garden” contains “shoes still smoldering,” the cut-out “tongues/ of poets,” the “wire frames” of those declared “guilty of wearing eyeglasses.” The metonymy feels more metaphoric than literal, until the speaker asks, “Perhaps you think this place does not exist./ You think it’s the smoke and mirrors/ of fairy tales . . .” Here, the speaker asserts not some stale sociological report, but instead connects past and present injustice into a moral question for both reader and speaker. These questions, through the poet’s gaze, seem to arise naturally. In the poem “Dead Beetles Stuffed with Cocaine,” the speaker ponders not only the crass ingenuity of the illegal drug trade, but also the point of view of the dead beetles. Again, the speaker is curious and imaginative enough to enter what might seem an impossible space, but he does it because he can’t help himself. And, straddling the vantages of the beetle and the human outsider, he says, “From the outside, humanity/ must look totally depraved. Even in death,/ you’re trying to teach us something/ about how things look aren’t you?”
The poems in Mezzanines seduce with their surface ease of line, syntax, and diction. And yet the poems always manage to surprise, often in their moments of transition. In the poem “Crocodiles,” what at first appears to be a poem musing on the extraordinary brain of the crocodile (“like a built-in GPS”) shifts into a second stanza which begins: “Tonight, I’m on a train from San Francisco to Detroit.” This move out of second-person musing into first-person, present-tense scene is not jarring; rather, it reveals that all along we have been listening to a particular human being thinking about the world, and his attention has shifted to the compartment of his train, the newspaper in his hands, etc. This scene then shifts back into a space of musing: “Who hasn’t followed some invisible magic,/ or believed they were being led/ to a place where they too might belong?” Yet again, the poet has managed to connect the points of view of speaker, subject, and reader, in a question that rings throughout the book. The poem “To the Bottom of the One at Loch Ness” begins, “You are not as strange as some believe.” Another poem, considering the man who leaves behind his résumé after robbing a liquor store, says, “I too have been hungry.”
The empathy of the poems in Mezzanines is in the spirit of David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” in which Foster Wallace seems to say, “No, I mean really – consider the lobster, consider this creature’s point of view, its sensations, its fears and desires, its inner life. At least give it a good shot.” With great empathy and imagination, and plentiful dashes of humor and wit, Matthew Olzmann enters spaces we don’t normally dwell in. Inside these spaces the world is in dazzling motion, and when we step back out we, too, are set spinning.
Friday, May 3, 2013
by Erin Stalcup
Erin Stalcup: Sincere thanks for your visit to UNT this semester. The students and I loved listening to you read your work and answer questions about it. And thank you for extending your generosity and agreeing to answer some additional questions here.
The back of your first book, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, declares that this collection of stories is “part postcolonial narrative.” On the drive from DFW airport to Denton, you said to me that you weren’t crazy about theory, and you wondered sometimes if theorists even liked to read literature. I agreed with you then and now. While I do find many postcolonial critics insufferable, the secondary focus of my studies here at UNT is still postcolonialism, because it’s a framework that does help me read texts and the world more clearly. (Side note—I’d argue Walter Mignolo’s term decolonial applies more accurately to my studies and to your book, since it applies to movements originating in the Caribbean and Latin America.) How do you feel about the term “postcolonial” being applied to your collection? It’s the first time I’ve seen a theoretical framework applied to a text from the outset, and while I was excited that the term has acquired enough credence to be used to describe a book for a wide audience, it also made me wary. I wonder if you had a similar response, or one quite different to my own.
Tiphanie Yanique: I do think that literary theory often circumnavigates, disregards or even maligns the texts to which it refers. It seems clear that liking a book isn’t the point of doing smart theory from a particular text.
It’s probably important to remember that theorists were once students trying to find something to say, something smart and important that has never been said. That might lead them to spend time with texts, even become expert with texts, that they don’t even enjoy reading. Well, okay. Good for those writers who get attention (and maybe then stay in print), good for those theorist who find something to say (and maybe then get in print!). But what it does, maybe, is de-emphasize that great literature might not only be smart and important but also beautiful.
That being said, so much of literature written by women or even written by people of color is often overlooked for its intelligence. Writing by women might be beautiful; writing by people of color might be important. But is it smart? Because my book was marketed as being postcolonial it did allow readers (and perhaps future theorists) to assume that this book, by a woman of color, might also be smart.
ES: Well said. I think that’s exactly right. As I tried to articulate when I introduced you before your reading, for me this book is very much about island life, but it’s about much more than that as well. These stories take place in countries around the world (St. Thomas, where you are from, sure, but also Jamaica, India, Ghana, Gambia, Leeds and Brixton in England, and even Texas!) so they aren’t “just” about the insularity of being from a bound place. Instead, I see this book as being very global, about the ways in which people from different cultures can reach across boundaries and communicate, and the ways we simply can never understand each other. I think it’s important to admit and explore both truths. I told you that I think this is an important book, and I do, because of its range and depth. I think it’s a necessary book for writers and for readers, in order to help us understand how to interact in this increasingly globalizing world, and to see what the form of the short story can tell us about communication and its limitations. (I would argue each story in the collection is in a different form, another element that impresses me). Do you have any thoughts about that—about the fact that many have called this book place-bound, but in fact I think it’s much bigger than being about one locale?
TY: I think your question has opened up all kinds of possible readings of How to Escape from a Leper Colony. I appreciate your particular view. It means that a reader not interested in place or islands might still find merit in this collection. But, and please don’t be pissed by this flippant answer…I think the collection is about place. As much as it is about anything else, anyway. No decent book contains only one theme, no decent short story contains only one emotional layer. Still, I do think this collection is about being bound to a place or wanting to be bound. In all the ways that being bound can feel like being jailed or like being embraced. In this case, leaving doesn’t mean walking on out, it means full on escaping. The island is a good metaphor for one aspect of this. The bridge is a useful one for another. So is being an immigrant or being of a difference racial make-up from your peers or going to college, getting married…you get it. I use these all, and others, in the collection.
But for me using those familiar metaphors was not enough. I also wanted to give each story its ability to translate the world. See, implicit in your great observation, is that when readers or critics see a story about a particular place that doesn’t feel primary to them, or from a perspective that doesn’t feel primary to them, they assume the story is not universal and (ironically) is not for them. If they read this fiction, it’s for anthropological reasons, interest in discovering the mysterious “other.” Of course, you and I both know that readers of fiction can, if they’re open to it, come to realize that all fiction is about discovery of the other and discovery of the self.
In How to Escape from a Leper Colony I wanted to emphasize that each story was its own full world, universal and mysterious, by giving each story its own organic form. So the fiancé and fiancée have the story of their love unfolded alongside the burning of their church. The young girl trapped in a leprosarium has specific directives on how to get out. The song misinterpreted by the community as being racist or sexist or revolutionary is heard and “understood” by three desperate members of the community.
ES: I’ll end by asking about your novel. You told us it was recently finished, and you told us it is as-of-yet untitled. Is there anything else you’re willing to let us know about it at this point? Say as much or as little as you comfortably can.
TY: I so wish I could announce here what the title is. Titles are huge for me. They are the first line of the novel. They announce the book; they tell the reader how to read. If you ask me in about month (or if you wait to publish this for another month!) I’ll likely have an answer.
In the spirit of this interview, where we’ve railed against typecasting, pigeonholing, marketing, the constricts of theory, et cetera, I won’t attempt what will be an obviously incomplete description of the novel. Instead, I’ll give you the opening line:
“Owen Arthur Bradshaw watched as the little girl was tied up with lace and silk.”
ES: Whoa! Sincere thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I can't wait to read more of your work. And after reading that first line, you've made me even more impatient.
Tiphanie Yanique is the author of How to Escape from a Leper Colony, published by Graywolf Press. Her writing has won the 2011 BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Fiction, Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize. She has been listed by The Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for and by the National Book Foundation as one of the 2010 5 Under 35, a list announcing the next generation of fiction writers. Her writing has been published in Best African American Fiction, The Wall Street Journal, American Short Fiction and other places. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is a professor in the MFA program at the New School in New York City.