Justin Bigos: Your most recent book of poems, Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless, throbs with exuberance, with the routine yet unpredictable pulse of daily life, with the music all around us, and inside us. The poems are expansive with what is and what might be. They are free. So, first: thank you. I don’t always feel that the poems I’m reading are a gift. Yours are – and they know they are. I think that’s one of the defining qualities of your poems: an intentional giving, even while the poems themselves thrive on the contradictions within intention. Maybe we can start by you describing the particular book. How did you get started writing it? Where has it taken you as a poet?
Matt Hart: Man, it’s so nice of you to say that you feel like the Sermons and Lectures poems are a gift to the reader. I really love hearing that, as those poems felt, and still feel, like a gift to me too. So much of the book was written in a series of ecstatic bursts. I sometimes felt like I didn’t know how the poems were being written. And while I don’t want to get too Jack Spicer about it and start going on about spooks and Martians, many of these poems felt like transmissions, if not from the ether, at least from the past. I think I told you already that there were times writing these poems when I would sort of wake up typing, as if out of a trance, and there would be this page full of words that I would then get to wrestle with and revel and try to shape, mostly via collage, but there are lyric and even narrative moments in the book as well.
That said, a lot of the actual content was also inspired by discussions I was having in a class that I was teaching, where we used punk rock lyrics as instructions for reading various literary works. It was a lot of fun, and I would get so charged up by the things that the students were saying. Then I’d go home and blast off poems. Or rather the poems would blast me. They were in the air. I just had to tune in. In the process, I realized how much my years playing in bands and being immersed in music had defined my poetics, and also my life, and that went into the poems as well. From punk rock, I got that contradictory urgency to make something and destroy it at the same time, to create a space where everything holds together, but might fall apart at any second—to make the self and self-destruct, then pick up the pieces and start the process again. I also got from punk rock (or through it) the acute desire for stability and calm in the wake of chaos and exhaustion. Often the balance and ebbs and flows are created formally in the poems, but it’s in the content too, the juxtaposition of the fragment barrage with declaration, wide-eyed descriptions and/or ordinary existence.
I should also note that some of the book’s main themes have to do with inclusiveness and the idea that as human beings we’re all more similar than we are different from each other, and that these similarities are the grounds for empathy (which is itself the ground for celebrating difference). We have to find our feet with each other first. We have to be willing to listen and imagine ourselves in the shoes of our neighbor. I don’t want to get too political about it, but culturally speaking, I feel like all the focus on difference over the last 50 years at the expense of our most human similarities has taught us a great deal about how, and when, to object, but it does a horrible job of teaching us how and when to listen to each other, to look and pay attention and be quiet. Diversity is great—and deserves to be celebrated and promulgated, but the grounds of that are the recognition that we’re all a lot more similar than we are different. This is something I can’t prove. It’s something I believe. It makes me—allows me to—love everybody, even my enemies. Really. The poems in Sermons and Lectures deal via inclusion, love, and creative explosiveness (not to mention also via the shades of Walt Whitman and Soren Kierkegaard and Johnny Rotten, among others) with exploring this belief. These ideas were ones I figured out, found a way to articulate, after the fact of writing the book, but they were what I believed going into it.
Finally, I should also mention that concurrently with the punk rock class I was teaching, my father and my uncle were researching our family history, and it turns out that I come from a long line of preachers and drunks. Go figure. My great great great (that might be one too many greats, I can never remember) grandfather the Reverend James Hart of the Folsomville, Indiana, General Baptist Church, for fifty years, stipulated in his will that at his funeral he should be stood up at the pulpit in his coffin with his eyes open staring at the congregation. I love that story. People fainted during the service. It was mayhem in the church. And hearing that, it occurred to me that the difference isn’t that great between being a punk rock singer or a hellfire and brimstone preacher or a really dynamic lecturer/teacher. All of that got wrapped up in the book, too—which maybe it would be good to point out is really only five poems: three long sequences and two shorter pieces that try and set the stage for, and make sense of, the more sprawling works. That said, my hope is that one can sort of dip in and out of the book—read around in it—and still get the sensibility of wild inclusiveness, a thing both coming together and falling apart all at once.
JB: Yeah, I noticed that the two shorter poems, “Lamplighter” and “Amplifier to Defender,” in some ars-poetica way comment on the book as a whole. They feel a little Spring and All – though, I’m not sure that Williams’s book is always read with the notes. I’ve thought for awhile that the best works of literature are those that teach the reader how to read that particular literature. And so what at first might be strange and disorienting eventually becomes, not familiar and boring, but in some way a cohesive and still strange world of words. Does that make sense? Can you talk a bit about your impulse to give the reader a kind of helping hand? Did you write these two poems after the rest of the book?
MH: Man, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here when you say, that sometimes providing the reader with a helping hand through the book takes “what at first might be strange and disorienting” and allows it to be “a cohesive and still strange world of words.” I hope that’s what happens exactly.
“Lamplighter” was actually one of the last poems I wrote, and it was clear to me almost immediately that it would need to be the first poem in the book, that it somehow shed light on, and introduced, the concerns (both of form and content) of the collection overall. “Amplifier to Defender” came somewhere in the middle of the process. For a while I actually thought that it was a part of Debacle Debacle (my H_NGM_N book that’s coming out this spring), but then I realized that 1) it was addressing directly (as opposed to demonstrating) the ways that I was using language in the larger Sermons sequences and 2) that it might, as you note, provide a reader with a window into thinking about those larger sequences. I’m always happy when a book teaches me how to read it, and I hope that those poems can be instructive in that way. I think I felt like it was necessary in this book in particular, because of all the collage elements. There’s no doubt that the book mostly only points toward the narrative of a life without explicating those events particularly (it cuts up the narrative of a life and rearranges it in fact). This is by design. The poems, their composition, their existence is not just about life, they are life, and an extension of so many things: reading, listening, conversations, dinners with friends, playing with my daughter. Somehow I wanted to get at the blur and speed of that—the notion that it’s all flashing before our eyes, and we get to decide how and when to pay attention.
JB: Sermons and Lectures is filled with references to punk rock bands, and often includes titles of songs and lyrics. You’re also in a rock and roll band called Travel, and I’m betting the direct current running from poet to reader in your work has something to do with playing a million punk shows in tiny sweaty venues. Your record Blank Sermons . . . Relentless Lectures uses much of the poems in the book for lyrics. Or is it the other way around? How do the music and the poems live together?
MH: The poems definitely came first and the lyrics second. The lyrics are in fact cut-up versions of the poems, mainly mis-dis-re-arranged (re-collaged) by Travel’s bass player and my Forklift, Ohio, partner/publisher Eric Appleby. Blank Sermons…Relentless Lectures is Travel’s eleventh full-length record, and I think for most of the previous ten the process for generating the lyrics has been pretty much the same, i.e., I write poems, and then Eric cuts them up and reassembles them in his (or Travel’s) image. However, it was perfect doing a Travel record to coincide with Sermons and Lectures in particular, because of all the collage that’s being employed and deployed in the poems from the start.
Travel’s songs might best be described as collages that (usually) sound like songs. Recording for us is getting together and improvising (making racket!) for hours. We record everything, and then our guitarist/keyboardist Darren Callahan, takes those raw tracks and cuts them up, loops them, and runs them through various weird programs and effects to build songs. This process often takes several months to complete. Meanwhile, Eric starts making the lyrics out of whatever poems I give him, but he doesn’t show them to me until I step up to the microphone to record the actual vocal tracks, which are themselves then also improvised, and subsequently cut-up, looped, etc. In this is the idea—not a new idea at all, as it’s one Apollinaire championed—that artistic materials can always be cut-up and reassembled to create new works and new effects/affect. Collage is the medium of infinite liberty and possibility. It sees something new in something old. It radiates rather than delineates meaning. It’s métier is coherence, not narration, not representation (note: the latter two modes are also ones I love). My hope is that Travel’s songs (which are collages of collages) allow the poems’ language and music to exist in the air in a totally different way than they do on the page. I also hope that the two projects very clearly talk to each other, expanding the possible windows into each of them. One of the parameters I gave myself during the initial recording process (I play guitar as well as do the vocals) was that I was to avoid playing any chords or notes. I failed miserably at that, as it gets really really boring after ten hours of doing everything possible to avoid melody and/or its foundation. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of banging and feedback and scraping on the record—that’s me. What’s really funny is that some of the songs are almost poppy. However, the first song on the record is deliberately difficult. To paraphrase Dean Young, one has to go through the slaughterhouse to get to the sea.
JB: There’s a reference in the book to a jello mold of Jello Biafra at a kids’ birthday party. I can’t resist asking if you actually made that. If so, you win the Coolest Dad of the Galaxy for All Eternal Time award.
MH: Sadly, no. That’s something imagined, not executed. My daughter’s only six, so not (yet) a fan of The Dead Kennedys, but someday I hope she will be, someday soon!
Maybe what that “Pin the tail/on the sophist or the Jello mold Biafra” bit demonstrates is the “leaping” (Robert Bly’s term for associating fast) between things with speed that was a huge part of these poems, both their composition and mode. Often in poetry the mind at work is the mind at play. There’s certainly a lot of fast association happening in these poems (as I said, I wasn’t even particularly conscious of a lot of it when it was happening)—letting the language, the imagination and the transmissions from outside do what they do best, which is wonder and wander. The idea is to activate/innervate/galvanize the denotative and connotative atmospheres of words simultaneously, to delimit possibility with regard to meaning—to say what I want/need to say, while staying cognizant of the fact (mostly during revision) that the language is always saying something out beyond me, in spite of my best efforts to control it.
JB: You make a reference to John Anderson’s poem “John Clare” in Sermons and Lectures, and there’s a poem – a cento – titled “I Am: Not John Clare” in your previous book, Wolf Face. I’m currently reading Clare, as well as the Jonathan Bate bio of him, and so I’m curious about your attraction to Clare.
MH: I’ll send you that John Anderson poem. It’s in his book In Sepia, and the first two lines are:
I know there is a worm in the human heart,
In its wake such emptiness as sleep should require.
That first line especially seems really indicative of Clare to me—even like something he might’ve written. The ghost in the machine is a lowly worm, a thing perhaps that’s eating us from the inside out. Anderson was definitely our Clare. I wish more people would read his work. He was a terrific poet. His Milky Way: Poems 1967-1982 is still available I think and well worth reading. The images in his work are so vivid, so strange, and strangely amazing—often tender and terrified/terrifying. He goes the distance, and it’s into the Void—often to loneliness and isolation, but it’s gorgeous and impossible and huge, like the universe.
Similarly John Clare seems to me, even now, a very contemporary poet. What I love about his work is its sturdy fragility, the beauty and the muck, the distortion and the noise. He was a farmer poet, somebody well acquainted with nature and “common” people—and unlike say, Wordsworth, Clare was common people—and he had this rangy, electrified imagination—which tortured him, literally. He spent much of his life in and out of asylums. If the paintings of him are at all accurate, he looked like Johnny Rotten, like someone on fire in a wild altered state. And yet, there’s a softness, too, to Clare—the images of him and in his work. He is ever astonished and desirous of Paradise and rest, which is nearly impossible for him. “…I am alive and live—like vapours tossed//Into the nothingness of scorn and noise” he writes in “Lines: I Am,” a poem which goes on to claim that “Even the dearest that I love the best/Are strange—nay rather stranger than the rest.” But even here the poet in the end finds solace in the natural world, “Untroubling and untroubled where I lie/The grass below—above, the vaulted sky.” There’s so much inner turmoil that floods out into Clare’s poems, “in its wake such emptiness as sleep should require” to re-quote Anderson—but nature and wildness is his refuge. As he writes in his poem “The River Gwash,” “O thus while musing wild, I’m doubly blest,/My woes unheeding and my heart at rest.” “Musing wild”—that’s why I love Clare, for the muse of wildness in all it incarnations.
Additionally, it’s the constant struggle to not fall apart in Clare’s (and for that matter also Anderson’s) work that I respond to, and think about a lot with regard to my own life and work. I want the wildness, but I also want coherence. I want to get somewhere. And if it takes something wild to get there—a rational derangement of all the senses (Rimbaud) or a debacle of the intellect (Breton)—sign me up. I’m happy to try and go the distance, but I’m also happy and grateful for the stability of both my family and life outside of the art—a luxury that sadly Clare never had.
As long as we’re geeking out on Clare here, I might note that Sermons and Lectures is full of “headphone tricks” like this one: In “Amplifier to Defender” I quote Matthew Rohrer’s poem “Four Romantic Poets,” from his book Rise Up, where he says: “I must learn to say what I/never intended to say,” but that’s only part of the quotation. The quotation goes on, and the sentence ends: “like John Clare.” I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to get that unless they just happened to know the Rohrer poem. I didn’t need John there for my purposes explicitly, so I cut him out, but I love that he haunts that moment of the poem, in spite of my sabotage of the line. He’s in the air, in spirit. So much of the meaning in a lot of contemporary poetry exists in the atmosphere of the language above the page. I love thinking about all the things (as accumulated absence/shadow) that I often miss in my reading, and also the things I actually get that were never intended by the poet. This is one of the great pleasures of poetry, the collision of the writer and the language and the reader in myriad ways that can’t be catalogued or accounted for by any of the key players. John Clare is cut away, but John Clare is still in play.
JB: One of the great pleasures of your poems is the sheer amount of inventive and often weird phrases. From just one poem: “shouting whore-style in Italian,” “Squash blossoms/ Blast site,” “apocalypse investors in the bushes.” This stuff is delightful on its own, but what’s really cool is the other impulse you have to incorporate what people might call “found” text into the poems, side by side with the strange phrases you make up. What happens, at least for me, is that all language becomes fair game, and the feeling is that not you, not anyone, can claim it. It’s for all of us. And so then I feel torn: I want to keep reading your poems, but part of me wants to throw your book off the balcony and go write my own poems. I don’t have a question here, I suppose. But you can respond however you like.
MH: Well, as with the first question, I’m really flattered that you would say this. If somehow the poems make you want to throw them off the balcony and do your own writing that’s perfect. That’s a necessary part of all this. Writing for me is always an extension of reading/listening, and the idea that something I’ve written might, even in some small way, spur someone to do his or her own work is incredibly gratifying. I would say that that’s true of my intentions for this book in particular: Sermons and Lectures is my call for your response. I mean, my actual address is even written out in one of the poems in hopes that someone might write back, thus making their own response a call that I would then respond to, etc.
You’re right too that the poems take as a premise that all language and poetry are for everyone, and that poetry is—to bastardize Wittgenstein a bit—the world as we find it. Poetry wants to be as big as the world. There’s no such thing as non-poetic language. Any language is potentially useful in the service of a poem. Poetry’s language isn’t private language. It isn’t jargon. It’s our public language mis/used, mis/managed and re-imagined to create aesthetic effects and affect. Language is full of possibility, an infinite number of contexts for making meaning, any and all of which poetry is happy to appropriate to do its work. It really is all fair game. And “game” is clearly a very important word in this context, i.e. poetry is a “language-game” (Wittgenstein again)—a particular context for using words and making meaning—and it’s also linguistic, imaginative “play.” I’m willing to do nearly anything with/in the language-game of poetry, including ransacking and resisting other language-games to make a poem, e.g. thievery, sabotage and failure are three of my most favorite literary values, not to mention methods that I employ to make works of art. I try not to be precious about it. My poems aren’t babies. They’re poems. They’re made of words, and I’m deploying them as a means of communicating things that are important to me that I hope will be important to other people as well. As I’ve said elsewhere: Poems by any means necessary.
As for the images/weird phrases, a lot of that is the result of the collage process—putting disparate fragments together via juxtaposition to see what kind of sparks fly off when they’re made to share the same stage. I love the shock of that, the surprise, the mysteriousness of the process, the way (when it works) it activates a string of associations, thus putting something new in the atmosphere—on the planet—that didn’t exist before, not in this way, not in this light.
JB: Frank O’Hara and Gregory Corso are two big, obvious influences on your work. You also are a big fan of Paul Violi, and you edited a reissue of his first book, In Baltic Circles. I don’t know Violi. What’s his work like?
MH: I’ve written quite a bit about Paul in the past, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. To be as succinct as possible he was one of our most inventive poets and a poet with a huge heart, beloved by his students and fellow writers alike. Maybe his most important influence on me was in demonstrating that (as discussed above) there’s no such thing as non-poetic language and that everything is fair game for poetry. For example, he has a beautiful and very funny poem called “Index” which is itself in the form of an “Index.” Part of its charm is in the way that it creates formal wobble back and forth between being a poem and being an index, forcing a reader to ask all sorts of questions about how each functions in the world. Similarly to “Index” he also has poems in use the form of a police blotter, a calendar, instructions manuals (of various stripes, including a faux survival guide), toasts, acknowledgments pages, art reviews, a wine list, etc. These are all very funny of course, as they highlight how absurd and particular to the occasion language in these various contexts often is, but Violi was never (or almost never) out for a quick gag. Besides being formally inventive and hilarious, his poems have heart and gravity, and they’re very smart without being robotic and soulless. Anyone who likes Kenneth Koch or Samuel Taylor Coleridge will LOVE Paul Violi.
In Baltic Circles, the re-issue of his first book that I helped edit, and for which I wrote the afterword, came out last year as a part of the H_NGM_N BKS Reissue Series. We were already working with Paul on bringing it out when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and unfortunately it took his life before we were able to see the book back into print. I actually think it’s one of Paul’s finest books—a blueprint for the things that he would develop in his poems over the rest of his life, one with a lot of promise that he definitely fulfilled (and went beyond). He was a terrific poet and a great guy. I miss him a lot.
JB: Your next book, scheduled to be published next year, is titled Debacle Debacle. Again: language in the air, language of the popular culture, the news – but also a term from Breton, as you mentioned above (“debacle of the intellect”) – and also a phrase from the poem “Sermons and Lectures” from your book we’ve been discussing. Let’s end our conversation with a hint of what’s in this next book, and maybe beyond.
MH: Debacle Debacle is in many ways a sort of companion book to Sermons and Lectures, the flipside of the same coin. Each is the other’s shadow. They are doppelgangers of each other. Many of the poems in Debacle I was writing at the same time that I was writing Sermons and Lectures, and in a way I feel like the Debacle poems address a lot of the same ideas, but they come at them in a completely different way, using different modes, different means. Debacle Debacle, unlike Sermons and Lectures, is decidedly straightforward in its approach to the various themes it explores and develops. It’s a largely narrative/lyric collection, more logical, less strange, less effusive. It’s set in Ohio, in my neighborhood, my house. There are characters: my friends, my family, myself, and they’re more fully developed than in Sermons. The book is full of stories and the scaffolding of stories. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its wildernesses and bewilderments. The book’s epigraph is that quote from Breton, “A poem must be a debacle of the intellect,” i.e., a fiasco or a flood. And those ideas are everywhere in the book. And even though I used the Breton epigraph, Debacle’s not in any way a surrealist book (it’s a Romantic book), though it might be a book about the surrealism of domestic Midwestern life and values in the 21st century, i.e., the strangeness of the ordinary, which is essentially that we all eventually die and have to contend with that in a variety of different ways (depending on where we happen to be in our lives). I guess if I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s a lot about love and being terrified of love, and about the choices one makes on a daily basis—the ways one goes about trying—not to die. It sounds dark, but it’s really quite exuberant. It dreams about death, but then wakes up and makes waffles and bacon for the family.
JB: Thank you, Matt. It’s been a pleasure.
MH: I really loved doing this, Justin. Thanks so much.
Matt Hart is the author of four books of poems, most recently Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012). A fifth collection, Debacle Debacle, is forthcoming from H_NGM_N BKS in 2013. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band TRAVEL. Currently he is a Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Texas Austin.