An Interview with Matthew Olzmann

by Nicholas Howard

Along with editing Hunger Mountain, students in the Publishing and Fieldwork class also met with each of our visiting writers. Our first guest was Matthew Olzman on Friday October 5th

Matthew is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books.  He’s received fellowships from Kundiman, the Kresge Arts Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  His poems, stories, and essays have appeared inBest American Poetry, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Necessary Fiction, Brevity, Southern Review, Tin House, and elsewhere.  He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

He was extremely generous with his time throughout his visit. He sat with us for an hour fielding questions and listening to us speak about our own work. He then joined us for lunch in Café Anna and spent some time in the afternoon with second year students in the Poetry and CNF seminar course. That night we all returned to the Café to hear him read, along with our professor Justin Bigos

As the year went on, I continued to explore his work while trying out new forms on my own, amongst them, a series of letter poems addressed to various members of my extended family. When I saw that Matthew had written some letter poems of his own, I reached out to him, and this is where our conversation opens. 

Nicholas Howard: I would like to begin with some of your most recently published poems, the ones in the Spring 2019 issue of Waxwing. Two of them are named as letters. Could you please share your thinking behind that distinction? What inherent qualities arise when prefacing an address as a letter? 

Matthew Olzmann: In those, the title frames the poem as a letter, but each title is also used to provide some type of background information. In “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con,” the title locates the reader in a specific place. In “Letter to the Person Who, During the Q&A Session After the Reading, Asked for Career Advice,” the title locates the reader inside a particular situation and contextualizes the monologue that follows. Both of these are part of a collection of (mostly) epistolary poems I’ve been working on for the past seven-eight years.

NH: Where there any letters in that collection that surprised you?

MO: I hope every poem surprises me. Occasionally, I set out believing I know what I’m going to write, but my initial expectations rarely align with the final results. Also, I tend to abandon a lot of poems. A large part of my revision process is going back through early drafts and then deciding what I’m still excited about.  Usually, the ones I’m most drawn to and feel most enthusiastic about continuing to work on are those that leave some room for discovery, improvisation, detours, and an unexpected strangeness.

NH: In “Letter to the Person Who, During the Q&A Session After the Reading, Asked for Career Advice” you are speaking to a specific person while also exploring the collective career expectations. In “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con” you open describing the depths of Science Fiction culture to then turn and have the speaker address a love.  Would agree in both instances you begin with an inciting incident or concept and expand into the heart or core of the poem? If so, how is it to a poet’s benefit to use this mechanism? To a reader’s? 

MO: Yes. I think that the movement from a particular moment to something with larger figurative intentions is something of many of my poems reach for, and that’s probably true of many poems in general.  One of my teachers, Stephen Dobyns, used to always tell me, “Subject is pretext.” What he meant is that we often begin by writing about one subject, something local or specific (what you’ve called the “inciting incident”) as a way to talk about something less tangible or conceptual. As for the benefit of using this approach? As both a reader and a writer, I’m often interested in how a poem acts as a type of metaphor. With this type of approach, I’m forced to think more figuratively than I usually would.  I’m a naturally distracted person, and when I find the poem moving from that inciting incident to something (anything) else, I’m often able to locate a parallel resonance between those two points. 

NH: Working in this style of having the speaker address someone or several people in a poem is something you have done in earlier poems. Several of the ones in Contradictions In The Design work in a similar fashion. What did you learn from those poems and how did you build upon that knowledge in these letters?

MO: My earliest attempts at creative writing probably resembled unmailed letters. These weren’t poems or stories; they were just things, fragments, thoughts, etcetera. But most of them had a specific addressee in mind. They were things I wanted to say but couldn’t. Or things I wish I said differently. So, I think that element has been with my writing from the beginning.  If I’ve learned anything from repeatedly using that approach, it would probably have to do with a broadening understanding of the context needed to locate a reader at the beginning of a poem. In making any poem, the poet has to consider what information to include and what to omit. Every poem has an implied story or situation that extends beyond the frame, that exists prior to the first line, and the writer has to decide how much of that the reader actually needs to know. But the epistle occasionally presents this problem in a heightened manner: there are times when the reader and the addressee actually need different types of information. 

NH: In an interview you gave to my mentor and professor Justin Bigos back in 2012 you stated that you feel the voice of a poem has to be considerate of the reader. Is this difficult when the other person, the one being addressed, is off the page and does not speak directly in the poem? 

MO: What I meant by that comment was that, in making a poem, you’re trying to create an experience for the reader.  I don’t find that to change much in relation to who is being addressed. The type of experience might change; when using the direct address, we create the illusion that we’re talking to someone other than the reader. But it’s an illusion; the reader or the idea of a reader—a general anonymous, figure not addressed in the poem—is still out there somewhere. In most poems, the line of communication goes poet to reader (or speaker to reader), and that doesn’t really change. What does change is where the reader is positioned in relation to the “conversation.” Often, with epistles or other types of direct address, the reader might be situated as someone outside of a conversation in-progress; they’re listening in as an eavesdropper of sorts. And the issue of context might be complicated if the speaker and addressee have a long, shared history which the reader does not have access to. But overall, the same basic impulses guide the poem regardless of who the addressee is or where that addressee is located: you’re trying to create an engaging experience for the person who is reading the work.

NH: In the title poem for that collection you mention the Magic Eye posters and write,  “posters where if you stare long enough / you’ll swear an image pushes through. Don’t believe it.” You describe the image or images as “lapses in reason.” 

Another writer I love Elisa Gabbert also brings these posters up in her essay “What Poetry Is.” In reference to reading poetry she writes, “You must enter a state where you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meanings. It’s quite similar to those Magic Eye posters from the ’90s.” To connect your two pieces, does reading poetry require some lack of reason? 

MO: I don’t know if the act of reading itself requires the reader to have a lack of reason, but there is something about the experience of reading a poem that seems to transcend reason. Though a poem is made of language, poetry often guides us to a place that ordinary, discursive language can’t or doesn’t. It’s why a poem about yearning, wonder, or dread doesn’t simply say “I feel some things.” It tries to take that idea and make it more tangible, either by dramatizing it, or by creating a figurative moment that makes the feeling accessible, surprising and new. 

NH: I’ll reference the interview you gave to Justin again. In it you mention being drawn to poems containing empathy because they do not take the reader’s attention for granted and foster an experience for the reader within the poem. Is there something about poetry specifically that it can do this? 

MO: Writing poems requires a type of empathy because you’re trying to imagine how someone who is not you will experience the work.  Reading poetry, or any literary work, depends on (or even creates) a type of empathy as a reader experiences the world through someone else. It’s an act of the imagination allows you to experience someone else’s event, to feel through someone else, or inhabit the world through someone else’s words. I’m personally drawn to how this works in poems—that particular effect being produced in such a compressed and swift manner—but I think that connection and experience is true for all literature, not just poetry.

NH: One group of writers I like to be mindful of is those who have not pursued an MFA and are trying to enter the writing community in other ways. Do you have any advice specifically for them as they try to share their stories with the world? 

MO: Obviously, you don’t need an MFA to be a good writer. You don’t need any kind of degree to sit at your computer and write a poem. You don’t need a degree to send that poem to a magazine, or for an editor to accept that poem, or for some anonymous person on the other side of the country to read the magazine and love that poem.  You don’t need a degree to apply for grants or go to conferences. You don’t have to take out student loans to get a library card or to access a couple thousand years of great literature on your phone.

There are some advantages to going to graduate school, especially if you are deliberate about that process and find a school that’s an excellent fit for you. A good writing program can provide mentorship, personalized instruction, and connect you with a community of peers.  When I was in grad school, my instructors introduced me to the work of countless poets—poets whose work would become very important to me—and it might have taken me many additional years to find those poets on my own. My teachers gave me some tools I didn’t know existed.  

But all of this is something one can work toward on their own. It just might take a little longer. You can find mentors outside of academia.  You can take online classes. You can go to summer workshops. Depending on where you live, you might be able to take fantastic classes through local arts organizations nearby. You can create your own communities. My current favorite poetry reading is a house party reading series in North Carolina. The two people who run that series happen to have MFAs, but you don’t need that to do what they’re doing. They spend two days cooking food, get a cooler full of beer, and invite a couple poets to read in a living room. The last time I was there, they had a crowd of seventy people. Anyone can do that. Anyone can start their own magazine. Anyone can create a workshop in a living room or a café or library. 

And even if none of that is available, the books by the poets you love can also be your best guides through the world. You can study the poems you most admire and learn from those. A poem isn’t like a building where all the wires and pipes are hidden beneath the floorboards or behind the walls. In a poem, the machinery is completely visible; all the parts are exposed. You can study that and learn whatever you need to learn.

NH: I’ll invoke Justin for a third and final time and end in a fashion similar to how he wraps up interviews. What are you up to these days? Any projects you can share? Any new interests you are trying to explore in your writing? 

MO: I’m finishing a new collection of poems and am looking forward to working on other things. I don’t have any specific new poetry “projects,” just a pile of drafts of new poems I want to work on and an essay about prophecy.  This new collection has been so focused on the epistolary that, while trying to finish it, I’ve neglected almost anything that hasn’t “fit.” That, I suppose, is one downside to a focused project; usually, I’m writing one poem at a time, not thinking of how they connect to or correspond with other poems. I tend to emphasize the poem as its own, self-contained project. That allows for a lot of freedom when starting a new poem: it doesn’t need to cohere or fit with a larger body of work (at least, not in that moment). When working on a project that’s more concentrated, that becomes a challenge; if you ever want to finish the book, you’ve got to be single-minded.  But I’ve now got a pile of new drafts which have been waiting for me to return to them, and I’m excited to see where they could lead.

Nicholas Howard is a native of North Attleboro, MA, a graduate of Stonehill College, and a current candidate for an MFA in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His words have appeared in Stonehill’s journal for student work the Cairn, Stonehill’s Alumni Magazine, the bi-weekly Warwick Beacon, and the blog for both the Flynn Center for Performing Arts and PoemCity. He enjoys performing his poetry at open mics and tries to live by the rule “listen more, waste less.”