Happy AWP Week! To kick it off Matt Hart shares a bit about his writing spaces and processes, especially in regards to his latest poetry collection Debacle Debacle, half of which he wrote while stranded at home on the couch with a broken foot.
Where do you live?
Cincinnati, Ohio—but more particularly in the west side neighborhood called Westwood. The houses were all built right after WWII. Lots of brick, huge Maple trees and City Elms, a few evergreens—mostly Pine. Our yard’s a wreck from our dog, Daisy, a golden retriever. There’s a swingset/fort out back that my daughter Agnes plays in. Right now it’s snowing—they’re predicting three or four inches. There’s a sparkly, purple soccer ball next to the driveway, already covered. Inside, things are as chaotic as ever. There’s a fire going. Stacks of books and papers everywhere. Agnes’ latest artworks—she’s drawing lots of flowers these days—flowers in striped vases on wooden tables (Suddenly the flower heads are all crushing together, overlapping, where they used to be very separate things. All the colors of the rainbow—and then some—Black Hole and Amsterdam and Bone Marrow). Tonight some friends are coming over for dinner. We will not be having bone marrow. We’re making Posole with fried tortillas, and a jicama slaw… It’s Saturday in winter, and I am alive—a thing to remember.
Where did you write the majority of your book?
I actually wrote about half the poems in Debacle Debacle on a laptop on the living room couch, which isn’t typical for me. I had broken my foot (in a real debacle of an accident) and couldn’t walk down the stairs to my basement workspace. I’m a really active person, and it was pretty miserable suddenly not being able to walk and run. I ended up sitting on the couch for months, something I don’t really do much. As a result, the poems are more reflective and stir-crazy—not to mention also full of “debacle,” both fuck-up and flood. Weirdly, they’re more narrative as well. The injury forced me to slow down, and I started trying to organize events in time rather than associatively stampeding through them at ever increasing warp speeds. Once my foot healed up enough for me to start walking again, I went back to writing in the basement. The poems got sunnier (mostly). Spring came, then summer. So the other half of the poems were written downstairs, among my books (where I belong). The interest in narrative followed me down there though, and while none of the poems are strictly speaking narrative, the scaffolding of narrative is more present than in my other work. I suddenly had a desire to follow, rather than undermine, more traditional logical connections and to make sure the threads connecting the various associations would be actually available in the poems.
Tell us about your writing habits and creative process — do you have certain rituals that are crucial to your writing? A special drink? Music?
My only real writing habit is that when I’m home (that is, when I’m not traveling for readings, etc.) I spend some time writing every day. Depending on the day, and whatever else I have to do, it might only be a half an hour or so, or it might be four or five hours, or longer. I write in one of my orange FIELD notebooks that Dobby Gibson turned me on to years ago, or I bang things out on an old Remington Noiseless typewriter. Occasionally, I blast things off on the computer. I try to avoid the latter, however (unless it’s really a blast-off session), because on the computer it’s almost impossible for me not to revise as I go, i.e. it’s so easy to change things, that I start trying to make a poem before I have anything at all, or I second-guess myself so much that whatever is there gets killed in all the cross-fire and indecision. So I much prefer to draft poems either in the notebooks or on the typewriter where I have to live a little bit with what I’ve done. I mean, on the Remington, for example, I can xxxxxx things out, but I still have to contend with the fact that I’ve done that. Nothing disappears into the void on a typewriter or in a notebook, but on a computer one hits delete and it’s as if nothing ever happened.
I guess I should mention, too, that I include reading as a part of writing, so for me sometimes writing, in whole or in part, is reading. It’s where I get words, music, and images that send and upend me. I take a lot of notes. I write in my books. I love to underline things, then go back and copy out what I’ve underlined in one of the aforementioned orange FIELD notebooks. When I was writing Debacle Debacle, I was reading the Romantics, especially Coleridge, Clare, Keats and Shelley. But I was also reading Jon Anderson and Paul Violi. I was corresponding via email multiple times a day with Nate Pritts.
Because I write most every day, I generate a lot of material. I write a lot of poems. Most of them are terrible, and I ditch them…in a ditch. But I’m a huge believer in the idea that quantity eventually leads to, if not quality, then at the very least, somewhere one needs to go—to breakthroughs, surprises, and forgotten things. I never have any idea what I’m going to write about when I sit down to write. It’s open-ended and explorative. I start writing and see what happens. I try to pay attention to the writing as it goes.
That said, I do sometimes give myself (or someone else gives me) parameters to work with and against. Constraints can be a huge help in getting started, especially if one doesn’t have something in particular that one wants to explore/express. The key is to not fall into the trap of the parameters themselves. One can’t slavishly adhere to them. Once the poem gets going it may decide that it wants nothing to do with the parameters anymore, so you throw them out and keep going.
One poem in Debacle Debacle where parameters come into play is “Write This Today While You Were.” It was one of the poems I wrote when my foot was broken, and it came directly out of something Nate Pritts wrote to me in an email. We’d been going back and forth via email one morning, and I was feeling sorry and stupid about my broken situation. At one point Nate mentioned that he’d just been reading Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet cycle “Astrophel and Stella,” which consists of 108 sonnets. At that moment, however, he was preparing to go for a run, and by the time he returned he wanted me to have written 108 two-line sonnets. What a two-line sonnet is I still really have no idea, but in each of those couplets I tried to evoke something of the structural logic of the sonnet: Thesis, Development, Turn, Summary. That doesn’t happen consistently, of course, but the attempt got me out of my head enough that I was able to write the poem. I stopped feeling sorry, and started writing, which became a nearly incantatory process. I did write all 108 stanzas, though it took me a few hours, not the 45 minutes Nate was out running. When I finished the poem I sent it off to Nate immediately. We were in the habit of doing that back then. I didn’t have a title for the poem yet, and I asked him to think about possibilities for one whenever he got around to reading the poem. As it turned out, in my email where I attached the poem, there was a fortuitous typo: “N8,” the email began, “I write this today while you were running…” I meant “wrote,” not “write,” of course, but given all the poem’s simultaneity, Nate suggested using the mistake as the poem’s title, “Write This Today While You Were”.
Finally, I want to make clear that revision is also a huge part of my process. I revise and revise and revise—sometimes radically—as a way to try and understand where the poem wants to go, what it wants to be. Very rarely do I try and impose my will on a poem (or maybe I do often, but those are awful poems, so they go to the ditch). For me, a poem is always in a significant way a demonstration of the process of its own making, mixed with the way I pay attention to/in the world, but sometimes it takes me many drafts to fully understand what that is—what it looks like, what makes it go. And sometimes the poem just wants to be a haywire thing, so I have to go with that, wherever it takes me.
Do you have a certain room/space/atmosphere that you like to write in? And what is it about this space that feeds your writing life? How does your outer landscape work with/affect your inner landscape?
I can actually write anywhere, but I like writing at home where the good noise is—with my family and my dog, my typewriter and books, the trees in the yard. At its best, writing for me involves a rather chaotic, often self-destabilizing mental process of connecting, disconnecting, and sometimes re/inventing whole cloth the dots of experience, so I like familiar surroundings when I write, a stable base of operations from where (and upon which) to make poems that feel like they might fall apart at any second. A lot of the poems by other people that I love seem to be simultaneously precarious and stable, mysterious and utterly clear. They acknowledge the bird in the mouth of the cat, but also consider/entertain the possible impossibility of the cat in the bird’s mouth as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever really written a poem like that, but that’s the goal. I want to write—and always try to write—poems that teeter and handstand on the outer ledge of being, or that slip and slide at the event horizon of not being at all. I start a lot of writing sessions by just describing what’s in front of me, imagining what isn’t, or simply tuning in to whatever else is going on in the house—Agnes playing with her neighbor friend Grace, the sound of the dishwasher, a beer bottle label, making French toast. I don’t do this as a way to write about those things, but as a way to jumpstart associations and figure out what’s on my mind that I don’t have any idea about.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I do a lot of running where I think about writing. I teach my classes. I cook. I play with Agnes. The truth is—and this is maybe, at least on some level, a problem of some sort—I’ve so thoroughly defined my life and time in terms of the activity of writing that it saturates everything I do. I don’t want to not be writing. I don’t need breaks. I don’t have blocks. Writing is the way I make both sense and (hopefully serious) nonsense of the world, including of myself and others, memory and experience, even the future. Writing makes everything—even the wild, kaleidoscopic, and incomprehensible strangeness of being human—clearer. It’s the best way I have of reaching out, and hopefully also it’s a way for me to be reached.
Click here to pre-order Debacle Debacle for $12, + free shipping
ALSO, Matt Hart will be at AWP!
*Signing books Thursday, March 7th, 1 PM, AWP Book Fair——> table L-27
*Reading at the "I’M SO TIRED (at AWP)" event, Friday, March 8th, 6 PM
*Reading at the Tusculum Review & H_NGM_N Reading, Saturday, March 9th, 10:30 AM, on-site at the Alice Hoffman Bookfair Stage, Exhibit Hall D
*and hanging out at THE SIX PARTY TALK, Saturday, March 9th, 8 PM, Lir