Books In Conversation
MATT HART with Weston Cutter
(H_NGM_N Books, 2016)
(Monster House, 2016)
This is now the third time I’ve interviewed Matt Hart for a publication, which seems strange simply because, when I first witnessed him, he sorta scared me. If you’ve seen him, you know: Matt’s engaged and loud at his readings, as interested in polyphony and aural dynamics as he is in transmitting verbal info (if you write, you likely leave his readings wondering why you’re not doing the same as he does, or at least that’s how I feel).
I first read Matt in 2005 I guess, in New York, lonesome and scared and in need of his howling. What happened, however, was this gradual realization that what he’s doing, despite the loudness, despite the punk attitude, is desperately attempting to connect: I can think of no current poet more interested in reaching consistently, endlessly, for you. He's there on the page, waiting for us, and reading him often feels like you’re following a very carefully drawn map made by someone who loves you more than you could’ve guessed.
The point of this current interview is that, last year, Matt had another two books released: Radiant Action from H_NGM_N Books and Radiant Companion from Monster House. He’s untimid re: releases, you should know (if you don’t already)—he produces lots (and is producing more each year, seemingly, judging from releases) he’s also unafraid of broad reach—his Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless from 2012 has only, I think, 5 poems over the book's 100+ pages. And so now, we’ve got this collosal 1-2: Radiant Action’s a book-length work, Radiant Companion features smaller poems, discrete poems, that read like cattails and frogs and cottonwoods to the other book’s big lake—distinct and separately appreciable, but connected usefully if one wishes. And yet, for all that, it occurs to me I’ve asked Matt almost nothing at all about these recent, specific books. However, once you read Matt’s stuff, you’re forced to reckon with the fact that he’s less writing poems than he is enacting a poetic force, and so questions about specific books, to me, feel a little silly. Thin. Off. Think of how great athletes are interviewed after the game: you can ask and ask and ask, but what the hell’s Westbrook supposed to say if asked about specific moment, this dunk, that rebound? The goal isn’t to find the perfect minute thing but to become alive in the wash of Awareness.
Weston Cutter (Rail): I just reread your piece on the Unfathomable that you sent this summer--loved it then, still do—and I wonder if maybe that’s not the best place to start. To me the biggest oomph was when you finished talking about the Ammons poem and wrote that poetry might help readers “move from the beauty of words to the unfathomable sublime of language” (what you wrote in the Unfathomable essay aligns with what you were doing in the Noise essay last summer). I wonder even how possible it is to talk about this without getting deeply inbent or so topical it’s meaningless. What’s striking about your stuff, the more I know/live with it, isn’t necessarily what it’s after or doing—I'd guess most poetry-writers’d check the box saying they want to dis-/interrupt the reader, remind him/her of the vital raw electric beneath the day-to-day—but how you feel about it. Is that an okay way to start this? We’ve been friends now for years, and I know of no one else who seems so deeply to feel poetry as an almost holy obligation—it’s in your person infinitely, but it’s in the poems, too, lots (“Breaking Spring” being maybe the most direct example). Is that somewhat resonant? Do you feel—I hate to put it this way—a responsibility to breaking through the moment(s) to those revelations, blasting holes into the flatter textures + exposing the sublime? I know we all want to, but you seem to feel like it’s something you should do, or are meant to, or are required to. I ask this as much personally as writerly.
Hart: Really? That’s your first question?
I’m so happy we’re doing this. Thanks for asking me to come down off my high-horse of cloudiness and go back and forth.
So how to try and respond in some way that makes sense… I really love the way you focused in on the notion—which for me, as you note, comes directly from Ammons—that poetry allows us to use the beauty of words to get to the vital sublime of language (which is so much bigger than words). And yet, words are one of the fundamental tools we have for sliding into (describing, expressing, arguing) language. For Ammons, language is wrapped up with the expression of ineffable being itself. With words, there is always what they say and what they point to. Language is more the realm of the latter—what’s pointed to: wonder, bewilderment, consciousness, awe—the kinds of experiences that stop us in our tracks, that suspend all rational thought. Poetry goes at being by activating all the messy ways that words echo and allude to big-picture presence, the truly holier-than-thou—not a being, but being. Does that make any sense? The poems that slay me are the ones that stop me in my tracks by shedding light on all that which can’t be lit and which we nevertheless experience viscerally with all our hearts.
Now, I’m not sure I’d say that I feel an obligation to try and find my way to this in my poems. Rather, it’s something I’m always on the lookout for when I’m writing—it’s how I know I’ve gone past what’s right in front of me to something that might be poetry. Most of my poems begin with really concrete observation and/or description, and they’re all occasional—they are made as part of the occasion of writing, which for me is an every/day thing. I start every day with the everyday, personal particulars and surfaces, e.g. “I’m sitting at my desk, eating a Granny Smith apple. Jawbreaker’s playing on the record player behind me, and I’m shivering a little, because it’s winter and the basement has an edge to it. Out the window over my desk I look at the sky with its puffs of birds, its watery clouds….” And the poem can go on and on like that until something I couldn’t see (or have predicted) rises up through the surfaces and says, Hey buddy, pay attention, look alive, cause right now you are alive and someday you won’t be, so you have the opportunity to experience not only the surfaces, but the depths—the duplicity, multiplicity, ambiguity, even darkness. There’s more to poetry than what meets the eye; poetry penetrates depths well beyond ones the eye/I can see.
I’ve often said that for me writing a poem is a matter of trying to see my way (or maybe just being open) to the things that are on mind that I had no idea were on my mind (that are a part of me without my knowing it), but it’s more than that. It’s about tapping into what’s on my mind that I didn’t know was on my mind and maybe is on everyone else’s mind too. This strikes me as ridiculous, even as I’m writing it, but having something on one’s mind isn’t about thinking anything, it’s about realizing that there’s a shadow upon me (and upon everybody else) with no/body to cast it. This is very mysterious to me, I guess sort of mystical. As Gregory Corso put it in a moment of revelation, “There is a thing called the soul.” Poetry can’t get us there concretely (cause the soul ain’t made of rock!), but it can give us glimpses enough that we know it’s real, urgently necessary, part of being alive. We can’t pin it to the wall, but who needs pins to stick things when riding the wave of electricity is so much more forgiving.
So yeah, blasting holes (which are sometimes insights, sometimes wounds) in the particular, familiar as a way of getting to the infinite depths of being it points to is one of the strategies—or, maybe strategy’s not the best word, since it’s not really calculated—I am a watcher when I write. I try to be a patient shepherd. It’s not strategic. It’s my job—and now we’re back around to responsibility. So, yes! Maybe. I don’t know.
Rail: Along those lines—and I wonder about this hugely in terms of these most recent two, Radiant Companion and Radiant Action, plus just as much about Sermons and Lectures—is this sense that the mundanity of the day-to-day has to be continually punctured. Forgive me if this is inaccurate, but your writing, to me, seems designed to engage in human-scale ways—I don’t think I’ve read a poem of yours that feels like it’s You Trying To Make a Classic or something. I don’t at all intend that to be unfair or critical; I love this aspect, but I also never get the sense—as I sometimes do with someone like Jorie Graham, or Robert Hass—that you’re aiming for Huge Revelation on your stuff. Does this even make sense? I think of something like “Meditation at Lagunitas,” and that poem reads to me as a classic; it’s like a thrown knife that just keeps vibrating deep in us, after reading it (or at least it does for me). Your stuff doesn’t seem to hope for the same end (nor does the work of lots of folks I like—Robert Hass, Dean Young, Meghan Privitello, Jericho Brown, Matthew ZapruderMarcus Wicker, Adrian Matejka, etc.) and what feels significant about that’s not the aim or accomplishment but what feels like your take on the reason to write to begin with. That life’s constantly reconfiguring itself in ways that demand it newly, again and again, be pierced, seen-through-to, revealed. I’m now listening to Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye,” a song I hang on tight to each January through March, though I hated the song the first six months or so I heard it, and much of his stuff feels almost intentionally Monumental; I always have the sense that, even if he’d lived, he wouldn’t be prolific. Maybe this is dumb, but I’d be curious if this is at all resonant with you—a sense that poetry, for you, is verb not noun; that the poems are weirdly/almost/somewhat incidental to the attention they demand. Remotely accurate/on-path?
Hart: What you’re talking about here resonates with me a lot. Revelation (huge or otherwise) is not the goal. Writing—the activity—is the goal. Revelation to me feels like an end. Attention and words are what the poems demand. I write poems, because it’s one of the ways I make sense of my experience of the world and how I feel about it—which I hope is similar to, and different from, your experience of the world and how you feel about it. The poem is a documentation of attention—an event, not a structure—that I enjoy and that helps me navigate life, while connecting me to other people in terms both revelatory and banal. Sometimes in poetry revelation occurs—and that’s amazing—but revelation is such a small part of being alive. Routines, habits, repetitions—the whole ragged landscape of what we choose to ignore, or do and re-do mechanically—these are massively meaningful aspects of who we are and what it is to be alive. We can’t make too much of them—and I mean that entirely ambiguously. I value the process of writing for its own sake, and I trust that by doing it a picture of something real (though perhaps not merely factually true) gets drawn.
That said, I do like thinking about the relationship between the idea of revelation as an aim in art-making vs. the process itself as revelatory and revealing. (Note: I’m sure one can try to have it both ways, but that’s not what I do.) Obviously, I’m more interested in the latter than the former. I’m not trying to solve the world or anything else when I write. Poetry’s about being alive and awake to the ever-shifting possibilities as they present themselves, one moment to the next—nothing needs to be solved, which doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to be dealt with. It just means that poetry’s not a solution or a proof, but a method of understanding and taking stock, of calling and responding to the world in its swirl. In my poems, one of the things I’m doing is documenting a particular way of paying attention. And I believe that the documentation of those surfaces leads inexorably to their depths. Also, quantity leads to quality eventually. Also, noise becomes music. Sight becomes visionary. But of course, one has to be on the lookout, on guard, open to whatever materializes—and that’s the nearly impossible thing, especially with so much dailyness to deal with/get through/enjoy, not to mention the spectacle and distraction and distortion of our era/error. Revelation isn’t sustainable/repeatable/predictable (not in a way that preserves its revelatory-ness)—which is maybe what you’re getting at with the Jeff Buckley reference. Maybe one can court it, as long as one is comfortable with the fact that that sort of inspired monument-making isn’t do-able every day. I tend to want dynamics in poetry—and among poems—the coherent album with highs and lows, massive volume jumps, clarity and wreckage, rather than the one-hit-wonder single with a chorus that nobody can stop singing until the next one comes out tomorrow by somebody else. Life isn’t a string of indelible monuments (and memorials), it’s more fluid than that, changes shape with (and spills over/eats away at) its container. Maybe the poet’s job is to keep re-visioning and destroying and misunderstanding the container (and its contents!), so that the life poetry articulates can keep shape-shifting with us and pointing the way forward to new waves we’ve never dreamed possible. Nouns define and encapsulate (things); verbs activate and sustain (e/motion). Writing a poem isn’t write a (song) lyric. It’s writing and singing simultaneously. Poems are performed and performing, and as such, they’re not one kind of thing, but many things at once, with ever more in the wings.
All that to say, poems aren’t separate from life, they are a form of it—a manifestation of its possibilities from the banal to the revelatory and everything in between. I want it all—to be wildly inclusive of what is and what might be, to be vividly attuned to whatever comes what may.
Rail: I’m also real, real deeply curious about what your readers mean to you. What you means in your poetry; you reach out more than anyone else I read with regularity, and I admire the hell out of it, but I lack your trust that someone’ll be there. That line that Zach Savich quotes in his review at Entropy—“If I tell you a secret, will you keep it Will you / pocket this minute and promise not to spill it?”—just about brings me to tears, but it also I think shows this central aspect of your work: that you need someone to hear you. That you’re reaching out in need of someone being there. This isn’t (I don’t think) some question about audience or anything; it’s a matter of poetry-as-communion. Does that resonate at all in or for you? Is there some truth there? This relates, I guess, to the other two questions as well—that you’re not in Cincinnati building these individual monuments, but are—like the punk singer you are—trying to find folks to engage with. I guess if there’s a question here, it has to do with that as an aesthetic, or how that changes how you do what you do on paper. If that even makes sense.
Hart: Again, I think you’re right on here. I’ve been saying forever that every single poem is both a call (to others/to action/to arms/to love) and a response to previous calls. Poetry is the perpetuation of a primal human signal, one that’s been transmitting back and forth, zig-zag between people, for as long as we’ve been making our dear connective racket. I imagine it started with a voice, but continues in writing, fluttering back and forth between speech and the written word.
It’s important too that we think about it as communion rather than communication. I mean, communion is a kind of communication, but it’s more than that. Poetic communion transcends and transubstantiates performer and audience, speaker and listener, writer and reader into something more spirit than body, more expressive than descriptive, more emotional than rational. At the same time, it’s also constructive; it builds community, connects people via a certain kind of attention or expression, making them a little more similar to each other (in terms of the continuity of their experience), which is the basis not only for the celebration of difference, but for empathetic entanglement in all its forms. As the faculty that allows us to render the world in terms other than it is, imagination is at the root of this communion. I can’t actually feel your pain, but I can (if I try hard enough) imagine your pain so pointedly and with so much care that it hurts me. I need people. I want communion. And I think lots of other people do, too—the people I write to, the you of the poems, my radiant companions. Obviously, there are lots of different ways that people go about communing with each other. For me, poetry and punk rock have always shown the way, illuminated (and intensified)(through the wild seas of darkness) the visceral human signal—the call and the response—the call as the response, and vice versa…
You know, if I try and say one thing consistently in my poems it’s “you are not alone,” and that’s what I always hope to hear back, too. It’s a simple message, but urgent and critical, maybe more so now than ever in our lifetimes. Dean Young once said to me that “we only ever write poems for the people we love and who love us” and I think that’s true, but I also want to think that I could love lots of people, and lots of people could love me. The poems are for all of them, not just the finite list of people I know, but the infinite list of potential loves—the unknown. The gesture, I hope, is radical. The voyage, I know, between one person and another, is perilous, especially with one’s heart on one’s sleeve.
I feel like with all these questions so far, I’m sort of dancing around something that I recently articulated (maybe more directly, because of the context) in a statement/proposal for The Association for Theopoetics. I know it’s super goofy to quote myself, but here’s part of what I wrote:
When we speak or write (but especially when we speak) imaginatively (rendering the world in terms other than it is) we give voice to something numerous and numinous embedded within us, something not of our making, but of our makeup. And it’s this that we hold in common with all life (human and otherwise), the mystery of being, the awe that arises from the w/rec/k/ognition that anything exists at all. We are juxtaposed with each other and the world in experience, and to know/confront/give voice to it is to make a spark—a light/clarity where before there was darkness/vaguery. This spark brings us face to face/face to faith with the unfathomable, the sublime as a manifestation of now, this instant, cleaved from both the past (memory/ nostalgia) and the future (desire/dread). “O mouths, man is looking for a new language no grammarian can legislate” wrote Guillaume Apollinaire. Poetry works on and from the human spirit, not because it is without rules, but because it is boundless, an echo of some deep hum over the water (or a terribly Big Bang). It is, as such, a response to our deepest lineage, to a call that went out with heat and light and so much dust. But as a response to that, poetry is always itself a new call, a perpetuation of life, an invitation song. God’s noise is inside us. God’s music is unfathomable. Poetry takes the beauty of words and attempts language, which is the most mysterious part of us—the primordial, un-static mess of human possibility, imagination’s leap-frog into empathy and potentially grace(fullness)—which is itself noise become music and music become breath. This is what my work addresses, as it can, lovingly, wrecklessly, and winging.
There, I said it. This is at the heart of what I’m on the lookout for in poetry. In some sense I think about poetry as a kind of conduit to other people’s souls—a way of talking with—communing with—the aspects of god that reside in all of us. Is this super problematic? Yeah, communion always is; talking to god (however one formulates that) has to be a problem, one that requires faith and grace and mercy.
Rail: After those first three mammoth questions, I feel like we can say you’ve got a sort of central impulse/aesthetic in your writing that includes all those listed things—this sense of communion, of finding ways to let our minds notice the stuff we might not be otherwise, etc. I guess the obvious follow-up, for me, is: how did this aesthetic develop for you? Again, this is sort of weird, given we’re friends, given that I’ve watched you talk to students about how huge “Feeling Fucked Up” hit you; and yet, even with that, I think it’d still be useful/interesting to hear how this aesthetic/artistic stance formed in you. I ask almost entirely personally on this one: when you wrote that your poems are for all the people you could love and who could love you, I felt this weird jealousy or insufficiency, simply because my own aesthetic doesn’t get me there (my default’s to write at folks who disagree with me; I write to prove something almost, which is as long-term toxic as it sounds). Maybe this is nothing more than a what’s-your-influences question, but it’s not quite, I don’t think.
Hart: No, I don’t think so either. This is a question about poetic attitude and will(fullness toward some particular outlook/point of view), not to mention also about how poetry functions in life, as life. The word “stance,” in particular, seems important—maybe this is what we refer to when we talk about sensibility—which I try and avoid because it sounds too much like “sensible ability,” and I’m not sure I have, or really want, any of that. It’s also related to “circumstance” the situation one finds (both senses) oneself in. As poets, don’t we position, and find, ourselves in our work (even if only to place ourselves outside it)?—And is it clear that by “position” I don’t mean the ways we jockey for our place in the rat race of po biz, but rather that we’re always facing toward some/thing(s), embracing some/thing(s) and also backing up against and/or resisting some/thing(s). Given that I think of my poems as an extension of my life, it maybe makes sense that I embrace and resist in them the same things I do in other aspects of being alive. But none of that answers your question, which is about the grounds upon which the stance is based.
For me, it has to do with wanting badly for poetry to be as powerful, transformative, and life affirming to other people as it has been for me. I found poetry at a time in my life when I was kind of angry, argumentative and lost—a philosophy major in a punk rock band, becoming more disillusioned by the minute with my inability to change anything significantly, either with the music or through logic and reason. Punk rock at that moment was turning into metal, and philosophy had me pressed up against the limits of logical language. It’s interesting to me that you claim to use poetry “almost as a way to prove something.” I think you’re a lot more open-hearted in your work than you suggest, and certainly as a person there’s nobody kinder. In any case, one of the things I love about poetry is that it doesn’t (have to) prove (not in a scientific, logical sense) anything. It’s not science. It doesn’t need to be true and based in facts, the way we hope science is. Poetry only has to be real. Its power is based in the activation of language at every level to create kaleidoscopic meaningfulness, which is transformative, affecting, alchemical and musical, but this may or may not have anything to do with the verifiable day-to-day as we find it. Imagination makes the world, and as much as possible I want that to be inclusive and positive. That doesn’t mean the poems can’t have a dark side to them. It doesn’t preclude them from being positively bleak. What it means—and this goes back to stance—is that as a form of life, poetry is for me a matter of joyfully tangling with human being in language. I see this same thing in the works of Ted Berrigan, Guillaume Apollinaire, Dean Young, Etheridge Knight, Darcie Dennigan. No matter what the poem is it’s written from a place of happiness, of being grateful to be alive and open-hearted with words. As long as I am writing poems, I am not dead. And that means, I am capable of helping to keep other people alive, maybe infect them with the joy poetry has given me.
Rail: This might be impossible, or a freakishly stupid question given all of the above, but I’m curious about progress or motion or development in your work. I feel like, from what we’ve gone back-and-forth on here, any question to you about how your work has progressed (or even what the notion of progress/development might mean in poetry, at all) would have you get again into stuff about presence, awareness. But I’m real curious about how you view your own work, your own poetic growth. Do you, for instance, see a shift from Who’s Who Vivid and the Radiant books? Again, this is as much a personal question as just a polite professional one: so much of my fear of or frustration with poetry has to do with an anxiety that it’s not growing, not expanding or something (and I use those terms, when I consider my own stuff, in the most merciless ways—the poetry’s gotta be smarter, more erudite, more Large, whatever). I have a feeling you don’t buy into the notion of any of that—which is of course great/fine—but then the follow-up for me is: is there any notion of progress in the work? Of growth?
I want to be clear: I sort of hate asking this question. I ask because I used to feel much clearer about what I should be doing with poetry, how I should be chasing. I felt like there should be some measurable progress, some betterness to each book. Improvements. But then there’s these great counterexamples just fucking up that whole notion—Bender by Dean Young being a great, simple example which, by having the poems alphabetical, destroys my own sense that each of his books gets “better.” I’m asking this question to help me destroy my own notion of aesthetic progress; help me.
Hart: I kind of love this question, as it reminds me of a version of anxiety that I do everything I can to ignore. In my head, I have this idea of poetry through people like Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Paul Violi, Dean Young, Eileen Myles, Toma Šalamun (the list could go on and on)… that poetry wants to be as big as the world, that “progress” is about more inclusion, more formal variation/experimentation/elasticity, more words, more nerve, more “might be.” There is no such thing as non-poetic language. “Meaning is use.” Quantity leads to quality eventually. So we have to use all the words as wildly and “variously as possible” as much as we possibly (and impossibly) can. This doesn’t mean we don’t edit or revise. It means that the goal is the activity—not a product—and that through this activity poetry continues, expands its territory.
I also think about poets like Noelle Kocot, Darcie Dennigan, and Anthony McCann, who seem to reinvent the wheel for themselves (if not for poetry) with every single book. These too are models for what I’m after in my own work—variation and inclusion, radical reinvention. I wish I was better at it. Changes for me seem to happen incrementally, more than all at once, but I sure as hell don’t wait for them. I get to work. I don’t think about progress as much as I think about new activity, new motion, new fuel for the fire—any of which can come from almost anywhere. Progress is surprise, is trying something just because.
But having said all that, I definitely see a huge difference (though I don’t know if I’d use the term “progression”) between Who’s Who Vivid and where I am, for example, in the Radiant books. When I first started writing I was so joyously drunk on language itself (and I still am in certain ways, e.g. “Poetry is language made noisy with god”)—the fact that poetry can accommodate total weirdness, formal play, sound over sense. A lot of the poems in Vivid emphasize that drunkenness, my love of Dada and Surrealism, filling the pages to see what would happen if… and then reveling in that. I still love that way of working, but now I also want my poems to say things, to stretch their necks and sing with sense. My daughter being born changed everything. Suddenly, a light flipped on, a love flipped on, a new set of necessities for me and my poems, a new audience. I mean, as optimistic as I try to be, I’m also often pretty cynical, a real No Future kind of person. But then Agnes came along, and she’s a literal future—one to write (home) for—one to open all my heart to—a massive and expansive beyond-me-that-will-be. Progress, betterment, improvement is continuance beyond what might have been otherwise. There are so many forces in the world that would have us doing anything but making art. To continue is to beat the odds every day, and that is an improvement over what might have been.