Twelve Questions with Matt Hart
1. Hey Matt, got a favorite writing prompt?
I have sort of a weird relationship to writing prompts. I use them all the time when I teach, and since I do everything I assign right along with my students, I find myself struggling with and against one prompt or another quite a lot. That said, I tend to use prompts once and then never return to them again. Every class is different, so the prompts have to be different every time, and this means my “favorite” prompt is whatever prompt we’re colliding with right now.
The other thing I should mention is that I really dislike prompts that ask students to “practice” craft—since 1) whenever we’re writing a poem, we’re practicing craft unless we were born under a rock and have never seen/read a poem before—craft is all about imposed expectations from outside the poet, and 2) as the description of everything that’s already been done, learning craft alone won’t make anybody a poet. Instead (and generally speaking) I like prompts that are wildly open-ended—that pit us against an idea (or several of them), or that place us in a realm of form or content exploration where we’re uncomfortable and/or impossibly lost from the get-go. One doesn’t think one’s way into writing a good poem, so I try and drop us in the dark where we have to feel around and trip over the ottoman in order to find our starship or asparagus or sincerity or money—where we can’t think and have to write in order to figure out what’s on our minds that we had no idea was on our minds.
Here’s the first prompt of this semester, based on Kenneth Koch’s ten criteria (listed in his poem “The Art of Poetry”) for knowing whether or not a poem is good/enough to go out into the world:
1. THE ART OF POETRY:
Embedded in Kenneth Koch’s amazing poem/instruction manual “The Art of Poetry” is a sort of ten point test for whether or not a poem is good enough to go out into the world. Your assignment is simple: Write a poem that meets all ten of Koch’s criteria (although I disagree with him about #4).
To get started, first read the whole poem, and think about the sort advice and instructions it’s giving the would-be poet about “the art,” then write a poem, which:
1) Is astonishing (to you)
2) Makes you a better person
3) Is original work by you (OR, alternately, is in whole or in part stolen from somewhere else)
4) Does not reveal something about you that you don’t want anyone to know
5) Is sufficiently “modern” (which we can revise to contemporary or postmodern or NOW)
6) Is in your own voice
7) Is free of unwanted awkwardness, cheap effects, illegitimate grabs for attention, show-offiness, cuteness, pseudo-profundity, old hat checks, unassimilated dream fragments, or other “kiss-me-I’m-poetical” junk (OR alternately, include all of it—Hart)
8) Moves smoothly and swiftly from excitement to dream, followed by flooding reason of purity, soundness and joy
9) Is the kind of poem you would envy if someone else had written it
10) Is something you’d be happy to go to Heaven with it pinned on your jacket as an entrance show.
Easy, right? Right.
This prompt, like the criteria it’s based on, is admittedly ridiculous—not to mention, also, impossible—and Koch would (did) think so too. As with a lot of his “advice poems,” the criteria listed in “The Art of Poetry” are both totally fucking ludicrous and weirdly right on the money, but not in any way that someone can actually apply or follow in any sort of rational way. That doesn’t, however, mean they aren’t worth thinking about. I would argue instead that it’s the very impossibility of writing a poem that fulfills the criteria that makes it possible to work with and against them to (perhaps) write a really excellent poem. One cannot slavishly fill in the blanks, because the blanks (the criteria) are wildly mis/interpretable, ambiguous, and even vague/meaningless. Thus, the only real expectations one has to contend with here are one’s own (what is “good,” etc?). Koch’s inventory makes each individual writer think about what he or she values in relation to the criteria he lays out. From there one has many choices/possibilities, including to ignore the criteria entirely or to go against one’s own inclinations.
As a BONUS, here’s another prompt from last spring that I think I still like:
POETRY WORKSHOP Spring 15
Prompt 3: ON BEAUTY, ETC.
I’ve been thinking about Beauty again. I say “again,” because every time I teach Aesthetics (as I am this semester) I think about it as a matter of (the) course, and then once we’ve discussed it and the students remind me that beauty is no longer relevant in art, i.e. that it seems to be the last thing on the minds of contemporary artists (including themselves), I forget about it and get on with my life, which, strangely enough, is beautiful—even the pains (little as they are), even the disappointments (mixed with the successes, the surprises, the ecstatic excesses, excuses).
I am drinking a beer with a skull on the label. The skull is wearing a top hat. The skull is a Hooligan.
Water is running in the bathtub. A fire is pretending to burn fake wood.
This morning I half smiled at the little rat sparrows on 12th Street, enjoying the crumbs of the weekend without thinking, without people. It was cold.
Maybe the real problem with Beauty isn’t that it’s gone into hiding, but that there’s too much of it to go around—so much so that we don’t notice it. We’re too busy running around bleeding from our chicken necks, feeling stressed as Hell. Of course, there’s a ton of Ugliness, too, and it gets more press than Beauty, because it hurts, so we ACTIVELY avoid it (sometimes, paradoxically, by consuming it with glee O reality O reality TV), while Beauty languishes in the margins of our passivity—our passive aggression toward (re)making the world in favor of simply getting through it.
Maybe we’re too frantic to appreciate Beauty (21st Century Internet People—everything wrapped in high high speed), so it haunts us—as it haunts the word “appreciation,” which in aesthetics is related to aesthetic experience, itself often associated with the perception and movement of beauty in our mind’s eye (which is slow to blossom). Beauty requires that we stop and appreciate it—that we wait for spring. But appreciation itself is not a simple gesture, a head-nod of affirmation or approval. Beauty doesn’t give a damn about my or your approval. Beauty demands our allegiance, our souls, our vast attention and even torpor. The faster, the uglier, Beauty cries out, SLOW DOWN SLOW DOWN to be the sunset… Appreciation, then, is a process of being open to the world in all its mysterious be(com)ing, which takes time, and thus life. This can be uncomfortable. Beauty and Ugliness converge/merge/collide/enfold/ensnare. Yes, Beauty has a dark side. Great white shark is beautiful. Atomic explosion, a sight to behold. Black hole black hole. The mathematics of chance… This is what makes Beauty worth the trouble. I’m not sure what I mean by that. It’s a feeling—the realization that my Beauty and yours are very different things. Yours in fact may be the devil to me. Mine may appear as a blip on your screen.
Beauty is the mystery of life, wrote Agnes Martin.
Beauty will be convulsive or not be at all, wrote Andre Breton.
I write that Beauty is being in spasm, where desire and object collide in a vision… and fasten us to this earth… and return us to atoms.
For next week write a poem on Beauty. Call it ON BEAUTY. Let’s hear your side of the story. If your BEAUTY’s not your Beast, write a poem called ON UGLINESS. Make it devastating.
In your process statement, you need to really talk about your values. You need to ask some questions—something for us all to consider.
*** ** ***
2. Hey Matt, which foreign language poet do you most wish you could read in the original?
I don’t know how to answer this, since my sense of all the foreign language poets I love is based on reading them in English. I mean, I wouldn’t want to NOT love them (or love them less) from reading them in the original, as doing so would certainly change my perspective of their work, maybe to its detriment.
Thus, I’d only want to read them in the original if the work was guaranteed (a totally silly word) to be as good or better in the original than it is in English, and where can one get such a guarantee? Do they sell insurance policies for that? Sign me up! Maybe I prefer reading phantoms and murmurs rather than the body up close…? Who wants Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” to rhyme? Not me, but that’s because the translations in English that I love don’t—not that I have anything against rhyme. I use it constantly in my work, but we think of a poet like Rimbaud as being so totally unconventional that when it suddenly occurs to us that, for instance, “The Drunken Boat” rhymes in the original, it loses a little of its anarchistic cred. I don’t need the revered dead poets to be real people (we have real living poets for that!), I need them to be POETS/POETRY.
Obviously, I don’t really believe a word of what I just wrote, but it is sort of a conundrum (and fun to play the devil’s advocate).
The funny thing is I’ve been doing lots of spastic, and deliberately false, translations lately—mostly of Apollinaire’s work, but also Andre Breton, Lorca and Vallejo. The pieces wind up being imitations more than translations, but I’m having a ball doing them. I usually start with Google Translate and an old dictionary, but then once I get a fairly literal text, I start in using other English to English translation techniques (antonymic, homophonic, synonymic, etc.) until my own associative consciousness takes over. The poem becomes a tangle, a mangle, a wreck of language and visions—my own and the poet’s I’m up against (which, as my friend Carrie Lorig points out in her awesome The Pulp Vs. The Throne, is both a matter of being at war and up close, skin to skin). Thus, I feel closer to the poet’s work I’m translating by going up against it. I love it more and more, even as I get further and further away from it.
*** ** ***
3. Hey Matt, do you carry a notebook? Got a phrase dashed in there that you just can’t shake?
I do carry a notebook. I use these orange Elan engineer’s field notebooks. You can order your own here: http://www.tigersupplies.com/Products/Elan-Engineers-Field-Book__E64.aspx
As for shaking, I’m always shaking.
Here’s a Robert Frost quotation that’s in my notebook: “The poet’s imagination takes the beautiful world and scrambles it, remakes it; there is something dark in the foliage of the completed art object, perhaps, but this is necessary.”
Here’s something else: “We fuss across the landscape/obfuscating destiny.”
I also have the title “You Think that Was Loud” written over and over in various places, but no poem…
Maybe someone reading this will write it for me, and send it to me as my own new work.
*** ** ***
4. Hey Matt, what’s the best piece of writing advice you got?
YES! Do more of that.
Always do the opposite.
Resist your habits.
Here’s a link to a poem I wrote on the subject: http://h-ngm-n.tumblr.com/post/38957352109/notes-to-a-young-poet-15
*** ** ***
5. Hey Matt, what’s your submission process like?
I barely ever send anything anywhere anymore, but I always try and send work to any place that asks me. It’s always nice to be asked.
I don’t send out simultaneous submissions. I can’t keep track of them. And as an editor myself, it’s a total freakin’ drag when you’ve spent a bunch of time reading somebody’s work, and you’re excited about it, and you’re planning to take it, and it gets snatched out from under you before you’ve had a chance to send the email. If you don’t have enough poems to send to all the places you want, stop wasting time sending poems out and write more poems. It’s not about publishing, it’s about writing.
I sound like a ninety year-old codger, don’t I?
*** ** ***
6. Hey Matt, got a favorite quote about poetry?
Here are two:
“Forgive me my ignorance/ Forgive me for no longer knowing the old game of riming/ I know nothing anymore and I can only love”
—from “The Betrothal” by Guillaume Apollinaire, Trans. Roger Shattuck
“I love poetry because poetry makes me love and presents me life”
—from “Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday” by Gregory Corso
*** ** ***
7. Hey Matt, what’s the last non-poetry book you loved?
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James—a really really terrific and brutal and complicated (a)maze(ment) of a book; organized a little like the middle section of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying with each chapter narrated by a different character. It’s literally epic.
Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century by Jed Rasula—this book is wildly beautifully written and carefully researched, one of the best books about Dada I’ve ever read—and I’ve read a lot of books about Dada.
The Whole Shot: Collected Interviews with Gregory Corso, edited by Rick Schober—Corso’s one of my favorites. In these interviews he’s all in—brilliant, flawed, sloppy, human.
*** ** ***
8. Hey Matt, what’s the last great poetry book you read?
I’m currently being blown away by Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems by Frank Lima. I’m loving his associative, leapy, Protean wildness; the surreal disjunction (in a lot, though not all, of the work), his unflinching willingness to face himself—candidly with humor and humility and awe; his formal variety, and most especially his relentless gargantuan open heart—the necessity of that. Here are a few stanzas from “Ode to Love” (these come in the middle of the poem):
“My Dearest I am lost.”
I am needed here like the sky needs air traffic, therefore
I am bored with the idea of life without you on this planet
I want you to be my room deodorant my favorite stone
O ship of love I wish you would blow up when I think of
internal motivation I think of my liver on rainy days when it hurts
poets are really nice people they’re like giant trees
full of sap!
O sun sun my life has not been a drag after all
I could have been a number in a marble game
When I think of you I can spare myself from sleep
I can be as loyal as Blue Cross and as silly as this poem
I am killing my ash tray with an overdose of butts
when I talk to my ash tray about you it gets bored
my subjects are monotonous so it tells me
That’s life ash tray.
These stanzas aren’t particularly indicative of Lima’s work, since he did so many kinds of things, from the early open field work to pieces in really short lines, to the later more associative work, which consists of pretty regular long-lined/long-legged quatrains and tercets. In all cases, however, I find myself being surprised again and again by these poems, and I feel grateful for the empathetic entanglement they provoke.
*** ** ***
9. Hey Matt, when does the indentation happen–during composition or revision?
By indentation, I assume you’re asking about the indented staggered stanzas that I’m using in “Ode to a Nightingale” and also the sort of open field-ish stuff I’m doing in a couple of the sections from Radiant Action that you’re publishing, right?
With “Ode to a Nightingale” which obviously references (and even quotes) John Keats, I wanted to call to mind (though not copy) the indented, staggered 10-line stanzas of his “Ode to a Nightingale,” but I can’t remember when in the process that happened. I do love the old-fashioned decorative look of those stanza forms, which when Keats was writing was actually functional in identifying at a glance the lines that rhymed with each other. In my poem, however, it’s all sculptural flourish, a way to organize/contain the dream/mess so to speak—one that hopefully conjures up the Romantic tradition (which I love so much) and also helps to manifest a friend’s broken heart.
In Keats’ poem, of course, it’s the speaker whose heart aches; in mine it’s the “nightingale”/friend who calls in the middle of the night and leaves a message, and yet the result for the speaker is the same (and also different), “do I wake or sleep?”
In the pieces from Radiant Action, those indents, as best I can tell, are more organic, a part of the writing, a kind of documentation of the movement of consciousness in/through the poem and onto the page. Sometimes as I’m writing, there’s a pause and a drop down into a new mental space that manifests itself as an indent. Sometimes it becomes a means of connecting two levels of the poem, two disparate thoughts or pieces of syntax that connect, but also don’t:
How did I wind up weird
in skull-gray shirt
When we fall, fall together
I have said, or I have heard,
I don’t know if that makes sense.
I might also say one thing about the spaces between sentences in lieu of end punctuation. I started doing that several years ago, as a way to play the phrase against the line and the line against the sentence to create pacing, surprise, and ambiguity, but also as a way to let the poem unfold associatively in time and space. The poem is a (lava) flow (and a flowering) of possibilities, a thing in motion in every direction simultaneously.
*** ** ***
10. Hey Matt, got a favorite lyricist? (or musician?) Care to share a video? (you can make this two different questions, if you want)
My favorite stuff is always changing, but here’s what I’ve been living with lately:
Jordan Dreyer from La Dispute is an amazing lyricist, but I also love his vocal delivery, that sort of half-spoken, half-sung thing he does—and his dynamic range from whisper to growl to scream is just dynamite! He can do so many different things with his voice (other than sing, but he can do that too):
Here are two videos from their last album Rooms of the House that are pretty indicative:
ii. “First Reactions after Falling Through the Ice” (please note in this one the quote from Ted Berrigan’s “Red Shift”—“Stupid permanent estrangement”)
Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil, and more recently forgetters. He should win the prize just for writing the lines, “I believe in desperate acts/ the kind that make me look stupid.”
Anybody heard of the Louisville based band Xerxes? Calvin Philley, the vocalist is a dynamite guy and wonderful poet, “serenading in the dark to no one.”
Finally, isn’t that new Bowie record Blackstar amazing? I miss him already. If you haven’t already seen these, drop what you’re doing and watch’em now:
*** ** ***
11. Hey Matt, got any go-to revision techniques?
i. Turn the poem upside down (define “upside down” any way you want)
ii. Antonymic, synonymic, homophonic, biochemical translation
iii. Whisper your darkest secret to the poem
iv. Read the poem again, then rewrite it from memory (repeat this process until you get something really good)
v. Starting with the final line write twenty more lines (cut everything that came before the new lines)
vi. Take a poem you’ve just written and hide it in a book; forget you ever wrote it. Then find it later, or don’t. Revise it, or don’t.
vii. Change every noun in the poem to ______________ (the more ridiculous the better, “snowshoe” or “fried chicken” or “lava rocks”—but pick just one thing). Then go back through them one at a time, changing them to different things.
viii. Rewrite the poem as the worst version of itself (it will inevitably be better than what you originally wrote)
ix. Give it to someone else to revise. Use their version as your own.
x. Set your alarm for 3:52am. Wake up and revise the poem while you’re still asleep.
xi. Change every single line of your poem to an “equivalent” quotation by somebody else
xii. Call me (513-404-6973) and read your poem over the phone (either to me directly, or leave it as a message on my voicemail); what you need to do will be immediately obvious (when I do this one, I call Jeff Sirkin)
*** ** ***
12. Hey Matt, working on any projects you want to tell us about?
I have a new book coming out from H_NGM_N Books later this year. It’s a book-length poem in sections called Radiant Action [See Editor’s Note Below], and a couple of pieces from it are appearing here in A DOZEN NOTHING. This is a poem I’ve been working on for the last four years, and it’s certainly the most meditative/ philosophical/ ferocious thing I’ve ever written. Essentially, it addresses, articulates, questions, reacts to/against, and sometimes (hopefully) demonstrates the ways that we radiate rather than delineate meaning through the actions (and inaction) of our lives—especially those we undertake and perpetrate (positively, with possibility and potential) through art, love, generosity, and empathy. The ways we do this in the negative—through prejudice, hate, violence, character assassination, etc—seem ever on display in the media and social media and academia and politics, so I address them far less in the poem, i.e. I didn’t need to write the poem to learn how to be a dick. I can learn that by logging onto Facebook or Twitter or Fox News.
The phrase “Radiant Action” I got from Charlotte’s Web, where it appears as a print advertisement for laundry detergent. If you haven’t read the book, the way this plays into the story is that Templeton, the barnyard rat, brings this bit of newspaper with the advertisement on it to Charlotte the spider, so she’ll have more text to write in her web in order to keep Wilbur the pig from being slaughtered. I loved the phrase immediately—its warmth, its motion, its radioactivity. I started thinking about the ways that art is itself a kind of radiant action, one that has the power to change reality itself in generative, unpredictable ways. And this in turn led to thinking about it in relation to other aspects of our lives.
I’ve now actually written a sort of “afterword in flames” to the poem (that I’m still not sure I want to include in the book), which lays out the grounds of the piece overall. It used to be a preface, but it was too much up front (thank you, Adam Fell, for pointing that out), an unnecessary delay before the fiery furnace/ flood(light) of the poem. Maybe it’s too much in general, but it was important for me to write in order to understand my own mind. In the end and forever, I am interested in the ways that IMAGINATION MAKES THE WORLD, and the possibilities of/for that, not only in art, but in our actual, practical, workaday lives.
This Q&A with Matt Hart was originally conducted in January 2016. Radiant Action and its companion book, Radiant Companion were both published on September 15, 2016, by H_NGM_N Books and Monster House Press, respectively, and both books are currently available directly from their publishers and elsewhere. Find Radiant Action here, and Radiant Companion here.
[This Q&A was conducted in January 2016 and first published, via Facebook and Twitter, in February 2016.]