Interview with Matt Hart


Hart’s poetry straddles the line between the domestic and the animal, which he configures eloquently as the holy punk spirit with kids approaching 40. His recent book Light-headed is graceful, mad, euphoric, sobering and challengingly enthusiastic about life. CPR is thrilled to publish such fun and sprawling work. We had to ask him some questions.

CPR: What is currently inspiring you creatively?

MH: I’m sure it sounds cliché, but I’m literally inspired by everything—which is lucky because that means I don’t have to sit around waiting for a lightning bolt to strike me in the facemask to get a poem going. I feel like I can make a poem out of anything—all I need is language, and since that’s the fundamental conceptual framework I walk around in the world with, it’s readily available, both internally and externally. And making poems (rather than merely/only writing them) keeps me productive even when I’m not inspired—process itself can be inspiring: collage, homophonic and antonymic translation, radical re-dis-arrangement, repetition. One has to dive in. One has to have faith. Follow the materials where they lead. And if that’s into total nonsense or mania or gravity’s black manhole cover, so be it. Something that wasn’t now is. The world expands.

Right now, I’m looking out the window at a sky full of Bradford pear and magnolia blossoms. My wife Melanie is doing our taxes. My six year old daughter Agnes is coloring an apple pie in a coloring book. Any one of those things could wind up as poetry.

People pour people in the streets like beer. . .

That seems promising.

CPR: Who was the first poet (or poets) important to you?

MH: Etheridge Knight’s poem “Feeling Fucked Up” was the first poem that really meant something to me. It’s a somewhat violently sounded/reported litany of expletives, but it’s also a love poem—one of deep sadness and regret. Before I heard that poem read out at a reading, poetry wasn’t really even on my radar. I thought it was high-brow and decorative. I wanted to play in punk bands forever. After Knight though, I realized poetry’s relationship to the messiness and contradictory impulses at the root of human being. “Richlier burn ye clouds,” wrote Coleridge from a lime-tree bower, and the burning in that sentiment, that head in the clouds, the energy and heat, is how poetry first spoke to me, allowed me a window into that desire art causes in us—to want to be MORE and to LIVE MORE by any means necessary—even when those means are destructive, a matter of wildness, wilderness, bewilderment, yes!

CPR: Could you talk a little bit about your process?

MH: My process varies quite a bit. I write everyday, but sometimes writing is reading. Sometimes I type on an old Remington Noiseless, sometimes I write in an orange FIELD notebook. Occasionally, I mainline directly into the computer (though I try to avoid the latter, since it’s too easy to revise as I go—to start making decisions before I have anything to make decisions about). As I mentioned above (at least implicitly), I often start by looking around at what’s right in front of me. Sometimes I listen. I root around in memory. I appropriate things from other places. One of my poems that’s in the new Columbia Poetry Review came out of reading Charlotte’s Web to my daughter. There’s a scene in the book where Charlotte sends the rat, Templeton, out to get more words for her to write in her web, and he comes back with an ad for laundry detergent that says “And now, with even more new radiant action!” I loved that phrase “radiant action”—it sounds so nuclear and sunny and apocalyptic at the same time. It immediately seemed like such a great title for a poem, so I wrote the poem “Radiant Action” (and as it turns out I’m using it as the title for the new manuscript I’m working on now too). All the names of the characters from Charlotte’s Web appear in the poem except Templeton. Poor Templeton. In hindsight, I should’ve left Wilbur out. I’m going to change that right now. Done. Now our respective versions are different.

CPR: Would you make an observation about today’s poetry landscape?

MH: I like how brilliantly the weird haze—is it fog or clouds or a poisoned profusion from the Noumenon?—sparkles across it. And the sea monsters crawling out of the water onto the land suggest that things are about to get painfully new again. Of course, for all its Turner-esque-ness, I see a lot of farm implements too, rusted and abandoned in the nearby meadow, which seems rather Dutch to me. But it has the expansiveness of a Chinese landscape as well. The possible windows in are endless. It’s exciting.

CPR: What did you do today?

MH: It’s morning as I write this, so thus far, not much. I’ve had two cups of coffee and worked on this interview. Later, I’ll grade papers, read three articles for the Aesthetics class I’m teaching, and also Dorothea Lasky’s Thunderbird (again and again) for a lit class. Oh yeah, I also made a change to my poem “Radiant Action” (see above), which later I may change back, but I need to live with it a while. I also have workshop poems to attend to, and eventually we have to clean the house, because poets Amanda Smeltz and Russell Dillon are coming to stay with us and give a couple of readings this week. Eventually I’ll go running and do some writing, maybe drink a beer—probably a Christian Moerlein Northern Liberties I.P.A.

CPR: Where do you get the energy to read like that? Secret diet?

MH: I always want readings to be a performance, to have some teeth, to suggest something other than (or in addition to) what the page suggests. The poem on the page and the poem in the air are two very different experiences. I also always feel like you get back the energy you put into things, and I want a lot of energy coming at me when I read. It keeps me alive and combustible. I hope my work sets other people on fire, too. I like the call and response—the electrical transfer—that one can achieve at a reading, that spark of something that can happen between an audience and a performer. That’s what I try to make achieve when I read. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s always the goal. That said, lately, I’ve been writing in a quieter register. If I could, I’d read most of the poems in my new book, Debacle Debacle, to one person at a time right up against their ear, but of course that would be exhausting as well, for me and for the listener. The extremity of it though is very alluring to me.

CPR: Do you stop at 24 Hour Revenge Therapy or continue to Dear You?

MH: I love Dear You. “I have a message: save your generation. We’re killing each other by sleeping in…” (“Save Your Generation”). I think Blake Schwarzenbach’s a great song writer. All his bands have been terrific. That first Jets to Brazil album Orange Rhyming Dictionary is a classic, “Starry Configurations,” “King Medicine,” “Sea Anemone,” “I Typed for Miles”—all such amazing songs. That new self-titled forgetters album is also a winner. The lyrics and music alike move from Romantic to political to ferocious on a dime. There’s a song on it called “I’m Not Immune” where he sings, “I’m not immune to this. In fact I’m sick with the truth.” The whole record sounds so cinematic and regretful and resigned, but full of life and poetic surprise. It’s gorgeous with darkness, personal decision/reflection, and powerfully catchy hooks. It took me a minute to love it (because it wasn’t what I expected), but now I love it. More and more in art I think that expectations, because they’re often rigidly imposed (from within and without) limitations, are the devil. Whatever Blake does it always seems on the move and surprising, discontented. The past is not an option, and people’s expectations matter less than the art and the parameters he gives himself. Dear You got a bad rap when it first came out. Everybody wanted it to sound like 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and it didn’t. It was a different thing, as it should’ve been. Poets often wind up in the same boat. A new book appears, and it’s not like the last one, and readers compare and criticize one with the other, when, for all intents and purposes, they’re apples and oranges that need to be considered independently of each other. As Dean Young puts it, “Poetry is always ahead of criticism.” The critical apparatus is based on a description of what’s already been done, so when it’s confronted with something new it doesn’t know what to say at first. The terrain has to be described and mapped before it can be interpreted and considered part of the known territory. Art arrives a brave new possible world and thus is often at least partially unrecognizable in terms of its old, now codified, now conventional predecessors. That’s a problem for criticism but a boon for art and exciting as hell for all of us—that is, if we keep ourselves open to the possibility of having our values expanded and our beliefs contradicted, deranged, changed, transecnded. Forget about consistency. Art, like life, is plethora. It’s messy as hell, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Matt Hart is the author of Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006) and Wolf Face (H_NGM_N BKS, 2010). 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.

Interviewed by CPR editorial board member James Eidson.