Matthew Thorburn, Poet - Author of Dear Almost
Don't you find, after finishing a good book, that you'd like to ask the author a few questions and continue the conversation? Me too. This is the first in a series of conversations I hope to have with the authors of books I enjoy reading. I call this What are You Reading? because whenever I talk to a friend that's the question we always ask each other. Here are my answers to that question, the books I'm enjoying and recommend you check out.
First up is This is What They Say, a collection of prose poems by M. Bartley Seigel, published by Typecast in 2012. Seigel is the founding editor of the critically acclaimed literary magazine [PANK]. He lives, writes, and teaches in Houghton, Michigan, where he is assistant professor of creative writing and diverse literatures at Michigan Technological University. This is What They Say is his first book.
Q: How did This is What They Say come together for you? I’m curious about how these poems evolved into a book. Did you set out to write a collection of prose poems, or did you write a certain number and begin to see a larger arc to the work, or…?
A: A certain number materialized and then momentum took over. Jen Woods at Typecast was instrumental as an editor, as well, helping to cut through a lot of the fat I'd built up on the page, get down to the bone. I suppose a collection was always in the back of my mind, but the poems that appear in the book were mixed among many others published in lit mags over the years. It was very slow and organic, bringing the thing into focus.
Q: I’m also interested in the choice of the prose poem as a form. Were these always prose poems, or did you try breaking them into lines at any point? Did you feel the form enabled you to do something you couldn’t do in lines, or couldn’t do as effectively?
A: Some started as prose while others were broken down. I settled on prose as a form that cut through some of the perceived bullshit of poetry, by which I mean the artifice that keeps many readers at bay. I write a lot about very bare bones people in bare bones circumstances and burying that under a heavy handed prosody just never felt right to me, at least not with these particular poems.
Q: The book is dedicated to the “people and places of Montcalm County, Michigan, from a time when I called it home,” and one of the things I love about this collection is the strong sense of a lived environment—a specific landscape and culture, a tangible place. As the dedication suggests, there’s also a kind of looking back going on in the poems. Did you need that distance of time and space in order to write these poems? And what was that looking back like for you as a poet?
A: I dwell a lot in memory and mythology and the particular kind of fantasy those two combine to form, particularly in my poems. I've always been very taken with the idea of nostalgia, especially in its original sense, combining ruminations of home with a certain pain or anxiety or melancholy or loss, something more akin to phantom limb syndrome than to any kind of sentimentality, but always, always deeply romantic. And yes, it takes some time and distance from a period and place for that thing to build, I suppose.
Q: As someone fascinated by narrative strategies and choices, I also noticed right away (and admire) the fact that the book is written from the first-person-plural point of view. It’s a “We” speaking to us—and in some ways for us—in these poems. Could you talk about this choice and what it does for the poems?
A: I often find emerging and contemporary poetry very galling due to its deeply myopic confessional. I often find myself thinking, as I read a poem, who cares about this BUT the poet talking to herself? No one. Sure, sure, finding the universal in the personal and all that, but at a certain point it's just the worst kind of narcicism. No wonder poetry is in the straights it's in (though to be honest, I'm ok with poetry's "straights"; it seems to be doing quite well despite all the hand wringing to the contrary). I wanted to harken back to my perceived sense that poets used to speak for people other than themselves (that's probably not even really true, right?). "We" is a pretty simple way to do that. Then, of course, there was a sense in the book that the people to whom I'm speaking and speaking of aren't often allowed to speak for themselves and I wanted to play with that, turn it on its head, as much as I could.
Q: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a father, a professor, and editor of the literary journal [PANK]. As a new parent myself, I’m curious to know how you balance all of these roles and manage to play all four? When and where do you find time to write?
A: I'm not writing much at this exact moment, to be honest. And my wife is a writer/professor/parent/spouse, too, which is to say, most days, we barely keep shit from burning down around us, and that's good enough. I turn 40 this year. I'm going to be living in Estonia for a year starting in August, teaching at Tartu University. This spring, I'm mostly doing yoga, painting rooms in my house, playing ukulele, rearranging my furniture, teaching, editing, cooking earthy meals involving a lot of lamb and butter, drinking red wine, sitting around on my ass in candlelight, watching the new season of Vikings, reading, and engaging as deeply with my marriage and my kids as I can, looking forward to the upcoming mountain biking season. The writing will either happen and be a part of that or it won't. I'm cool either way.
Q: Lastly, what’s next? What are you working on now?
A: Besides moving to Estonia next academic year? I want to build a sauna in my basement. I'd like to start keeping chickens again; I really enjoyed that when I did it before. I'd like to get another dog; my last dog died last year. Writing-wise, I've got a batch of little gritty love poems I should probably shop around. And there's been an essay collection percolating for a couple years I should probably crank on. Honestly, though, I don't know. We'll see, I guess.
Two poems from This is What They Say:
We lie sullen in the dark, arms thrown over our eyes, breathing in the other's breath. It takes no small process to dislodge ourselves from each other, our sheets, to cross the floor barefoot without upsetting floorboards or children. Then kettles, faucets, stove tops, cups, refrigerators, cartons of bad milk, all our little explosions. This is a kind of seduction, too, though we seldom see it. We are all paper dolls. We are all scroll work and the creative use of light. Out the window there's fog on the hills while inside there's the smell of chicken bones, cat boxes, kerosene, the coffee burning. In our pubic beards, the smell of each the other's body. But all we can think of is avoidance and even this thought-crab crawls out our ears, out through our half open windows while we stand there, dead in our skins, hands limp at our waists, watching our dreams disappear into the darkening trees.
After the terrible argument we will make love and afterward lie sullen on the bed, our bellies down, heads turned away. Life is all beyond us, and we will get up without speaking, without so much as a sigh, and go into the bathroom to draw a warm bath. We will listen to the sound of the splashing water.