Matthew Thorburn, Poet - Author of Dear Almost
Al Maginnes is the author of five full-length poetry collections including Taking Up Our Daily Tools (St. Andrews College Press, 1997); The Light In Our Houses (Pleaides Press, 2000), winner of the Lena-Myles Wever Todd Award; Film History (WordTech Editions, 2005); Ghost Alphabet (White Pine Press, 2008), which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize; and Inventing Constellations (WordTech Editions, 2012). His sixth book of poems, Music from Small Towns, was selected as the winner of the Jacar Press full-length poetry book contest not long after this interview took place, and is forthcoming. He has also published four chapbooks, most recently Between States (Main Street Rag Press, 2010) and Greatest Hits 1987-2010 (Pudding House Publications, 2010). He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife and daughter and teaches composition, literature and creative writing at Wake Technical Community College.
MT: I’m always curious about titles, since the title is usually the first thing that draws my attention to a book (or fails to). How did you decide on the title of this collection, or decide that “Inventing Constellations” would be the title poem?
AM: Usually the title for anything, whether it be a single poem or a collection of them, is the last thing to come to me. In the case of Inventing Constellations, the collection had made a circuit or two of various contests and publishers under a couple of other titles. Looking back, the inability to settle on a title might have spoken to the problem I had finding an identity for the entire book. When the idea for the poem “Inventing Constellations” came, I realized more or less at the same time that the poem, if it worked at all, might make a good title for the book. There’s a lot of stargazing in the book or mindless staring into space. Since the book also deals with some of my thoughts and reactions to becoming a first-time father at the age of 49, that seems appropriate.
How did you go about organizing Inventing Constellations as a book? Did you write these poems with a particular theme or idea of the book in mind, or was this process something that started after the poems had been written?
I’ve never been good at extended projects when it comes to poems. Books for me usually happen when I realize I have a stack of poems and I start looking at how they speak to each other. Inventing Constellations was no different. I had all these poems and began shuffling them around to see how they fit. At some point I sent the manuscript to about half a dozen friends for their reactions, which was something I had never inflicted on so many people at once before. But something wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out what. What wasn’t working was that I was trying to write a very different book than I ended up with. I wanted a big sprawling collection, like the book I’d published right before that, Ghost Alphabet, and this just didn’t want to be that.
A turning point in how the book came together was when I wrote what ended up being the first poem in the book, “The Definitions.” My friend Sandy Longhorn read that poem and suggested that it should be the first poem in the book. She also made some good suggestions about tightening up the manuscript, so I ended up with a shorter, tighter manuscript than I started with. But a better one, I think.
How does a poem start for you? In particular, how did “Inventing Constellations” or “In My Good Life” start? And what was your writing and revising process like with these poems?
Poems come in all sorts of ways. Sometimes in a big rush of language that doesn’t have much aim yet. Last night, for instance, I wrote about eighty lines that didn’t really have a focus but I liked the sounds I was making. Today and tomorrow we’ll see if that amounted to anything. Other times I just have a line or two and I see if it matches up with anything else I might have in my notebook—I write longhand in spiral notebooks just like I did in grade school. Quite often a poem starts in response to something I’ve read or a poem I come across makes me want to start writing. Or just reading poems gets part of my brain thinking about that stanza that’s giving me trouble. There is a handful of poets who always make me feel like writing, and if I feel seriously stuck, I go to them. Even if I don’t start writing, I’m spending time with good poems, and that’s always valuable.
“Inventing Constellations” came about after reading one too many poems by middle aged poets rhapsodizing about the joys of parenthood (I’ve written more than a few of these myself). Parenthood, especially for those of us who thought we might have missed that boat, is a joy. But it is many other things as well and it can all be downright stressful at times. The speaker of “Inventing Constellations” is acutely aware of his shortcomings as a human being and a father. He chafes a bit at the restrictions having a family places on him while realizing that these are restrictions he has asked for. So I tried to speak to that tension that I think all parents feel at some time between wanting to do your own thing and the needs and wishes of those people who—face it—you love more than anything else. Also, I’ve long been delighted that the constellations are man-made constructs, albeit ones that have been there for a long while. But at one time they were just stars until men began seeing patterns there and applying them. So the narrator of the poem making up the names of constellations in his daughter’s room is not that different than the first men naming the Big Dipper.
Richard Hugo is an important poet for me. He was my first real hero when I started writing poems in my early to mid-20s and “In My Good Life” cops some riffs from him. This poem was unusual for me in that I started with the title and worked from there. Usually the title of a poem is the last thing to come to me, and at any given time I have a couple of poems that are sitting around finished except that I can’t find a title for them. Beyond the idea of a life as the mysterious and benevolent stranger, I liked the idea that someone had suffered for this speaker to live the sort of effortless life he did, so the man who lives outside town, who was punished for the crimes of the speaker, came into the poem. In a sense these men are the yin and the yang that make up all of us. We all have secrets we don’t want our bosses or friends learning. And by a certain point in our lives, we’ve made some conscious decisions that land us where we are. I was trying to get at all that in the poem.
I should add, lest I seem too calculating, that when I start a poem, I have very little idea of what it’s about or where it’s going. I can probably only talk as I do about these poems because I wrote them several years ago and have had a lot of time to think about them. When I’m writing I’m trying to get the next line or the next word right. I am not thinking about the narrator’s struggle to be a better father or to outrun his past. I just want to write a poem that I would want to read.
It seems like many of these poems are about family and/or about inventing or imagining other narratives or lives. Are there particular themes that you find you keep returning to in your writing?
Sure. And some of those themes or obsessions have remained fairly constant. Others, such as writing about family, are more recent. I’ve written constantly about music. I’ve been a music fan all my life and have a huge collection of CDs and bootleg recordings. I’m still cursing myself for getting rid of my vinyl records in the 90s. Part of this is probably musician envy and part of it is that I’m fascinated by the way music communicates in a way that nothing else does.
Work and my endless array of bad jobs has been another thread throughout my writing for many years. I knew all those crappy jobs would be good for something one day, and I had a lot of them. In the same vein, my years of drinking and drugs keep coming back in my writing. I’ve been sober for 25 years but I’m still coming to terms with all of that, in part because I started drinking and using right at the same time a lot of first experiences come along—first loves, first jobs, the little initiations into adulthood. And as I get older, as I get more perspective on all of that, my view of those years changes.
When I was putting Inventing Constellations together, there was a point when I realized just how many poems about family there were and after a period of resisting that, I went with it and let that idea guide me. As for inventing or imagining other lives, I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t given some thought to the idea of simply getting the hell out of Dodge at one time or another. And I’ve always been fascinated with people who actually pulled it off. And I would argue that in a sense, all of us are living lives we at least partly invented. We all have made choices that put us where we are.
At one point in my early 20s I knew a few people who managed to live under the radar like this. I worked with one guy who changed his last name every time he got a job. This was in the late 70s and it was a bit easier to do this then. At one point he and I were working in a warehouse and we used to get our checks cashed at a local grocery store. He was signing his check one day and all of a sudden exclaimed “This pen is messed up” and scratched through what he was writing. He got another pen from the cashier, signed his check and got his money. There was nothing wrong with the pen; he had started to sign the wrong name on the back of his check.
More recent ideas that crop up in my poems are my very rudimentary understanding of science. I’ve been reading a lot about physics and the universe for the last few years, and those notions work their way into poems from time to time. And I suppose family and children, my daughter in particular, will continue to show up in poems. At least until she gets embarrassed and asks me to stop.
In addition to being a poet, you’re also a father and a teacher. As a new parent myself, I’m curious to know how you balance those three roles and manage to play all three?
Balance? What’s that? Mostly I do what’s there to be done. And there is always something to do. My daughter and my wife, obviously, come first. Since my schedule is more flexible than my wife’s, I’m normally the one taking my daughter to school and picking her up, arranging play dates, all that kind of stuff. And I love doing it. Since I teach a couple of classes online, I’m home a couple of days a week, which is when most of my grading gets done. My writing sort of takes place at the edges of all these other things. Most of it is done at night, when everyone else is asleep, but I’ve learned to grab whatever moments I can. A couple of weeks ago I drafted a poem on the playground while my daughter played with friends. I’ve written in car pool lines, in doctor’s offices, during my office hours at school, literally anywhere I can when I need to. I’d love to have a set time for writing, but I seem to get more done when my schedule is this way. Times when I’ve had a lot of free time, I tend to do much less writing because I figure I can always get to it later.
What’s next for you, writing-wise? Do you have a new book in the works?
I have a new collection, Music From Small Towns, out making the rounds as we speak. It’s been a finalist or semifinalist in several places in the last year so I’m hoping it finds a home soon. I have a stack of about 140 pages I’m going to sort through this summer and see if there’s another book there. And I’m somewhere in the third draft of a novel I started a while back. I was hoping I was nearly done, but I’m getting the sad feeling that I have a long way to go. I’m hoping to get a lot done on that before fall rolls around. So as always, I have more projects than time.
And lastly, what are you reading these days?
This will take a while. I always have several books going at once. I’m rereading The Brothers Karamazov and realizing that I barely remember any of it from my last time reading it about twenty years ago. This spring has seen the publication of a lot of good books of poems. My friend Suzanne Cleary’s new book Beauty Mark is stellar, the best of her career. Some other collections I’ve just finished are In the Back Room at the Philosopher’s Club by Christopher Buckley, Structures the Wind Sings Through by George Looney, Designed for Flight by Gregory Fraser, Cadaver, Speak by Marianne Boruch, which just amazed me. I also just read her memoir The Glimpse Traveler about a hitchhiking trip she took in the early 70s. I used to hitchhike a lot too, and her observations about the whole art of hitching kindled a lot of memories and “yes, I remember what that was like.” I’ve recently discovered two poets who have been around for a while but had slipped under my radar until recently, Doug Ramspeck and Michael Hettich. Sean Thomas Dougherty’s All You Ask For Is Longing is on top of my pile of books right now. Joe Weil’s new and selected volume The Great Grandmother Light is very good. June Saraceno, one of my oldest friends in or out of poetry, has just published her second book Of Dirt and Tar, and I’m partway through that. Carl Dennis and Peter Everwine have both published strong collections recently. A friend just send me Dana Roeser’s new collection and I can’t put it down. It seems like every week I discover another poet. We are living in a fertile time for poetry, and I feel lucky to be able to spend so much time with it.
Two Poems from Inventing Constellations:
I know the moon offers no light of its own, that its glow,
like ours, is what the sun leaves behind. And I know
what wishes have been wasted on the moon. Tonight,
I wish the ones I love were with me in this small field
near our house to see earth’s shadow cross the face
of the fire-reflecting moon. But lately I’ve let burn
too many small angers, said too many things that can’t be
excused or taken back. I’ve wanted too much time in fields alone.
Still, the house is not dark behind me. A light burns,
low and constant in our daughter’s room as she sleeps.
And last night we fell asleep with the lamp burning above us
like an unfinished conversation. Tonight,
Isabel turned off the light in her room to play with a toy
that casts patterns of stars and crescent moons across
the night-blank walls. After she dropped into sleep,
I lay on her floor a while inventing constellations, giving names
to those soon-to-vanish formations: The Bad Father,
The Child Rising, The House of the Family Dreaming.
Leaving her room, I switched on the lamp by her door.
We like the idea of a light above us, proving an end
to the dark. But a flashlight cutting a pattern of tiny commas
in a neighbor’s yard pulls my gaze from the shift of light
and shadow in the sky. If it could talk, the moon might tell me
the flashlight has more to say about the transitory nature
of light than any eclipse. Everything passes. In the morning
I’ll tell my loved ones about the color of the moon
and all they missed, but morning has its own business,
and they know the moon will be there tonight to preside over
this constellation, this body of light, we made and remain.
In My Good Life
In another town, I have done
all the tasks I was assigned
and never completed in this one,
and that diligence has made me
beloved, respected for wisdom
and for a kindness that is real
but detached. When I walk downtown,
children bring questions and seem
pleased by my answers, which are
warm and vague. The angriest dogs
wag and nose my hand. Clerks wave
from behind counters; waitresses sing
the day’s specials from doorways.
I know stories are whispered about
my years before this town. Over tables
and on hushed porches, I’m a priest
who lost his calling, an inventor
whose patent was stolen. A novel
long enough to save us all lies
unpublished on my desk. I admit
and deny nothing because I know
a mile beyond the heart of town
waits the house of a man caught
and convicted for all the wrongs
I committed and got away with.
He spent years locked away and now
sits on his stoop carving figures
out of soap or soft wood. When
he sees me pass, he says nothing,
and I won’t look in his direction,
the two of us disciple
to our divergent paths,
our twinned and broken fates.
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