Our next featured poet is Matthew Olzmann!
Matthew Olzmann’s first book of poems, Mezzanines, received the 2011 Kundiman Prize and was published by Alice James Books. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, The Southern Review, Forklift, Ohio and elsewhere. Currently, he is the coeditor of The Collagist, and a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in the undergraduate writing program at Warren Wilson College. (matthewolzmann.com)
I am enthralled by the poems of Matthew Olzmann. They are often funny, poignant, lyrical, astute—and when he reads them, they come alive like little beasts leaping from the page. In the following poem, Olzmann asks us to consider the remains of such a beast—the skull of a dinosaur—as a metaphor for our navigation of the fallacies our hopes create. “I know what it means/to watch your good fortune change its mind”, he writes, as he switches dexterously from the narrative of the chagrined archaeologist to the speaker’s own memory. And disappointment, the shell-shocked stillness of that realization that what was true minutes ago is actually false, is something we can all empathize with—we find ourselves dreading the supermodel’s discovery, the moment “when the light ruin[s] everything.” Sometimes what we dream is that much brighter at the moment we realize that it won’t come true—the “new world” that we craved, “its beaches of untouched skin”, “moons that smelled of a hundred flowers”, or “I-Could-Live-Here-Forever Land and Holy-Shit-Was-I-Wrong-Land”. Olzmann mixes pure sincerity with joyous language, as well as humor; I laughed at the brilliant lines “What kind of animal is this?/ I call it: The Motherfuckerasaurus.” Immediately preceding these lines, there is a different emotional tenor, one of painful longing. These exhilarating shifts in tone sets the wonderfully varied emotional landscape of Olzmann’s poem: this landscape does seem like a “new world”, one that, despite the poem’s sentiment, fulfills our many hopes as readers.
The Skull of an Unidentified Dinosaur
does not belong to the dinosaur skeleton
to which it has been attached.
A man thought he made an amazing
discovery. Now, it’s a towering mistake,
one for which he’ll likely lose his job,
but only after taking this skyscraper
of bones—with its eye-sockets
like windows to hell—apart.
Femur by mandible, I know what it means
to watch your good fortune change its mind.
Like that time in college, when my friend’s
supermodel cousin invited us to a party
and accidentally kissed me in the dark.
She thought I was someone else—I have
no idea who—but the gist of the story
can be seen in her freaking out
when the light ruined everything.
For a moment, I thought I discovered
a new world. And what a world it was—
with its beaches of untouched skin,
and its moons that smelled of a hundred flowers.
I named that land I-Could-Live-Here-
Forever Land and Holy-Shit-Was-I-Wrong Land.
Einstein says imagination is more important
than knowledge. Certainly, it’s kinder.
I imagine the man who wired these
dinosaur bones must have imagined
his vision was real, must have pictured
it alive. Covered in flesh, the imagined life
can also be terrifying—able to cleave you
open with the swipe of a claw
or devour you in seconds.
But as it is now, having never existed
after tricking you into believing,
it eats at you more slowly, lets you feel
every new rip in your gut, makes you beg:
What kind of animal is this?
I call it: The Motherfuckerasaurus.
And, technically, that’s not the right name,
but neither is the word stamped here now—
in block letters, on a bronze plaque,
screwed to the floor.
First published in Gulf Coast
Who are you? What are you all about?
I like how Ocean Vuong answered this same question a couple days ago, saying, "Some days I feel like a human. Some days I feel more like a sound." I like the flexibility of that answer, allowing for an identity in flux. For me too, it changes rapidly, from moment to moment. Right now, there's a baseball game on the radio. I'm all about—this October—the Detroit Tigers winning the 2014 World Series. If this fails to happen, I'll be all about them winning it in 2015. I'm easily distracted, and what I'm "all about" is constantly in motion. I'm all about the newborn lambs and piglets on the farm of the college where I teach. I'm all about the mountains that surround this place. In the autumn, when the leaves begin to fall, you can see houses behind the tree line that you didn't know were there.
Tell me about your current or most recent project. How did you transform it from its genesis to its current form?
I just finished what I hope will be my second book, and I'm working on poems that might become another project. I usually don't think in terms of "projects" or even "books" while I'm writing. I write poems independently of each other with no thought as to how they might be connected. Even if I'm consciously writing poems that are obviously linked to each other, the series as a whole usually fizzles out after 3-10 poems and I go back to writing individual poems, one at a time, over and over. Much later, I go back, sort through them and see how they relate to one another. So the "genesis" is always in the steady accumulation of individual poems. The "transformation" comes from sifting through the piles, slowly becoming aware of correspondences in the work, and then trying to enhance, undermine, or complicate those correspondences.
That said, I feel like—maybe for the first time—I'm working on a series of poems that feel intrinsically connected to each other. It's a sequence of letters, mostly, and it's gone on long enough that I think it's more than just a quick "series" of poems. We'll see.
Tell me what you get excited about, in terms of your poetry and your work. What have you discovered in the process of shaping and forming your manuscript(s)? What has shaped, challenged, or invigorated your poetic practice?
Something that I didn't expect to invigorate my writing practice that ended up impacting it in a big way (especially the poems I'm currently working on) was improv theater. A couple of years ago, for fun, I took some classes at GoComedy—a comedy club located just outside of Detroit, in Ferndale, Michigan. The performers at that theater were some of the most talented artists I'd ever met.
Improvisation, I thought, was something that came from the opposite impulse that most of my writing comes from. As with many writers, I like to think about what I'm going to say before I say it. Then I like to write it down. Then delete it. Then write it again. Then look up synonyms for some haphazard word. Then maybe set it aside for a while, come back later, and revise. That's not how it works in improv. You're on a stage and you have to say something right now.
Also, in the revision of poetry, much of the work often comes down to the necessary excising of material that's not working. In improv, you can't reject, remove or delete anything. You have to say "Yes" to everything and build from that. If something doesn't work, you can't just remove it; you have to justify it, build from it, and somehow make it fit.
These were challenging concepts for me, but they were also revelations and taught me new ways of thinking about the creative process. And while I still prefer to think something out and revise it, I learned to value speed, spontaneity, wildness and escalation in the creative process—in the initial drafting—much more than I had previously.
Who are your influences? If you could map a poetic lineage, how would it look? Or the opposite: whose work do you admire and come back to, but contrasts from your own work?
Influence is such an enormous subject, and it's impossible to name everything and everyone that shapes a person as a writer. Everything and everyone is a potential influence. It's hard to go through the world and not be stunned and awestruck all the time. In terms of writers, Robert Hayden, Larry Levis, and Wisława Szymborska are poets that I've been turning to with increasing frequency in recent months.
Steve Orlen, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Brooks Haxton, and Martha Rhodes were teachers of mine, and all of them had a profound and lasting impact on the way I write.
People like Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi and the community they've created at Kundiman have shaped—maybe more than anyone—my ideas regarding literary citizenship, and the type of person I hope to be as I move through the writing world.
"Lineage" is an interesting concept. I've been fortunate to have a number of wonderful teachers and mentors in an MFA Program, Kundiman, and writing conferences such as Bread Loaf and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Each of them has shaped and continues to shape the writer I am and the writer I'm trying to become. If we were to "map" it out as a family tree, it would probably look like a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon scenario where everything is threaded through everything else. For example, I did my MFA at Warren Wilson. A couple of my teachers went to Iowa. There, they met people like Donald Justice, who studied with folks like Berryman and Lowell. Lowell studied with John Crowe Ransom. At Kenyon College, Ransom started the Kenyon Review and, seventy-something years later, David Baker (Kenyon Review's current poetry editor) offered me a fellowship to attend the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. I'm sure we could keep going backwards and forwards until we connect each of us to Whitman to Donne to Horace. Horace used to teach in the MFA program at Syracuse, etc.
I find myself constantly inspired by writers who are emerging right now. Cathy Linh Che, Jamaal May, Tarfia Faizullah, Michael Mlekoday, and Brynn Saito have all put out books of poems in the past year that are stunning.
What is one thing that you desire to say as a poet, but haven’t said yet? What does the future hold for you, if you could hold it?
The next poem is always the thing I'm trying to say but haven't said yet. Even if it's something I've already said, I'm trying to say it better. I hope the future holds a successful variation of that poem many times over.