The Rumpus Original Combo with Matthew Lippman
“Now, 23 years later, I’m a broke poet with two books and a small fan base that digs my shit. Not too shabby for a half-ass, lazy, somewhat smart guy like myself.”
I do hope you have heard about Matthew Lippman’s new book. It’s called Monkey Bars, just out this Fall by Typecast Publishing, the new outfit born out of The Lumberyard, a poetry journal done on letterpress that is at once beautiful and not-precious about it. I reviewed Lippman’s first book, The New Year of Yellow for upstate New York magazine Chronogram, and here’s part of what I wrote: “Initially, Matthew Lippman’s debut poetry collection looks like loopy-lyrical-riffs on quotidiana: jazz, getting fat, blondes. And it is: His generous humor alone makes it a good book. What makes it a great book is how it transport us to places unexpected, strange, sacred…brave enough to move us.”
We live in an age of contemporary poetry where the self-fashioned indie rockers have won; we’re all indie now, which of course makes that meaningless. This presents for poets and what’s left of its readers a new paradigm: if we are all detached, vanguarded and twee, concepted-to-the-hilt, maybe the most rebellious job is to fuck up shit by making sense. And that’s what I get out of Matthew Lippman’s poetry.
I talked to Matthew via Word attachments over email, asking him a couple questions at a time, over the course of about three weeks. He is unfailingly friendly and not caught up in Poetryland, which at least for this writer is refreshing and worthy of emulating. He teaches at a place called Beaver Day School near Boston; he offered me a t-shirt after I expressed interest for what seems to me obvious reasons, but has yet to follow through on this. He did, however, express man-love for me at one point in this interview. So I have that going for me. Which is nice.
The Rumpus Interview with Matthew Lippman
The Rumpus: First question: Hi Matthew. How are you? Where are you reading this question? What are you wearing?
Matthew Lippman: I am well, thank you. I am reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life, some Larry Levis, Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors and some Doonesbury comic strips. Wearing? I’d like to say nothing but that would be a lie. I got a nice J. Crew button-up shirt with some wicked stripes, some comfy corduroys that feel like my second skin, athletic socks and some Ecco shoes.
Rumpus: Hmmm. That’s a nice picture you painted there. I am a Clark’s man myself. I am excited about your book, who published it, and how it was published. And, of course, the poems.
Lippman: Typecast Publishing, a new press, founded by the wicked smart Jennifer Woods, published the book. She published it out of a desire to make books that were little art pieces. Her brother, Eric Woods, runs a letterpress, Firecracker Press, so the two of them put their heads, hearts and talents together to make this cool book, Monkey Bars. I wrote the poems over the course of three years. It’s a bit of angry book, funny, all that shit. It came out of thin air as far as I am concerned.
Rumpus: One of the things I love about your poems is their wacky plainspokenness, by which I mean these poems, at least on the surface, could be read as if it were two people talking to each other, or a poet-speaker to a reader. Then, somewhere along the line, the reader or the speaker realizes something is amiss, or fucked-up, or epiphanic.
Lippman: I just write the way I think I talk. I’m glad you enjoy them, get them, hear them. I would like everyone to embrace the plainspokenness of the poems. I just read an interview with Gerald Stern in The Rumpus, and he was talking about poetry now and how poets are NOT saying anything about the world and how that is not the best thing, you know, for poetry. So, that is what I hope, deep down in my fat gut, that these poems do—that they say something about this fucked up, beautiful, amazing, breathtaking, god-awful-difficult world. I think they do and that is why I want everyone who picks up the book to connect to the work, because, I would hope, I am writing poems that speak to many things that are both of me and outside of me at the same time. I don’t want to alienate anyone with my poems. I think that’s foolish and stupid. Poetry is difficult enough as it is. I want to bring people in. I want it to be a love fest. It would be cool as shit if all of us poets could have the kind of mass appeal as a Lady Gaga or Tampax.
Rumpus: If you write the way you talk, then what thought do you put into line breaks, compression, word choice?
Lippman: It’s the spirit of the thing, really. I have no idea why I break lines the way I do. I write in blocks, long paragraphs, then go back and break the sentences up. Something happens in my body when I’m doing it and it tells me, my body, break. So I do. I have not ever wanted to fuck with that process. It’s a little thing I’ve had going with myself for a long time.
Rumpus: Have you ever thought about putting a 25-cent word for a 5-cent thought and held back? I guess what I mean to say is: have you ever said to yourself, fuck it—I actually want to alienate somebody with this line/stanza/poem here?
Lippman: I think this new book of mine is all about alienating people. I did not think about it when I was putting it together but it’s not for the weak of heart. There’s a lot of language in here that could offend people. I hope it does. Not to be a bastard just to make folks think. It’s an angry book. It’s a colorful book. It’s a short book. It’s a funny book.
Rumpus: Do you have anything to say about the star-machinery of the American poetry world? Or do you want to just skip that?
Lippman: It’s stupid and cute.
Rumpus: When I was coming up as a poet, maybe it was the way for you to, but there was this idiotic movement to rid poems of “narrative,” as if that was the problem with the poetry of the 1980s and 1990s. Do you remember those days? Did you come up against that when trying to get your poems published? Also: do you consider yourself a narrative poet?
Lippman: I have to admit I have always been pretty set on doing what I do no matter the tone, tenor and or climate of things. I never envisioned myself as part of any poetry world, believe it or not. I understood that my work, back in the late 80’s, when I first started out on the serious poetry road, was not what everyone else was doing. I was cocky and a cave-dweller at the same time. Mostly, I just never took myself that seriously as a poet so it did not matter in the end.
Even still, that is all I wanted to be, a poet. Hell, it took me fourteen years to get my first book published. Maybe that’s because I was writing, and continue to write, narrative poems. I don’t know. What I do know is that I love stories. I am a product of a lot of television and movie viewing. I read a lot of books when I was young. Stories are in my nature. But, also, the world loves stories. What’s the problem with telling stories? I never understood it. I have always worked in that mode because it makes the most sense to me and I think, too, it appeals to the most amount of people.
Ultimately, as I have said, that’s what I want to do—tell stories that are about me and then not about me at the same time. It’s nothing new. But, it’s the only reason to continue writing poems. I think building houses and making organic tomatoes and teaching and raising children are far more important and satisfying than writing a poem. Globally speaking, that is. It’s a conundrum I can’t quite figure out yet.
Rumpus: So when you say you never envision yourself as being part of any poetry world, are you saying that being part of some team, coterie, movement, Elks Lodge of like-minded poets has been important to you? Poets tend to move in packs, perhaps to protect or promote each other. With you that hasn’t been the case—but at the same time, you did attend arguably the center of poet-career-making, the Iowa Writers Workshop. Was that a freakout for you, or no?
Lippman: Kill me if you want, but lately I feel a little more like I’m in the club. I like that because it makes me feel like I’ve arrived a bit. Truth is, that’s only a feeling. I have never arrived. I don’t know if I ever will, whatever that means. I got lucky with Iowa. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I was accepted. Hell, I never finished my application because I gave up the whole idea half way through the process.
While I was there I hung out with people who were not part of the team. I had two great teachers: One, Gerald Stern. The other, a fellow student, Juan Felipe Herrera. What this has to do with anything I don’t know. I just hung out on the fringe when I was there. It was great and I love that I was given the opportunity to attend that place. It did nothing for my career but I was not thinking about a career. That was, in hindsight, both a good and bad thing. Now, 23 years later, I’m a broke poet with two books and a small fan base that digs my shit. Not too shabby for a half-ass, lazy, somewhat smart guy like myself.
Rumpus: I think about that sometimes, what to do after you do make it into the club, or a club, or are let past the velvet ropes. I used to think all my problems would be solved with getting a book—that’s how I put it, “getting a book.” Once that happens, it’s like you’ve started a “career.” Or something. But I still have that focus on the difference among the poets I see around, the way they approach or not approach the world, or even mention or not mention it, as Gerald Stern says. In Monkey Bars, you write about “rich white corporate Don Henley dick suckers” and turn into Moses (“Wal-Mart Poem”) and turn, again and again, to the “nut-job baboon type” America has to offer. You say it’s an “angry book,” but it seems to celebrate a certain kind of buffoonery that Americans in particular have always celebrated. I’m thinking of an H.L. Mencken quote I like to trundle out but can’t find right now; it’s something along the lines of “Like most Americans, I’ve spent half my life laughing.” I’m reading the NYRB reprint of Constance Rourke’s 1931 book American Humor: A Study of The National Character, and in it he mentions a certain “backwoodsman”darkness to our humor, that it’s somehow more necessary in the U.S. to have in even the lightest of light verses—“Hallelujah! I’m a bum!” and all that. I’m not sure this is a question so much as I want to throw these ideas at you and see if you have thought along these lines.
Lippman: I just want to say before I talk to these issues a little that I love you. You can print that or not but it’s the truth. It’s not so far-fetched to say. I don’t even know you, really, but this love thing is very important to me in the context of your thoughts.
It’s true, all of it, about the darkness and the humor. Maybe it’s very American, too. I think of people like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Sandra Bernhardt—dark and hysterical. Poets like Alan Dugan and Jennifer L. Knox and Gerald Stern and Philip Larkin. These folks had/have an itch to scratch. You got to be pissed off to be funny. I believe in that. I also believe that there is a tremendous amount of generosity in channeling both energies and that generosity is about celebration or love. I think about your book, God Save My Queen and how much of all this is in there—anger, lust, humor, love.
Once, I got slammed for writing a glowing review of a new book of poems; the reviewer called me a name, and I read it and thought, Hey, wait a minute, it’s just poetry. It’s not like I’m coming at you with a spear to knock off your village. Shit. Shut the fuck up. Just shut the fuck up. There are so many wonderful ways to say stuff and either you like it you don’t. It’s not very sophisticated but it’s open-hearted and, at the end of the day, if you can’t be open-hearted, then the world is a harder place. Too much being said, too much language. But, I’m one of the guys saying things and putting out the language. Wicked contradiction.
So, really, I don’t know what I’m saying or where I am, even. I think if you really, really, really love to play with language because it’s like you really, really, really love to walk down the street, then it does not matter about the clubs, the books, the banter. There is nothing more exciting and fun to me, other than being with the wife and kids, that is like writing a poem. The flat-out experience of making some crazy shit up out of thin air that expresses exactly and inexactly, at the same time, how I feel or see things, is just way too much fun. It’s my thing and it has helped me survive into and out of love my whole damn life. So, I’m grateful I have that. I know people who don’t and it bums them out. I got lucky not because I got two books or any of that. I got lucky because I was born with this poetry thing and I did not let it pass me by. For this, I am grateful and I love you.
Rumpus: Whew. I am verklempt. Let’s take a break: Give me your top five Phil Collins/Phil Collins-era Genesis songs.
Lippman: The Carpet Crawlers
The Chamber of 32 Doors
Take Me Home
In The Air
You Can’t Hurry Love (cover)
Rumpus: And we’re back. You also went to one of the best teacher education programs, Teachers College at Columbia. If you were put in charge of some educational system—a school or city-wide system—what would you do?
Lippman: I would get rid of homework. I would kick any kid out of school for bullying, forever. I would abolish standardized testing. I would build a curriculum that was a based on a philosophy of creative problem-solving and I would pay teachers lots of money.
Rumpus: I admire your set-edness, the way you’re sure about what you do. Do you still watch TV? What shows do you enjoy?
Lippman: Damn straight I watch TV. I suck on a lot of sports and the stupid television shows that have me transfixed these days are Fringe, Event and the new zombie series on AMC called Walking Dead.
Rumpus: You have a poem about monkeys, or should I say monkey-wanting, in your first book, The New Year of Yellow, and have the word monkey in the title of this book. Would it be fair to say you have an interest in monkeys more than the average poet?
Lippman: My interest in monkeys comes from growing up in New York City. My classes—1st, 2nd, 3rd grade—would visit the Central Park Zoo once a month. We could walk there. This was the 1970s so it was all pretty disgusting in Manhattan. We were kids. We did not care. We used to go visit the monkeys and they would howl at us, pee at us, scream their monkey heads off. I thought it was the coolest and cruelest thing all at once. I wanted to bust them out of there. I also just the love word, monkey. Touch my monkey. Monkey see monkey do. Monkey up. Monkey down. Monkey all around the town. That’s some music!
Rumpus: We first met when I had you come to a Sunday afternoon reading series in Albany, where some 15 people showed up, and then I reviewed your book positively in a free local arts monthly magazine. To what degree do you owe your success to me, and will I ever see some of the profits from Monkey Bars?
Lippman: Seriously, you have been such a big fan. I love you for your fan-ness. How can I repay you? If there was money…um, that’s a rough one. I got two kids. I can interview you, perhaps, for a cool, hip journal like The Rumpus. Will that do? The subject/topic of the interview will be: why you left poetry and why you returned to poetry.
Rumpus: Geez, that’s kind of heavy. I think I left poetry more about the people and leaving New York City than disliking poems or poem-making. I’ve never stopped reading them. I might be able to guess who your influences are poet-wise, but maybe you could point out a poet whose work you love, but I might not expect you to love? Maybe stick to 20th Century?
Lippman: Hart Crane. That guy rocks my world.
Rumpus: Last question: I am about to play laser tag, or lazertag. Do you have any tips?
Lippman: Shoot to miss.
Read The Rumpus Review of Monkey Bars.