Subtext Rising to the Surface: A Conversation with Matthew Olzmann
In January 2019, I attended the Beloved Poems Panel at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival where I heard Matthew Olzmann speak, in his wise and gentle way, about Lucille Clifton’s poem, “note passed to superman.” This experience led me to reread Lucille Clifton. In July 2019, Matthew and I taught together at the Cherry Tree Young Writers’ Conference, where I heard him read, in his warm, generous way, a series of poems from his past and forthcoming collections. This experience led me to read Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013) and Contradictions in the Design (Alice James Books, 2016) and to look forward to reading all his future books, too. I’m a fan in perpetuity, and a friend, I hope, for just as long.
In January 2020, Matthew agreed to answer some of my questions about his work, his worldview, and how poetry can help us stay “alive and full of wonder,” especially during difficult times.
The Rumpus: Matthew, given our whimsical and ongoing conversation about prospective bands and band names, I’d like to begin with the following supposition:
Let’s say you’re the founder and lead singer/songwriter of Matthew Olzmann’s 100% Natural Good-Time Poetry Band Solution—appropriate nod to Arrested Development here—and you get to choose who plays the inaugural gig with you from among your contemporary poetry-writing peers. Who do you invite to share that first stage and why? What kind of music are you engaged in making as a contemporary poet and with whom are you especially excited to harmonize?
Matthew Olzmann: All of them. It’s an astounding time to be a writer or reader of poems. There are just so many gifted poets today with unique visions for this art. With the possible exception of maybe four or five sociopaths, all the poets could be in this make-believe band. I tried to answer differently, and began in a couple different ways, but each time the list kept growing. I’m not just thinking of poets that my work might seem to be in overt conversation with, or poets whose writing seems to be guided by a similar impulse. If we’re keeping with the music metaphor, there’s room for a lot of instruments in the concert hall. The rising hum of an orchestra tuning right before the concert begins, that moment where you first hear the oboe and then you hear everyone, each individual reaching toward a singular note—that might be the world’s best sound.
Rumpus: I’m thinking of this poem—by Matthew Olzmann, as it happens!—called “Build, Now, A Monument.” The poem begins: “No longer satisfied by the way time slips / through his life’s work, the maker of hourglasses / yearns for a change. // He elects to construct a staircase instead.” The poem goes on to chronicle the construction of a staircase: “A bride between / Earth and what Earth cannot touch.” On my copy of the poem, I wrote, “Is this an ars poetica for Matthew? Is this how Matthew thinks about the way he makes a poem?” And now I’m lucky enough to be interviewing you about your poems and our lineage as makers, which of course is at the heart of the meaning of poetry, too.
I’d love to know if “Build, Now, a Monument” is an ars poetica for you, conscious or otherwise—and/or other poems you’ve written that might be—and most of all, I’d like to know about the drive you have to make poems in general: where you think it comes from, when you first discovered it, and how it feels when you approach the threshold (or staircase, perhaps) of a new poem-to-be.
Olzmann: You’ve given me a new way to see that poem! I did not intend it as an ars poetica, at least not consciously, though I can see how it would read as one. When I wrote the poem, I was more thinking about grief, how we grieve and what that would look like if the feeling were made tangible, what kind of enormous thing might be made from that enormous emotion.
In this light, that poem does, I suppose, resemble an ars poetica, because that’s usually what I think poems are trying to do. As a reader, I’m drawn to poems that objectify some feeling or idea. I don’t mean “objectify” in the pejorative sense; I mean it quite literally, as in literally making an object from that feeling or idea. For me, art (in general) and poems (in specific) step in at the points where discursive language or discursive thought reaches its inevitable limitations or outright fails us. You have something nebulous and immaterial, an emotion, an idea, a paradox in the middle of your life, that the poem takes that tenuous, indescribable thing and gives it a form and a shape. As a writer, I’m usually trying to do that through metaphor. The poem itself works as a type of metaphor. For me, an elegy doesn’t just say “I’m sad,” it gives me a way to hold grief and understand it in a new way.
As for what it feels like when I’m approaching the threshold of “a new poem-to-be,” it’s a little harder to say. There are a couple ways this usually unfolds. I write a lot of new poems, and most of them I simply abandon. Often, I’m writing, not because this next poem has any grand ambitions, but because I like making things and this is the one thing that I think I can make. So, I write a lot of things just for the enjoyment of that process itself. With many of these poems, the feeling is something like a type of inquisitiveness, a low-grade wonder, not quite excitement, but a curiosity to see what might happen. Part of my revision process is figuring out what I’m excited about and what to discard. When I’m truly excited about one, when I’ve got a poem that I really want to work on, there’s more of a sense of discovery and possibility. That feeling usually comes from recognizing an inherent metaphor inside the thing I’ve written, a subtext rising to the surface, a sense of the potential for the object to embody the abstraction.
Rumpus: Do you remember the first time—or an early time—when you sensed that potential and realized you were in the process of making a poem? I guess what I’m really asking is a question about your origin story as a poet.
Olzmann: I wasn’t an avid reader of poems in high school. It wasn’t until late in high school that I became interested in reading poems. I was made to read some poems in an English class and, at some point, I slowly started seeing these things as a way to explain complicated things that were happening in the world around me. I mentioned earlier being drawn to poems that take some intangible thing and try to make it tangible, and that is what initially drew me to poems. That’s not just what I’m drawn to now; it’s where the original spark came from. I started feeling that a poem might give me a new way to experience, consider, or understand some shifting emotional aspect of the world or my daily life. Poems helped me make sense of what didn’t make sense.
Around that same time, I started writing. My first attempts at creative writing weren’t things I thought of as poems. They were more like unsent letters or journal entries. Things I wanted to say to people but couldn’t. Or things I wanted to say, but I didn’t have anyone to talk to because I was a little too awkward and odd for people. Or things I thought I should say but thought of too late. It’s like the feeling you might get if someone insults you and you come up with the perfect response twenty minutes later—that’s the feeling I had all the time. And eventually, I started writing these things down. At some point, my interest in reading poems overlapped and merged with my interest in writing things, but I didn’t realize it when that was happening. So, I don’t have a great story about the first time I realized I was writing an actual poem. It wasn’t something I took note of in the moment. It was more of a situation where I didn’t have a label for what I was making, and only later—probably many months after I started writing—did I look back and realize what they were.
You mentioned that it took you a while to make the connection between “being a poet and actually writing poems.” I get that. For me it took awhile to make the connection between the things I was writing and the name for what they were. But once I made that connection, I remember embracing it with a religious intensity. My friends would ask what I was writing in the notebook I carried around, and where previously I might have said something like “stuff” or “I don’t know” or “song lyrics” (even though I wasn’t in a band), I would now say “poems” as if there were no other possible answer—as if that was the way it had always been.
Rumpus: One paradox of poetry for me is the way making something that helps to illuminate (if not explicitly solve) a mystery is also, often, a mysterious act in itself. Every time I make a poem it feels like the first time in a way—just as exciting and intimidating and certainly just as mysterious.
Could you talk a bit about when the things you were making that you came to recognize as poems began to take the shape of something you recognized as a book that was your first collection of poems, Mezzanines? What was this process of book-making like for you, both assembling a collection of poems for the first time and then ushering it into the world?
Olzmann: The process of making a book has always been strange for me. I don’t really write books; I write poems. I tend to think of the poem as its own entity, a thing that exists independently of the next poem or the previous poem. For me, making a poem is an individual, standalone experience. Because of that, the idea of a book doesn’t really come into the picture until much later. With both of my first two books, Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design, assembling the collection involved a long process of trial and error, where I’d put poems next to each other and ask how or if they spoke to one another. The poems were often varied in terms of tone, and the subject matter was frequently varied as well.
My next book, Constellation Route (Alice James Books, 2022), is mostly epistolary poems, letters to different people or things or ideas, and since they all have this common approach, there’s a reason for them to be together. Because of that, I thought it would be easier to put this next book together. Instead, it was actually harder. It had all the same challenges my previous books presented, plus some new ones. For example: how to create variation when there’s a common approach among the disparate parts?
As for the second part of the question—what was it like to usher the book into the world?—it was glorious. And humbling. And amazing. And anxiety-producing. I think I’m always a little nervous about something once I can no longer revise it. But it’s been wonderful, with both books really, to see them in the world and finding a small audience.
Rumpus: So here’s a question I ask my poetry students every time we read a collection together: What’s your heart poem? The heart poem isn’t necessarily a student’s favorite poem from the book; rather, it’s the poem they would give to someone who hadn’t read the book if they could only share one poem. I guess in a sense it’s the metonym poem, the one that best embodies, in their opinion, the work of the collection at large. And if we’re reading multiple collections by the same poet, we talk about the “heart poem” as the poem we find most representative of that poet’s spirit and style.
So let me ask you: What would you choose as the “heart poem” of Matthew Olzmann’s canon to date, including your forthcoming collection or even a poem from your unpublished body of work? Imagine this is the only poem that you get to read at poetry galas from now on (and I feel like there should be a lot more events called poetry galas) or publish in future anthologies of twenty-first century American poetry. Why this poem? How does it embody your spirit and style?
Olzmann: That’s a really great and impossible question. For me, the poem of mine that I love the most is the next one I will write. That poem is awesome. That poem exists somewhere in the future all shimmery and endless and blazing. Having not yet arrived in the world, that poem has no flaws because it doesn’t exist yet. Once I put it on a page, all its imperfections and limitations, one by one, will make themselves known, and that is why revision exists. Somewhere in that process, my enthusiasm will shift toward another poem, the next next poem, further in the future, still perfect and waiting to be written.
For the purposes of this conversation, a recent poem that I might consider emblematic of my “spirit and style” might be “Letter Written While Waiting at Comic Con.” When you asked about approaching the threshold of “a new poem-to-be,” I tried to describe a feeling where I recognize some inherent metaphor or figurative possibility. This would be an example of that. It began as a poem about Comic Con. Then, at some point while writing and rewriting it, I realized there was another poem beneath that, a poem that was interested in something other than what I had begun to write about, a subtext that was more interesting to me than the materials I started out with.
Rumpus: Thank you for giving such a great answer to an admittedly impossible question, Matthew! Impossible questions are a special penchant of mine, so here’s another:
We’ve entered a contentious election year. The news is hard for me—for many of us—perhaps for you, too?—to watch or read right now. On my desk I keep a quote from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet [people] die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Those words have lived in my head a long time, and the other day I was thinking, It’s difficult to get the news from poems, true, but it’s also difficult to get the poems from news. And then I started imagining if Poetry, capital-P, poetry personified as a person, were a figure in the news, perhaps even a candidate running for political office: What would Poetry’s platform be? What promises could Poetry make, and what promises could Poetry keep? What does Poetry have to offer its constituents, old, young, and future?
This is sometimes how my mind works, and sometimes it’s just me alone in my office imagining Poetry out there caucusing for its own contributions, not just to literature, but to human experience at large. Then, I thought, Sure, this is a strange line of thinking, but I bet I could ask Matthew Olzmann what he thinks because he’s open to strange lines of thinking. Nobody is more open to whimsy and analogy than Matthew! So, let’s put it this way: You’re Poetry’s campaign manager. You think Poetry has a lot to offer—obviously. You’re writing Poetry’s speech. What does Poetry have to say for itself? How has Poetry helped us, served us in the past? How can/will Poetry help us now?
Olzmann: First, I begin by imagining a platform that’s relatively simple. Perhaps a platform of kindness and acceptance. In a test run, the speech doesn’t quite work, and Poetry suggests that this platform might exclude a type of necessary anger about our current moment in time, and so I revise the platform to include a clear-eyed vision for what we’ve done to the world. An openness to truth and a willingness to engage with it. Then I listen to another practice run of the imaginary speech, and this one also stumbles. It suddenly feels a little too certain, too sure of itself. Perhaps I’ve confused “truth” and “facts.” Perhaps I’m now trying to deliver “the news”—if we’re still riffing on William Carlos William’s observation.
It goes on and on like this for quite some time. Drafting a new speech. Revising the new speech. Drafting and revising. Several campaign staffers quit. One slams the door on the way out. One walks into a corn field and just keeps going. Eventually, I’m exasperated. I tear up the speech and suggest improvisation. I let Poetry go out on stage without a teleprompter and just do what it has always done. The result is a sprawling, hyperbolic mess. But it’s alive and full of wonder. Poetry ventures into the crowd and promises all kinds of marvels. It offers everything that we dreamed up in the speeches we’d previously torn apart. It guarantees rigorous thought and also raucous entertainment. Social critique and rarefied moments of emotional resonance. A map of the human spirit, but also carpentry and basketball. Free Jedi training to those who want it. Wild dogs and the transit of Mercury. Guitar feedback. The magnolia in full bloom.
At some point, I realize Poetry might not be able to deliver all these things (at least not all at once), or it might not be able to live up to the lofty ideals it’s describing. And I also realize that I’m fine with this potential for failure. Poetry rarely represents the artist where they are; frequently, it shows them reaching for something a little beyond them. It doesn’t just show us where or what we are right now; it helps us imagine what we could be and where we might go next.
Rumpus: That’s a really gracious answer, and best of all, having spent some time with you, I can tell it’s a sincere answer, too. How about this: Who have been some of the most inspirational/influential band leaders of your life to date—perhaps poets you’ve learned from on the page and/or poets you’ve learned from in the classroom? The mentor-conductors, if that makes sense. And while we’re at it, I’m curious to know about the most inspirational/ influential non-poets in your life? (These may be poets who don’t know it, of course.)
Olzmann: This answer could quickly begin to resemble the previous answer, but I’ll try to be more specific. I hope to think of influence in an expansive way. I’ve been fortunate to have had many gifted teachers and mentors over the years. In graduate school, I studied with Steve Orlen, Stephen Dobyns, Brooks Haxton, Heather McHugh, and Martha Rhodes. When I was a fellow at the Kundiman retreat for Asian American Writers: Patrick Rosal, Prageeta Sharma, Arthur Sze, Myung Mi Kim, Jon Pineda, Kimiko Hanh, Karen An-hwei Lee, and many others. At Bread Loaf, I was in workshops with Alan Shapiro, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tom Sleigh, and Natasha Trethewey. I’d also count C. Dale Young and David Baker as mentors. And before any of this, I took workshops in Detroit with Mary Jo Firth Gillette. In a community college, I had classes with David James. I’m also married to a poet, Vievee Francis, who has informed my writing as much or more than anyone else. Just sitting down at the dinner table and talking about poems and books each evening will do that.
I could point to any of these people and list specific things I learned from them. But in thinking of influence, I also imagine our lineages of ideas extend back much further. Like branches on a “family tree.” One of my teachers studied with Elizabeth Bishop. Several of my teachers studied with Donald Justice who studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman, I think. Lowell studied with John Crowe Ransom. One teacher’s teacher studied with Auden. One with Derek Walcott. No poet is born in a vacuum. If we keep going, I’m sure we’ll eventually be able to trace this back to when Homer was teaching at Iowa some twenty-seven hundred years ago. One generation hands down its ideas to the next which, in turn, expands, revises, or rejects those ideas.
As for non-poet influences, I can be inspired by anyone who makes things. The other day, Vievee was watching Chef’s Table on Netflix. Each episode profiles a different chef. I quickly burned through five or six episodes in one sitting—eagerly absorbing their stories, how they learned their craft and sought out new possibilities. Tell me about anyone who creates something, anyone who is compelled or driven to make anything—poems, paintings, shoes, video games, ceramic lawn ornaments—and I’ll probably be enthralled by the telling of their story.
Photograph of Matthew Olzmann by Margarita Corporan.