Letter to a Poet: Matthew Olzmann on Writing Humor & Befriending Whales


Last year, I happened upon, “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope” by Matthew Olzmann and wept. I read it not when it first appeared in The New York Times, but later, just as I needed to read those words in that order, waving to the poem’s speaker on that teetering bridge, where I too stood, “one foot set in front of the other, while the wind rattles the cage of the living.” A print-out of it hangs above my desk.

The first time I heard Olzmann read his poems aloud three years ago my posture shifted, first laughing from his deadpan delivery of cutting humor, followed by the room’s silence, which intensified as the poems became a scythe for a kind of mic drop moment of wisdom. His most recent book, Constellation Route, out this month from Alice James Press, is a collection of largely epistolary poems that address or go to unexpected places: waiting in line at Comic Con, heading into the depths of the ocean, reconsidering super-villains in a dispatch sent to Bruce Wayne. We met over Zoom to talk about the collection.


The Rumpus: How do you let your titles do the heavy lifting? Do you find that it gives the poem more freedom to go where it wants to go?

Matthew Olzmann: When you think of what a title is supposed to do, there are probably as many strategies for titling the poem as there are poems. One of the things that’s always struck me as a challenge with writing poems is, even in a poem that’s two or three pages, it’s still not that much space. And you’re always dropping the reader into this dramatic moment or this emotional moment or the lyric moment, and I often find I enter a lot of poems in a space of disorientation that doesn’t always get resolved, unless it’s a good poem.

Sometimes the title is a way to provide additional context or to direct [a reader] so when they get to line one, they have some necessary pieces of information to access the speech from the speaker without having to search for those points later.

In “Letter to a Man Who, within a Year of Being Struck by Lightning, Had Previously Been Hit by a Cement Truck and Bitten by a Tarantula”—that’s a long title that I spent a long time moving the parts around—if the title was “Bad Luck” or “Letter to Dave,” that situation would be something I’d have to explain in the poem over the course of the details. Putting a lot of that in the title allows me to not have to do that work in the poem, which might end up becoming more awkward or cumbersome or strange or lead to the poem being three stanzas longer.

Rumpus: You write your way through belief it seems, as that of a skeptical seeker. How does that struggle inform your work?

Olzmann: That sounds like a pretty good analysis of it, skeptical seeker, someone who’s skeptical and who’s open to suggestion on a lot of things. I can’t remember where I heard this, but I remember someone saying that every victory for a skeptic is sort of sad because you’re replacing something miraculous with something explainable. A lot of my poems are wrestling with something in between that. They’re somewhere between belief and doubt, between skepticism and wonder. And, as a human, I feel an allegiance to the forces of wonder. And as someone who’s been in the world for a while, I feel those allegiances pulled in the direction of skepticism and that tension continually resurfacing in the poems.

I usually don’t sit down with an idea saying, “This is going to be a poem about skepticism, or this is going to be a poem about existential dread.” It’s more like, “This is a poem about a whale.” And then you see the magic occurrence emerge in the process of writing it. You start revising toward or around those undercurrents as you begin to sense them. If not, for me, the poems usually sputter out.

Rumpus: Can you unpack David James’ comment to you that you cite in your acknowledgements of Constellation Route: “all poems are basically letters, especially yours”?

Olzmann: A poem—even if it’s not exactly a letter—functions like a letter in that there’s always a person on one end and a person on the other. Then, between them is this poem.

Where he said, “Especially yours”—I tended to use the direct address a lot in his class. This wouldn’t be something he was referring to, but my earliest attempts at writing really resembled unmailed letters. There were always things I wish I could have said to someone or something I didn’t know how to say in the moment and then I would write down later.

Rumpus: Hope buzzes in your poems that read as dispatches of wonder. You speak of a star-nosed mole, the Carolina gopher frog, and write over three pages to the Hertz 52 whale. Why use the epistolary form here?

Olzmann: The epistolary form lets you, at least conceptually, speak to anything, but when it gestures toward apostrophe—you’re speaking to something that can’t possibly speak back to you—it can wander into the absurdist waters.

When we encounter a poem where someone’s speaking to an inanimate object or an animal, we expect different things out of those than we do if it’s a person writing a letter to an actual person. If it’s a letter where you sense the speaker knows this person and they have a whole relationship, the reader’s grasping [to understand] the context. How do they know each other? What are the tensions at play? What’s the motivation behind this communication? But when they’re talking to something that’s not going to return the conversation, our expectations instantly become more figurative.

I’m thinking of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem, “Ode to the Maggot”, where the speaker’s addressing a maggot, and it ends with “Little / Master of earth, no one gets to heaven / Without going through you first.” And suddenly the poem becomes this meditation on mortality, but at no point do you think, “Oh my gosh, Yusef, why is he talking to a maggot or how does he know this maggot?” Or “What kind of relationship do they have?” You instantly see it in terms of its figurative potential. That tension drives me forward as a reader trying to say, “Hey, how is this absurd or unreal or magical moment going to produce meaning or transcend the oddity or the novelty of its initiating premise?”

Rumpus: Speaking of magical moments, you write twice about the oldest living longleaf pine, almost as bookends, in Constellation Route. Talk to me about marveling and this arresting instance in your poem, “Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America,”: “To have the smell of the earth / welcome you to everywhere. To take it all in and then, / to reach for your knife.”

Olzmann: I did a week-long residency at the Weymouth Center for the Arts in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and that tree is on the grounds there. Just being next to something that old and living was mind-blowing. I wrote initially one poem and there might’ve been parts of these two poems in that poem, but it was kind of a mess. It was a revelation when I realized, “Oh, I could write two letters to the same thing. There’s nothing outlawing that.”

The experience of standing next to that thing was a moment that encourages one to marvel and yet when you also notice that someone’s carved something into that, you’re realizing there’s a gap between your experience and another’s experience. Obviously, someone else didn’t have the same experience. Maybe they’re like, “Oh, here’s this astonishing thing I should go put my name on it rather than just stand back with a sense of reverence.” That second poem was kind of thinking about just the difference in experience between two people. Why does one have an experience that you might call marveling and another person not have access to that?

Rumpus: I find deep compassion, but also often a sharp critique of humanity in your poems. Do you think one is possible without the other?

Olzmann: Maybe. I think they appear in pairs often in my work because there’s a hope for what we can be, and the critique comes from disappointment when we perhaps fall short of that. So, they’re two sides of the same thing. I don’t think there needs to be epic failures of humanity for you to have compassion toward it. Probably the reason why we would have compassion is because there’ve been times when it hasn’t let us down—where it’s shown us something amazing or astonished us. I suppose it’s possible to have one without the other, though there is a relationship between them.

Rumpus: And I’m glad you’re speaking to it in your work. In “Letter Beginning with Two Lines from Czesław Miłosz,” you write, “The classroom of grief / had far more seats / than the classroom for math” and end with a rebuke. You’ve written about guns and violence in previous collections and again in this one. What keeps you gravitating toward these topics?

Olzmann: I think I try to write about other stuff and then whatever’s going on in the world seeps into the poems. Although that poem was one where I set out to think about the rhetoric around gun violence, how it happens over and over, and we say the same things and then it keeps happening. It became one of the harder poems to write. It might be the oldest poem in the book. I tried to write about a thing that happened in 2007. The earliest draft of what would be recognizable as this poem was probably more like 2013 or 2014. I had a hard time executing it because when I predetermine what a poem’s trying to do, it often then does that, but then I don’t feel that spark of surprise that we need in a poem.

I think a challenge with that happens in political poetry or poetry that’s engaged with some social issue that doesn’t come up as often in other poems like the love poem or the elegy. A lot of times, if you set out to say, “I’m going to write about the evils of the world,” it’s easy to move towards abstraction or the topic is too large to contain in a small container of a poem. You’re trying to cover everything and it can feel impersonal or detached. For me, the only way I’ve been able to work on poems like that is to focus on some personal connection to the issue, rather than saying, “Here are my thoughts on the nature of evil,” or, “Here’s what I think of capitalism today.”

Rarely do people write a love poem and say, “I’m going to address all of love throughout the world.” Usually, they’re talking about their own experience with one other person.

When we start thinking about global or national or social issues, suddenly the scope gets wider and, for me at least, I fumble around trying to tackle too much. Earlier when I was saying I set out to write about one thing and then whatever’s going on in the world seeps in—that’s where it ends up being more effective because I started off with something local that I can visualize rather than trying to capture the magnitude of everything.

Rumpus: “Letter to William Shatner” is such an interesting piece! I’m struck by this image of the “portable inferno of one.” Can poetry harness anger in a healthy way?

Olzmann: Sometimes you hear about how poetry saves people or poetry is a type of therapy and poetry can be healing, and maybe it can be. More likely it can be that for some. I’ve known many artists whom art did not save or help. For some people, it made their lives more challenging because they had the idea, “I’m going to write about the worst things that happened to me,” and they were in a position where they’re just constantly re-traumatizing themselves.

So, I’m never really sure about how poetry can help the emotional state of writers of poetry. I think it can be helpful for some people. I think it can be a way to harness anger in a productive way. What I really should say is that I hope it’s that for me. Working on a poem—just the act of making something—feels like it pulls me out of the world for a minute and it helps give my anxieties a type of shape that I can understand. That’s what drew me to poetry as a reader.

In high school American Lit. class, we read a handful of poems, and I started connecting them to the world around me—I don’t even know if I knew the word metaphor or, like, read a poem and said, “This is a metaphor for how people use violence as a type of entertainment, or how boredom makes us disconnected from others.” I started seeing poems as these small but powerful tools that could help me understand some really complicated issues around these things that I didn’t necessarily know how to put into words, and that’s what drew me to poems.

As a reader, I’ve always found that to be emotionally helpful, like having a way to process the world or having a way to experience it from a different angle or understand it in a fuller, deeper sense. And then as a writer, I find that there’s a kind of parallel experience I have where it slows me down and makes me think something through.

Rumpus: You often use humor to usher in a kind of heavy boom. Does humor come naturally to your writing?

Olzmann: I don’t always know if what I’m saying is actually funny or not. Sometimes I think things are funny and other people don’t. I’m not as much interested in humor just on its own. I’m interested in different types of tonal contrasts and humor feels like a way that it can produce a very sharp contrast.

We often know things by their opposites: You like summer because you are miserable in winter. Emotionally you feel disappointment because you can imagine something much better having occurred, like going into an interview and you totally flop—you’re disappointed because afterward you can imagine yourself nailing every answer. We often like these things that are oppositional to each other and intensify each other.

When I’m reading something and it’s abrasive and angry, but then suddenly it’s calm and meditative, that second thing is elevated. I suppose there’s a reason why in music you rarely have a song that’s just one note over and over. There’s some type of contrast. The variation is always the thing that stands out to shift between different movements. So, humor is that type of a contrast that sometimes naturally appears in my writing, but it doesn’t have to be humor. It could be movement from certainty to doubt, from delight to sadness. Any two emotions next to each other tend to intensify one, if not both.

Rumpus: Right. There’s so much heaviness in the world right now. And humor feels like it’s necessary, but humor is also really hard to write well!

Olzmann: I sort of luck into it. I actually can’t really write jokes like, here’s the set-up, here’s the punchline. So, a lot of the humor in my work comes from incongruity between what someone would expect in a situation whether it’s voice-driven or tonal.

It is hard to write, and I’m always fascinated when I’m watching comedians. I’ve always felt like it’s one of the most daunting types of art because for standup comedy, it’s one of the only art forms where the artist is declaring in advance the emotional response they’re going to generate from their audience. Poets never have to do that. I go do a reading, you don’t have to go get up there and say, “This poem is going to make you rethink your relationship with your mom.” Or, “This is going to ball up your fists and rage toward the cosmic unfairness of being.” Or, “This poem will make you shed six human tears.” Comedians do that every time—they don’t actually have to say it out loud, it’s just understood. This is going to make you laugh or I have failed. I don’t know many other arts that do that.

Rumpus: That’s a really good point. As we talk about humor, let’s talk about love. There is tenderness in “Letter to a Younger Version of Myself Who Had Never Known Hunger.” It’s a poem about hunger, but it’s really about love, like this line: “Everyone here loves someone and because / they love someone: Four cans of corn. / Three bags of rice.” What can love do in poetry that looks different from what we expect of love in poetry?

Olzmann: That poem is a good example of setting out to write about one thing and then some other thing starts pushing its way in. A few years ago at AWP, I was on a panel Jessica Jacobs put together discussing love poems. She was specifically interested in thinking about how love poems work in uncertain or difficult times, either in society or in someone’s life. And she said this thing that stuck with me that I’ll try not to mis-paraphrase too badly: “In difficult times, the love poem reminds us not what we’re fighting against, but what we’re fighting for.”

Rumpus: You mention “bridge made of rope” in the poem “I’ll forgive John Keats, but not you” from Contradictions in the Design: “I know: all / the artists and poets, all the part-time philosophers / and their legions of followers, everyone: / all talking about the same narrow bridge. / I’ve seen that bridge. It’s made of rope.” In Constellation Route, you’ve got this beautiful poem about a bridge made of rope. Would you see that as the same bridge of rope, and what do you think both are telling the reader about what it means to be alive?

Olzmann: That is a good observation. I don’t know if they’re the same. I remember once looking at a bridge of rope and thinking, “There’s no way I can walk across that thing.” And that image has stayed with me for a while. There are some images that I have to resist always using because they always come up. Maybe it’s the same bridge of rope, but the speaker is a different speaker or maybe it’s the same bridge of rope, but the way I understand it is different.

Annelies Zijderveld is a poet, cookbook author, and writer of arts, food, and culture based in Oakland. Her cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea (Andrews McMeel, 2015) was selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of their favorite cookbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Scapegoat Review, The Acentos Review, Ethel Zine, L.A. Taco, and more. You can find her articles in epicurious, Eater SF, San Francisco Classical Voice, the Kitchn, and others. She is Assistant Editor of Interviews for The Rumpus and holds an MFA in poetry from New England College. While she doesn't really tweet anymore, you can find her there @anneliesz or on Instagram. More from this author →