One thing Publishing Genius authors are doing over the course of the year is interviewing each other in a chain. In this installment, Matthew Savoca (author of the winning novel I Don’t Know I Said talks to Matt Cook about his collection of poetry.
Where are you from? What was your childhood like?
I moved around a lot when I was growing up: Rockford, Illinois to Milwaukee, back to Rockford. Then Boulder, Ann Arbor, back to Boulder. My mother was working on various degrees at various universities. I never really bothered to make friends at school because I always kind of knew I’d be leaving soon. My friends were always just my mother’s friends. I remember my 11th birthday party. There weren’t any kids there. It was a room full of law students. My mother sometimes feels a misplaced guilt about how we (my brother & I) were raised; it’s an understandable motherly reaction, but I think I benefitted from it all. We had an amazingly rich childhood, and the instability and exposure to a lot of smart people (and the inevitable attending feelings of being an outsider, of being different, of being superior) all of these things are inseparable with my evolution as a writer.
I once described my poems as a kind of autobiographical surrealism, but the more I think of it, isn’t everything autobiographical surrealism when you come right down to it? I mean, isn’t life itself essentially autobiographical surrealism? Maybe I’m getting too grand here, I don’t know, but I think I try to ground my poems in my basic quotidian existence with the hope that my imagination will then find something there that can make the experience take flight into another world. So yes, my poems are drawn from real life, but they’re not real life, they’re poems. This causes problems sometimes. My mother (in real life) for example, doesn’t have skin eruptions on her face, but a ‘mother’ in one of my poems does. Naturally my mother (in real life) wasn’t pleased. But of course the poem isn’t about her. That’s one very great thing about poetry. It’s not locked into the on/ off switch of fiction/ non-fiction. And that works fine for me because I’ve never really trusted those categories anyway. I mean, come on, why are Ann Coulter’s books filed under non-fiction? She writes books filled with fanciful distorted imaginings. So much of what is called non-fiction is really just fallacy, opinion and hot air. And it doesn’t have to be Ann Coulter. Even more respectable critics and historians and scholars are essentially doing the same thing: writing non-fiction books about how the non-fiction books of the past were wrong. Meanwhile, so much of what is called fiction is actually thinly veiled autobiography, which is essentially non-fiction! That’s the thing, I mean, truth can’t be controlled that easily. It seeps into what you think is fiction and it seeps out of what you think is non-fiction. Poets don’t pretend that this isn’t the case.
How much control do you have when you make a poem?
Yeah, that’s the thing, not much. It’s funny when you see those how-to books about, say, oil painting or something. The whole process is broken down into these clearly defined stages and the guy’s studio is very clean and well lighted, and his paints and brushes are neatly organized and so on. But of course no great paintings are made that way. In reality it’s an insane process full of mostly failure. That would be great if the book just showed the guy failing over and over again and then the book ends with him just giving up on oil painting altogether. I mean, that’s the way it goes. I start by writing in longhand in my notebook, but so little of what I write in my notebooks is any good at all. It’s just a lot of me being a great big failure. But then I move some pieces I like onto a computer file and start playing around, and the words tell me where I need to go. If that’s control, control isn’t what it used to be. Or it’s exactly what it used to be.
Are you a poet?
That’s a great and important question. Yes, I’m a poet. And it’s vital to simply be able to say that. I guess it’s like admitting you’re an alcoholic or something. It’s ridiculous when people say writing is a craft. That’s not how it works. It’s a life that you’re able to either convincingly live or not. I think you need to have more ego strength to be a poet than to be another kind of writer. I mean, there’s no commercial dimension to what we do and people are going to assume you’re crazy and so on, and if you’re not comfortable with that, even proud of that, then you can’t really proceed. And I think there are a lot of very talented writers who could be good poets, but they’re simply unable or unwilling to wear this crazy complicated outfit. Of course there are also those people who are comfortable wearing this crazy complicated outfit, but they have no talent. That can be tragic, but it can also be funny.
What do you think of this quote from Bob Dylan: ‘If we’re going to call Robert Frost a poet, then we have to call my friend who works down at the gas station a poet too.’?
Ha, it’s hard to tell whether he’s running down Robert Frost or perhaps just complimenting his friend at the gas station, or perhaps heroically drawing our attention to the unrecognized genius of his gas station friend, which makes me feel good for a minute, but then it makes me wonder if Bob still to this day talks to his old gas station friend, and if not that makes me think that Bob’s maybe a bad friend, and I don’t want to think that about Bob.
Does everybody have fifteen minutes of poetry in them somewhere?
I think everyone probably encounters a lot more poetry than that. The problem is they don’t notice it, or it’s not useful for them to notice it because their life doesn’t require it. It’s probably a good thing that pilots and surgeons and first responders so on are not more absorbed by poetic distractions. It’s probably good that I’m not working in those professions. I mean, I’m glad those people exist, but I can’t believe anyone would seek out a career where they’re just surrounded by reality like that. I guess that’s what I’m wondering: I’m wondering if I have fifteen minutes of reality in me somewhere.
Do you hope your poems will be around forever?
That’s something I honestly don’t worry about. I mean ‘forever’ is a long time, but even if you had asked, ‘Do you hope your poems will be around fifty years after you’re dead?’ I still don’t think I’m worried too much about that. I know that’s classically what this is supposed to be all about: to achieve some sort of immortality, but I never really think of it that way. It seems kind of greedy. I think if a poet can have a small following in his own lifetime he should just be happy with that, and not get all grabby and start worrying about posterity.
If you could pick one poem to go into one of those space capsules they send out into the universe for other civilizations to find, what would it be?
Haha, I see several problems ahead! First, poems barely translate from one earthly language to another. Second, poems don’t travel through time particularly well. For best results, try to be as close to the poem’s cultural milieu and moment as possible. A writer, of course, has an audience that he writes for known only to him. It’s usually a profoundly important person from his intimate circle. Poems are not written for distant civilizations and we should be cool with that. Poetry is already close enough to nonsense as it is, even for an intelligent native speaker keenly aware of his culture. Still, that’s not to say the reader in the distant civilization may not experience a pleasant misunderstanding.
How do you feel about the name Matthew? Is there a story behind how it became your name?
My mother liked the name Matt because she liked her friend Matt, who was a Minneapolis travel agent who lost his sense of smell in a bizarre figure skating accident. It’s true. I guess Matthew is in the Bible, or something, but I’ve never read the Bible.
If you weren’t Matt Cook, who would you be?
I hope that I would be a pigeon living in Milwaukee.