September 2010

Elizabeth Hildreth

features

An Interview with Matthew Lippman

Matthew Lippman is the author of the new Monkey Bars (Typecast Publishing). His previous book, The New Year of Yellow, won the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize and was published by Sarabande Books in 2007. He is the recipient of a Michener Poetry Fellowship and a New York Fine Arts Grant. Matthew teaches English and creative writing to high school students at Beaver Country Day School in the greater Boston area, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

In early July 2010, Matthew was interviewed over e-mail by Elizabeth Hildreth. They discuss, among other things, American Man vs. Todayís Man, why Matthewís poems are like TV, being typecast as a poet, the benefits of living in low-middle income housing as a child, writing sports poems that arenít sports poems, the selfish ďhot topic danceĒ heís doing, wandering through the poetry desert, and how if heís sixty and writing about cardinals, we have permission to shoot him.

Hi, Matthew! I still remember the first time I read a poem of yours. I loved it, and then I looked in the back of the journal, the bio section, and everybodyís bio said, ďSo and so has recently published in XYZ,Ē but your bio just said ďMatthew Lippman works at American Man.Ē Is that the name of it? Some suit store? I thought you were so amazing after that when I met you for two minutes at First Street Cafť I almost fainted. That was fifteen years ago. I havenít seen you since. But Iíve been watching your work. Your first book you published with Sarabande. Now this new one, youíve published with Typecast. Itís a new press, and youíre their first author. How did that happen and howís that been?

So, I was up in the woods with a group of nine-year-olds feeling like shit because I was a forty-four-year-old camp counselor, and Jen Woods the visionary, founder of Typecast calls me up on my cell phone, tells me she is leaving Sarabande to start her own publishing company, do I have a manuscript to send? Hell yeah, Iíve got a manuscript. You want it? Damn straight I want it, she yelped, and we were in business. I was giddy for weeks. Jenís whole thing is that she wants to get people to buy and read poems that donít normally buy and read poems. Also, she has this artistic aesthetic which she shares with her brother, Eric, who owns and runs Firecracker Press. They specialize in beautifully created letterpress printings. Monkey Bars is their first book. AnywayÖ Jen calls me up, we get it going on and then I get a little hesitant, for a second, like Iíve just driven off the get-your-second-book-of-poems published road. But that passes because I realize the beauty in the whole endeavor. One, Jen loves my work. Narcissistic, yes, but itís good to have folks in your corner. Two, Iím her only child. Only children get spoiled because all the energy from the parental unit is invested in that one little ball of energy. Thatís what Monkey Bars is -- one little ball of energy that Jen, for her own beautiful reasons, wants to push, sell, have the world enjoy. She wants truckers to read Monkey Bars. She wants stock brokers and chefs and telephone repair people and professors to read this book. I knew this going in and thatís exactly what I want too, have wanted my whole life -- a big, democratic and everywhere. So, we shared that vision. Itís like Iíve been wandering the poetry desert for a long, long time. Iíve had some success with some tremendous people saying yes. I am thankful beyond belief for them because, in many ways, I should not have made it this far. But Jen, oh Jennifer, oh Jenny. She came to me in just the right moment in my life, in that day up in the hills of Massachusetts and gave me that cool drink of water, said, You want a sip? I did and have sucked down many a glass since.

Oh, one small thing. I worked at Todayís Man back then but I wish I had worked at a place called ďAmerican Man.Ē It was a menís clothing store that went under some years back. The company also sold sportswear and shoes. Todayís Man. Tomorrowís Man. American Man. Itís all the same thing.

Oh, Todayís Man, not American Man. Got it. When you say, ďthen I get a little hesitant, for a second, like Iíve just driven off the get-your-second-book-of-poems published roadĒ whatís thatís mean? Does that mean you had split second reservations about going for this newbie boutique press vs. a more established academic press? If so, what were these reservations -- that you would somehow not be seen as serious as someone who publishes with, say, Graywolf or something? You know what I like about your poems? You use words like Wal-Mart and giant KitKat and Richard Pryor and motherfucker and Alec Baldwin. And also you have these passages that unapologetically promote family life and values. Thatís simplifying things of course and making your poems sound like nothing anybody would ever want to read, but what Iím saying is you donít really hide how you feel. Youíre not at all afraid to say, ďPeople should live like this. But they donít.Ē Here are a couple examples that I liked a lot. Hereís two stanzas from ďSilly and Brave.Ē

For instance, my best friendís husband went on a trip to the Sierra Madres
and met a twenty-four-year-old virgin from Nebraska
on the bush.
They fell in love after twelve hours of sex.
He said, We were like Sting and Trudy.
I was inside of her for eight hours straight,
Took a water break and went back in for three-and-a-half more.
I said, You are a Rembrandt of the coitus
Itís Kama Sutra, man. Itís true love.

Back in Brighton his wife was fifteen weeks pregnant
watching t.v.
with their six-year old daughter,
both getting real pissed off
at all the commercials.

Hereís a little bit from ďMarriage Pants.Ē

Eight years later
My buddy Stu said to me:
How do you stay connected?
I said:
You want to stay close, stay close.
You want to be in love, be in love.
Itís like watching t.v.
Itís like ping pong after dinner.
You pick up the clicker, you pick up
the paddle.

Itís sort of unusual nowadays, donít you think? I donít see much of that. I see more of this: Iím thinking about being born. Iím thinking about what it means to be born. Iím thinking about what the world would have been if nobody was ever born but I wasnít nobody. I like those types of poems. But Iíd like to see more of these kinds of poems, too. Poems that are reflective but outward looking and directive. These Get your shit together, people kind of poems. Theyíre fun. Theyíre like TV in a way. Weíre used to people saying things on TV that mean something. Weíre used to people on TV telling other people exactly who they are and what they did wrong and what they should have done instead. But a lot of poetry doesnít do that. Thatís why everybody watches TV and nobody reads poetry, I guess.

Goddamn, thatís good: TV. I have always believed that my poems were little TV commercials, ultimately. I think that is what I aspire to because I want them to be accessible to everyone. It would be fantastic if poems could take the place of television. It would be fantastic if the experience of watching TV and reading a poem was similar. In a way, it is. The components of a television show/commercial and a poem are actually quite alike: quick cuts, leaps, humor, drama, witty dialogue. The best poems and the best television are doing the same thing. Take a show like Fringe and a poem by Leigh Stein, itís all the same impulse. Suck the viewer/reader in, give him/her a grounded, serious, dark, light, funny, sad experience, be beautifully bizarre. Entertain. So, I am glad you made the reference to TV and my poems. Itís the best compliment I have ever received.† Iíd like to think I am in the entertainment business.

The thing about the second book -- I just did not want my second book to be a second book. I wanted it to be something special and thatís what Jen was proposing. Something out of the box, extraordinary, with a different look, feel, trajectory -- a book of poetry that could be sold at Urban Outfitters and enjoyed by everyone.

This book could definitely be sold at the UO. Did you know that Leigh visited Chicago, and I went to the beach with her this weekend -- literally two days ago -- and we had a great time? Is that why you name dropped her? Sheís in almost every one of my interviews. Anyway, you play around with race and gender and disability and say outrageous stuff thatís bound to get you into trouble. Let me give you some examples. Like in ďWith Black Man (for Carl S.),Ē you write:

Iíve spent my whole life trying to figure out
How to walk down a street
With a black man
And not notice
That heís black.
How do you do that?
Itís racist.
It has to be.

[Ö]

Once [Carl] said, I know you are not afraid.
I loved him then
because he was black
and he was Carl
with a huge neck.
Truth be known: I was afraid.

Or in ďSilly and Brave,Ē you say:

Itís not fair to say that the woman I work with is a lesbian
Even though she is a lesbian.
How do I know sheís a lesbian? She told me.
Itís fun when people say stuff about themselves that is very personal to them but to me,
I couldnít care less.
Not because I donít care
But because nothing is very personal
And nothing comes as a surprise.
[Ö]
So, this woman I work withóthe lesbianó
She tells me she hates men
And Iím eating a corned beef sandwich,
Because her father beat her momma
And her momma drank a lot of gin.
And, you see, she said,
Thatís why I hate guys.
But, I said,
This corned beef sandwich is tremendous,
You should have a bite.
Then she said something nasty
about the way I chew
which is why I shouldnít like lesbians.

But I donít care what the hell you are
Or call yourself, think you are, want to be.
Itís all a little Silly and Brave at the same time.

Or ďWal-Mart PoemĒ:

Howís that for a sight? I saw to her,
pointing to the one-eyed kid in a wheelchair
with a Spiderman costume on
He hasnít taken off since Halloween.

Itís the water, she tells me.
Or the soda, I say,
and soon enough
I canít hide behind enough patio furniture
to save my life.

We actually met because I asked to re-envision one of your poems called ďRetards.Ē I wrote a poem called ďRetardĒ in response. And another poet read our poems and she said she felt offended by your poem, though not so much by mine (which implied to me she was still a little offended by mine). I donít remember her exact words. I know she mentioned she didnít know how to read your tone in the poem. I felt really bad about it, possibly making this person feel bad -- especially considering my daughter is developmentally and physically disabled, and my poem was actually written for her, but you didnít seem to care. You said something like, ďOh well. Thatís the beauty and horror of putting these things out into the world. People misunderstand your intentions.Ē Have you ever had this experience in person? Hearing firsthand that youíve offended someone with one of your poems? Do you feel obligated to bring things out, like race, like disability, so people can take a look at them? Maybe obligated is a strong word. Do you feel interested in bringing these things to paper? Or do random hot topics involuntarily fly out of you while youíre writing and end up on paper? How much do you think about your audience?

Oh, I think about audience all the time. But, itís gotten to the point where I am just writing what I am writing because I imagine myself in the audience. I write what I would like to hear or read so at the same time, in the writing process, I am both poet and audience member. Itís probably a very selfish dance that I am doing but I do it because itís fun and really, thatís the origin of all this writing stuff. Part of the fun making is dealing with ďhotĒ topics in a way that pushes the envelope. I donít mean to offend and no one has ever come to me to say that they were offended by what I have written. I try to confront some of my own darkness in these poems. I try to do it in a way that is honest, sympathetic and artful. See, the thing is this: there is all this crazy shit happening in the world -- The Gulf, Darfur, anger, rage, racism, sexism, kids getting bullied, kids taking drugs, adults taking drugs, black presidents, white presidents, dictators, poverty, bad air, bad dreams -- and it has an impact on me. Iím a poet. I write poems about things. Sometimes these ďworldlyĒ things get into my poems. They have to because if they didnít the poems would suck. They would suck because they would be much too self involved. So yes, I am conscious of how oily pelicans will arrive in a poem about a street in my neighborhood that I would to love live on, Otis Street. Itís random and not. But Iím two thousand miles away from those pelicans and as a citizen of the world I have to take note. Thatís what I can do. Jen Woods, can do something else. She is publisher. What does she do? She donates 25% of Typecastís sales to Gulf revitalization. I think what she does is much more practical, hands on, pragmatic. No one is trying to offend. We are all just trying to help out because the whole goddamn thing is so fragile.

Your poems strike me as really honest. You donít pull no punches, Lippman. Or if you do, youíre really good at hiding it. I didnít know that Typecast did that. Wow, wow. In addition to the previously mentioned topics, you also write about fatherhood in this book. You love it. You complain about it. Like in ďLike LizardsĒ:

The madness of having kids is they don't go away.
I want them to -- to the park for twelve years
or to college when they are ten --
even the ones who haven't arrived.

I feel like it's easy for people to dismiss poems when theyíre a) funny and b) about kids. Do you ever feel that way? Maybe I feel like this is more the case with women? I don't know how I feel actually. A lot of people don't write about their kids. If you asked them, I bet they'd say it's to protect their kids' privacy, but I bet it's because if you're a poet, you're not supposed to do anything fun or have kids or watch TV or go to the mall. When you're a poet, you can only have a couple things:

a. a drink
b. a Ph.D. in creative writing

Does your wife like when you write about her and your family? I said to my husband, "It has to be so cool to have somebody write about you all the time," and he said, "Actually that's the worst thing about being married to you." Which most definitely is not true. There are much worse things than that. But it was nice of him to say that I thought.

When my first kid was born, I couldnít write a poem. For two years. Then I started writing again, about her. I think the first poem I wrote that made any sense after her birth is called ďAt Keelers.Ē Itís about going to get ice cream and shutting up, about being quiet in the face of having a kid. After I wrote the poem I thought, hey, I canít write about anything else but marriage, children, adult life. Four years later my wife got pregnant and I kinda flipped out. I wrote ďLike LizardsĒ as a way of trying to be honest about the whole thing. I was scared. I was hesitant even though I had been in active participant in the baby making experience. We did not know it was going to be a girl when I wrote the poem. The poem talks about having a boy. It does not matter. What matters is that these topics -- kids, birth, marriage -- resonate with me deeply. Itís all there is now. I went to summer camp with this kid who turned out to be a highly visible movie critic for a major news publication. When I lived in Brooklyn, I ran into him on the street after not seeing him for twenty years. I asked him how he was, what he was up to and all he could say was, Kids. He had two. It occurred to me that given all of his acclaim, fame, etc., no matter how much all of that was, meant, his answer was kids. I got it but I didnít. I get it now. They inhabit everything, take up every little second and there is just no way that I can write poems now about standing on the side of the highway thinking if I should stick out my thumb or sit down because I might, or might not, know who I am. In any case, I think there is more and more of this kind of poetry being written -- about the kids. I see it everywhere. Adrian Blevins taught me a little bit about the subject, about writing about amniotic fluid and those little motherfuckers that run around thinking they are reptiles. These days I see poems by a lot of women regarding children and childbirth -- Rachel Zucker and Dorianne Lux and Erika Meitner. Wonderful poets. The work is biting and honest and sink-your-teeth-in primal.

Yes. My wife likes it. She is a big honesty fan and sometimes I think I am most honest in the poems. So, yes, she likes it. My eldest daughter likes it too. She likes to see her name in print. She thinks itís cool. And funny. For some reason all these poems, lines in the poems, are funny to her. Which is the best response there is. Poems that are funny, even when they are not funny, and about kids, even when they are not about kids, make the best fruit salad. Thatís who I feel about it all at this stage in my life. I think about when I am sixty, will I still be writing these things. I donít think so. It makes me sad, a little. Itís youthfulness, life, all that great stuff that comes through even at three in the morning when the little one is crying her head off because she wants the breast and there is nothing else. When I am sixty, one of my daughters will be in college, the other in high school. Iíll be writing about, I donít know, cardinals. I hope not. Shoot me if I am. †

At AWP, I actually talked to Jen Woods when she gave me a review copy of Monkey Bars, and I remember her telling me a story about how you write standing up? I canít remember the story. I canít remember any stories exactly right -- see American Man above. But I remember her saying something about how your writing space is transient. Or makeshift in some way? And I think that this makeshift writing space tied to your kids in some way? Is any of this ringing a bell? If not, disregard. If so, please do explain what the hell youíre doing over there in Boston. Youíre in Boston, right? Do you have any set routine for writing? Since kids, I write whenever, wherever. I had all the time in the world to think about the conditions under which a person might be able to write a good poem before. But now thereís no time for thinking. I type with one hand and eat a plate of spaghetti with the other. By the way, my daughter always laughs at my poems, too. She thinks poetry is completely absurd. Sheís always trying to one-up me. After I read mine, sheís like, well, hereís MY poem:

CHUNG PING.
That means ABCDEFG
in Chinese!

Your daughter is a genius. I love that. CHUNG PING. I am going to walk around all day saying Chung Ping.

What the hell is going on Chicago? In Boston, yeah, I donít have any space at home. The computer is on top of this cabinet we have in the kitchen. Itís next to a little window, next to my five year oldís wooden play kitchen. Thatís where I write. Sometimes I steal away while the ladies are at the other end of the apartment until someone screams my name. Sometimes, late at night, when everyone is asleep, I get out of bed and try and write. I tried last night but I was too tired. Thatís my routine. I have no routine. Itís all about the girls. Itís all so public, too. There is no space in our apartment for anything but family life. We got toys in the living room, kitchen, hanging off the ceiling, the light fixtures, diapers in the cabinet that houses the phone, laundry basket and diaper pail and high chair and little pieces of avocado winding their way onto the couch. Who the hell knows? I like it this way. Sometimes I look at my children and think about how one day they will be off on their own and all that youthfulness will be out of the house. I feel lucky that I donít need an office or a studio or a den to go to when I want to write. Maybe itís because I was born in Manhattan in 1965 and lived in low-middle income housing till my parents moved us out to the green pastures of Westchester County.

Chung Ping is right!

I think thatís valuable -- being extremely cramped from an early age. Developing low expectations for space. We have a two-bedroom house with three kids right now (one foreign exchange student) and no walls. Nobody seems to care. Oh my God, speaking of Chung Ping, we went to Chinatown last night and my daughter kept screaming ďChung Ping!Ē at anyone who looked vaguely Asian walking by. When I told her to stop it she said, ďWhy? It means, ĎCome on, letís go!í I learned it on TV!Ē I didnít want to say, ďNo it does not!Ē Because maybe it does. Does it, Matthew? Does anyone know what Chung Ping means? Also, when we got to the restaurant, she was dancing all through the restaurant, pressing the palms of her hands together and making all these ridiculously deep bows at people who were eating. It was embarrassing. When I told her to stop, she was all annoyed like, ďWhat? Iím doing the Spring Lotus Dance!Ē I never know when sheís lying. Like is there a Spring Lotus Dance? Iím sure there isnít. But maybe there is. It sounds like there could be. What do I know about dancing? Whatís next? What are you working on now? Just from reading your work I assume you write poem to poem and when you have enough poems, then you have a book. Is that right? Or do you start with a theme or an idea for a book and then fill in from there?

I have no idea what Chung Ping means. It sounds great. Thatís what I know what it means.

I just started working on these poems about sports. I donít know why. I am a huge sports fan. Not huge but huge. I donít run around with statistics and players and trades and memorized matches in my head but if thereís a game on the television, Iím in. Last night I was watching the Red Sox/Devil Rays baseball game. I watch golf, soccer, womenís softballÖ anything. It makes no sense to me because I am a terrible sportsman. I played golf last week for the first time in about two years and hit the ball with a three wood that my father gave me like never before. Right off the tee. 200 yards. My irons were lofty and straight. I was alone on a public course in Newton. Hot day. Woke up in a foul mood. Rachel, my wife, said: Go play some golf, get it out of your system. There was something very beautiful to me about using these clubs that my father had given me. I came home from my nine holes and the house, unexpectedly, was empty. I stood at my computer and wrote. Some quiet. This poem came out of me about the golf but also about my father. The next day I wrote one about my daughter and baseball. We take these walks at five in the morning past a little league field. Every couple of days we find a baseball. Maybe these poems are about sports and family. They are hard to write because sentimentality and on the field competition go hand in hand. Just watch the television show Friday Night Lights. Great stuff but sappy as hell. Iím trying to stay away from that. The golf poem is called, ďShut the Hell Up Johnny Miller.Ē A touch of bitterness but love, always love. Who knows? Maybe Iíll get a book of sports poems. I donít care. The next book is called Lullaby for Earth. Birth poems. Global warming poems. I didnít plan it like that. Just happened. I donít think I can write any more poems about birth. Weíre done making babies. Iím not done making poems, though. Iíd like to have a book of sports poems that are not sports poems. That would be great. I started one about soccer but it sucks. No tension in it. Pele is in it, though. And those Spanish television announcers who scream, GOOOOOAAAALLLL, when the black and white ball hits the back of the net.

Iím not a sports fan either but if you write a poetry book about sports, I will read it. I promise. Also, in the future, whenever I feel like complaining about lack of space, I will think of you, standing up at your kitchen cabinet, next to your tiny window, tapping out your family/birth/global warming/sports poems. Thanks for sharing all your biz with us, Matthew. GOOOOOAAAALLLL!

Thanks, Liz. For all the good vibes, vibeology, for coming up with these questions and talking shop. I had a great time.

Elizabeth Hildreth is an instructional designer. She lives in Chicago and is a regular interviewer for Bookslut.