Q&A: Matthew Yeager
Q: What style of music do you think most closely resembles your poetry? A: Honestly, I don't know that I'm the most fit individual to answer this question; I've been making poems for about thirteen years now, and every halfway decent poem I've ever made has followed such a different path from inkling to existence that's it's hard to identify a musical analogue. To my eye and ear, my poems resemble the offspring of a single creator about as much as do the animals at a particular zoo. They've all sprung from different whims, intentions, emotions, stylistic antecedents, personal imperatives; American poetry is just so daggone broad; if you attempt seriously to internalize that breadth, you have, to my sense, two options: to be yourself various or to be paralyzed by doubt in the sense that Philip Guston used the word. What I mean is that there is almost always an equally viable option, and doubt can be defined as the acute realization of that. It's the way or ways you've made a poem work that largely determines the way your next poem will start. Am I a poet that either gets a poem on the first try or doesn't get it? Or am I a poet that takes twelve years on a single poem? Both.
But if you put a knife to my neck, which I'll pretend that you have, I would say my poetry resembles any kind of music with solos in it, any sort of musical structure with an adjacent playground and a chunk of time allotted for a recess therein. I just love solos. Modal jazz, electric blues, North Indian classical music: all these kinds of music have strict parameters and then a space for individual improvisatory freedom within those parameters. That sounds pretentious as hell. I can't create without parameters, though; be they formal, be they narrative (say, a narrative blocked out like a film scene), be they an intuitive flash of a finalized thing (which I've been graced a few times to have), I have to have something marked out. But within what's marked out, I prefer there be a certain amount of space to go bananas.
A composer once told me that I read poetry the way I played guitar; I didn't quite know how to feel about that; at that point, I screwed up at about a rate of every eight seconds on a guitar, and I feel like, as a reader, I can look at words on a page and send them out my mouth successfully for more than eight second intervals; I do love music, though, and I played the guitar with some ambition from the ages of 14-18. Growing up, I had more of a math-science-engineering brain than a musico-poetical-literary brain, and music theory made a sort of gorgeous sense once it was explained to me. Still, this didn't help me much playing the instrument. I took up acoustic fingerpicking in 2010 after an apartment was burglarized of computer equipment, and I lost upwards of a year of writing; the only poem that survived was "Sleep, Mothers," which at that point was a sprawling disastrous mess. I'd emailed it to Malachi Black hoping he could play Pound with it, and I was able to recover that email and finally edit that poem into one of the few that's ever utterly pleased me. Thank God. After that robbery, though, my inner life felt more or less (more than less) blown to bits, and in the fallout I started fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar in my afterwork hours just to feel a little happiness; the choice to fingerpick wasn't even a choice; I didn't own a pick at that point; also, I was so terrible after a decade of not playing that I didn't want my then girlfriend to have to hear me; you can play more softly with the fingers. ("Softlier?" "Softlier" is a non-word that I love.) You also have significantly more control without a pick: I'd liken fingerpicking to driving a stick-shift. The best acoustic players fingerpick, and Jeff Beck, my favorite electric guitar player ever, plays with his fingers; I fingerpick in the style of Big Bill Broonzy, John Hurt, et al. for a half hour a day, though to say I play in the style of Bill Broonzy is like a painter saying he paints in the style of Picasso because he also uses a brush to put oil paint on a canvas. I play in the spirit that a poet like Cate Marvin needlepoints: the guitar milks anxiety out of my hands, and it's a way to blow off steam; rather, vent off steam and use it to spin some sort of little turbine. I can't sing at all; to hear me range is like watching a 38 year old career designated hitter try to play center field. Noises do come falling out of my mouth, but much in the way food comes tumbling out of a mouth. It'd be better if they didn't.
Q: Did you choose your writing style or did it choose you? What does your style allow you to do with your poetry that other styles would not?
A: Hmmm....These questions are very difficult; I've yet to bring out much work; I grasp better than I release, so to speak; what few poems of mine that have gained some acceptance have tended to be long, but most of my poems aren't. My actual style - if I could be said to have one - is to have a multiplicity of styles; I think in terms of piles that I'm slowly growing: mounds or piles of "like." I have a mound of about 40 prose poems; I have a mound of 120 sonnets written in the voice of a detached wad of belly fat, that grows and grows. I've been amassing those sonnets since 2003: the Gut Sonnets. I'm planning to get to 154; I figure then I'll have a gesture; those poems make me laugh like crazy, and it's important to make yourself laugh. "No ___ for the writer, no ___ for the reader." The various styles that make up my body of work can't really live together, but that's just as well. I suppose that if your brain ended up in the context of your digestive system, you'd be brainless in a matter of minutes. It's good that the parts of ourselves stay compartmentalized.
Have I chosen this? Yes. I've chosen my writing style, and suppose I choose my writing style every day I sit down to work with poems; I have no working concept of a "speaker"; the "I" is either absolutely myself or absolutely a dramatic persona. In terms of method, I suppose I've even chosen to have a lot of anxiety, though I wish I hadn't; in my early 20s, when I got out of the MFA, our class scattered like a bouquet of helium balloons: we loved each other, but off we went. I didn't have a lot of poets in my life; I was reading mostly great poets; I also read a lot of Harold Bloom, which only encouraged me in what I was doing, and probably it was foolish, like plunging fifteen vaccinations into an infant on a single doctor's visit. I was courting anxiety, which misinterpreted into a synonym for "energy," and it was dumb as scaling a church tower during a thunderstorm wearing a suit of tiny copper bells. I'd Kong my way up there and shake myself till I got struck. You can't be at the level I was at and only be reading Auden and Rilke and Larkin and Hopkins and Ashbery and Bishop, et al. Keeping such company, I was like an orangutan in a family of humans, trying to tie a bow-tie and eat with silverware; what I mean is that I couldn't do the things that I was observing the other beings do with (apparent) ease, and my self-esteem plummeted. But what's done is done. I just keep living and trying my best.
Q: How do you choose what a poem will look like on the page?
A: I've always hated the way my poems look on a page; by a page I mean an 8.5" x 11" sheet of computer paper. But then again, I tend not to like the way any poems look on 8.5" x 11" inch pages of computer paper. Poems feel like living breathing organisms when they're written out long-hand or even when they're up on my computer screen. Some poets feel that their poems don't exist till they print them; mine, to me, cease to exist in that context. Perhaps this is because on an 8.5" x 11" page, a poem signals to the reader that its clay is still wet, that it's an unfinished thing. Of course poems read differently once they're published; even still, mine tend to look bad to me. Maybe they're actually all bad poems? Many years ago, I was looking at the first poem I ever published just after it was published. I walked to my kitchen, opened the trashcan, and pushed the journal through the trash all the way in the bottom; there, I thought. Now there's one less chance anybody ever sees that. Then it ended up in Best American Poetry '05. David Bowie has a great line in the album Hunky Dory: "Don't bee-lee-uve in yourself!" Perhaps I should listen to that on headphones while I sleep....
My first schooling in poetry writing was based entirely on memorization and the breath line; my natural line or "talking line" - if I could be said to have one - is long; long lines are most often physically ugly; they tend to be physically ugly and rhythmically dead. There are a lot of highly venerated poets whose work goes to shit when they use a long line, but I'd rather name some people that do it well. Pinsky is a whiz with the longish line; Gulf Music stunned me; if you're not in a strict syllabic form, the thing is to manipulate your syntax so the sentences are scored with a number of commas, so that the utterance is perforated, like a roll of paper towels or toilet paper; then you have a variety of natural breaking options. Commas are good, most often, in poetry. "The old masters were never wrong about suffering." All on its own, that's flat as a dead heart on a monitor. "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters," however, is maybe the most gorgeous first line of the 20th century. (There's an invisible comma after "suffering." Do you hear it?) Whitman, particularly the Whitman of the 1855 edition, is the master of the long line, and the master of stringing long lines together. He is the master of the complete sentence on a line unto itself that completes a series of thoughts.
It's hard to separate this from a question, "How do you choose the words in your poem?" or "How do you go about writing a poem?" Save for long "additive" poems, which I've written three of now, which I amass in Moleskines the 500 hours a year or so I spend in mass transit, (and which I hardly consider "poems"), I work on a word processor. Working on a word processor, one tends to be formatting while writing. My girlfriend, Chelsea Whitton, made a comment recently that her poems come out, by default, in long unbroken columns. I suppose mine do too. Maybe some poets would disagree, but in my experience, a poem in quatrains has to be composed in quatrains, a poem in tercets composed in tercets, etc. The copy-and-paste function in a word processor allows for easy non-destructive editing and experimentation. Like most poets, I think, when a poem isn't working, I've tried all manner of curious surgeries, just as any real doctor would if he could copy-and-paste a separate identical body on a neighboring table. Hey! Maybe if I put a line of space between every line, this thing will work like an Henri Cole poem? But it never does; not for me anyway.
Q: How do you choose your punctuation or lack thereof? Does it have more to do with grammar, visual cues, or auditory/musical cues?
A: Hmmm....I almost always use punctuation, and I tend to follow grammatical rules save for an occasional split infinitive or sentence ending preposition. A lack of punctuation, if well deployed, can also be effective; removing punctuation will most often turn up the volume of the speaking voice in a poem; it will increase tempo, and it can impart a quality of suddenness to the observations - particularly a quality of suddenness to the clarification of an observation. "I was thinking of you / having a Coke in the heat it was your face / I saw on the movie magazine, no it was Fabian's." Of course O'Hara is the master; but David Lehman is extraordinary at no punctuation in his two books of daily poems. Of grammatical rules broken without apparent intention, comma splices alone are truly hideous to me, and even when I see them in the work of a great poet like Robert Frost, I shudder. When I send out the poems every week for the KGB MONDAY NIGHT POETRY SERIES, I'm occasionally tempted to correct the comma splices into semi-colons or colons. I'd say my favorite pieces of punctuation are semi-colons and colons; they feel like jump stops on a basketball court or brakings on a bicycle brief enough that you can stay in your clips: forward momentum is preserved in the stop. I also love parentheticals, but who doesn't? I love that you can do anything within them. What else? The ability of a hyphen to affix words together into action sequences is also amazing; there's a Seamus Heaney poem where he refers to sea water as "seeable-down-into" as opposed to "clear," and the effect is absolutely optic, like the opening storm in the Aeneid, when the sand is boiling up between the troughs of the waves. It's such a feat when a poet can utterly locate you in a visual.
Q: Do you think that punctuation can be equated with musical notation symbols such as note value, rests, and dynamic markings? How do you think of white space? Between words and stanzas? As it relates to the size and shape of the paper your work is printed on?
A: No. Punctuation is not nearly so precise as musical notation, and punctuation is, of course, much younger than speech. If you tried to assign, for instance, rest values to bits of punctuation (say, a period is twice the rest of a comma, and a line break is 1.5x the rest of a period and a stanza break is twice as long as a line break, etc.), all the fluidity of the human voice would drain out of poetry. More importantly, personality would be drained.
Sometimes I wish spelling weren't as regular as it is. Uv corse yoo can spel rong if yoo wunt, but it's a meaningful gesture. There's been an English dictionary since Samuel Johnson put one out in 1755. In the 18th century, you can observe spelling corrected in correspondence almost the way pronunciation is corrected today. I mispronounce something; you properly pronounce the word a sentence later, in a surer tone, and I take note. I'm an 18th century American history geek, and the single greatest letter writer of the period was this nearly illiterate Irishman-cum-Pennsylvanian-cum-Six-Nations-sachem named George Croghan aka "The Buck" aka "Brother Bucks" aka "Anagurunda." He was the deputy of the British Indian department during the French and Indian War. Not in poetry, prose, or letters have I ever witnessed a voice leap off the page like it does in the letters of George Croghan, and one reason was his tremendously creative and personal orthographic habits. Back in the late 1740s, during King George's War, when Croghan near single-handedly wrested the Ohio peltry market away from the French, he sent a short letter back to the governor of Pennsylvania explaining how he'd turned most of the tribes to the English side. It was 1747, and he spelled "Indians" like this: "InGans." It took me a minute to see what he'd done: In + letter G (dJee) + ans. He just threw a capital G into the middle of the word! Probably the most unusual thing I've ever seen. It didn't take him too long before he learned the conventional spelling of "Indians." In fact, one of the most important books that's never been created is THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF GEORGE CROGHAN. I'd pay $1,300 bucks for such a book, and that's half what I bring home after taxes in a month. One other thing I'll say about history: George Washington can go fuck himself for all of eternity. Seriously: fuck that guy.
Wow I'm doing a bad job at answering these questions. As far as white space, once in print, a poem will asphyxiate if it isn't wreathed with enough white space. You feel bad for a lineated poem stuffed onto a small page like you do for a huge man in a tiny seat. There's a poet named Josh Bell who deserves to have his first book No Planets Strike reprinted with a sufficient cushion of white space around the poems. They are excellent, energetic, original poems and deserve more white space.
Q: Do you think your poetry gives visual auditory cues to the reader? Do you think the reader hears the way you read your poetry by sight alone? If not, what do you think impedes this transfer of information?
A: 1.) If not, it's not for a lack of trying. 2.) If I do a good job of writing it, I think it's possible. 3.) If I ruin a poem by trying to make the individual lines too "good," by hanging too many sounds on a sentence sound, that's the reason it fails.
Q: How do you notate your poetry to make up for the lack of your voice being there? Do you try?
A: I suppose all poets try to put a voice on the page, even if we don't try to the obsessive degree that someone like Bidart does. The best theory (I know of) as to how it is that voice gets into poetry (or doesn't) is Frost's theory of "sentence sounds." He never articulated it in an essay to my knowledge, but you can find the theory explicated in great detail and with utter lucidity in his early letters. The gist of it is that sentences and clauses have an overall and highly specific "sound," and unless you've heard a specific "sentence sound" with your own two ears, out in its native context in the real world, you can't take it off a page. There has to be a bell in your belfry for the poem to ring. When there isn't a sentence sound, and poetry merely sounds "like poetry," the poem breaks down. It doesn't communicate. Alternately, if there is a sentence sound, it can collapse because too many words have been hung on it. Frost's makes an analogy to a clothesline collapsing.
You don't tend to think of Ashbery and Frost as similar poets, but they're both masters in their own way of "sentence sounds." No matter the terms in which Ashbery is expressing himself, you most often know exactly where he is tonally. If he's dislocated you for a few lines, he'll relocate you in a specific sentence sound. "Just a teardrop of milk. Thanks." We know just the terms of that interaction; we know it because we've lived in reality, had coffee in a diner, etc. I think of that great Ashbery line near the end of "The Grand Galop": "Ask a hog what is happening. Go on. Ask him." I love the way the head nods with that "Go on."
Tone emerges in the way a poet reacts to himself or herself; "No fair? No, fair."
Q: Do you consider yourself a performer of your poetry, or a reader? How come?
A: I consider myself a reader. Whenever I've tried to perform in the slightest way, which is to say, put feeling into words, it's gone over horribly. I've tended to do this when I've read a poem that has gone over well at an earlier reading and either brought emotion out of me or elicited a little laughter. If I try to put into the words the emotions that earlier came out all on their own, the result is a loss of connection with the audience. If I leave a space for laughter, no one laughs.
Q: How would you describe your performance/reading style? Do you think that popular reading styles have shaped the way you read, or have you actively worked against the pull of mainstream performance style?
A: I pause at the end of my line breaks, and most of my poems are written with that pause in mind. If I keep that in my head behind a lectern and make sure not to go too fast, everything usually takes care of itself. I'll get picked up into the momentum of whatever I'm reading. There are many ways to reach an audience. It has less to do with the reader, though, than it does to do with the poem. From the roughly two hundred poets I've heard up close at KGB, what I've learned is that I was all wrong in thinking that the main reason a poem is good aloud is that the reader is a good reader. Of course it helps, but it's ultimately not that important. It's easy after awhile to subtract the reading of the words from the words themselves. I can look at a poet's poems on the page and tell you more often than not which ones will kill out loud. I couldn't do that three years ago. Poems that move forward tend to do well. Poems that move sideways tend not to do so well.
I admit I hate the "hipster doofus shrugging I-don't-give-a-shit" style. It's just another form of vanity. I also don't like a lot of explanation before a poem.
Q: Do you think you’re the best performer/reader of your own work?
A: No. Once upon a time I did, but that was because I didn't know. When "A Big Ball of Foil in a Small NY Apartment" was made into a short film, the initial plan was that I would do the voiceover. Then we listened to the playback, and it became clear that that wouldn't work. Perhaps it'd be different if I had a mellifluous speaking voice, but I don't. I ain't exactly Sidney Poitier or Richard Burton. I talk through my nose, and my voice is reminiscent of a lawnmower with the blade set too low. Most poets frown at the readings of poetry that actors give, but they probably shouldn't. While it's true that actors often ignore line-breaks entirely, drive through stop signs, inexplicably jam on the brakes in the middle of lines, etc., this isn't necessarily their fault. One thing that makes an actor an actor is the ability to take direction; when trained actors have good direction, when they respect the rhythms of the poem and don't try to impose a rhythm, they are the best readers of poetry.
[vimeo 53215275 w=500 h=281] <p><a href="http://vimeo.com/53215275">matthew yeager henry hudson</a> from <a href="http://vimeo.com/user12609002">Causa Artium</a> on <a href="https://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p>
About my amateur fingerpicking: all these were recorded on my Samsung Galaxy smart-phone. The three Big Bill Broonzy tunes were done in my parents' basement in Ohio, on my dad's 50 year old entry level nylon string acoustic guitar. By holding the phone close to the guitar, it pushed the needle into the red, and produced some distortion. The last two are on a steel-string acoustic.
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Matthew Yeager's poems have appeared in NANOfiction, Sixthfinch, Bat City Review, NY Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere, as well as Best American Poetry 2005 and Best American Poetry 2010. His short film (w/ Sean Logan) "A Big Ball of Foil in a Small NY Apartment" was an official selection at thirteen film festivals in 2009-2010, picking up three awards. Other distinctions include the 2009 Barthelme Prize in Short Prose and two MacDowell fellowships. In 2011, he took over as the co-curator of the KGBMonday Night Poetry series. A book of poetry is forthcoming from Forklift Books.