POET WILLIAM MATTHEWS writes with both a love of language, and an interest in the subtle distinctions conveyed or hinted by phrases and images. This love of and fascination with the meanings of language have resulted in a highly readable and at times fascinating body of work, most recently Rising and Falling (Boston: Little Brown, 1979). In response to his poems, he states, “I love best those poems which seem just to have emerged from a thicket of silence and intense emotion.” The poems are American in idiom, which unites with his careful interest in imagery and concentration on experience to produce tight, well crafted poems offering glimpses and insights into the natural world, and the process of perceiving it.
From publishing in Kayak in the mid-Sixties, Matthews went on to co-found Lillabulero with Russell Banks at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taught at Wells College, Aurora, New York, Cornell, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has been a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Iowa and poetry editor of the Iowa Review. He currently is an Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.
In the following interview he discusses the crafts of writing, editing, and thinking about poetry, as well as his own poems. —S.C.
Stephen Cape: In your last book, Rising and Falling, you have the poem “Four Quotes About Jamaica,” with the lines: “I who believe in language/and distrust its exact parlor tricks.” Could you elaborate?
William Matthews: I think every writer begins with faith in language — the ability of language to make a model of a world you can live in. We’re verbal people and the world is constructed out of language as much as it’s constructed out of experience. As a child you start by being read to, which starts you reading books, and that effects your sense of what the world might be like, and because you’re naïve and you can’t test those notions against experience, you have to correct and build them. But you build a world out of language, and once you come to work with language as a medium — as people in arts other than writing might say — you begin to see that there are certain tricks that language plays on you, that there are distortions built into the nature of the medium. There are certain things that language does too neatly, or even wrongly. The simplest example, in a way, is probably cognates in translating. You find a word that looks as if it ought to mean something in your own language when the precise meaning is not the cognate at all.
SC: The type of thing, as in your group of four poems about Jamaica, where you self-consciously catch yourself referring to the people you’re photographing as subjects?
Matthews: Yes, and that’s the right phrase. Those poems are spoken by an American who’s vaguely self-conscious about his relationship to the Jamaican culture — that he’s a tourist, that he’s white, that he spends enough money for food in a day to feed many of the people around him for three weeks — this sort of vague baggage of unease that people take when they go to a culture like that. And, to refer to those people as subjects, to use a word that has that awful pun with colonial imperialistic language, is very embarrassing. And yet the person you’re taking a picture of is a subject. Behind that there’s the whole notion of subjective and objective and the fact that you go to places like that to have your sense of reality screwed around. You go there exactly in order to learn where your sense of things is wrong and to have useful confusions. And that’s exactly the point where language will fool you, and yet for the writer that’s the moment you seek. You seek moments when you have to readjust your sense of how sure you can be about reality. You welcome those moments; the trick is to notice them.
SC: Do you feel differently about oral poetry, either being read by someone or simply as a genre, and printed poetry which you’re sitting and reading?
Matthews: I think there’s an elaborate and fairly honorable argument, an anthropological argument, which if you want to pick a spokesman for I’d say Gary Snyder, about the anthropological basis of poetry, that societies have an official storyteller, and that especially in a preliterate society, somebody had to be the memory, the repository, for the group. And these were composed for oral recital and contain all kinds of oral formulae that helped to remember them, which would make it easier for this guy to do the memorization because he had to commit to memory an enormous amount of stuff. Snyder would say because it’s the older, it’s the realer poetry, the truer poetry. Also Snyder in general, I think, has scarcely mixed feelings about the industrial revolution. So overall this things is purer morally, more credible to him. That puts you in a situation in which you have to decide, “Which is the truer?”, especially since it’s two different lives of the same being. We can’t be preliterate people, we’re literate; we can’t be pre-industrial revolution people. We’re stuck in our own age, with its values and advantages, even if they have disadvantages attached to them. In the chair you don’t have to read the poem straight through from beginning to end and when you’re listening to someone reciting it’s like a movie or a tape. It only travels in one direction. One advantage of reading a poem is that you can slow time down. Poetry’s about time in many ways and about the passage of time and how we react to that. The great advantage of written poetry is that you can meditate on it, and read it backwards, and read the fourth line three times and get in the swim of it. And in a way oral poetry is running water. It flows through us and you can’t stop it anymore than you can stop a film or a tape. I think the advantage is that the oral is more social, and the other is more individual. I don’t see why we shouldn’t have both. I just think that they’re two lives of the same being, rather than a test of genuineness. I know that that’s a point which is widely argued.
SC: Do you agree with Snyder’s theory of word usage which he outlines in “Ripra”? The “setting words in place of mind,” the fact each word is stuck specifically, exactly, in a structural semantic position?
Matthews: Yes and no. In one way what he’s describing is a craftsman’s approach to syntax, that a workman should learn his tools well. Much of the strength of Snyder’s poetry, some of which I admire enormously, comes form his sense that poetry isn’t an activity all that different from physical work, and that there’s a great deal to be learned from treating physical work as ritual and ceremony, and treating your tools as sacred objects. That he would pay that kind of attention to syntax seems to me really valuable instead of thinking “That’s just grammar” and the poetry is in the inspirational fires. We can learn to do it by looking at the tools closely — I think that’s terrific and I love that part of it. But once everything is set there’s a sense that things are fixed in place, and it seems to me that the value of poetry is that while syntax has to fall into an intelligible order of one kind or another, meaning floats, and that the function of poetry is to float a group of associations across together and not have them come to rest, and in that sense, there’s something permanent and fixed about those pieces of riprap that makes me slightly nervous. It doesn’t describe my activity; it may describe his beautifully. That’s probably the way to say that.
SC: Other than the types of semantic ambiguity and dual or multiple meanings, are there any other features of the English language that particularly concern you, or that particularly concern you, or that you’re particularly conscious of when you’re working with the language?
Matthews: Yes. You don’t think of them in a very theoretical way, but I think one is aware of the hugeness or richness of the vocabulary. It has by a multiple of about six the largest vocabulary of any widely spoken language in the world. It’s just a staggeringly large number of words, and the range of possibility is very great. And secondly, for various historical reasons, most of them having to do with politics and economics and war and migration and so forth, the English language is still being changed and enriched at a very high rate of speed from many directions on the globe. British and American English — which we could imagine in 1607 when the people got off the boat in Virginia as being identical — now have 27% of their words in common pronounced differently. Not to mention some words that are actually not recognizable in one dialect to people in another. When you add to that Canadian or Australian or all the etc., there’s a terrific moil or ferment about English that seems to me exciting. This would be rather different than languages with a much smaller vocabulary, with everything pinned down. It’s very important. Some of the Scandinavian languages have active vocabularies of about 17,000 words, and to make new words they just follow the German habit of cementing words together. And when you have a language that works that way all those parts have to stay really rigid and fixed or the whole system goes blooey. English works differently. That seems to me a great advantage to the poet.
Daniel Bourne: Do you find any difficulty relating to English poetry as opposed to American poetry?
Matthews: I used to. I wonder what I mean by that. I know that’s a true biographical statement. I guess one thing I mean by it is that when you’re a beginning or a young poet there’s a certain amount of space clearing… The poetic tradition is so rich that you feel that you need to have a little place where you can stand where you’re not going to be clubbed over the head with Milton’s excellence every time you turn around. It makes it seem impossible that you’ll ever get any work done on your own. One way to do that is to take a version of William Carlos Wiliams’ stance that we need to be free of all that, we need to have an idiom of our own. These things don’t concern us deeply at this stage of our writing lives and so forth. And I think I just ignored it for a while, feeling a need to know more about the possibilities of my own immediate period and immediate geography. But then after you’ve done a little work and you know more what you can and can’t do, I think everything in the language gets interesting and I now find that there’s British poetry that I’m much interested by. I think the loss of the work of — just to name obviously prominent people like Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, W.S. Graham — I think I would be poorer without their books existing, and in some ways the way they’re different from American poetry may make it possible to learn some things from them that it’s harder to learn in my own neighborhood, and so I now pay a certain amount of attention to it.
DB: How much has foreign literature meant to you in terms of influence?
Matthews: To me a lot. I don’t think this is all that uncommon generation with poets of my generation — however you’re going to define this amorphous group — maybe poets ten years younger or older. It’s been a good period for translation, and translations particularly from Romance languages, Spanish and French, and increasingly Italian, prove proved to be useful models. There’s a certain danger in that, in that what translates best is imagery and metaphor. If you say “The sun is a red disc,” there’s a word for “disc” and a word for “red” and a word for “sun” in any language and that part would come across. What you’d miss is the rhythm and the associations of those words with other poems in the host language, and so you get a poetry whose surface is deceptively simple if you read translations. It’s the crackle, the linguistic surface, that’s the hardest to translate. The metaphors come across most quickly. When you’re translating poets, as has been done heavily in the last twenty years, who are heavily metaphorical imagists or surrealists, you get the feeling that the metaphor is the principle fact about poetry, and that’s a kind of distortion which translation creates. But it may also be very helpful at a certain stage in one’s reading and writing life. It was to me. I’ve also done some translation myself and have done co-translations with my fellow translator, Mary Feeney, from a French poet, Jean Follain. And those have influenced me in ways I don’t even know. I find him a marvelous and endlessly interesting poet.
DB: I recently was working on translating some things from Polish, with the help of someone who knows Polish much better than I do, and since then I’ve caught myself writing a lot like she did. I don’t know if that’s beneficial or if it’s just something that’s going to pass by.
Matthews: I think to a great extent we do learn by imitation, and there’s something to be said for doing it self-consciously, saying “I know this is going to happen to me so I’m not going to pretend that it’s not, but notice that it’s happening and see if I can convert it to use.” That seems to me a valuable thing to do. Sometimes those resources are available in your own language, but for reasons of literary history you can’t find them. I think for a lot of American poets a renewed interest in Whitman came to them through the interest in Neruda. But Whitman was always there, you could just go down to the bookstore and get it. But for some reason it was easier to get there through the period when Neruda translations were everywhere and were startling and were pleasing everybody. And if that makes it an easier path, great.
SC: What would you consider to be the basic unit of the poetry in your last book?
Matthews: I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer the question without sounding coy in a way that I don’t mean to be. The first thing that occurs to me is that if I knew, I might not have written the poems as well, that there’s some element of curiosity and deliberate bumbling around that comes from not knowing things like that, which makes the poems interesting, when they are. I don’t mean to endorse ignorance because I think knowledge is better than ignorance, but there is a certain kind of apprehensiveness, some sort of wariness, that comes from not knowing exactly what it is you’re doing that seems to me a maximum condition for writing poems. It may be that you don’t know until four or five years after a book… I could talk about the book but I’m not sure I could talk about it in that sense. It’s like saying to somebody, “What’s the element in your solar system that all life is made out of?” I don’t know.
SC: Do you think of yourself as working in any particular mythological framework or framework of images, or is that just determined by the time and place you were born?
Matthews: Well, some of it’s determined by the time and place you’re born, it’s a good situation in the arts to use what you’re given rather than to have to go out and get it. If you can use what’s at hand it saves time and one of the things that’s at hand is all the stuff that comes with the time and place you were born. One of the major themes of Rising and Falling is curiosity, and what’s good and bad about having too much of it. Another theme of the book surely has to do with time, and there’s a kind of geographical restlessness reflected in the book that reflects other sorts of restlessness. Those are all central to it, maybe those have to do with the sense that what you’re given, the time and place in which you were born, need finally to be added to and not simply reflected. So there’s a straining against the limits. The truths of one’s own age are also the cliches of one’s own age, and the restlessness may come from the feeling that it’s time to penetrate them. I’m not sure, I feel as if I might be describing a ghost book now.
SC: In “Foul Shots,” and also the poem that follows it, “Piano Lessons,” you draw analogies between learning a particular skill and the writing of poetry. How far are you willing to take that?
Matthews: Well, the attention you pay to learning any skill is sort of like the attention you pay to learning any other skill, and it’s often easier to talk of such things by analogy. The question of how you learn to do something, and even the question of how you teach people to think about trying to do it (since I’ve taught writing most of my adult life) are very interesting to me, but I’d be quite reluctant to write a poem about teaching poetry to poetry students. Somehow without a text and a specific situation and a specific person across from you, you can’t describe how it is you do that. But I can describe how I would think about teaching shooting foul shots, and really be about the study of music, both of which are things I tried learning in my life. Any parallels that service the specificity in a given poem I’ll be happy with.
SC: How would you describe your writing habits? Would you consider yourself prolific?
Matthews: I’m alternately prolific and lazy, I think. I tend to write in bursts, and to write a lot over a brief period, and then there will be a time following that when a certain amount of revision gets done, and I have enough stuff on my desk that I don’t start any new poems, I just work on the ones I’ve started. And then often there’ll be a period when I don’t do much at all… I wander around and go to basketball games and read books and go out and do things, just like a citizen. And then the cycle will start all over again.
SC: Do you do a lot of revision? It’s not really a fair question, but what would you say would be an average number of revisions between a first draft and a finished poem, and what would the time span be?
Matthews: There is no such normal poem of course. I could answer it better by adding a kind of head note first in which I say that it seems to me that as I continue writing I’ve learned to make a certain number of revisions before I put anything down on the page, and so I make fewer revisions in ink than I used to. I think most poems need a certain amount of attention between the first draft and getting to the end, a certain number of re-lookings-at and skeptical pressure on the pulse of energy that caused the first draft to come out the way it did. And now I’m able to do some of those just before or while writing the first draft. And I think in that way I probably don’t revise less, but revise differently than in any earlier stage when I had to do it in ink. I couldn’t do it in my head, it wasn’t real unless it was in ink. This is a bookperson’s superstition in a way, if it’s in ink it’s official, if it’s just in your head it’s a daydream. Now I can do a certain amount in my head and there will be times when a first draft with two or three small changes will survive. More ordinary would be a couple of intervening versions, maybe two, between the first draft and the finished poem. I still occasionally write poems in which I have to produce eight or nine versions of them between the first draft and the end. Those are ones in which what I thought the poem was principally interested in the first time around was wrong. A good draft will have several sets of possibilities in it and if you correctly guess which is the one that interests you most the first time through, then the revision is much shorter. Sometimes it’s something that’s right on the very outskirts of the poem that’s actually the true interest, and you waste a certain amount of time imagining that the other things are more interesting.
DB: You mentioned this interest in skeptical pressure. Do you ever let other people function as a skeptical pressure, reading your work and commenting on it?
Matthews: Yes, I have two or three readers I rely on at a couple stages in the process. I always rely on them when I compile a book manuscript. It’s possible to be very fond of poems for very quirky reasons that don’t have anything to do with the poem’s interest on the page — because you’re fond of the period in life during which you wrote the poem or you associate it with a place that you’ve been at which you really liked, or reasons that really have nothing to do with the value of the poem. I count on those two or three people to say sentences like, “For God’s sake don’t put that one in the book.” But precedent to that, as I finish or think I’ve finished individual poems, there are two or three people I rely fairly heavily on, a poet named Sharon Bryan who I think is a very acute reader and editor, and who lives in the same town I do so I can quickly get access to her opinion, and I have a couple of correspondents, Stan Plumley and Robert Morgan, who are both old longtime readers of my poems, and can recognize moments where I ought to be more skeptical, and put pressure on it. They’ve been useful in that way.
DB: Do you think this reliance has changed over the years as you’ve developed as a poet? Did you rely on other people more as a younger poet or less?
Matthews: More, but I relied on them less specifically. I don’t think the individuals I relied on were as useful to me as the ones I rely on now. In those days I worried more about how people in an abstract way would react to the poem. And in some ways, now, I don’t especially care. I have two or three people whose views I really understand and trust, and whose willingness to be honest with me if they think I’ve done something really stupid I trust. I feel if I need help that I could go to them and get it, and whether to say good, excellent, or whatever, so I say should at least be highly interesting. Poets make the best editors for poetry, but not only by being poets. Editing skills are an additional set of skills to the skills involved in writing a poem. A good editor who is also a poet, one, should have those poetic skills, and two, needs to have one thing that’s very different from what it takes to write highly interesting poems and that is that you ought to be as much as possible sympathetic to things rather different than what you do yourself. In your writing life there are certain times when it’s very useful to ignore other kinds of work and not be influenced by them and just follow a kind of obsessive channel or groove of your own. You’re not representing literary history, you’re not representing literary judgement, you’re just representing your own interests as a writer, and therefore you don’t need to worry about being generous to others. You can be reading and say, “That stuff is shit. I wouldn’t write like that at gunpoint.” If it helps you to write your poems that’s great. But an editor has always to be more sympathetic and to try to find ways to understand what work very different than his own is based on and judge it according to those implied standards.
DB: Do you think this can cause an interference between the two roles, or a helpful dialectic?
Matthews: Probably both, but I think interference is good for poets. It’s like that first question that we started with about the ways in which languages sometimes — that your trusts can deceive you. Language’s function is not only to disclose things to you, but it also has its own purposes, that represent the purposes of everybody who uses the language, and sometimes you run up against that. I think those are moments when your sense of what you’re up to and your sense of what the language can do are potentially opened up and expanded. So I think of the interference as being potentially very good.
DB: As you shifted from Lillabulero to other magazines, have you ever caught yourself looking for different things as you’re functioning as editor, like with Lillabulero you were looking for a certain type of poem, and later on you were looking for a different type of poem?
Matthews: When I was editing poetry for Iowa Review since Lillabulero, I did in fact find myself looking for something very different. In the early days, in the days of editing Lillabulero, which was a literary education in some ways for me and for my co-editor Russell Banks, I think we wanted stuff that extended our sense of what was possible as writers, and that we were really writers learning from writing, and that the magazine was in some ways a by-product of that. By the time I was editing for Iowa Review, for better or for worse I had prejudices. I thought I had fewer gaps, at least in my prejudices and biases, if not in my knowledge. At that point I was looking for kinds of things I thought were good that I might not have noticed earlier. I was specifically hoping to find poets and poems outside the normal range of my tastes and the magazine’s tastes, to see if I couldn’t just add them to the mixture.
DB: What do you think of the editor publishing his own work?
Matthews: That’s a time honored practice. There is a certain freedom from conflict of interest by just saying that you won’t do it and that’s probably the simplest approach to that as a moral problem. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s bad to publish the work. It’s just that when you do so you really require it to be good. If you publish a bad poem by somebody else in your magazine, that’s just a hole in your taste, or you were dumb that day, or something. If you publish a bad poem by yourself, it’s not just a problem of taste, it becomes an ethical question. If you publish a really good poem by yourself, then you’re in great shape, you can hold your head up high. But you really have to know your own work to do it.
SC: Does American poetry for the last twenty years seem to have any direction that you think is important and should be developed, or is there just too much happening with too great a variety?
Matthews: I don’t know if I could name a direction that we should be going in. Finally everybody should be just plugging ahead individually and hoping that good things will result from it, but I could think of two or three sets of problems that we’re working on that may help define what gets done. One of which is that poets my age and younger are operating in a condition which hasn’t been true for a while. Unlike the poets who preceded us we’re not operating under the shadow of Mount Williams, Mount Stevens, Mount Frost. The sense of being a Swiss village under a huge and looming monumental force is somewhat remote. Not that we don’t love and admire those poets, but we don’t feel that we grew up with their shadows blackening the landscape. The poets preceding us are not of such huge and historical-in-their-own-lifetime size. There seems to be a certain kind of room. This is as much a problem as it is a possibility, I think. But that’s one thing that’s different about the literary condition. For most of the period of so called modern poetry there have been great monuments and great figures; from the publication of The Wasteland until very recently there has always been some sense of operating among huge and important things. The landscape has opened up and flattened out a bit.
DB: Could this also be because of the greater number of poets, the greater specialization and splintering of tastes? The culture can’t come together under one mountain?
Matthews: Well, that’s part of it, of course there would be some people who would reject my sense of what the important mountains were, and who would say, “Why, this is such a provincial map. You don’t have Mount Olsen, you don’t have Mount Duncan,” for example. And that’s one problem — if you have a whole bunch of mountains, then a kind of inflation takes place, none of them are as Everest-like as they seemed when they were fewer. And our poetry scene is extraordinarily various; our sense of what tradition we have and what’s important to it is very fractured and partisan. A lot of quarreling is done any time anybody lists their favorite poets. They’re defining themselves, they’re valuing one tradition and devaluing another. But I also think it’s true, that we don’t have figures of that size, whose historical importance as well as their own excellence seems apparent in their own lifetimes. Older poets, like Elizabeth Bishop, who recently died, or Robert Penn Warren, who’s writing wonderful poems late in his career — everybody thinks of them as terrific poets, but nobody feels about them the way they did if they were to see Eliot. Seeing Eliot on the street in London in 1930 would be like seeing the British Museum talking a walk. It’s a very different feeling. Another situation we may be working in is that I hear a lot more intelligent talk about poetics and technical problems than I have for a long time. It seems to me that the sort of border skirmish, which is always defined as free verse versus traditional forms, may be dying down, and it may be possible for people to say that they’re working in a continuous tradition on the one hand and also with a set of new possibilities on the other hand, and that these exist simultaneously. They don’t need necessarily to get into camps and throw stones at each other over the question . The real questions about how rhythm works in American language may be possible to discuss without taking sides in that kind of civil war. From this discussion certain things may arise. Certain senses of freedom may arise for people, that when the ear hears a rhythm it doesn’t refer to literary history, but refers simply to the possibility of getting something interesting done at the desk. This may not have been true for American poets for quite some time. I think it’s no longer needed to have a license from one set of traditions or another. And so one advantage of having a splintering and a fracturing is that the sense of what’s available — one way to think about it — is that you can take anything you can use from anyplace. That may turn out to be very helpful, and rather exciting. And I suspect that it’s going to seem more and more likely, that what seemed a coherent set of procedures which excluded others when we talked about these things fifteen years ago may now seem more and more like only one way to think of things, enrichable by others which were previously held up as exclusive alternatives. So there may be a lot of real ferment of that sort, that I think would be useful. And another factor is that the wave of translation has really expanded the sense of what’s available. And then what needs to be done is to think about the missing part of reading poetry in translation, which is the pressure of one’s own language on the specific act of writing. We’ll have more public talk about these things, and maybe more private talk that we don’t know about except that it shows up in poems that seem interesting and daring and flexible one way or another.
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