Matthew Hollett is a writer and photographer in St. John’s, Newfoundland (Ktaqmkuk). His work explores landscape and memory through photography, writing and walking. Optic Nerve, a collection of poems about photography and visual perception, was published by Brick Books in 2023. Album Rock (2018) is a work of creative nonfiction and poetry investigating a curious photograph taken in Newfoundland in the 1850s. Matthew won the 2020 CBC Poetry Prize, and has previously been awarded the NLCU Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers, The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Prize for Best Poem, and VANL-CARFAC’s Critical Eye Award for art writing. He is a graduate of the MFA program at NSCAD University.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Album Rock, is a mix of creative nonfiction, poetry and archival material investigating a strange photo taken in Newfoundland in the 1850s by Paul-Émile Miot. The project began as a blog post, then expanded over several years to a research grant, an exploratory road trip, and eventually a published book. You learn so many things over the course of a long-term project like that (publishing contracts, working with editors and designers, image permissions). It’s not lightning-bolt life-changing, but more cumulative. It snowballs.
My most recent book, Optic Nerve, is a collection of poems about photography and visual perception. It took shape over many years, too, and had its own complicated flight path. Both books gesture towards some of the same ideas and preoccupations – ekphrasis, photography and complicity, a sense of place – but they’re very different. Album Rock is a macro lens, Optic Nerve more fish-eyed. I like that one is published by Boulder and one by Brick. A good solidity there.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry through My Body Was Eaten by Dogs by David McFadden – it caught my eye one day in my high school library, and I read it cover to cover and almost immediately started writing poems. Terrible poems. Shortly afterwards I became fascinated by E.E. Cummings, and filled notebooks with floaty visual cloud-poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My projects always begin as a nebulous collection of small things which gradually cohere into a larger thing. I am always generating small things: journal entries, field notes from walks, poem fragments, quotes from books, photographs. Every project is rooted in these archives. So beginning something new is usually a matter of sifting through bits and pieces, finding unexpected connections.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A single poem usually begins either as a firsthand observation, or as an exploration of language (sometimes I think of the poems as either “outdoorsy” or “indoorsy”). Bookwise, Optic Nerve is themed around photography and seeing, and I’m working on a new collection of poems about walking.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading aloud. During solo writing residencies I’ve often read entire books aloud to an empty house, which is a fantastic way to feel immersed in the writing’s texture and soundscape. I write my own poems with the idea that they will be read aloud, and enjoy public readings.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I like looking at things. The current question depends on what I’m looking at. The bigger question, of course, is what to look at.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’ve always liked Kurt Vonnegut’s take on this: “I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with an editor is difficult in the best kind of way, where you feel discomfort, which is the sensation of being challenged and learning and changing. I find it essential, but never easy.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
From Guy Debord’s autobiography: “My method will be very simple. I will tell what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident and make itself well enough understood.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to photography)? What do you see as the appeal?
It doesn’t feel like moving between genres – both poetry and photography are the work of seeing things in new ways. I’m fascinated by the way that poems and photos can complement each other. They both feel like quieter, more intimate ways of making, creating meaning by stringing a series of small observations together.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My only routine is to read for about 45 minutes as I eat breakfast. I realize it’s a luxury to structure my mornings this way, and I cling to it desperately. I don’t have a regular writing routine, but I make writing time during evenings or days off, or once in while through grants, residencies or creative writing classes.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Going for a long walk works miracles. I can sometimes also unblock my brain by switching from my computer to writing on paper.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Ocean wind – not so much the fragrance but the force of it. There’s nothing like the breath-burgling, voice-snuffing, brain-numbing winds out on the headlands near St. John’s.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I went to art school, and I really enjoy writing in response to images – paintings, photographs, films. Anything visual. I’m especially interested in the way that documentary films can be lyrical and poetic (I love Agnès Varda’s work, and Werner Herzog’s), and the way that they can weave real-life observations together to create meaning. There are lessons there for poetry, I think.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Teju Cole is an incredible writer and photographer and I enjoy his books immensely. I just finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and really loved it. Likewise Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. And one of my favourite films is Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, a documentary about finding things, which begins in whimsy and moves almost surreptitiously to more poignant social concerns.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Writing is an ongoing creative practice for me, but I wouldn’t call it an occupation. I do lots of things that are not writing – photography, design work, web development, arts administration.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing gives me a specific kind of joy that I don’t experience elsewhere. I love language – its sound, its mouthfeel, the deep deep history of words – and I get enormous pleasure from the process of wrangling language into something poem-shaped or book-shaped.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Teju Cole’s Black Paper is a collection of brilliant, incisive essays about art, photography and seeing. Cole traces Caravaggio’s travels in exile, considers what it means to look at photographs of suffering, and writes about writing during dark times. “The secret reason I read, the only reason I read, is precisely for those moments in which the story being told is deeply alert to the world, an alertness that sees things as they are or dreams things as they could be.”
I watch a lot of movies. The one I’ve enjoyed the most recently is Ciro Guerra’s The Wind Journeys. It’s set in Northern Colombia, and in addition to marvellous cinematography, characters, and music, it features the most captivating accordion battles ever put to film.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A collection of poems about walking.