Wednesday, November 08, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Matt Broaddus

Matt Broaddus is a poet and writer from Virginia. His debut full-length collection, Temporal Anomalies, is now available. He is also the author of the chapbooks Two Bolts and Space Station. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Annulet, Fence, and Mercury Firs. He’s received support for his writing from Cave Canem, Community of Writers, and Millay Arts. He lives in Colorado and works at a public library.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first chapbook, Space Station, was published by a group of enthusiastic readers and editors at Letter [r] Press. This was a chapbook of hybrid prose/poem blocks set on a space station with Žižek and Warren Zevon and werewolves running around—it was pretty weird stuff, and I wasn’t sure there was any place for me to get it published. But it ended up finding the best home with Letter [r] Press, where they printed a limited run (75 copies) with such care. It was letterpress printed on beautiful paper and had Japanese stab binding in different glittery thread colors. It was this incredibly beautiful object that they made out of my words. It changed my life knowing that there are people out there who will see what you’re doing and be excited about it. There are people out there who will want to collaborate and celebrate the work you’re doing. I still feel so much gratitude to them. Writing has always been very private for me and still is. But my experience with Space Station helped me see that I should just create what I want to create. There will be people who appreciate it.

My more recent work is an outgrowth, in many ways, of my experience with Space Station. I worked with another dream press when Ugly Duckling Presse published my second chapbook, Two Bolts. UDP always makes beautiful book objects and it was no different with my chapbook. Both chapbooks make up sections of Temporal Anomalies, my first full-length book. And, again, I worked with a wonderful team—this time at Ricochet Editions. So Temporal Anomalies is basically of a progression of smaller projects that fit together into this larger book about time, Blackness, and making things.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I started writing poetry as a child. But I didn’t read that much poetry as a child or even in high school. For me poetry was tied to music. My favorite poems as a young person were lyrics. I took undergraduate workshops in both fiction and poetry and pretty quickly realized plot was difficult for me and I just wanted to play with language. To some extent, that’s still the case.

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 process has changed dramatically since I began writing poems. I’m very guilty of perfectionism and this quality made writing poems an excruciating experience for a long time. But my process has started to get quicker as I shed this notion that I needed to be perfect. Both Space Station and Two Bolts had specific forms that I used to write into, that Julia Cameron/Artist’s Way idea of filling the form. So those poems were written quickly, Space Station in about a month and Two Bolts over a semester of grad school. I’ve seen my process change into one more about accumulation now. I think I learned this from Matthew Rohrer, my teacher and mentor at NYU, who encouraged me to just write the next poem. That idea made more sense to me than to bog down trying to perfect something. Of course I do revise and obsess and fight with drafts, but I try to avoid letting a single line or single poem prevent me from moving on to the next experiment.

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 poem usually starts for me with a bit of language that I overhear or receive subconsciously. Many poems start with my wife, the poet Kodi Saylor, saying something incredible. I’ll often respond, “That sounds like a line of a poem,” and she’s usually like, “Well, go and write it then.” Usually that little snippet of language has some rhythmic quality that suggests a next line. That’s usually enough to get started. I let the rhythm and associations of sound and image suggest themselves and just go with it. The poem emerges. I try not to overthink it, but of course I do sometimes. Currently, I’m much more of a writer of short pieces that accumulate into a larger project. The stakes are lower for me that way which is important for me to combat the voice of the perfectionist that lives inside me.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I used to think I didn’t like doing public readings, but I’ve done a few this year and really enjoyed them. I get very nervous about the whole process—I feel silly and inadequate reading my little poems, but I’ve tried to take a different, gentler mindset recently where I acknowledge that I can only do what I can do. I don’t have to do or be anyone else as a reader. I love reading with friends—I’ve read twice this year with the magnificent poet Kelly Hoffer and had a lot of fun both times. Those sorts of readings come to feel like they’re almost collaborative events more than the individual readings that make them up. And I get a lot of inspiration from hearing others read their work. Listening to poems leads me to write poems.

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 am concerned with various traditions and legacies of experimental Black artists, particularly poets. I’m interested in Black diasporic artists and arts. I’m interested in histories of the Atlantic World that lead to nation-states still wrestling with how race determines social mobility and status within their citizenship structures. Questions about how to make art (or just live a creative life) within such an economically precarious and exploitative era are also on my mind. But I have tended to approach these issues by asking questions about artistic process and what Black artists and writers are expected to do versus what they want to do. I want to have fun. I want to be surprised. Not in a flippant way, but through an engagement with other artists, other processes, and experimentation.

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 think writers have many roles. They can be truth-tellers, they can imagine new possibilities, they can uncover what is overlooked or has been ignored. I’m not sure what I think the role of a writer should be, but I think imagination is key. Imagining alternatives to the world we find ourselves living in seems important. For a poet, that can happen through reconsidering how one uses language and how language is used around us.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It’s exciting to work with an outside editor. It’s someone who cares about my work and very often can see what I cannot. It’s essential.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Persistence is more important than talent in pursuing a creative life.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I wouldn’t say I have a routine. I journal in the morning, but it’s not what I would call writing. Then on most workdays I go to my 9-5 job. Most of my writing happens late at night, usually right before I should be going to sleep.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Various places. One of the simplest ways to get inspiration is to listen to a recording of a poetry reading. There are great readings scattered all over the internet. Pick a poet you like, see if there’s a recording of a reading on youtube or somewhere else. Listening to poems begets poems.

More and more recently I’ve begun to do other arts to get inspired. I wouldn’t say I’m good at drawing but a series of blind contour drawings I’ve done has led to a series of poems in response. I’m also painting more recently. These other artforms can help me relax into writing or get excited about it again.

A lot of what is inspiring is rethinking and experimenting with process. If I’m stuck I like to try doing something different. Making a cyanotype print, for example. What does that process tell me about writing? Maybe nothing, but maybe it does show me something new, a new approach to writing. There’s also an art studio very close to my home, and I love to take classes there, especially bookmaking classes—learning how to bind books, how to make different book forms has become a growing obsession for me. Thinking about the materiality of the book form continues to inspire me.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I like the smell of juniper which I associate with the west, both California, where I went to college, and Colorado, where I currently live.

13 - 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 agree with the statement that books come from books, and certainly I’m very influenced by what I read. But like I mentioned earlier, many art forms influence me. Book arts and artists books are more and more interesting to me because I just love the book form, all the variations it can take, and the physical material itself. Architecture is a growing interest. I’ve been obsessed with this book Toward a Concrete Utopia which is a collection of photographs, images, and scholarly essays on the architecture of the former Yugoslavia which was this blend of brutalism, Le Corbusier, and other local and modernist impulses. The material environment we envision and live in says a lot about the state of a society. I’m trying to get something about that across in recent poems. I’m also a huge nerd—I adore Star Trek in almost all of its iterations. I love the utopian vision, the possibilities, the challenges of imagining such a universe. Sci-fi/speculative stuff filters into my poems quite often.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This is an impossible question to answer adequately. I admire and have been influenced strongly by the work of Nathaniel Mackey, Brenda Hillman, Don Mee Choi, Tomaž Šalamun, Matthew Rohrer, Bob Kaufman, Robin Coste Lewis, Tyehimba Jess, Rio Cortez, Marwa Helal…but there are so many others I’m going to leave out here. I love so many contemporary voices in poetry and they all teach me how to write when I read their work. I think the work that Alicia Wright at Annulet and Ian Lockaby at Mercury Firs are doing is so cool and important. They are promoting the new voices, promoting translation, promoting thoughtful engagement with contemporary writing, especially poetry. And there are so many others doing this work who don’t get the credit they deserve. It’s such important work.

In terms of non-poetry stuff, I love reading histories. Olivette Otele’s The African Europeans, Michael A. Gomez’s African Dominion, and The Golden Rhinoceros by François-Xavier Fauvelle all come immediately to mind. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Achille Mbembe’s work are exciting to me in terms of theory. Also, The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing introduced me to a concept of precarity that now I can’t stop seeing everywhere.

But I also must say I love reading novels. I love Haruki Murakami’s novels. I love Cesar Aira’s novels. Renee Gladman’s Ravicka novels are excellent. I love love love science fiction. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books are some of my favorites. Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series is also fantastic.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

So many things. I’d like to write a science fiction novel. I’d like to do more painting. I’d like to learn more book forms and make artist books. I’d like to really learn letterpress printing—I’ve done a bit, but I’d love to have my own press or have easy access to a press. I’d like to collaborate with friends on books and maybe start a small press one day.

16 - 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?

I’m tempted to say that if I could try another occupation I’d like to be an architect. Or work in urban planning in some capacity.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I think I wrote because it was an artform that involved time and iteration. I’m terrible at telling stories because I get distracted by providing context or setting things up. I don’t have to do that in poems. I can engage with an idea or an image or an event and write into a creative understanding of that thing. And I can actually write a series of poems trying to figure out how I feel or what I think about an object, event, idea.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was the first Spanish to English translation of Ennio Moltedo’s Night which came out about a year ago from World Poetry Books, translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz. It’s a book about living under the Pinochet regime. Prose poems written in this incredible style, incredible sentence structure, surreal elements and very strong language of socio-political protest and condemnation. The last great film I saw was Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. I waited a long time to see it but recently checked it out. So unlike anything I’d ever seen before, so frenetic and wild and funny. After watching it I cried in my wife’s arms for a good half hour. I haven’t been moved by a film like that in ages.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I like to have fifteen things going at once. That way if I’m stuck or annoyed with one thing I can work on something else. I’ve been doing an erasure project connected with the Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. That text is a collection of everything Arab writers had to say about medieval West Africa. Of course many of these chroniclers never visited the places they wrote about in West Africa so there are huge errors and inventions. I’ve been working through the text, doing my own erasures of these chronicles. It’s a mixture of creative play and historical investigation.

I’m also working on a series of poems and drawings in response to Toward a Concrete Utopia. My process has been to do a blind contour drawing on an image in the text and then write a poem in response both to the original image and what I learned about the image in the process of drawing it. It’s a way of learning how I make lines, thinking about space, and an experiment in the idea that there are no mistakes. Blind contour drawing shows me how I see.

I’m also working on a novel with speculative elements that’s drawing on my day job at a municipal library.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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