“Both microscope and telescope.” A conversation with Matthew Wimberley
Matt Wimberley and I met in the MFA at NYU, where our shared love of modern American folk music made grounds for a poet friendship I value highly – he could often be found in the sitting room of the writer’s house listening to the kinds of bands that sing about landscapes and people across the country with an earnestness and genuine desire to connect that can also be seen in Matt’s own work.
In his chapbook Snake Mountain Almanac, he invites us to be a part of his North Carolina. Through observation powered first and foremost by compassion, he surprises us again and again by showing us the world around us is both exactly how it seems but also much more. As he writes in “Something Final in the Note of One Bird”:
At this hour an owl’s call
is answered by another
and I think it sounds like the sky
or distant laughter.
–from Snake Mountain Almanac (Seven Kitchens Press)
AMANDA MCCONNON: What would you say about the role of witnessing in this book?
MATTHEW WIMBERLEY: When I think about the purpose of witnessing, I think a lot about the role of the poet as gazer. You know? We go around just gazing, and somehow we bring in language and use it to translate the observable (and non observable world) into something else. I love the idea of poems as witness, as I’m from such a small town in a highly religious region of the country where there’s an imbued sense of religious witnessing, which is a tool for many things but primarily conversion. I think the poems in this book share a commonality with that idea of conversion, but through witnessing the poems become a technology of compassion. Specifically these poems address the natural landscape and the people I grew up a part of. There’s severe poverty, drug addiction, bigotry, and fear. But I don’t think these poems (which also bring in the death of my father) serve as a criticism of these real people. Instead the idea of witnessing, I hope, creates a dialogue between this place and others, working to scrutinize not necessarily the people but the conditions which have led to forms of extremism. And I hope these poems serve as witness to the natural beauty, which can be both in perfect sync with the culture, and in pure juxtaposition. For me it all comes back to compassion, and I think in the end that’s what the poems are working toward.
AM: I love the idea of a people being both perfectly in sync and in stark contrast with the landscape they inhabit — what influence on your poetics do you think the specific landscape you grew up in had on your poetics? Of course it becomes subject matter, but what effect did it have on your perception, as far as you can tell?
MW: Yeah it’s interesting because I definitely think place, landscape, are always influencing me beyond the subject matter. I grew up on top of a mountain, with no stop lights in my town, and about 300 full time residents. There’s a sense of isolation I think has really been important to my writing. There’s a lot of space to explore, and because you have to drive long distances (recently, I drove 70 miles in a day and never crossed the county lines), you experience things in this constant in-transit state. For me, it’s exciting to go for a drive and find little lines of poetry just passing by. As to the heart of the question about perception, I think Larry Levis describes it best when he talks about home becoming this Edenic place. I agree, but for the longest time I was only concerned with the niceness of a place. I was writing these really bucolic poems, purely from a stand of “this is beautiful, let me write a poem about it.” But what Levis means by Eden includes the dirt and grime, the downfall, and this enchanting quality home can have because of all of those aspects. It took a while for me to really get to any of that, like to put a trailer home into a poem, and harder still to not just use an image like that as a prop. I think the poem has informed how I perceive the real world because it’s given me this lens to closer examine what’s going on around me, both microscope and telescope.
AM: I know a lot of these poems were written in your MFA at NYU – do you feel a difference writing about this landscape when you’re in it and when you’re out of it?
MW: Definitely. Being in New York I felt displaced, and I think the poems were a way to both stay connected to home and to say things I don’t think would have been possible had I stayed there. Coming back, I feel much more comfortable writing about more than geography and nature. Being here, I can get overwhelmed with so many things. This morning for instance, I saw two wild turkeys and right after that I passed this pretty run down house which is occupied by a guy who is somewhat folk artist, somewhat religious nut. He has all these signs that say “Jesus is Lord, not Satan” and has five or six cars in his driveway that have Jesus Inc. painted on the side. Driving by, this guy I’ve never seen was bouncing on a workout trampoline in in the yard, and I wrote it down but I know an image like that is going to take time to find its way into a poem, and if it does happen I think it will be when I’m far away from here. An image like that just sticks out and won’t let you get away from it. I think the biggest difference in being far from home is not having the luxury to just look out your window and see what you’re writing about. In a way this means you can’t half-ass it. You have to be as honest as possible. Does that make sense?
AM: That makes sense. I feel like writing about something the minute it occurs outside your window and writing about the same thing with time and distance between you and it is a completely different experience. But I do think it’s almost funny that rural North Carolina is where you say you’re overwhelmed with what’s going on – not New York. Obviously your poems would be totally different poems if it were the other way around – if you were someone who never wanted to return to where you came from.
MW: It is funny. I guess it’s a condition of having one place be such a big part of my life, I can’t escape it. It directly informs me. It would be different if I lived in NYC for a big part of my life for sure. Your poems, I think, work in a similar way. They have this real awareness of where they are rooted, without turning the place into a kind of invented environment, one that’s too neat. I suspect it’s because time has allowed for you, and for my poems, to really sift through the wreckage and gather something close to authenticity, even if it takes shape as personal mythology. Just now I feel like I’m scratching the surface, this place is an obsession. I wonder if it would feel authentic to write a NY poem, it’s definitely not something I could force, but I’m not opposed to that happening.
I will say, that it’s been interesting to have my dad work himself into this place though. There’s a struggle in some of the poems to reconcile our relationship, where the landscape is a direct line to him. He died of a heart attack in 2012, and didn’t really spend much time with me in this part of the country. So there has been this growing dialogue between him and this place, and in a way this place I’ve returned to has let me keep talking to him. Of course, Snake Mountain Almanac has these poems which deal directly with him, and then others that are strictly about this place. I like the ones where I summon him back to walk around with me for a little while, it’s part of that mythology where he can keep talking through death.
AM: “Cold Light” comes to mind for me as a poem that links landscape so intimately to the experience of your father’s death: “When the stars go into their hiding, / buried somewhere as if pressed / into a bucket of thistle-seed / I clutch the bag of your ashes / like a bird of prey / lifting the shape of an animal— / the last of its kind— / into her nest.” Since I think you do it with such honesty and compassion — what advice would you give to others who want to write about the people and things they mourn?
MW: Thank you for saying that. I think the most important thing in elegies is to remember that the person you are writing about is a real person. You can’t just turn them into words or representation, and it’s a fine line. I think if you’re honest and let the poem unfold naturally you get close to this. It’s something I think about all the time and I hope I can bring in those bits of compassion and honesty.
AM: Who did you learn this from? Larry Levis definitely comes to mind — but who else?
MW: So I always go back to Levis, which I’m thankful to the poets Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar for introducing him to me. The conversations I’ve had with them about elegies have probably influenced my work more than anyone else. Dorianne has these new poems about her late mother which have really caught me off guard in a great way, and I’m looking forward to more of them being out in the world, we need them. Of course, I learned so much about elegies from Marie Howe. I carried “What the Living Do” with me everywhere I went for over a year. There are plenty of others, but they are the ones I go to immediately.
AM: How does a poem happen for you?
MW: Usually it’s so slow. I write every day, for hopefully 2 to 4 hours, always by hand until I get a draft of a poem, sometimes two (so a lot of what I write never makes it past a few lines). But a poem only happens every now and then, usually I go a few weeks or months between finding poems in what I’m writing. What’s surprising is when I find a place for lines of poems that I wrote months earlier. I would say that I always begin with an image and work from there.
AM: Does that much time spent writing ever feel burdensome to you? Or how do you stop it from becoming so?
MW: I definitely had to train myself to do it, and now I’m comfortable working for hours at a time, and it is work. I started saying, “today I will devote ten minutes to writing” and over time I just kept saying “five more minutes.” Some days are noticeably easier to keep writing. Other times I’m missing being outside, or if a friend is in town I might only work an hour. I think the key is to have some kind of schedule, and also read as much as possible. I think if you’re reading, you’re going to be writing and it won’t ever seem like a burden.
AM: How is your time spent when it’s not spent writing? What’s the relationship, if any, between your “day job” and your writing?
MW: I work a day job, or a series of day jobs to sustain writing. In the last year I’ve worked at a general store, a retail snowboard shop, as a landscaper, and currently I deliver furniture. The snowboard shop was particularly related to my writing, not in the sense of directly influencing the subjects, but in the routines I established. Our only source of heat is a wood stove, so the fall is spent splitting and stacking wood. Once it gets cold, whoever opens is in charge of building a fire, and keeping it going. There is something I can’t really describe about building a fire that I think really influences the way I write. Also, it’s such a small town that my jobs let me interact with the community everyday. I’m constantly listening to the language around me for stories, and there are plenty.
When I’m off work, if it’s winter I’m probably snowboarding. When it’s warm, I’m hiking, skateboarding, drinking coffee. I think being out in nature has forced me to be a better poet. I’m fascinated by the natural world, and am fortunate enough to live in a place with a myriad of wildflowers, trees, and so many animals. I see deer and rabbit everyday, hear coyotes just over the ridge at sundown, and there’s always a shifting cast of migratory birds singing. Sometimes it’s so much to take in that I’m just dumbfounded.
AM: What would you say to a writer struggling to find something worthy to write about in their own hometown?
MW: Pay attention to what’s going on around you, and look at everything as if it’s interesting. No place is boring. I think that’s an easy mistake to make. Growing up, I had this idea that if I moved to a city it would be so much more exciting, or worthy of writing about. Now I think how naive that was. I moved to New York, and it exceeded my expectations for what I thought it would be. I’m sure many of the experiences I had, things I saw, etc. will find a way into a poem eventually, but even there, I kept going back home on the page. Part of that has to do with the ingrained knowledge we have about where we’re from. If you can listen to the language around you and tap into it, you’ll be on the right path to a poem.
Purchase a copy of Snake Mountain Almanac here: http://latenightlibrary.org/snake-mountain-almanac
Matthew Wimberley is a native of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He won the 2015 William Matthews Prize from the Asheville Review, and was a finalist for the 2012 Narrative 30 Below Contest. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in: The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Narrative, Orion, The Paris-American, Poet Lore, Puerto Del Sol, Rattle, and Verse Daily. Wimberley received his MFA from NYU where he worked with children at St. Mary’s Hospital as a Starworks Fellow. (Author photo by Sam Brown.)
Amanda McConnon has an MFA in poetry at NYU. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2014 and others. Favorite books include Bluets, Stag’s Leap, and Life on Mars.