Saturday, April 4, 2015

Matthew Pennock

Matthew Pennock is the author of Sudden Dog (Alice James Books, 2012), winner of the 2011 Kinereth-Gensler Award. His poems have been widely published in such journals as Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics, New York Quarterly, LIT, and elsewhere. He’s also a regular contributor of criticism to the Philadelphia Review of Books. 


But first, at work there was a moth.
Loping flight, low-pitch wave,
the size of a finch or small robin. 

Customers screamed and ducked.
I pursued and cornered. 

Slow turn, a charge, 
diamond-grid ellipses 
bluish gray and wild,

I looked the beast dead in the eye,

caught it mid-flight in my hands,
and ran to the balcony to release it
because, like all just conquerors, 
I am merciful, 

but I must have clipped a wing
because it descended to the sidewalk
in a flat spin. 

Men approach the prospect of impotence
with a desperation dwindling
into the habitual.

I’m sorry, amateur butterfly.  
I shouldn’t have plucked you from the atmosphere,
shouldn’t have stolen you like the hard kiss 

Mary gave me at her front door,
the one with our entire bodies.
And when it ended, I swear I tasted blood.

When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

This poem’s origins actually go back pretty far. Its skeleton was excised from a much longer piece that I wrote back in either late 2003, or early 2004. I was just out of undergrad, and much more discursive and verbose, so the poem this sprung out of was four pages long, and we’re talking solid pages, long lines, no stanza breaks. It was inspired by what exists as the poem’s relatively simple action: One time at work, there was this giant moth … Hence, I’ve always called it since then “that moth poem.” 

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

The moth poem’s strange adolescence begins when I brought the initial gigantic version to my first session with Richard Howard during my first semester at the MFA program at Columbia. I was proud of it too. I thought it was epic and universal and that I was going to blow him away. Needless to say, he read it, and when he finished he looked at me with an expression of what can only be described as a mix between revulsion and concern. Then he immediately began to question me about my other work trying to figure out how I had managed to get there in front of him wasting his time in his studio apartment with his French bulldog staring expectantly into my crotch. Then as he held my unclean poem with two fingers as far away from him as possible, he closed with his gentlest voice, saying “Please, don’t do this. You do not want to do this.” I left destroyed, but it turned out to be a good destroyed. So I abandoned the poem for a while. Then near the end of my MFA, when I had regained my shattered confidence, I revisited it. I carved out a much smaller, meaner poem that sort of distilled the original. Even then, though, I wasn’t done, it still went through many different incarnations. Stanzas were rearranged then returned to their original places and rearranged again. This poem existed in constant flux for years.  

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears? 

Despite the fact an event happened that “inspired” this poem, this is a sweaty and teary piece. I don’t really believe in “receiving” poems. I’ve only had a poem spring forth into my mind close to form, a few times, and then I still worked hard on those poems and tinkered endlessly until I got them as close to right as I could. Frankly, this idea of receiving poems annoys me. Poems are not magic lightning bolts extending from the finger of God, destined only for your pretty little brain. No matter how your process works, you are laboring in some way and revising, even if it’s all done in your head before you set pen to page. Nothing comes out perfect the first time, and to claim otherwise damages young writers. I’m of the opinion that poets who talk about receiving poems fall into one of three categories: the fibbers trying to cultivate a false poetic mystique; the delusional; and the lazy, who do not want to put in the effort good poetry demands. The two formers can still be excellent poets, the latter not so much.    

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Eventually I just stopped tinkering and learned to accept it for the weird little animal that it was.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

In that different pieces of it are written years apart, yes, I would say that is unusual for me.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? 

Let’s see…It probably reached its current form circa 2008, and then it didn’t appear in print until my collection was published in 2012, so four years. It almost never made it, I considered cutting it from the manuscript several times because it always felt like it didn’t quite fit in, but there was something about it that I found charming, so I kept it. It’s a survivor.  

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem? 

My antipathy to submitting things usually dictates how long a poem sits rather than any sort of rules I set. Beyond that, it really varies. Some poems feel finished much faster than others. This particular poem was never sent out to magazines or anything. Probably because I never felt I truly had it right. 

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two? 

For me, it’s mainly rooted in fact, but the moth story takes on a folk-lore quality, like a big-fish story. The incident actually happened as I wrote it, only with slight exaggeration for the purposes of making it a bit more colorful. I wanted it to sound kind of like a mock epic, like a classic old-timer at a bar exaggerating about something relatively trivial. While the events may not look exactly like they would to an outside observer, in some ways this version is more true.

Is this a narrative poem?

It’s about as narrative as I get. There’s a story there, which has a beginning, middle, and end, but the poem itself makes several lyrical/associative leaps in regards to the fear of impotence in the original story, but become related in retrospect due to the proximity of the events to each other, so ultimately I think the heart of the poem is still lyric even though it makes use of a narrative.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose? 

Way back in 2004, I remember I was actually reading The Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is probably why I was so interested in making it epic. I really can’t remember if anything directly influenced my rewrites, I was reading so much then, thanks to my MFA. I remember being enamored with Denis Johnson's Incognito Lounge around that time. Somehow that feels relevant.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader? 

I’ve heard it said several times, and I subscribe to this as well, poems are written to someone, an actual individual the poet loves, whether they know it or not. Most of my poems have a specific someone in mind when I write them, not always the same person, but someone who shared the experience or conversation that sparked the poem. I don’t think about ideal readers or audiences so much. I think about the actual people in my life that I want to speak to, but can’t always find the words at the appropriate time. 

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I was lucky enough to have a good experience in my MFA. Some of us continued to workshop long after the program ended, and still do. Two people in particular, Ricardo Maldonado and Erica Wright, have read probably almost every draft of everything I’ve written in the last ten years. That type of support is wonderful, and so necessary in the cold world of the arts, which is often competitive. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

Well, there’s the element of storytelling, which is a technique I do not employ often, but beyond that this poem feels different to me from my other work because of the voice. It doesn’t sound like the normal speaker present in most of my poems. It’s a little too assured. For example, in other poems, my speaker apologizes a lot, or experiences much guilt, but it’s genuine. In this poem, the speaker apologizes, but he’s not sorry. He’s not sorry at all. I guess this poem feels a little more stereotypically masculine to me. I’m often interested in being masculine, but not stereotypically. I think the purpose of the poem was to point to the ridiculousness of a lot of male anxiety, but I’m not sure if it ever truly comes across.

What is American about this poem? 

Ha! Good question. I’m often obsessed with America. I’ve never thought of this poem as being particularly American, but now that you mention it, I can see it creeping in. There’s definitely a sense that the speaker has lofty intentions, but fails miserably. I guess I could have had a “Mission Accomplished” banner strung up after the moment he catches the moth, but before he releases it. Also there is this fear of impotence running through it, which parallels the sense of waning American power on the global stage, as it also parallels the waning power of the American male. I don’t think the poem makes a value judgment on these issues, but rather points to them as an inevitability.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

I don’t know if either of these is the right way to describe it. It definitely didn’t feel finished. I never came to a point where I sat back and said “This is done!” In that sense, I guess I abandoned working on it, but I never truly abandoned the poem. Like I mentioned before, it just hung around until it made it. So I’ll say it again. This poem survived.