Matthew Lippman is the author of three poetry collections: American Chew, winner of The Burnside Review Book Prize (Burnside Review Book Press, 2013), Monkey Bars (Typecast Publishing, 2010), and The New Year of Yellow, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize (Sarabande Books, 2007). He is the recipient of the 2014 Georgetown Review Magazine Prize and The Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from The American Poetry Review.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Lauren Fosgett. Of the process, she said, “Matthew Lippman was so much fun to interview. I admire his poetry, he writes on diverse and serious subject matter while presenting it with frivolity that makes it easy to swallow. I enjoyed talking with him.” In this interview, he discusses how life influences his work, his evolution as a writer, and writing authentically.
Superstition Review: You discuss a wide range of current social issues in your poems, from the high divorce rate in "Marriage Pants" to the overmedication of society in the title poem, but often with a tone of dark humor. What motivates you to treat serious topics in such an irreverent manner?
Matthew Lippman: At heart I am a funny guy, no, seriously, I am. Humor works better than heaviness. I like getting laughs from folks. It’s a way into the dark stuff. Levity is beautiful. There is too much heaviness in the world and being funny has always come naturally to me, or, trying to be funny. So, that’s the thing. I am, honestly, a pretty funny guy.
SR: In your self-interview on The Nervous Breakdown, you state “I’m always pissed off. I’m always beautiful and tender.” How do you balance these two aspects of yourself in composing your pieces?
ML: I’m not sure, to be honest. Again, it’s just a natural thing, organic thing. I have to be frank, I don’t think about it too much, these ‘aspects of myself,’ anymore. What I do know is that there is something inherently fun about dealing with contradictions. A certain kind of internal pressure arises and things are never boring. That’s really what is at the heart of being pissed off and tender at the same time--I can be playful in my compositions.
SR: In The New Year of Yellow you make several references to being six years old, particularly in “And Everywhere It’s Florida” and “Excellent Still.” Is there a reason you keep coming back to a particular age? Could you describe what happens in your composing process that allows personal experience to intersect with public experience?
ML: I have very fond memories of that time in my life. Also, being an adult is way too hard and so it’s fun to go back in my head and conjure being a kid--whether it’s 6 or 10 or 16. In terms of the intersection that you talk about, well, that is a very conscious decision I make in the larger ‘project’ of making poems. I have to write about the world, the universal, but, you know, I am a bit of an egoist. Making the connection between my ego and the issues, scents, movements, tastes of the world so other people, readers, can relate is vital in the success and life of a poem. Otherwise, the poem is a self-centered rant, diary entry, that will resonate with no one. Who wants or needs that?
SR: You mention your students in several of your poems. Do you use your students to represent a certain perspective or voice in your work? What would you like your students to take away from reading poetry?
ML: I used to vibe off of my students a lot. High schoolers are wonderfully fascinating, raw and whacky people. They say marvelous things and feel in a way that, to me, is so pure in an almost grown up way, and yet, so primal. I love that primal nature in the teenager. You can see them evolve, literally ‘see’ an evolution. When I write I write with them as an audience. I feel like if they can ‘get’ a poem than anyone can get a poem. By anyone I mean the guy at the dentist’s office waiting to see the dentist or the woman at the check-out picking up US magazine and coming upon one of my poems. I have said this before but poems to me are, at best, like television commercials--accessible, quick, sentimental, and resonant.
SR: Has your teaching experience influenced your writing style? Do you teach poems, genres, or aesthetics that are different from your own writing?
ML: Yes. As I said, it has helped me to see what an audience can relate to and what an audience cannot relate to. I teach everything from Neruda to Sexton to Macdonald to Morse to Knox to Bandura to Nutter to Whitman and Bishop and Eliot. I am all over the map. Yesterday I taught John Ashbery’s “My Philosophy of Life” and was amazed at how far the poem went into the collective hearts of the students. The same with Matthew Dickman’s “Coffee” and Bishop’s “Sestina.” Variety is a wonderful spice and repetition is terrific joy.
SR: In what ways has having children affected your writing experience?
ML: I know this is going to sound corny but so what. ;Having children has showed me that poetry can change the world. I am not talking about curing cancer or stopping homelessness in America. But, it can help to affect the way people see themselves in the world--as evolved, mindful, and empathetic folks. I don’t know why this happened after becoming a dad. I think it has something to do with not being a selfish 26 year old anymore. That’s dangerous for humanity. Also, practically, having kids made me more tired, profoundly tired, so now, these days, for the last 8 years, I have been writing poems in a state of perpetual exhaustion.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has really benefited you or changed the way you look at writing?
ML: Reading other poets lately has made me want to be a fiction writer so I can make some money as a writer. I say this tongue and cheek but I’m also quite serious. Being a poet is hard in America if you have a family and teach high school and don’t have a trust fund. Tony Hoagland has spoken to me a lot about pressure, about creating a kind of tension in poems that I think about all the time. I thank him for that. It’s good advice.
SR: Could you expand on the advice Tony Hoagland has spoken to you about and how you apply or struggle with this tension in your work? Do you envision yourself working on fiction in the near future? Do you believe a similar tension is necessary in writing fiction?
ML: Every poem, I believe, has to have this moment where one thing slams up against another thing. So, for instance, if I am writing a poem about America’s obsession with fast food it can’t just be about everyone else in America’s obsession with fast food, it has to also be about my obsession with fast food. If I am commenting on something then I have to include myself in that commentary or I wind up just being a fraud, a gas bag. That’s one thing. Another thing is that the tension comes from taking an imaginative leap that surprises the reader, makes the reader scratch her head in wonder, ask, “Wow, where did that come from?”
I recently wrote a novel, a YA novel, I think. I’m not sure yet. It’s about an 11th grader who decides, mid year, that he has had enough of the pressures of high school life--SATs, college essay writing, homework, being on a team, peer pressure, parental pressure--and bugs out. He sees an interview with Dave Chappelle on television, the comedian, who forfeited a 50 million contract to make funny shows on Comedy Central. The protagonist of my novel gets in his car and takes a road trip to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Chappelle lives, to meet the man. In writing the book I felt like every chapter was a little poem, or, had to have that same tension that I try and get into a poem, a turn, a paradox, something disconcerting and beautiful. So, to answer your question, I don’t know if the tension is necessary but I do find it interesting and fun to work with, to engage.
SR: In a recent interview with The Whole Megillah you stated that you don’t believe there is a “market” for Jewish-themed poetry. What drives you to write religious poetry? How has your Jewish background influenced your work?
ML: That’s funny. I just actually completed a book called SALAMI JEW about the intersection of growing up secular and now, being more observant. My wife is studying to be a rabbi and my kids attend a Jewish pre-school and a Jewish day school, respectively. Being a Jew is everything to me in a weird way. I think I am more Jew than anything else. What I mean by this is that my whole identity, weirdly enough, shoots out from being Jewish. I am not talking about being observant or religious or even spiritual. It’s just a thing and I think about it, feel about it, wonder about it, every day of my life. My name is Matthew Saul Lippman, you know, and that’s the whole thing, really. I may not daven every Saturday morning but it’s in me every waking moment of my life. These poems in SALAMI JEW are all about that waking mindfulness of my Jewish identity.
SR: You mention in an interview with The Rumpus that Monkey Bars “is all about alienating people” and that it’s “not for the weak of heart.” Could you elaborate on this notion of risk-taking? How do you envision your audience as you write?
ML: MONKEY BARS, as my wife puts it, is my ‘sex, drugs, and rock n roll book.’ It’s vulgar and crass and pissed off and wicked. I wrote the poems in that book at a very difficult time in my life. There was a lot of change happening and I don’t do well with change--a new baby, moving to upstate NY, being broke, feeling an incredible amount of pressure. I started writing these poems that expressed all of the difficulty I was feeling. I was also very disenchanted with the lack of raw poetry in the world. The poems in that book are poems that might be the kind of things you would hear in the schoolyard of my childhood if we all, as kids, spoke in free verse poetry. That world would be the upper west side of Manhattan in the early 1970s. There was, indeed, an intentional desire to shock. Looking back on the book, honestly, I cringe myself.
SR: In that interview you also describe how you write in long paragraphs and then break up the lines after, and that you are resistent to change that process. How long did it take for you to develop that writing habit? Do you still approach your writing in this way? Will you please describe other habits within your writing practice?
ML: The long paragraph thing came to me when I started writing on a computer, back in college. Before that, it was all long hand and I wrote my poems with line breaks. Something about the speed of working on a computer circumvented the long hand process and freed me up. I like to get into a groove, a flow, and if I broke the lines when I was pouring out the poem, initially, it would mess me up. I still write this way. I also tend to listen to music and can write pretty much anywhere at anytime. I do like a window, some sky, and, if possible, trees near me.
SR: From “Dewey Decimaling” to “Daffodils In The Head” to “The Spread-Legged Horror,” you have some idiosyncratic titles in this collection. What is most important to you when titling your work? What elements of your poems do you try to capture in their titles? How does that extend to naming a collection?
ML: I want my titles to grab the reader. Suck them into a poem, immediately, no pussy-footing around. I want them to be both sonically and visually interesting. Titles are so important and, I think, undervalued. With a title you can create the mood, tone, and ambience of a poem. For the most part, I usually find a line or a phrase from the poem and make that my title. Sometimes, I go for tone. In my latest collection, AMERICAN CHEW, for instance, there is a poem entitled “Nina Simone.” The poem is not about Nina Simone nor does it mention her in any way shape or form. The poem is about Al Green and being in 4th grade at P.S. 84, again, on the upper west side of Manhattan in the 1970s. The poem is about the grit and soul of that time in my life, in the life of New York City. For me, Nina Simone, her music, has that gritty soulfulness to it and so it seemed like a great imaginative leap to name the poem “Nina Simone”, tonally, even though the poem has nothing to do with her directly.
SR: American Chew definitely feels like a more serious and reverent collection compared to your previous work. What types of emotions and circumstances fueled its creation, as opposed to Monkey Bars?
ML: The poems in Monkey Bars came out of a darker time in my life. Well, not really darker, maybe angrier. The onslaught of being a grown up was on me and I did not want to be a grown up although I had to be one. ;I had gotten married, had a child with my wife, and the pressures of that living, that life, of surviving, of survival, were upon me with a fury. The poems in Monkey Bars reflect a certain juvenile feeling about life and the world. The poems in American Chew are more mature, more measured in tone, less volatile. I had calmed down and gotten used to the adult life, appreciative of it. For some reason I was writing, commenting, a lot on food and how we, as Americans, eat, deal with our culinary horror and beauty. It was all very organic. I tend not to think too much about what my poems are about or how they fit together.
SR: One of my favorite poems in Monkey Bars is “The Wolf Store,” which ends, “There was nothing left for me to buy. // It was as if the moon had disappeared / right off the face of the earth.” The poem explores ideas of capitalism, race, religion, as well as American media and pop culture. What interests you about these themes and why do you return to them in your writing?
ML: I teach high school kids. All that pop culture stuff is right there in my daily life. I am fascinated by what moves them. I am fascinated by how they respond to the world outside of themselves while trying to figure out the worlds inside of themselves at the same time. I love, too, all things American--music, clothes, style, attitudes, money, race. I am fascinated by how it all works together to make up this crazy landscape. There is so much contradiction in being an American, ultimately, and that is what I like. Hey, I would assume, if you are from Finland, you are Finnish, and that’s pretty much the whole shebang. Not so in America. It’s so damn complicated. That’s what interests me--the complicated.
SR: What are you currently reading?
ML: I just read Greg Lawless’ book of poems, Foreclosure. Kerrin McCadden’s first book of poems, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes. Jamaal May’s Hum. A lot of poetry.
SR: Your first collection is divided into three parts while your most recent collections are comprised of two. How do you generally approach organizing your collections?
ML: I am not sure. Maybe that is part of the problem. But, I am not. Honestly. It feels somewhat random and happenstance to me. I try and have poems that you wouldn’t expect to follow one another, follow one another. I try to have poems work off one another tonally, not by subject. If you have too many poems about penguins in a cluster they will all get boring. Boring is not something I strive to enliven.
SR: Several of the poems in American Chew revolve around human connection and relationships, particularly in the face of personal difficulties. I’m drawn to the image of the lesbian couple in “You Got to the Sea” clinging to each other by the ocean while one suffers from illness, or the ending lines of “The Carnivores Serve Brisket” where the speaker holds his wife’s hand and she holds his back “even though everything is [his] fault.” How do you negotiate these images of personal connection in situations where people might be drawn apart? What do you want your readers to take away from these relationships?
ML: Intimacy is at the heart of all these poems. It’s a delicate thing, intimacy, and usually comes at a price because if you make that commitment you are opening yourself up to heartbreak and loss on a daily basis. I’m not being glib about this. It’s serious business, intimacy. I want this to come across in my poems and it’s the hardest thing to do--write authentically about the devastating beauty that lives between people who work tirelessly to manage their lives in a way that feels rich.
SR: A review of American Chew on American Microreviews states, “Perhaps most of the book is the failure of the American dream, and America is chewing us all up, then spitting us out into a cosmic cuspidor.” Could you expand on your own notions of the American Dream?
ML: I don’t have an American Dream. I live in America. What I do here is pretty simple--I raise children, I work really hard, I am husband and share my life with a beautiful woman. I want my American Reality to be this--live in a world that is sustainable for me and my family--a place where we can all thrive and grow and love no matter how hard it is to survive. Also, I want to make money.
SR: What was your experience publishing American Chew like? How was it different from your first two publications?
ML: Much more low key. I thought I was Mr. Super Bad Ass Poet with my first books, The New Year of Yellow and Monkey Bars. I put a lot of expectation, or, had a lot of expectations about the kind of success that these books might have. They were well received, yes, but ultimately I was let down because no one thought I was James Dean or Bono or Sophia Loren or Madonna. ;With American Chew, I cooled out. It won The Burnside Review Press Prize, a great press out of Portland run by Sid Miller. People tell me it’s my best book. I don’t know what that means but I am not too worried about being Mr. Super Bad Ass Poet anymore. It’s all much more quiet now, with Chew. It feels better, too, to be quieter.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
ML: I don’t have a particular writing space. I write on my couch. I write, believe it or not, at Starbucks. I write in my classroom in the early morning before I teach, and, at lunch. I write, late at night, in the third floor of our house that serves as a playroom for the kids and a television room for watching sports. Sometimes I will pull off the side of the road, whip out the computer, and compose a poem in the parking lot of a municipal golf course. I don’t, as you can see, have ‘an office.’