The author of Moving Platform and How to Breathe in
Case the Plane Goes Down (http://www.puddinghouse.com/),
Frank Matagrano writes poems that, as he puts it, are "rather distracted
by themselves." That's not to say the poems don't do something or get
somewhere, just that they take an unhurried route. A native New Yorker
who now spends equal time in Chicago, Matagrano's work demonstrates
a kind of languid intensity that often takes a mundane or quirky moment
and worries it into something surprising. His titles alone"Throwing
a Shoe at a Branch," "Driving down Route 80 without a Radio," "Borrowing
Kylie Minogue"indicate how nothing is safe from his attentions.
Matagrano's work has appeared widely on line in The Adirondack
Review, Samsara Quarterly, Literary Salt, Exquisite Corpse and other
electronic publications. His print credits include, among many others,
ACM, Roanoke Review, Canary River Review, and Main Street
Rag. An edition of his Selected Poems, part of the Pudding
House Publications Greatest Hits series, will appear in the future.
This conversation took place over a few weeks, via email, in
no particular hurry. And, as it turns out, like Matagrano's poems, the
questions and answers distract themselves in some surprising directions.
David Wright: Do you have a typical writing process? Do
you write in fits and starts or are you a more daily, disciplined writer?
Frank Matagrano: There's usually a bunch of things simultaneously
burning on the stove. My habit these days is that I'll write a line
or two, several perhaps, then walk away for days or weeks or however
long - then return and continue. I tend to spend more time mulling over
the prospects, thinking about the poem and its possibilities more than
actually writing it. I mean, the writing is more or less daily, but
not in a traditional sense. It's kind of like that psychology test,
whatever the hell it's called, where one person says a word and the
other person responds with the first thing that comes to his or her
mind, except I don't like to limit myself with just one quick answer.
DW: Word association, I think. What role does reading
play in all this mulling? What kind of reading generates writing for
FM: More often than not, a particular detail - not the
whole story, mind you, but just a small extract - from an Associated
Press blurb or whatever news, whether in the paper or a magazine or
on TV, manages to somehow find its way into the course of a draft. The
most obvious, if not blatant, case of this lies in something I wrote
called "Twenty Six Years after Nixon's Resignation." That was
very much an extreme case, and I don't think I'll ever write in that
manner again. I was still living in New York during the Bush/Gore election,
and I just found myself for two months or so, sitting in front of the
television, watching the news, writing this thing while the election
was in progress, literally futzing around with pieces of the nightly
news. Very early versions of it had all sorts of "stuff" in it, and
I use "stuff" in the broadest sense possible. I know a car commercial
managed to find a way into an early draft, the Simpsons at one point
made a cameo. I mean, the writing process for that particular piece
was very television-driven, and subsequently, way out of control. Luckily,
I stopped writing a few weeks before election day, and the poem doesn't
go that far either. I don't think I could have sustained that kind of
energy during the re-count.
DW: You make quite a few of your poems out of the material
of everyday work and getting around"Driving Down Route 80 Without
a Radio" and "On Business for Three Days in Indiana." You
often seem to spin it in a rather mythical or cosmic direction, as you
do in "Indiana" with the recollection of the funeral, etc. Is
this a conscious kind of looking for the mythical in the everyday? Or
how does it appear?
FM: I tend to take things on their own terms, so no, I'm
not really thinking about a mythical or cosmic direction. If anything,
I'd venture to say the poems are rather distracted by themselves. By
this, I mean that's there's usually one thing that conjures or connects
to something else - two polar opposites with a degree or two of separation
- and the tie in "On Business for Three Days in Indiana" I think
serves as a fair exhibit of this. A narrative can potentially be its
own worst enemy, quite frankly. One thing I admire about, say, a film
like Pulp Fiction is its success in subverting a linear structure.
DW: If it's not exactly narrative, then, what draws you
to these sorts of events and subjects?
FM: In the end, it's narrative, whether I want it to be
or not. That aside, the material, in and of itself, is pretty common,
if not utterly dull. I have a twisted affection for modes of transportation,
whether it be a plane or a train or a bus or a car. I think part of
my attraction comes, oddly, from a discomfort for it. I manage to embellish
the experience, for myself anyway, into a worse case scenario, like
visions of a flat tire on a highway in the middle of a rain storm, or
an engine problem 30,000 feet in the air. I'm pretty good at being paranoid.
Last year for example, I flew to New Orleans, and while in the midst
of flight, I had a dreadful fear of the floor falling out from under
DW: Yeah like the title of your chapbook, How to Breathe
In Case the Plane Goes Down. So discomfort and paranoia, those can
be good places for poems to begin?
FM: Anything has the capacity to be a starting point,
I suppose, even discomfort and paranoia. But those are rather broad
terms, and my attraction is strictly a personal one. From a writing
perspective, however, I am only interested in the raw source material
from a situation such as a plane ride - the stewardess showing passengers
how to use the mask in case of an emergency, bags crammed in the overhead
bin, free peanuts passed during the flight, and so on - and how the
material looks in a certain light, or in a certain context.
DW: In a poem like "Watching Grandma Die," you're
dealing with powerful yet dangerous material, dangerous in terms of
potential sentimentality. What helps you navigate that material?
FM: It's smoke and mirrors. In the context of "Watching
Grandma Die," the title is really doing all the work. It provides
an illusion of "sentimentality," but really there is nothing in that
vein throughout the poem. There's one line that flirts with the notion
- "the fifteenth floor where all cancer patients are sent to die" -
but that's it, and I would not qualify that as sentimental as much as
a matter of context. There's no talk of old women in the poem, no dying
last words, no fond memories of grandma's cooking, none of that bullshit.
The shadow of the title is large enough to hang over the whole poem,
and subsequently, tap into the reader's sentimentality. The high-level
idea, I suppose, is to work with emotional baggage people carry with
them rather than try to compete with it.
DW: I think that's the case with most successful poems
since modernism. They employ smoke and mirrors to evoke rather than
demand responses. Eliot called it an escape from emotion rather than
an expression of it. Is Eliot in the background here? Or what writers
have helped you shape this approach?
FM: If Eliot's in the background, it certainly isn't intentional.
In all candor, there's not necessarily a specific writer to which I
can point. It really boils down to a gag reflex, a picky American consumerism.
It goes back to bullshit. If the language or image or action does nothing
but make me roll my eyes to the back of my head, I'm not investing time
in it. There's got to be a credibility.
DW: Is there anything that keeps you from writing?
FM: Nothing really. I mean, there's that little thing
called "life" - you know, making a living and other miscellaneous personal
obligations - but there's a time and a place for everything. I'm in