Repair Manuals: A Brief Interview with Sebastian Matthews
VIEVEE FRANCIS interviews SEBASTIAN MATTHEWS
From April 2017 to July 2017, poet, writer, collagist, and teacher Sebastian Matthews and I carried on a long-running conversation, which you will find excerpted below. It is high time to hear from this provocative and engaging poet who, after surviving a head-on collision with his wife and son in the car with him, went into relative literary and social seclusion for several years. While the newest book discloses the private life of trauma and the body, forthcoming projects concern Matthews’ public takes on race, culture, and identity. Always stretching to disclose what others would keep hidden is part of what makes his widening body of work both engaging and authentic.
Vievee Francis (VF): When reading Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision, Julio Cortázar immediately came to mind. I read it as (among other things) a kind of minimalist fabulism. Lyric and narrative modes are anxiously, effectively conflated, and the third voice of the mysterious “Virgo” thread throughout the book draws us into an allegorical realm like a trickster “guide.” Who are some your influences for this new book?
Sebastian Matthews (SM): I am honored – and a little surprised – that you think of Cortazar when reading Beginner’s Guide. He was one of my early heroes, along with Calvino, Borges, Nabokov, and Marquez. I got turned onto most of them in an undergrad lit class. His “Graffiti” is one of my all-time favorites, along with Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Marquez’s short story “Eyes of a Blue Dog.” It makes me happy that you have uncovered a buried vein in my writing – minimalist fabulism, indeed!
Maybe the “Dear Virgo” poems feel the most fabulist? I don’t know. They certainly arrived out of the blue, in a sort of hazy desperation. I was trying to write about the car accident we’d just been in, but only a month or so after the fact, and so was failing miserably. I was simply unable to look directly at the event. Instead of forcing the issue, I gave into a sort frustrated, self-critical mockery and started writing these fake horoscopes in what turned out to be an hyper-ironic and sarcastic voice that both belonged to me and didn’t. An overseer? A voice inside my head? Hard to say. But it felt right, so I kept on writing them. Eventually, the voice began to soften a little, began to display some sympathy for my compromised situation. I don’t think that’s what you are talking about when you say “guide,” but maybe it is. The “I” in the book serves as a guide to the reader, so maybe the “Dear Virgo” voice guides the writer. Not the ideal guide, for sure, but the only one I had at the time.
As for influences, of the conscious sort, I am not sure. I want to say there were none. That I was writing out of a vacuum (for the first and probably only time in my life). That the accident had dropped a bomb on my head. But’s that most certainly over-selling and romanticizing the matter. So, let me try a little harder… Marvin Bell’s “Dead Man” poems. A. Van Jordan’s “dictionary definition” poems. Greg Orr’s poems to the Beloved. Claudia Rankine’s short prose-poem pieces in Citizen. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. That was all in my head and in my fingers as I wrote, whether I knew it or not.
This is your day, brother. All signs
say so. Stars aligned, all systems go, etc.
It behooves you to undertake a project,
anything that walks you out of your head.
Build a rock wall, say. Take apart
a motorcycle. Clean the fridge, please.
It doesn’t matter how, why: do something!
Let the bed ferry the dread.
VF: In a brief man on-the-street interview with the blog Humans of Minneapolis you note how the head-on collision cleaved your life into before and after. Do you find yourself considering the accident and its impact at surprising times? What draws it up and how did writing about it in your latest book, indeed making it central to the text, impact the long-term aftermath?
SM: Draws it up? Driving on the highway in heavy traffic. Bumping my head. Certain claustrophobic moments. The sound of car tires screeching. A certain burnt smell.
Writing about it impacting the long-term aftermath? That I am not sure of. My guess is that it extended it and deepened it both. There’s something a little creepy about attending so completely, incessantly, to trauma. Something masochistic about it. Like picking at a scab that is close to healing over. But what was I supposed to do? I am a writer, a processor, a worrier. I had the first lines of a poem come to me in the ICU a day after the first surgery. I asked my mom to write them down for me. How weird is that?
But, of course, if I ignored the whole thing, pretended I wasn’t as affected as I was, wouldn’t the process have been drawn out even longer? I could see the monster rising up out of the murk years later. Hopefully, I have done the work necessary to avoid that nightmare.
What I am worried about, though, is going out “on tour” these next few years and reading from the book. The poems themselves bring me back. I worry that I will be opening old wounds over and over. Indeed, I have been trying to record these poems for an audio book, but it has been proving difficult. My voice cracks. I stumble over words. The process has gone on and on, much to the chagrin of my engineer.
VF: I recall the first reading we did. Remember? I had been asked to read a few poems as an opening for the release of your second book of poetry, Miracle Day (Red Hen Press, 2012). I was moved by the emotional openness you allowed to show in your work, and in your person, so much so that you put yourself at emotional risk in reading for the first time a poem forgiving the man whose car careened into yours, holding your family. What roles do forgiveness and mercy have in your work?
SM: That was an amazing night, for sure. My first public reading after the accident. The beginning of our friendship. The beginning of the end of my time teaching at Warren Wilson. I remember breaking down halfway through that poem, “To You Who Lost Your Father.” It was just too raw. I think I eventually completed it, but I remember the going being rough. The crowd was forgiving. And I remember being blown away by your work, in particular “Say It Anyway You Can.”
You know, “forgiveness” and “mercy” aren’t words I use to describe or define my work. But I see what you mean about having mercy for the man who almost killed us (by dying of a heart attack!). The accident and its aftermath were such earth-shattering events; they changed our lives in so many ways, that my normal coping mechanisms no longer applied. Not only did they not work, I no longer had access to them.
There’s a poem in the collection, “L’Shana Tova,” that describes the first time my wife and I made an appearance at the synagogue we are members of: we came in wheelchairs to the Yom Kippur service. The love and care we received was quite moving. I remember sitting inside that sanctuary, inside the music and prayers, feeling quite supported and loved. And I felt it again when my son, Avery, became a bar mitzvah boy. We had a gathering after the service, and I recall the overwhelming feeling of contentment that arose in my body being surrounded by friends and family. Five years had passed since the accident. It was evident that Avery had grown out of that turmoil and had truly grown into the beginning of manhood. We were so proud of him, of ourselves. And I was so happy he had a ritual – a way of being – that brought him to that place. I experienced nothing like that in my childhood, having been raised my non-religious parents.
Maybe it’s simply a matter of terminology. Not “forgiveness” but “acceptance.” Not “mercy” but “release from suffering.” It’s a great question. Maybe what Beginner’s Guide records, more than anything, is a tentative path toward mercy and forgiveness.
VF: Why the epigraphs you chose? How do you see Rich and Orr informing or framing the text?
SM: I had been rereading the Orr and found again his “Beloved” poems to be mysterious and powerful. They were spiritual without being overly sentimental. Quietly intense. And it seems to me that he writes these small lyrics as a way to get out of the trap of sadness or grief or self-pity or depression, whatever. It’s just a feeling. As if he had been writing these poems as a daily meditation and, after a few years, looked up and found that he’d written a book about the Beloved, which was really a book about transcending the Self.
As for the Rich quote, well, it’s an homage to my mother, the poet Marie Harris. She turned me onto Adrienne Rich when I was a young man, made me see her importance at a time when I was saturated with male voices. But, also, it’s also a statement of separation, of removing myself from the sphere of my mother’s influence. I had to go it alone. Rich’s quote gave me the strength to do that.
VF: Speaking of your parents, neither shied away from cultural engagement, from your mother editing some of the earliest American poetry anthologies that actually feature a truly diverse range of voices, to your father’s poems fearlessly engaging the deep culture and subcultures of jazz. Your own writing, and your advocacy work toward greater cross diaspora engagement in poetry, is significant. What impact has Callaloo, the journal as well as its conferences, had upon you?
SM: An immense one, for sure. It’s provided me a home, a new subject to study, a second “master’s degree,” friends, a new worldview. I recall admitting that I was a little nervous fitting in, being new to Callaloo and being a white guy, and how poet Jerriod Avant responded by saying something like, “You fit where you fit.” And what was implied, so beautifully, was that Callaloo was a fluid and generous “institution.” You fit if you show up. The rest is up to you.
I had known about Callaloo for a while. But, as you know, I didn’t really know what it was and, thus, didn’t really get the journal or what it was doing. I was intimidated. Part of me felt like it wasn’t my place to enter such a world. That I wasn’t qualified. Which, in hindsight, I see was a big load of bullshit and an easy out at the same time. I was just afraid to go deep and felt like I didn’t need to make the effort. But as I began to read deeper into the Callaloo issues I already owned, and began reading back issues, the more I got excited. What was intimidating before was now challenging and exciting. I felt like a whole world had opened up before me and that it was calling me further in. That feeling only intensified when I first visited the Callaloo conference down in Atlanta. I was blown away by the intensity, passion, intelligence, and overall coolness on display in the roundtable discussions and at the readings. I felt like I had finally entered a door I had wanted to enter forever and that, as soon as I sat down, I was handed this amazing guidebook and this finger pointed to a page and this voice said, “We’re right here. You’re going to have to hurry to catch up.” By the time I participated in the full Oxford conference, I was comfortable enough in my skin to speak up and join the conversation.
VF: Early on in our friendship it was clear to me you were far more willing to look directly at social conditions, politics, and history than most, and I am excited going forward by your project, Beyond Repair: Off White in America.
SM: The whole enterprise feels a little risky. Which I know deep down is a good thing. Why work on a project that doesn’t make you sweat a little? I mentioned it before, but Rankine’s Citizen handed me a challenge, in particular her “micro-aggression” pieces at the front of the book. Could I, as a white man, write about such encounters? Was I even able to or allowed to? What would happen if I tried to witness such moments of social discord? To participate in them? I joke that I am writing about not just “micro-aggressions” but also “micro-awkwardnesses” and “micro-misunderstandings.” (As is Rankine, of course.) And so for the last three years I have been trying to place myself in as many situations as possible and to record these encounters. What happens when I?… What is that man doing over there?… Did she just say that?
In her essay “Can a Poem Listen?” Ailish Hopper quotes a poem of mine from We Generous, “High Wire Act, McCabe Guitar Shop, 1989.” She writes: “…the white poet becomes a race-traitor, an informant, giving up, and giving up on, the particular brand of self-centeredness with which white power cloaks itself.” I don’t know how you feel about that, but for me I was honored, excited, to be read in this way. That was the first time in a poem, maybe as a writer, that I committed myself to exploring such things. Beyond Repair takes up that call and charges forward. Or at least I hope it does. Hope I do.
A group of writers are sitting around a table, glasses of wine and water at hand. The Odyssey has come up. I am not sure if it was Vievee or Greg who conjures the wandering hero.
“Maybe that rock wasn’t such a hard place,” someone quips.
Fred chimes in: “There’s a post-colonial read on Circe, you know. Odysseus gets waylaid there, sure, but he’s so sick and tired of the empire, and is having way too much fun in the Islands, to ever want to leave.”
Fred has a way of laughing that makes everyone else smile—a kind of lilting, manic rush of ha ha ha with his eyes squeezed shut.
Jacinda looks up at the ceiling, frowning. The speaker has been broadcasting moody violin music nonstop. “There hasn’t been a major cord all night.”
Our first course has arrived. The hummus is literally steaming it’s so hot.
Fred tells our end of the table that he hates how in Britain Black writers are always being boxed in.
“They only come to me when it’s about race. Never about love or domestic life. Just race. It’s maddening.”
I ask him if it’s true in America. “Even worse,” he says, laughing.
Between bites, George wonders aloud: “Maybe you need to write in some other genre, like a mystery novel or something, to get them to stop stereotyping you.”
I shake my head.
“Then they will just box him inside the genre.”
Fred starts laughing again. He puts his hand on my arm. When he opens his eyes, they are animated by a distinct sadness. I think of the term “laughing to keep from crying” and wonder if all this cutting up and playful banter, which has sustained us the whole meal, is just another kind of box.
Later, Vievee assures me it’s not.
at a Turkish restaurant, Chapel Hill, NC
Sebastian Matthews is the author of the memoir In My Father’s Footsteps as well as three collections of poetry, We Generous, Miracle Day, and Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision. Along with Stanley Plumly, Matthews is the co-editor of three volumes: The Poetry Blues: Essays and Interviews of William Matthews; Search Party: The Collected Poems of William Matthews, a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize; and New Hope for the Dead: Uncollected Matthews. His poetry and prose have appeared in or on, among others, American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Blackbird, The Common, From the Fishouse, Georgia Review, Massachusetts Review, New England Review, Poets & Writers, storySouth, The Sun, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Writer’s Almanac, and Writer’s Chronicle.
Vievee Francis is the author of Forest Primeval; Horse in the Dark, which won the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for a second collection; and Blue-Tail Fly. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including POETRY; Waxwing; Best American Poetry 2010, 2014, and 2017; and Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of African American Poetry. She was the recipient of the 2016 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.