Interview with Matthew Olzmann

by Ann van Buren

On Sunday, May 7, 2023 the Katonah Poetry Series is honored to present award-winning poet Matthew Olzmann for a book signing and in-person reading from his most recent book, Constellation Route (Alice James Books, 2022.)

Olzmann is the author of Constellation Route as well as two previous collections of poetry: Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design. He is a recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, MacDowell, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Olzmann’s poems have appeared in The New York Times, Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prizes, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is a Senior Lecturer of Creative Writing at Dartmouth College and also teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

In Constellation Route, Olzmann writes, in his own words, what it is to be human in poems written as letters to the world. In a novel twist, he also includes letters that other poets wrote him in the poetic form, as well as letters from voices he’s imagined as in the poem “Letter to Matthew Olzmann, Sent Telepathically from a Flock of Pigeons While Surrounding Him on a Park Bench in Detroit, Michigan.” Olzmann’s writing is known for its accessible and conversational style as well as its humor.

The reading will be presented in-person at 4PM on Sunday, May 7th, 2023 followed by an audience Q&A and book signing. Copies of the book will be available from local bookseller Booksy Galore. Admission is $15 and will be collected at the door. Admission is free for students.

Ann van Buren: The epistle form propels Constellation Route. Each poem is a letter and you’ve done something very unusual by including actual letters written by other poets. Are there letter exchanges that have influenced your work and can you talk about the embrace of other poets in your work as well?

Matthew Olzmann: I think there have been a few other epistolary collections that might have been in the back of my mind. Richard Hugo, Kenneth Koch’s New Addresses, and Merwin have stood out. One of my teachers who’s mentioned in the book, David James, directed me to the mode of delivery twenty-something years ago in a class at a community college. The approach of the direct address is something that has always been in my work.

It’s very common for different musicians to collaborate with each other or to appear on each other’s albums and I think that was in my mind as well. The book includes a handful of letters to other poets that I know and I thought it might be interesting if I inverted that to create variation. Most of the letters are from me— or a fictional version of me —speaking to people, things, or ideas. I inverted that with letters to me from a flock of pigeons, or from the Roman Empire. Then I thought, What if I just included other poets in this?

AvB: Did you break the lines in those letters from other poets, or are these poems exactly what the poets wrote to you?

Matthew Olzmann: It’s pretty much what they wrote to me. A couple of them had some questions and they made minor adjustments, but all of those are almost exactly the way they wrote them and the way they wanted them to appear.

AvB: It’s just such a wonderful and unusual sharing of the spotlight that you’ve incorporated into your book. I really love that!

Matthew Olzmann: There used to be a tradition of writers including poems by other people in their collections. I want to say it was in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. It was called commendatory verse, and a lot of poetry collections might begin with the work of some other poet praising their work. It feels similar to what we think of as blurbs today—the author quotes that go on the back of books where one author praises the work of another. I think Milton’s second edition of Paradise Lost began with a poem by Andrew Marvel. Shakespeare’s second folio, I think, started with a poem by Ben Johnson. I should really look these up before saying it on camera when I’m being recorded. But I know that there was a tradition, a tradition of poems by others being included in the work, although it had a very different intent.

AvB: How is the intent different?

Matthew Olzmann: Well, the poems in my book weren’t necessarily to praise the book. These were meant to be actual letters and correspondences that said what others were thinking about, whatever was on their mind. I told them to write about anything, that it doesn’t really need or shouldn’t be about me. When you write a letter to someone you’re not writing a letter to them about them. You’re writing them to tell them about something that you share, that you’ve noticed, or that you want them to know about.

AvB: Another organizing principle of Constellation Route is the overlay of the rules from the United States Postal Service. The opening poem of the first section in the book explains that Day Zero is the day that a letter enters the mail stream. The poem tells the story of an old man who decides to reach out by sending letters and it ends with this fragile sense of hope that the letter will reach not only the person it’s sent to, but into the future. The poem alludes to the Book of Genesis as it repeats the lines from that creation story, Let there be

Can you tell me about your relationship to this particular scripture? There are other references from the Bible and many of the poems in the collection seem to address the apocalyptic nature of the present time with strength, hope, humor, and faith.

What are some of the origins of your faith, and what is your relationship to religion?

Matthew Olzmann: I think a lot of that imagery and some of those concerns and anxieties come from being raised Catholic. People who are raised Catholic often never fully leave that behind. I would view myself as a somewhat agnostic searching type of person. Those references show up in my writing when I think they’re an intriguing metaphor for thinking about how things work and what might be possible. I would say that religion might be in the background, or in the unconscious memory, but not necessarily in the foreground when I was making these poems. I do think that literature—and poetry in general—is interested in asking some big questions about what we’re doing here and what it is to be to be human, or how we’re supposed to be behaving, or what this experience means. I feel that some of the language that I’ve appropriated from spirituality feels like an appropriate reflection of some of those large scale questions.

AvB: I was talking with ChatGPT the other day, and asked it to write a poem in the style of Charles Simic and several other authors. I noticed that the keyword “poem” seemed to trigger rhyme and a somewhat lofty tone in what it spat back. I felt like a smug human when the bot seemed unable to imitate Simic and other poets. Your work is so spontaneous, fresh, and very humorous as well. There is no rhyme, no loftiness, even as it addresses serious topics like climate, race and shootings. What makes you channel your thoughts into the form of poetry rather than another form? What drew you to write poetry?

Matthew Olzmann: What drew me to poetry? When I was a teenager I always liked stories. I didn’t encounter much poetry until I was a junior in high school, I think, and then we had a week or two of poetry during my American lit class. I saw poems as these compressed devices that could explain complicated feelings or ideas or things that were happening in the world around me in this really compressed manner. It gave me a way to understand or experience things from a different angle. Poetry resonated with me in a way that was mysterious and profound. I became interested in poetry as a reader of poems, and then through my own creative writing, which was more just like journaling.

I think the first question you asked was about the impulse to channel things into poetry, or to make poems. I like making things, and this is a thing that I can make, or that I find intriguing in my attempt to make it. I know what you’re saying about a perception of loftiness and I think there’s a room for a lot of different types of poetry. I think there is a type of poetry that ChatGPT would probably recognize. And it’s probably drawing that from somewhere very specific. There’s a lot of room for that type of poetry and then other poetry as well. My poems incorporate the elements that you were pointing to—a sort of conversational mode, spontaneity, or sometimes the presence of humor. Over time you start to try out different things and you see what works for you. At different points I’ve found those approaches appealing or interesting or exciting for me. They also show up in my own life. I’m not a great joke writer, but I can be somewhat sarcastic or or ironic. That type of humor naturally finds its way into the voice.

AvB: I’m thinking of your poem which is a letter to William Shatner. Like other poems in this book it’s an epistle, but this one is divided into numbered sections, and has longer lines. “Letters to a 52 Hertz Whale” is similarly structured. Both are definitely poems. But why did you choose to write what looks like brief paragraphs?

Matthew Olzmann: A lot of the poems in the book have a similar approach. You try to find ways to change it up, both to keep it interesting for a reader and maybe more importantly, to keep it interesting to myself. Those poems don’t necessarily progress in a completely linear fashion; they jump around a little bit. In the latter poem making sections and trying it out as prose made sense to me. It went back and forth. At one point it was lineated and I had it without sections.

I think eventually you try to find the form that feels like it fits the mode. One definition for poetry that I’ve come to appreciate is just thinking of poetry as a language-based art where the form is part of the content. So you’re thinking of poetry. The form has some relationship to the content. This one felt like the sections were necessary to frame and isolate specific moments so the reader could reset their expectations before starting something anew rather than flowing from one into the next.

AvB: Several of your poems speak to the shortcomings of language. “Letter Beginning With Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz” is a devastating poem about school shootings and the seemingly insurmountable tragedy of humanity that they represent. The poem talks about the failure of language in the face of this violence. It talks about being “buried in rhetoric” and says

And that click you hear?
That’s just our voices

The dead bolt of discourse
Sliding into place.

References to the failure of language appear again in “Letter to Justin, Age Seven, Regarding Any Possible Mixed-Race Anxieties Which One Might Experience in the Near or Distant Future”

Metaphors link the known and unknown,
the real and imaginary, and they exist
because there are things we have no words for

Even as you say that language fails, you have us nodding with understanding. The paradox continues as you explain metaphor as a device that’s used “when words for what we want to say are not available.” Can you talk about the insistence of your work to get past the imperfection of words? How is poetry particularly suited to building a bridge across gaps in understanding?

Matthew Olzmann: It’s kind of ironic. If I feel that I’m using language to try to get around the failures of language. But there’s a philosopher, Susanne K. Langer, who says that art is to objectify subjective feeling. It takes things that we feel and gives them a form— whether that form is a dance or it’s a poem or it’s a song— it takes something intangible and tries to make it tangible for people. The idea is that there are these moments in our lives where discursive language reaches its limitations. That’s where art steps in. Carl Phillips has this essay on association and poetry, where he says something like if you feel bad, writing I feel bad is not likely to satisfy a poet. Could you try to find a way to approximate what that bad feeling is? So you reach for metaphor, or you associate.

This particular feeling was something else and the idea is to try to use language in a way that takes something unknown and makes it more tangible or visible to the to a third party, that being the reader. And so that’s where metaphor is pointing.

The secondary answer to that question is that as a reader—as I was noting before—the first time I was drawn to poetry I sensed that poems are these things that could, in a compressed manner, explain or make tangible the complicated things I was feeling—ideas that I couldn’t quite figure out suddenly had a shape in a form, and they were approachable and understandable. So that’s something that draws me to poetry as a reader and something that I aspire to as a writer.

AvB: “Letter to Matthew Olzmann From a Flying Saucer” speaks to the fear of success and fame and ”Letter to Matthew Olzmann from the Roman Empire” also addresses the imbalance created by the extraordinary. You say

I’m the Roman Empire! Check out these temples!
Check out these fine-assed aqueducts! I’ve got the Arch of Janus,
the arch of Titus, the arch of Septumus Severus.
What does one do with so many Arches? Beats me,
but two or three mornings per week I wake up, ready
to ride my chariot down the block again.
Look at these golden rims. Look at this platinum sideboard.
Gaze upon the diamond encrusted crossbar and yoke.

The rest of the week I just want to stay inside. I just want
to read a book and go to bed. This happens, I reckon,
to everyone. You might not understand now, but you will.

As the winner of the Kundiman prize and the author of three highly regarded books, how does it feel? After reading the poem “Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initial Into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America” I hear your cry for humility. But humans seem to want to stand out, and judging from the trillion dollar industry of celebrity culture, many want to worship at the feet of the stars. What are the strengths and pitfalls of fame and hyper-productivity and how do you navigate them?

Matthew Olzmann: It’s funny, because I don’t know what fame would look like in the poetry world. If I was aspiring to fame, I would have chosen a field other than poetry. There’s a poet, Richard Howard, who a friend of mine had as a teacher. I’ve heard him quoted a number of times as saying Being a famous poet is like being a famous mushroom. That’s always stuck with me.

I’m flattered by your perception of where I might be in the poetry world, but I still often feel like an emerging poet in that it’s a kind of a strange art form with its own small audience and I feel like I’m still developing a voice or voices. This isn’t trying to put forth a type of false modesty. I recognize I’m fortunate to have some readers and to be able to get the poems into the world. But writing poetry and publishing poetry often feels like a you’re the person stranded on a desert island and you’re putting a message into a bottle and throwing it into the sea, because once the poem leaves you, you really have no idea who reads it, or where it ends up, or how it’s received. Once you write the poem it goes into the world. You hope people enjoy it or appreciate it, or take care of it. But it’s not always yours anymore. So I don’t fully know how to answer the whole question about fame. I view fame as something more like people on TV. There are people within any given field who are more visible than others and I guess one of the things I like about the moment we’re in is that people can be semi-famous or successful or find a path in any weird field. There’s a national air guitar championship and there are competitive eating championships. You can become a minor celebrity for eating more hot dogs or shellfish than anyone else in 10 minutes and it’s kind of amazing to me that there’s an arena for all of this.

AvB: Constellation Route is divided into 4 sections. Can you tell us the intention that each section represents?

Matthew Olzmann: Breaking this book up into sections helped me see some of the thematic concerns and it also helped me organize it. I felt like there needed to be some breaks in the collection. There’s not an intense governing logic behind each section. It’s not like these are the love poems; these are the political poems; these are the poems about the environment. I wanted each section to actually have some sort of familiar points between them. So there’s some poems that are based on postal definitions in each section, and at least one poem that was written by someone else in each section. I wanted the sections to have their own emotional arc, not necessarily narrative arc, and then take a break. One of my friends said Matthew, I think you like having sections and books because you just like choosing beginning and ending poems. There is some truth to that. Each section has its own minor arc within the larger arc of the whole collection.

AvB: I hope you don’t mind answering this question for the poets in our audience. The Collagist, which was founded in 2009, was renamed The Rupture in 2019. It is one of the longest running online literary journals. You were the poetry and non-fiction editor for many years.

Can you tell us what it’s like to edit a literary journal and what you look for in poetry as well as the names of some of the journals you currently read? How do you decide where to send your poems?

Matthew Olzmann: The experience of being an editor can be easily misunderstood. A lot of people look at editors as people who are judging their work and that’s not actually the case. They’re really curating. They’re trying to organize something and they have a specific audience in mind. Their job isn’t to say these are the best poems; it’s to say these are the best poems for this issue on this date for the people that I think make up our audience. A lot of factors go into making a magazine, some of them so arbitrary that you should spend zero time worrying about a rejection letter you can get. You can have a poem turned down for any number of reasons.

The editor could be having a bad day. Maybe they didn’t eat. Maybe you wrote a poem about trees and they’re allergic to all of spring or something like that. We might have a poem that we love but we just accepted a poem on a similar subject and we were only printing poems by four poets. So you would have no idea why your work gets turned down. But you may have a new fan out there somewhere.

As for the magazines that I like, there’s a lot of them, and I like them for different reasons. I like American Poetry Review, Waxwing, Four-way Review, New England Review, Kenyan Review, Sewanee Review. I think that if you’re sending your work out it’s best to just send your poems to places you like to read. One of my friends tells his students you should send your work to the places you want to be published, not the places you think you can be published. I think that’s an interesting way to phrase it. You have a finite number of poems that you can send out at any given time and they’re equally as likely to get rejected by any magazine on the low end or the high end, so make sure you’re sending them to places that you want, where you’ll be proud to have them appear.

AvB: Well that’s encouraging.

Matthew Olzmann: Some of the bigger magazines might get more submissions. They might accept less work and so the odds may be different. But all these places are getting a ton of submissions and having to turn down most of them. You’ll notice that even the biggest magazines are publishing new writers as well as really famous or established writers all the time. Whether it’s a magazine that you can find on the shelves and Barnes and Noble or or a tiny magazine that your friend makes in their basement, send to the places that you think are doing great and interesting work, places where you’d be excited to have your work appear.

AvB: A lot of people will be encouraged by this encouraging advice on how to play the game of publishing. This brings me to my last question, about play. Do video games and other types of games enter your work?

Matthew Olzmann: I do enjoy playing video games and I have a PlayStation that occupies too much of my time. I don’t know how much I think about that when I’m writing, but the concept of play is very, very interesting to me and it might be an influence. I’ve often talked with students about trying to do what they think is fun in writing. The word fun doesn’t often go with poetry.

People think of us as a very brooding and miserable bunch. If that’s the case and fun makes you uncomfortable, then go with what feels fulfilling. That has to be the case when you’re writing. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to do much writing, because a lot of a lot of the writing life is just you sitting alone at a desk, and unless you really enjoy sitting alone at a desk, then writing is going to be a very unfulfilling experience. But if you like sitting alone at a desk and writing the same phrase over and over— and then deleting it, then changing one word or whatever it is that you’re doing there— if you really enjoy that, then that gets you to the writing desk a lot more often. You spend more time there because the process becomes its own reward.

AvB: You do make poetry fun, and it’s really great. I look forward to your reading. I’m going to get multiple copies of your book to share with friends and family.

Matthew Olzmann: Thank you. I look forward to meeting them and meeting you in person. Thank you for spending so much time with this book and thinking up these questions.

AvB: My pleasure! Thank you for your poetry! See you in Katonah on May 7, 2023, at 4PM.