Interview with Matthew Gavin Frank

 

Matthew Gavin Frank is a contributor for Superstition Review’s Issue 7. In this interview, SR talks to Frank about work and his newest piece, The Morrow Plots.

SR: After so much time spent in the food and wine industry, what inspired you to pursue degrees and careers in writing and poetry?

Matthew Gavin Frank: I loved writing well before I fell into the food and wine industries. I remember—I was about 10—going through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were otherwise occupied. I remember it as a Saturday. My dad was likely working. My mom was likely working-out: one of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. In one drawer, I found a short essay she wrote about her own father’s death when she was 13. She spent her life teaching grammar—past participles and shit—to 7th graders, but, up until that point, I never knew she wrote. And, she never wrote anything again outside of letters to the editor. So stumbling onto that essay allowed me a richer engagement of my mother as a human being, I think.

Soon after that, I remember (this was 5th grade) collaborating with my friend Ryan Shpritz on a series of gross-out stories. A few years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my family in Chicago, my mom sat us down with these scrapbooks she made when my sister and I were toddlers. In the column that asked for my interests, she wrote, “Ghosts, blood, anything ghoulish.” Fucking blood. According to my own mother, one of my primary interests as a toddler was blood. So my later collaboration with Ryan, on this series of stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on) had its roots in those early interests. Mrs. Buccheim, our teacher—fabulous perm—allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. She loved that we were writing extracurricularly. Once, in D at D part VI, I think, some poor sap caught his hand in a garbage disposal, and we compared the resulting carnage to a punctured egg yolk. Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader, cried. After that, Mrs. Buccheim, bless her proper heart, put a stop to our public readings. So, I then realized that writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned.

This knowledge sort of fed all kinds of ideas about revolt, writerly and otherwise. Soon, I started thinking a lot about food. Growing up in a microwave-and-saturated-fat-centric family, it took me a while realize that the food world was larger than a radiated Lean Cuisine paired with Crystal Light pink lemonade. There was some impetuous revolt growing in me in my late teens in response to the crappy undergraduate meal-plan dinners (if you could call them that) served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while—a very short while—clearing trays and washing dishes. I remember the particular dinner that inspired this culinary rebellion. It was this disaster of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. It broke me. I began reading books on food and wine, determined to do better than this, which took a while actually. At some point, I came across an article on Barolo wine and vowed to go to the region where it was made. After a couple days, lazing in the vineyards, eating fresh pasta and white truffles, I vowed to return to live there and, upon returning to the States, trashed my microwave in vulgar ceremony. I thereafter took all sorts of restaurant jobs, and found a common thread: when chefs get together after work for drinks, and one chef asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say, “write poetry,” it’s ever a great conversation killer. Eventually, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks.

SR: I have heard some poets say that it is important for young writers to first go out into the world and experience life before writing about it and/or attempting to go into a MFA program. Others insist that the jump straight from undergraduate school to a MFA program is necessary. As someone who left home at age 17, experienced the world young, and returned to academia, what advice would you give to young writers?

MGF: I feel perfectly ill-equipped to give young writers lifestyle advice. There is no prescription for this shit. If you need and want to write, you will need and want to write, whether flipping eggs in an Alaskan diner for a living, or immersing oneself in academia. Folks are always talking about how MFA programs can be ruinous to burgeoning writers, who should first experience the world and gather stories; other folks insist that the training provided by the MFA is not a stylistic evening-out, but is essential to burgeoning writers and that it’s the outside world with its various bankrupt distractions that can be ruinous. So, everything can be ruinous, is the thesis, I think.

I tend to believe that these extremists are giving both the MFA program and the “world-at-large” too much credit. If you want and need to write, I’m not sure either choice has the power to strip that away and ruin you. Everything is situation-specific. The shunning of the academic construct in order to lead a vagabond lifestyle worked for me. That’s what I needed to do. I know incredible writers who never left academia—went straight from undergrad to MFA to PhD to a tenure-track position. That’s what they needed to do. I do think surrendering to whimsy is important, but such whimsy manifests itself in myriad ways for myriad people.

SR: I noticed that comments about your books by poets such as Norman Dubie and Cynthia Hogue are quoted on your website. Did you work with them during your time in the MFA program at ASU and if so how do you feel that they have influenced your writing?

MGF: Yeah, I worked with Norman and Cynthia, also Beckian, Jeannine, Alberto—all of whom were fabulous and influential. I love Norman’s poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, generosity of spirit, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how some of his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes,” which is, of course, a joke, I think. This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this.  It ends:

 In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,

And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf.  What
I want to know of my government is

Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?

Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed and embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often an exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence.

Cynthia’s work taught me to stay in one place, poetically-speaking, for a while, to allow the poem to become itself. To keep looking at the thing again and again and again—to micro-examine the thing via various contexts and lenses, and then, just when you think you’ve got it, to turn away from the thing, to stare into the opposite direction, and then to describe what you see there. This sort of technique allowed me, in a thematically-linked book like The Morrow Plots especially, a fulcrum to which subsequent poems could attach like burrs, and spin.

SR: Was The Morrow Plots the original title for the poem? And if so, did it come naturally? What made you choose it as the title for the entire collection?

MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Yeah: holy, even. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Upon researching old newspaper articles from the ’20s and ’30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-in Volcano that winter. So yes, this obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.

SR: In The Morrow Plots there is an enchanting set of lines that I am curious about. “…The book opening/to your knees/explodes with border scenes—/skeletal fish becoming women/with piñata faces.” The imagery and the musicality are beautiful. Where did your inspiration for these lines come from?

MGF: Firstly, thank you! When I was long ago an undergraduate at The University of Illinois, I used to sneak into Lincoln Hall at night. I was taking a Biology course from this guy George Kieffer—this wonderful old madman on the cusp of retirement who would run around his lecture stage, waving his hands and screaming about having found dead bodies in the nearby Boneyard Creek. He would triumphantly howl, to his teenage and twentysomething students, “You’re all headed toward Max S [the end stage of entropy], Max S! That’s when you’re dead!”

It was one of those buildings that had locked behind Plexiglas cases all sorts of wrinkled beasts pickled in jars of alcohol. I remember halls of fetal pigs, halls of snakes—both of which are good for poetry, of course.

So I would sneak in there at night, climb to the top floor, exit a window, and sit on the roof’s ledge overlooking the center of campus. Sections of the roof were made of copper and were beginning to green. I would often write up there, read up there by a pocket flashlight. From that vantage, The Morrow Plots were visible. I have this memory—fabricated or real, I can’t tell—of sitting up there, watching the stars or some other youthful romantic shit, with two books open on my lap: a biology textbook, and a glossy book of old Mexican movie posters.  One book on each thigh. I’m trying to hold them both open, while also trying to not fall off the roof. The stars. The Plots. In the biology book, I remember some anatomical cross-section of a cod or something. In the second, an image of the second. Honestly, I don’t know if this is true or not, but this memory, when coupled with the violent history of The Morrow Plots, served to inspire this line, and this poem. The poem struggles, I think, to make all of these odd histories gel with the images that attend them. Struggles to deal with the ways in which height and distance both reveal and obscure. And how everything on earth is, of course, magnificent, terrible, and indistinct from a rooftop.

SR: Is there a particular poem or poet that first provided inspiration for your stylistic choices as a writer?

MGF: The poet Mike Madonick was the first poet who taught me that the muse occurs during the writing process, and not beforehand. That, to write a poem, in his words, is like, “[being] a dog let loose in a field, you pick up scents, another dog perhaps, a pheasant, or the quick motion of a grasshopper turns your head, and then your owner calls, you scramble back or you want to run or you just stand there and cock your head, look at him because you’re puzzled about the strange demand he’s put on you, as if he owned you.”

I was lucky enough to have Mike as a teacher, and am lucky enough to have him as a friend. I remember, as an undergrad, I declared a psychology major. Then, I took my very first poetry workshop with Mike, and he said something as simple as, “Poets are fucked-up people, generally,” and I rushed out of class and switched my major to Creative Writing, as if Madonick had given me some sort of permission to be my dumbass self, and to do the dumbass things I wanted to do.

SR: What advice do you have for writers with an interest in travelling and/or cuisine as subject matter for their work?

MGF: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while. Make it so. Create a little nightstand in the corner with a stack of books you plan on reading, and your notebook. Keep your watch, glasses and lantern on it, each in their own little spot.

Remember how when you were five, the optometrist told your mother in front of you that you’d be blind by age 30. Remember how you used to walk around your parents’ house at night, feeling your way in the darkness, practicing for blindness. Remember bumping into your dad’s collection of antique metal Coca-Cola trays. Remember the loudness. Finger your glasses on that makeshift nightstand in the tent—see in them, and your (however limited) retention of your sight, a lovely Fuck You to that optometrist’s version of fate. Contemplate fate, and other such nebulous things, no further. Go to sleep and dream about pasta.

If camping along the ski valley road in Taos, New Mexico, bring your own toilet paper, lest you want to succumb to the discarded Subway napkins the guy the next site over push-pinned to the pit toilet wall.

When camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, listen at night to the hippos laughing.  Take notes in vocables.

Camp at Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park in mid-September. Wake up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis dancing pink and green over the mountain. Write a horrible poem about it. Revise it into a better poem, but realize it’s still horrible. Write a new poem. Put an oyster in it.

In a pinch, when preparing ramen noodles over a propane camp-stove, choose the pork flavor; boil the noodles in half-water, half-pineapple juice. Contemplate the illusory makeup of gourmet. Remember: ratio is everything. Two cans of Stagg Chili + one can of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash = tolerable high-calorie meal.  One can of Stagg Chili + two cans of Corned Beef Hash = digestive demoralization from the throat on down—this is a ratio that may cause you to abandon your current course, flee the woods, get on the first plane to Paris, and have a vegetarian dinner at L’Arpege. After that, think differently about the tomato.

Meet your spouse in a Latin jazz bar on one island or another—one that you previously defined as fickle. Propose to her at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Do this realizing that you are surrounded by nuclear test sites. Do this realizing that nearby Arco was the first town in the U.S. to be lit by atomic power. Do this realizing that you are camping on the rocks on which the astronauts practiced for moon landings.

No matter where you are, surrender to the street food, even though it will make you sick.

Guest Post, Lori Brack: On Completeness

Contributor Guest Post: Lori Brack

In the midst of things, at the between of things, I wonder why I ever believe in completeness. Again, my plans for a project, my idea that I can predict how I will approach something, my faith that these things are manageable – all slide away.

Without meaning to, with other things to do and books to read piled around me, I began reading Ernesto Pujol’s new book Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as Performance Practice. On that rainy gray morning I read it until I had to stop on page 49. I stopped because every page calls me to write and write in response, in collaboration, in imitation. I have fallen into the trance of a voice, a mind, a generosity. Pujol’s writing is doing that thing to me that is the reason I go to art: he is writing things I have guessed, have intimated, have intuited, have maybe even known, but never articulated. So reading feels like coming to myself even while I am reading the inner and outer life of someone quite unlike me.

I want to write and write. I want to quote and quote. I want to ask and ask: Must I “finish” in order to respond? Must I get all the way to the end – of the book, the day, the job, the semester, the life – in order to be moved, to know something? Here is Ernesto on his work as a visual and performance artist: “It takes a passage of time, sometimes a lifetime, for an art practice to mature, to know itself, to reveal its secret depths and complexities. . .” So Ernesto answers me, perhaps. The ends of things, or maybe the pauses between things, bring maturity, knowing, revelation. Every page is a revelation. Every page ends and then goes on as my hands turn and turn, my eyes leap and shift, wet orbs of light and reading.

I have known Ernesto for a little more than 10 years. We have collaborated on two projects – an exhibition and a work of performance – in that time. His Field School Project published my first chapbook in 2010. He commissioned the work as a script for Farmers Dream, an all-night performance in a warehouse in central Kansas. My long poem is a partial, unfinished and unfinishable memoir of a span of difficult months in my life when I turned to the work that Ernesto envisioned. I hoped the project might save me. I used the assignment as an opportunity for reading and re-reading my grandfather’s farming journal. He wrote his daily activities, the weather, his goings out and comings back in the same big book each day from 1907 when he was a bachelor at 19, until he was a married 30-year-old father of two in 1918. My mother would be born in 1925, by which year he no longer wrote every day. On March 9, 1912, he wrote “Cut wood in morning. Shoveled sand out of river in afternoon. Went after milk. Spotted heifer (Star) was fresh about 4 p.m. Milked cows. Clipped my hair at night.” He recorded the middles of things – chores that need doing and then redoing because of the fecundity of nature.

I did not meet this grandfather who worked with his hands and back, who supported the people I grew up knowing best – my mother and her sisters. He died when my mother was 13. I have a photograph of her, freckles over her nose, sitting with her mother on the still-humped grave on his birthday in August 1938. In 2001, she would die on the same date, long past knowing the calendar in her illness, living the last weeks of her life entirely in the bed her parents had bought and used a lifetime earlier. When I visit my sister, I sleep in that bed. I am not finished sleeping yet. It is not only the photograph or the smooth wood of the headboard and footboard that know.

Ernesto writes, “You are dead. You are reading this, but you are dead. You died long ago, but you are being remembered. A child is remembering you.” In those sentences I become the girl at her father’s grave, I become her father I know only through his handwriting, I become my 75-year-old mother at her death; I become myself.

The grave is so new that only a temporary marker, a round metal sign with letters pushed into slots, leans a bit in the foreground. Toward me. I can almost make out his name and the single date, but I am imagining into the picture, doing what I do best: reading through a lens of what reading suggests I understand. Already, stopped only at page 49, I flip back through Ernesto’s book looking for what I think is there. Are the words printed or are they the ones I put there as a reader, as a writer?

When Ernesto was small, he writes in the first paragraph of Chapter One, he was able to make it rain, his favorite weather, “a child of the shade, moist moss and wet ferns.” How often have I written about that shade? Mine was Midwestern, shaggy elm tree and shrub shade of back yards. His was tropical island shade, fronds and leaves. In our separate and still lived lives, we share greengray timelessness, when morning and afternoon almost all the way to night cast the same light. Under the rough spreading bushes of the back yard, I planted my first seeds – black grenade shapes of four-o-clocks also called mirabilis (amazing, wondrous), which opened in late afternoon shadows when the temperature dropped and the soil went cool against bare feet.

I will go on reading this gentle book past the page, each page where I stop. I will go on writing it as a reader writes, incompletely and through the half-illuminating, half-blinding lenses of my experience. I write from a dim room where I am comforted by the scents of moss and milk. Writing and reading as a writer are the ways I know to re-enter that room and when I find a book like Ernesto’s, that miracle in my hands, it helps me through the doorway and I am t/here.

Ernesto Pujol’s memoir/performance text is available through McNally Jackson Books, New York.

Meet The Interns: Madeline Beach

Madeline Beach is currently completing her final semester hours to earn the designation of a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. At this time, Madeline is professionally working as a technical writer and enjoys seeing the worlds of technology and literacy work together in tandem, in both professional and academic settings. This is Madeline’s second semester with Superstition Review as she enjoys being closely involved with the ever-growing revolution of online publishing.

Superstition Review: What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?

Madeline Beach: Currently I hold the position of Content Coordinator. My responsibilities include receiving and tracking all submissions received as a part of our open submission period.

SR: Why did you decide to get involved with Superstition Review?

MB: I first learned about Superstition Review when I took a course led by the journal’s Managing Editor Trish Murphy. The course involved researching and studying Literary Magazines, so I felt the best next step was to become familiar with the publication process. After having interned last semester, I felt that continuing to gain experience in online publishing would prove invaluable to my future career endeavors.

SR: Besides interning for Superstition Review, how do you spend your time?

MB: Currently, I work full-time as a Project Administrator at a large financial company. After my workday ends, I rush home to begin my schoolwork. In the spare time I have, I write short essays for practice, perfecting my skills as a writer.

SR: What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?

MB: I think it would great to gain experience in the actual web design process of online publishing.

SR: Describe one of your favorite literary works.

MB: My favorite literary work, which as written by Tammy Delatorre, is titled Gifts from my Mother. The piece is a cynical coming of age tales that describes the “gifts” a young girl receives from her mother. At night the narrator’s mother leaves her young daughter in the car while she frequents the local bar. The mother brings her daughter the parasols and olives from her drinks at the bar, which the daughter sarcastically remarks as being so thoughtful. I like the feel of the story because it is dark and poignant, telling the short story of a young girl’s experience of her mother.

SR: What are you currently reading?

MB: I have recently begun to re-read 1984, by George Orwell. A co-worker and I were discussing the film and I felt the urge to read the book again to better familiarize with the details.

SR: Creatively, what are you currently working on?

MB: I am currently finishing a piece of creative non-fiction, detailing my experience of my father’s untimely death and how I felt caring for him at a young age.

SR: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

MB: I see myself as a leader within my employer’s brand management services division, editing work that is submitted for approval, prior to publication.