The freewheelin’ Matt Jasper waxes on his BlazeVOX collection Moth Moon, reveals that there is an “irresistible force emanating” from Charles Simic, shares tips on fatherhood, and names his literary cousins.
Wings and flight (ascent and descent) are prevailing images in Moth Moon (the first poem "Flight", “One”, “Fusillade”, the title poem of the collection, and “Vow”, which I really admire). How consciously were these images selected/pursued?
I am almost incapable of conscious pursuit. Anything I write that’s any good is bumbled into in life or daydream and then either lingers as an obsession or sublimates into mist within the evaporation chamber of my head. I record hundreds of pages of seismographic nonsense and then dive into the maybe one percent of it that is capable of coming together from the far reaches.
For me, flight can mean transition from a corporeality that seems to imprison toward a spirit that is free to act even when at odds with physical circumstance. I guess I just bastardized Roethke’s lines: “What's madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?”
I often think of flight from the literal facts of the world toward an internalization one can escape into and therefore avoid that set of reasonable standards one must adopt. I am definitely substandard—plywood decking, wheels that roll away from rusted chassis when kicked, a brain that should have mental shelves yet instead has belts conveying movement to all that is supposedly fixed. There’s no way for me to succeed at anything unless I kick over the game table and invent my own microscopic strategies and amusements.
I’m glad you mentioned both ascent and descent. They race one another to try to balance ounces of spirit with pounds of flesh. I often see ascent as a flight into perhaps initially solitary heights that are then chorused into many and one by the perspective attained by soaring away from multiplicities that shrink into distant dots as in the poems Shelley and One.
A lofty expansion of consciousness can occur for me just as attractively in the form of a flight terminating in wreckage scattered across a landscape. The flash of airborne insight is often the same to me as an explosion of impact upon the ground. Such unity and terror can only exist at their extremes in some momentary state within most individuals before the barriers collapse. Beyond them lie shock and rapture. In less extreme states, the spirit may lustily veer toward some fine other—as in Vow—yet usually the transaction is darker—more the big death than the little one. I’m fascinated by those flights from reason undertaken (pun intended) in maladaptive defense mechanisms such as those employed by schizophrenics who define themselves as dead in order to become impervious to their fears of dying. This ultimate and desperate form of defense is not much different than Rilke’s advice to “be ahead of all parting.” If you’re dead (in this case, dead while alive), you’re beyond parting alright. I’m interested in that sort of odd unified indestructible deadness that helps create the radical freedoms enjoyed by both schizophrenia and poetry.
In another aeronautical (in that, like Vow, it contains an airplane) prose poem called Because of These Things, the speaker mourns the loss of manic energy from the vantage point of a depressed or merely normal state. I see flight as ascending to a vantage point that can tie disparate events to provide a sense of perspective and unity such as in the poem Scale—(meant as balance/weight and climber’s ascent to a vantage point) in which I very indirectly attained the height needed to stop obsessing about my personal medical (i.e. malpractice) miseries that nearly killed me six years ago. It was either that poem or buy a Glock and maybe some fertilizer.
At the end of my flight lucubration, I should add that the opening poem of my book is a little poem called Flight. It has lines. They go like this:
In the field, birds rising black against the sun.
You say they are ravens. They should be careful.
If one of them opens its wings too wide
all of the light in the world will be blotted out forever.
The poem literally describes a conversation I had with an institutionalized schizophrenic while we were on a stroll. Whelm turns to overwhelm turns to eternal darkness and silence. It is a clue and warning that the book that follows is all about overreaching—turning the squelch knob, risking madness in the attempt to see something invisible, presenting your enemy’s head on a little crimson pillow to a confused bystander only peripherally involved. One hopes that the bystander will see the head as an invitation to become further implicated, yet there are many readers who haven’t been able to decipher my calligraphy.
I hope I’ve cleared things up.
You and I each have a mess of kids, how does that impact your writing (in terms of process and content)?
God. I have four kids at last count. If only I had some idea of what I keep doing to make this happen, maybe I could stop.
More seriously, I like my kids way more than I like my writing, so I am not one to whine that each child you have means you’ll write one less book. They are absolute joys to be around. I drive them to their little violin and cello and piano lessons and buy them strange books and iPods and boxed sets of Monty Python and good Indian food. They hold up their part of the deal by building elaborate forts, drawing robots, staging mock executions, busking for candy money (a string trio fronted by a fourth who wears a welder’s mask and carries a sign that says “WILL DANCE FOR CASH”), melting crayons on the radiators though I’ve forbidden it.
The process of my writing is impeded yet I enjoy the impediment and try to get around it by rising at 4 a.m. to steal a few hours. I tend to avoid finishing things. I tend to shelve and box incomplete projects that may or may not ever congeal when I join the leisure class. Though I aspire to retirement, I like being busy so the devil will not find my idle hands.
The content of my writing is enriched because I get to document actual events and therefore rip off poems like the one about my daughter Eudora or the one (Tributary) about my baby sons smashing a bunch of ice. I love the sense of attachment to the world having kids has given me. I would have floated away without them.
You studied with Charles Simic at the University of New Hampshire when you were an undergrad. How did he influence you as a poet?
He was remarkably kind and funny. He turned me on to Russell Edson and Vasko Popa and gave me some amazing books I still haven’t returned. He gave me some sort of writing prize, the easiest independent study credits ever, may have helped me get into Grand Street, wrote back that I was “a genius” and that my poems were “incredibly good” when I sent an early version of Moth Moon to him. I’m eternally grateful yet was really eager to avoid being influenced. I could almost feel an irresistible force emanating from him, so I’d step back or slouch and be sure not to make eye contact.
I was closer to an amazing poet named Mekeel McBride who also teaches at UNH. While Charles has a famous blind spot bolted to his forehead, she has eyes that see in all directions. I was eventually frustrated that Simic couldn’t see what I was up to about a third of the time. His soul had selected its society and shut the door. I would hear his comments or read one of his poems and want to shake him and yell STOP BEING CHARLES SIMIC! I would elaborately parody him in a way that he sometimes thought funny yet eventually crossed a line or two. Aside from this frustration and the sad fact that he won a Pulitzer for his worst book, I really like and admire my estranged pal Chuck. Someday I will send a card and flowers to try to patch things up.
You’ve said that in the future you “hope to hire people to write and all of (your) poems”. How dear is that hope and how close are you to making it so?
I have only succeeded (with the help of the friendly people at Noo Journal) in hiring a few people such as Blake Butler, Elisa Gabbert, Tao Lin, and K. Silem Mohammad. Maybe I’m at ten poems now with at least forty to go. Search my name and “bad poetry” and you’ll find a free downloadable ebooklet that epitomizes what I’d like for the full-length project. I’m paying two dollars per poem. Please email poems or topic requests to email@example.com. The poems can be about what a bad person I am, how I done you wrong, or almost anything else. An index will credit individual authors yet I have ownership & share authorship by commission & optional occasional line or edit or topic suggestions (the Noo Journal project contains many lines and topic suggestions from me). People think I’m joking, but I am not. Because I am not prolific and have a heap of kids to distract me, this seems like a reasonable measure.
Final Question: Who are some of your literary cousins?
I am in love with Mary Maclane, Osamu Dazai, Kenneth Patchen, Nathanael West, Gogol, and many others you would expect me to love. I am also gravely obsessed with Horatio Alger. I admire contemporaries such as Gordon Massman, a certain Darcie it would seem suck-upish to mention here, Mekeel McBride, Alice Fogel, Dan Beachy-Quick, Blake Butler, and many others.
I despise Poetry Magazine.
LINKS: NOO Journal Moth Moon Video / BlazeVOX / Amazon / GoodReads