Interview With Lucian Mattison

petworth-1Argentinian American poet, Lucian Mattison, was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1987. He is the author of Peregrine Nation (The Broadkill River Press, 2014) which won the 2014 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. His second collection “Reaper’s Milonga” is forthcoming from YesYes Books in the fall of 2017. His poetry has appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Boiler, Everyday Genius, Four Way Review, Hobart, Muzzle, Nashville ReviewPowder KegSpork, Valparaiso Poetry Reviewand other journals. His fiction appears in Per Contra and Fiddleblack, and will soon appear in Nano Fiction. He received his MFA from Old Dominion University in 2015. He is an associate editor for Big Lucks. He currently lives in Arlington, Virginia, and works at The George Washington University. To read more visit Lucianmattison.com

Michelle Bonczek: What poets have influenced you and how?

Lucian Mattison: That’s a large question. I will always mention Pablo Neruda because he is a prime example of making beauty feel effortless. I want my writing to be digestible and open to all readers, but I don’t want to sacrifice beauty and artfulness for that sake. Neruda is someone I keep reading to remind me of that and to guide me. John Berryman also has a big influence on me, not because I think I sound anything like him, but because the Dream Songs was a constant part of my life while I was in grad school. In his work, I admire the extremes, strange syntax, and humor’s role in such sadness. More contemporary people I keep returning to are Ross Gay, Dorriane Laux, Ilya Kaminski, and Patrick Rosal. Also, I cannot leave out my biggest mentors in grad school, Luisa Igloria and Tim Seibles. They really taught me how to be my best self on the page. Recently, I have been reading Yehuda Amichai, Juan Gelman, and Mario Benedetti. I’ve also been working on a translation of a young, Chilean poet into English, so I have become quite close to that work, entitled “Tordo” by Diego Alfaro Palma.

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MB: How did living abroad so much of your life, moving around, affect you as a writer?

LM: Not having a solid home for more than five years at a time really kept me loosed from any normal idea of nationality or patriotism. Argentina is a home because most of my family is there. The United States is a home because I function in this language in my art. I also am very comfortable in the expat community, having been an active part of it when I lived in Singapore and when abroad elsewhere. All of this is tied to a feeling of not belonging anywhere and, at the same time, feeling like you can be anywhere, a kind of pseudo homelessness. So one function of writing is that it can be a way of creating homes out of memory and experience. Part of it comes from the inherent solitude that comes with such movement. You aren’t tied to any one place and people come and go in your life. You do your best to stay in touch with as many of those people as possible, but for the most part, you are operating on your own and adapting as you move forward. Writing is a way of recording growth and human experience in a meaningful way. It also helps to have a constantly changing foreground and background when composing. It enriches the experience of writing and the writing itself.

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MB: I love your phrase “pseudo homelessness.” For many, this is essentially what a writer is—an outsider, an observer, even of the self. Do you identify at all with that idea?

LM: Absolutely, I do. In the case of being in a foreign place, it’s just more overt and obvious, but the observer role in both a personal and public realm is necessary for a writer to access. It is trying your hardest to be objective without actually doing so at all.

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MB: Do you have any writing habits or routines?

LM: I used to have a routine. That’s something I really need to improve on since I left grad school. Having a 9-5 is a bit of a bummer for my writing. I need to block out at least 1-3 hours completely to myself to really get anything done. Luckily, I feel like my writing has gotten better and more efficient when I actually do sit down. I think that is a direct consequence of past routines and I am able to get into a flow state with more ease. It just takes a little while. I used to write every afternoon from 2-5 PM back in Gainesville, between undergrad and grad school. I did over a year abroad, including 8 months in Brazil, where I picked up right where I left off, writing in the early afternoon almost every day. That carried over directly into three years of grad school. I now write mostly after 5 PM or in the morning on the weekends. It’s not really a routine yet, but I’m still trying to figure one out.

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MB: As a writing instructor and poet, I am often asked can people struggling to balance work and family with creativity carve time out to write. Do you have any advice for writers who do have 9-5’s?

LM: As I am still figuring that out myself, nothing concrete yet. I mean, ritual makes habit, and habit trains consciousness. I used to write between 1-4 PM every day from 2012-2015. I was lucky enough to work a bartending job and then be in grad school. My brain became a well-oiled machine. Now, I am trying to figure out a way to carve out time nightly to just sit and be with only myself, and encourage falling into that flow state on a more command-like basis. My other answer is something my current employer might frown upon. I only joke.. kind of.

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MB: Your first collection of poems Peregrine Nation reads very much like a documentary detailing with the political and cultural climates of Brazil and Chile. How much of this is factual? How much imagined? Have you written any non-fiction about your experiences there?

LM: Peregrine Nation was indeed more a poetry of witness kind of book. Although most of the book is factual, I blended fact and fiction in some poems with the purpose of creating a certain mood and emotion. Some of the poems are based out of direct experience and some came from stories I was told by friends, and that’s where the fiction comes in. I took it as a challenge to convey in verse these experiences and stories that made up my perception of the place I was living in. They are based in real places, emotions, and experience, but the frame and characters change. When it comes to poems about my family in Argentina, that stuff is all pretty much non-fiction, and the hypothetical is, of course, hypothetical. Which goes into the next answer about writing non-fiction, I have done so before, but I don’t enjoy it as much. I already get enough of that from poetry. I rather enjoy fiction writing, though. I have been writing short fiction and was fortunate to have a couple of stories published. So I am planning on writing something of greater length in the near future.

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MB: I’m curious…when you listen to friends tell stories, are you listening with a writer’s ear, perked to find entryways into poems or your own fiction? Or is it later, when you come to the page, that these tidbits find their way to your writing?

LM: It’s always later. I may hear something that on the surface sounds grand and exciting and like something worth writing about, but what usually makes it onto the page takes the shape of smaller things, images, or actions.

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MB: On what projects are you currently working?

LM: I was working on shopping my 2nd book around until it just a few days ago it got accepted by YesYes Books. So that’s big news for me! The working title is “Reaper’s Milonga” and it should be released in Fall of 2017 barring any unforeseen setbacks. So now that that’s a done deal, I am now only currently working on a translation of a book of poems by Chilean author, Diego Alfaro Palma. The book is called Tordo or Blackbird. It’s a fascinating book of poems that collides the ecological and urban, and I hope to make it available in English next year sometime. I’m finishing up the translation now and working with the author on finalizing it. Once that’s done, I begin the process of shopping around the manuscript. So if you’re reading this and you’re a publisher looking to pick up a translated book written by a young, award-winning poet shoot me a line. I’m only half joking.
And then of course, because we are an insatiable sort,  I have enough poems to start building book #3, but I won’t start putting that together until book #2 is out. I need to give myself a break I think.

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MB: When you say you need a break, what do you have in mind? Time off from writing?  Do you see a benefit in that?

LM: No. no. Time off from the pressure I put on myself to publish, to submit to prizes, to adjust manuscripts, and to have an active manuscript out. I don’t think it’s laborious to write. On the contrary, I wish I had more time to write because it’s invigorating. (Once again, I hope my employer doesn’t see this) I actually am in the process of figuring out how to save enough money to quit my job and pay rent for 6-8 months in another country and work on the third book of poems and a novella. I just want to be unemployed, or at most very lightly employed, so I can devote unreasonable amounts of time to reading and writing. I feel like my 9-5 has brought upon this looming literary hangover, except I couldn’t be more excited for it to come.

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MB: Congratulations on your new book! Can you tell us what we can expect from Reaper’s Milonga? How is it different than Peregrine Nation? Were you experimenting with any new writing techniques or visions?

LM: Thanks! Yes, it’s quite different from the first book. The first book was more written from a poetry of witness mode, while this new one has moments like that, but is mostly working from other angles. I have a series of poems influenced by Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, some meditative poems, some love poems, but there seems to be an overarching theme of reaching this endpoint of what might be considered untethered youth and tripping over it.

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MB: As the winner of the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize I have to ask, do you enjoy drinking beer? And if so, what are some of your favorites?

LM: If I didn’t enjoy drinking beer, that would have been quite the travesty. I love beer. I used to work as a bartender at a craft beer bar while in undergrad in Gainesville and I worked at a brewery while doing my MFA in Norfolk. I enjoy the work. As for some of my favorites, my standard go to that is widely available most places is Two Hearted Ale. I like most anything Ommegang. I love a good sour– the last sour I really enjoyed was the De Leite Cuvee Mam’zelle. And of course, I love the beers that my friends and former employers at O’Connor Brewery make in Norfolk. They are constantly making exciting new stuff and it also doesn’t hurt that they are good people.

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MB: Just so you know, Two Hearted Ale is brewed by Bell’s Brewery right here in Kalamazoo where Rob and I live. If you are ever in the area let us know and we’ll take you there, as well as to Arcadia and few smaller breweries—Kzoo has many! I, too, have been obsessed with sours. There’s a smaller brewery in town called One Well that just held a Sour Day featuring numerous brews. What a great time for beer drinkers to be alive!

Say there’s a person out there who has never drank a beer or read a book of poetry but who was looking to start, what would you tell them drink and read?

LM: A book of poetry for someone starting out: honestly, anything by Ross Gay. His poetry is brimming with image and beauty, and is never so dense that it keeps you out. Also, I think it’s important to stress the immediacy and currency of poetry. As a new writer it’s important to read active writers just as much as classic ones. So take for example, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, and in that spirit, visit the closest brewery to you, fill a growler with whatever is seasonal, and read it in your backyard or on a balcony on a particularly nice day. You’ll thank yourself.

 

Read Lucian’s prize winning poems here.

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