Poetry of Place and Making a Place for Poetry: An Interview with Matthew Thorburn

ThorburnMatthewPhotoMatthew Thorburn’s A Green River in Spring is the winner of the 2014 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Prize. Inspired by various classical Japanese and Chinese poets, such as Wang Wei, many of the poems offer beautiful descriptions of nature: “The birds wing their way south. They take/ the sky with them, each black scrap” (from “Birds Before Winter”). Staying rooted in the natural world, Thorburn weaves images of Chinese landscapes together with fantastical scenes, such as Taoists either becoming cranes or riding them to heaven. The author of three full-length books of poetry—This Time Tomorrow, Every Possible Blue and Subject to Change—as well as another chapbook, Disappears in the Rain, Thorburn is particularly influenced by travel—especially to Japan, China, and Iceland. He is currently at work on a book-length poem, Dear Almost, which will be published later this year. In April 2014, he started a series of author interviews called What Are You Reading? on his website. Starting in December 2014, those interviews have been regularly featured on the Ploughshares blog. When Thorburn isn’t writing, he works as a communications manager at an international law firm. He resides in New York City with his wife and son.

Thorburn and I exchanged questions over email and covered topics as diverse as what it’s like working on a collaborative poem, making time for writing, and the importance of place in poetry.

So much of your poetry seems connected to specific places. While this book seems to be rooted in China, it seems like Japan and Iceland are also important places to you. I read in an article from The Riverdale Press that a poetry project your high school class took part in with a class from Japan was an important experience for you as a poet. What inspires you to set your poetry in such different landscapes? What is it about these countries that appeals to you?

I appreciate you noticing that. You’re right: a sense of place is very important to me, as both a writer and a reader. I like to feel grounded, to know where things are happening in a poem. That’s something I’m drawn to in the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney, two of my favorites—the feeling that the emotions and events of these poems are occurring in very particular places and times. In my case, China, Iceland and Japan are three places I’ve been fortunate to get to visit—and places that I just kept thinking about after I’d come home. The poems in my most recent book, This Time Tomorrow, all take place in those three countries—and my next book, a long poem called Dear Almost that will be published later this year, returns to Japan as well.

Writing about these places is a way of getting to go back to revisit them in my memory and imagination. I guess I’m fascinated by the differences between places, whether it’s the landscape or (even more interesting to me) the culture: how people do things or what they call things in one place versus another, how something can have very different meanings in different cultures—the way white is the color of bridal dresses in the U.S., for instance, but is associated with death in China.

ThorburnMatthewBookThe acknowledgements section of A Green River in Spring credits the ideas for some of these poems to reading classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Who are some of the poets that have influenced you the most? What are some of your favorite translations and what do you think makes one translation better than another?

I’m strictly an amateur when it comes to reading Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation, since I don’t know either language, so for me the best translation is simply one that’s a compelling poem in English. I first read the Essential Haiku anthology, edited by Robert Hass, as a college student, and it’s still one of my favorite books. I love those versions of poems by Basho, Buson and Issa—their immediacy and specificity, the tenderness and humor, their attention to the changes in the seasons, and the way those poems just keep echoing outward after you read them. All those qualities keep me coming back to these poems, and are things I try to emulate in my own writing. More recently, I happily spent many hours working my way through David Hinton’s massive anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry, reading his versions of favorites of mine like Wang Wei, as well as “discovering” many wonderful poets who were new to me, like Meng Hao-jan.

Did you start reading Chinese and Japanese poems in translation before going abroad for the first time? Has visiting these places changed how you visualize and understand the poems at all?

Yes I did, but no it hasn’t. I think the first Chinese poem in translation I ever read was probably Pound’s version of “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” That was in high school. (If you’re interested, I talked about that reading experience in this essay on classical Chinese poetry.) I later learned that is not actually a very good translation, if you define “translation” at all strictly, but as a poem in English it got me hooked. The very limited time I’ve had the chance to spend in Japan and China didn’t really change my relationship with those classical poems—though it made me more interested in reading contemporary writing from or about these two countries.

I found your recurring themes of winter, snow, and whiteness, such as “Color of death,/ forgetting, of snow drifting down like sheets that cover each/ table and chair” from “Before the First Black Horse,” to be incredibly striking. I also noticed, to a lesser extent, that singing seems to be a subtler recurring theme in A Green River in Spring. In “Before the First Black Horse,” both the speaker and Lao Wen sing, and the reader is advised not to come back in their next life as a stork, since storks cannot sing. Although there’s no singing in it, you have a poem called “Song” in which the speaker requests a piano be rolled out. What was it that inspired you to include these references to song and singing? What connection do you see between singing and poetry?

I appreciate you noticing these things. I think it’s natural for me to write about singing and songs because I’m always interested in how my words and lines sound, and I try to play with all the ways phrasing and punctuation and line breaks can work together to create a certain rhythm and give a poem a song-like quality. For years, I did almost all my revising out loud—and sometimes drafted poems aloud, using a digital recorder—though lately I do much of my revising on my subway commute to and from work, or during my lunch hour, which makes it harder to do this without seeming like a crazy person.

Do you feel like editing while on the subway or during your lunch break makes the editing process more difficult or stifles it in any way?

Well, it means working in shorter bursts of time, but as I get older I tend to think I work better when time is limited. It helps me focus in a useful way. As I mentioned above, though, working in these situations also means not revising out loud—or at least revising out loud very quietly to myself. I guess if you really want to write, then you find a time and place when you can write. Mine don’t seem ideal, I know, though it’s a nice feeling to walk down Park Avenue and pass the plaza where I often sat over the past couple of years, writing and rewriting Dear Almost.

Who or what inspired you to include the character Lao Wen in A Green River in Spring? Can you tell me a bit about him?

Lao Wen is an old crazy-wise poet figure I made up. (“Lao” means old in Mandarin.) As I was working on some of these poems, I sometimes felt that a particular thought should be voiced by someone other than the speaker—that it would be interesting (to me, at least) to have this sense of overhearing part of a conversation in some of the poems. And as I was figuring out the shape and sequence of this chapbook manuscript, I realized that having him appear in several of the poems was also a way to help tie the poems together and reinforce the sense that they’re all happening in the same (imagined) time and place. Lao Wen also makes a brief appearance in Dear Almost, which quotes two of his poems.

The tagline of your website is “Mostly poems, a little prose …” I notice all of your published books are poetry, so that seems to be your favorite form. What draws you to one form over the other? Do you have any plans for any works of prose, such as a collection of essays, memoir, or novel?

Yes, poetry is my bread and butter. The little bit of prose I write is mostly in service of poetry: book reviews and the occasional essay to help spread the word about books I’ve enjoyed and think more people ought to read. I’ve contributed reviews to Pleiades for a few years now, and more recently I’ve been putting together monthly interviews for the Ploughshares blog, which give me another way to tell people about writers and books I’ve enjoyed reading.

My next book, Dear Almost, is a book-length poem that takes place over the course of a year, from one spring to the next. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to writing a novel.

You’ve published both full-length poetry books and chapbooks. How and when do you know whether what you’re working on will end up as a chapbook or full-length book of poetry?

My previous chapbook, Disappears in the Rain, was a single long poem, so A Green River in Spring is really the first time I’ve worked with a chapbook-length selection of poems, rather than a book manuscript. In fact, I originally approached these poems as one section of a book manuscript I was trying to assemble, but then decided they made more sense as their own smaller stand-alone manuscript. That’s partly because I drafted about half of them in a period of a few weeks—my last burst of new writing before my son was born.

Once I put this one together, though, I realized how much I like this format—thinking in this smaller, tighter frame of 10 or 20 poems. I like that brief, concentrated focus; the chapbook form seems fleeter, compared to the long journey of a book. I also really admire the beautiful small press production of so many of the chapbooks I read these days. In our digital world, I love that so many chapbooks are these wonderful handmade artifacts.

You went to The New School in New York after attending University of Michigan for your undergraduate studies. What drew you to The New School for your MFA? How did your time there affect your writing?

What drew me to The New School most of all is that it’s located in New York City. Thylias Moss, one of my teachers at Michigan, advised me to apply to MFA programs in places where I knew I would want to live—so that, however good or bad the MFA turned out, I would at least be in a place I liked. And more than 15 years later, I’m still right here in New York.

While at The New School, I had the chance to study with Jason Shinder, David Trinidad, David Lehman and the amazing Laurie Sheck—all wonderful teachers. I remember going to so many readings, and reading lots of books of poems—really just taking it all in during those two years, and for years after. In some ways I’m still realizing just how much I learned during that time. I think it can be harder to create a lasting sense of community when you go to an MFA program in a big city, since everyone—the teachers especially, but also the students—has a lot of other commitments and things going on beyond the MFA program, but I was lucky to make some lasting friendships there as well.

You wrote a collaborative poem with Amanda Deutch. What was the writing process like? How did it differ from your typical writing process?

Yes, Amanda and I wrote a poem together last year as part of the festivities for the Center for Book Arts’ 40th anniversary. Sharon Dolin, who directs the Center’s poetry programs, invited all of the poets who had curated readings there over the years to join in writing collaborative poems to mark the occasion, which we’d read at a series of events during the year. We were paired up, for the most part with someone we didn’t know, and turned loose to write our poems.

This was a little nerve-wracking at first. I’d really never written a poem with someone else before, had never met Amanda, and we only had a couple months to finish our poem. Plus our poem would be produced as a letterpress broadside and we had to read it to an audience—so it better be good! But when offered an opportunity like this, you should never say no. And in fact it was fun—due more than anything to the fact that Amanda was a wonderful person to collaborate with.

We met once to talk over coffee, then went to one of the first readings in the series, so we could hear how two other pairs of poets—Marcella Durand and Rachel Levitsky, and Thomas Sayers Ellis and Rodrigo Toscano—approached this challenge. After that, we wrote the poem over email. We each came up with some lines, then traded and added new lines between the original lines. Actually, we wrote several poems this way, then chose our favorite for the broadside.

You have a son and work as a communications manager for an international law firm. How do you make the time to write?

I remember the poet and translator Jonathan Mayhew once said he wouldn’t want to do a residency at a writers’ retreat because he felt poems should be written in “stolen time”—time when you’re supposed to be doing something else. That has always resonated with me, though I guess I tend to operate more in what I’d call “in-between time”: my train ride between home and work, for example, or my lunch hour between mornings and afternoons at the office. A poem is eminently portable, usually just a sheet or two of paper, and once I have something started I often carry a copy of the latest draft folded up in my pocket (and will have at least some of its lines percolating in the back of my mind)—or keep a print-out of a book manuscript, if I’m in that part of the process, always in my briefcase.

More recently, I’ve done some drafting and revising during the first hour of my day, when my wife has already headed off to work and my son is still asleep. That dark, quiet time—say, six to seven a.m.—can be the very best hour to write, if you can manage it. After that, whatever else may happen in your day, good or bad, you’ve already accomplished something meaningful.

Speaking of in-between time, I also find trains are actually great places to work. I’m a huge fan of Amtrak’s quiet car and my fellow passengers who so vigilantly preserve that quiet. I did my final read-through of the galleys of my second book, Every Possible Blue, one morning on the train from New York to Boston. More recently, I worked through edits on Dear Almost during a train ride home from Washington, D.C. I sometimes daydream about taking a day off just to ride the train to Boston and back, so I could work on poems for eight hours, with a break in the middle for lunch at Umbria Prime!

Since you run an interview series on Emerson’s Ploughshares blog called “What Are You Reading?,” I naturally want to ask––what are you reading?

I tend to spend much of my reading time keeping up with my magazine and journal subscriptions, but lately I’ve been enjoying some terrific novels. I recently read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and just this morning finished Susan Barker’s The Incarnations. Both are captivating, moving books. I was especially sorry to see Barker’s book end. It’s a vivid, whirlwind tour through China’s history and a page-turner mystery all in one. On the poetry side, those Ploughshares interviews make a good checklist of some of my favorite reading from the past year. And up next I’m reading an anthology of flash fiction I signed on to review for a journal.

—interview by Jessie Serfilipi

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This entry was posted in Interviews on February 5, 2016