A Conversation with Matt Rasmussen

Matt Rasmussen - Stephanie Colgan
Matt Rasmussen – Stephanie Colgan

I first read Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture for a class I was taking with Jeffrey McDaniel last semester.  It won the Walt Whitman Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award so it had already been “noticed”, to say the least. Jeff would often ask the class which book we would have chosen if we were a judge and I consistently found myself choosing this book. Perhaps for all the reasons why everyone else noticed it—the language can be sparse and chilling, like the winter landscape of Rasmussen’s home town in Minnesota; yet there is beauty, too. There are lines and phrases that linger in the mind for weeks and months, and though you (the reader) can’t escape the utter sadness of the poems, you can and do also always come back to the skill of the writer.  And, there is unquestionable skill and artistry at work in these poems that operate at some level as elegy, but ultimately resist its closure. So, these were just some of the ideas I had in mind when I had the incredible opportunity to interview Matt this fall.

-Adrianna Robertson, Poetry Staff

Lumina: I’m going to start by unabashedly telling you that I have been obsessed with your book. In terms of poetry/writing, for me this means that I am going back to it all the time—rereading individual poems, combing over sections. When I am feeling uninspired, your book is one I turn to…with this perpetual question of how is he doing that? For me, this question becomes even a bit more specific—personal. I am trying to process a painful time from my past and attempt to make poems. It has become an obsession for me, much like reading your book.

MR: Well, thank you. That’s really an incredible compliment. I hope your own work is going well.

Lumina: It is coming along; thank you. Let’s start with this idea of obsession—did you feel obsessed with the subject of your brother’s suicide when you began writing these poems? To be more specific, did it keep turning up in your poems no matter what you were writing about?

MR: It took me along time to actually write about his suicide. I didn’t write about it for 10 years and it was challenging to write about it, at first (it probably still is). Especially at first, it was difficult to feel like I had a handle on any sort of emotion about his death that could be communicated via a poem. Once I started writing about it, the poems didn’t come quickly. I wrote poems about his suicide for another 10 years before the book was finally finished. I did begin, eventually, to turn toward this subject matter more often, but during the course of writing the book, I didn’t feel like I was just writing poems about his suicide. I was writing poems about many things, but, yes, the subject matter (not necessarily my brother’s suicide specifically) began to “show up” more and more, even when I didn’t think I was writing about it, I often was in some oblique way. (like in a poem such as “And God Said” which isn’t about my brother’s suicide, but features god committing suicide.)

Lumina: I read that you were taking a workshop with Bill Knot when he told you to “write a poem with some personal investment” after remarking that your poems seemed somewhat detached/ impersonal. This, of course, speaks to the difficulty a writer can face when confronting traumatic or painful material. Do you feel that up until that moment (because you have said that his comment propelled you to begin this book) you were avoiding the subject of your brother’s suicide? Did the poem “After Suicide”, which I believe was the first that ended up in Black Aperture, come easily or did you really have to push for it?

MR: I definitely think I was avoiding the subject of my brother’s suicide. I was writing poems concerned with surface ideas only. They seemed to me now like paintings with words. They were packed with images, but were mostly just describing a setting/scene. There was little emotional involvement. I didn’t really have to push for it once I started writing it. I don’t know where the image of him drinking milk that was pouring out of his head came from, but once it appeared in my mind, the poem came pretty easily, if I’m remembering it correctly. I think I can say that it was a poem I didn’t really have to “push for,” as you say, but a poem I had to wait for, so to speak. Once I had that poem written, it gave me the confidence to continue to revisit the subject of my brother’s suicide.

Lumina: I love that you describe it as a poem you had to “wait for” (as opposed to push for) because that implies that the poem had a will of its own—it was going to come forth in its own time, which of course had to be a time in which you were ready for it. Can you talk a bit about what kind of mindset you had to be in to write? Did you have a specific way of channeling the feelings necessary to create poems so brutally honest?

MR: I think it was a process of continually returning to the subject. I’m not sure there was a definable “mindset” that I entered when writing these poems. I wrote them over a long period of time partly because it was a challenge to continually return to his suicide, and partly because I was writing poems about other things at the time. Most of those poems weren’t very good, though, so as my manuscript continued to fill up with poems about my brother’s suicide, I began to focus more and more on this. I realized my poems that weren’t in some way connected to my poems about my brother’s suicide began to not fit into the manuscript.

Lumina: At any point, did you worry about the way the book would be received by family? Friends?

MR: A little bit, I guess, but not much. I think this is because I feel like the book is mostly about my brother and me. It’s not really about our family or his/my/our friends.

Lumina: Do you see Black Aperture as an elegy? Which of course would imply a sort of farewell—but I am interested in the way that you refuse the reader any kind of neat ending. You admit to the antithesis of neat and clean and often offer angry, bitter and sarcastic. Were you hoping to show that grief after suicide needs its own category of elegy?

MR: I didn’t really write it with the intention of it being an extended elegy, but I think it fits into the category of elegy. I don’t think my book really does anything new in terms of elegy, but I did try to work against the idea of “closure.” (See the poem “Aperture” and the title of the collection, as well.)

Lumina: Yes, and this is such an important aspect of the book—that it offers the reader the intimate, though harsh, knowledge that this is not something to which there is resolution. Let’s move on to some of your decisions in terms of the organization and ordering of the poems. Recently, I heard poet Jamaal May talk about “organic ordering” which was described to him by C. Dale Young—it implies that there is a rejection of a more logical grouping of poems in a collection. Would you categorize your ordering as more organic or do you see the poems as being very specifically grouped in their sections?

MR: If I had to define its organizational method, I’d say it is organized “organically” as May describes it here.

Meaning, the book is arranged according to “images, tones, textures, recurring tropes, and other less expected elements” as opposed to being demarcated along what might be considered more “logical lines.” Although, I also feel the poems are all originally linked logically through the themes of suicide/death/grief. It required a more organic form because the poems were already linked (via subject matter, imagery, tone, etc.) in many ways. I would like to mention that Jane Hirshfield, the judge for the 2012 Walt Whitman Award, helped me immensely with the editing and ordering of the book.

Lumina: Along these same lines, the middle section is entirely made up of the poem “Elegy in X Parts”. I am interested in how this poem functions as a break between the other two sections of the book. To me, “Elegy in X Parts” is the most heartbreaking poem (or series of short poems) in a way, because some of the anger/sarcasm that creates “distance” in many of the other poems is absent. Instead, there is a bare sadness and admittance of loss here. Some examples include “I mean, /what’s a little more pain/when pain’s eternal?” or “I see/what’s too awful/to be true…” and “I found a small ring/of your black hair/in the shower.” How do you see this section working and why is it important to the way the collection functions as a whole?

MR: Before I wrote “Elegy in X Parts,” I had a very difficult time finding any sort of order for my manuscript (sections, order, etc.) After it was written, I don’t know; it just seemed like it had to go in the middle. I don’t remember thinking about it much or tinkering with where it should be placed in the manuscript. Once I placed it in the middle of the manuscript, it became much easier for me to discover an order and create definable sections. It is meant to be one poem divided into many sections, each section subtitled “X,” a sort of variable or placeholder. The poem may feature less “anger/sarcasm,” as you say, and attempt to communicate a “bare sadness and admittance of loss,” but I’m not sure I can articulate why that is. I see it as a poem more in the vein of traditional elegy, and thus, it might avoid the anger and sarcasm found in other parts of the book.

Lumina: That’s so interesting that this one poem really became the organizing agent for the entire collection. To slightly change gears, perhaps we can talk a bit about form. With the exception of “The Orange Leaves” which is written in tercets, the entire collection is comprised of poems written in couplets. Can you talk about this formal choice? I saw the decision to have the poems written in couplets, as a representation of the speaker and the brother—was this indeed part of your thinking when making this choice?

MR: That wasn’t really part of my thinking while writing the poems. I think it crossed my mind as I was assessing my poems in manuscript form and noticed many of them, although written in couplets, end with just one line, but it wasn’t a motivating factor in the choice of form. There is a classical form of poetry called the “elegiac couplet,” (a pentameter line followed by a hexameter line). I didn’t really borrow much from the elegiac couplet, other than the fact that most of the poems in Black Aperture are elegies and most are written in couplets.

Lumina: I’m taking a poetry craft class right now which focuses on the way landscape functions in poems. Your poems are so clearly written into a specific natural landscape, which is your home of Minnesota. How would you describe the landscape of your poems and the way that you use landscape? Do you see it as a way to access the subject of your poems or more of an accompaniment to subject? Or neither?

MR: When I first began writing poems they were very much focused on landscape, usually describing some natural scene in a very overwrought way. As a child and later as a young poet, I had practice in the romantic/unromantic perception of the natural world due to the place I grew up in, northern Minnesota, specifically International Falls. I spent a lot of time with my brother in this world. I’ve tried to intertwine the landscape with the subject of my brother’s suicide and certainly borrowed a lot from previous Midwestern poets. In some sense, I do see landscape as part of the subject of the poems instead of just an accompaniment/setting, but I think it depends on the poem.

Lumina: It sounds like writing about landscape in a way channeled the other material—opened you up for the poems about your brother. And, how would you describe your writing practice or routine?

MR: I write very slowly. I have worked on a single poem for years. Most of my first drafts are very wordy, prosey, and long. I then try to boil those early drafts down while adding a few things here and there.

Lumina: That’s a relief to hear because I, too, write very slowly. So, there’s hope that these poems I’ve been writing for years will be finished at some point!

Who would you say has influenced you/your writing?

MR: Everybody? This is an impossible question to answer. The easy answer is my family and friends. They have influenced me the most. I could also include the names of friends and amazing writers and amazing writers who are friends, but I deathly fear leaving someone out.

Lumina: What are you working on now?

MR: More poems. It’s been difficult moving on after writing Black Aperture because of the subject matter and my inability to feel like I’ve said the last thing. I think I felt this before I even finished the book. I’m currently working on elegizing other things.

Lumina: Yes, and of course, there are writers who say that they are always writing about the same thing(s) again and again no matter what. I look forward to your forthcoming poems. What advice would you give to other poets just starting out?

MR: Figure it out yourself. I still haven’t. No, just kidding. I think the best advice is to immerse yourself in the poetry world: read a lot, write a lot, work for a journal, go to readings, have friends you exchange poems with, start a press, etc.  And you have to be extremely resilient.

Lumina: Thank you very much, Matt. And, I look forward to hearing more of your work at the SLC Poetry Festival this spring.

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