“Write exactly what you want to write. Don’t follow fads.”
Mono No Aware (Finishing Line Press, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
This is probably a horrible thing to say for this site, but I don’t read a lot of chapbooks. Whenever I can, I try to get a poet’s collected works, if they’re dead, and if they’re not I’m going to go for the whole lot or the whole big book. Now I do like some shorter collections, and some new work by new writers who are just coming up. Obviously, as a mountain writer, Wendell Berry’s The Country of Marriage. Bianca Lynne Spriggs’ How Swallowtails Become Dragons is good, too. But the truth is most of the new writers I experience I meet or find at readings. In terms of new Appalachian writers, there are some new (and they’re probably going to throttle me for putting a label on them) ecofeminist poets from Kentucky that are great – and great readers: Melissa Helton and Shawna Kay Rodenberg come to mind first. Both have chapbooks coming out soon; Helton’s with the same press (Finishing Line) as mine, actually.
What’s your chapbook about?
At one point I was going to call the thing “More Hillbilly Poems About Flowers And Dead People,” which is probably too close for comfort; but if I had to give it a theme, I would say it’s about working people in the mountains thinking and living out things above the day to day. Some of the poems in the collection are lyric, but others are like little essays or short stories, and the subjects are varied: journalists, septic tank cleaners, musicians, housekeepers, wildflowers, etc.
Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The title poem is mostly based on a real story, and one where my friend, Derrick, told me “this is what you should write about”. It was about 2 AM in July in Grayson County, and I had locked us out of my car at a lake and we were out of phone service, so we had to walk about four miles down the road until we got picked up. The rest of what happens is in the poem, but the whole book I think is based around that idea: write about real things, write about real people—even if you have to make them up.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
There’s no formula. There’s no schedule. There’s no method. I write like everybody, I think, writes now, although not everybody wants to admit it: listening to music on the computer at 11:30 at night, trying and failing to fight the temptation to check in on your Facebook, and guiltily answering student emails about questions they could’ve got from the syllabus. I do have a revision strategy I stole from Darnell Arnoult, called “quilting,” where you build a piece from scraps and sections you don’t try or deliberately intend to compose in an order; instead, you just work where the ground gives most, until, eventually, you have the whole thing done. I also like, to keep on with the domestic metaphors, “grafting,” where you take two pieces that didn’t work and turn the best of each into one piece that does; and I also like what I could call “bread-making,” where you deliberately leave a draft just not quite finished, then start again, and do that over and over again until you have one final finished project (I find that’s a good way for me to balance the writer’s and editor’s tendencies in me.) That said, I don’t have a specific plan, except that I try to read and write often, if not quite every day.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
As far as arrangement, it was pretty utilitarian. The chapbook is bookended, thematically, by two long poems, so I made them first and last. Then I arranged the rest of the poems really just by how they looked on the page. I had a couple of narrative poems in a single block, so I put those together, and a few stanzaed lyric poems, so I put those together. There’s not some magic statement in the ordering (although, in the larger collection I intend these to eventually form part of, there will be).
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I love the cover for my book. The people at Finishing Line make the covers of their books look so professional, which is not always the case with chapbook producers. And what I love about it is that it’s simple: I gave them a few photos I’d taken, they took the one they felt rendered best in black and white, then put just a few works on the cover in a simple – professional – serif font. Most of the work was their’s, but with what they did I’d pretty much trust them to do any cover for any book I made.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Q: I read your book and looked at the author photo and I have fallen in love with you; would you like to go out sometime?
A: Yes! Do you like Indian food?
What are you working on now?
My plan for the summer is try to finish a collection of short stories, a “calender book” of twelve stories about – you guessed it – working class life in Appalachia. I have drafts of most of the pieces finished, but I want to go back and rewrite, rework, and expand most of them—and finish the two or three that just aren’t done yet. I am also nascently beginning what I imagine will be my MFA thesis: a collection of historical poetry about the industrial history of my hometown. As for my finished poems, I have enough at this point for two full length collections and another chapbook, and so right now I’m sending out to magazines and publishers and trying to get as many – and as big – of bites as possible.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
There are two questions to answer here. If you’re a carpenter or engineering student who’s interested in creative writing as a hobby or outlet or serious side work, and you have your day job lined up, then this conversation is easy: read good books and have fun with it. Write exactly what you want to write. Don’t follow fads. Remember that so many of the best and most famous writers had day jobs before or other or above the writing that made them famous. Neruda was a diplomat, Morrison was an editor, Eliot was a bank clerk. Your life, the life of work and working people, is where the material for writing is located. No question, you will face challenges that those of us who are dedicated to teaching and the work of Creative Writing (read: academic Creative Writing) won’t, and you might get pish-poshed by asshats—of which there are many in this field—but history is on your side. To students who are interested in Creative Writing – by which we mean the academy / MFA / adjuncting / the careerist grind / all of that – I would say this: know what you’re getting into before you get in to it. Talk to people. Know that you must do this, that it is at the center of your life’s calling. If it’s not, run in the other direction FAST – you can always read and write, but you shouldn’t have to live with student debt for something that isn’t your truest, purest ambition. I know this all seems very far from creative writing, but there are other places to have the conversation about craft and dedication, interpretive reading and solid writing craft; the truth is, if you are having to have a conversation about writing and reading, if you are wavering or unsure about your commitment to writing and reading, run away. There’s not nearly enough money or security in this field, and too many people are already pursuing it, for you to do it just for the sake of doing it. Know that what you will become, most likely, is a teacher with a specific “research” zone, that essentially creative writing will take the place for you of other teachers’ literary research—and that you may well spend much time as a low-paid adjunct or composition teacher or person doing many or any things besides teaching creative writing. OR, that if you do get an MFA, that your work will very possibly be outside of the academy and outside of creative writing altogether. My program (Virginia Tech), for example, has a solid job placement history for its graduates—it is not, however, sending its writers into tenure-track creative writing teaching positions at other colleges. I think of myself as a teacher before I think of myself as a writer (at least in professional terms); if you’re going to go into the MFA world, what you need to ask yourself: can I see myself, in five years, helping 19 year olds with comma placement? If the answer is no, sit hard with your decision.
What music do you listen to as you work and write?
For this interview, I was switching back and forth between Guy Clark and Rihanna.
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
John McPhee’s Oranges, which I picked up on a whim from a giveaway pile and is now the go-to bathtub/toilet book in my apartment.
If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?
Either a year of high school football, where we spent a week in the woods taming snakes with flashlights and having illegal scrimmages and 2 AM team meetings; or the year in college we spent protesting the administration; or the year when I was a semi-professional political operative and the world’s worst middle school football coach (simultaneously, and with simultaneous defeats).
We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?
I read people whose work has soul, and consequence outside the academy. People who are smart and soulful:
Louise Erdrich, for example, is good beach reading and high-art Pulitzer Prize work. I appreciate writers who can straddle that divide, because it’s hard, and because that’s the kind of writer I want to become. So that’s what I give my attention to. If my work does, or at least will ever come to, have real merit, it will be because it contains that quality, that it can be read by both the recreational reader and the academic reader with equal interest.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Jim Wayne Miller, Robert Bly, Joy Harjo, Coleman Barks, Wang Wei, Sherman Alexie, Seamus Heaney, Nikki Giovanni, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton
Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?
The publisher said yes.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
I use more generative toys and games now that allow me to go into new areas, use new words, and write new things. The teachers I have at Virginia Tech, especially Erika Meitner and Matthew Vollmer, are key on using a number of generative exercises to try and get you out of your comfort zone as a writer, to try and write the things you wouldn’t necessarily write before. I just spent an entire semester, for example, writing microfiction that was directly imitating, or at least speaking back to, books we were reading for Vollmer’s class in fiction craft. I got a lot of material out of that—not all of it usuable, but some of it’s going to be work I continue to work on and add to.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Snow Job”. In a collection of poems that are either contained lyrics or narratives or narrative-meditations, it’s the single outlier: a confessional-meditative poem, not about others, and not about a specific moment. It starts with a meditation on an episode of King of the Hill and goes on to throw in St. Augustine and substitute teaching as themes. It questions the idea of “calling” in my life.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
Foxfire Paperback Sunday
Did you read straight through your chapbook out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
I’m sometimes a better reader and performer of my work than I am a writer, so it’s often helpful for me not to read or perform my works out loud while I’m writing them – unless I’m trying to test their sound or performability – because often I can add in things or smooth over mistakes or gaps with the way I read. I can make sense of something, or add emotional resonance, where there’s really no sense or emotional resonance to be had.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
Non-academics, working people, and people who don’t consider themselves readers or “book-smart”.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
What inspires most writers, I think: sexual frustration, a longing for God, and political rage – in no particular order and often mixed up together.
Matt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Winner of the George Scarbrough Prize for Poetry and the James Still Prize for Short Story, his work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in The American Journal of Poetry, Appalachian Heritage, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Moth, among other publications. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech.
Here is a new one, unpublished.
Delicacy of West Virginia,
the white bread pepperoni roll,
is usually sold in the deli cooler
of small gas stations, usually eaten
unheated, seated in the driver seat,
coming to or from or during work,
as it was made as a daily ration
for the immigrant workers of Italy
in Fairmont for the Depression.
But I am not from Fairmont,
so I toast mine. My guess is
that’s completely wrong;
the way forking a pizza
in New York, or salmoning
fish tacos in Baja, is wrong.
It is diesel bread for diesel
folk (miners, soldiers, farmers),
almost healthy because the fat
will be used up by nightfall.
If one has had to move away
and they’ve come back home,
or if it’s made at home by Dad
or Granny, it’s good, I guess,
to eat one hot, with cold beer.
But Fairmont is not a tourists’ place,
and I eat mine as one,
so what can I really get right
about any edible anthropology
that would essentialize
Kanawha or Jane Lew?