Wednesday, July 7, 2010

#24 - Clay Matthews

How often had you sent out Superfecta before it was chosen for publication by Ghost Road Press?

I’d sent out some version of the manuscript for a couple of years, probably to almost thirty different places. Some contests, some open reads, etc. Got some finalists nods, spent some dough, but nothing happened until I got the good news from the people at Ghost Road.

Tell me about the title. Had it always been Superfecta? What is a Superfecta? And why did you end up deciding that should be the title?

The title had changed a lot. It was Labor Lounge for a while, then Deal Gone Down, then The Deal, and even Psychobilly Cadillac for about two seconds, but none of those titles seemed right. I used to go down to Remington Park in OK City and bet on the horses a lot. Got my mind off grad school and it was a hobby, I guess you could say. Anyway, some of the smaller tracks like Remington allow you to bet a ten-cent superfecta. A superfecta bet is when you pick the first four horses in order. If you picked four horses, and boxed the bet, it cost $2.40 and the horses could finish in any order, so long as you picked the top four. I loved that bet—it was a long shot, but cheap, and would sometimes have really good payouts. I become obsessive about the superfecta bet, and there was a little pizza stand at Remington Park called Superfecta Pizza. One day I was getting a slice of pizza down there, and I saw the book in four sections, each section named after a horse, and it all kind of came together. One of my favorite things was naming the horses: Domingo, Mr. Jones, Countdown, and The Martian. I made all of them up except for Countdown, which was a horse my dad had taken in on trade for about a month. Once Superfecta came to me it just felt right. It sounded good, too.

Though it may be early to ask this question, it seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets without books who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests and open reading periods?

I was. For one, it seemed like the only option for a while. Hardly anybody was reading, and I wanted to get the ms. out. I was also young and foolish and thought that if I got on with a big press, or won a big contest, I’d be famous and make some dough selling books. Ha, ha. Eventually, because I was a grad student and low on funds, and because I was tired of getting letters saying that someone else won this contest or that, and because I realized that poetry lives within a poetry audience, and they don’t care so much about who publishes something, but rather what’s actually published, I started to send to as many open reading publishers as I could, and whose books I enjoyed and liked the quality of. Contests are necessary for a lot of presses, so I’m not hating on them. I was broke. I just wanted people to read the work. I’d published a little chapbook online with Josh Hanson’s End & Shelf Books, and I was amazed at how many notes I got from people. The work was out there. It was free and in the hands of the people. It was being read. That kind of woke me up, and changed how I envisioned my own publication goals. I’m as likely to give a book away as I am to sell one, because in the end it came down to a question of what I wanted the work to be: distinguished or read. I kind of hate distinguished things, anyway, so I tried all options available to get the work out. I hope I’m not sounding holy here. I still send to contests, just as I still send to open reading periods. I send, though, to places where I think my work might fit, places I admire in some fashion or another, and places that spread the word. My advice to people: do what you want to do with your books. Whatever that is. If it’s contests, then send to contests. If it’s self-publishing, then do that. It’s your work, and it’s important to understand how you value it, in all kinds of different ways.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

Lots of versions. Tons of structures, and I don’t know if any of them made any sense. As I mentioned in the earlier question, though, once I got onto the superfecta, it became easier. I had a lot of elegies, so I ended the book with that. Besides that, I just kind of made up some “thematic” categories in my head. I think we probably think about structures of a book more than might be necessary. Ultimately, the poems will speak to each other, and the smaller details of order don’t seem that important to me. I rarely read most books of poetry front to back, anyway. However, different books call for different strategies. My second book, Runoff, is just four long poems. They go in order of the seasons. That one was a breeze to put together.

What about the publication of the actual poems prior to the book being published? Most of the poems have been previously published. Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?

I wanted the poems out there, because I wanted them read. I also thought that having a well-published book might give it more of a chance to get published. Once it was accepted, I kept sending the poems in there out, too, because not everybody is going to buy your book, but if you publish online, or in a journal, or wherever, there’s a greater chance you might find that reader who actually thinks your stuff doesn’t stink.

A few years ago, it seemed like every new issue of a journal had new Clay Matthews poems inside its pages. At what point in your poetic career did you become so prolific, and how do you think this came to be?

Prolific—that’s awesome. Am I prolific? I guess getting a lot of poems out there was a blend of hard work and luck. I was editing for the Cimarron Review, and I tried to trade journals with as many places as possible. In doing this, I was able to read a ton of journals, and I’ve always read as many of the online ones as possible. I sent my work to the places I liked. I used to read journals, front to back, and think to myself, “Everything in there was awful.” Then, the next day, I’d send them a packet, thinking “They’re gonna love this.” Rejection after rejection. It took me a while to realize that not everybody likes the kind of poems I write, just as I don’t like every kind of poem written. I was wasting my time sending to places whose work I didn’t enjoy because our aesthetics were different from the get-go. So I read a lot and sent to the places I liked. I still got rejected a lot, but I kept sending poems out, and sometimes they’d get picked up. I was writing a lot, so I had a lot of stuff out there. I was getting lucky, too.

Many of your poems in the book are often longer than a page. And many of them also employ the use of longer lines. Who are your influences? Were there poets you were primarily reading who helped you develop your writing and, finally, the book?

Whitman, Levis, Schuyler, Levine, Ginsberg, etc. I love long lines. And I love long poems. Something about the momentum they build up that just kills me when they kind of soar off at the end. I think sometimes we get into habits as writers, too. While I was writing a lot of poems for Superfecta, they’d roll along, and then just past one page or so, they’d end. I thought it was natural, but it was something I was drawn to. It became a habit, so my last year at OK St. I spent writing Runoff, a whole year on one poem. After that, I couldn’t write anything less than three pages. So, last spring, here in East TN, I wrote a collection of English sonnets in syllabics. I’m still learning, and I always want to grow as a writer. So, a lot of times I get into a habit, and then try to force myself to break it. I always come back to long poems, though, and longer lines, but I think my tastes are broadening some. I just like things that blow me away with some real emotion humming under language that could break your heart almost all by itself.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?

Not really all that much. I changed some things. I cleaned up some proofreading stuff. I kind of edit a poem obsessively while I’m working on it, and then when it’s done, it’s usually done, and it goes out into the world or into the Microsoft junkyard. The junkyard is an interesting place to go sometimes, and I’ll occasionally find something I like in a clunker and clean it up. But, most of the time, if they didn’t turn over the first time, they’re not going to start running later.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

You know, not much. I remember it came in a box. I opened it, and I thought, Yep, that pretty much looks like I thought it would. Then I went off for a walk or something. I’m not sure. It wasn’t monumental. It felt good. I remember it felt smaller than I thought it would.

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? It’s a photo by Shane Brown, though it seems like it could be a photo somewhere in the south belonging to the lens Wim Wenders or William Eggleston.

Yeah, Shane Brown is great. We’d had him do some covers for the Cimarron Review, and so I already knew I wanted to find something from him. He takes these fantastic pictures of the Mid- and South-west. Heartbreaking, real stuff. It was between the pool hall and this old beater parked in a field. I didn’t even have any pool in the book, which I was surprised about, but the image just resonated, anyway. Go Shane:

How has your life been different since your book came out? Has the job market been easier to crack with a book out?

My life has been different. But life is always different. Because of the book, I’ve met people I never would have met, I’ve got something to pick up and look at sometimes, and I’ve got some closure on a lot of work I did. My life might be completely different if it weren’t for the book. Or the same. Only Robert Frost could tell.

Job market has not been easier. I think there’s a ton of us out there with books, and a lot of people with books that are probably better than mine (though I like my book, too). It’s hard times in the academic world, I think. It’s easy to move tenure jobs into adjunct positions, and it’s easy to fill those adjunct positions with writers like us who have books, because there’s kind of this waiting game to land a good teaching gig. The book does allow me to apply for a lot of jobs that want you to have at least one book. Besides that, though, unless your book won some huge award, from my perspective I don’t see it helping out all that much in the job market. It’s pretty competitive out there.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I tried to do readings wherever I could. I even read with a poetry class over in Tulsa. Wherever people would have me within a reasonable distance, I’d go, or e-mail and ask if they were looking for readers. Online stuff helps, too. There were some nice reviews in places like Coldfront Magazine, and Cutbank, and DIAGRAM, and I’m forever indebted to the people who took the time to do those. Friends posted things on their blogs. Word-of-mouth and readings seem to be the best way to promote books, I’ve found.

What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?

To work even harder at promotion, and don’t be embarrassed about it. It’s easy once the book comes out to say, Okay, it’s out, good deal, so proud, etc. But keep pushing it out into the world. Kick that baby out of the nest.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? I know your second full length collection, Runoff, was released at the end of 2009. How did you end up getting it published by BlazeVOX?

I mentioned some of the differences in an earlier question, but I think in a lot of ways finally publishing Superfecta allowed me to move on, and take some chances on something like Runoff. To be honest, Runoff was such a long and strange and kind of personal book I didn’t know if anybody would care to read it. It’s thick. BlazeVOX was the only place I sent it to because they seem to take chances on oddball books, and, luckily, Geoffrey Gatza picked it up. I couldn’t hardly see anyone else publishing it, so it worked out perfectly.

Tell us about that book. How is it different from Superfecta, and what can readers expect from it?

It’s long, thick, seasonal, moody, journalistic, and documentary. Superfecta was really about the individual poems, put together in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. Runoff for me was more about the poem as this ongoing thing, as life, as the small moments of days and trials and joys and all the strangeness and beauty just sitting around out there. I’ve gotten some good feedback on it. Superfecta is probably more informed and reflective of contemporary poetry and theory, so a lot of my family, for instance, might ask, “What does this mean?” With Runoff, there’s a certain prosy diary quality to it, and even though I thought nobody would ever make it through the whole thing, I’ve already gotten calls and e-mails from friends and family saying how much they liked a certain season, or how much they liked the book in general. I think I’m getting more comfortable writing what I want to write, whereas some of the poems in Superfecta felt like a performance for somebody. I don’t know who. Auden writes about “The Censor” that poets have, and I think as I get older I get to know my censor a little bit better, even if it becomes more demanding. I work hard to remain in touch with the reasons I started writing—because I wanted to say something, because I felt compelled, because I have a lot of junk and don’t know where else to put it. Runoff is probably overkill, and excess, and redundant, but it was a strange and important year for me, and the writing documents that. There’s something perfect for me in writing that engages life on the day-to-day level, the persona of the poet, the people that fill the streets and the back roads and the food we eat and the weather changing and the moon getting full and then thin. That stuff moves me. I want my writing to do something like that to someone else, and so I try. Over and over and over.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

Does Elmer Fudd have trouble with the letter “r”?


Clay Matthews’s first book, Superfecta, is available from Ghost Road Press, and his second, Runoff, was recently released from BlazeVOX Books. He likes to hear from folks. Drop him a line sometime:

  • Visit Clay's blog (where you can view reviews, buy books, and read other poems)