One on One with Matthew Nienow: An Interview with AJB

AJB: You speak of your tools with a kind of reverence, like you have a deep, personal connection to them. The many “Odes” to particular tools really demonstrates this. Is there a specific tool that you feel particularly connected to? Why?

MN: One of my first tools was a guitar. At 13, I picked up a green Stratocaster imitation and began writing songs the same day. I have now been writing songs for over 20 years. I have many instruments at this point, and all but a couple I received for free or purchased for less than $100. I love them all. The kid-sized classical with the the hole in the back rough-patched with fiberglass, the $40 upright piano in my shop that I have been tuning by hand and ear in my spare time, ukuleles, mandolins, a banjo borrowed from my brother. I sing too and my voice is awakened as instrument.

I also love to cook. I keep my knives sharp and know how to use them. I like simple tools in the kitchen, but I still hold a reverence for them.

The tools in my shop have mostly been acquired through hard work and struggle. Some of my tools are older than me. I first purchased old planes and chisels and refinished them, or used them to construct new tools. I have taken motors apart, replaced belts, rewired equipment and shop, replaced blades, sharped, tuned, adjusted. I ask a lot of my tools and they ask a lot of me. We have to take care of each other. Most of my tools are inherently dangerous. And yet, they allow me to begin to make what first lives in me.

My standards are ridiculously high and I almost never reach them. Though, I’m getting better all the time. I use a wide range of tools every day, from table saws to Japanese pull saws. I do have a few hand tools I reach for most often, but any tool that can help me do the job right is my favorite tool at the time.

With cooking, with music, with any kind of making, there first must be a longing or need to make. Then, the imagination of how. My tools, when I really use them well, become an extension of my imagination. They make the dream possible.

AJB: How would you compare the shaping of a boat to the shaping of a poem?

MN: Both require a strong understanding of the materials essential to the craft (language/wood), knowledge of structure, or shapes (what will make it float, and float well?), and both require patience and revision. Both require sacrifice and imagination. For me, building boats is a part of a long story very much the way poetry is. Both exist to take us beyond where we currently stand, in body and perspective.

AJB: Sons play a major role in the collection. The speaker contemplates being like his father, being his own man, and becoming a new man for his children. For men, would you say there is a need to pass down not only life lessons but some sort of “empire”? How has being a father changed your poetry?

MN: For men of my generation and ilk, I believe there is a need to pass down an empire of love and kindness. We need to shepherd boys into a new kind of manhood. The stereotypes and expectations our society puts out as examples for boys is awful. Our upcoming president is the worst. I think of these things in regards to my sons, to being a father and a son myself. I have failed and yet I do not give up. Poems in the book engage with that part of the journey. I became a father a young age. I wasn’t ready for much of it, as I wasn’t ready for much of myself. But, finding oneself in the middle of a journey suddenly ready for the role isn’t all bad.

I work to be a good father every day and there is often no roadmap for the kind of life we are trying to build. I hope I can give my boys the chance to be part of a new evolution of manhood, where strength doesn’t negate sensitivity and the patriarchy is something from the old world.

Even with these notions in mind, the archetype of the father and son is so elemental and yet so complex and ever-relevant. It is ripe with care and with conflict. I live it and know that it is my most important work.

AJB: In many instances you provide true meaning to the phrase “labor of love”. How would you say forging pieces of wood is like forging a new life into the world?

MN: Both bodies and boats are vessels made to carry something into the world. I think people are much more complex, but I believe wooden boats carry a bit of soul from the former life of the trees they are made with. In this way, the act of making something from wood gives the chance that the object will have a new life, a purpose, a use, a journey. The object may be spoken to, or loved. It may be hurt. It will not last, but will break down and be remembered, or not. That is, if what is made is made with intention and skill—if what is made is beautiful and useful. Firewood is useful, but for only so long. A well-made boat can outlive a man.

AJB: You portray your shop as a sacred place in many of the poems. Is the shop where you feel the most yourself? Have any of the poems in House of Water come to life in the shop?

MN: It is interesting to me how the sacred and religious entered the poems. I grew up going to church every Sunday, but I am no longer religious at all. I think my search for meaning and Truth live in many of my pursuits, but the danger of the shop makes it a direct portal to Truth. The indifference of tools is the indifference of nature. A table saw will take my fingers and keep running. That is a fear-of-God kind of motivation. The shop is also a haven for me and many of the poems in House of Water did in fact come to life in several different shops. I often composed lines or whole poems in my head while working. Even the most mundane tasks can become rich in the context of a larger story.