One on One with Matthew Olzmann

AJB: Death is a recurring theme throughout your collection and is also a part of the cycle of life. That in itself could be considered a contradiction. Can you describe the tension between life and death?

MO: Describe the tension life and death! You’re giving me way too much credit if you think I can answer this question!  However, these types of unanswerable questions are often the forces that draw us to poetry in the first place.  As a reader, I first became interested in poems when I began to see them as a way to understand some complicated issues in the world around me.  A poem takes some ephemeral thing, some abstract notion or elusive feeling, and makes it tangible. An elegy, for example, doesn’t just publicize grief; it doesn’t just say “I’m sad.” It gives us a device that allows us to comprehend that concept—and in some ways actually experience it—from the speaker’s perspective.  There are things that we don’t have words for, and the poem creates a metaphor that allows us to access and process and explore those spaces.  It doesn’t necessarily answer any particular question, rather it allows us to experience the mystery on its own terms.

AJB: There are many poems in this collection that are inspired by art: “Replica of the Thinker”, “The Raising of Lazarus”, as well as several poems that are titled, “In the Gallery of. . .” Would you say ekphrastic poetry is a lost art in this digital age, if so, how?

MO: I think ekphrastic poetry is thriving today. Poets have always placed their work in conversation with artists in working in different mediums, and I don’t think this digital age has done a lot to change that. It might change the way we consume, purchase and read poetry—it might make it more accessible—but poets are still writing about the worlds they live in, and that sometimes includes the world of art.  A couple recent books that stand out to me are A. Van Jordan’s The Cineaste, which moves through the world of film, and Jessica Jacob’s wonderful collection Pelvis with Distance, which looks into the life and art of Georgia O’Keefe.

In my own writing, I find it difficult to write about specific works of art. The challenge is to create something that goes beyond the original in some significant way, something that adds to it, or uses the original work create something entirely new.  For me, that often comes in the form of metaphor.  The work of art is placed next to the life of the speaker, and together those two elements combine to create a type of figurative resonance.  However, when I encounter a piece of art that moves me, I usually just want to say, “Hey everybody, look at this! Isn’t this amazing?” But that impulse rarely produces good poems. For this reason, there are far more ekphrastic poems that were left out of this manuscript than included.  And while there are a number of “true” ekphrastic poems in the book (such as those you mentioned), I think there are probably even more “fictional” ekphrastic poems—poems (such as most of the gallery poems) that are responding to museums that don’t actually exist.  For those, I was thinking less about how museums display art, and more about how about how they present ideas and frame specific aspects of history.

AJB: The collection is titled after your poem “Contradiction in the Designs”. It speaks in contradictions and the backward nature of inventors, writers, artists, and points out the irony with each of them. In your own experiences as a writer, what feels most contradictory to you?

MO: One thing that feels contradictory about writing is how it gets more difficult over time.  You would think that as you read and write more poems, your ability as a writer would steadily grow and—gradually—you’d become increasingly satisfied with the poems you produce.  But that’s not exactly how it works.  You might technically be improving. Your poems today might be objectively superior to the ones you wrote last year. But you never feel totally satisfied because your awareness of what is possible in a poem keeps expanding.  As your knowledge broadens, so does your ambition.  You can envision even better poems.  A basketball player might shoot 1000 free throws every day.  With practice, they can see the results of their work and eventually achieve a tangible goal.  For the writer, you can shoot a 1000 free throws every day, but each time you move toward your ultimate goal, the ball gets heavier, the free throw line moves back several feet, and the hoop shrinks by an inch or two.

AJB: This is your second collection with Alice James. What was the writing process like from Mezzanines to Contradictions in the Design and drafts in between?

MO: The writing process between the two books was fairly similar.  In general, I write poems one at a time without thinking a lot about how they’re connected to each other.  Initially, each poem is its own entity; it exists by itself and is not as part of a larger body of poems.  While I might be working on five or six poems at once—all in various stages of revision—it still feels like I’m working on very separate, individual projects. Much later, only after a substantial number of poems have been drafted, I might start to realize some relationships between them (similar thematic concerns, conceits, recurring images) and decide to heighten, complicate, or abandon those elements. I might begin to write toward some of those resonances or look to make their correspondences more pronounced. But early on, it’s always one poem at a time with the hope that some of them will eventually belong in a collection together.

It’s different with the new manuscript I’m working on. For the past three or four years, I’ve been writing a long series of epistolary poems.  While the subject matter might be disparate, the poems all have a formal element that binds them. Being conscious of this as I write—having this acute awareness of how the poem I’m currently working is connected in some way to previous poems—is a new experience for me.  In many ways it’s exciting because I have a specific direction, a path to follow; I have a goal to write something that will fit into particular frame. On the other hand, there are new challenges: trying to create variation among poems that all have a similar approach, or trying find a way to connect poems that are tonally incongruent but placed together because of a predetermined scheme.

AJB: In many of the poems within Contradictions,it’s as if the speaker within the poems is experiencing a stream of consciousness—as if the reader is inside the speaker’s mind and privy to personal thoughts. If we were to tap into your mind, what would be the first thing we’d find?

MO: It’s probably not too different from what you find in the poems. While the persona that speaks in my poems and the persona that I have to live with/as on a daily basis are not identical, there is some overlap. Odd facts, digressions, distractions, the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated anecdotes.  Similar political concerns.  A similar worldview.  Lines of poems. Similar doubts and anxieties.  While a poem’s persona might be a “fictional” offering—a shaped and crafted entity—there’s always some trace elements of the actual poet in there.