These days the closest I come to playing is the all-day Wiffle Ball matches with my best friend Neil.
I don’t see a lot of connections between the game and poetry, but there is something from playing I’ve applied to my poetry—work ethic. Now, anyone that’s known me since childhood knows that because of my lack of work ethic, I realistically blew a honest shot at playing ball for a lot longer than I did. But that doesn’t mean that I was encouraged to be lazy. It’s the opposite; I was ingrained with cliché’s about hard work and its relationship to success. One of my dad’s clichés, which I then hated but now revere, is about the only guarantee in all of sports (or life): that you can work harder than anyone else. That’s it. I’m sure Donnie Baseball knows some version of this same creed. Good old utilitarian, working-class values. At one point, I quit applying this to baseball. People said I just “quit,” but the truth is, I started writing. And when I began writing, I applied those ethics to my approach to poetry.
Another connection is about visualization. When I was playing summer ball, probably about 18 or 19 years old, I was given a book called The Mental Game of Baseball. Essentially, the book was about the power of one’s mind to influence the outcome of their actions. The book preaches the importance of approaching (game) situations with a positive attitude. And anyone who’s played a sport knows thinking about game situations requires visualization, imagination. Through the imagination, I could react exactly the way I wanted and needed to in order to be successful. In order to be ready, these make-believe situations guided my approach in practice. When those situations arose, I was ready, fluid, and flawless. I was better. In part because of my imagination! At the plate, I’d imagine: if he throws a curve, I’ll wait on it and drive it over the shortstop’s head. If he gives me something hard and inside, I’ll line it right down the first base line. A high school coach, the same who coached my dad and uncle Donnie, who tried to teach me this when I was 14 and 15, would’ve said the difference in that ball being fair or foul was the result of the kind of thinking you were doing at the plate. When working on a poem, a sequence of poems, sending a manuscript into the world, or giving a reading, I apply the same type of seriousness and visualization I learned from baseball.
4. Vernacular plays a strong role in this work. Your ability to move in and out of it is even a subject in the poem “Letter to the Courts.” One of my favorite things about living in the south is the musicality and originality of language usage. How did you decide to write in vernacular for Scuffletown? Did you find doing so made it easier or harder to write these poems?
Vernacular made it easier to create the sense of place. Over the past few years, I’ve learned a lot about the way language insinuates places. Maurice Manning, Seamus Heaney, and Yusef Komunyakaa have taught me that. I love the way diction or an expression can conjure geography. Again, when I think of geography I think of both the physical and psychic. I wanted to use the vernacular because I wanted to validate and celebrate the places—weird and beautiful—I come from. The people shape the land and the land shapes the culture. Our accent, dialect, family expressions, and regional colloquialisms are so deeply tied up in our unique identities, so language validates who we are, and I wanted to celebrate that in this collection.
Also, there is something about truth in the language. I remember Seamus Heaney saying that a poet’s true poetic voice was very close to the poet’s real voice. In other words, it was just as important for me to know the ideal speaker of these poems as it was to know the audience. In creating a sense of place, I knew it was important for the language to fit the geography. If I could do that, the poems would ring true and the place would become illuminated, real.
I realized there was a danger in using the vernacular, too: I was worried that if readers saw that the characters in these poems committed acts of violence that they might assume something like “people who talk that way do those kinds of things.” In other words, that I’d be cultivating a stereotype. So, simulating accent became something to consider. I decided it was important to keep standard spellings for words and aim to imply accent through diction, imagery and situations.
5. Where do you go for inspiration? What activities, writers, places inspire you to create?
Most of my life I’ve gone to the river, the Ohio River, for inspiration. Since I was very young, I’ve gone to that river; I’ve thrown everything I love and hate in that water; I’ve jumped in and begged that water to make me better; I’ve sat and sifted through driftwood collected on its banks after a flood, and lost consecutive hours doing so; I’ve sat and stared at all that water from North Carolina, Virginia, PA, Ohio, and Indiana go downstream while barges churned upstream; I’ve climbed up on Indian mounds and looked down at its oxbows; I grew up drinking that water and eating watermelons that were nourished by that water; I’ve walked thousands of miles along only a few dozen of its total miles. And I’ve walked who knows how far through city streets en route to that river. Most of my life I’ve lived in a city where I can walk all day, which is probably the most inspiring activity for me: walking through town down to the river. Just walking.
Pat Rosal inspires me. I can’t put down one of his collections without having to write a poem. Gerald Stern, Pablo Neruda, Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Etheridge Knight, Robert Hayden, especially Robert Hayden. I read that he aimed to be an African American poet in the same sense that Yeats wanted to be an Irish poet: one that wanted to celebrate and honor his culture but not be absolutely caged in and defined by it. I want to be the same type of Southern poet. Both of these poets are teaching me that now.
6. Where do you go from here? Before Scuffletown, you published a collection of translated Anglo Saxon riddles, which seems on the surface quite a different stripe from these intensely emotional, narrative poems. You seem like a writer who isn’t afraid to chart new territory. Any new work on the horizon for Chris Mattingly? And if so, in what ways can we expect to watch your writing evolve from the work you did on Scuffletown?
I’m deep into a second collection right now. Shorter lyric poems with an implied story, so they’re narrative too, but more meditative, I guess. The book is based on, but not limited to, my experiences working at a needle exchange program in California. I worked in the streets, so it was what we called a “front-line” job, and in those streets I exchanged 12,000-15,000 syringes with intravenous drug-users each month. The manuscript is coming out of that experience.
I also want to write more essays. I like Seamus Heaney’s essays a lot. I think Gerald Stern’s new essays are a real achievement. I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s essays lately and they’ve been blowing my mind. One book of hers in particular, Wanderlust, is a history of walking and I can’t get it out of my hands. Another of her books is called A Field Guide to Getting Lost. My impression is that she starts with an obsession and then explores every facet of it that she can. And the writing is beautiful. It’d be good for me to write prose about some of my obsessions like race, violence, playing ball, weird old family expressions, the river, farming, work, and history.
7. What one piece of advice would you give to any young person starting out who is considering a career as a writer? Are there any survival tips you feel are imperative to your continuing to create good writing?
I really don’t know. I believe that good writers are good readers. I believe that aspiring poets benefit from reading poems very closely, and from reading poems aloud. These are things I learned as an undergraduate and in graduate school. Being a close reader can help show a writer how to use line-breaks effectively, how to compress and expand time, how to use image or metaphor, or how to use music in a way that creates tension between the line and sentences, or any number of elements of craft in a poem. But this is to say nothing of the magic of the poem. We hear musicians say the difference between math and music is what’s in between the notes, what’s in the silence space that makes the music. Well, for me, there is something about what happens, in terms of composition, when I’m not actually writing the poem. So many of my poems happen when I’m working in the garden, taking on a long walk, playing music, or cooking. That’s my process. I can’t sit at the page every day for four hours; I can’t read and dissect a book a week or study essays on craft and realistically expect to achieve good poems. So much happens for my poem when I’m not thinking of the poem, but that’s my process and I have faith in it. So, the advice would be to pay attention and honor the mysterious element that helps you achieve poems.