ISBN 978-0-9844961-6-7
64 PAGES
PUB DATE 4.16.2013
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AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Chris Mattingly is the author of Ad Hoc and a collection of translations of Anglo Saxon riddles, A Light for Your Beckon, both from Q Avenue Press. Chris holds an MFA in poetry from Spalding University, cultivates a great big garden, plays the banjo, sometimes travels ridiculous distances for good burgoo and chess pie, and is the eighth-generation Mattingly to live in Kentucky. He currently resides in southeast Georgia where he teaches at East Georgia State College.
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1. We’re always interested to hear “origin stories”­––in other words, how a person comes to the written word as an interest and an occupation. Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up, etc, and how did you come to know that poetry was something you wanted to write?
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I don’t think I came to poetry, or literature, in a very typical way, but that’s not to say that I haven’t had a fascination with things like language, image, and metaphor for as long as I can remember. When I was very young my grandfather used to play a game with us called “Riddly-Riddly-Ree” and I was always so amused with the sound of those words skipping along in my mouth, or hearing them come out of his. When I was young, it was little rhymes like this that would keep me occupied while playing. And I’d say them over and over: “Riddly-riddly-ree, I see something you don’t see, and the color is…”  The words were fun to say, and that fun had made them worth repeating, worth remembering. Another fun rhyme I remember was: “Lincoln, Lincoln I been thinkin’ / What’s that stuff you been drinkin’ / Looks like water tastes like wine / Upon my word it’s turpentine!” Aside from the joy of seeing a revered President so bad off he’s drinking turpentine, the easy rhythmic metrical foot pattern I’d later learn know as “trochee” made the language seem to dance as we’d laugh our way through the lines. Looking back now, what seems important is the phrase “upon my word.” What’s insinuated is the full expression “upon my word and honor,” which makes me think that something as abstract an idea as honor can be propped upon or draped across something as concrete and real as language. When I think of those few words now it’s “upon” that impresses me most. I think of the family expressions, odes, lessons, sermons, and history laid upon the framework of words. All this is to say, that I’ve known for a long time that words have power.
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We didn’t have books in my parent’s house. The closest thing was the check book and paper clip of coupons. Other than the Bible, I can’t remember a single book in my grandparent’s houses either. Nor in any of the houses of the people in my neighborhood as well as in the homes of my closest friends. What we did have a lot of in our house was old Rock n’ Roll records. Through 60’s and 70’s rock music, I was introduced to ideas and words that changed my life. One band in particular, The Doors, single-handedly became my initiation into literature. The first book I ever read (which was in my late teens) was about Jim Morrison. The book, A Feast of Friends, spent a great deal talking about the more literary side of Morrison. Through that book I learned the names Blake, Huxley, Rimbaud, Nitsche, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. And because I idolized Jim Morrison, I read everything I could by these guys. I went from reading nothing to reading books like The Doors of Perception, Brave New World, A Season in Hell, The Drunken Boat, On the Road, Dharma Bums, and Howl. At the time, I was living in my mom’s basement in Western Kentucky. At night, I’d sit down there in the dark, burning incense and candles, listening to music, and writing poems. Two years later, I would move alone on a whim to California. I had $180 in my pocket, but it was all right, I told myself, I didn’t need money. I’d live on a rooftop like Morrison!In a sense, that is one origin story. On the other hand, and I’ll address this in one of the other questions, because of my family background, I feel I inherited a poetic colloquial language, which I guess brings me to that obligatory family roots spiel that Southerners are obliged to give: The McKlemurry’s—my mother’s side—have been in the rural Deep South since at least 1820. That family has been in the Wilkinson County, Mississippi / East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana (you can yawn now) area since that time. The farthest north my grandmother has ever been is south Mississippi. My father’s side, the Mattingly’s, are original settlers of Kentucky. Cashing in on a land grant from the Revolutionary War, they settled what is now Marion County, Kentucky in 1785.  Although I was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana, and Henderson, Kentucky, I became the 9thgeneration Mattingly to live in Kentucky. The Mattingly’s are storytellers, talkers, and a repository of old expressions that come from Kentucky. That is my home, period.
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2. Scuffletown is a commitment to the study of place: the good, the bad, and the ugly, of which Scuffletown has all three. What made you want to write your first full-length collection about this place? How did you decide the tone and tenor of poems whose subject matter must surely be people and places intimately known to you?
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This place, Scuffletown, is, or was, a real physical location on the Ohio River in the Pennyrile Region of Kentucky. From across the river, it’s hard to tell what Scuffletown might be. There is a lush line of old oak and tulip poplar trees along the bank, so you could imagine the rubble and wood of crumbled structures behind that curtain. You might even envision some sort of recently buried relic risen from the sandy soil after a flood. But today, the place is nothing more than a dam and a fishing hole on the Ohio River.For me, Scuffletown is the equivalent of Wendell Berry’s fictitious Port William, Kentucky or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. It is a river bottom that I felt I could comfortably settle with the inhabitants of my imagination. In that sense, Scuffletown is like a homecoming, but instead of it being a physical location I’ve returned to, it’s more of a psychological one. Scuffletown, then, could be found on no map. I’ve laid a blend of memory and imagination directly onto an actual place nobody remembers! Scuffletown is now populated by the ghosts of my imagination. That said, I know, as Richard Hugo claimed, that imagined towns are just as real and sometimes more real than actual towns.Tone and Tenor? Well, it’s safe to say I learned a lot from Yusef Komunyakaa’s collection Magic City. What impressed me most about that book—not including a discussion of the music, images, metaphors, or any of the nuts-and-bolts of the poems—was the non-judgmental way the themes of class, race, violence, and place were grappled with. What is so easy to relate to in Magic City, is the overwhelming sense of the place and time, so that when a character in a poem acts or is acted upon, I get the impression that much, much larger powers are at play on these people, things that have to do with history. In that sense, there is a tenor of forgiveness that I gleaned from Komuyakaa’s collection of poems. I knew that if I remembered always that my hard working family comes from a poor place, has a legacy of violence that is familial as well as regional, and values but has very little formal education, that finding compassion would be easier to access. To use an example, if I had a character who, in the poem, throws a knife at her lover, then I needed to have a good sense of where that knife was coming from: a woman who never knew her father, who was alienated by her immediate family, raised by elders who died when she was very young, lost her own children (along with her job, car, and home) in a violent, disgraceful divorce, who, in turn, did not see or have any family (including her own children) for five years, who’s life was numbed by line work at a factory, pills, and booze, AND is only one in a long, dirty line of angry, poor, Southern alcoholics with a pension for violence and self-hatred, how could I not forgive her (And me too! This is my lineage I’m talking about). This is what that poem “Kentucky Windage” deals with. My dad gave me the expression “Kentucky windage.” It’s about the way we understand the world. To understand that the woman I’ve described, you have to consider her whole life in the context of all those historical, familial, regional factors tearing at her. Or even more simply put: you have to have compassion. That’s a family value, and, as long as we’re talking about place, compassion is a place as much as is violence, hatred, and pain. So, like any other place, Scuffletownis complicated. And while I’ve sought to redeem and validate this place and its people, I’ve tried not to fetishize or romanticize the culture either..

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3. Your background is not the “typical” story of a young poet. For a time, through college, you were a baseball player, for example. Baseball is a part of your family legacy; your uncle Don Mattingly is an icon in professional baseball. The sport even makes a few peripheral appearances in Scuffletown. Are there any qualities that writing and athletics share, in your experience? Do you feel your time on a sports team shaped you in any way as a writer, and if so, how? Most importantly, do you still play?

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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.

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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.

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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.