Matthew Lippman is the author of The New Year of Yellow, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize and published by Sarabande Books (2007). He is the recipient of a Michener Poetry Fellowship and a New York Fine Arts Grant. He teaches English and Creative Writing to high school students at Beaver Country Day School in the greater Boston area, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. You can learn more about Matthew by visiting www.matthewlippman.com, or read the author interview below!
AVAILABLE FROM TYPECAST:
Q&A with Matthew Lippman
on Monkey Bars
Poetry is often typecast as either fluffy verse about unrequited love or inaccessible academic language with little relevance to daily life. The subject matter and style of your poetry dismiss both stereotypes, utilizing simple everyday tasks in your work like watching TV to broader social issues like the environment, obesity, and divorce rates. How do you choose the material you write about? Do you consciously consider the “everyman” when you set out to write a poem? What do you hope your readers glean from your poems that address current societal concerns?
I live in this weird freakish place between being a completely average guy and then in turn, a complete freak. There are days when I am Mr. Normal and then there are days when I feel like I don’t fit in at all. So, I move through my days both super confident and super insecure. I always consider these two states when I write a poem. Then, I just try and have some fun with language. I also have been very conscious for the last five or six years of writing poems that address the world outside of my own little personal carnival of Matthew. It’s important to me to ruminate on things that are global—be it the effect of television on people or loneliness—so everyone can say, when they put the book down, “Yeah, I know what that little sonofagun is talking about. I get that.”
How is this collection different from The New Year of Yellow? Do you feel you have changed at all as a writer since that book was released?
The New Year of Yellow is a strange book. It was published in 2007. Some of the poems in the book were written in 1989. Some of them were written in 2005. So, there is this wide range of tones, voices and styles. Monkey Bars is much more consistent. The poems in this collection were written over a three year period and feel like they belong to one body instead of five.
I think I pay more attention to craft these days. I am more conscious of a type of audience that I was not conscious of when I was young. These poems are more mature, more sculpted, and yet I feel like they also contain the kind of energy I had when I was 28 and writing. At least I hope so.
The voice of a concerned father facing anxieties likely familiar to most parents flows throughout Monkey Bars. Is there anything you hope parents take away from reading the book?
Parenting is really tough and I am a fairly new parent. When I started writing again, after my first daughter was two, these parenting themes started to come up in my writing. I did not plan for this happen but once it started, I just wanted to make sure that I was being as honest and down to earth about the whole thing. It’s not that I want parents take anything away from the reading, in particular. I just hope that any parent who picks up this book will know that the voice is an honest voice and that I am doing some sort of justice to the journey of being a highly involved and committed father.
Since launching your career as a poet, you’ve had two children of your own. How has fatherhood influenced your writing—and vice-versa?
I don’t write about beer and lonely nights in Brooklyn anymore. Thank god. That was fun for a long time but this is more fun. Kids are a constant element of surprise. They don’t let go. They are inspirational and maddening. They come at me every minute of my life, are always in me like my liver and lungs are in me. So, when I am away from them I am not away from them. They influence everything I do. It’s a kind of love that is all about activity and action that has no rest and opens me up. I have a hard time describing this love. Maybe, all my poems now are about trying to get at doing justice to what this feeling is and how it guides me through my days.
Practically, there is no time to write poems the way I used to write poems. I don’t wake up on Saturday morning and devote three hours to my writing, revising, contemplating. There is a kind of noise that wasn’t there before, a new music of noise that makes me look at myself in the most raw and magnanimous ways. Sometimes, if I am really writing straight, what I see is not so pretty. That’s the juice. That fires me up.
The title poem in Monkey Bars addresses the overmedication of society. Why did you choose “Monkey Bars” as the title poem? What about this issue struck you in particular, to make it the cornerstone of this collection?
There was this very large and intricate set of monkey bars in the schoolyard at P.S. 84 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I grew up in the early 1970s. My friends and I lived on that structure. We were nuts when they let us out for lunch, even in winter, hurling ourselves on those metal poles. That craziness was so freeing and beautiful. It was youth and I think that this book is about youth, or, about youthfulness.
The other side of it though is this: my youth is very different than the youth of now, of today. The writing of “Monkey Bars” came out of a conversation I had with one of my students about the ADHD medication she had stopped taking, voluntarily. I have been teaching high school teenagers for much of my professional, adult life. Many of them are medicated for one reason or another and it blows my mind. They are so young and these doctors are injecting these kids with the junk that, I know, in my heart of heart, can’t be good for them. It does something to their energy, their spirit. I can see it in their eyes when they sit in the classroom. I got to thinking, in the writing of the poem, about not only the lives of these kids but of everyone else out there who is doped up on erection medicine, heart medicine, caffeine, pills, whatever, just to get through the day.
That unbridled energy that my friends and I had back then, when I was a kid, has been compromised and it bums me out. It just seems that the tension between what was and what is, is a theme that runs throughout the book so I thought, let “Monkey Bars” speak for the whole range of landscapes in the book.
Obviously current social issues were an influence in these poems, but what other places do you go to for inspiration? Other writers? Music? Art? In other words, where do you go as a poet to “fill the creative well”?
I go to Whole Foods and get some chocolate gelato. I go for a walk with our five month old up the block. I listen to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and The Avett Brothers. I watch television—shows like FRINGE and football on Sunday. I read these poets: Matthew Dickman, Ed Skoog, Adrian Blevins, Lawrence Raab, Jennifer L. Knox, Daniel Nester, Robert MacDonald, Juan Herrera, Lia Purpura, Etheridge Knight and a whole host of others. Mostly though, it’s the daily grind of my life that gets me a poem. For instance, this morning, the upstairs neighbors have two little boys. At six this morning they were running around like little Tasmanian Devils right above our bedroom. It woke me and I got a little pissed off. But then, later, when I went to my car, the dad of these boys, who leaves earlier than I, had cleaned the fresh snow from my car. A small thing but a huge thing. So, I fell in love with him and his family all over again. That kind of stuff.
Your unique sense of humor is evident throughout Monkey Bars, even as you talk about serious subjects. How important is laughter to you in your life? In your writing?
It’s the most important element. Got to be funny. Got to entertain. Humor is entertaining. Poetry has to be entertaining that’s why it’s got to have those comedic elements. I teach high school kids and so, you know, making them laugh is a big part of any class. My own kids too—I am always trying to get them to chuckle, bust a gut. When I make my oldest almost pee in her pants, when she makes me almost pee in my pants, that’s when everything is humming sweet on all cylinders.
Major tenants of Buddhism are woven throughout your work. The book is even divided into two parts: the first half is dark and looming, while the second half has more resolve and optimism. Other philosophies and religions make guest appearances as well. Can you talk about how these philosophies inform your work? What do you learn from incorporating them into your poetry?
Ah, Buddhism. I like jazz music. I like it more and more the older I get. It’s simple. Or, I have been able to find the simplicity in it. I am a Jew who likes jazz music who finds a light in Buddhism. I am a big believer in the absolute impermanence of things. I am a big believer in trying to live a life free of expectation. I love lighting the candles on Shabbat. But, when it comes down to it, I am nothing. I don’t mean to sound like someone who has got it all figured out. I will be the first to admit that I am selfish and have a big ego. But I know that there is a nothingness in everything that I do, that you do, that we do. It helps me to keep going, this philosophy I have drummed up for myself. So, Buddhism. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know much about it in any particular way. Maybe that makes me more of a Buddhist than some of my Buddhist friends. But here I go again, talking about things that make no sense. I learn nothing, really, from incorporating these philosophies and religious tenets into my poetry. It’s just a lot of fun. That’s really what writing poetry for me has become: fun. I want to be a Jew Buddhist Poet who is Dexter Gordon in Paris in 1958 playing the saxophone at three in the morning like it’s lunchtime until I fall asleep mid-riff.