Matthew Thorburn’s new book of poems, The Grace of Distance, was published by LSU Press in August 2019. He’s also the author of six previous collections, including the book-length poem Dear Almost (LSU Press, 2016), honored with the Lascaux Prize in Collected Poetry; A Green River in Spring (Autumn House Press, 2015), winner of the Coal Hill Review chapbook competition; This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser Press, 2013), a finalist for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize; Every Possible Blue (CW Books, 2012); Subject to Change (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2004), winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize; and an earlier chapbook, the long poem Disappears in the Rain (Parlor City Press, 2009).
J.G. McClure holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and a BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets and the Gettysburg Review, among other journals. He lives in Northern Virginia with his cat, whom he loves and occasionally fears. The Fire Lit & Nearing is his first collection.
Matthew Thorburn: I’m struck by how well the poems in The Fire Lit & Nearing fit together thematically—how they work together as a larger whole. Did you have an idea of your book in mind as you were writing? And if so, did that idea evolve as you went along? Or did you write the poems first and figure out the larger shape they could make after that? I’d love to hear how that process went for you.
J.G. McClure: It was a combination of both. I didn’t set out to write a book; I was writing standalone poems (with the help of frequent deadlines courtesy of my MFA workshop). So the goal was very much “get something presentable on paper before the next workshop.” But our obsessions are our obsessions, so without really thinking about it I was writing interconnected poems.
It wasn’t until I was trying to fit them together into a collection, though, that those thematic links became apparent to me. I printed out every poem I was thinking of including, spread them all out on my floor, and started physically sliding them around the carpet. (My cat helped by standing on them.) Seeing all the work spread out like that let me see in a very concrete way how the pieces interacted with one another, how different orderings affected meaning, which pieces didn’t really belong, and so on.
Once I’d done that and had a better sense of the overall shape of the collection, I could write new pieces with an eye to how they’d fit into the book. So shaping the collection affected what I was writing, and what i was writing affected the shape of the collection.
All that said, the book went through many, many, many, overhauls as I tried to get it right. The changes ranged from changing the collection’s title to adding or removing individual poems to cutting an entire section that I liked but that didn’t belong in this book.
How does that compare to your experiences? You’ve written seven collections; in reading the forthcoming The Grace of Distance, I’m struck by the strong sense of interconnectedness, even as the poems explore topics as seemingly unrelated as Matisse’s paintings, how to steal a Qing Dynasty bridge, and the fragrance “Manhattan” by Bond No. 9. How did you find and order the connections between such far-ranging poems?
MT: I love that image of poems spread out on the floor. Each of us thinks about how a book of poems goes together a little differently, I imagine, but it seems like we all lay our poems out on the floor to figure out the order.
My earliest sense of The Grace of Distance as a book actually grew out of the writing I did for my previous books. Over the years, while putting together book manuscripts I’d amassed a file folder of poems I liked, and felt were very good poems, but that hadn’t fit into those books for thematic reasons. (Saving them “for the next book” in this way helped me be more ruthless about cutting them from those books.)
As it turned out, those poems were almost all concerned with themes of belief and doubt, questions of faith, and different kinds of distance. So in a way somewhat similar to the process you describe, I had a good start on a book’s worth of poems and an idea in mind of a book of poems centered around those themes. Not all of those original poems ultimately stayed in the book, but they were in the back of my mind as I continued to write new poems over the past few years.
Speaking of themes, I’m curious to hear more about the larger concerns of your book and how they’re woven through the poems. In particular, the idea of alternative or multiple narratives, reimaginings of past events or stories—the “Multiverse Theory” that one of the poems is named after—all this seems to offer you a really interesting lens through which to think and write about the broken relationship between the narrator of the poems and Ellie. Would you talk a little about the appeal of that approach for you and how you’ve brought it to life in this book?
JGM: The particular multiverse theory I find especially interesting is the interpretation of quantum mechanics called the “Many Worlds Interpretation.” I’m not a physicist, and I have no idea how likely it is to be “true,” but it’s certainly evocative. The idea, nicely summarized courtesy of Wikipedia, is that:
… all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual “world” (or “universe”). In layman’s terms, the hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.
The idea is comforting, in a way—no matter how painful the narrator’s relationship with Ellie is in this universe, there are a million universes where everything is okay. But of course it’s rather cold comfort—what good is it knowing I have a billion happy doppelgangers if I’m unhappy? And once you start following the logic where it leads, things get even worse: there’s an essentially infinite number of universes where the relationship succeeds, and an essentially infinite number where it fails; there’s an infinite number of universes where I’m a bank robber, where you’re the cop who arrests me, where I’m the cop and you’re the robber, where the very concept of cops and robbers never comes into existence, where humanity never comes into existence … How can I convince myself that anything that happens matters, if it happened every other possible way too? How can my choices matter if there’s an equally real me who chooses every other alternative? When every outcome of every choice or chance event is equally “real” somewhere, then the whole idea of reality and meaning starts to break down.
So there’s a way in which that meaning breakdown mirrors the relationship breakdown. And the relationship breakdown is in turn reflective of the narrator’s more general sense of things falling apart around him.
But from the point of view of writing the poems, the great appeal of this kind of approach is that it gives a ton of freedom. I get to look at the relationship through the lens of B movies, or apocalyptic cat ownership, or facts about sea cucumbers—which is a lot of fun as a writer.
This may not quite be related, but I’m interested in hearing about the ways you engage with the limits of what we can and can’t know in The Grace of Distance. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “And There were in the Same Country Shepherds Abiding in the Field,” shows us the speaker’s imagination from a great historical distance of a young shepherd’s imagination from a great physical distance of what would happen if he could touch the stars. (All that against the backdrop of the story of Christ’s birth, and all the unknowns that come with religious belief.) Similarly, in “Your New World,” we see the speaker trying to imagine what an infant’s constant experience of newness must be like, at the same time that he’s trying to wrap his head around the implications of reincarnation. Or in a more everyday situation, we see the speaker guessing (but not knowing) what the absent “you” of the poem is doing. Could you speak to that? What is it about those gaps in perspective, time, space, etc. that draws your interest as a poet?
MT: I’m glad you like those two poems. I love it when a poem explores the story behind a story, or the story happening off to one side of the main story, or the story that comes before or after the “real” story. I find myself doing this in poems from time to time, in large part because as a reader I love when other poets take this approach. One of my very favorite poems by Marianne Boruch, “Still Life,” is a good example of this—the way she imagines and brings so wonderfully to life the story behind a painting. Your poem, “The Odyssey II”—one of my favorites in The Fire Lit & Nearing—is another great example.
What drew me to the kinds of distances in “Shepherds,” which you so nicely describe, at least as I see it now in hindsight, was the chance to bridge those distances through imagination. I haven’t been a practicing Catholic in many years now, but I grew up in that faith and attended Catholic grade school—and regardless of what I believe or don’t, those stories and traditions and rituals have become a kind of enduring mythology for me. I find myself going back to the characters and details in those stories. And also I just like the idea that okay, maybe there is this hugely profound event taking place (the birth of the son of God!) but at the same time, these shepherds still have to be shepherds. They’re human beings. They need to take care of their flock, they might be in love or out of love, and this youngest one might well be dreaming of some other amazing thing, such as touching a star—or closer to ground, just wishing he had a tent to sleep in.
And from my wife’s family I’ve experienced some of the Buddhist tradition, though I don’t know that anyone in her family particularly believes in reincarnation. But I remember learning that not only do you not get to choose what you’re reincarnated as (the way the characters do in the wonderful movie The Lobster) but you won’t know (or remember?) that you’ve been reincarnated. Maybe, if that’s your belief, it’s better that way! But it seemed disappointing to me, though I guess it makes sense. Here I was thinking about the Chuang Yen Monastery, which sits out in the woods near Carmel, New York, and is a wonderful place to be in the moment—not texting or taking a call or checking Facebook—but simply present and attentive. I’m the father of a young son (who was a toddler when I wrote this poem) and his curiosity and sense of wonder at pretty much everything he experiences have been a good reminder to me of how amazing that kind of outlook and attentiveness ca be … And though I don’t think I believe in reincarnation, it seemed like a kind of comfort when missing a loved one to imagine he or she might be that bird flying past the window.
This leads me to a question I often ask poets, and found myself wondering about as I read The Fire Lit & Nearing: How does a poem start for you? I want to ask that as a big-picture question, if you would talk about your writing practice and process, but also as a more specific question about how your poems “Three for the End of the World” and “Making Sense of It“ came to be.
JGM: The Lobster! What a great movie, and what a terrifying take on reincarnation. I agree with you—I’d much rather believe in the passing bird.
For “Three for the End of the World,” it was a variety of factors coming together at once. I was feeling especially adrift in my life at that time, and many of the poems from that period deal with a sense of banal apocalypse, where everything’s coming to an end and the end is just sort of boring. This was also a few years ago, when we were just starting to get a clear sense of how close to the brink of irreversibly catastrophic climate change we’d already come.
I had also recently heard of the Fermi Paradox, which argues that given the vast time scales involved, Earth should have had alien visitors by now; one explanation for why we haven’t is that it’s in the nature of all civilizations to destroy themselves once they reach a certain level of technological capability—just like we’re doing now. I’d recently read Civilization and its Discontents too, and while there’s obviously plenty to critique in Freud, the idea that our culture at large might be unconsciously working toward its own destruction dovetailed nicely.
I was going on a lot of disappointing internet dates, which certainly didn’t help with the general sense of doom, and which meant I was thinking a lot about Tinder bios, failures to connect, and how impossibly difficult it seemed to understand and be understood. Finally, I’d been working on this essay, which riffs on a scene in Futurama parodying the famous big reveal of the ruined Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, so I had the image of a palimpsest of ruined monuments in mind. Putting it all together resulted in the endlessly repetitive, endlessly destructive yearning of “Three for the End of the World,” and a healthy dose of self-mockery led to the comically overblown sci-fi rendition.
For “Making Sense of It,” I’d been trawling the internet for weird animal facts, since those would often lead to poems, and I had quite a few of those in my head. But mainly I was wandering around campus, terribly lonely in the wake of one of the recurring breakup episodes that characterized my relationship with Ellie’s IRL counterpart. It’s funny how clearly I remember the moment I describe in that poem. I’d stopped wandering and was sitting on a bench, at night, at the top of some stairs. A plane really did fly over; the sky really did have that SoCal starriness I haven’t seen elsewhere. An undergrad dance troupe really was banging away in a nearby garage, and I really was sitting there pining for lost love, fully aware of the absurd melodrama of it all, but unable for all that to step outside of it.
So for both of those poems, and for my poems in general, the start comes from some chance convergence of all sorts of thoughts and locations and events into one key moment. Most of those convergences don’t result in poems, or only result in bad poems that never see the light of day. But every now and then I get lucky, and something worthwhile crystallizes.
This feels a bit like cheating, but I’d like to ask you the same question: For you, where does a poem start? How do you know when you’re onto something? And zooming out, what drew you to poetry in the first place?
MT: I love hearing the stories behind the poems, and getting a glimpse into your process. In some ways the start of a poem is sort of similar for me.
Usually the very first spark of a poem is just some little thing that snags my attention—something I saw or heard, or maybe some old memory stirred up by what I saw or heard. An image. A phrase. I love writing in notebooks and try to keep one with me so I can get these things down while they’re fresh. What often happens is I go on collecting these notes and then periodically I’ll read back through my notebook and see if any of them rub up against each other or overlap in some interesting way.
Thinking about The Grace of Distance, my poem “Like Hours of Rain on Piles of Brown Leaves” is maybe the best example of this. Reading back through my notebook, I found that a whole series of notes about different things felt like they were all talking to each other, from the title (a simile I came up with for I don’t remember what) to a thought about the Forbidden City in Beijing, which swarms with tourists, to some images from a trip to visit my friend Jay and his family in Ithaca, to some lines I jotted down after seeing an exhibition about King Tut in Times Square. Not that it was just a matter of typing up my notes—it took a lot of work and revising to get from there to the finished poem, but I remember how reading back through that notebook I could see a little map of where I wanted the poem to go.
Since finishing the poems in The Grace of Distance, I’ve been working for the past couple years on a sequence of poems about a teenager’s experiences in a time of war and just after. Working on this project, I’ve also relied on my notebook, but now more often I’ll free write images and phrases and then go back later and see how they might talk to each other, and build up drafts of poems from those fragments. It’s pretty rare for me to ever draft a poem from beginning to end. I’m much more of a collagist or mosaic-maker.
What first drew me to poetry was reading two wonderful poems in my high school English textbook that just blew me away. I think this was my junior year. We were supposed to be reading something else in class—I think it was Antigone—but flipping through the text book I found “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels” by Allen Ginsberg and “Fortune Has Its Cookies to Give Out” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’d never read anything like either of these poems before. We’d read some Frost and Dickinson and W.C. Williams the year before, and I liked them alright, but Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg’s poems just felt so immediate and visual and alive to me. I wanted to read more poems like them—and I wanted to write poems like them.
Not long after, I got my mom to drive me to an independent bookstore out by the Michigan State University campus—a wonderful place, now long gone, called Jocundry’s—where I bough Kaddish and Pictures of the Gone World in those wonderful City Lights pocket-size editions. Then I was on my way!
As I continued writing over the years, one of the things that has kept me so interested in poetry is that it’s an artform that feels like it can draw in elements of so many other kinds of writing and art—from narrative and storytelling to the thinking-through-things qualities of an essay to meditations and prayers to jokes, monologues, you name it. Which segues nicely (I kind of planned this) to a question I wanted to ask you. I really enjoy the way you rework and reimagine other kinds of writing and self-expression—for example in poems in the forms of a joke, a B movie script, and a self-portrait, to name a few. What draws you to these different forms? And then, circling back a little, I’d love to hear how you got started with poetry too.
JGM: It’s funny how many poets seem to have similar approaches—sliding the manuscript around on the carpet, or in this case, keeping a notebook on us all the time, so things don’t get lost. You’d think a smartphone would work just as well, but somehow it doesn’t.
As for playing with unusual forms, I’m a big believer in the idea that form is content—that the way you say something changes what it means. So for me, I think part of the appeal of reworking forms is that you get to draw on all the meanings associated with that form. Take “Portrait of My Longings as B Movie Script,” for instance. The speaker in it is describing this increasingly elaborate scenario in which the ex-lover Ellie will realize what she’s lost. The whole fantasy is preposterous, and that’s the point—I was interested in exploring the ways we can know intellectually that a desire is ridiculous, problematic, or what have you, but that awareness does nothing at all to blunt our yearning. The form of the knowingly bad action movie has a lot of those ideas built into it: we all know the movie is silly, the movie knows it’s silly, and yet we still enjoy it.
At the same time, I like the ways in which following the form where it leads can take the poem to places I didn’t know it was going. The “B Movie Script” starts out as a fantasy of reconciliation, where the lovers are reunited. But it turns out that’s not the kind of script I was writing. Instead, this script ends with the (equally well-worn) image of the lone hero riding off (or in this case, jetpacking off) into the sunset, leaving behind the would-be lover to wonder, achingly, we she couldn’t keep him. In playing with the movie tropes, I was surprised to find the poem wasn’t really a reconciliation fantasy, but rather a revenge fantasy—he won’t fully acknowledge it to himself, but the speaker wants Ellie to realize what she’s lost so that he can reject her in the same way he feels she’s rejected him. I didn’t know that’s where the poem was going, but that’s where the movie script wanted to go, and I’m glad I went along for the ride, as I feel it enriched and complicated the piece.
I really like your story about suddenly discovering “alive” poems in a textbook. The way I got started in poetry was similar. My high school’s poetry reading list was better than average, and I found the poems we read perfectly okay. But they weren’t alive, and the idea that I could write poems didn’t really click—as I describe in some detail in this essay, the poems felt more like messages we had to decode, not experiences we got to have.
I can’t remember exactly which poems changed things for me, but I do know that I read them as a college sophomore in an Intro to Poetry class taught by North Carolina poet Michael McFee. He had the rare gift of being able to explain poetic craft without killing the poem. The opposite, in fact—it was from him that I first learned how the more you understand how a poem works, the more powerfully you can experience it.
It wasn’t until that class, reading that textbook, that I suddenly felt what it was like to encounter a live poem. I’d signed up for the class mostly to get a required credit—but having read a live poem once, I wanted to again, and again, and to learn to create that experience for others.
After that class, I had the extraordinary luck to learn from a bunch of inspiring poets, and the even more extraordinary luck to stay in touch with them over the years. In fact, my next forthcoming project is the English translation for the bilingual edition of Natación, the first collection from Irene Gómez-Castellano, whose class on Spanish-language poetry had a huge impact on me as a young poet.
Speaking of which, what are you writing these days? You mentioned the wartime sequence—is that part of a collection you’re working on?
MT: That’s wonderful how you followed “Portrait of My Longings as B Movie Script” where it was going. I think that’s a good reminder that as writers we should try to keep ourselves open to being surprised by our poems as we write them, and not focus (or not focus only) on moving a poem in the direction we consciously want it to go. That’s something I try to keep reminding myself. Charles Simic has a great line about this too, in one of his essays: “It took me years to realize the poem is smarter than I am. Now I follow it wherever it wants to go.”
Your translation project sounds terrific. Right now I’m working on two different book manuscripts, which in a way are both experiments with form. One is that sequence of wartime poems. Each Night We Wandered is the working title, and the earliest spark for this project came from reading Jean Follain’s poems. I love how Follain evokes a lost world through fleeting images and details in an almost impressionistic way—and to be honest, I wanted to do something in that same spirit (though, like what I just said, the poems have also led me in their own directions as I’ve worked on them). The formal aspect of it is that I was inspired by my friend Leslie Harrison to try writing with almost no punctuation, as she does in her beautiful, haunting collection of poems, The Book of Endings. In the past I’d always been very resistant to the idea of not using punctuation, but reading Leslie’s poems I finally came to understand how this can open up a lot of interesting possibilities of meaning and rhythm. So each of these poems includes just one mark of punctuation: a period at its end.
My other project over the past year or so has been writing prose poems. Speaking of notebooks, for years I’ve been writing a directive to myself in notebook after notebook: “Try writing a book of prose poems.” Well, I’m finally doing it. I like the compressed narrative aspect of the form and am enjoying stretching my own sense of what can constitute a poem. I’m keeping an eye and an ear out for all the interesting bits of daily life in New Jersey that I can work into poems.
Jonathan, thanks so much for having this conversation with me!
JGM: You too! Looking forward to reading your new work!