Amid the sea of SIS and Public Affairs majors at AU, relatively small pockets of literature-loving students can be found floating around campus. We aren’t too hard to find (just look in the Dav on any given day or, better yet, come by an AmLit meeting). I decided to sit down with AU junior Mattea Falk last week in the Mudbox for a morning chat about her passion for both reading and writing poetry. She has been writing poems since sophomore year of high school and recalled her first poem with embarrassed laughter: “I specifically remember that it was about driving somewhere, and I was listening to Konstantine by Something Corporate.” Now Mattea is majoring in Literature and is one of the two Poetry Editors for AmLit. She has had several of her poems published in AmLit, the Harrisonburg-based MING!magazine and the online publication The Paper Knife. Despite being super modest about the depth of her, it is no exaggeration to say that Mattea absolutely geeks out over poetry, and I have a feeling that she should could talk about it for a way longer time than my impromptu interview allowed. Below are some of the more coherent snippets from our frequently rambling and all around sporadic conversation.
What are some poetry-related activities that you do outside of your regular Lit classes?
AmLit is the big one, I don’t know what I’d do without it. But I’ve also been doing poetry workshops… like right now I’m in a workshop with Kyle Dargan [a poetry professor at AU], and that’s been really cool – we’re bringing in a lot of extra readings, like Patrick Phillip’s collection, Chattahoochee. Definitely the best thing I’ve done was the workshop I took last spring with David Keplinger. I‘d never heard of anyone speak about poetry so beautifully. That sounds pretty corny, but it’s true! For Keplinger’s we did rounds of workshops – so, one group would bring in a poem a week, we’d take it home, and next week we would all critique that piece, focusing on elements like image, line, language, form, etc. Keplinger’s class was cool because everyone was kind and helpful and it had this interesting format where the author couldn’t respond, because Keplinger was of the mind that if an author is allowed to respond (or, in a sense, “defend” what was critiqued in a piece) that person would miss the point i.e. that there was a weakness in the piece.
When coming up with subjects or ideas for your poetry, do you often draw from material from other classes? Yeah, I think so. A lot of times I go back to concepts from lit theory. I’ve been really obsessed with identity formation lately (like, Lacanian mostly) and just generally have issues of semiotics in the back of my mind, though I don’t know if any of that really comes across in my poetry. Maybe? Recently I wrote something that kind of revisited Saussure/some post-structuralism stuff that’s all about resisting fixed meaning and binaries.
Is there a certain element of your poetry, like rhyme scheme or line breaks, that you actively enjoy manipulating and playing with?
I don’t like rhyme that much unless it’s, like, internal, soft rhyme. But line breaks I can definitely tinker with forever. I like lines that can stand alone – meaning they have significance on their own. I also like lines that alter the meaning of the previous line, or that have different significance depending on how you read the surrounding breaks. I think every line should have impact (though, obviously, I don’t think I really achieve this. It’s kind of the ideal, you know? But shoot for the moon and all that, I guess.) There was a discussion in my workshop the other day about how writing on the computer is different from writing on paper because it’s easier to manipulate line breaks on a computer and kind of rearrange really quickly and see all the options. But some people are really into the slow, lengthy process of rewriting on paper. But with that I think there’s also an element of like “art needs to be hard” snobbery and quasi-Luddite-like resistance to technology, which I don’t find very appealing or productive. I’m mostly about images though. I think, for me, despite my fascination with line and all the minutiae of poetic mechanics, it always comes back to startling language. What’s that formalist idea? Like, the point of art is to “make the stone stony”? I feel something along those lines: That all the other tricks are kind of accessories to the main point of reviving language to express an image (or sensation) as something fresh or startling or worthwhile or … I guess there’s about a thousand things I could say here. It would be kind of dumb to try to enumerate all the potential ends of art. But anyway, you get the idea: images.
Who are some poets that you draw inspiration from?
Last semester David Keplinger showed me this poem, “To Go To Lvov” by Andrew Zagajewski and it’s awesome. It’s super long and there’s no stanza breaks and it just goes – like, it has this velocity to it. So sometimes I find myself trying to write that poem a thousand times over in my own context. It’s just, like, I love poems that just go and go and go and go and lead to this weird other place. Okay… so then I’m also pretty into Alt Lit (Alternative Literature) people like Crispin Best and Mira Gonzalez, even though I don’t think I really write like them. Other than that, I’m just forever in love with Carolyn Forche, Li-Young Lee, and Richard Seeken.
What is your editing process like for poems that you plan on submitting? Do you ask other people outside of your workshops for suggestions? How do you know when you’re finally finished?
I’ll definitely show other people when I just want their opinion on something. When I want, like, specific things I’ll go to people and ask, “Does this work? Does this communicate this idea?” And for AmLit, for example, the night before I submit stuff I stay up all night and spend a good couple of hours going over poems on my own. But I don’t know, sometimes I just keep going… and I don’t know that any of my poems are ever finished. I always kind of go back and look at a poem and think about how I could change something.
Okay, so this might be an awkward question that’s going to force you to boost your own ego but here it goes: What do you think is one of the most interesting things you’ve done in your poetry? Ah no that’s so gross! Okay…well last semester I wrote a series of prose poems about dreams. Even though I think it’s kind of cheating when you write about dreams, because dreams are awesome all the time, some of the images in those are really cool. I don’t even know that they are from actual dreams, I might have just made them up. But yeah, I liked writing prose poems. I think prose poems are really interesting mainly just because there’s a really distinct difference between a prose piece and a prose poem. I don’t know if I can articulate it well, but it has to move like a poem and think like a poem, instead of thinking like prose. So I think that was a really cool thing to try and get in to.
What is one thing that’s happening in contemporary poetry that you find particularly interesting?
Like I said earlier, I think Alt Lit is really fascinating. I like Crispin Best and Mira Gonzalez because they’re honest and also just generally very bizarre and there is absolutely no sense of shame or trepidation in their work. Like, they’re all about bucking conventions of what poetry “should” be or do, and they don’t even apologize for it, they don’t even give a moment of consideration to the conventions they’re messing with. I think I find that really appealing because (for whatever reason, maybe patriarchal socialization, maybe just me bein’ me, who cares?) I am really apologetic about everything. Like, I’m that girl who says sorry when she accidentally breathes too close to you in the coffee line. SO, yeah. They just don’t care, or rather, they don’t let anybody else tell them what to care about, and I love it.
Do you have any final thoughts that you want to throw out to the world?
If you write secret poetry, you should show people. Because it’s more fun when it’s not secret.