Poetry: Carlo Matos on waiting to see what happens – Interview

Posted on 13 January 2013.

By Michael Colson, Contributor (*)

Carlo Matos and I are both college English instructors and have been friends for over eight years.  We formed a creative writing cooperative called “The Alchemists.”  Matos’s family is from São Miguel, in the Azores, and he was born in Fall River, MA. He has published four books: A School for Fishermen (BrickHouse Books), Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (BlazeVox), Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion (Academica Press), and Big Bad Asterisk* (BlazeVox). He has also published poems, stories, and essays in online and print journals. Currently, he lives in Chicago, IL, where he teaches English at the City Colleges of Chicago by day. He is also an amateur cage fighter by night. After hours he can be found entertaining clients at the Chicago Poetry Bordello.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Carlo Matos speaks of the community of Portuguese-Americans writers; his literary influences, interests and tastes; his Portuguese roots in the immigrant community and his love for literature and poetry writing.

Q. Which figures in the Portuguese-American community influenced you?

A. Portuguese-American?  I didn’t even know there were any Portuguese-American writers out there until I, on a whim, introduced myself to Millicent Borges Accardi over a year ago.  And this seems to be a common experience for many of the Luso-American writers I have met.  I mean, I knew there had to be some PA writers out there, but I didn’t ever think to find them.  And it troubles me, this too-easy acceptance of the literary quotidian, on my part.  But since then, I have “discovered” the work of Frank Gaspar, Katherine Vaz, Sam Pereira, Nancy Viera Couto, Darrell Kastin, Millicent Borges Accardi, and many others.  It is very exciting to read these writers.  Most of the time, it’s the shocks of recognition, those little things that make these narratives particular to my/our experience.

Q. Who were your early guides who provided models of poetic language? As you grew older, how did your decisions about models change?

A. The Romantics were my earliest poetic models, especially Keats.  I feel like that’s a boring thing to say, but when you’re a working class boy, Keats is the man.  Throw in a smattering of Dickinson, Frost and a few Shakespeare sonnets and you have a pretty good idea what I had read.  When you grow up in New England, you can’t escape Dickinson and Frost, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  I remember finding “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me” very arch.  It made me feel really grown up to “get” that line.  It was all hodge-podge basically and would remain that way until I was in college.  It wasn’t until I read Ariel, however, that I found a poet who spoke to me directly.  As much as I loved the Romantics, they were writing about a place or from a place that was, in my mind anyway, as far from my existence as the moon.  You know, walking in the woods, natural beauty, and melancholy and all that.  Of course, that’s probably why I liked it so much. But I didn’t realize that poetry could be so personal until I read Sylvia Plath.  And her work led me to two poets who have had an enormous influence on my adult life, poets that I return to over and over again—Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell, especially the former.

Q. You and I have very similar backgrounds. We’re both from working class families and have grown up in working class towns. Tell me about how you were pulled into “the life of the mind.” At what point did you fall in love with ideas and words? Can you recall any crucial moments or decisions? If so, when and where?

A. As far back as I can remember, I wanted something profoundly different from what constituted daily existence in my town, and literature and music seemed like the other side of the universe.  There was nothing I feared more than being trapped in some kind of soul-killing job.  I didn’t know anyone who loved what they did or who did something they thought was meaningful.  That doesn’t mean that there weren’t any.  I just didn’t see them and sometimes children don’t see everything around them.  They see what they want to see.  I watched terror seize my father on Sunday afternoons as he slowly collapsed in on himself, contemplating another week at the mill.  That despair saturated my house and colors my childhood.  He never once talked about it.  And not only were most of the jobs oppressive, they didn’t even pay enough to make the sacrifice worth it.  It is a testimony to my parents—and to people like them—that they did it anyway.  It seemed—and still seems—utterly unfair and sad that we were given only one life and we are constantly being forced to waste it doing things we hate.

But even before these fears truly materialized, I was already drawn to art and aesthetics.  Of course I was also—like many kids at the time—really into science and mathematics.  I remember my best friend, Craig, and I sending to NASA for information about rockets and space shuttles.  We received huge envelopes stuffed with photocopies some poor intern kept mailing to Somerset, MA.  Every presentation we did in elementary and middle school had something to do with space exploration.  Interestingly, I remember we didn’t want to be astronauts.  We were both determined to become astronomers—and who knows, if the bottom hadn’t dropped out in the late 80s, maybe we’d be doing that now.  It was such a vibrant, mysterious and wonderful field.  We wanted to make discoveries, not suffer through endless repetition, trying to will ourselves through another day and then another.  If only I could capture some of the amazing things that are going on in physics right now in my work.  That would probably be some powerful stuff.

But I do have a few hazy memories that might be considered crucial moments.  When I was five or so, I heard a recording late one night of Itzhak Perlman playing a violin concerto.  It was probably the Beethoven, but I can’t be sure.  I was a terrible insomniac for most of my life, so I used to listen to music at all hours.  When I heard Perlman play, I was completely overwhelmed by the music and desperately envious of someone who could produce such intense feelings in another person—a person they didn’t even know.  For the longest time, I thought only music could do this—until, that is, I came to the Romantics.  I know Keats holds a special place in your heart as well.  I don’t remember writing my first poems, but I do remember—maybe when I was in 7th grade or so, finding some poems written in a scrawl on the back of my class pictures.  I must’ve written them in third or fourth grade.  They were spooky poems, written in a kind of elevated, pseudo-mystical style. I guess I tried to capture the BIG feeling I got when I listened to certain kinds of music.

Q. In college, you studied English literature, not Spanish or Portuguese literature. Can you discuss this decision?

A. There are two answers to this question.  Although I am bilingual, my Portuguese has never been good enough for literary use.  At one point, so my parents tell me, I could handle both languages with the same facility, but it has significantly degraded over the years.  At this point, it is difficult to hold a fluent conversation in Portuguese.  I just don’t get the chance to use the language enough.  It has not completely left me.  For my new book Big Bad Asterisk*, for example, I translated a series of poems my father wrote when he was a young man for the “I” section of the book. Given enough time and a dictionary, I can do that much, but it is not something I excel at.

The other reason is sheer and near total ignorance.  I knew very little about Portuguese literature.  I had heard of Luís Vaz de Comões and Fernando Pessoa, but that was about the extent of it.  My parents are not educated people, so it was not a part of my home life.  You would think that growing up in a Portuguese enclave, there would be more of it going around, but either I missed it or it was absent.  Even today, my knowledge is very poor although I am remedying that little by little.  The Anglo-American tradition, by comparison, was a part of my world since the beginning of my schooling, especially the British tradition.  College did nothing to encourage me to look into Portuguese literature.  I spent the majority of my undergraduate classes taking British literature courses, which reached its apogee, in my mind, in the honors Milton seminar I took my junior year.  My M.A was in Milton and most of my Ph.D. work was in the English Renaissance before I settled on the Modern period.  Even though my dissertation was about Ibsen, unsurprisingly, the focus of my study was late nineteenth-century London.  I love British literature, but my devotion to it has come with a price.

Q. At what point did you turn away from academic scholarship to writing poetry? What feelings or thoughts motivated this turn?

A. I never turned away from scholarship per se.  Some part of me still thinks I’ll come back to it.  I wasn’t even aware of what scholarship was until I got to college.  When I arrived in Amherst, I realized that there was a whole realm of ideas I knew nothing about, and I was being invited to take part in it, to take part in “the life of the mind,” as you said earlier.  It was intoxicating.  My ideas had never mattered before, not in any real way, and here I was being asked to do something serious with something I deeply loved—literature.  I was still writing poetry in my spare time, but I was pursuing scholarship.  My senior year I wrote a paper on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel for Paul Mariani’s Modern/Post Modern Poetry course, and it won a cash prize.  As silly as it sounds, that moment is still one of the most important writing moments in my life.  It gave me confidence.  I believed that maybe I could become a writer.  It gave me the impetus to take a few more chances.  I did my first professional conference (on Yeats) while still an undergrad. Things were happening in my scholarship that weren’t happening in my poetry.  I felt less like a phony when I did research.  Scholarship provided a career path in a way that poetry didn’t.  But it didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped.  I fell short at an important step.  I thought it would all lead to a university job, which would provide me with the environment suited to a prolonged scholarly career, but it did not. I do have a teaching job—and one that I like—at a community college.  Poetry stepped in and demanded my attention.

In 2009, Clarinda Harriss at BrickHouse Books picked up my poetry manuscript and everything changed.  The key difference between the publication of A School for Fishermen in 2009 and my scholarly book, Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion in 2011, is that I immediately found a community of poets here in Chicago.  I began performing with an amazing group called the Chicago Poetry Bordello, and I began to meet all kinds of young and interesting writers.  Last year, I also fell in with the Presence/Presença movement, whose aim is to raise awareness of Portuguese-American writers in North America.  Since then I have published two more poetry books.  Scholarship, on the other hand, has not brought that same sense of community and, more importantly, purpose, so I am currently putting it all on hold.

Q. Obviously, your working class background and family upbringing is important to you and enters your work. Can you address this?

A. I have been writing about work since I was a young man, and I worried about it long before I started writing. I am profoundly concerned with this phenomenon in America where you take a job and slowly squeeze every good thing out of it in the name of a dollar.  And, as studies have shown, the supposed improvements in efficiency have no real connection to actual material success.  It’s all magical thinking.  As Žižek mentions in his book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, CEO compensation and company success often don’t correlate.  This is as true on the factory floor as it is in the classroom.

My working class background has, to be sure, made me the person I am today.  I am, as you are Michael, a self-made man, as corny as that sounds.  I tell my students that we will often discuss how the class texts challenge certain notions of the traditional American Dream narrative, but the irony is that I am a walking exemplar of one version of that narrative.   It’s a good lesson for them, I think.  To challenge something does not mean it is utterly broken, but it does mean we cannot be lazy about our ideas, no matter what they are.  I learned, very early, that no one was going to help me, mostly because they couldn’t.  So, like a lot of people in my position, we are doers.  We don’t necessarily have stronger wills or thicker skins—actually, often the opposite is true because of our precarious positions—but we are programmed to march forward either way.  My failures are certainly my own.  My successes—however modest—are a combination of stubbornness and dumb luck.

Q. How are you a “Portuguese-American” poet? How do you feel about the hyphen in that label?

A. Identity issues are so hard to deal with.  On the one hand, why shouldn’t I write about being in a minority group in America? Some minority groups have done a wonderful job promoting their culture and making space in the American landscape for their voices.  When their kids grow up, they see images of themselves on TV, in movies and in books.  Now, I know those aren’t always positive images, but, at the very least, they are able to lay claim to their ethnic identity within an American context if they see fit.  Portuguese-Americans, on the other hand, have few to no images of themselves in the media.  In fact, many of us are surprised to find out that people like Joe Perry and Keanu Reaves and others are of Portuguese descent because it is never mentioned.  Nelly Furtado was the first popular singer that outwardly identified as Azorean.  The issue, of course, is that few writers want to be limited by a label.  Yes, I want people to know that I am an Azorean-American writer, but I am a writer first if only because my audience is certainly not just other Portuguese Americans.  And I don’t just—or even mainly—write about Portuguese-American themes, but when I do, it would be cool if there was a context for other people to understand what I am doing, or what we’re doing.

Q. When you write a poem, who is your audience?

This question is a snare in the mud if there ever was one.  Considering that the actual audience for contemporary poetry is largely other writers, the truest answer is, probably, other writers.  Certainly, there are some poets who I am hoping will read my books and love them as much as I love their books.  However, that is not really the audience that is in my head (or more importantly, in my heart) when I am working.  In fact, I still hold a primitive desire to have my poetry read by the average reader.  Doomsday and Asterisk are both little books—4×6—because my honest intention is for people to put them in their pockets and carry them around everywhere they go. I love it when I see a person with a book sticking out the corner of a pocket.  But, to be honest, the people who have responded to my work—and I think these are the people who are my real audience—editors of amazing literary journals that are thriving right now.  I don’t mean they are my audience because I want them to publish me.  This is a separate issue.  There is real love there and this is what I want for my work.  Susan Yount at Arsenic Lobster and the late Carol Novack at The MadHatters’ Review are just two examples of the kind of people who read your work the way you would want people to read your work.  I am certainly not writing just for them, but sometimes, when I am feeling low or desperate about poetry or whatever, I think of them and it all seems ok.

Q. In what ways does your poetry challenge the reader? For example, your last poetry collection employed the device of an asterisk—how did you decide to use it in your poetry?

A. For the most part, I would say my work is pretty accessible.  The prosier I become, the more comfortable people seem to be with the work.  There are exceptions and most of the time those are the longer poems.  “Insomniac’s Cookbook,” for example, is a pretty singular experience in my work in that it is deliberately challenging.  I wanted to write a poem that was like chewing on glass.  It might not be any fun to read but you would remember the experience.  I didn’t want to write a poem about breakdown, I wanted to write a poem that was a breakdown.

In terms of the asterisks in Big Bad Asterisk*, they have been long in my mind.  When you write a dissertation, as you well know, you become the master of the footnote.  I feel like I can’t make a simple statement without wanting to qualify it.  It gets to the point where you start to feel like the footnotes are more important than the main text.  I feel this way about Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion.  If you read the book and skip—like most of us do—all the endnotes, you’re getting a very anemic vision of the moment I am trying to describe.  The main text is the made-for-TV version.  It’s where you polish and focus in order to present something clear and coherent.  And there isn’t anything wrong with shaping your argument in such a way, of course, but the messy parts are by far and away the best parts.  If I had had my way, Contagion would have even more notes.   And this ability to shift the best parts of the story to the margins is one thing, I think, that poetry does exceedingly well.  I have always wanted to do something meta-textual with my poetry.  And this all before I had read Pale Fire.  I think you put it best in your review of Asterisk* when you said, “It’s a short distance to conclude that any of our actions or utterances can be asterisked ad nauseam, such that we can easily relate to the paralyzed Hamlet or the Hollow Man.  However, the neurotic in each of us is rather impatient for the next bit of trivia: to witness where it leads and whence it came.”  I love that.  On the one hand, it gives our lives a kind of bottomless Google emptiness, but, on the other hand, it shows the redeeming quality of the little things that truly shape a life and draw us together.

Q. What poets or poetry excites you today? Any poetry criticism?

A. The poet who has influenced me the most in the last ten years or so would have to be James Tate, especially his prose poetry in Return to the City of White Donkeys.  Ted Hughes, because of his epic vision, is always on my mind.  And Simon Perchik—because of his unmatched control of language—is the most important influence on me now.  His Hands Collected is a masterpiece.  My interests lately are focused on Luso-American/Canadian writers.  I am a huge fan of Portuguese literary critic Vamberto Freitas because he is on the front lines of our movement. Without him, the larger perspective would be lost.  He brings some cohesion to what is, at the moment, nothing more than a wild bunch of hungry and exciting young writers.  He has written two books which are must-reads for anyone who is interested in what is going on right now in Portuguese American literature—Imaginários Luso-Americanos e Açorianos and borderCrossings.  I also enjoy reading Millicent Accardi, an excellent Portuguese-American poet, who has been doing a series of interviews for various outlets like Portuguese American Journal, Poets’ Quarterly, and This Magnificent Life.  She is someone I follow for all things literary in the Luso-American world.  Without people like them, and there are others, nothing very much would happen.

Q. Without giving away any of your deep secrets, can you talk about your next book project?

A. I am currently working on my first novel called The Secret Correspondence of Loon and Fiasco.  I am trying to take what I did in Big Bad Asterisk* to the next level.  Asterisk*, as you know, is a prose-poem novella.  With every book I have published, I have become prosier and prosier.  Fishermen, for example, was very much in the lyric tradition.  Doomsday, on the other hand, is a prose-poem collection, and Asterisk* is an even prosier prose-poem collection.  Asterisk* is prosier partially because I decided to tell the story of a single couple.  The little bit of narrative arc demanded a different technique than the one I developed in Doomsday.  In fact, the more I think about that book, the more I am convinced that it is a flash fiction novella.  What’s the distinction?  I’m not sure.  What I do know is that the poems in Doomsday and the poems in Asterisk* are quite different formally.  My hope is to now take the next logical step with a novel.  Of course, I have zero interest in writing a conventional novel—mostly because I don’t think I can.  If I could, I totally would.  I’m just not good at it.  I want to see what happens when I add just a little more narrative arc pressure.  I don’t want Fiasco to be some strange one-off affair.  I want it to continue the work of the other books, even if it isn’t poetry.

Q. I’d love to hear about your writing process—when and how do you write? How do you get words written down on paper? Do you ever experience writer’s block? How hard is it to edit your own work? Give me an example of one thing you had to save for posterity and one thing you wouldn’t want anyone to read.

I do most of my writing in notebooks.  In fact, I have been keeping a journal since February 1995.  I still feel there is something centering about the act of using a pen.  The journal is most important during my gathering phase.  The gathering phase is by far the most fun part of my process.  At that point, literally anything could end up being a part of the project.  Because I have a three-hour round trip bus ride every day, I do most of my journaling on the bus.  As hideous as that sounds, it allows me to write nearly every day.  I finished my dissertation on the bus and wrote a good deal of my poetry while riding the bus as well.  Once I start to have an idea what the overall project looks like, I usually switch to the keyboard.  In terms of words, the majority of it is written directly on the computer.  I usually write at coffee shops with music blasting.  I need to have people around me.  For whatever reason, it keeps me motivated.  Ever since college, this has been the way I work.  I have trouble working at home—too quiet, too isolated.

I sometimes—usually when I get a little stuck or I need a change—use a white board.  I go from the notebook to the white board to the computer back to the white board, etc.  It is different enough an experience that it helps me get out of my own way.  When I wrote Counting Sheep Till Doomsday and Big Bad Asterisk*, I worked live on Facebook.  Nearly every poem in those two books was once a status update on the Carlo Matos fanpage.  Although people did comment on the pieces, which did influence the poems, the most important part was the medium itself—the way it broke down the poems and the fact that they were always before my eyes—literally live.

I love to revise.  This is what makes me a good and an annoying writing teacher.  Once I have most of the words down in some hideous raw form, and a good idea of the whole, it’s all chopping and sawing and scraping and filing.  If there was some way to make two-dimensional writing, a three dimensional object, I would totally do it.  Once I reach a certain point in the process, the end seems like a definite thing, even if I don’t know what that thing will ultimately be.  Sometimes I imagine that it’s like typology—I am bending and stretching not tearing and gluing by this point.

I wish I had a dramatic writer’s block story, but I don’t.  Because I work in several genres, I don’t often experience writer’s block.  I know it’s cliché now to say I don’t get writer’s block, but I don’t.  If the poem isn’t going well, I work on a piece of flash fiction.  If the flash piece isn’t working, I work on the novel.  If the novel is stuck, I do a review.  If I am totally sick of writing, I go to the gym and let people punch and kick me, and then the writing starts to feel easy again.  As a body builder, I know you know what I mean.

 Q. Is there any connection between your non-academic interests and writing poetry?

A. The simple answer is yes but not that much.  Lately, MMA and archery have started to appear as tropes in my work.  Asterisk* does have a character who is an MMA fighter, but there is very little by way of fighting or training.  I am determined, for some unknown reason, to write about fighting in a meaningful way, but, for the most part, it remains a small part of my poetic output.  Because the more I write about my actual life, the less good it tends to be, I try to avoid directly bringing my life into my work.  That is not to say, however, that I don’t find ways to transform some of the more dramatic experiences.  It’s like I need to become a stranger from the experience for me to be able to do anything worthwhile with it.  It’s kind of exhausting and the payout is on the whole rather small, so it isn’t really worth it.


(*) Michael Colson earned a doctoral degree in English at the University of Southern California. He teaches English and Philosophy at Porterville College and lives in Visalia, CA with his redwoods and koi fish. He is working on two book projects: a study of Yeats and Wittgenstein, and a novel about his mother.

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