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The Writer’s Hot Seat: Matthew Siegel on Teaching, Reading, and Writing His First Book

18 March 2015 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags: ,

Interview by Cynthia Plascencia

I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Siegel in 2008 at the University of Houston when I was an undergraduate and he was an MFA poetry candidate teaching the first creative writing class I ever took: “Introduction to Creative Writing.” What I remember about Matt from those days is the collection he was always working on, his endearing love for Walt Whitman, his bright yellow sunglasses.... But most of all, I remember him as the first person I'd met who passionately and unapologetically loved poetry. When the opportunity came up to interview him, I was thrilled to catch up after so many years. I consider him a great writer, a truly genuine human being, and a major catalyst in my own unapologetic love for poetry.

Matthew Siegel's first book, Blood Work, has won the 2015 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry from University of Wisconsin-Madison. A Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, he holds degrees from University of Houston and Binghamton University, and he currently teaches literature and creative writing at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

B: First off, congratulations on your first collection of poetry, Blood Work, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. What can you tell us about the collection and the process of getting it published?

MS: Thank you so much, Cynthia. I didn't think of myself as necessarily “writing a book of poems” until graduate school when I had to put a creative thesis together. I have been writing poems since 1997, and the oldest poems in Blood Work date back to late 2004. There are maybe two or three that made it in from my undergraduate years. Once I got to California from Houston, I did a big slash and burn with my thesis, cutting it from 50 pages to less than 20. This was 2009 and I was just starting the Stegner. I had been sending the thesis out some, against my better judgment (considering how not-ready it was). I should mention that the process of publishing a book and writing one are completely different, and as goals, they should not be mixed up with one another. I had a near-miss in 2012 when the book was almost taken for the Wick Prize at Kent State (my friend Michael Mlekoday took the honor for his wonderful book, The Dead Eat Everything). I was very lucky not to win because taking another couple years was really necessary. You only get one shot with your first book and the time really helped make Blood Work what it is.

B: It’s interesting to know that your collection underwent so many revisions over time, especially after you were sending it out for publication and even selected as a finalist. I’m sure the more you read and experienced, the more your writing must have changed. Who or what would you say has influenced your writing?

MS: I pretty much always wanted to write poems, but once I found writers like Bob Hicok, Patricia Smith, Tony Hoagland, and Olena Kalytiak Davis, I really wanted to write well. I studied their poems, read them again and again, shared them with friends. I was a real nerd about poetry, and I think that's necessary if you want to write poems. You can't be half-invested and write well. It just doesn't work that way, at least not long-term. Anybody can dazzle a little bit, but if you want to know how to really sing, you need to live inside poems you love. I read a lot of literary journals and anthologies in college, which I think helped me to see what's possible. In my last year of graduate school I read pretty much nothing but Yehuda Amichai and Walt Whitman. I'm also influenced by plenty that is not poetry, especially photography. There are a number of poems in Blood Work written after photographs by Elinor Carucci, Robert Frank, and Larry Towell. And anything beautiful: Rodin sculptures, experimental films, and probably most importantly, Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.

B: Actually, I remember reading Rilke in your class at the University of Houston! Well, let me ask, how did teaching writing help and/or hinder your own creative writing process?

MS: Teaching writing didn't change my process so much, but it did help me build a better vocabulary for talking about writing. It also gave me the chance to think about what makes a poem work. When I was a teaching assistant for a survey of poetry course, I had to really get myself into poets I normally would have scorned. I'm thinking particularly of some of the Victorian poets, whom I dismissed as being antiquated in my earlier insecurity/arrogance. When I had to figure out how to find a way in to convince my students, that's when things got interesting. I decided to sit with these poets until I figured out what made them special, what made them last. This was essential for me, building up a trust of the great masters on whose shoulders we stand.

B: Do you still teach today?

MS: I do still teach, both creative writing and literature, at a couple different places. I find it doesn't really get in the way of much. In fact, I think it makes me a more astute writer and expect more from myself.

B: After receiving your MFA from UH you were awarded a Stegner Fellowship, one of the most prestigious writing fellowships in the country. What was that experience like right out of graduate school?

MS: That experience was a total shock to me. And my parents. I did not tell anyone I applied, nor did I think it was remotely possible that I'd get it. I don't think anyone can really feel like they deserve a fellowship like that. At least I didn't. Words like “deserve” when it comes to anything with art kind of scare me. The numbers are crazy, I don't need to tell you. I was planning on sticking it out adjuncting in Houston and then New York and you know, life. Then this happened and everything changed.

B: I can imagine. Well, thanks to social media, I’ve been able to see lot of these changes. You've accomplished a great deal at a very young age: extensive traveling, degrees, fellowships, and now your book. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who might consider their youth a disadvantage?

MS: Youth is not really a disadvantage. Talk to someone older who feels out of the loop and they'll tell you that it's all about these hot, new, young MFA grads. Roxane Gay has said a lot that I find meaningful around this topic. It is an immense privilege to be in a graduate writing program, so there's a big advantage right there. What is a disadvantage is not having read. In a sense, this is the disadvantage of youth. Younger writers typically haven't read enough. I hear a lot of young poets very casually dismissing great poets (and, unfortunately, their peers), which I think is a big mistake. Arrogance is perhaps the biggest disadvantage. Meanness and suspicion are disadvantages. What's the real advantage? Having enough guts to be really invested in the world, not simply looking at it as material. Another advantage is kindness and generosity of spirit.

B: Great advice, especially about the importance of reading. So I’ll end with a question I’m sure you’re asked often: What are you reading these days?

MS: Right now I'm in love with a number of gorgeous (and very new) poetry book: Jericho Brown's The New Testament and a trio of books I got from YesYes Books: Deniz Smith's [insert] boy, Emily O'Neill's Pelican, and Megan Privatello's A New Language for Falling Out of Love. Also eager for Natalie Eilbert's Swan Feast, which just came out, and Tracey Knapp's Mouth, which comes out in summer.

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