Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tuesday Treats: Alexandra Mattraw

Introducing the enigmatic, charming and ever intriguing poet, Alexandra Mattraw. I had the pleasure of getting to know Alex on the beaches of Cape Cod and in a poetry workshop this past summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. We were taking a poetry workshop with Carolyn Forché where I quickly learned two things:
1. I had a lot to learn about poetry.
2. Alex was on another level.

I had a rather humbling experience in that workshop, the kind that made me want to pack it up and call it quits on poetry. But after defending my piece (which seemed to fall on mostly deaf ears) Alex slipped me a note while I was receiving a somewhat brutal critique letting me know, "Don't listen to them. This is a poem!" She then asked questions and highlighted some of the images in my poem. She did what I have found is not always the case in workshops with other writers, she encouraged me. Besides being a poet, Alex is also an amazing teacher.

Our phone conversation started late because Alex was asked to chaperon a dance at her school the night before. We talked about her job and how she loves being a teacher and feels so lucky to spend her time with brilliant and inspiring students while swimming in readings and discussions of James Joyce, Toni Morrison, Camus, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. She also admitted that without her job's support of her passion, completing her MFA would have been much more difficult.

Alex is the only person I know with three degrees and not only does she have three very enriching degrees, all of which I would have loved to pursue, but she does not regret any of her student loan debt. Alex, who holds a BA degree in creative writing from UCLA, an MA in humanities from University of Chicago and her MFA in poetry from University of San Francisco (as well as being a former resident of Vermont Studio Center), has been encouraging me to pursue an MFA degree since the summer. She said, "I used to think getting an MFA was frivolous...but I think it is a really good thing and very well worth it, even the debt." I told her the debt is what keeps me from pursuing any further higher education, and she understood but suggested an alternative solution by doing night school (which she did) or a low residency program. She said that while in school, the intensity of the writing program and her amazing and inspiring teachers made her feel that "poetry is everything."  "It makes you feel like it is worth while and you can be confident about it and pursue it and I learned so much more about the craft of poetry and about the eras and movements that rendered the poetry movement with where we are now. I learned what's possible  in terms of the creative writing process and what a poem can be."

By the end of our conversation, I too, believed that poetry was everything, at least the way Alex thinks about it. When I asked her, "Why poetry?" She sort of laughed and said, "I could counter with why breathing!" Alex added that for her, "Writing is that innate and inherent in my perception and the way that I live...It is so inherent in what I have to do to be happy." Alex writes with that idea: "because there is nothing else."

Alex's poems are very abstract with strong, gut-splitting images and a mastery of form and language. Her poems are seductive and yet controlled. Mysterious and yet they resonate with me personally. On poetry, she said, "I find the world to be fairly dislocating. It's pretty dislocating and surreal and I think language, sadly, in its status quo is also this. I don't really think society's and the media's prescribed notion of happiness leaves very much room...but the poet can take language and press back on all of those categorizing experiences and the surreality of the world...English, as we claim it in our society, pins us down with exact ways to feel or meaning. Poetry's job is to scatter that. For each writer, we are all writing our own stories or reclaiming language that for better or worse tends to determine who we are. Ideally, the writer should be able to figure out how to express themselves in a way that actually molds an identity and a reality that is freer, more liberating and safer than what the world offers."

All of Alex's answers made me want to title this post: Alexandra Mattraw: Poet and Troublemaker. Her thoughts on language were thought-provoking and dangerously accurate. "Language, in a way, is quite linear and because of that we have a way of building these beginning, middle, and ends of how life should be and when life doesn't deliver, we end up feeling confused and lost...poetry is a way of clarifying meaning."

Alex attributed some of her theory on language to the theories of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and Lorine Niedecker. In terms of influences and heroes, she said at nineteen she read the French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud, and remembers feeling that so many things were possible. She also loves French symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Celan for his great image and music, William Carlos Williams for his use of the line and being deceivingly simple, and H.D. (the author of one of her favorite poems, Heat, along with the poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasard by Mallarmé) for the way she condenses and makes things so sharp image-wise. She added, Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath, Anne Carson, and Zach Savich not to mention prose writers, Beckett, Faulkner, Joyce , Toni Morrison, and Joseph Campbell, the artists Frida Kahlo and Dali and filmmakers, Herzog, Bergman and Fassbinder and so many more. She also credits an amazing teacher she had, Edward Smallfield, who gave her the kick in the pants we all need. That voice that says, What are you doing? You're serious about this, now get to it!

When I asked Alex, as I do all my Tuesday Treats, how they combat fear that creeps in when making art, Alex very matter of fact said, "Writing is not a place where I'm afraid. It's the opposite for me. I would feel petrified if I didn't have poetry in my life."

And on the dreaded question, What is art?  Alex gave my favorite answer to boot: "Anything that inspires the viewer to steal a rush of emotion. Ecstasy is the only word I can come up with... The world should become more beautiful and extremely vast when one is looking at something that is doing the work of art....divinity, the sublime...the feeling that the world is much bigger and much more alive than you could ever have words for..a feeling of joy that is not expressible and tangible in any linear form...A translation for the untranslatable that none the less cannot be expressed in words."

Even the way she speaks is poetic and despite the serious tone of this blog post, Alex is really quite funny and charming and thoughtful. Before we hung up she said, "Wait! Let me ask you a few questions."

Give yourself a Tuesday Treat and if you haven't clicked on the links above where I describe her poetry linking to some of her published works, check out these ditties which really capture the always evolving and exploring voice of Alexandra Mattraw: Summary Between Bodies from her first chapbook, Projection, or To Be Invisible (I love, love, love this one as well as this one, A Landscape Sounds) or check out some newer poems, like Casino Proposals and A Desert Sounds from her upcoming book Inside the Mind's Hotel, that were recently published by Shampoo. You can also check out other published poems by clicking this link here.

In closing, Alex offered great advice to aspiring writers. "Of course, write everyday.
Stephen Yenser at UCLA taught me (as far as publishing) Don't settle for less ever. Send your work to places you actually admire. Have high standards--think, would I want my work to be next to this person? It took me about a decade to get into a journal I really liked but when I did it helped me when sending my work to comparable journals." She also added the importance of finding an artistic community and to keep the creative energy flowing which is why she is starting an art salon in her hometown of San Francisco!

Alex, it was an absolute pleasure to interview and write about you. Thank you for your time and for everyone, thanks for reading another Tuesday Treat! To contact Alex, click here!

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