I’m thrilled to get a chance to interview one of my favorite poets and fellow Michigander Matthew Olzmann. Yes, I can still call myself that after so many years in California. Matthew’s work is imaginative, rich, accessible, playful, and memorable. Consider getting his newest book Contradictions in the Design, from Alice James Books, for the holidays.
– Martin Ott
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
Too many to really list, but Wisława Szymborska, Robert Hayden and Larry Levis are writers whose work I’ve returned to with great frequency. My teacher Stephen Dobyns. My wife Vievee Francis—my discussions with her are always a part of my writing.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
I’m always working on several things at once. Maybe five or six poems plus a story or essay. I tend to shuffle between them as I revise. I work on something and take it as far as I can go with it then, when I get stuck, I shift to something else and eventually circle back.
What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?
Instead of finding your “voice” find a bunch of “voices.” Try on a lot of new things, new approaches, new ideas, etcetera. See what fits, what you might grow into and what’s challenging. Make mistakes. Your voice will be somewhere between all these things.
How has teaching impacted your own writing?
It makes you more aware of the choices you make and the things you value in writing. Having to articulate what might seem to be intuitive or intangible causes me to be more conscious of how I approach a piece of writing. Discussing a poem—whether it’s a poem I know and love by a writer I admire, or a new poem by a student that I’m reading for the first time—requires a careful attention to how a poem is put together. You notice what effects the poem produces, and then you try to describe how those effects are produced. It’s a discipline, a type of study, that deepens your relationship to the craft.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working a on new manuscript of (mostly) epistolary poems, and some scattered poems which are unrelated to that project. Also some short prose—flash fiction and lyric essays.
How has growing up and living in Michigan affected your writing?
It’s provided the landscape that’s become the backdrop for many of my poems. It’s introduced me to some of my closest friends in the writing world. It provided the first communities of writers that I was a part of, communities that probably continue to impact my writing and worldview in both pronounced and subtle manners.
Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?
House of Water by Matthew Nienow. Look by Solmaz Sharif. Also really looking forward to reading Overpour by Jane Wong, Vanessa Hua’s collection of stories Deceit and Other Possibilities, and Mike Scalise’s memoir The Brand New Catastrophe.
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
Not really. The “dream” of writing, I think, is kept alive solely by your love for it. You have to find time to write and to do that you might have to sacrifice something else. Those sacrifices might be significant, but you do that because you love writing. Writers write because they love books or stories or poems. And any obstacles I’ve faced aren’t incredibly unique to me. I went to four colleges before finishing my undergraduate degree. It took 12 years with a lot of time off in between. I tried to learn to write on my own for awhile. A lot of rejections. There’s the realization that the gap between the poems you want to write and the poems you’re capable of writing might be vast. And you go back to work. I hesitate to call any of this “adversity” because I’m doing something I love.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
I wrestled in high school. I played trumpet for three years and hated it. I’ve had jobs as a theater usher, a grocery store cashier and as a medical courier.
About the Author:
Matthew Olzmann is the author of two poetry collections: Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design (both from Alice James Books). His writing has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.