“I have never really considered myself a Poet”: An Interview with Matthew Lippman

Matthew Lippman’s new poetry collection, Mesmerizingly Sadly Beautiful, won The Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry. He is also the author of five other poetry book collectionsA Little Gut Magic (Nine Mile Books 2018), Salami Jew (Racing Form Press 2014), American Chew (Burnside Book Press 2013), Monkey Bars (Typecast Publishing 2010), and The New Year of Yellow (Sarabande 2007). Lippman currently teaches creative writing at Beaver Country Day School and runs one-on-one online poetry workshops. In this interview, we talked a little bit about Lippman’s new book, his inspiration for writing, and what poetry represents. 

I took “Glorious and Bored” to heart, particularly to these lines:

We don’t pay enough attention to other peoples’ faces.
The way they contort into rivers.
The way they mutate into cities
and yearn for other faces that are rivers and volcanoes.
Look up. Loot at me
so I can look at you.
That’s all anyone wants to say
but we are all too busy being glorious and bored.

I have felt like that so many times. The yearning of ‘just look up, please’ but we are always busy or maybe just too anxious with ourselves, allowing others to do the thinking and interpreting for us.

Yes. I don’t think we look up enough. I think we look down and into these devices. One of the most interesting things about the Dunkin’ Donuts that I was in when I wrote that poem is that it is in a neighborhood between Newton and Watertown. It’s a place for regular customers. A lot of older folks. They come in and sit at tables and drink coffee and talk. Asking questions about one another and one another’s families and checking in. Those folks are not, for the most part, on phones, and it is always refreshing to me when I go into that DD to get my iced tea. I think that is what inspired the poem. The daily face-to-face.

In an interview in The Writer’s Chronicle with Tina Cane, you mention that your “poetry has always been informed by the chaos of the street and whether that means the playground, the classroom, the boardroom, the kitchen, the lakeside, wherever and whatever.” I am definitely intrigued by your perspective! Can you talk a little more about that?

The world has a lot of music in it. The world has a lot of strange and odd and wonderful things happening, all at once. I have always been interested in the beauty of everyday life—sonically, visually, sensually. It’s the most beautiful part of being in the world to me. All the little things. A conversation, a look, something someone says. There is poetry, music, in all of it and this is what inspires me. 

In the same interview, you also talk about your site Love’s Executive Order, as a way of your response to the Trump Administration in the form of poetry, because you were inspired by your teacher who didn’t shave his beard for eight years straight during Reagan’s presidency. I love the authenticity of the poems, and especially seeing the writing community coming together is inspirational. As a person of color, I feel at ease, if that makes sense, meaning it’s the feeling of not feeling left out, especially after reading one of your own poems that appear on the site, “The Healing Love Baptismal Church – Impeachment Day,” talking about the day like any other day:

Mail was delivered
Dead pigs were hauled into backdoor restaurant kitchens, 
sandwiches unpacked and swallowed whole on park benches
on this day, any other day.

To me it was like a pot of simmering water that suddenly boiled over and took us by a hot storm. I think that this is very creative and more of our communities should think of creative ways to respond to situations that hinder us in some ways.

Thank you for checking out Love’s Executive Order. I am glad you like that poem, too. The wonderful thing about LEO is that it is a community of poets responding to this time in American History. I feel blessed that people read it and respond and send in work. It feels very democratic to me and I appreciate the range of poets, poetry, and voices. It’s whole, you know, in the way that something can be an organism that celebrates everyone no matter where they are on the journey. 

Tell me about when you started out as a poet. Who were some of the authors or people that inspired you to continue to be a poet?

It’s funny you ask this question because I think, early on, what inspired me to write more than anything else was this combination of music, a desire for solitude and expression, and then, not being able to write songs. I could barely write poems and I needed to write poems. I still do. I need to write poems like I need to eat. Early on it was the music of Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones, Miles Davis, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Rueben Blades, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan that set me on my path.

When I started reading poems I was very much taken with Frank O’Hara’s rambling, expressive, chaotic voice. Also, Anne Sexton. Her later work. And finally, the poetry of Juan Felipe Herrera

There has been instances where I thought that maybe, if I want to be a writer, I need to put myself in a category or in a type of writing genre like non-fiction, fiction, poetry etc. to direct readers to understand the type of a writer I am, but it just seems like a lot of pressure and not really fun. Do you have any thoughts on that?

This is a great question. I was watching a documentary, a bad documentary, on Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool, and there is a moment in there where, if I remember correctly, he does not say that he plays jazz music but that he plays the ‘sounds of jazz.’ For him, music is just music. I have never really considered myself a Poet. I don’t walk around feeling like that or identifying as one. I have, though, my whole life, walked around feeling like I am a guy who writes poems, who is involved in the ‘sounds of poetry.’ Those sounds, of course, are ones that come from and are inspired by the world, by everyday life.

These poems that I write just visit me from the ether, from the outside, and they happen, sonically, visually, and that’s it. It’s a process, an existence, of just being open to the ‘thing.’ The music or words and giving them to the world. Categories and things like that are things that can block being open.

That’s all this is anyway, this making poems, this making of anything…just being open to whatever is in front of you and then you make something in it, from it, with it. 

Marzia Syeda is a senior studying English and writing at The College of Saint Rose. She currently interns at The Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany. She enjoys listening to spoken word poetry and loves to paint Bob Ross–inspired paintings. 

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