Tag Archives: Matthew Gavin Frank

National Poetry Month: Matthew Gavin Frank

Life Sciences

When the corn is painted with the most
exotic thing we can imagine—
a goat, perhaps, or
the blood of the goat—clench your fists
to your chest, mimic
the chambers of the heart.
In this, you show your fear
at being the object of another’s
initiation into the patch-worthy,
a symbol to carry us
from these copper roofs going green,
all the first edition textbooks stinking
like steampipes.

Your knees, of course, will pull
to your chest—brain, this time.
Anything with a lobe.
Between them, you see all the other girls,
their skinny ribs draped
as if in documentary, all those things
behind glass in Life Sciences
and you realize something about protection,
that you don’t have to be an embryo
to be amphibious, to be young
and crumpled by the side of the train tracks
with the rest of them, found
out past the diner, their bodies covered
in fine moss.

Shame on this earth for being fertile
for giving us food that never rejects
the sun.  The pack animals here
run on diesel, and bring the air
down to our level, where we can breathe it.

If I wasn’t so far away, I would
offer you my hand, call us
what we are:
a species that finds
even our own blood
revolting.

Q: What is your writing process?

A: These days, my process involves, during the warm weather months, sitting at a fold-out table in my front yard in Marquette, Michigan, combing through my old spiral notebooks, searching for orphaned lines and, longhand, cobbling a poem together around one of them.  I’ll watch my next-door neighbors—a scantily clad elderly couple—gardening in their bathing suits, cinching up their tomato plants.  Then, I’ll revise, and type.  During the winter months, the process is the same, except that I peer into the neighbor’s yard through my living room window, and they’ll be wearing snowsuits, and chasing their obnoxious Pomeranian, Rudy, through the drifts.

Q: Is there an exciting poet (emerging or established) whose work you just discovered this year?

A: Christina Olson’s book, Before I Came Home Naked (Spire Press), blew my doors off.  There’s such a velocity to the book.  Such swagger and fragility.  Reading it is like driving really fast through Death Valley with the windows down, listening to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, and you feel like a teenager again—all moony and fluttery—until, about ¾ of the way through, adulthood catches up to you (around Barstow), and slaps you across the face, and all of this prior exhilaration has gathered, like static electricity, this emotional weight that’s almost too much to bear.  By the book’s end you realize that you were never really in California at all, but a place more like Minnesota or something.  It’s the funniest, saddest book of poems I’ve read in a long time.

Q: If you could go on a one-week writing retreat anywhere in the world, where would you travel?

A: If I hadn’t been traveling so much lately, I’d say Sicily.  I’d love to write some poems while digesting fresh sardines with orange and pistachio and chile flake and olive oil, drinking some Etna Rosso wine, tasting in it the volcanic soil.  But I have been traveling a lot lately, and it’s good to be home now, so I’ll say: upstairs, to my bedroom.  It’s where most of my stuff is.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of Pot Farm (The University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books), Barolo (The University of Nebraska Press), Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and the chapbooks Four Hours to Mpumalanga (Pudding House Publications), and Aardvark (West Town Press).  Recent work appears in The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. He was born and raised in Illinois, and currently teaches Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.  This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish-thimbleberry ice cream.

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Matthew Gavin Frank

The Morrow Plots

You sit on the roof
of the Biology Building, against

such a color green,
you don’t know if it once

was copper, capable of boiling
or freezing

an egg.  The book opening
to your knees

explodes with border scenes—
skeletal fish becoming women

with piñata faces.
When skin is cut

into strips like this, it can,
from a distance, be a beard,

a chapter about the half-life
of food.  Below you,

one vegetable huddles
against another, evolving,

these incredible skins
unchewable, the worm

who finds its way in,
to fruit.

We must be peeled
to be eaten, under a roof

to find heat.  And the jarred gods
of reptile and rock,

they way that, in the formaldehyde
suspension, we are all missing

links.  That sound below you
is the corn talking,

to the cows, the agronomists,
the piñatas filled

with endless huitlacoche.
Up here, you can’t tell

exactly who experiments and who
is experimented on.

When you wake on the roof
of a biology building, the stars

will be so affectionate
that you can’t muster enough anxiety,

the temperature required
to boil water, to make more than

half of this life
astonishing.

(Poem originally published in Third Coast, Spring 2009.)

Q: Where is your favorite place to write?

A: I like writing, weather-permitting, in my backyard in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  There, I am easily distracted from the computer screen by cool things like birds and stray cats and bamboo clacking in the wind.  So when I snap myself back to task, I find that I inadvertently gravitate toward birdy, mewling, perennial themes.  What I’m trying to say is: the backyard takes my work-in-progress in unexpected directions, breaks it in essential ways, ways that surprise me and lard the process with a whole lot of fun.  The only problem is that I feel compelled to grab the laptop and hide inside when the landlord’s lawnmower guy comes, because that guy has diarrhea of the mouth.

Q: Do you remember the first poem you read that really blew your mind?

A: As a young guy, smaller and shorter than most young guys my age, I appreciated poems that allowed me, via their unbuttoned-shirt and big-ass belt-buckle voices to swagger along with them, to feel, from stanza to stanza, more like a man. I remember reading James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” in my early teens and it melted my face off.  I recited it to anyone who would listen—fucked-up so many first dates with it, delayed my first-kiss by at least two years.  But it first showed me that poems can cull from those dark, ecstatic places in the brain, or barn.

Q: What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in the last 12 months?

A: My wife and I were stranded for a night and a day in an awful, doorless (front wall-less, actually) restaurant in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India when the skies opened up and city flooded.  We ate delicious unwarmed food from banana leaves.  When the rain stopped, we waded through sternum-deep waters back toward our hotel and mutually fell into an open sewer.  We clawed our way out and emerged coated in shit.  A real Slumdog Millionaire moment.  Back at the hotel, we cried, then laughed, then showered thrice each.  We were later told that we were lucky to be alive.  Folks drown that way all the time in India.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Barolo (The University of Nebraska Press) and Pot Farm (forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press), the poetry books, Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and the chapbooks Four Hours to Mpumalanga (Pudding House Publications), and Aardvark (West Town Press).  Recent work appears in The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Field, Epoch, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others.  He’s on a silent mission to rescue the delicious, but challenging green pepper from the shadows of the easy red and slutty yellow.

Matthew Gavin Frank in New York City: August 10-12

For those of you in the NYC area, you’ve got two chances to hear Matthew Gavin Frank read from his two most recent titles: Sagittarius Agitprop, a poetry collection that came out from Black Lawrence Press last summer and BAROLO, his memoir about working in the Italian Piemontese food and wine industry. Here’s the info:

Tuesday, August 10, 6 PM
308 Bowery 
(Between Houston and Bleecker)
Wednesday August 11, 7 PM
150 East 86th Street (Lexington)
We hope to see you there! But if you can’t make it to either of the events, you can order a copy of Sagittarius Agitprop from the Black Lawrence Press website or Amazon.

Frank and the Sinyaya Bluza: A Review of Sagittarius Agitprop in Agni

There is a great new review of Sagittarius Agitprop by Matthew Gavin Frank over at the Agni website. Here’s a great snippet:

Crafted with allegory and image, agitprop speaks to poetry. Both rely on these tools to yield a larger picture, a more complex rendering. And for poets like Matthew Gavin Frank, agitprop works, both as a rhetorical strategy and as a gateway to artistic discussion. In today’s pitch-saturated America—a country now inured to terrorist attacks and reductive television news, blogs without fact-checkers, and information tweeted in 140 characters or less—antiestablishment writing unpacks the images and messages trumpeted without nuance to Americans (think mission accomplished) and makes them into art.

Thanks to Rachel Mennies for such a great review. You can read the entire thing here.

Sagittarius Agitprop is available from Black Lawrence Press and Amazon.

National Poetry Month Wrap-Up

As April draws to a close, we’d like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the Black Lawrence Press authors who participated in our National Poetry Month feature:

David Rigsbee, “Pilot House
Marcela Sulak, “Pomelo With Fallen Angel
Shelley Puhak, “War
T.J. Beitelman, “The Inciting Incident
Laura McCullough, “The Ellisionist
Jason Tandon, “Work
Abayomi Animashaun, “A New Religion
Carol Guess, “Kicks
Joe Wilkins, “A Roadside Diner in Iowa
Lisa Fay Coutley, “In the Carnival of Breathing
Matthew Gavin Frank, “After Il Sergente Serbo e Sua Moglie
Michele Battiste, “Nobody Leaves
Katharine Rauk, “How Many Weeks are in a Day and How Many Years in a Month?
Brent Goodman, “Another Prayer
Stefi Weisburd, “Behind My Ear is a Little Palace in Broad Daylight
Larry Matsuda, “Arc de Triomphe, 2003 Invasion of Iraq
Sandra Kolankiewicz, “Winter Sonata
Frank Matagrano, “Waiting with Alexandria for Her Mom
Hayden Saunier, “Beach
Kevin Pilkington, “Milk
Michael Hemmingson, “Sedona
Erica Wright, “Reservoir
Keith Taylor, “At the Living Creche
James Reidel, “Ave Maria afarensis
Helen Marie Casey, “Mary Dyer’s Courtship
Brad Ricca, “Workshop
Daniele Pantano, “The Oldest Hands in the World
Julia Cohen, “Panic at My Wilderness
Rachel Galvin, “In Cambium Lucida

And most importantly, thank you to everyone who read, shared, and commented on these poems — you’ve made this event a big success!

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Matthew Gavin Frank

AFTER IL SERGENTE SERBO E SUA MOGLIE
sketch by Aldo Carpi

We can make it to any river
on foot, on bird, on fish

on humming—
though you need to close

your eyes, hug your knees
to your chest,

rock in that typical pose
of distress, a water lily

in the desert, wondering
how the hell it woke up there,

forgetting wind—
and humming is not

the way to travel fast
on sticklegs, on thank you

thank you thank you,
humming is not the way,

on trowel, on thermal, on
Serbian sergeant-back, the way

before the frogs freeze,
the storm of mosquitoes

succumbing to steam (you
are getting sleepy, sleepy)

on staying awake, on
eyes open!     until

I drool, say,
let go of my hand, bend

my tongue,
and you bend me here

in this field
like willowbranch

where everything you loved—
fresh strawberries cut

into oatmeal, collecting rain
in a blue cistern—you

left them with me,
you made it all the way there

only to lose to a fish,
your legs blown apart

like some half-remembered
song, ill-carried, but carried

nonetheless.  The handfuls of air
we couldn’t quite close

our fingers around
left us for water, the difference

between hometown
and birthplace.

Q: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on the day you wrote the above poem?

A: I was riding my bike along Lyon Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan, toward the outskirts of the city, the businesses thinning, the dog parks cropping up. The sunflowers in the community garden were just beginning to die, and I parked myself on a bench in the mud in front of one of them, pulled the folded-up Aldo Carpi sketch from my wallet, and wrote the first few lines of the poem. At my feet, I saw, detached from any kind of stem and way out-of-season, a perfect unblemished red tomato. Then, I wrote “water lily in the desert” line and went from there.

Q: What is the last book you’ve read that made you want to grab a pen and write?

A: Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland is inspiring me to write strange poems about chanteuse mothers and auto body shops, Jewish deli dill pickle fetishists and the wallflowers who love them. Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun is informing a few lyric essays I’ve been writing about Mexico.

Q: What is the most sublime meal you’ve ever eaten?

A: This month: carne cruda (raw heirloom beef tenderloin with arugula, porcini mushroom, and white truffle oil), agnolotti al plin (tiny Piemontese Italian ravioli stuffed with braised veal and leek, sauced with sage butter and veal stock reduction), wild boar braised in Barolo wine, and hazelnut panna cotta at Osteria La Cantinetta in Barolo, Italy. I’m still pinning my residual burps into my lavender-scented scrapbook.

Matthew Gavin Frank’s poetry collection Sagittarius Agitprop is available for purchase at Black Lawrence Press.

BLP Celebrates National Poetry Month

Black Lawrence Press will celebrate National Poetry Month by featuring a poem by one of our authors every day on the blog. Each poem will be accompanied by a short Q&A with the author. Participating authors include:

Abayomi Animashaun
Michele Battiste
T.J. Beitelman
Helen Marie Casey
Lisa Fay Coutley
Matthew Gavin Frank
Rachel Galvin
Brent Goodman
Carol Guess
Sandra Kolankiewicz
Frank Matagrano
Lawrance Matsuda
Laura McCullough
Kevin Pilkington
Shelley Puhak
Katharine Rauk
James Reidel
Brad Ricca
David Rigsbee
Hayden Saunier
Marcela Sulak
Jason Tandon
Keith Taylor
Stefi Weisburd
Joe Wilkins
Erica Wright

So be sure to check the BLP blog every day in the month of April for some great reading!