“We’d sit around, sweating, at the table of sitting together: A Conversation with Matthew Lippman about We Are All Sleeping With Our Sneakers On”— Curated by Tiffany Troy

Matthew Lippman is the author of six poetry collections. His latest book, We Are All Sleeping With Our Sneakers On, is published by Four Way Books. His previous collection, Mesmerizingly Sadly Beautiful (2020) is published by Four Way Books. It was the recipient of the 2018 Levis Prize.

Matthew Lippman’s We Are All Sleeping With Our Sneakers On imagines what it might be like if we snapped out of the modern-day disconnect and sat around, sweating, at the table of sitting together. It’s deeply rooted in place, popular culture, and music, which rise to a crescendo as the speaker emerges from driving into the dark oblivion of waitingrooms, hospitals, nightclubs, and classrooms. We follow this self-proclaimed most sentimental speaker as he walks the dog, watches the stars with his daughter, and approaches a laugh, a cry, a shiver, a two-step, a yell, a holler, a sigh. Before long, we realize we have fallen asleep with our sneakers on. When we wake up, we may not be in Finland, but we are buoyed with a new sense of exhilaration towards life that Lippman’s poems carry.

Tiffany Troy: How does “As Natural as Finland” set up the rest of the collection that is to follow? I was delighted that the poem begins at a sauna performance piece at the P.S. 1 in Queens, because it touches upon the centrality of the city to a speaker who has lived in the city for some time, before moving away, as well as the yearning for communion in a disconnected world.

Matthew Lippman: I’m trying to remember why I chose this poem to begin the book. Nakedness. Yes, nakedness. I mean, that situation was so beautiful at P.S. 1. It was so public and intimate and we were all strangers. That’s New York. Everything and everyone so close and so far apart at the same time. I am interested in closeness and togetherness and community and that’s what I hope that people feel when they read the book. Naked. Nakedness. This is why I thought “As Natural As Finland,” would be a good start. A poem about the body. The openness of the body and a willingness to get unclothed and sit with someone you don’t know, sweating, in the middle of everything noisy and loud and dirty and taxi cab and bodega and apartment building and subway train and graffiti.

TT: The noisiness and loudness and dirtiness of the taxi cab, bodega, and apartment building and subway train and graffiti is very New York, I feel! And you definitely captured the opposite of that New York nonchalance and aloofness through the nakedness in your opening poem. I would say that this desire for proximity through art (and the compassion contained within it) is very much a poetic ideal that runs through your collection overall, as well.

Can you speak of the process of writing this collection? In this sixth collection, you touch upon your growing up as a Jewish boy in New York, and your role as a teacher who moved from the city to a wealthy neighborhood and as a father of two daughters. You reference many literary and pop cultural icons. What has changed over time, versus what has stayed the same in this collection in your poetic imagination?

ML: The poems in We Are All Sleeping With Our Sneakers On were written over a 2 year period. For the most part they began during the pandemic and slipped into the early part of  2023. A lot happened in that time–Trump, MeToo, Black Lives Matter. Everything felt like it was shifting in the culture, and in the way people walked through the world. The poems came out of living in a time where all this stuff was going on and, like everything, I was trying to hold it in my poems. More importantly, my wife and I (like a lot of people with kids) were working on being good parents, raising the kids in the hard times. The writing came out of those happenings, movements, energies, just a response to what was in front of us and everyone else. So, if anything was different, it was that. My poetry has always been a reflection and commentary on what is immediate–in the world, what I am listening to, eating, and I love love love pop culture. Popular culture is everything to me. Especially music. The small things like Prince and Soul Train and the FedEx delivery person and the barbeque chicken I’m cooking. The small things are compelling because they are small and, then, trying to integrate them into the poems in a relevant, emotional, and generous way. The one thing, I hope, that has changed about my work is that it has, over the years, gotten more and more generous. By ‘generous’ I mean that a reader feels embraced by the poem and not pushed away by the poem. This is why I love getting the popular culture stuff into the work. Really, though, it’s what interests me and, secretly, or not so secretly, I wish that I was a popular musician rather than a popular poet. But, I am just a poet and I love writing poems because it’s so much damn fun and that is really important to me–that writing poems has an element of buoyancy and surprise to it, always.

TT: There is definitely buoyancy, and I would add humor in We Are All Sleeping With Our Sneakers On. The speaker proclaims himself to be the “most sentimental guy on the playground,” and there’s truth in that. But I would say his great compassion for others draws the speaker from “the dark oblivion of [his] suburban streets, [his] precious solitude,” into the “waiting rooms and hospitals and nightclubs and classrooms.” I love that about your poems.

Turning to the structure of the collection, how did you organize the poems into its three sections–which to me form a type of an arc–just as your poems individually are very story-driven, filled with narrative tension and (usually) a turn towards the surprising as well?

ML: I am more interested in how poems collide and that is what I pay attention to when putting a book together. I can’t say that Part 1 is about this or that. I want the poems to surprise the reader as they move in and out of one another. Not too many dog or kid or Covid poems clumped together. I think that is boring. Also, I can say that building a collection is intuitive and I am aware of brevity. Poetry books, at least mine, need to be short and quick like an LP record from the 60s and 70s. 7 – 10 songs and that’s it. Those records like Rumors and Let’s Get It On and Hotel California and Led Zeppelin 2 and The Stranger and Quiet Fire and Maggot Brain (I could go on and on) left you wanting more when the songs were done. They are perfect records because of 2 things: the tonal variation in the songs–thematically and sonically–and they are short. The reason they are short is because there is an attention to craft, a real attention to craft, to thinking about how songs got written, what songs made it on the record based on all the other songs around it, and the fact that the musicians could talk their time. Taking time was part of the creative process. That’s how I think about my books. Be mindful of craft. 25 -30 poem, drop the mic, boom, we’re done.

TT: It’s awesome that you liken your collection to a LP record and your role as a poet as something you settled upon as an alternative to becoming a musician. Do you write with a poetic form in mind (couplets or through composed) and whether the poem will be set in a major or minor key (like maybe for your “Crying poems”), or do you find your way through? I ask because for poets who write about real life events as metamorphosed by memory and imagination, sometimes it feels like maybe you’re writing less about what happened (say reading the Larry Levis poem or encountering the two girls going at it) but more about how what it means has shifted, whether at the moment or over time. I’m curious too because of course intuition comes into play but so does mapping.

ML: I saw two male cardinals this morning. The dog and I had come back from a walk. It was beautiful outside. The new spring sunshine. Some warmth in the air. The birds were going mad in song, some other birds. Not the cardinals. Then the cardinals showed up and the dog was eating a stick  and I’m sitting there writing a poem in my head. I am always writing a poem in my head. I had been listening to Sinead O’Connor on the dog walk but now I was listening to the birds and watching the dog and it was all so primal. 10 years ago, 5 years ago, the poem that I would have been composing would just have been about the dog and the cardinals and the blue sky and the primal nature of the scene. That would have been it. Today, though, earlier, the poem that I was composing in my head was about all of those things but then it turned to something else, or was about to, gambling in baseball, the Israel/Hamas war, the crazy anxiety that young people feel in school. My point is that in terms of mapping and finding my way through, it’s both. I am conscious of both, especially gravitating to a place that is not about the immediate situation. A poem, for me, always starts with what is immediate and then runs wild into the world, something in the world, because I have to get outside and away from my particular reality. I am boring. The world is not boring. Also, I feel like I have to do something wild in a poem, there has to be wildness, there has to be wild surprise. That’s why the cardinals start to talk to the dog in Mandarin or the sky opens up and a bag of bougenvillia floats down to save the world.

TT: I definitely agree with you that a poem is constantly being written, less on the page than on the mind! What an amazing and sharp vignette and thank you for taking me along with your dog walk. Imagine the cardinals talking with the dog in Mandarin and the bag of bougenvillia, ha! Speaking of animals, as a dog-lover and birdwatcher (or bird listener), how does the animal help you see just how interesting the world is and filled with connection? By that, I don’t mean that it’s all rosy-hued because the animals in your work, even if domesticated or tamed in some senses, are also primal in others. I think that’s what I love about your work, that it contains complexity and ambivalence, but it also is filled with hope, or maybe a kind of buoyancy that the animals exhibit.

ML: The body is the thing. The first, last, and only thing. Going back to the sauna poem. This language event of poetry is so ‘not’ in the world of physicality and if I can get myself and the reader close to the body then I am doing the good work. I want the reader to have an experience in their body when they read a poem that I have written. I am being for real here. Whether that is a laugh, a cry, a shiver, a two-step, a yell, a holler, a sigh. This is what I am hoping for, working towards. That’s the animal spirit of the poem that I am working really hard at getting out from the frustration of the page. The page is a frustrating entity because it’s blank and thin. It ain’t a guitar, a paintbrush, a block of wood or clay. So, the animal of the poem, for me, is about getting close to all that primal shit in the self and imposing that on the page. On some level I don’t like thinking when I write. Thinking is stupid. Intuition, flesh, intimacy, feeling. That’s the driving force for me and that’s why the animals are good to pay attention even when we are far away from them.

TT: I love how you describe the body and its relation to poetry because often times some poetry can become so cerebral that we forget to feel the emotion that is generated through the sound of the language, and maybe by extension its soul.

Do you consider yourself writing “political poetry?” What is some advice that you would give to poets who want to write poetry imbued with the animal, so to speak?

ML: I don’t consider myself as someone who writes ‘political poetry.’ I consider myself as someone who writes love poems.

In terms of advice, I don’t know. I think if you can be in touch with your own body, and the importance of the body as a celebration of life, in any form, of any animal, then that’s a good place to start. Being present in one’s body. Paying attention to your body and the bodies around you. That’s a good place to start when writing poems of the animal.

TT: That’s a great tip for those who are stumbling on a writer’s block. In closing, do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share with your readers of the world?

ML: Always listen to music.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor of Tupelo Press, Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and Assistant Poetry Editor at Asymptote.