A Northern Spring: A Conversation with Matt Mauch & a Portfolio of Poetry – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling: Your stunning poetry collection, A Northern Spring, will soon launch from Trio House Press. How did this project begin?  

In March 2020, I was in Northern Ireland researching the Troubles for a study-abroad course (which I’m slated to teach in spring 2024) that uses the Troubles as a lens through which to better see and address divisions, conflicts, and violences in the US. While there, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and then-president Trump announced a travel ban from Europe. My travel party and I weren’t sure if we were going to get back home (were not sure if we wanted to—we seemed safer from the virus in Ireland). We made it back the same weekend thousands and thousands of others made it back en masse. As the Washington Post described it: “Harrowing scenes of interminable lines and unmasked faces crammed in confined spaces spread across social media. The images showed how a policy intended to block the pathogen’s entry into the United States instead delivered one final viral infusion. As those exposed travelers fanned out into U.S. cities and suburbs, they became part of an influx from Europe that went unchecked for weeks and helped to seal the country’s coronavirus fate.”

I began writing as soon as I got home. In the North of Ireland, I hadn’t paid for an international phone plan as somebody else in our traveling party had, so I could connect to a signal only when I had wifi. Save for one or two, I didn’t receive any text messages while there. They all arrived (en masse, too) we when landed back in Minneapolis. Borrowing from that reality, I recreated the time from the announcement of the travel ban until we landed back home in the form of text messages to a friend from whom I receive no reply. They aren’t real text messages, then, but a kind of diarist-who-loves-prose-poetry’s facsimile of such.

At the same time I started writing poems about the new world we were in—poems about lockdown and the something-new-every-day aspect of the pandemic. I researched past pandemics and wrote about ours. I’m one of those for whom that first pandemic year was a fruitful time. I wrote tons and tons.

Then George Floyd was murdered about 18 blocks from my home is South Minneapolis. The world saw on TV much of the aftermath that we lived. I am one of those who believe/feel/sense that the global uprising that the George Floyd murder sparked would likely not have been sparked had it not been for the conditions created by the pandemic and lockdown. So I wrote about that, too—it felt like the natural bookend of what I’d begun a couple months earlier. 

This book is literally a documentation of a particular spring at a particular time of confluences I’ll likely never experience again. The arc was set and the title—not the original title but a great editorial suggestion—brings together symbolically the unresolved but hopeful state of mind and body so many of us found ourselves in, wondering how will X, Y, and Z (and the all the other letters) turn out?

KMD:  Throughout A Northern Spring, I’m impressed by the way you use form and shifts in form to tell part of the story.  Your approach to sequencing is effective and accomplished.  What advice do you have for poets who struggle to sequence their poems as they work toward full-length collections?  

Asking people for advice on how to organize a collection is a lot like submitting a poem to a writing workshop: the advice the French chef gives is to make it more French and the advice the sushi chef gives is from a different universe altogether. 

As a poet, I think you should try to learn as many ways to cook are there are chefs willing to share, to teach you their ways. You should also experiment on your own, taking a bit from this and a bit from that, making something new. If it doesn’t taste good, don’t make it again. If it does, you’ve hit on something.

Once you have a collection ready to organize, draw on what you’ve learned and make the thing that tastes the best for you at that given moment—a combination of your learning, your experiments.

I’m going to loop out a bit before I loop back: When I was an undergrad working summers at a small-town tire shop and service station, the publisher of the local newspaper, a former English prof, always asked me about my studies when he came in with the ads he’d worked up for the weekly edition. One day I brought up reading Eliot and “Prufrock,” and he told me that “Prufrock” was a poem I wouldn’t really understand until I was 40. I didn’t believe him. But I’m past 40 now, and I get what he was saying. 

The books and poems I loved in my mid-to-late twenties aren’t the same books and poems I love now. I can’t appreciate them the way I did then, and the me I was then couldn’t appreciate how the books that hold me now hold me so. 

I’m still looping out: A brilliant, activist-who-doesn’t-know-she’s-an-activist former student of mine, who’s from Somalia but grew up with her aunt and sister in Germany before moving to Minnesota to care for her mom, who, because she didn’t test well on the entrance exams—English not being her first language but just one of three she was a fluent speaker of—ended up taking me for three courses in our composition sequence, two of which were developmental and so didn’t count for credit. We had a lot of conversations about—and she wrote some great essays on—the lack of respect US culture has for its elders. Her Somali culture valued the wisdom, place, and roll of society’s elders in ways that our youth-is-everything culture can’t even recognize. And I think that what she notes about US culture broadly is also true of US poetry culture. I think in large part we celebrate and propagate a kind of first-book industrial complex. New poets and new voices (and I’m close to looping back here) get inordinate attention by all involved—me included when I select books for classes, for example—which conflicts with my very deep recognition that most poets really get better as they get older, most of whom also suffer proportionally from a decreased interest and following.

When I read and teach first books by the latest young poets, I can see things I couldn’t see had I been reading them when I was the age of those writing them. I see how certain poems derive from certain exercises, how the sequencing follows the French tradition, etcetera (looping back hard now). So my advice to poets struggling to sequence their parts into a whole is to learn to cook things in as many ways as you can. When you have enough parts to make a whole, draw on what you know and make sure you experiment. Struggle is good. It gets the blood flowing to the brain, where the increased oxygen will fire more synapses, and—boom—creativity. If you are fortunate enough to grow into a poet the first-book industrial complex is largely not paying attention to anymore—if you’ve forgotten more ways to cook things than you can remember—you’ll look back on past choices by a past you and see ways you can improve now on what you did then. But you weren’t who you are now then. And you honor your past self by letting it be, just as you honor your current self by trusting it to take that chance on a way of cooking a thing that you, if nobody else, find delicious.

KMD:  I’m intrigued by the many types of silence at play in A Northern Spring, which range from white space, rupture, and elision to purposefully elided narrative context.  Can you speak to the power of silence in poetry and the importance of what is left unsaid?  

Gary Snyder said something in an interview, probably before I was born—certainly before I was old enough to pick up a date in car—about having to spend as many years un-educating yourself as you spent educating yourself. That struck me when I first read it and has stayed with me as a guiding foundational principle. What’s the authentic me? What parts of me are parts molded by other people and ideas? Can I genuinely separate the former from the latter? Or can I just pretend to? And if all I’m doing is pretending isn’t that as good as the rest? 

Maybe asking those questions is its own sort of self-ruse, but questions of that ilk—planted in me by what Snyder said—are part of my creative process. The more I work as a poet and writer, the further away I get from my own formal education, and the more I trust in the instincts of what feels like a buried genuineness, and while that may be a construct, it’s a construct that affects the process and changes the product. 

My native dialect isn’t the Standard Written English I teach. My native dialect is Midwestern small-town hick. An undergraduate English professor of mine told me, when I said I thought I’d like to be a writer, that I would never be a writer because of the way that I talked and how that talking permeated my writing. The proficiency I have with SWE has come with a lot of effort over the years, and when I teach it now I always teach it with a caveat near the end of class, using excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s essay “Authority and American Usage,” emphasizing that SWE is but one dialect and likely not the one my students were first proficient in—or will ever be most proficient in—making them just like me. I encourage my students to subvert SWE for purposes of greater justice, etcetera, but counsel them, as do the DFW excerpts I share, that they need to learn it well before they can subvert it, and may well need to employ it in the act of subverting it. 

A lot of what you’re referring to comes, I think, from those two principles commingling—me trying to un-educate myself, and me using SWE in the process of trying to subvert it. Throw in, too, my increasing ability, word by word by word over years, to trust the reader. To trust the reader to get it. To trust the reader such that I do not have to over-explain—don’t have to over-anything, but can just do what feels like needs to be done and no more.

I love how the meanings of the word “elision” make the word itself its own yin and yang. It’s alive—is a kind of power—which is also how I see and feel the white space on a page. Placement matters. Look at the walls of any well-decorated or well-orchestrated or accidentally perfect space. What we call “silence” or in the case of spaces “a neutral palette” (or whatever—fill in the blank) is not really silent or neutral (or whatever) at all. If poems emerge at the boundary between the yet-to-said and the saying of—which is the poem—then the white space is alive with all that is yet unsaid, all that is yet unsayable, an aether vast beyond anything we’ll ever get said. The silences are the hope of a kind of eternal, and so are entirely unknowable—which we want them to be because we need that—making them as safe as they are scary.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are an accomplished educator as well.  What has teaching opened up within your creative practice?  

College students who see their professors in class and office hours and maybe at an extracurricular event never see all the bullshit that comes with the job. They don’t see the meetings, the trainings, the new administrative priorities, the legislative agendas, the old ways of doing things dressed up as new ways, the effects across the board of decreased public funding, the colleagues trying to make everything right by getting everybody to do things their way, the reporting requirements, the newly required this, the newly required that, and oh by the way we’ve eliminated X and have no more funding for Y. I teach at a community college (but am fortunate to teach at one that offers an AFA in creative writing degree), so on the top of the usual bullshit is a heavy workload and a general sense among most that we’re not “real college.” So when these students see me, I make sure that they continue not to see the bullshit behind the curtain. In this way, teaching focuses me on what matters—what really matters—for life and living and getting by and growing and contributing if one wants to do as well as one can and have fewer regrets on the deathbed. I want to plant seeds that matter and can outlast draught and flood, flourishing when and if the time is ever right. So the bullshit keeps me focused on its opposite.

Once a week, probably, I tell students in a two-hour class session that I wish we had four, six, or eight more hours—that there’s so much I want to share with them. And it’s true, as one of the things that teaching has done is give me an articulated foundation for my practice. What I do as a writer and why I do it and the effect it might or might not have and whether or not that matters is built into my pedagogy and curriculum. Teaching, then, makes my practice as a writer, for better or worse (see Mark Twain’s “Two Views of the Mississippi”), a well-examined life. As well, I need to prepare my students who want to be writers for the writing world they’ll be entering, so I work to keep current on who/what’s in, who/what’s out, who/what’s being talked about and how. I follow the conversations and attend the conference panels and read the books. This sort of engagement is a good complement to the foundational stuff—some timely to round off the timeless.

Most of all, though, it’s the stories (no matter the genre) of my students that remind me my own stories matter as part and parcel of all of the often clumsy and ungainly “our story.” It is through each other’s stories (no matter the genre) that we discover the fullness and fat humanity of one another. We are all so fat with a really glorious humanity that we are so often on guard from revealing. My students—this is a big plus of community college—are from around the world literally, from different backgrounds and traditions, in the US and my classroom often for reasons that astound and amaze me, and when we are in class together sharing stories (no matter the genre) we blossom into humans fat with a good humanity (if our blossoming were more than metaphorical, we wouldn’t be able to fit in the classrooms). I know that some of these students only will ever blossom so in class, but will always have blossomed so there. As a writer, I can’t control who sees my blossoming nor what they get from it, but I continue to blossom nonetheless, because who know who might happen by, and then we can get fat and maybe happy for awhile together.

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us? 

In the Japanese film Afterlife, people who have just died check into a way station where they are interviewed by afterlife workers. The newly dead are instructed to pick one memory from their lives, and this is the memory they will stay in and re-live for the entire afterlife. It will be their forever, the rest of their lives lived outside of that memory forgotten.  

Pick such a memory from your life—such a moment, the only moment you’ll ever live in again. Recreate it in such a way that you’ll be good inhabiting it and only it for the rest of your life. Plant Easter eggs for people important to you who may or may not know they are/were important to you, and who will probably never read what you write (Easter eggs which will become strange to you once you die and inhabit the memory and forget everything else about your life).

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

I’ve got two projects looking for homes and one under construction. One of the projects looking for a home is a poetry collection that probes the relationship between writer and reader. Who do you write for? This book says to the reader: for you, for you—for us right here on this page! It has come close to finding its editorial reader a handful of times, and each close-but-no-cigar time I go through it again, set it aside, go through it again, send it out. I change less and less and like it more and more each time.

The other project looking for a home is a hybrid-on-black-market-ADHD-meds that looks at America and identity in a way that is a cross between Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, both film versions of Freaky Friday, anything by C. D. Wright, and a marathon of all of the Oscar-nominated short films ever—live action, animated, documentary. I’ve never seen anything like it (which—warning to self—means I haven’t read enough yet). I’m looking for an editorial reader who sees “I’ve never seen anything like it” as a good thing rather than a warning.

My project under construction goes in a whole ‘nother direction. It, too, is a hybrid work but not like the aforementioned, nor like A Northern Spring. It builds on my love of the essay and my addiction to excellent essay collections. It does some whiplashy juxtaposition of prose effects that I have been working to perfect for decades and poetry forms, styles, and ways that have made me fearful for just as long. It’s also got a regularity to its structure that if it were a city grid is one you could never get lost in. As with almost everything I’ve written, it’s got a way too long working title—an overexcited homage to Kafka that likely won’t make my final cut, let alone a good editor’s. 

A Portfolio of Poetry