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ContraryMotioncover9780812998283Late Saturday morning—a warm day with an armada of big white clouds overhead—Audrey and I head up to a wedding I’m playing in Glenview. I can’t afford to turn down a gig and I can’t afford to give up one of my days with her, so I sometimes impress her into service as my roadie. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to mind, maybe because she gets to wear her frilly white dress with the green sash and her shiny Mary Janes, or maybe because she gets a roadie’s prestige without having to perform any of a roadie’s tasks.

Today, for example, she’s only carrying her stuffed unicorn that had its electronic guts removed one grim day, just before I was asked to leave the Rogers Park apartment, when Milena apparently heard the unicorn’s song one time too many. Now, rolling my 85P harp up a broad concrete walkway to the church entrance, with Audrey and her mute unicorn in tow, I can’t help but feel we’re a pair of refugees from the land of nuclear families, making a bid for repatriation.

Matt-1Your first book, Vellum, was a poetry collection. Why the shift to essays with your new collection A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape?

A couple of years back, I wrote a poem about the Trinity Site—where the first nuclear bomb was tested—but the piece never felt as if I’d adequately addressed either the history or issues linked to the place. Trinity is just a few hours drive from me, and, years after my failed poem, I subsequently visited during one of their Open House days. I came home rattled and stewing, and with a notebook teeming with details and questions I had jotted down. When I started putting the notes down on the page, I pretty quickly realized that a poem just wouldn’t serve me as a vessel, given everything that I now wanted to fit in. It was liberating and exhilarating to not worry so much about line breaks and compression in the same way, and instead make use of the place’s history and what I encountered during the visit. It was a much wider field of play, and writing that piece ended up whetting my appetite for how I might be able to make use of lyric prose within the essay form.

House of the Large Fountain

Here, not much remains. Among other things, there are a few sheared-off pillars and some grass-covered stairs, a pebble-strewn atrium, four marble thresholds of four bricked-up rooms, some nettles and a bowing brick arch. Yet the back garden’s eye-snaring fountain is still fully intact, with its patterns of stones and glass and shells, its mosaics of wing-spread birds and half-moon bands and a baffled looking river god with a scraggly beard of reeds, and its two stone-carved faces – a mask of Tragedy, a lion-hooded Hercules – gap-mouthed and flanking the sides.

 

It’s so good to get a chance to talk to you about your first book of poems, Trouble the Water. So I wanna try something a bit different. I’m not that interested in asking the usual questions and just talking about writing. Let’s talk about your influences outside of literature as a way to frame the conversation.

Yes! Thank God. Haha.

I look for you on the storm-smoothed shore,
               glittering where the moon tows itself
across the bay. Cool air fills my lungs with mint

as I walk past sea oats, past sea grapes
               in tidal pools. Waves spread
like playing cards—a flush the land can’t beat—

and the sea keeps upping the ante: first,
               quartz and crysolite, then breakwaters
and wooden weirs, then the land itself,

an erosion so ceaseless I too want to give
               my body, wholly, to something else.
Camped by a fire, you call to me.

JMC Author PhotoIntriguing title, True Stories at the Smoky View. Is the Smoky View real? Have you stayed there?

Both the name and the location of the motel are fictional.

One summer, years ago, while traveling with my son, I stayed at a similar motel, but that was in Virginia, not Tennessee. On the other side of I-81, to the west, loomed very high mountains. By dinnertime the sun had already disappeared. The light was eerie. The sun had set, but not really. After dinner we went swimming, and there was a frog in the pool. My son, too, remembers it as a magical evening. He’s a herpetologist now. Maybe that frog cast a spell on him.

 

Hmmm. Could Jonathan be a stand-in for your son?

Jonathan’s a fictional character. To some extent, I suppose, he’s based on a boy I sat across from at dinner one night. I remember thinking: this kid has been adopted into the wrong family. But Jonathan’s an orphan, with a very different family history.

True Stories at the Smoky View coverVrai wished she had the nerve to leave Skip’s ashes and the box of things from his apartment on his mother’s doorstep. Why not loop Cassi’s leash around the dogwood, ring the doorbell, and run? She didn’t regret the phone call to his mother to offer condolences. Skip would surely have done the same for her. But this visit would be downright awkward.

She and Skip had both grown up here in Knoxville. Decades later they’d become close friends while working in the same library in Baltimore. Just up the street from that library, four days ago, Skip had been hit by a car. According to the article in the Baltimore Sun, the driver, an optician, claimed Skip had stepped off the curb with his hands over his eyes. The article had his name right, Jasper Pascal Howard, Jr., but said he was fifty years old. Skip was only forty-nine, two years older than Vrai.

Bittersweet Way, Skip had ruefully called this quiet, tree-lined street where his mother still lived, and for Vrai, too, his old neighborhood was steeped in sadness. Her best friend, Laramie, had lived next door to Skip.

Rollins_0921

 

So you’re doing the whole meta-fiction thing now?

No, just here to talk about my book with my favorite critic.

 

But you did try meta-fiction, didn’t you?

Yeah, there was a failed story that didn’t make the final cut in which a semi-fictional version of myself confronted all the book’s characters at the Cafe Kopi in Champaign, Illinois.

Deaver Book Cover_photo credit Ashley Inguanta“Vasco and the Virgin”

Vasco Whirly had been an English professor out at the college, but he didn’t get tenure. So he got on the safety crew out at the Murdock Mine, and it wasn’t so bad—his self-esteem was shot, and he didn’t fit in, but he did make a lot of new friends. Actually he didn’t. But he kept a lot of the old friends, Lowell Wagner in Psychology, Ann Rook in English, Gloria Steinem the local librarian, some others. All this took place in the dying prairie college town of Tuscola. This is more than you wanted to know.

Vasco never saw his friends much, and they never saw him, so it was hard to figure how they were friends. And his daughters, Michelle and Melanie Junior, were always off somewhere, and this left Vasco hanging around his old homestead doing things like staring down in the cistern or climbing around in the rafters of the garage. Sometimes he’d go all around the house opening drawers, and sometimes he’d take a shovel and dig in the narrow passage between his garage and the Rittenauers’ garage next door. The house was old, built in 1882— he’d poked around for hours in the dim of the musty basement, finally even using a metal detector he’d rented. In fact, he did the whole yard with the metal detector, working day after day, half the community driving by on Niles Avenue and seeing him do it. He metal-detected Melanie Senior’s tulip bed out by the garage, under the grape arbor, along both edges of the drive, in the parkway, under the bushes that surrounded the front porch. He came to the conclusion he was looking for something, the way he was always rummaging around.

jane's pic of liz

 

Why Chaos Theories? What is the significance of the title?

Many tenets from chaos theory appear in these poems. After reading a little bit about it, I became obsessed with the way in which chaos is actually a type of order. This contradiction continues to fascinate me and seems an apt metaphor for human emotions and relationships, and maybe even a metaphor for the writing process – or at least my process: through my poems I attempt to force order onto the disorder of the world. Plus I love all of the scientific language: strange attractors, bifurcations, butterfly effect, turbulence, dynamic systems, sensitivity to initial conditions, and on and on… There is so much gorgeous language to mine.

One can’t predict what happens next, yet even
chaos breeds patterns of a sort: sly singles

at the bar, nocturnal creatures stalking shadows,
cars cruising for motion’s sake. I’m speaking out

of turn again. We all are sensitive
to first impressions, but initial conditions

shift swiftly and with little impetus.
I found him digging ditches in summer heat,

and soon we’d made declarations, smiled broadly
for photographs. It wasn’t meant to be

anngreengables

In high school I aspired to be anorexic or bulimic, but the truth is I just wasn’t motivated enough. I would join a sport for a semester—basketball, gymnastics, soccer, track—but I’d quickly lose interest and find myself exactly where I’d begun: lying on the floor with a Smiths album on repeat while thinking about boys. It was the only activity I was able to dedicate myself to. And because my weight was really not the reason boys were not interested in me—it was likely a host of skin and personality flaws—I could safely misdirect my attention without accidentally fixing myself. I didn’t want to do the soul-searching or book-reading that would make me realize the person I really wanted to be. I just wanted to be thin. And then I wanted that to be enough.

51kgifio8wL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Nobody walks in L.A. This is a well-known fact. Everything spread too distantly, too arrogantly—the city, the county, the Southland, however you want to categorize it all. The only connection the great roaring freeways, like clogged ancient rivers, carrying commerce and travelers, people making their way in the world, industrious and air-conditioned and unaware, but not walking, no, never.

Nonetheless, Father Jim Hinshaw isn’t going to let the limitations of his adopted hometown—three years and running, still genuinely flummoxed to be among what he used to think of as the chosen of Southern California—ruin his lifelong love of a good, brisk walk.

 

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God possessed Father Michael during mass. I was sure of it. I knew if I squinted hard enough, I could see beams of light shooting from our priest’s body, making him convulse in a sort of spiritual shiver signifying the exact moment God settled into his bones. ‘Go in peace to serve the Lord,’ God would say, raising His arms at the conclusion of mass. And then, following His somewhat self-serving farewell, He would return to Heaven in a flutter of robes, leaving a shinier and slightly steaming Father Michael.

When I explained this theory to my mother one day after church, she didn’t clarify, didn’t point me towards a bible or suggest I pay more attention in CCD. She only looked at me like she wanted to power-of-Christ-compel-me before saying, “No, that’s not right.”

3b

 

My California is the smell of eucalyptus trees in ocean air. Even salted essential oil can evoke for me whole swatches of my childhood: My father in his crazy wigs, my grandparents’ conch-shell silences on the Carmel beach, the thick grove where I got lost behind my schoolyard collecting the trees’ bell-shaped silver pods.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that eucalyptus is nonnative to California—“invasive” even though they didn’t ask to come here. They arrived in the late 1840s and early 1850s with prospectors from Australia—those Gold Rush days brought an onslaught of mostly European-American and Chinese immigrants that would triple the state’s population in the space of a few years.

Now my local newspaper prints detailed instructions on how to kill the invasive eucalyptus.

I am also invasive.