Interview with Matt Rasmussen, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
Louisiana State University Press
Interview by Shara Lessley
Shara Lessley: A number of Black Aperture’s poems first appeared in a 2006 chapbook published by Kitchen Press. How long did you spend drafting the collection and how did it evolve?
Matt Rasmussen: The book took about 10 years to write. I began writing the poems that would appear first in Fingergun from Kitchen Press and then later in Black Aperture. The first poem I wrote about my brother’s suicide was in Bill Knott’s workshop at Emerson College when he prodded me to, ‘write a poem with some personal investment.’ There was a small section of poems about my brother’s suicide in my graduate thesis manuscript, which I worked on with John Skoyles and Gail Mazur. Slowly, as I wrote more and more poems that dealt with grief or suicide, in one way or another, that section grew and basically took over the book.
SL: Black Aperture meditates on the loss of a loved one to suicide, a theme explored in recent books by Allison Benis White (Small Porcelain Head), Matthew Dickman (Mayakovsky’s Revolver), and Bruce Snider (Paradise, Indiana). Do you see your work in dialogue with these or other poets who have tackled the subject?
MR: I had not read these books before I wrote mine, so it’s difficult to say Black Aperture is in dialogue with these books directly, but I think all poetry is a dialogue, and I’m sure you could trace, in all our work, echoes of similar poets who influenced us directly or indirectly, Mayakovsky being an obvious example. I didn’t necessarily study ‘the poetry of suicide’ while writing my book, but it’s a subject matter in poetry that I’ve been drawn to ever since my brother committed suicide when I was 16.
SL: I’m struck by how your poems infuse elegy with a wide range of emotions, vocalizing not only sadness and disappointment, but also bitterness and betrayal. What role does anger play in Black Aperture?
MR: Anyone who has experienced a loved one’s suicide (or death even) knows there is anger, despite the cruelty of being angry with someone who was so sad or distraught or lost they ended their own lives. Anger is a powerful emotion and one we feel guilty for expressing toward the dead, but one that seems, to me, impossible to avoid in terms of the grief that follows a suicide. There is difficulty in seeing/experiencing the emotional devastation a suicide can cause and not feeling anger toward the person who caused it. However, not expressing that anger or not addressing it, seems dangerous or careless or false. But in the end, it is silly, really, being angry at someone who is no longer alive. What’s the point?
SL: The collection often inverts or stalls events in order to interrogate or revise them. Can you talk a bit about how time functions in poems like ‘Reverse Suicide’ and ‘Trajectory’?
MR: As the title suggests, in ‘Reverse Suicide’ time basically moves backwards. The order of events that led to the aftermath of my brother’s suicide is reversed. It’s a poem about grieving and the irrational desire to move backward to the time when the dead are still alive. The final image, the leaves floating back onto the branches, is echoed at the end of ‘Trajectory.’ In ‘Trajectory’ time is basically slowed way down, then sped up so that the leaves of a tree fall the instant a button is pushed. The majority of the poem takes place during the firing of a bullet, and tracks the bullet’s flight through the air, through a deer, and into a tree. I think the idea was to play with time and manipulate these events in an attempt to mimic, in my experience, the strange expanding and collapsing of time that occurs in moments of trauma and grief.
SL: Rather than the afterlife, Black Aperture stresses the life lived after a traumatic event. ‘A suicide’s grave / never grows over,’ you write. And elsewhere: ‘If I could relight // your ashes I would. / If you torch a forest // it grows right back’ (‘Elegy in X Parts’). How important is it to you that Black Aperture’s poems resist closure?
MR: I think the idea of closure, while comforting, is in many ways artificial, especially when grieving a suicide. Closure implies an end, but who stops grieving a lost loved one and when? I’ve never actually heard anyone say or imply, for example, ‘My father died 20 years ago, but I’m done grieving him.’ That’s the idea behind the poem you quote from, ‘Aperture,’ and in my experience/opinion, this end of grief is an illusion that perpetuates a sense of loss and torment. People consider the notion that grief never ends depressing, but no one can deny the fact that a traumatic loss alters you forever.
SL: Throughout the collection, ‘The concept of time starts over’ (‘Vacation Cage’). From your experience, does writing about grief create distance from the past, or fix it in the present?
MR: Writing about grief is an attempt to fix it in the present, but I think it also allows one to gain a kind of distance from it and process it in an artistic manner. Over time, as you move further and further away from the death/life of the person you loved, your memory of them changes. When my brother committed suicide, it was a huge surprise. He didn’t display overt signs of depression or suicidal behavior. When he killed himself, who he was changed or who we thought he was, was a lie. We most likely never knew him or could not understand his pain. In my experience with grief, and more so with my brother’s suicide, I’ve tried to block out some memories, or revise them, or romanticize them. I find comfort in many of them for certain, but at other times I somehow want to stop them from replaying over and over in my mind, each replay slightly edited or distorted from the previous one.
SL: The book’s final poem echoes James Wright’s ‘A Blessing.’ I see his influence in your poems’ directness, as well as in their mingling of the pastoral and irrational. Where does the surreal enter elegy? Do you find certain aspects of grief absurd?
MR: The poem is modeled after ‘A Blessing’ but it begins with a variation of the last line from a different Wright poem, ‘Arriving in the Country Again,’ from The Branch Will Not Break:
ARRIVING IN THE COUNTRY AGAIN
The white house is silent.
My friends can’t hear me yet.
The flicker who lives in the bare tree at the field’s edge
Pecks once and is still for a long time.
I stand still in the late afternoon.
My face is turned away from the sun.
A horse grazes in my long shadow.
I think grieving is a pretty surreal experience so it seems natural for an elegy to feature surreal imagery and movement. I do think certain aspects of grieving are absurd. Grieving the loss of someone we loved is one the most natural and necessary things we do. However, the modern form of grieving has become, in some ways, absurd. We’re meant to grieve in private, to disguise our grief from the world, but we still have to be in the world and function in it. We have to perform mundane, everyday, actions in order to survive and get by, but inside ourselves we’re not really present. While we’re wandering around inside our minds looking for answers or solace, we’re also trying to order a sandwich or mow the lawn.
SL: Black Aperture is your debut collection. What can we expect of your second book?
MR: I’m writing new poems, but don’t necessarily have a project or a book yet. I’d like to write a children’s book. I read a lot of children’s books with my daughter and have a few ideas I’d like to try out.
Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Colgate University’s O’Connor Fellowship, The Gilman School’s Tickner Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / The Nation prize. A recent resident of the Middle East, Shara is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.