Sunday, July 2, 2023

Q&A with Matt Mauch




Matt Mauch is the author of the new book A Northern Spring. His other books include We're the Flownover. We Come from Flyoverland. He teaches in the AFA in the Creative Writing program at Normandale Community College, and he lives in Minneapolis. 


Q: What inspired you to write A Northern Spring, and how did you come up with the book’s format?


A: I was doing research in Northern Ireland on the Troubles for a study abroad class I've created that uses the Troubles as a lens through which to better see and respond in art to the violence, fractures, and divisions in the US. While I was there, the then US president—Trump—announced a vague travel ban for "everybody in Europe."


This informs the format: In four sections I call preludes spaced throughout the book, I write about being abroad and not being sure we'd be able to make it home as a pandemic was gripping the world, then not being sure we wanted to return to where the pandemic seemed a whole lot worse.


The writing in these four sections is packaged in the form of text messages to an unnamed P from an unnamed MM that receive no replies—so text messages into a kind of void, based on the IRL fact that I didn't have an international travel plan for my phone so wasn't receiving any messages while abroad (they all came in at once when I landed back home).


In between these preludes are poems about life at the start of the COVID pandemic, often in conversations with writing from pandemics of the past.


I am one of those for whom the pandemic was a productive period. I wrote the book in real time, completing it in the spring of 2020.


The book's ending, a section called "Minneapolis: The Last Week of May 2020," found me. There I write about the murder of George Floyd in So. Mpls, where I live, and all the all that began to transpire locally in the wake of that.


There is a kind of coming full circle where the local becomes global when a mural in Belfast and a vigil in Derry—the last two places I'd experienced "normal" life before the COVID lockdown—honor/commemorate/bring attention to the murder of Floyd by members of the MPD.


So, evacuation, lockdown, uprising: 35,000 or so words capturing of a confluence of events and circumstances over roughly two and a half months that are both peculiar to me and not peculiar to me at all, but shared by many (is it too much to say "all of us"?).


I didn’t know that what I was writing was a book, and didn’t have the format in mind, until that last week of May.


Then it all just became clear to me that, yes, it was a book, and that the best way to organize it was the retain the narrative arc from the days in the North of Ireland as flashbacks (but more than flashbacks just) over the less traditional and more chaotic arc that arises from the sequence of events associated with the pandemic.


I really didn’t think about it; it just presented itself as the only way to do it, so I did it.


I've dedicated the book to Minneapolis, a city I fell in love with and decided I wanted to live in roughly 30 years ago on a school trip to see a Shakespeare play at the old Guthrie, a city I eventually made my to—and my life in—about 20 years ago. I still love it here but the love, as you'd expect, is a lot more complex than when it began.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The original title of the book was We’ll See What Tomorrow Brings. It had that title until the substantive-advice stage of the editing process (the big-picture editing, so early in the process). A Northern Spring, at the time, was part of lengthier subtitle. A Northern Spring was added (as was the subtitle itself) after I recognized that what I had on my hands seemed to be a book.


But the original title—We’ll See What Tomorrow Brings—was the driver first for the prose and then the poetry. Literally from page one, when I write about us first learning of Trump’s travel ban “for everybody in Europe,” I didn’t know what the next day would bring, starting with whether we’d make it back to the States. As the pandemic unfolded, it’s almost as if a kind of strange carpe diem was imposed on . . . all of us?


I wrote the prose portions of the book first (save for the CODA) from notes I’d taken on index cards I always carry around in my pocket, and also from memory, which was as fresh as it gets, given that I started the writing the day after we landed back in Minneapolis. And then I started writing the poems as I consumed the news of the day (from many perspectives) and lived it out.


I just kept going and going and didn’t look back at the words from the day before. I trusted in every word that came next. Type, type, type, type, type. I didn’t know it was a book until the last week of May, when George Floyd was murdered and the uprising became a global phenomenon.


We were all living through the early stages of the pandemic, but I recognized that I had (or thought I had) a couple of unique, bookend experiences with which to frame it.


We’ll See What Tomorrow Brings, once I recognized it was a book, morphed as an idea from the micro in Northern Ireland to the macro. How will the pandemic play out? What about the Trump presidency and its threat to US-style representative democracy? What will be the legal fate of the MPD officers who had murdered/aided/abetted the murder of George Floyd? Will the promise of the local/national/international uprising be realized in any significant ways?


We didn’t know the answers to those questions at the time. Some of them we still don’t know the answer to (Trump, for example, could get elected again). Some seem like perennial questions we can ask of humanity over and over. I was hoping to capture a moment when the world was sharing in some of the same experiences and asking the same questions.


A Northern Spring is a way better book title. It does so much more with less, so much better. I love my editors. WSWTB lives on in the book as motif.


Q: The writer Heid E. Erdrich said of the book, “This book expands, expounds, and grows even while it chronicles life in a world contracted by plague and politics.” What do you think of that description?


A: I remember in grad school sitting at the “after class” bar near campus next to one of the tenured speech profs. He told me, and I’ve never forgotten this, that there comes a day in your life when you not only know as much as your professors, but you finally know you know. He described it as a very freeing experience.


He was celebrating a birthday in his 50s and it felt like he was describing what he was going through at the time, as we ordered happy hour burgers and beers.

Ever since that day, I kept the experience he described as a kind of future benchmark I knew the existence of but would not recognize until I found myself in its presence, right on top of it. And there have been a few times now when I’ve felt there—at Ron’s benchmark—only to later feel like I was there once again, only in a different, new way. And each time it has felt freeing. It’s like a free high.


And the most recent time I’ve felt it was while I was writing A Northern Spring. What Heid describes as expanding, expounding, growing is literally how it felt to write it. I felt unfiltered in the sense that there was no authority or anything else stopping me from including everything that wanted to be included, which is more accurate that saying “saying what I wanted to say.”


See, I didn’t expect to say that just now—to differentiate between “that which wants to be included” and “saying what I want to say.” The latter implies a kind of centralized unity and control emanating from the “I.” The former implies a whole bunch of you-name-it with its own agency finding its way in and on the page, intentions of the “I” be damned.


And that unexpected “letting in” is something I wouldn’t have done—couldn’t have done—at a younger age. That feeling that Ron was having at the bar that day in Mankato, Minnesota, was one that I had for that entire spring. It was a wave I rode.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from A Northern Spring?


A: There were so many things, as I’ve said, that we didn’t know the answers to in the spring 2020, and some of them were very big questions.


I had those big questions in mind, and a lot of other questions, too, big and small, that I think get asked throughout A Northern Spring, though often without the assistance and obviousness of a question mark, which is a function of necessity more so than intent, as a lot of the questions were too embryonic to get the formal treatment. And whether fully fledged or embryonic, a lot of people were asking these questions and were asking them together.


After 9-11, I remember how peaceful it was for the three or so days that all the planes were grounded. Talking a walk with all that noise pollution gone—with just birds and clouds and gnats and bats in the sky—it makes me long for that, to see as a kind of Ideal, big “I” earned.


I also remember an almost corporeal sense that out of tragedy our country had been handed a gift. It felt like we’d all been simultaneously gut-punched and with the air collectively our of our lungs we had the opportunity to set aside so many of the things that divide us and finally live up the promise of our best documents and occasional leaps forward.


If I believed in deities, I’d swear that Athena had drawn an X on the arc of the moral universe, handed it to us and send “Bend hard here.” Instead, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Patriot Act, Bush II signed it, and Athena withdrew to Olympus.


There was that same palpable sense after George Floyd was murdered that we had a chance to come out of tragedy with a gift, that that X was there on the moral arc handed to us. I believe that the conditions of the pandemic precipitated that sense.


How was the murder of this Black body by police in the US different from all the previous murders (and, looking ahead, subsequent) of Black bodies by police in the US? We had the lockdown. We were home. We were sick. We were scarred. We were Zooming. We were dying. We were primed.


The uprising was just starting and spreading around not just the country but the world. We were given the opportunity to respond to all the questions, finally, with a different and better answer. I don’t think we get that many chances.


If in their individual lives readers can provide a different and better answer to the questions, or can think more deeply about the questions, and can slow down and ponder the best answer and take baby steps toward that, I guess that would be a great, great takeaway.


A lot of great little answers or formulations of or attempts at great little answers that only one, a couple, or a few people ever know about. Grassroots. Bottom up. One can hope. And maybe ultimately that’s what I’ve tried to do here—to capture hope with a healthy dose of reality, a la the fragile state of peace North of Ireland. I mean, why else write?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: 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.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: When I was a younger writer than I am now, apprenticing myself to the craft and beyond that the art of poetry, I sent some letters to poets whose books had made an impact on who I am as a writer. This was before social media and authors having websites, so I sent the letters to the poets’ publishers, who I hoped would pass them along.


One of the poets I wrote to (via his publisher) was Tomas Tranströmer. I bought his book accidentally. Amazon was new then and I thought I was buying a book of poems by Robert Hass. Turns out Hass had translated the Tranströmer poems, which I didn’t know until the book arrived. It was shrink-wrapped and I thought hard for a few days about not tearing the plastic off and returning it.


I finally said fuck it, took the plastic off, and found in Tranströmer one of my favorite poets ever, still to this day. I sent a letter to one of his publishers and a few months later received a typewritten reply from Monica, Tomas’s wife. She wrote on his behalf, as Tomas had had a stroke, losing the mobility on his right side and his speech. This was a good while before he’d win the Nobel Prize.


Monica said Tomas “is not surprised that you did not know anything about him but happy that find him.” He said he liked one of the poems I’d sent him and asked me to send him one of my books. If he were still alive, I’d send him a copy of A Northern Spring (I wouldn’t have a book to send him for more than a decade).


Monica included a photo of Tomas in their apartment at the piano. It’s one of those photos from the era in which every photo had the date printed along the bottom right in orange, computerish numerals. There’s a painting on the Tranströmers’ wall, a full bookshelf, sculptures and a small lamp lined up below a not-quite-bay window. I have since imagined that every Swedish apartment looks like this.


The internet and social media make it even easier to reach poets and writers whose books we love. Everybody should send these kinds of letters—maybe one a month. It’s a way to use the internet for good.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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