Book End - Sebastian Matthews interviewed by Michael Hettich


The following interview with Sebastian Matthews was probably the most enjoyable of any I have done for Hole in the Head Review. Enthusiastic about it from the outset, his responses to my questions were honest, engaging, wide-ranging and open-ended in the best ways. They reveal an engaged, multi-faceted artist and empathetic human being of wide enthusiasms whose concerns for racial equity, kindness, compassion for all living beings and honest, unflinching scrutiny of self have moved and impressed me from the first time I encountered him and his work.

His work itself, wide-ranging in genres and disciplines, includes poetry and memoir, an experimental “collage” novel ((American Crow) and actual collage. He also hosts a weekly radio show, “Jazz Hybrid” (103.7FM—WPUM), and has taught widely (see bio.). His work has been a gift to his community and to the literary world at large.

Sebastian and I met for the first time at lunch in Asheville, joined by his mother, Marie Harris, his stepdad, Charter Weeks, and my wife, Colleen. A few weeks later he and I met for wine and conversation, and on two occasions I joined him on his radio show to read some of my writings and talk about jazz and jazz musicians: Cecil Taylor, Bill Frisell, Jakob Bro, Jason Moran, Monk—Meredith as well as Thelonious—The Tarkovsky Quartet, even early Chicago and The Grateful Dead. As this list would indicate, the conversation was improvisational and wide-ranging. I think it set the stage nicely for the interview that followed, which was conducted through email, followed by a wrap-up over beers on a beautiful spring afternoon at my house in Black Mountain, NC.

The entire experience was a great pleasure for me, and I hope for Sebastian as well.


 

Michael Hettich: Though I think of you—perhaps erroneously—as primarily a poet, your work embraces a wide and extremely various range of genres. In addition to your books of poetry, you’ve written a memoir (In My Father’s Footsteps), “hybrid” works of memoir/ prose poetry/ documentation & journalism (Beyond Repair) and works of flat-out experimentation and collage such as your amazing sui-generis novel The Life & Times of American Crow. I can think of only a few other poets who write equally well in prose and poetry, & no other writer who embraces as wide and array of genres—or does so many things so well. Can you talk a bit about how you came to embrace such a wide-ranging, daring, open-minded attitude and practice?


Sebastian Matthews: Well, it’s flattering to read the above. I always joke about being a jack of all trades and master of none. But I guess I have achieved some sort of mastery in a range of genres and media—some more than others, I think. For instance, I love dabbling in book arts, and letterpress work, but I must work with real book-art and letterpress artists to create high-level work. The collaboration is what allows me entrance. And I have edited journals and books but don’t necessarily consider myself an editor. The same with curating: I’ve curated a few art exhibits, or co-curated them, almost by accident. I get wrapped up in a project, and all of a sudden there’s something new to figure out, some new medium to learn and utilize. Come on, boys and girls, let’s go put on a play!


I know this approach drives certain people crazy, but what can you do? You are who are you, as an old friend likes to remind me. For better and for worse.


Which makes me think of Geoff Dyer, who is one of my idols and influences. He never shies away from new forms, or from combining forms and genres. I see his work as entirely hybrid, but when I suggested the term to him in an interview, he rejected it politely. Still, he writes novels that read like memoir, essays that read like fiction; and, calling himself a gatecrasher, he can cover almost anything—jazz, photography, the first World War, D. H. Lawrence, land art, movies, travel, yoga, LSD, trance music, old movies, romantic encounters, you name it. And he’s super funny and super erudite. I want to be like him when I grow up.


As for coming to embrace this smorgasbord of forms, I think it’s mostly curiosity and exuberance. I like trying new things. My brother is a painter and a hand drummer (and drum teacher), my aunt is a modern dancer and jewelry maker, my wife a quilter, my stepfather a photographer, both my mom and dad are poets (or was in the case of my father, who died early). I like hanging out with musicians and visual artists and dancers and learning things from them. Why limit yourself to just writing poems, just writing essays?


I guess I have a high tolerance for experimentation, which is another way to say I don’t mind failing, just so long as it gets me closer to something new, something exciting for being new.


MH: You are also an accomplished visual artist, as evidenced by your website. How do you see your visual and writing-art as interrelation or co-evolving—if indeed they do?


SM: They most definitely cohabitate. There’s a lot of parallel play. I have this goofy quirk of making mock covers for projects, using JPEGs of collages or photos. They help me lean into the mood or vibe of the project. I know they won’t actually be the covers. Only that it helps make the evolving work a little more real. I go through two or three covers per project.


In a similar vein, I was making photomontages for a while at the same time that I was working on a set of poems. Two ways to approach the same subject. Two different creative acts fueling and complementing one another. That might be the crux of it. Sometimes the two forms fuse together and sometimes they stay apart.


Part of this propensity surely stems from my decades-long relationship with the Vermont Studio Center and with my more recent interaction with Callaloo, both incredible institutions that encourage cross pollination and collaboration. They model this interdisciplinary aesthetic perfectly.


MH: On two occasions, I’ve had the pleasure of joining you on your aforementioned radio show, Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Tuesdays and Sundays 3-5 PM EST at 103.7 WPFM and livestreaming at wpvmfm.org). It’s a wonderful mix of music, conversation, and readings that’s both well-planned and open to improvisation and collaboration between you and your guest(s)—and indeed with the music you play. “Wide-ranging and capacious—and Ear-opening” is how I might describe the show. Can you talk a bit about how hosting such a show jibes with and extends your sense of vocation?


SM: I started the show right before the pandemic hit. I had this idea of having a guest every show, once a week. But as soon as things started shutting down, that idea went down the toilet.

I started making shows at home. Every now and then I’d ZOOM with someone and make a show out of that, but for about a year or more the show became a straight-up music show with the occasional guest. So now that I’m back in the studio, and the show’s been re-named Jazz Hybrid, it’s somewhere in the middle. My aim is to have two guests on each month, so 2 out of 4. We’ll see.


It's really just a hobby. But there are things that I am engaging in when I do it, things that I am accomplishing, that really fit into my idea about being a literary citizen and being in dialogue with the world around me. I like interviewing interesting people and hearing what they have to say and share about music, and listening to the music they love. I like serving my community in some small way. I like putting out good music into the world, good mixes of music.


I should say here that doing public radio is different from podcasting. Both are on the internet, and so reach worldwide, but of course public radio is tethered to local airwaves, to its community. That’s the key part for me. The rooted-in-place part. Anyway, I play music that I wouldn’t be able to play on a podcast. Public radio stations are licensed in such a way that their DJs can play new music free of charge. We’re spreading the gospel. The Asheville area has four or five really good public radio stations, maybe more.


I should add that it's fun to grab a beer after the show, or a bite to eat before. Meet a friend. This lets me connect to local businesses and to participate in the downtown Asheville scene. Maybe slipping off to check out the bookstore…And the experience of DJing itself. It's just me up in a room with retro equipment and great music, bringing in guests to share and enrich the experience. I like it that way. And no damn YouTube livestream, please. It’s radio, man. You don’t watch it.


MH: Can you talk a bit of how music—perhaps mainly jazz music—has influenced your thinking about and approach to writing?


SM: Let me tackle approach first. I often write to music. Jazz, sure, but also instrumental soul and funk, African, or sometimes classical. But mostly jazz. I need that groove to keep me going. No words, which tend to get in the way. Lately, I have been listening to more experimental jazz/world beat/new classical hybrid stuff. The guests on my show keep turning me onto new songs, new composers. (You’re one of them!)


As for thinking about writing, I guess there are some structural parallels—as there are with film and nonfiction writing—and moves made in songs that I might try in a poem. But it’s not a very conscious thing. The easiest association you can make might be the solo, or the jam, and the free associative bursts that come out when you really get going. You use the flow of the song to carry you then start to follow some of the song’s more creative moves, or the soloist’s sonic thread. (Right now, I am listening to Maceo Parker’s lovely cover of Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass,” and I am typing to its infectious, upbeat rhythms, jamming along with his funky solo.)


But I am drifting back to approach. Let me try again. I was talking with poet and sax player Richard Terrill on the radio show, and I was laying out Ted Gioia’s idea about boredom and jazz; how most of the big conceptual leaps come out of a musician’s frustrations with, or boredom of, all the old moves. Gioia posited that poets, collagists, and other visual artists make similar moves as jazz improvisers—make similar leaps—working in the improvisational mode. And Richard added that nonfiction writers do the same; how they often collage essays. And he was spot on. I often move blocks of prose around to create a collage, or mosaic, much like a modal composition in jazz. Or somewhat like.


MH: One of the qualities that moves both of us deeply about jazz music is the astonishing “technical” facility and accomplishment of any and all jazz musicians, their ability to hear each other and to play meaningfully in response to each other’s styles and even to their particular “moods” on any given night. Do you see any similar “technical facility” defining the work of poets you admire? And what does that term even mean when it comes to our shared art of poetry? Formal dexterity? Ability to make discoveries through some process of organic form? Some process of deep listening?


SM: Dang, that’s a whole apple orchard of a question. I need to sit down under this here tree and pick a few of its apples and cogitate on it all like Ferdinand the Bull.


Let me start with a recent show I caught in New York—a late set at the Blue Note. It was a reunion show of a sort, and a belated album release for Joshua Redmon, Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau, and Brian Blade. Man, they were tight. All at the top of their games, all showmen, all great, good friends obviously having a blast playing music together. They’d done an album over 20 years before, when they were the proverbial “young lions,” and now they had a new album out, two decades later, and they’d been unable to play live from it because of the pandemic. Only two nights in the City—two sets at the Blue Note, and one at Town Hall the next night. The place was packed. They played songs off both albums. Everyone got a chance to solo; everyone was listening hard to each other and getting a kick out of what folks were coming up with. Very playful. But, at the same time, entirely professional and technically pyrotechnic. It was an honor to be there as witness.


I think the closest poets get to that kind of experience is when they get to read together, or work a conference together, or be on a panel. You get to sit back and listen to your friends/colleagues be brilliant and you get to stand up and do your thing. Everyone rooting for one another. It doesn’t happen like that very often, but when it does, and you’re either in that group performing, or watching from the crowd, you know you’re witnessing something special.


And there’s another, non-performative, behind-the-scenes version, where writers share work with one another—one on one, in a writing group—where writers share trade secrets and become each other’s readers and editors. Over the years, in this way, you get to watch your friends hone their skills and refine their technical ability. I have a small circle of friends that I do this with. All that “deep listening” serves as a wellspring, really.


MH: Another music-related question: All musicians practice, to keep and extend their skills and to make discoveries. How do you “practice” in your own writing—and is it for the same—or similar—reasons?


SM: I try to write every day. If I can, I mix in visual art. I snap photographs as I go about the business of the day. I always try to have some small collaborative project going. Using my walks as springboards. Reading. Staying in touch with my writer friends. There are days that turn toward appointments and errands, days that are given over to prepping for and leading a workshop. But even those days I try to keep things going. You’re not going to make discoveries very often if you let your creative life go dry. You end up spending too much time getting back to a place where you can create. Maybe something like working out. Once you fall off the exercise bike, it’s hard to climb back on.


Being a working writer, or a working artist, means you work. The novelist Russell Banks is another hero and mentor. He writes every day, as far as I can tell, unless he’s travelling or out on tour. And he writes many hours a day. It’s a job, a lifelong commitment. Same for me, too, but I need to move back and forth between genres and forms and styles so to keep from losing track, drifting off. I am surely an undiagnosed ADHD sufferer. I’ve come to consider myself a maker. I make things.


MH: Your fist book of poems is wonderfully titled: We Generous. It’s a book in large part about jazz—its spirit of embrace, openness, and tremendous discipline. Freedom in discipline, one might say. Can you talk a bit about the title—almost an aesthetic stance in itself—and how the title reflects both jazz music and your own ambitions?


SM: That title came to me in a vision. I was in the backseat of a car passing along Franklin Blvd in L.A. The poet Peter Harris was driving me and fellow poet Van Jordan around, taking us out to lunch at some diner. There was good music on the radio—I want to say Marvin Gaye, but that could be the DJ in me filling in the blank—and Peter was going on about the cops in the neighborhood and the experience of driving a VW bug as a black man in that city. It was quite a poignant and funny monologue. The windows were open, and I was just sitting back and taking it all in. I looked up and saw a flash of a billboard, and I swear it read “WE GENEROUS.” But upon second glance, as we were flashing past, it said something much more pedestrian, I can’t remember what. And I ended up writing a poem that used that scene in the car and the billboard, and it quickly became the title of the poem, then later the title of the whole book.


And I chose it I think because it does kind of articulate an aesthetic stance. Not just me but “we,” and “generous” as in open-hearted and plays well with others. A lot of my early heroes are in that book—a lot of jazz musicians, yes, but also the Green Man, Cary Grant, Walker Evans, my father—as well as totemic places, experiences, and things—playing basketball, hanging on the beach, coming upon bears, taking road trips, going to writers’ conferences, getting married, moving to Asheville, adopting a child. So, in some ways, all of that is contained in the “we,” friends, family, students, etc. A certain abundance that “generous” captures perfectly.


I like that idea of “freedom in discipline.” Doing artwork as engaging in a practice.


MH: Your “memoir-in-essays” from 2020, Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State, documents a series of encounters with friends, neighbors, strangers—people from all walks of life—from early 2014 to spring of 2019. Your family had been in a major car accident in 2011 and this book, in documenting your return to the world—as father and husband, writer and citizen—documents a society in a traumatized state as well. The book’s hauntingly beautiful and moving vignettes are made even more so by the yearning of the author—you—to remain open and generous and vulnerable while also staying cognizant and engaged. Can you talk a bit about your process in writing the book?


SM: Happy to. But first I must say it’s nice to see snippets of the book jacket copy from Beyond Repair worked into your question. I am proud of those lines. People don’t always know but writers are often pressed into service and asked to write their own marketing copy. It crops up in the oddest of places. But back to the matter at hand…


I wrote that book between 2014 and early 2019. It took me a while to realize what I was doing, but when I saw the pattern—the common thread of the short prose pieces that were being produced—I worked on it as a project straight through until it felt done. I was very conscious of the social and political weather of that time; in particular, how the country moved away from Obama and toward Trump. It wasn’t that one directional, of course—more like separate tidal pulls—but it did feel like we were moving into something new and scary.


I had just spent three years recovering from the collision. It had been rough going for all of us. It had become apparent over that last year that PTSD symptoms were rising within me—or I was only then becoming aware of them—and that I needed to attend to them if I wanted to return to a relatively normal life. I started trauma therapy. And I began turning to my encounters in the world as signs of where I was at in the process. Why? Well, at first, it seemed impossible to distinguish between my own PTSD triggers and the hostile environment I had immersed myself back into. (I was something of a hermit those first few years.) And it seemed especially hostile—on the roadways, on the street corners, in stores. Everywhere people were at each other’s throats in these little, seemingly over-reactive ways. Or was I just tuned wrong or something?


But it soon became clear—and it is crystal clear now after the January 6th attempted coup—that even though I may have my own struggles, our country was battling a brand of cultural PTSD. Or maybe it had been for some time, but we’d reached a new level with its own new symptoms and side effects.


To make a long story short, I found myself writing vignettes about the encounters I was having—with family and friends, with neighbors, with fellow Ashevillians, with the people I was meeting on my travels out in the world—NYC, Boston, Lubbock, Montreal, Northern Michigan, Charleston, Chattanooga, suburban Indiana, Los Angeles, etc. And I began to see my work as something akin to a journalist’s. A brand of witness in which I was trying to encounter a wide variety of people in a wide variety of circumstances. I didn’t get as far out, or as deep in, as I’d have liked. But eventually I had enough material for a book.


MH: Your work, particularly Beyond Repair, is deepened by a clear yet non-ideological political and social intelligence, yet it’s never strident or slogan driven. What do you see as the role of the writer—of the poet—in today’s political arena, particularly given poetry’s extremely limited audience?


SM: To give voice. To witness. To stand up. To protest when needed. To be an engaged citizen—literary and otherwise. Work inside your community as much as you can. Be an ally and an advocate. Participate. Vote. Volunteer. Collaborate. Rinse and repeat.


And I think the limited audience you talk about—and it’s true for literary fiction and nonfiction, as well—can be a good thing. A grassroots thing. Poets don’t just write poems and put them in little folios, maybe reading a few aloud at a reading. They do that, yes, but they also teach and write essays about writing, attend readings, go to conferences, get poems in anthologies or newspapers or on-line journals. They come on to a friend’s radio show. They read a poem at someone’s wedding or funeral. Write op eds for the local paper. Even Twitter and Instagram work as poetic platforms. I think poetry is read and listened to and spoken and sung and rapped out much more than it gets credit for. And more people take it seriously, consume it, need it, than we know or can be accounted for.


MH: Do you have a sense at all of poetry as a form of spiritual engagement—whatever the heck that might mean?


SM: Most definitely. But I’m with you on not really knowing what the term means anymore. Maybe something different for everyone? I’m a card-carrying atheist, so it’s definitely not about God or organized religion. Though I am not anti-religion—my wife and I raised our boy Jewish—nor do I look down on New Age principles or impulses (well, maybe a little as I have aged). Mine’s more a kind of nature-based, in the-moment thing. Thoreau was an early hero. I have dabbled with and in different esoteric teachings. The cult of LSD and mushrooms. Buddhism and meditation. The Gurdjieff Work. None of them stuck. Only the practice of being a working writer/artist seems to have remained. Trying to pay attention.


Maybe Elizabeth Bishop’s term “useless concentration” best describes it. The act of making art brings me into my body, into the moment, into a flow. And that feels healthy to me, balancing, centering. It keeps me attune to bigger things than just my little world. Or it expands the world. I better quit while I am only a little behind. Maybe it’s best to say: creating art is my spiritual engagement.


MH: What are you working on now?


SM: Three different projects, each in a different stage of development. Master of None, a collection of poems and prose poems. It’s the third in a trilogy of books including Beginner’s Guide and Beyond Repair. Then there’s Last Days of Very Bad, a collection of short stories and novellas. And Gringo Griot, a hybrid thing—part memoir, part book on writing and creative process. I have been teaching long enough now that I feel the urge to get some of my working principles and tricks of trade all in one place.


And I am pitching a fourth book I did with my father, the photographer Charter Weeks, Travelogue. It was my pandemic book, started in early 2020 and finished in late 2021. In it, I select and respond to over 80 photographs from Charter’s oeuvre. Along the way, I interview Charter and we discuss photography, creativity, travel, and a range of related topics. It was a blast to collaborate with him; and his photos are really spectacular. He deserves to be included in the canon of great street photographers.


I am finding the book hard to place, for some obvious reasons. But I am sure it will find a home.


MH: You live in Asheville, NC, just down the road from Black Mountain, home of the great Black Mountain College. It strikes me now that many of the social, educational, and aesthetic values of the artists at Black Mountain are very much alive in your wide-ranging approach to writing and the life of the artist. I’m sure that the major Black Mountain poets have had some influence, but in thinking about it now, it’s some of the female writer/artists we associate with Black Mountain—people like MC Richards and Ani Albers, and even Ruth Asawa--I’m thinking of. Maybe even someone like John Cage, and certainly Rauschenberg in your collages. It’s a spirit of openness, generosity, collaboration, and improvisation. What’s your sense, if any, of the influence here?


SM: Quite large. Though, I would agree with you, the “major” Black Mountain College writers haven’t had much effect on my work. I’m not an Avant Garde or experimental poet by any means. And, yes, the visual artists have had more of an effect —Robert Rauschenberg, Ruth Asawa, Anni and Josef Albers, Jacob Lawrence. Also: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, etc.


I’d place collagist Ray Johnson on the top of that list. (Did you know Ray and Ruth Asawa were friends while at BMC?) I’d also add Jonathan Williams, who was a poet, editor/publisher, and photographer. He came to BMC to work with Olsen and was part of those famous all-day-into-the-night-end-up-at-the-pub classes. I got to visit him and his partner Tom up at in Cashiers at their amazing home. This was only a year or so before he died. Jonathan’s wide range of talents and interests serve as a model and an example for me.


And definitely the women you mention are important. The men tend to get a lot of the attention, but Ani Albers and M.C. Richards played important roles there. I’d add Hazel Larsen Archer on that list, for her work on the farm, her teaching, and her amazing photographs. Her shots of Cunningham flying around in one of the fields are transcendent. (She took them from the vantage of her wheelchair.)


But, really, it’s the gestalt of the place: its history as an experimental college, a working farm, a summer art colony, a sanctuary and refuge for artists and writers and thinkers. That Einstein and Zora Neale Hurston visited there. That the FBI kept a watch on the place. That Bucky Fuller and Jacob Lawrence taught there in the summer. And there is its early integration, bringing two Black woman artists to study before other colleges in the south did. (Though the faculty had a chance to do it a decade earlier and balked.)


I worked at Warren Wilson College—just down the road from the old BMC campuses—in their undergraduate creative writing program for 15 years, and BMC’s influence on my teaching was substantial. I taught a freshman seminar on Black Mountain College and another on experimental education. (And another entitled “Wildness, Wilderness, and Bewilderment,” taught entirely outdoors.)


I wound up spending a set of years first on the board of, then working at, the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center in downtown Asheville. That brought such depth and richness to my creative life. I learned so much in that time working with Alice Sebrell and everyone affiliated with the Center. We put on some amazing group readings at the old space in honor of the Beats (east coast and west). They were loosely based on the famous “Happening” Cage put on at Lake Eden.


A quick story: soon after arriving at Wilson, late summer ’99, I was wandering the music building, on its second floor, and found in among the tiny practice rooms a locked office. There was a tiny sign on the window that read: Black Mountain College Museum. I couldn’t see inside, but there was a name and a number to call. It was like finding the holy grail.


MH: Finally, how well do you know the trees and birds, grottoes, and geographies of our Appalachian region? How important is it for a poet to know these things?


SM: I love this question. It’s quite important. But the short answer, for me, is that I don’t know them nearly enough. I am out in nature a good amount, but my relationship to the experience is less as naturalist and more as walker poet passing through. I have birder friends and naturalist friends who know so much more than I do about the names of things, etc.


But I do try to pay attention and notice things. I like having encounters. Take urban walks. Discover new places. Adventuring out, exploring. Snapping photos. Trying to learn a little about subcultures and immersing myself in their zone(s) for a while. Trying to see what’s going over there, in there, out there. A little mild trespassing along the way, mostly down alleys and into empty lots.


You see, I am addicted to groove—to feeling free and awake in the moment—and so sometimes that means I lay in a field for an hour, or walk in the middle of a river barefoot, and sometimes that means I hike across a ridge trail with my dog and drop back down onto the parkway, or maybe I play frisbee golf on a wooded course with my son. I rarely think to pull out the bird book, or the tree book, when I get home and look up what I saw. I will ask my friends about it or track down a reference in a poem or an essay, though, and I often try to bring the experience into my work. I watch out for hawks—and have learned to differentiate them from buzzards—and like hanging out with my neighborhood crows. (Start talking to them and your relationship changes completely.) I have gotten used to sharing space with all the bears that show up in our wooded, suburban neighborhood. I am always on the lookout for our sneaky nocturnal friend, the racoon. Once a coyote sauntered down our road in broad daylight.


I try to go to the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) every spring, though I missed the last two years due to the pandemic. As you know, among other things, it used to be the Black Mountain College campus (the second one they moved into and built onto). Everything comes together for me there. I get in few hikes, throw the frisbee, camp out in one of the fields, listen to a lot of great music, drink a lot of good beer, take in the scene. That may not seem like being connected to nature, or knowing the flora and fauna, but it does the trick for me. I come back from the long weekend revitalized, refreshed, ready to get back into my writing and teaching life, back into my family life.

 

Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poetry, The Mica Mine, won the Lena Shull Book Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society and was published in April, 2021. His website is Michaelhettich.com.