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.