An Interview with Poet Matthew Roth
On topical work and surprises in process
Matthew Roth's most recent book of poetry Rains Rain was published earlier this year by
FutureCycle Press. His first book Bird Silence, published in 2009, appeared with Woodley Press. His poems have been published in many literary journals, including Verse, American Literary Review, Antioch Review, and 32 Poems. He has also published a number of frequently cited articles on Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. He teaches literature and writing at Messiah University in Grantham, PA, and serves as Associate Reviews Editor for the Nabokov Online Journal.
Kaila Heltzel (KH): How do external events motivate your poetry?
Matthew Roth (MR): I don't think I'm a very topical poet. I'm not someone who reads the news and then immediately writes about current events. I suppose I don't trust my own perception in the moment, and I don't want whatever I'm writing to fade too quickly because the context also fades. It's interesting—I'm using the Best American Poetry 2022 anthology in my course this
semester, and it has a number of COVID poems in it. Last year, my students all picked up on that context immediately, but this fall, I've had to clue in my students to that context. So, while I think those poems will form a valuable record of our collective experience, I do wonder how long they will continue to have power as poems. As for me, most of my poems start with a word or phrase that sticks in my head, or sometimes an image that strikes me as a bridge to something else. That's the kind of topic that interests me.
KH: So you believe there may be an expiration date of sorts for poems that speak to a current topic or event? As you said with poems referring to COVID, it's as if the impact has worn off since the event is no longer as prominent. Do you think there is still value to topical poems even if their impact dwindles over time?
MR: Yes, I do think that topical poems very often lose some of their power when removed from their immediate context, though sometimes, whether by luck or good craftsmanship, they can outstrip their immediate context and evolve to suit other moments in space and time. Auden's poem September 1, 1939 is one that springs to mind. That said, I do believe there is a place for poems that are tethered to current events. We need poems that speak to our circumstances in real time. We can't let opinion writers and cable news hosts and preachers be the only interpreters of our reality; poets have a role to play, as well.
KH: What about poetry attracts you?
MR: For me, a good poem is like a drug—something you can swallow all at once and immediately feel your perspective altered. It's a powerful thing, concise, musical, and inexhaustible.
KH: How have you seen your poetry changing over the years?
MR: I can definitely see changes. I think my poems have become more personal, even more biographical, as I have gained life experience. Maybe I've become a more formal poet, too, though I still have a surreal, unstructured streak that I've tended since I fell in love with poetry.
KH: Were there or are there any constant influences on your writing?
MR: My poems tend to care about what I care about, so the religious or spiritual elements in some of my poems, for instance, reflect my personal concerns. As the son of a Baptist minister, I grew up in the church, absorbing the language of prayer and scripture, so the sound and sense of that exposure is woven into the fiber of my being. And my poetry.
To pick up on what I just said, I first fell in love with poets like Charles Simic, Mark Strand, and James Tate—poets who could be funny and mysterious and even terrifying all at the same time, so I still hear echoes of their influence in my poems. Robert Frost is always hanging around, as well. Maybe it's my New Hampshire upbringing, but the voice and rhythm of his poems, and even his reflexive skepticism (his refusal to believe completely his own revelations) seems kin to my own consciousness.
KH: What are you working on now?
MR: I'm in kind of an interesting place right now. Since the publication of my book, I haven't written a lot of new poems and I've been working on scholarly projects. In a way, it's nice to have a drawer with very few poems in it as it allows me to think about the next book and maybe to imagine a whole new direction.
KH: How do you approach writing? Do you know what you want to say or do you write to find out?
MR: I'm definitely in the latter camp, which to my mind is the only camp that really exists. If
you know what you want to say before you've said it, you've already said it to yourself, and paraphrase is not poetry. More seriously, for me, the surprises I want to spring on my reader are always a product of my own surprise during the process of composition. If I don't surprise myself first, I'll have no surprises for others. I write to surprise myself, to discover new sensations in language, to put together a little machine and watch it go. It's very satisfying when it works.
KH: What has your journey been like with writing?
MR: My journey has required a lot of patience. There were fourteen years between my two books, and countless rejections before and in between. I really thought I had given up hope for my second manuscript, but then, somehow, I found the right readers at FutureCycle Press, and within a few months it was published.
*Kaila Heltzel, a senior in the BFA program at Penn State Behrend, interviewed poet Matthew Roth in anticipation of his visit to Behrend as part of the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series. Roth will read from his work on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 6 p.m. in the Metzgar building. For more information visit: behrend.psu.edu/readings