Name: Matthew W. Baker (Matt for short)
Hometown: Lawrence, PA, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh
Current City: Reno, NV
Occupation: high school English teacher
What does poetry mean to you?
Writing poetry is a time-stop. The minutes melt off the space around me like rubber exposed to lava. I don’t notice the world around me, and I think that’s a good thing. As much as my writing tries to engage some of the larger questions we all have about the sociopolitical, environmental, and inter/intrapersonal relationships around and between us, being totally sequestered in time during this process helps me focus. I can spend a half-hour worrying about the order of words in a line; I can write, cross out, and rewrite a metaphor; and I can tinker with the idea of expressing something in a narrative way or an un-narrative way. Writing also lets me reclaim some of my life from the relentless pour of forwardness that comes with having a job and other non-creative deadlines. So often, I don’t feel like I have the space to write because a great deal of teaching requires a kind of giving up of myself. I love working with students and answering questions, but the tedium of grading and prepping for classes weighs down on creative-me sometimes. So when I write, I get a little bit of that time back, and I’ve realized it’s important to guard that time the more I advance in my professional career.
Reading poetry creates an intellectual and emotional link between me and other people and language. I don’t usually feel a 100% connection to the other poets I’m reading, at least not on a personal level. Instead, I engage more with their thinking and try to exercise my empathy muscles, but it’s dangerous for me, a white, relatively hetero male, to equate my experiences to many other people’s. Poetry, more than any other medium, allows me to approximate those folks’ lives as closely as possible without imposing my own sensibilities. The feel of words heightens this encounter, too. I love to read poems out loud in my room and hear rhymes and rhythms. If a poem employs a lot of alliteration and assonance, I get giddy. I pause and breathe deeply and read the line (or entire poem) over again. That sound pulls me into the scene or the emotional journey of the poem and helps me inhabit that event sometimes more easily than just understanding the meaning of the words themselves.
Who is your favorite poet?
Lucie Brock-Broido is a recent favorite poet of mine. It’s funny—I think all poets (and readers in general) have favorite writers of the moment. Brock-Broido is one of those poets for me, though I think her work will definitely stick with me for years to come.
I recently picked up her collection Stay, Illusion and had an awesome time reading it. One reason I feel connected to Brock-Broido’s work is because we are both originally from Pittsburgh (shameless hometown promotion). I never really thought anything cool happened in Pittsburgh when I was younger, and I certainly never thought anyone creative was born there. (I was a really disaffected, unobservant youth—I am sorry, Pittsburgh!) So when I stumbled upon Brock-Broido’s work after her death in 2018, it had this weird magnetic pull. Her work is mysterious because she hardly says things plainly, but not in an abstract, look-at-me-being-obtuse-to-be-obtuse way. Her metaphors are particularly evocative for this reason. I might understand each word individually, but the connection between the image and the object of the metaphor might leave me totally stumped wondering how one thing compares to the other. In a sense, I feel like I’m trying to piece a puzzle together, but I’m doing that work with a friend (which might sound weird since I never met Brock-Broido, but I think that’s the Pittsburgh connection at work).
One poem from this collection that stands out to me is “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World.” The poem itself is a meditation on the concept that humans have tethered themselves so fully and absurdly to the earth in an attempt to remain alive even though life is only a brief guarantee. Brock-Broido also touches on the way people have created ecological devastation in the process of harnessing themselves to life. The first line of the poem sets up an honesty hard to come by in everyday life: “Tell the truth I told me When I couldn’t speak.” As if the speaker is reprimanding herself and demanding a type of hyper-focused reflection, the mood of the poem becomes immediately urgent, which makes the larger thematic concerns urgent, too. This honesty also allows the speaker to seem vulnerable when she writes, “According to the census I am unmarried And unchurched.” I feel the speaker’s concern here—what will happen to a woman who appears to be outside of these societal institutions that, many times, make a person feel like a seen member of society. What happens to someone who is alone, someone who doesn’t associate with religion? And as if the speaker answers herself, she says later on, “I am obliged, now, to refrain from dying, for as long as it is possible. / For whom left am I first?” Here is where the poem seems to turn. Even though the speaker might not necessarily subscribe to the fact that being single and un-associated with a church means she’s an outsider, she feels like she needs to hang on to the life she has, to stick around and make herself noticeable because there is this anxiety that maybe she isn’t this “first” idea (or any idea at all) that someone else keeps in mind. And while the speaker meditates, “big beautiful / Blubbery white bears” are holding onto disappearing patches of ice. While the speaker contemplates mortality, other species are left cleaving to their own tiny remaining pieces of life.
What mystifies me about this poem, though, and thus compels me to reread it again and again, is some of the imagery. In the middle of the poem, Brock-Broido writes, “The woman in the field dressed only in the sun.” In the context of the poem, this image comes after the speaker says she’s “unmarried” and “unchurched.” So, on a literal level, the image is just a lone woman standing with no one but herself in a sunlit field. Metaphorically, perhaps, the image highlights this feeling of people so singular that the only things left to them are the clothes on their backs and the feel of the sun on their skin—an aloneness that seems so stark and cold despite the warm light. So, sure, I know what the image “means,” but I don’t really understand how I should feel about it—I’m mystified. Dean Young writes in The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction, “Anything fully known offers us no site of entry, no site of escape, no site of desire” (85). A poem that just explains everything, or an image that just has one way of being interpreted, doesn’t encourage multiple readings and doesn’t allow the reader to puzzle. Because I don’t know how to feel when I read this image in Brock-Broido’s piece, I desire to return to it. I want to puzzle it out. Of course, I never really come to a conclusion any time I revisit this poem, so that sense of mystery I love in Brock-Broido’s work lingers.
What I love about this collection is that it makes me strive for a sense of ineffability in my own work. Reading Brock-Broido’s images and metaphors impresses on me that I need to let go of being so literal or so explanatory in my poetry. I want to create a “site of desire” in my work that readers respond to. And so as much as Brock-Broido is a recent favorite, I think this specific collection will be one of those books I keep on my shelves my entire life.