A Little Retreat in Myself: Rob Taylor Interviews Matthew Walsh
I like to be naked and comfortable with my older friend I treasure it
he likes it at the beach, and who cares if we are naked
I am just realizing this now but we are all chromosomes
at the heart of it. My summer body is my winter
fat glistening. Nothing is ever going to sink how I feel.
Behind my house was the Atlantic, my village made for export
of sawdust, trees. Big cargo boats to take pieces of my town
across the ocean. Time path and least time path.
If feels like the tail end of happy hour when memory leaves
you gauging the multi-phases of life. I remember thinking my body
is a tadpole body in Nova Scotia—itself shaped like a tadpole
body seeing the ship as a much larger frog splitting open the water
floating like it was Jesus or something much more sinister and now
I text my mother and ask in a more serious adult way about the cargo
ships and what they wanted she said what cargo ships I’m not sure
what you are talking about because there was also yachts
and I said sternly they were cargo ships and she responded ok ok
they probably wanted wood chips or pipes or they were picking up
something at the port. I have a hard time believing in art saving
the world when there are so many holes just in me alone
and there is no Earth-like planet like this Earth-like planet.
I’m guilty thinking of poetry as not being a life
preserver—sometimes it makes me feel good just for a while.
I stare at the head of my beer and think let me get to the golden stuff
and the sun touches my face like a mother with a warm washcloth.
My older friend is fine lying in the sand, has been asleep and got a scar
but is sparking with little minerals, microscopic rocks, who used to be parts
of a larger, bigger, more important life of parts.
from These are not the potatoes of my youth
(Goose Lane Editions, 2019).
Reprinted with permission.
Matthew Walsh hails from the eastern shore of Nova Scotia and has twice travelled by bus across Canada. Their poems may be found in The Malahat Review, Arc, Existere, Matrix, Carousel and Geist. Walsh now lives in Toronto.
Rob Taylor: Many poems in your debut poetry collection, These are not the potatoes of my youth, have a wandering, Frank O’Hara-like “I do this I do that” vibe to them, perhaps none more than “Flaneurial,” which drives home the spirit of the poems right there in the title. The poems meander about, landing on surprise after eye-catching surprise. Could you speak a bit about writing in this style? Have you always done it, and if not, what lead you to it? Was O’Hara an influence?
Matthew Walsh: I haven’t actually read a lot of Frank O’Hara, but every time I scream or cry in the bathtub I think about him. I have read a few of his poems and really enjoyed them. I feel like some of the poems in the collection do have this meandering quality like you said, but I kind of wanted to imitate what it was like to walk around a city, or get off the Greyhound and walk around a new place and discover things for the first time.
I got addicted to writing in that way when I was in Vancouver. It just seemed right, the right voice and form, but I haven’t always done it.
I wanted those meandering poems to have this voice which goes on and on chattering, and I wanted to include as many details as possible so it would have a collage kind of feel, like when you see graffiti all over a wall and some of the elements don’t necessarily go together, but something in some way links them together.
So I think in the back of my mind, he was an influence. I love that bathtub poem and the tone so much because it’s silly but there is some sort of emotional cord in that poem as well, but the comedy and sadness have such a nice balance.
RT: You mention the direct influence of Vancouver in the development of your “wandering” poems (“Flaneurial,” for one, is set there). You moved from a small town in Nova Scotia to Vancouver complete your MFA at the University of British Columbia, and you note at the back of the book that it’s where “most of these poems were written.” To what extent do you think these “wandering” poems were about being in Vancouver, specifically, as opposed to simply being in a place where you had fewer “roots”? (Sorry, I’ll keep the potato puns to a minimum from here on out.) Would these poems have been the same if you’d moved to a different city or town?
MW: I think because I had not done any sort of travelling except for bus trips, and because Vancouver was such a big move for me, and I was going to be there for at least two years, I wanted to see everything it had to offer. It was my first time spending any length of time on the West Coast.
And Vancouver just feels like a very transient city; everyone moves out, comes back, moves away, so I was constantly just walking around the city itself and also nearby places. When I lived in Toronto I didn’t take advantage of seeing any neighbouring cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago, so when I was closer to places like Portland, Seattle and Olympia, I took advantage of it, and I wanted to see everything and be inspired by the street art there, and see bigger things in the little things people were doing around those cities.
So yes, I think you are right. It was a place where I knew no one, had less roots, so I felt like I had so much possibility and wasn’t worried as much as I had been in the past. I was excited for the future and what I would see and what could be made into a poem.
RT: Speaking of the future: many of your poems seem as if they could go on forever. They flow from scene to scene (or thought to thought, or image to image) so effortlessly, seemingly indifferent to the idea of reaching a conclusion. Eventually, though, they all do. How do you know when to end a poem? Is it different from poem to poem? Has it changed over the years as you’ve developed as a writer?
MW: How do I know how to end a poem? Maybe I never want them to end. Sometimes I write long poems. One method I use is to lay all the poems out on the front lawn on a full moon and scream at the stars until they tell me what to do. No—I’m kidding—I HAVE NO IDEA. Sometimes a line will just come to me and I know that’s the end line. Sometimes I start with the end line and then I figure out ways to get there, to get to the point where that one line, whatever it is, works.
Yes, it is different from poem to poem, how they will end. Sometimes I will go for a walk and I will see something and something will click in my head and I can come back and finish it. Once I saw someone combing their girlfriend’s hair on Mont Royal, overlooking Montreal and I thought what a great ending image to a poem.
RT: A good number of the poems in These are not the potatoes of my youth are about your father, most often about the physical/emotional/philosophical gulf between the two of you. In “Garbage box with black loons” you write of your dad, “driving his red car looking at junk and making it / into something strangers would love him for.” This struck me, perhaps, as your poetics as well—discovering unexpected points of connection and making something new (like wandering Mont Royal and gluing on an ending). Could you talk about how the role you think your father played—for good or for bad—in making you the poet you are today?
MW: My dad is such a character and a real human being, and no one is perfect. He is very funny at times, but he also has a lot of hang ups, or did, about gay people, though I think he’s probably more open to the idea now. I remember having to secretly watch The Kids in the Hall late at night, because that was just not something we were allowed to do. Everything was of course super heteronormative so I remember feeling very confused and trapped in my body.
I think he inspires me to look at the small and funny moments in life. As a kid I had a huge, very active imagination because there was so much I couldn’t do or say openly. I would imagine myself doing those things, or write about myself doing them. So I had a little retreat in myself when things got hard, I suppose, which helped with writing, because writing can be so isolating. I remember even as a kid I wrote stories in Duo-Tangs and I just wrote and wrote.
I think my dad taught me to think deeply, have deep thoughts. Most days he would sit in the window and chain smoke and drink Nescafé and stare out at the ocean, so I believe he did think a lot, and think deeply about things, but I’m not sure what those things might have been.
RT: You mention how helpful writing was in giving you a “retreat” in yourself—what a wonderful way to phrase it! But then in “Cargo memories” you write “I’m guilty thinking of poetry as not being a life // preserver.” What are your current thoughts about the role of poetry in your life/the world? Has publishing These are not the potatoes of my youth and seeing it travel out into the world affected your thinking on this?
MW: I think poetry can be extremely helpful to the brain and body, and I think it’s good to write things down and think things out on paper if you’re writing something personal because it can be like peeling out of an old skin and into a new one. But I don’t think it can do everything for me, personally. That’s what I was getting at in “Cargo memories.”
I think poetry—reading or writing it—can help healing or start healing. What I feel is that the real life preserver is the writing community. Those people are so good. If you’re a writer then you share this special little thing with all the other writers out there.
RT: A major theme running through These are not the potatoes of my youth is segmentation. You close “Cargo memories” with the image of “microscopic rocks, who used to be parts / of a larger, bigger, more important life of parts.” In “Kiss a horse” you write “I see myself in sections in the mirror section”, in “Wheelbarrow and cabbage” that you were maybe a “tomato—half vegetable, half fruit” and in “Tool shed” that “I dreamed of being a full-out gay person.” A desire for unity runs through these poems, as well as an attention to all the ways that unity is elusive, if not impossible. Would you say that you seek unity in your life/your self? If so, do you have a sense of a path to finding it, and what role might poems play in that path? (If you know the secret, we’re all dying to know!)
MW: Wow, these questions are so kind. Yeah, I had unity on my mind a lot in several of these poems. I sometimes feel like not a full person, or half of a person, and sometimes I can get down on myself. Do I seek unity? Maybe. I know that I like looking at the week ahead and having a plan about what I want to accomplish, and I like knowing I have completed something.
RT: A number of the poems in These are not the potatoes of my youth refer to your once considering entering the priesthood. Did you really consider it? If so, why? And do you think your interest in the priesthood shared any common sources with your interest in poetry? Is poetry its own sort of alternate priesthood?
MW: Oh, maybe! I mean I do worship a lot of poetry books. Ummm, when I was growing up my grandmother always hinted at me going into the priesthood, and it was talked about but I never really wanted to do it, even though I was told I would have my own house and everything, and that I would get to read all the time—which is how it was pitched to me. I do love to read, and I do feel there are a lot of poetry books which have, over the years, become very sacred to me. I mean writing is pretty solitary, and from what I understand the priesthood is pretty solitary, so I can see some correlations there, yeah.
RT: Your book’s title is not misleading: there’s a lot of potato content in here! I don’t want to go and ruin the book for people, but by the end of it you sort of…turn into a potato? Potatoes in the book are weighty with metaphorical significance: they see underground, they grow even after being plucked from the earth, they possess “long pale tubulars” like arms reaching out, or gathering in. When did you begin to see potatoes—which you grew up surrounded by as a child—as more than just a simple vegetable? When did you start turning into them in your poems?
MW: I once swam in a potato garden, and we always had bags of potatoes lying around. I remember once we found an old bag of potatoes that had tried to root in the cupboard and they looked like octopi. They are just so weird. Do you know that Marge Simpson meme, where she is just holding the potato saying “I just think they’re neat”? I just think they are very cool and weird. My grandmother always said they had eyes, and she’d cut all the eyes out before boiling them—the eyes are just like little blemishes on the skin.
I started turning out potato poems once I had the title; then I couldn’t stop growing them.
RT: Ok, let’s close with the question everyone’s been wondering about your three major recurring motifs in the book…
Fuck, Marry, Kill: Potatoes, Tomatoes, the Moon. Go.
MW: I would absolutely fuck the moon, I would kill potatoes—and I would marry tomatoes but still keep my relationship with the moon super open.