Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Matt Mitchell

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Mitchell Cover[40361]-1

Matt Mitchell

is an intersex poet from Warren, Ohio. He thinks that the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now” is the quintessential pop banger. He’s been trying to make his writing as beautiful as Vince Carter’s 360-Windmill in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. His mother is a teacher and his father is an auto parts salesman. He’s gluten-free, and he accepts your apology in advance. Currently, he is at Hiram College in Ohio studying creative writing and dating the choicest woman in the world. He is the self-elected Poet Laureate of Vanilla Coke drinkers. He’s got the best hair in poetry.

He has poems forthcoming from Glass Poetry, COUNTERCLOCK, BARNHOUSE, Drunk Monkeys, and more. His debut micro-chapbook, you & me & the pink moon & these portraits, is forthcoming from Ghost City Press in late August.


The Interview

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started seriously writing poetry in the spring of 2017. When I began my first semester at Hiram College in 2016, I wanted to be a fiction writer, but that dream faded after I was introduced to Hanif Abdurraqib’s first collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. Dan Campbell from the band The Wonder Years had posted a photo of the book on his Instagram and, after one thing led to another, I owned the book as well. It was there that I had my first glimpse into what modern poetry looked like. I was enamored. After spending all of high school looking at poetry through the narrow scope of Whitman, Poe, etc., I felt liberated from that.

Why I write poetry is a lot more complicated in some ways. I write poetry as a means of escape, as cliche as that sounds. It was through poetry that I was able to project my queerness into written word, even though most of those pieces have not been published yet. I’m taking my time with those poems. I only started putting my identity into my poetry a handful of months ago. There’s a poem in my new chapbook, “ode to eliot ness, ending in aphasia,” where I finally speak about the complex relationship I have with myself and my father, specifically, and how I’ve yet to really talk about my identity with him. The poem was inspired by sam sax’s “LISP,” which I found great inspiration in and attempted to model my own story after. I write poetry because I have trouble speaking to others about things that are important to me in a casual tone. I hope that my writing can have the conversations I often struggle having.

1.1. Why did you feel liberated?

Mostly because I was reading their works and not understanding or relating to any of it. I’ve never felt the urge to chant “O, Captain, My Captain” from the top of a desk. In high school, my English teachers tried programming it into my brain that this is how poetry must be written. To learn that poetry truly can’t be compartmentalized like that completely reshaped my worldview, for the better.

2, How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Completely aware. Maybe not so much seven years ago. What comes with maturity in the writing community is understanding how the work of older poets, even those as modern as the Beat poets, has truly influenced newer work. I just had no idea, way back when, that poets were out here doing such experimental and jaw-dropping work. One thing we did in high school was read Shakespeare’s sonnets. Discovering Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin opened my eyes to the way current poets, those who aren’t much older than I am, are taking these old methods and making them new. I had always seen the old methods as endgame, and that turned me away from poetry at one time, but now I see something that was once liberating to still be liberating, but, at the same, influential. For example, I’m currently trying to compile a manuscript of basketball sonnets with off-rhymes. I would have scoffed at that idea when I was a teenager.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

I’ve meandered through various routines, but my current one is late-night writing. Since it’s summer, and I’m not doing much, I start writing around 10 or 11 PM and keep at it until 2 or 3 in the morning. I’m not necessarily churning out five or six poems a night, but, instead, spending more time with each poem. When I was first introduced to Submittable and getting pieces published, I was writing poems and sending them out same day. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve learned to put a lot of care into each piece as I write it.

4. What motivates you to write?

Ohio motivates me to write. So many fantastic poets living in this state, like Hanif Abdurraqib, Ruth Awad, Mary Quade, Jason Harris, and Maggie Smith, have created this movement that no one’s screaming from rooftops about. However, Ohio, Cleveland and Columbus specifically, are busting out at the seams with writing talent. I pride myself on being from Ohio and being in company with these folks. I was born twenty minutes from the GM plant in Lordstown, I grew up in the same town my entire family has lived in for three generations, I go to college at one of the oldest Ohio colleges. Nothing on this planet gives me more inspiration and determination than the state I come from.

There are organizations, like Literary Cleveland, making poetry cool again in a place where the arts have been given the cold shoulder. In high school, no one cared that I wanted to study writing and have a career in that. Everyone was more interested in becoming engineers or beginning a law school track. When I got to Hiram College, I realized that writing is cool, that there are so many others out there doing what I’m doing, and that’s just so neat. I love the community here, and I love that it just keeps growing and growing.

I’ve been inspired by other states to write poetry. Like North Carolina, which is where my poem “ben gibbard composes a song for diebenkorn’s ocean horizon, oil on canvas, 1959,” forthcoming from Glass Poetry, takes place, but it’s still rooted in Ohio. All signs lead back home. I’m a place-based poet, or I try to be, at least. If I hadn’t been born here, in the wondrous Rust Belt, I have no idea where my writing career would be.

5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I often find myself always returning to Stephen King’s On Writing. Not only are there a lot of tremendous and witty and heartbreaking anecdotes in there, but it’s filled with good lessons on how to make a career out of writing. There’s a moment where King writes: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” I’m the kind of writer that walks around with a few lines in their head for days before actually writing it down. I’ll go over it again and again before actually getting it out into a poem. Sometimes I’ll tell my partner the line and she’ll respond with something like “I have no idea what the context of this is, so it doesn’t make sense.” I love those moments, because I usually have no clue what it’s supposed to mean, either.

7. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I’ve mentioned Hanif Abdurraqib a few times already. His work really is what influenced me first. I owe a lot of gratitude to him for his words. Growing up, I was a sports fanatic. Still am, to be honest. I had never read any kind of poetry where sports are so casually and powerfully used to drive a message forward. He does that with music, too. I call myself a music and sports poet, and without Hanif’s work, I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to start writing about those things, too. I’ve moved away from seeing him as a celebrity figure to understanding that we are in the same line of work and wanting to have my work compliment his. His poem series “How Can Black People Write About Flowers At a Time Like This” is the best batch of poems in the world right now.

My partner introduced me to Keegan Lester’s work in 2017 when she let me borrow his book, this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all I had so I drew it, and I was completely enamored by his style and rhythm. Him being a West Virginia poet was so appealing to me, too, because my family is from there, and I was able to read his work and step into his shoes.

Alexia Kemerling is another writer I draw a lot of inspiration from. Her prose is stupendous and sticks with you. She has an essay about a super-interesting man from her hometown, and the way she can seamlessly weave through a narrative without any sudden stops is something I aspire to do with my own work.

8. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I write because I can see that words do help people. I wanted to be a professional drawer at one point, but I fell in love with writing. There was one instance in my life where I wanted to be a rock star. I’d make my own CDs with my own cover art and track listings, even though I never wrote most of the songs. I’d like to think I’m good at writing, though, because I’m not good at much else, in terms of things that would lead to a professional career. I always wanted to be an NBA player growing up, but I think my chances of getting a draft invite are gone because I had a broken left kneecap and never went to therapy to get it rehabbed. There also aren’t many jobs tailored to being able to list the 1967 MLB Home Run Leaders in order.

Sometimes the right job/hobby/whatever sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Other times, you know from a young age what your professional destiny is. I’m still trying to figure out what mine is, honestly. For now, writing feels right. I hope I can do it for a long time, and most can. It’s like golf, which is a game you can play until you’re well into your seventies, eighties, and so on.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I would say: “Just write.” I think there are a lot of discouraging folks out there who think you can measure success by publications and book numbers. I don’t see it like that. If you want to write four-line poems and you’re proud of that, then you’re a writer. It’s such a loose term and too many folks are trying to exclude certain circumstances. Writing is all subjective, too. No one should let the personal tastes of others dictate whether or not the things they write are good or bad. Just go write and make the most of it.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’m going through a couple of projects right now, including two poetry manuscripts, but one I’m about to get started on is a long-form essay about the 1977-1979 Chalker High School basketball teams. I graduated from there, and, growing up, I was continuously learning from my grandmother about that team’s legacy. The school has always been about 400-600 kids K-12, so the fact that the late-70s teams almost went to the state championship and the team still wonders what could’ve been has stuck with me. I’m looking to dissect those years and get an understanding of how such a small feat, in the grand scheme of life accomplishments, can impact such a small town. I’ve been sitting on that idea for a while, and now I’m finally moving forward with it. Those three years were also a weird time in America. There was the rise and sudden fall of disco, the Carter years, the Iranian hostage situation, the beginning of the evolution towards the 1980s. It’s a small blip in history with so much to talk about. I’d like to use the basketball teams as sort of vehicles to develop a better idea of what the Rust Belt in the 1970s looked like, especially for a town of 3,000 people.

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