Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Interview Series: Matthew Hittinger

As most of you know by now, one of my goals of 2011 was to incorporate more voices into my blog. I am doing this by devoting one post every month to interviewing an emerging GLBT poet. I began with Bryan Borland in January and Valerie Wetlaufer in February. For March, I interviewed the talented and sexy Matthew Hittinger. We had a great time discussing everything from poetry contests to writing nude to his love of ginger to his collaborative work with musicians, actors, and artists. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Stephen: I first became aware of you and your work because we have both been published in the same issues of quite a few different magazines (Ganymede, Knockout, Assaracus). At first I thought you were stalking me, but it was probably just the fate of the poetry world that we would eventually become aware of each other. On that note, how do you go about selecting journals to submit to?

Matthew: My poems told me they’re stalking your poems; I told them to behave.

My selection process has evolved. I started out with a Poet’s Market guide and some recommendations from friends and mentors. Then in grad school we had the wonderful resource of the Hopwood Room at UM where the latest issues of many, many print journals are on display (fanned out like a wheel on the large round table in the center of the Hopwood Room). There was also a list circulating among the MFA students at the time which broke the notable journals down (acceptance rates, whether they were university journals, online journals, etc.) which helped us better target where to send our work.

S: Wow, that sounds like a great resource that I would have loved in grad school when I knew very little about publishing.

M: It was very useful and someone’s labor of love; I’m hazy on its origins. Sometimes I look at acknowledgments pages to see where my influences and peers have published. But in the years since grad school I’ve shifted how I select thanks to the rise of social media and Duotrope’s Digest. I’ve “discovered” many journals through posts by friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter, and through Duotrope’s listings. A new shift/reversal in the process is having journals now solicit me for work.

S: I have also seen the great perks of social media and networking sites. I hear about so many publication opportunities just by following people on Twitter or Facebook. I also scan the acknowledgement sections of many books that I admire.

Let’s backtrack for a minute to your writing process. What is it like? For example, do you write daily? Does it have to be quiet? Do you write by hand or on the computer? Do you write naked? I’m just trying to get a good mental picture.

M: I’m usually clothed. There is one poem I wrote naked on a hotel bed in Miami while watching the sun rise, but that was a few years ago. Oh, and I’ve been told my work makes certain readers want to get naked when they read it.

S: I think I fall into that “certain readers” category, though I don’t just want to, I often do. If I see your name in the table of contents, I start stripping.

M: Excellent. My poems are meant to be read naked in bed, and if you're lucky to have someone with you, whispered in that person's ear. As for my process…I read daily. Writing/reading are two sides of the same coin, so even if I’m not writing daily, at least I’m engaged with reading literary writing every day, be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry or graphic novels.

Whether or not it has to be quiet depends on my mood; I’m a bit of a Gemini that way. In grad school I kept NPR and music on incessantly in the background. For a year it was Cartoon Network and Boomerang (I love old Hannah Barbara cartoons—the Herculoids, Thundarr, Super Friends). NYC noises are a bit too distracting--I often use ear plugs here.

Hand or computer? I used to write all my drafts by hand. Every poem still starts with translating words that have found a rhythm in my head into a hand-written fragment. And then sometimes the fragments become lines, but it’s rare that I draft an entire poem by hand anymore. I usually dump all my fragments and lines into a computer file and edit from there. There are benefits to both types of writing: writing by hand forces my brain to slow down a bit, but conversely, I’m a fast typer, so typing better keeps up with the speed at which my mind works.

But to get at the heart of your question: new work comes in short, prolific bursts. A lot of material gets absorbed over the space of many months (I call it my sponge phase), and then I’ll hit a superabsorbed state and wring out the sponge, sometimes generating a manuscript’s worth of work in the space of a few weeks. The following months and years are devoted to revising that work.

Up until the past year or so, I could only generate work if I knew what the book project was. I’d fixate on a question I wanted to explore, for instance in my Skin Shift manuscript the question of transformation and metamorphosis in the postmodern world, of updating and queering myths for our own times. The exploration of that question generated the poems.

Of late, for the first time in a long time, I’ve just been writing one-off poems, many of which have been commissions for projects. It’s sort of nice to not have them tied to any bigger project, and also scary.

S: I’m always intrigued in other poets’ writing processes because they often vary so much from mine. It’s very interesting that you have these bursts of writing. I seem to work more on a steady pace. I have recently been writing more toward projects, but that is a newer concept for me. I often work best focusing on one poem at a time.

Recently, you’ve been doing some interesting collaborations outside of the poetry world. For example, I know some of your poems got paired with music. Could you speak about how that’s come about and how it’s changed your views on poetry or the arts in general?

M: The musical collaborations started with the Memorious art song contest. I was a finalist, and the composer, Randall West, wanted to work with me independently, so that’s how our collaboration came about. Those art songs debuted in January in Chicago performed by the VOX3 vocal music collective. It was a fun process, to hear the songs in-progress along the way and answer Randall’s questions about the poems as he set the text to music.

My upcoming musical collaboration with composer John Glover will be a little different. We’re starting from a similar point; John's read through a portfolio of my work and we've selected two poems. We'll record me reading them next, and then we're going to start playing around. There will probably be some sonic layering of my voice, some electronica, and we’ll be accompanied by the flutist Andrew Rehrig. I'll definitely be more involved as a performer. We’re still in the early phases of the collaboration, so I will have more to say about the experience after the performance on April 23rd (go to http://www.nysoundcircuit.com/ for more details).

Other recent collaborative projects: two of my poems were part of the Emotive Fruition reading series, which pairs the work of poets up with professional actors. We met with the actors during rehearsals to give them notes and answer their questions about our work, and then they performed the poems in two acts, the work of 17 poets (36 poems or so) sequenced in such a way that it created an overall emotional/narrative arc that left you feeling as if you had just seen a play or show.

And I collaborated with Kristy Gordon for “In Pursuit of a More Perfect Armor”--a painting/poem match-up that appeared in the November 2010 Issue of Poets & Artists. In that case we started via conversation, emailing back and forth about our current obsessions, having a lovely conversation about the masks and armor we have to don in order to create. I took many visual cues for the poem from her painting, and Kristy sent “in-progress” snapshots that helped me build the poem. Since I’ve done a ton of ekphrastic writing, it was a natural collaboration.

So why all the collaborative interest? It’s tied to my interest in hybrids, when two disparate things come together to form a third, new thing. I also feel myself pulled toward collaboration more and more as a response to the somewhat suffocating air inside the poetry world. There are days where I just can’t deal with PoBiz and I find collaborative pursuits a nice escape from our bubble. I’ve been really inspired by Anne Carson’s performance pieces of recent years (I just participated in a master class with her that focused on collaboration and it has given me some great ideas), and am intrigued at how written work can open up when introduced to another art form, and the larger audience we can reach when combining forces. Plus, it’s just fun to work with other artists, to be a representative from your field and educate other artists about poetry while learning about music or painting or dance.

S: Those all sound like amazing opportunities to explore your work and see it in a different way. It seems poetry could gain a bigger audience through collaborations like the ones you describe.

You seem to have a strong academic background. You have an MFA. What made you choose that path and what was your MFA experience like?

M: Oh gosh. My story: I straddled the critical/creative divide in college, double majoring in Art History and English, and wrote an interdisciplinary Honors thesis on the poetry and paintings of Derek Walcott. Our graduating class was also the first to have the option to add a writing concentration (we didn’t have a creative writing minor at the time) so I didn't have my first writing workshops until my senior year at Muhlenberg.

Having had a taste of graduate level work with my honors thesis, I wanted more but was torn: museum studies and Art History? English? My head said crit lit, my heart said creative. A fellowship to the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets helped further propel me in the creative direction after graduation.

I knew I needed a break after college, so I worked full-time and stayed disciplined about reading and writing. After a year of working full time, I started researching summer writing classes and found the FAWC in Provincetown which was offering a class called “Exchanging Hats”. How could I not take a class referencing one of my favorite Bishop poems? It was taught by the fabulous Paul Lisicky, who ended up being a great mentor and helped me put the MFA question in perspective. Why not do it, especially if I was accepted to a program that would fully fund me, in essence buying myself a couple years to just focus on my craft. Which is what happened--I basically got paid to read and write for two years.

Overall, my MFA experience was good. Ann Arbor's an awesome town. UM has a lot of resources. I had a fabulous cohort. Through all the reading series and visiting authors and book recommendations from mentors and peers, I was exposed to writers I may not have found on my own. Within the program I chose to take PhD lit classes for my coursework. I figured if I were going to be serious about being a poet, I needed to know my tradition. It’s important to know the conversation you're having with the past, especially as you struggle to move the forms forward.

S: That last bit sounds like stuff I say all the time. I’ve met too many poets along the way that seem to have no sense of what has come before them and where they fit into the grander tradition of poetry. My MFA at Florida State was a three-year program and required a great deal of lit classes, which I fully supported. I was actually an English major and Art minor in undergrad, so I can also relate to that experience.

You have published three chapbooks. I always find the idea of the chapbook to be one that confuses people outside of the literary world. How do you describe chapbooks to people and what do you like about them?

M: I usually joke that it’s a poetry world thing and based on an arbitrary set of page numbers.

I like sequences, so my favorite chapbooks are those that present me with a tight sequence.

S: You have been published in a wide range of journals and magazines including some gay specific publications. How do you think gay poets are perceived in the publishing world? And what value do you place on having gay focused journals?

M: I came late to the gay-focused journals, and really I think I came to them out of frustration that I couldn’t get certain poems that happen to have queer content, poems I felt passionately about, out to the poetry-reading public via non-gay focused journals.

With that said, I’ve had plenty of poems with queer content published in non-gay focused journals, so I don’t think it’s some sort of big conspiracy. But I’ve found the gay journals more open to my work and more eager to publish it. Many of the gay-focused journals I’ve appeared in are young, so there’s a freshness of spirit there as we discover each other and get our work out on our own terms and define our generation. The emerging gay-focused journals have been very kind to emerging gay poets.

I’ve also overcome some of my hesitations about whether this means our work only reaches each other and our gay readers and not the larger public (as small as that poetry-reading public may be). While I hope the general poetry-reading public skinny dips into our waters, it’s equally important that we have spaces to hold up language-mirrors to our own community, to publish the work our community needs. As many a diva has discovered, gays are loyal to certain brands and products, so I think it makes sense to market to our own.

S: I’ve had a similar experience. For a long time, I was very cautious about where I sent my work, but I also came to realize the importance of supporting gay themed journals and the opportunities they offer. And personally, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to skinny dip in our waters. Our waters are pretty hot.

You live in New York City, which is a cultural center and one rich with poetry history. How does living in such a city influence your work or does it?

M: Moving here definitely changed how I wrote. New York allows anonymity, allows you to be a spy, to ditch the “I” in the poem and replace it with the “eye”. My poems are shorter, more fragmented, more a collage of the things I see and overhear on the streets, on the subway, in museums. There's a different rhythm to the poems that take the city as its subject. And having access to so much culture, in particular the museums and galleries here, is definitely a source for a lot of material and inspiration. I went through my Frank O'Hara and Jasper Johns phase here. If I could have my dream job, it would be working for MoMA like O'Hara did.

S: I would totally start stalking you if you worked at MoMA like O’Hara. You know, he’s my favorite poet and this blog is named after one of his poems. If that is your dream job, what is your actual job? As far as I know, it does not involve poetry or teaching.

M: I work at a secretive hedge fund in midtown Manhattan and manage a team of receptionistas. Administrative work has always come easily to me and I like having a day job that has nothing to do with my writing life. I have many colleagues with similar secret artist lives, so we're this subculture at the Firm. It’s much easier to balance than when I was teaching. Teaching was rewarding and I enjoyed it, but it also seemed to suck the oxygen out of every corner of my day, and now when 4:30 comes, I go home and that's my time. No papers or portfolios to grade. Just my time to enjoy the city, have dinner with friends, go to the occasional reading, visit museums, play video games. The money’s nice too. Writing gets tended to on the weekends. I'm very disciplined, so I've never felt my day job at odds with my writing career. If I did, I probably would have left long ago (I've been there five years now).

S: You have entered a lot of contests and won some and have been finalists for others. Contests are a big part of the poetry publishing world and often one of the few ways to get a first book published or a chapbook. What is your take on contests and what advice do you give people about entering them?

M: I have a love/hate relationship with the contest system. I've definitely benefited from it, and have also been a bridesmaid more times than I care to count. Since I’ve waxed about book contests before, over on Christopher Hennessey’s awesome site ]Outside the Lines[, I’ll keep my comments brief here.

Advice: do your research like you would with a journal before you submit. Know the judge's tastes (read their work), the press's tastes (read some of the books they've published), and make sure your manuscript is ready. Have others read it before you start sending it out. Spread out the pages on the floor or on bulletin boards on the wall and physically live with it for many months, making edits as you walk by, shuffling the order, etc. And don't think that a contest is the only way to book publication. There are presses that have open reading periods outside their contests. There’s nothing wrong going with a small independent or micro press. Their resources may be limited, but their enthusiasm and passion for publishing good work more than makes up for it.

S: I remember reading your post on Christopher’s site. It is well worth the read. I know from personal experience how overwhelming and frustrating the contest world can be, but there are ways to survive it.

If a young gay poet came up to you and wanted to know the best poets to read, who would you suggest?

M: Ooh, I hate that word “best” so I'd probably first send them toward issues of Assaracus and Knockout and Bloom and Gertrude and Mary to get a survey of what's out there and what they like.

Then I’d tell them about the poets whose work I've had love affairs with: John Donne and John Milton; Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop; Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, and Suzanne Gardinier; H.D., Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane and Lorca; Frank O'Hara; Laurie Sheck; James Merrill; and Derek Walcott.

I'd tell them about my poetry mothers: Alice Fulton and Anne Carson.

After a quick check that they know the work of Mark Doty and Carl Philips, I'd make sure they know about Charlie Jensen, RJ Gibson, Eduardo Corral, Neil de la Flor, Miguel Murphy, Randy Mann, Saeed Jones, Dante Micheaux, Jericho Brown, Ocean Vuong, Jee Leong Koh, Bryan Borland, Jeremy Halinen, Spencer Reese, Mark Wunderlich, David Trinidad, D. A. Powell. You, of course. And those are just the boys! I like Stacey Waite and Julie Enszer…we’ll be here all day if I try to make a comprehensive list. And I know I'm egregiously forgetting people (forgive me!), but the point is there are so many gay poets to keep track of these days. And many whose names I know but whose work I have yet to experience. For instance, I’ve finally had the chance to sit down and enjoy the work of Rigoberto Gonzalez and C. Dale Young (whose latest book Torn has an amazing title poem that you should go read right now; I'll wait).

S: Wow, that is a list. By “best” I meant more the best place to start for a young gay poet, but you’ve really got them covered here.

We live in a world that is not very “poetry friendly.” What keeps you writing? Why write poetry in the 21st century?

M: You know I don't really think about it. I just write. Poetry's my tool for thinking about the world and processing what I experience. If my work gets others thinking about the world, if my way of seeing gets others thinking and seeing the world anew and moves them, then that's all that matters to me.

S: That’s a fair response and perhaps all we can ever do as writers.

Alright, you’ve read my other interviews and know I like to end by asking some “fun” questions. If you could have sex with one redheaded poet, dead or alive, who would it be? And what kind of sex would it be?

M: Hah. I see this question has become very specific since the last interview. You know Milton was rumored to be a redhead (or at least auburn--his classmates called him “the Lady”).

S: I like to keep things fresh, and besides I read somewhere that you like ginger.

M: I do like ginger. Ginger snaps, ginger [bread] men, ginger ale. Have you ever anagrammed? “Tells men hips” and “spells net him” and “he spells mint” and “helpless mint” and “help smelt sin” and “helps melt sin” and “shell stem pin” and “shell stem nip” – and that's without your middle name. I could go on all night.

S: “Ram wet the hitting” and “gin tram with teeth” and “him wetter at thing”—I can also go all night. Shall we move on before one of us gets too worked up?

What is one poem that you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?

M: Pretty much anything Elizabeth Bishop ever wrote, especially the poems in Geography III. I tend to feel this way more about books than individual poems, so here are three books that made me pause and declare I’d never write again: The Master Letters by Lucie Brock-Broido; The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill; Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.

S: What is something that you absolutely love that would surprise most people?

M: RPG video games. Especially the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises. I also collect these. I have a glass cabinet for them and everything.

S: Who should play you in your bio-pic?

M: This is tough because I’m not very good with actors or remembering their names. I was going to say Franco since he’s my age and into playing gay poets, but I heard he’s short. We might need to find someone taller (I’m 6’1”). I like Ben Barnes. He played Prince Caspian in that Narnia movie, and Dorian Gray. He has excellent hair. If you play me, you have to have excellent hair.

S: Lastly, what is next for you? What is in the works?

M: There are many pots on the stovetop. I have the John Glover collaboration coming up in April. I'm finishing up revisions to Impossible Gotham, one of my full-length manuscripts. I've dusted off two shelved projects that I want to make some progress on this year: my comic book poem and a nonfiction book of vignettes about my hometown. I also have some sketches in my notebook for a new poetry manuscript tentatively called The Book of M which intertwines Montreal, Manhattan, my boyfriend Michael and me, and Marilyn Monroe (I have the same birthday as Marilyn).

S: Those all sound like amazing projects that I look forward to reading and hearing more about. Thank you for my being my March pinup.

-Stephen (Q & A)

Photo by Michael Ernest Sweet, 2011.


  1. Really enjoying this "series." Hope it can continue, at least for a while.

  2. Chuck,

    Thanks! As long as I can find great people to interview, I am going to keep it up. It takes some extra preparation, but I've had a lot of fun doing it!

  3. Thanks for doing these, Stephen. You're spotlighting the people who are shaking things up. I love how playful you are with Matthew in this interview, and I'm jazzed to find out he collects Masters of the Universe action figures. Spunk!

  4. Thanks Evan! I'm glad you are enjoying them. I love doing it.

  5. Another excellent interview, This series is illuminating.

    One thing that comes to mind from this interview is some differences between career-track "professional" poets who have done the MFA workshop sequence, are published and looking for jobs, and those of us out here just writing for no reason and no purpose. I would love to do a fully-funded MFA in which my main job was to read and write. But in fact I do that anyway, funded and sanctioned or not. One difference I find is that those of us out here in "amateur" land often choose not to hustle to get published; or, because we lack the personal connections people make i the "professional" sphere, we have to hustle more to get anywhere. Some of this is parallel to the difference between urban and rural. But I like living rural, even if that makes some things more difficult. And I don't think I'm cut out for the "professional" track, not at this point in life, anyway, not with poetry. It takes more effort to crack that nut than I want to give it, I guess.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking episode. Interesting to think about these things.