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Boston dad reveals his secrets of literary success

Interview: Poet Matthew Lippman, Author of The New Year of Yellow

There's this wicked cool guy in Boston who just doesn't give up on his dream. Matthew Lippman went from outcast to celebrated author of The New Year of Yellow that won the Kathryn A. Morton poetry prize. Now he is promoting his new book of poetry Monkey Bars, all the while teaching teenagers and raising babies. How does he do it? Let's ask him! (digital photo altering by Lynette Yetter)

You've won a lot of prizes for your poetry. Can you tell us something about those prizes and the work of yours that they are honoring?

Thank you for saying I have won a lot of prizes. I have won a few. It’s always surreal. The big one was for my first book, The New Year of Yellow. I had been submitting my manuscript for 14 years to get my book published and then it finally received the winning prize. The other prizes were just for my poetry, in general, not a book.

How did you get into writing poetry?

When I was fifteen years old I made this conscious decision that I wanted to be a poet. But, I had already made the decision to be a poet when I was six, or so. Language was something that I loved and when I was old enough to be conscious of its power and fun, it all came together for me. It was the summer when I was fifteen, in Vermont. I would go to this dock on Miller Pond with my friend Peter and we would write poems for hours. Then, we’d go have lunch.

Can you tell us more about being six years-old and wanting to be a poet? When I was six, I think the only poem I knew was "Mary Had a Little Lamb". What was your introduction to poetry?

I don’t know if I knew what that meant, I just knew that I loved messing around with language and I was good at it like I was good at playing baseball. I wrote some cool stuff in first grade and it just kept on going from there. I felt comfortable and “at home” writing, even when I was that young.

What is your day job?

I am a high school English Teacher. I teach Literature, Expository and Creative Writing. I also run my own on-line Poetry One-to-One Courses. I run eight week courses with individuals on the art of writing poetry. (Here is a shameless plug for my business. My website is www.matthewlippman.com)

So you became a poet and an English teacher. What life path did your poetry partner Peter take in life?

I believe he became a graphic artist and moved to Scandinavia. The last time I saw him, I believe, was when we were 17.

How does your family feel about being the subject of some of your poems?

They love it. Especially my five-year-old. My wife likes the ones about homebirth. My five-month-old chews on plastic toys.

What was your childhood like?

It was a weird mixture of being totally fun and difficult.

Would you be willing to elaborate? I think many of us sometimes feel that the difficulties in our life are preventing us from fulfilling our dreams. What has been your experience? What is your philosophy, your mindset, regarding the totally difficult stuff that life drops on us?

When I was a kid I felt like a bit of an outcast and, at the same time, this incredible need to fit in. I did this “fitting in” by being funny. Outrageous. A bit out-of-my-mind in social situations. People were drawn to that and I felt “loved,” if you will, or embraced. But, it always felt empty. When I retreated from these situations I needed something that I felt I could only get from myself, some kind of internal conversation to help me work out my nuttiness, the thoughts in my head, the feelings in my chest that burned me up. I found language. I found music. I did not have a gift for music and did, a bit, for language. My childhood, like anybody else’s, was full of rich experiences and ones that flat out sucked. Family life was hard and soft all at once. I spent time in my house feeling both part of a family and then, not. So, there was this wicked contradiction that played a big part in my unrest, in my quest for identity. Poetry, writing, helped me to get some of that identity, find some confidence in myself, and I have been on the path ever since.

One thing is true about my poetry “career” is this: I have persevered. And perseverance is a beautiful thing. It pays off, really. So, that is part of my philosophy. I have always believed in my voice and whether people embrace it or not, eh, well, it’s a crapshoot. For a long time no one really paid much attention. Lately, a lot of people have been paying attention. Not much has shifted though, in my work, except for craft. So, yeah, stay on the path. Especially when it is gorgeous.

Who or what have been the biggest influences on your life choices? Who have been your mentors (living, dead, fictional, etc)?

I had a European History teacher in high school who taught me how to read Eliot’s The Wasteland. He was one. My wife, Rachel, has had a profound and poignant impact on my life and writing. Bob Dylan gave me the juice, but he probably gave that juice to a lot of people. Led Zeppelin, too. The Bible. Tony Hoagland and Gerald Stern and my good and dear friend, Michael Morse, a deeply talented poet himself. Matthew Dickman, another poet friend and Jen Woods, the visionary publisher of my next book. There are a lot more, I’m sure, but I’ll end with my kids — Natalie and Eliana — who break open the door every night when we are in the deepest sleep.

What words of advice do you have for someone, young or old, who dreams of writing poetry?

Just write, every week, four times a week. At least.

What else would you like the readers to know?

That poetry should be fun — to read, to write. It should get people fired up, make them laugh, make them pee in their pants, cry, cackle, weep, love, dance, oh yeah, especially that, to dance.

What are favorite poems of other poets that inspire you and make you want to dance?

Here are a few: Adrian Blevins’ "Still Life With Peeved Madona", Matthew Dickman’s "All-American Poem", Frank O’Hara’s "Memorial Day 1950", Etheridge Knight’s "Feelin’ Fucked Up", Juan Felipe Herrera’s "187 Reasons Why Mexicano’s Can’t Cross The Border", and to wind it up, Anne Sexton’s "451 Mercy Street".

Thank you, Matthew!

And here's a sneak-preview poem from his new book, Monkey Bars, due out in October from Typecast Publishing –

LIKE LIZARDS

The madness of having children is that they don’t go away.
I want them to — to the park for twelve years
or to college when they are ten —
even the ones who haven’t arrived.

Don’t slide out just yet, give me six more days of silence
to watch 24 episodes in one continuous loop
so I can pretend I’m some white trash, rogue hero
who can save the world.

My wife tells me that I have already saved the world.
Look at your daughter.
Then her airplane, the one she drew orange yellow purple,
takes off and flies around the living room.
Want to get on, Papa?
Damn straight I do,
fly to South America and walk the jungle.

And I know Rachel is right,
at three o’clock in the morning –
that birth is a weird sort of stupid salvation
we can’t flee —
but still, I can’t return my daughter to K-Mart
when she blows a gasket and falls apart into a ball smoke.
I can’t scream, Stop burning my eyes out
with your four year old
branding iron.

And the one we think is in Rachel’s belly,
what I am supposed to do with that?
It’s a boy, I say and she says,
It’s a boy
and then I know I’m fucked,
can’t even hammer a nail into a 2×4 to save my life,
how the hell am I supposed to teach him
to beat the shit out of muscle zombie bullies
who scare him into corners, lockers,
shopping carts
they then push down a hill?

I’m coming to get you, I scream, I am,
but think I will never get there
because the whole world is one big attack dog schoolyard–
a black, Jew, Puerto Rican calypso drum block party
that won’t stop.
Tell me,
how am I supposed to teach him to dance and be still
all at once?

I know I will wish that he disappear when he bombs his sister’s room
with his little dick
then sticks a tennis ball packed with C-4, pineapple, and mud
down the toilet;
have wished it already;
wished that he float out of Rachel’s body
into the positive and negative ions of out there
before he gets right here.

But then, earlier, I saw this fire engine in the driveway
of a fire house
and had this flash-dream that he and I were on it,
blowing the horn, blasting the red machine down the avenue
to the blaze,
to jump off the truck before it stopped,
to run inside the building and grab those trapped kids in the corner room
who couldn’t get away from the grey smoke
as it crept
like lizards
up their burning cheeks.

About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.

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