Five Questions for... Matthew Hittinger
Mythology’s been in my blood since an early age. It makes me really good at RPG video games, which oddly have become our bastions for preserving that rich tradition. Same with fantasy. My brother was really into Dungeons & Dragons; I got a bit of that, but was more a He-Man/She-Ra kid with a love of comic book heroines such as Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and Jean Grey/Phoenix (many of whom have cameos throughout Skin Shift). The Narcissus sequence was one of the first complete sections of the book, a myth I wanted to reclaim from its negative connotations and explore through a technology lens, and I knew I wanted to tackle some Biblical mythology with the proto-queer stories of David and Ruth, but I made a conscious decision to use non-Greek myths for the other mythology-inflected poems. It was fun research, reading stories like the Amazon’s Bufeo colorado or the Aboriginal kangaroo woman or Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales. And a fun challenge, to take these stories and queer them or update them to see how they still resonated in contemporary times. As for the body – I love the mind-expanding power of the dramatic monologue, to inhabit another character and imagine a body different from your own and channel a voice. There’s a lot of “drag” going on in these poems, a lot of mask-wearing, even when they turn more personal in the fourth section. One of the mottoes I kept close while working on this book was “magical sexual encounters and the ensuing transformation,” which not only helped guide some of the content, but helped me think about the experience I wanted the reader to have: the poem as magical sexual encounter, the power of that encounter to transform the reader.
I am fascinated at how visual the poems are on the page. Talk about the challenges and motivation behind your line breaks and stanzas.
Blame my visual arts background. The sculptural presence of a poem is as important to me as the words in it, and I spend a crazy amount of revision time perfecting poem shapes (at its most extreme, calligrammes like Marilyn Monroe’s face). Sometimes the shapes are dictated by my syllabic patterns, sometimes by the content. I do have a handful completely justified to the left, but I prefer poems that flex across the page, lines that writhe like snakes, that engage negative white space. It’s a way of creating tension, to keep the eye engaged, to add another layer to the experience of the poem, to remind the reader of the physicality of words. Shape and spacing also help indicate different voices speaking in the poems, such as the chanting alongside the little narrative in “The Alchemists...” or the second italicized voice in “Not Berdache...” or the different characters in “Platos...” Most often the challenge I face is finding an awesome line break that doesn’t fit with the shape I’ve been whittling, which forces me to work backwards from the moment I like to get the rest of the lines to sync up. A whole poem can often hinge on one line break for me. It’s like a puzzle and I can spend hours arranging and rearranging until I find the shape of the poem pleasing to the eye. The other big challenge is preserving the intricate formatting across word processing programs. I think Bryan [Borland, Sibling Rivalry Press publisher] and I spent most of our galley proofing time getting the “Local Lepidoptera...” and “At the Academy of Taxidermy...” poems just right. Oh, and standardizing my unconventional use of the colon.
It’s such a gift to collaborate, and no coincidence that I’ve worked with painters and musicians. As I said, I have a visual arts background, wanted to be a painter, won art awards in school and a scholarship to the BAUM school of art, the local art school near where I grew up. I also played the piano, organ, hand bells, and French horn for many years, so have a musical background too. In the end I chose poetry, or poetry chose me, but I haven’t forgotten my sister arts. On the painting end: with both painters and poets, we so often only engage the final product, the finished painting or poem. But to witness the stages of a painting come into being, to respond to that and have the painter respond to your words and drafts as you both work toward complete products, works that can stand on their own, but have that added bonus of inter-disciplinary conversation--it engages process at a level most don’t think about. By being exposed to an artist in another discipline, to witness their trial and error and challenges and triumphs, it forces you to draw parallels and be more conscious of how you work and put words together. It’s why Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not A Painter” was one of the first poems I fell in love with and hold close to my core. On the music end: the closest reading your poem may ever get is when a composer sets it to music, which is in essence an interpretation and translation. And to hear your words sung – another act of interpretation by the singer that can leave you all tingly and with tears in your eyes. These types of collaborations are such a win-win for the artists involved as they expand the audience base/exposure for both the art song and poetry. And I would love to take the next step and attempt a libretto.
The New York poetry scene has come under some scrutiny lately, especially in LGBT circles. What is your experience as a gay poet living and writing in the city?
My experience is one of pleasure at the crossroads: so many poets and circles of poets pass through New York that I’ve enjoyed sampling from very different communities over the years. At heart, though, I remain a loner and do my own thing; I’ll orbit and intersect, but prefer my solitude. I think it’s important to remember there are many different scenes going on in New York and that it’s not one unified entity. There are just as many “independent” poets living here who choose not to identify with any of the scenes but just enjoy the energy and cultural opportunities of New York. Most of my friends are not poets but artists in other disciplines or arts adjacent, and I like it that way. As for the fruits of my time living and writing in the city: I’m finishing up a manuscript called Impossible Gotham that I started when I moved here seven years ago. It takes its cues from painter Jasper Johns and a note from his journals on the spy vs. the watcher, and from Frank O’Hara’s poem “Grand Central” and that great line about not having an American body but an “anonymous” one. It’s how I like to move through the city: anonymous observer, spy to the watchers, chronicling what I see and hear.
Name three poetry collections you’ve read recently that you can’t stop thinking about and would recommend to others.
Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish (also highly recommend her previous books, Miracle Fruit and At the Drive-In Volcano) and Emily Rosko’s Prop Rockery (you should also check out her first book, Raw Goods Inventory).
Skin Shift is out now from Sibling Rivalry Press. For more about Matthew, visit matthewhittinger.com.