September 2, 2019KR BlogChatsEnthusiamsLiterature

The Grace of Distance: A Conversation with Matthew Thorburn

Matthew Thorburn’s new book of poems, The Grace of Distance, was published by Louisiana State University Press in August. He’s also the author of six previous collections, including the book-length poem Dear Almost, honored with the Lascaux Prize; A Green River in Spring, winner of the Coal Hill Review chapbook competition; and Subject to Change, which received the New Issues Poetry Prize. His work has been recognized with a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, the Mississippi Review Prize, and fellowships from the Bronx and New Jersey arts councils and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A native of Michigan and for many years a resident of New York City, he lives in small-town New Jersey and works in corporate communications in Manhattan.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new poetry collection, The Grace of Distance, was recently launched by LSU Press.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Matthew Thorburn:  I’m excited to see this book go out into the world and hope it will find its way to readers. This is a book I’ve been writing for more than 20 years, so in a way it feels to me like a “Selected Poems,” though none of these poems were in my previous books. You see, as I worked on putting together each of my previous books, I would have a few poems that I loved but that just didn’t fit with those books’ themes. After four books, I’d amassed a fairly thick folder of these poems—and rereading them I gradually realized they didn’t fit into those books because they were all focused on their own set of themes: how we try to bridge the distances between doubt and belief, between cultures, between family members and loved ones. These are the themes of The Grace of Distance, and those poems written across the past two decades make up about half of the book. The oldest one I wrote as an undergrad; there’s also one poem I wrote while doing my MFA at The New School. And then, with those themes in mind, I went on to write a number of new poems, which make up the balance of the book.

What else would I like prospective readers to know? Well, The Grace of Distance includes poems about being in love, being a son and a father, poems about Vermeer and Matisse, poems “in conversation with” Wang Wei and Wallace Stevens, a poem about three old jazz musicians recording one last tune, a poem about two Chinese construction workers stealing a bridge, an ode to Manhattan and one to Jersey City, poems set at a Buddhist monastery and in a priest’s backyard, and several poems featuring my beloved (and much missed) great uncle Jerry—in short, something for everyone!

KMD:  You’ve worked with many excellent publishers, among them The Waywiser Press and Autumn House Press.  What drew you to LSU Press when thinking about this particular project?

MT:  This is actually the second book I’m publishing with LSU Press, I’m happy to say. Prior to The Grace of Distance, I published six collections (four books and two chapbooks) with six different presses, most recently LSU, which put out my book-length poem Dear Almost in 2016. Most poetry publishers are small presses that publish only a few books per year—often just the winners of their book contests—so I don’t think this kind of moving from press to press is particularly uncommon for poets. I feel very lucky to have an ongoing relationship with LSU Press, and especially with my series editor Ava Leavell Haymon, my editor Neal Novak and LSU’s wonderful book designer, Michelle Neustrom. Ava emailed me one day after reading some of my work online, asking if I had a manuscript she could take a look at. Working closely with her on both of these books has helped me make them better, and I hope we’ll get to work on more books to come.

KMD:  Your career trajectory is truly remarkable, with seven poetry collections to your name and counting.  What advice do you have for emerging writers who are just beginning to send work out to magazines and publishers?

MT:  Thanks so much. I think it’s easy, especially when you’re starting out, to get discouraged or feel like your writing isn’t finding a place “out there” in the world of journals and book publishers. I’ve felt that way plenty of times. My best advice is two-fold. First, be stubborn and determined. Believe in your work—and keep sending your best work out to journals you read and admire, or to publishers whose books and chapbooks you enjoy. Just keep putting your work out there. There are so many writers trying to get published. It can take time for even the best work to find a good home.

Second, and even more important, is to focus on the act of writing and remember that that’s what’s most important—the thrill and excitement of working with words on paper (or on a screen), from that first spark of inspiration to  doing the slow steady work of revision. Some writers talk about what a struggle it is to write, but god, I love the process. That’s what matters. I think keeping that in focus will help you keep going—it has helped me keep going—more than any publication or recognition you get.

KMD:  What makes The Grace of Distance unique among your many poetry collections?

MT:  Probably what makes it unique is the long span of time over which the poems were written. Starting with my third book—This Time Tomorrow, a collection of poems set in Iceland, China and Japan—I’ve tended to work with an idea in mind that helps me think of the poems I write as parts of a larger work, as well as individual poems. The Grace of Distance came together with less conscious thought about themes at the outset, though once I recognized what those earlier poems shared thematically it helped to focus the collection.

KMD:  What was the greatest artistic risk you took when drafting The Grace of Distance?

MT:  The poems in The Grace of Distance are all regularly punctuated, with one exception—“The Swimming Pool,” a poem about Matisse’s painted-paper collage of the same name, which has no punctuation except for its closing period. I worried at first that this poem didn’t fit into the book because of that, but thematically it’s so much of a piece with the other poems that I decided to go for it. Also I remembered a story Michael Dumanis told me, maybe 10 years ago, about putting together his first book. One of his teachers read his manuscript and said it was good but it needed one more poem that was different from all the others. That advice always appealed to me, and finally I was able to use it. With its free-flowing form, “The Swimming Pool” is also a little preview of a new manuscript I’m working on, which likely won’t include any punctuation at all.

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

MT:  Right now I’m working on two new manuscripts. Over the past several years I’ve been writing a sequence of poems about a teenage boy’s experiences in a time of war and just after. This began with the urge to write something “fictional”—to shift away from the very autobiographical writing in my previous book, Dear Almost, which tells the story of figuring out how to grieve for an unborn child lost in miscarriage, as well as the more personal poems in The Grace of Distance, many of which are about getting older. I thought writing about a war in an imagined faraway place (I was inspired by the people and settings in Jean Follain’s poems, among other things) would be an escape from that. But of course you can’t get away from what deep down matters most to you. As this manuscript has evolved, I’ve realized the poems are about war but also very much about family—what it means to be a son, to be a father, to love people and then to lose the people you love.

My second project is writing prose poems, with the idea that I’m working toward a book of them. Those war poems are almost entirely free of punctuation, so shifting gears to write in punctuated prose has been refreshing. I’m following Miles Davis’ example here—in this one way only!—and trying to keep evolving what I do with each new project. And I like having even just a vague idea of a next thing in mind as I work. It seems like for years I’ve written a note to myself in each new notebook, “Try writing some prose poems.” I’m finally following my own advice!