Published: August 10th, 2015
Ted Mathys is the author of three books of poetry, Null Set (2015), The Spoils (2009) and Forge (2005), all from Coffee House Press. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and was selected by Alice Notley for the Poetry Society of America's 2013 Cecil Hemley Memorial Award. His poetry and criticism have appeared in American Poetry Review, BOMB, Boston Review, Conjunctions, Critical Quarterly, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, Fence, Verse, The Volta, and other publications.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Mathys: This varies from poem to poem, book to book, but in general I read a lot, take walks, and wander around aimlessly until my perceptual capacities open up. Composition is then largely a matter of looking for patterns - sonic, thematic, formal - and then writing back against those patterns.
Howl: How do you edit your work?
Mathys: On the level of the poem I often write by hand on a notepad, and then rewrite the poem dozens of times on successive pages, working and reworking the lines, stanzas, and images in different ways until the poem tells me to stop. On the level of the book, I'll often write poems that lay dormant for months, if not years, until I find where they belong. For example, after my first book came out in 2005, I took a long road trip through the deep South and wrote a huge suite of poems. I tried to shoehorn these into a number of different series, sequences, and lengths, but it wasn't working. So I set them aside, turned to wholly different projects, and then discovered them two years later, combined them with new work I'd been writing, and edited all of it into a larger cycle. I didn't know that the road trip poems needed the poems that would come two years later, so in a sense my editorial process was based in finding other poems that those initial pieces could talk to.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Mathys: Don't settle for smoke and mirrors. Do the hard work of self-interrogation and world interrogation, rather than resting on what simply sounds nice on the ear. Trust in the intuitive leaps of your readers. Read with intention.
Howl: Where does your inspiration come from in your writing?
Mathys: Often inspiration comes from self-imposed constraints, whether those are formal or thematic. To paraphrase Raymond Queneau, if you make yourself into a rat that creates the labyrinth from which you then try to escape, inspiration is not something you have to wait for passively, but something that is always there.
Howl: Why do you feel that poetry is your creative medium of choice?
Mathys: I always wanted to be an artist. I'm not sure that I wouldn't rather be a painter or a pianist, but I found poetry first and then it grabbed me by the throat and hasn't let go.
Howl: How do you handle writers block?
Mathys: Sometimes I use constraints, as described above. Other times I use patience. I now know, for example, that after I finish a book I'll be completely evacuated of creative ability for the better part of a year. It used to frustrate me, but now I just wait until I'm ready to write and then write.
Howl: What do you look for when reading poetry?
Mathys: I look for poets who create their own slippery idioms, who sound particular and identifiable (and therefore unique) without sounding canned.
Howl: What are some of the joys and challenges of being a professional poet?
Mathys: The joys are innumerable. I guess the most important is the feeling of creating new worlds in language that are both part of and apart from the one we know, worlds that are parallel to daily existence, but somehow slightly alien. This feeling is, for me, a reason to live. I'm not sure I feel challenges that often, or at least the challenges that I feel (reckoning with self and history, questioning the relevance of any particular poem to literary history, etc.) are good ones to face.