In each of our “Boo’s Hollow” issues, Associate Poetry Editor Lea Graham invites writers and poets to reflect on the role played by place in both their own work and poetry in general. This month, we’re proud to share the thoughts and work of Clay Matthews.
Lea Graham: One of the things that I admire about your work is its attention to the shiftiness of experience and perception. Trains come and go. Roads are lit then unlit by street lamps. Voices from the kitchen drift in and out of earshot. The mountains obstruct and enclose, then they inform and suggest. What you see from the window isn’t outside, but your own reflection. No—it’s the reflection of the person standing behind you. Can you talk more about place as something that you’re “not getting quite right.”
Clay Matthews: I’m not an especially moody person on the outside, but from one day to the next I’m all over the place. I think place is a sort of faith, because in many ways to identify with a place, or people—to be a person—is absolutely absurd. Some days I can easily forgive. Some days I hold a grudge. Some days I’m at peace with the past and future. Other days I can’t stop wanting for some big thing to happen.
I think, for me, place reflects all of those things. I love working on our home—odd little projects—because I have this image in my mind of how to make this house the perfect house for us. Then, I’ll be out taking a walk, and see another house, and wish mine was more like theirs. I scroll through new listings on real estate websites all the time, waiting for some place/house to speak to me, to “claim” me as it were.
I’ve never felt perfectly at home anywhere in my adult life. My homes have felt like stops on a road to some perfect home in the future. Same for my towns. And I never know if this is me being unsatisfied or greedy, or if there is really a place for me, us, out there somewhere—the one we’ve been looking for. I know somehow I’m not getting it right one way or the other, but I don’t really know which. So, I keep trying. I like place because it keeps that search alive in me—place keeps me curious, ambivalent, hopeful, and moody.
LG: You’ve moved around the South and Midwest. Talk a bit about where you’ve lived and how those places overlap (through trains and tracks, etc.), but also how they are places that are specific or even isolated in your memory and imagination. Do you remember when place became a central (and peripheral) concern for you as a writer?
CM: I hadn’t thought much about place until I moved to Oklahoma. That distance from “home,” as it were, allowed me to reflect more on the role of place in my work. I grew up about fifteen minutes from the Mississippi river, and when I lived in Cape Girardeau, going to school, my apartment was just a few blocks away. I used to walk down every morning and watch the barges go by, and watch this new bridge going up. It was one of the last (if not the last) suspension bridges built in America. It was amazing, and my writing was often preoccupied with that water, or with Sikeston, MO, where I grew up.
Oklahoma had always held a kind of mythological place in my mind. When we were kids, my brother and I traveled there with my father for the Timed Event World Championships at the Lazy E arena. We didn’t travel out of state much as kids (we were a family of six kids), and that trip was just “the guys.” So, years later, when I moved to Oklahoma, I came with this idea of the west, and of guys, and of fathers and sons. My poems quickly stopped being about rivers, and became more about rolling hills, livestock, old men, horse racing (I frequented Remington Park in Oklahoma City).
Some writers write about one place all of their lives. I admire that—the way that place never leaves them. I come back to Southeast MO in my writing often. But, mostly, place is what’s right outside my window, and that’s something I learned was part of my aesthetic in Oklahoma. When I moved to East TN, my poems were suddenly populated by mountains and rhododendron. Landscape places me—it tells me where I am, where I’m not, which way’s north and which way’s south. My place is usually the place of the present. I tend toward the sentimental naturally, and when I write about places from years ago, I have difficulty being (and feeling) honest. So, I write from where I am. Right now, that’s in my office, the mountains outside my window, an abandoned house next door, the television in the next room playing some children’s show about a dragon and girl that ride a magic bus across the universe.
LG: I love the title of your essay for its use of the Steve Goodman and John Prine song, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (most known, I think, through the David Allen Coe recording?) Talk a bit about the intersection between song and place for you. How does overhearing “songs …people hum when they don’t realize anyone is listening” give place and keep time for you?
CM: Thanks—I love that song, too. John Prine is a personal hero. I think, often, I feel a place most in its music—the music the people claim as their own. In the bootheel of Missouri, we claimed the music from Memphis and Northeast Arkansas as part of our own—the blues and Sun records, from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash.
In Oklahoma, I became more and more interested in the legends of the Oklahoma music scene. J.J. Cale was on repeat. I used to watch shows at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. I saw Leon Russell play his birthday bash over there. Bob Wills used to play that venue, and it was one of the last places the Sex Pistols played. I claimed classic country and Texas swing. There was a big dance hall just down the road from my house where people two-stepped in their pressed Wranglers.
East TN is the land of bluegrass. When we first moved here, we used to walk to downtown Jonesborough, where they had free concerts every weekend—they’d shut Main Street down and just play music. You can walk into almost any little country store in East TN on a Thursday or Friday night and find a band playing, standing room only. Americana is also big in the area. We try to go to the Rhythm & Roots festival in Bristol every year, and Asheville is only an hour away.
The music gives me some heartbeat of a place. But I carry it with me, too. The classic rock stations never change—only the name and number on the dial. Some days, I’ll hear some old Tom Petty song and I’m fifteen again. Music carries space and time for me, and so in that way it always also holds a place in language and sound.
LG: Your poems include materials from the natural world (honeysuckle, the ornamental peach tree), alongside the human-created: bits of spoken conversation, the “dope needle in the brush pile” and the sound of someone “laying on their horn.” Talk about the energy of these materials for you. What usually catches your imagination in the beginning of writing a poem?
CM: I get caught by images that work in levels. I become fascinated by them—a gum wrapper becomes a metaphor for all the workings of the self. When I was in high school, I always loved that Tennyson poem about the flower in the crannied wall, that ends: “Little flower—but if I could understand / What you are, root and all, and all in all, / I should know what God and man is.” Materials are reflections for me—they let me see something about myself, or try to.
Take honeysuckle, for instance. It’s wild, strong, and specifically fragrant in time and place. I have memories of my mother teaching me how to suck the honey out, of me teaching my daughter, and then of me showing my mother my new technique. It’s summer. It’s present and mosquitoes, or it’s nostalgia. The fragrance, like the name, is delicate in memory, but overbearing in reality sometimes. It’s just right. And when it’s there, it’s everywhere.
Even garbage is interesting to me. People drive out here to the mountains to dump things—but it’s not a short stretch of road. I look at this washing machine in the middle of nowhere, and wonder what it did to somebody, or what they were feeling that day, to drive all the way out to where they were, and let it loose off the side of a ravine. I wonder the weight they felt lifted when it tumbled down there. I wonder if they feel bad about it sometimes, if they drive that road again and try to ignore it but can’t.
If all language is metaphor, then all things are, too. And if knowledge comes mostly (or perhaps only) through language, then these things have something to offer us. The birds as a whole and the one mockingbird on the neighbor’s roof. The starlings moving out of town as a river in the sky. There’s something beautiful in all of it if I can just learn to see it right.
Photo By: Emily Carlin