M A T T H E W T E R H U N E
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: How does a poem start for you? Can you generalize the very early stages of a poem’s becoming?
Matthew Terhune: Most of my poems come into being as a result of some emotional or intellectual movement or provocation. I read a lot of fiction, nonfiction, and, of course, poetry. I am also a film nerd so I’m often inspired by an image, a scene, or a sequence. I’m working on a poem now that began as I was watching Lucio Castro’s gorgeous film, End of the Century. I watched it more than a year ago and I keep returning to the poem to make sense of the relationship between the two main characters and, by extension, what’s possible for gay men in terms of domestic life. This summer, I was on the beach in Los Angeles, taking a much-needed break from work, reading Bo Huston’s The Listener, and I spotted two women jogging down the beach and tumbling into the surf. Boom. A poem began and it was written quite quickly but it took several revisions for me to realize the connection between what I was reading and the images I was processing of these women.
I wish I could say I have developed a writing discipline (after years of earnest attempts), but the truth is most of my poems begin because I have been moved in some way. The poem is my way of responding formally to the questions the world poses to me daily.
C: Your poems, especially “Reprise” and “Reliquary,” are filled with references, both public and private. How does such specificity—such a range of specificity (“that shaded cleft / between Highway 61 and Maude”)—find its way into your work?
MT: While I am an old English major, I am also a big fan of popular culture. I write from a decidedly gay perspective and I think my interest in specificity—often through pop culture references—is a way of honoring the historical practice of code-switching in gay culture. The cultural references in my work, I think, signal directly to specific readers even as they invite a larger group to identify with the innumerable individual and collective associations pop culture iconography invokes.
Throughout the course of my graduate studies in English and creative writing, I have done, by design, an abundance of coursework in cinema. One of the strands in film that captured my attention over the years is star studies: namely the function, influence, and significance of film stars in the reproduction and perpetuation of social norms, particularly regarding gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity.
As a result, there is a sequence of poems on film icons in the manuscript for my first book: Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Jodie Foster, Marilyn. I think there is power in understanding—or trying to understand—what they mean to us and what happens when the camera rolls and they enter the frame.
And if you haven’t listened to Highway 61 Revisited or watched Maude, please head directly to iTunes and Netflix without passing Go. What do you hear and what do you see?
C: You lineate beautifully. Your poems glide down the page. How do you lineate? Is there a general strategy or set of rules? Is it all sound and intuition?
MT: Well, thank you very much. For many years, I admired the lyricism of so many poets: the sense of rhythm, music, and careful lineation that carries a reader through the poem. Ellen Bass, Mark Doty and Dorianne Laux come to mind as masters of lineation. I remember reading “Crepe de Chine” for the first time and thinking: how does he do that? For years, I just couldn’t get it, mainly because I was reading from an appreciative (read: awed) as opposed to an evaluative stance. But I read many poems and learned as much as I could about meter and enjambment and I began listening carefully to my own poems as I revised and began shaping them with a focus on the music of the line. I think lyricism is part of the pleasure of the poem and, in my own work, it is the result of extensive close reading of poets/poems I admire. I also resisted revision for quite some time and now I embrace it; I will often radically revise the same poem multiple times just to experiment with lineation.
So, I do lineate through sound and intuition but that process, while it is not guided by a distinct set of rules, is deeply informed by everything I’ve learned about meter, form, and structure. For me, that kind of close, intentional study has yielded neither a general approach nor a guiding set of principles but a well-developed ear and a commitment to the difficult but fruitful work of revision.
The ear is never enough. It must be matched with sweat and the tools of craft. I recently stumbled upon a poem of mine from a few years ago, which was published in a very nice journal and I thought, well, damn, it’s pretty great until about two-thirds of the way through and then it is an absolute clunker: a train that has jumped the lyrical tracks and insists on rumbling through the countryside, taking down every poor, unsuspecting tree in sight.
Effective lineation and lyricism, for me, must be courted by a well-trained ear and pursued by a poet who is armed with a kind of vigilance to track them down, line by line.