Matthew Brennan: Snow in New York: New and Selected Poems (Lamar University Literary Press)
Matt, your collection of new and selected poems, Snow in New York, published by Lamar University Literary Press, is now available. What prompted this project?
Jane, after publishing my fifth book of poetry, One Life, in 2016, I felt that I had enough material and that I had been writing long enough to warrant a retrospective of my life as a poet. I soon retired from teaching, so it seemed the time was right to look back before entering a new portal. Also, the publisher of One Life, Jerry Craven, had told me he’d be glad to consider my next book, so that practicality spurred its formation, too. But ever since becoming acquainted with Ted Kooser’s Sure Signs—which came out in 1980 and compiled poems from his first few books, all released by small presses—I had the goal of eventually assembling a selected poems. My first two books—released before the internet matured—reached relatively few readers, so I welcomed the chance to republish the better poems in them, along with parts from the three later books and some new poems.
How did you decide what to include from your previous collections?
First, I winnowed what I and others have thought are my best poems. I was particularly selective with the early books, Seeing in the Dark and The Music of Exile, which included poems from my twenties and early thirties when I was still finding my way. For space, I could select only a small part of The Sea-Crossing of Saint Brendan, a book-long narrative, so I decided to reprint the first four of twenty-four sections. This way I hoped to provide a portion of the tale that was wholly coherent as an excerpt yet included some of the poem’s vivid writing.
In addition, I excluded a few poems because they seemed too close in subject and theme to others I kept. For instance, The House with the Mansard Roof contains two monologues in the voice of Thomas Merton; I felt one was enough, so I retained the sonnet “Merton in Love” and cut “Father Louis’ Nose Job.” Similarly, with the WPA poems, I picked only the ones I liked best. For instance, I omitted “Depression Dreams”; though it makes my cat a central character, it’s a piece of light verse. The other poem about the same cat, “Quincey,” is weightier; besides memorializing a pet, this poem says something about the imagination while experimenting with syllabic verse. So “Quincey” made the cut and “Depression Dreams” did not.
Last, I decided to limit the more personal poems. My first marriage ended with a painful divorce that through the years has supplied the content of several lyrics. But Snow in New York contains only four poems along those lines, and only “The Gravity of Love” and “The Fair Oaks Apartments Revisited” are autobiographical. “A Divorcée’s Revenge,” for instance, is a monologue. Originally, the new poems included “Atonement after Lunch,” an autobiographical poem in rhymed quatrains, but I wanted to be strictly selective in this section and axed it. I am sure I left out some poems I should have put in, but that’s unavoidable, I think.
You have noted that several of these poems were revised and republished over the years. How do you know when a poem has fulfilled its potential?
This is a great question, Jane. Well, I don’t think any of my poems ever fulfills its potential. Or at least I can’t be sure that any do. I stop revising when I can’t imagine other shapes, sounds, or implications for the poem. With a couple of the poems I made changes to, I was shocked that what I now thought was glaring hadn’t bothered me before. Here’s an example: “Nights Our House Comes to Life,” which I first published in 1984 in Passages North, has been reprinted in a couple of anthologies and on the Indiana Humanities website, has been read on The Writer’s Almanac twice, and formed part of composer Daniel Powers’s Some Nights in Midwinter for String Quartet and Voice. I also reprinted it in The House with the Mansard Roof, after it initially appeared in The Music of Exile. I would have thought it was long done. But while proofreading the manuscript of Snow in New York, I suddenly realized I needed to change the last line, “Moving on the dark landing of the attic stairs,” so I shortened it to “Moving in the dark on the attic stairs.” The difference really is the phrasing “dark landing,” which is more specific but less evocative and less rhythmically quiet since it contains relatively heavier and louder bunched stresses. The revised line is shorter without “landing” and lighter with its two anapests, “in the dark” and “on the attic.” I think there’s more tension and dread with the shorter line; it corresponds to the strain of hearing something quiet but foreboding. Probably no one else would notice. Is the poem done now? We’ll see. It’s a matter of cultivating ever greater awareness, which sometimes lets you see possibilities you were blind to when younger. Other poems I revised include “Picnic in Iowa” and “Preheating,” poems that for years I was sure were finished.
In revising already published work, I have always been guided by William Butler Yeats, who revised “Leda and the Swan” even after winning the Nobel Prize!
Snow in New York has been an opportunity to reflect and to reassess. Does your recent work differ from your previous work in any specific way—perhaps style or subject or perspective or length et cetera?
I think the new poems would fit into One Life, my most recent book from 2016, pretty seamlessly. There’s perhaps a stronger tinge of melancholy, born of greater awareness of time passing—I retired in 2017, and in the last four years I have lost my brother Mike, two revered teachers, friends, and former colleagues. Stylistically, the new poems, like those in the previous two books, include blank verse, unrhymed sonnets, rhymed quatrains, and free verse.
My approach to style and form hasn’t changed in 25 or 30 years, though I hope I keep getting better. The biggest change came around 1998 when on a sabbatical I consciously wrote poems that were and are more objective. Kooser writes about how he moved from a focus on external reality toward greater revelation of his personality. I did the opposite. Most of the poems in Seeing in the Dark and The Music of Exile are personal; in The House with the Mansard Roof a greater number of poems center on things beyond my private experience, such as the title poem about a ruined residence.
Nevertheless, on the sabbatical when I began poems on, say, Ben Shahn’s murals about prohibition or on other WPA artworks, a funny thing might happen, as it did in “Prohibition” and some other poems. I ended up imagining the lives of ancestors during the Depression and drawing on stories I had been told, so the poems became inextricably both familial and objective. I grew more aware of how all of our lives stand on the shoulders of those who come before. This attitude also informs my poem about Donald Hall and W. D. Snodgrass, “Regarding the Old Poets, after the Reading.” I have continued to write about my subjective experience, but I more consistently look beyond it to the greater world, as in “The Biocaust across the Street” from the new poems.
The Saint Brendan poem represented what might have seemed a big change since it was book-length, was written in a completely new form, and was a narrative. Previously, my typical poem was short, not written in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, and was either lyric or lyric-narrative. But The Sea-Crossing of Saint Brendan was a deliberate diversion, though it followed my aim to nurture a more objective poetry. Simultaneously I was writing some autobiographical poems reminiscent of earlier personal lyrics, like “Granary Days” and “Leaving San Francisco Early,” while also attempting more objective ones, such as the short narrative “At Mercouri’s Restaurant,” which is founded on an anecdote my friend Jake Jakaitis told me.
You often name a collection after a particular poem. How do you decide which poem has earned that privilege?
I decide intuitively, but pick a poem whose title seems to sing while embodying a key theme of the collection. “The Music of Exile” was the first poem in its book, and its longing and foreboding seemed to set up what would follow. “One Life” similarly expressed one of the central motifs of that collection: the idea of the interconnection of all things, which is also contained in the epigraph from Samuel Taylor Coleridge that opens the first part. With Snow in New York, I knew I wanted the poem of the same title to end the book; it’s actually the penultimate poem, but this title is also the name of the cover painting. The opening section has a couple of poems set in winter, and the second section does, too, so the tone of the cover is struck a few times at the beginning of the book and returns emphatically at the end. The title poem of The House with the Mansard Roof has echoes of faded glory, decay, and rebirth in its objective realism, and thus it fits well with the group of poems based on WPA artworks that are pivotal to the book. Using house in a title is apt as well since in Italian stanza signifies room. The book is a house of many stanzas, many rooms.
The image on the cover of this book imitates an early-twentieth-century painting by Robert Henri, correct?
Yes, the cover image is based on a painting by my late mother, Suzanne Brennan, who made a copy of Robert Henri’s Snow in New York from 1902. My mother admired the style of the Ashcan School, and her absorption of it shows in her original paintings, such as the one on the cover of One Life, a painting inspired by a photograph my grandfather took in Copenhagen harbor. A little secret: my poem “The Sublime” is inspired by this painting of my mother’s, not a seascape by J. M. W. Turner as the poem would lead one to assume. I wrote the poem on her birthday after gazing at her painting, which has always hung beside my front door.
You and I are both fond of ekphrasis. What types of visual art do you find especially inspirational?
I am a huge fan of Turner and have been since I first saw his paintings while studying in London as a college senior. His work taught me to see light, which is important in many of my poems. I even wrote about landscapes in Turner’s art and in William Wordsworth’s poetry for my Ph.D. dissertation, which I published as my first book. I love John Constable, too, and Caspar David Friedrich, whose seascapes led me to appreciate modern abstract-expressionism. But I am also inspired by the realism of thirties’ art and by the color of Henri Matisse, Edward Hopper, and David Hockney. Many Impressionist paintings stir me. I never tire of the Old Masters either. And I love my brother Chris’s art of urban realism that reminds many of Hopper. My wife, Bev, and I own a half dozen or so of his oils. In fact, his paintings supply the cover images for The House with the Mansard Roof and for my chapbook The Light of Common Day.
My poems in The House with the Mansard Roof and One Life that draw on WPA artworks owe their beginnings to the dozens of prints that lined the walls of Root Hall at Indiana State University, where I had an office in the English Department. I had enjoyed walking past them many times every day when at last I was struck by the desire to write about them. In turn, I had my students in a poetry class write about them as a weekly assignment. “Eads Bridge, St. Louis, 1935,” for instance, derives from John M. Foster’s The Bridges, which hung just feet from my office door.
Which poets—of any era—have had the greatest impact on your writing?
Wordsworth is a strong presence, and I love John Keats for his mastery of meter, sounds, and image, as well as his heroic letters. Yeats I continue to read frequently, admiring how he maintains a conversational tone, strengthened and controlled by syntax, meter, and rhyme. Since my undergraduate days at Grinnell College, I have admired Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle, especially its formal framing of personal experience. George T. Wright, a teacher of mine at Minnesota, is best known for his books on William Shakespeare and meter, but he was an accomplished poet of both formal and free-verse poems, and I still read regularly in his Aimless Life. In the last twenty years, I have grown very fond of Seamus Heaney and John Updike, especially their blank-verse sonnets. Earlier, Robert Bly, Mark Strand, and Galway Kinnell influenced me, and so did Sharon Olds, for her figurative language that could elevate personal subjects and universalize them—but I have always deplored her handling of line arrangement and line breaks. Kooser, Edward Hirsch, Timothy Steele, and Dana Gioia have had an impact. But in many cases it is individual poems that I have found exemplary: Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” Mary Oliver’s “Music at Night,” Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” Theodore Roethke’s “Root Cellar,” Robert Frost’s “Home Burial,” James Wright’s “Saint Judas,” Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark,” dozens by Richard Wilbur. I’m leaving many out.
When I began writing poems as a student, I always wrote in form. A professor told me to read the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960, and to give free verse a hearing. I eventually turned to Strand and Bly and Kinnell, free-verse poets who all had started by writing in form. One day when I was 22 or 23, after a rhymed version of “Seeing in the Dark” broke down in its last stanza as I ridiculously forced the rhymes, I revised it as free verse. For several years most of my poems were written in free verse, but I kept reading formal verse. By the late eighties and early nineties, my preferred line was unrhymed iambic pentameter. Poems and plays by Shakespeare, verse by Frost and James Merrill seduced my ear.
You have dedicated this book to various members of your family, both living and late, including your mother, Suzanne. Any poets among them?
Not really. My son, Dan, published a poem about Michael Jordan in Sports Illustrated for Kids when he was in junior high. It got reprinted in Indiana English. But he retired early! My grandchildren, Ava and Cannon, have created some impressive pictures, so they seem to favor poetry’s sister art. Though she didn’t write poems, my mother modeled for me the process of making art—studying the masters and emulating them, visiting museums, taking workshops, sketching, painting, repainting, experimenting, and finally exhibiting. She also taught art for a year, but then became a computer programmer and thereafter struggled to find time for art, something all poets who have to make a living wrestle with. My father, William Brennan, was a vice president at Blue Shield, but he was an avid reader and our family-room bookcases brimmed with good novels as well as the Great Books. I treat this topic in “My Father’s Coat.” And my older brother, Tim, was a huge influence. Though he eventually went into arts management and then environmental investing, he majored in English and during his M.A. work studied with poets Howard Nemerov and John N. Morris and fiction writers William Gass and Stanley Elkin. Tim both encouraged and criticized my fledgling attempts to write.
Having lived in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio, you might be considered a Midwestern poet. Do you see yourself as one?
Inevitably I do, though the places I have lived in those states prove that the Midwest is hardly homogenous. Grinnell, Iowa, a town of 7,000 surrounded by cornfields, represents one end of the Midwestern spectrum; Terre Haute, Indiana, a small city but close to rural countryside, occupies the middle; and the Twin Cities, Columbus, and St. Louis are all metropolitan, though nothing like New York or San Francisco or London, all of which I use as settings in some poems. But the Midwest is the landscape that I know and that has shaped me from the inside. When I lived in Minnesota, I read Bly and James Wright and felt I understood them because they, too, had dwelled there. The first poem in Snow in New York, “Seeing in the Dark,” grew from an experience on the sloping bluff of the Minnesota River in suburban Minneapolis. I later changed the river to the Mississippi, partly in a nod to my St. Louis roots. And an earlier poem, written when I was 21 and still at Grinnell and later published in a now-defunct magazine, used snowy views of Wisconsin and Minnesota from a Greyhound window as its imagery. I had just begun to learn from Wordsworth the importance of one’s natural setting as a source of self-knowledge and thus expression and to recognize the grounding of my own poems, whether explicit or not, as Midwestern.
I feel a sense of place as I write, most of the time. Some poems, like “Manet Painting in Monet’s Garden, 1874,” obviously are up to something else, but might be sensitive to place in a more general way. Two of the new poems, “Biocaust across the Street” and “Late Summer, Strolling by a Neighbor’s Garden,” deliver images from my morning walks here in Columbus. They are anything but exceptions.
You have familial roots in Ireland, though. Anywhere else? How have those impacted your poetry?
My maternal grandmother’s family hailed from central Germany, west of Leipzig. Her grandfather was a photographer and, after immigrating to St. Louis, a leader in dry-plate photography who rivaled Eastman for a time. He also enlisted in the Union army as a sergeant and fought in a battle in the Civil War. So there might be some untapped material here. But the only gesture in my poetry toward this old-world familial root is the poem “The Hofbräuhaus,” which links my grandmother’s visit to Germany in the early sixties to the one my wife, Bev, and I made in 2008.
The Irish roots have been more significant. I had been interested in writers such as Yeats, James Joyce, Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, and Paula Meehan for years, but only in the late nineties was my curiosity about my own roots sparked and I began doing some focused reading and research on both Irish history in general and family history in particular. My digging into family history further sharpened my appetite for Irish poetry. Then, in 2004, I stayed at a writers’ retreat on the Beara Peninsula, which is where I drafted most of my narrative about Saint Brendan. The experience in County Cork led to a half dozen other poems as well, and a more recent trip to Ireland generated the new poem “Tipperary,” which addresses the birth place of my great-grandfather and which appeared in The Galway Review. I have contributed several poems to Poetry Ireland Review; most recently, the late Eavan Boland published the poem “My Father’s Coat.” The family poem “Afterlife” has some Irish threads, too.
You are now retired after a long career at Indiana State University. How has teaching others affected your own work over the years?
Teaching has greatly enhanced my own work, both as a scholar and as a poet. Many ideas lying behind my scholarly essays and books grew out of classes I taught. I also believe teaching helped me refine a critical prose style that is accessible to general readers. In both literature and poetry-writing classes, teaching gave me the chance to study and re-study a range of works, allowed me both to deepen my perceptions of poems I loved already and to become acquainted with new works. The duty to deliver a representative syllabus also pressed me to read works I would have avoided as a general reader. For instance, what I know of language poetry and literary theory has come from the responsibilities of teaching, not from the pleasures of private reading. Knowing what you don’t like is as important as knowing what enthralls you.
As for teaching others poetry, I learned new things every time I taught the poetry workshop. It allowed me the luxury to think about the process of composition or of revision and the elements of technique like enjambment, rhyme schemes, and poetic closure. Teaching others how to scan lines of verse is one specific activity that enhanced my own ear and bolstered my understanding of how poets handle rhythm and patterns of sound. Having to do my homework kept me sharp when I faced my own blank screen. It was always instructive to discuss students’ poems, too, through dialogue that was based on close readings and on entertaining alternative possibilities. And some terms I shared my own drafts, partly to model how to be receptive to constructive criticism but partly to test the poems on an audience I trusted. I made revisions based on students’ responses.
Plus, it was inspiring to witness the growth that many students experienced. Their enthusiasm and success inspired me in my own writing. Every term students wrote poems unlike any I’d ever read. There have been some practical boons from teaching others, too, as several students went on to work on journals that kindly gave homes to my own poems. So in many ways I am grateful I was lucky enough to spend my career in the classroom. Of course, there were frustrations and failures, but joys more than outweighed them. Writing is lonely, so it is rewarding when you can join with others in creation and appreciation. Teaching helps make poetry matter both to students and to the poets who instruct them.
At this point, what have you done that you want to do more of? What have you not done that you would like to try?
I hope to stay in good with the Muse so that I can continue to tap spontaneous overflows of poems that come as naturally as leaves to a tree—to mash together statements by Wordsworth and Keats. Nearly all of my lyric poems develop this way. I rarely plan them. For instance, of the new poems in Snow in New York, the only two I planned were the poem about the London plague, “The Watchman,” and “Eclipse on an August Afternoon, 2017,” which is based on a current event reported in the news. Both poems employ imagination, but the idea and some facts were determined before the first draft began.
Other poems I have written were more or less planned: the WPA poems, for instance, and obviously the narrative about Saint Brendan. Recently I have been thinking of doing some more character poems, like the ones about Merton, Thomas Hart Benton, Henry James, William Gilmore Simms, the farm wife in “Drought,” or Indiana’s Governor Edgar Whitcomb in “Signs of Life.” My former home, Terre Haute, might suggest a series on Theodore Dreiser, Eugene V. Debs, Scatman Crothers, Three-Finger Brown, Madame Brown, and Larry Bird. Sin City, as Look Magazine called it in the sixties, has an interesting history, full of vivid characters.
I have thought of writing some general-interest essays about poetry, too—about poets I have known, the poetry scene in Terre Haute, teaching poetry, my own love affair with poetry and growth as a poet. Whether anyone would want to read them is a big question, but I would have fun writing them. Ultimately, as Coleridge said, poetry is its own great reward.
Thank you so much, Matt, for this interview and for Snow in New York.
Thank you, Jane.
Jane Blanchard has published papers in Pacific Coast Philology, Renascence, South Atlantic Review, and Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching. Her poems have appeared in venues as varied as Aethlon, Alabama Literary Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, Anesthesiology, Anglican Theological Review, and Arion. Blanchard’s latest collection of poems is In or Out of Season (Kelsay Books, 2020).