Come to Indy Reads Books on Monday, February 2 at 7PM to hear from poet Matthew Minicucci. Matthew Minicucci’s first full-length collection, Translation, was chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the 2014 Wick Poetry Prize and will be published by Kent State University Press in 2015. His work has also appeared in or is forthcoming from numerous journals and anthologies, including Best New Poets 2014, The Cincinnati Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Southern Review, and Third Coast, among others. He currently teaches writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.
1. How did you gravitate toward poetry? Do you think poets and fiction writers process the world differently?
I would say it’s sort of unclear. I always had interest in writing poetry, though it was a private thing, more cathartic than artistic, I would say. In college, I wanted to write stories and perhaps a novel someday, but never worked all that hard on it. But, during all those hopeful projects, I was always coming back to poetry. Then, one day, it sort of clicked that this was something I really wanted to pursue, and I haven’t felt differently since. And in terms of processing the world differently, I do think there’s something to that. The idea of narrative, character, or plot could be present in a poem, though doesn’t have to be. There might be something to being more interested in what the arc of a certain character might be (fiction), instead of, say, what the description of a particular moment in that character’s life might look like (poetry).
2. I remember your wonderful poems that worked through religion and Catholicism, and I’ve been reading some of your other work that has a bit of a science-y bent to it. Do you get stuck on or invested in certain themes for awhile in your writing?
I very much get stuck on themes. There are re-occurring themes, certainly, and religion is one of them for me. I think, perhaps, twelve years of Catholic school will do that to you. But from a writing perspective, I always have to have a project in the works. Somehow, the project lets me write things that are outside of the project, if that makes sense. Like putting yourself on rails so you can take time to look at the scenery you’re passing.
3. The poems I’ve read of yours are also interested in playing with homonyms and the origins or words. Is this something you’ve always thought about, or has it come to the fore since you started writing poetry?
That’s a really interesting question. I think I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of playing with language, and I’ve certainly always been in love with the muscularity and musicality of language. But I would say my real desire to consider etymology in my own work comes from my training in the classics. I wasn’t a great classicist, mind you. I’m sure my Latin and Greek translations were average, at best. But boy did I love learning about where words came from, and what their original meanings said about western civilization in general. And it never really stopped after that. Instead of translating, I worked with poetry, and tried to keep that love of etymology alive.
4. What are some of your favorite journals and lit mags?
Well, there are so many, it’s hard to pick a few. I’ve got to give all the love in the world to our magazine here at Illinois, Ninth Letter, which I’ve had the fortune to work on for many years. Outside of that, I’m a really big fan of the Kenyon Review, especially with the online features they’ve moved to. So many great poems and stories that are so accessible to readers. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Missouri Review, as well, and everything Michael Nye and the entire staff does over there. I’m sure there’s a million more, but those few are really up there on my list.
5. Tell me about your upcoming collection, Translation! The poems in there also focus on wordplay?
Translation will be published this upcoming September from Kent State University Press. I was fortunate enough to have the manuscript win the Wick Prize last year. The book focuses (mostly) on the consideration of (and dissolution of) aspects of my nuclear family through the lens of classical figures and situations. There’s certainly a lot of poems in there with other overriding metaphors, but everything is related to the American Family, as a concept, and the push and pull of that. And, there are definitely a lot of moments of wordplay in the poems. Because of the classical bent, there’s a lot of opportunity to consider etymology.
6. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, writing-related or otherwise? Who gave you the advice?
I would say the best piece of writing advice I ever got in terms of production of writing was from my friend Ted Sanders, whose middle grade book “The Keepers:The Box and The Dragonfly” is coming out on March 3rd (shameless plug). Ted would always say that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, it’s just that your standards are too high. You can always write something, even if it’s utter shit. I’m a big believer in that, now. Especially having written so many poems at this point, I feel pretty confident in how to do it, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem great, or even all that good. But, that’s ok, production is production, and you move on to the next thing, or perhaps cull some pieces from that poem for another poem that’s much better. The advice reminds me that writing is a process, not a product.
7. What’s on your desk right now?
Right now my desk is pretty messy, so quite a bit of stuff, but of note might be: a printed draft of the next manuscript I’m working on; a copy of an H.L. Hix essay on the craft of poetry called “Two Modes of Disclosure;” two coffee cups filled with what must be over 40 pencils, pens, and markers; a picture of my father and mother when they were 18; the marketing questionnaire from Kent State University Press that I (at some point) will have to stop putting off; and a crappy Target stapler.
8. In addition to your writing, you teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. How has teaching influenced your writing, if at all? Do you have a favorite class to teach?
I think teaching is what I love to do most, and some days I’m genuinely shocked and thankful that I actually get to do it. In terms of influencing my writing, the biggest thing teaching has done is keeping the process from becoming stale. Watching my students work through issues of process and craft keeps me thinking about my own process, and the advice I give them in turn sustains me. I’m fairly certain I write more during the months I’m teaching, and I organize more (plan, outline, submit, re-order) during the months I’m not teaching. And I really love all my classes, though teaching the intro poetry workshop is always a joy, and I teach a 460 class sometimes where undergrads put together an online version of Ninth Letter and I get to be the editor. It’s good to be the editor.
9. Anything else you’d like to add?
Nothing more really to add, just want to say I’m excited to come to WordLab!
Indy Wordlab is a monthly reading series/open writing workshop. A local writer reads their work, takes questions, and offers a writing experiment, Attendees take 30-40 minutes to write on the prompt, and then reconvene in pairs or small groups to share their work. Learn more here, here, and here.