Detroit Is for Lovers: Talking Home, Family and Basketball Dreams With Poet Matthew Olzmann

If you're not writing about love, you're not writing.
-Peter Markus

Yes, poet Matthew Olzmann writes about love in his recent debut Mezzanines, winner of the 2011 Kundiman Poetry Prize. But he also writes about fear, cruelty, Spock and Mountain Dew. The thing is, when Olzmann captures moments of pain, or levity, in the glass plates of a poem, there is an understanding that is only made possible by an expansiveness of feeling and thought that comes through in the writing -- or at a reading, if you're lucky enough to hear him read.

I've seen Olzmann read a few times in our hometown of Detroit, and he is the only poet I've ever heard earn big laughs -- real that was funny laughter, and not just the generous responses of friends listening to friends or acolytes listening to idols. He is one of a handful of poets I know that can win over those who think they hate poetry. I think he wins over the haters because he is funny. But also because the poems have doors that open and invite you inside. The rooms of the house may be odd, and the stairwells may lead in strange directions, but you, as the reader, remain beckoned. He hasn't invited you in just to leave you. He's got stories to tell, and they're good. He has queries. And he has revelations.

Home is important. I love how Detroit city lights blink in the white space around many of these poems. In this excerpt from "Gas Station on Second Street, Detroit," he writes about the surprising possibilities of a scary downtown moment:

Dusk. A quick stop you think, five bucks of gas/
then onward into the rest of your life./
But as you stand by the pump and look for your card,/
a stranger grabs your shoulder. His other hand hides/
in his jacket. What's in the jacket? He's got a knife/
to cut you like a piece of rib eye. No,/
he's got a nine-millimeter with holes drilled/
in the barrel to muffle the shot. No, his name/
is Kevin and he only wants to give/
you a flyer for The Blood Now Church of Christ./
Kevin emerges from twilight, silent as twilight./
Kevin almost gives you a art attack as he leans/
in to say, Hi. My name is Kevin!/

In "Man Robs Liquor Store, Leaves Resume" Olzmann gives us the unexpected backstory and desire of a man committing a violent crime:

When they review your job application,/
Perhaps they'll consider your resourcefulness,/
Your willingness to think "outside the box,"/
To take risks and be bold./
As they study the security footage,/
They might think, This one/
Is a real people person--notice/
How he earns the clerk's trust/
Before pulling the switchblade from his boot./

In other poems, Olzmann writes about the cold cruelty of power, the strange inbetweenness of being mixed-race. But in Mezzanines, we also get straight-up love poems and they are tender. An added bonus is knowing that Olzmann is married to the extraordinary poet Vievee Francis. One favorite is the ode to his beloved called "Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem." Here is an excerpt:

So here's what I've got, the reasons why our marriage/
might work: because you wear pink but write poems/
about bullets and gravestones. Because you yell/
at your keys when you lose them, and laugh,/
loudly, at your own jokes. Because you can hold a pistol,/
gut a pig. Because you memorize songs, even commercials/
from thirty years back and sing them when vacuuming./

Lately I've been thinking about love, and how one's enthusiasm, one's devotion comes through in one's art, and how important it is to think and write about love, period, in all its manifestations. When Olzmann is present, he is fully present. At least it feels that way when you read his work, or hear him live. Maybe this is why I am so enthusiastic about this collection of poems. I asked Olzmann if he would answer a few questions.

Tell us about home.
This would have been an easier question a year ago. Currently, I'm living among the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. Previously, I lived my entire life in Michigan, including the last 15 years in a town called Hamtramck. My wife and I lived in a flat above a coffee shop. Across the street was a meat-packing plant, there was an axle factory down the block, and a railroad track that ran by our place. We were used to the sights and smells and the noise of the place. Then I came down here on a teaching fellowship to teach for the year at a college, and was surprised by how quickly I adjusted.

Everything is different. The fog that rolls through these trees, enveloping whole houses and farm fields, and crawling down the mountainside is like nothing you see in the city. And this too feels like home. This presents a challenge to my notions of what "home" is. I was born in Detroit. I live in North Carolina. Which is home? Is it a point of origin, or the place where you are at the moment? Since I'm only in Asheville temporarily, part of me likes to think that both of these places are "home." Another part thinks home is the next place I land, a place where I might stay.

Every time I've heard you read, you make the audience laugh. I mean, really laugh. Have you ever been surprised by audience reactions? How important to your process is audience reaction?
I think the "idea" of an audience is important for any writer. What I mean is that it's important to remember as artists, we're not simply trying to tell the audience about an experience, but create an experience in which they are -- to varying degrees -- participants.

Take for example, something as simple as metaphor. If the poet says, "The moon is a coin," that expression is completed by the reader connecting the two parts of the expression, and determining how those parts are alike: the moon and the coin are round, they shine, they have some kind of symbolic value, etc. This happens in the mind of the reader, and if you multiply that private moment by a hundred or thousand similar moments, you have the cumulative experience of a piece of writing. For that piece of writing to be "successful," the writer has have at least some awareness about how readers might respond to each of the pieces placed before them.

Why poetry?
When I was a teenager I started reading poems. I was in high school, and the poems were those I encountered as a student. I didn't understand most of what I read, but every once in a while one would stick with me. I'd see something in the world, and some fragment of a remembered poem would come rushing back. This began happening more and more frequently -- poems would help me understand and negotiate the world around me. They tied the world together in ways I couldn't, asked questions I couldn't ask, and said things I couldn't say.

You are married to the acclaimed poet Vievee Francis. What are the benefits to being married to a poet?
The benefit: at the end of the day, it's good to come home to someone who understands you and what you do. We're definitely each others' fans.

How does your family respond to their appearances in your work? How do they feel about your work as a poet in general?
I am fortunate. My mom and dad are the most supportive people you'll ever meet. It's not easy having a son who decides to be a writer. I think I went to four different colleges over a period of 12 years before I finished an undergraduate degree. I was what might be called a "non-traditional student." So now, having a graduate degree, a book and teaching at a college -- well, I think they're just thrilled (and surprised).

There's a poem in the book that mentions my brother working as a scientist. While writing it, I happened to tell to him what I was working on. He insisted that I show him the finished draft before I sent it out in the world. He claimed that he didn't want to be associated with anything that was "scientifically inaccurate." He was joking (he says). Not that he had to worry. All my poems are scientifically accurate.

Please share five recent books that you found exciting.
Poetry collections: Centaur by Greg Wren, Pier by Janine Oshiro, and Dhaka Dust by Dilruba Ahmed. Fiction: How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capó Crucet, and Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross.

If you were not a poet and a teacher, which vocation would you choose?
For the longest time, I wanted to be a basketball player. Specifically, I wanted to be Isiah Thomas. I grew up watching the "Bad Boys" era of Detroit Pistons Basketball, and I knew from an early age that that was what I was meant to do. Unfortunately, I entered high school at the towering height of four feet, nine inches tall. I weighed 89 pounds, wasn't very coordinated or fast, and I couldn't really shoot or dribble the ball. Thus ended my basketball career. I like to think of this early "failure" as the first of many times my dreams would grow beyond my abilities.

If you are in NYC on Thursday, May 9, Matthew Olzmann will be giving his Kundiman Prize Reading at Fordham University. For more information, click here.