Register Wednesday | December 11 | 2019
Interview with Matthew Tierney

Interview with Matthew Tierney

The award-winning Toronto poet talks about the theory of relativity, Paul Muldoon and being marooned in your own head.

Matthew Tierney is the author of two books of poetry, Full speed through the morning dark (Wolsak and Wynn, 2004) and The Hayflick Limit (Coach House, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. He has been published in journals and magazines across Canada. In 2005, he won first and second place in This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt. In 2006, he was a recipient of a K. M. Hunter Award. He lives in Toronto.

During Linda Besner's conversation with Matthew, both parties had washed up on a traffic island. They were a dry dot of humanity lapped by a six-lane sea. Between them, their rations were a single cup of takeout coffee. The sun beat down.

Linda Besner: There's a line in "Marooned in the Uncharted Regions," that reads, "I give rope to the claim/ that time is not high tide autographing the beach/ or thingness displaced in three dimensions,/ but thought." What kind of time is the speaker in this poem experiencing?

Matthew Tierney: There's a whole sense of objectivity/subjectivity happening here, and in the way that time is measured generally. Time can be measured by the universe—the earth going around the sun, the sun going around our galaxy—and this is actual, measurable time. Our fealty to the clock and to measurements of time is almost obsessive.  Then there's time as it appears to us -- everyone has the experience of a minute feeling longer if it's spent doing something horrible.  The world for one person is always running in this dual way, with two simultaneous but contradictory notions of time.  In some ways time is slowed on the island, stretched out, but in another way maybe it's moving faster—years pass while he's waiting for the light to change, and presumably for the cars it's just a few minutes.  Because he's thinking about the time as it's passing, it turns into something real. Whereas when you're driving, or in so many of our everyday acts, you're in some compartment of your mind where you're not measuring the time, you're not asking yourself how long you've been doing something. I'll sit down to play a video game and then two hours later I'm like, what just happened?

LB: If we think of Einstein's theory of relativity, the idea is that time goes by more slowly for objects that are moving than for objects that are static.  Here's a koan for you if you wre trapped on this traffic island for all time: which is moving faster, the reader or the poem? A poem in its printed form is static—it's just sitting there on the page—but the ideas in it are highly kinetic.  The reader is sitting there reading, but his or her mind is racing in all directions chasing after the poem's meaning. Which has higher velocity?

MT: Whoah, tough one. I think to answer the question, though, you have to pin the poem down. Maybe part of the appeal of poetry is that it's unpindownable.  Its very attractiveness is in its failure to do what it sets out to do, which is to stop time. I always think, when I'm writing something—and it kind of pisses me off—how long I spend writing a poem and how quickly people read it. I mean, you can spend years writing a poem. And it takes about a minute for someone to read. So it feels way out of whack, the amount of reading time people give to something. But maybe I shouldn't put equals signs between those two types of time, reading time and writing time.  I do feel like in a poem that's working really well, it's like all parts of it are more alert and aware of each other than you are. It's a challenge to read poems in that way, to pay that kind of attention, not just zip through. Muldoon would say that reading a poem is like reading the mind of the writer at the moment they wrote it. Muldoon would say the heightened state in which you writing poetry is the state you need to be in to read it. HONK IF YOU LOVE MULDOON!

(A passing car in the traffic ocean has let out a sound infinitely more obnoxious than the cry of seagulls.  Tierney waves after it, shading his eyes from the island sun.)

MT: Lots of Muldoon fans out today. Anyway, he’d say that this is where the difficulty and the enjoyment are. I know when I go back to read my own poems they're faster than I am, they escape me. I was in a compressed state of focus when I wrote them and I can't get back there.

LB: At a certain point in the poem, the speaker starts to question the reality of what he's experiencing. When that happens, he interrupts his own train of thought. He's spinning a theory about his situation—“maybe the South Pacific/ is only a figment caused by a full bladder./ And this warthog’s squeals and snorts? A UPS van/ charging through the yellow.” And then he immediately cuts himself off with the declaration, "No matter." I wondered about the rhetorical function of that shift.

MT:  “Marooned in the Uncharted Regions” is also about being marooned in your own head. His dual existence is just triggered by the word island, it's nothing really magical but it's like, you're in your head and there's no way to get out of that. And going back to the idea of time, time is something you make up that there's no way out of. My reading is that where he is in actuality doesn't really matter, if he is on a concrete or a tropical island because both versions of the story are true. He sees the walk guy come on and in both senses the figure is coming to his rescue, he's escaping this static moment to get back into the flow of time and traffic.

LB: I wondered about the description of the walk sign, that "operating theatre white.” Personally I found it kind of ominous—is the figure coming to rescue him or lobotomize him?

MT: Yeah, there’s this idea that he's shining a light on his thoughts. I was very pleased to land on this kind of light. People can see random images when they're being operated on.  Not that this is necessarily all there in the poem, but it opens up the possibility that maybe he's lying on a table somewhere.

(We both look over at the traffic light with renewed distrust. A streetcar clangs past, cutting off our island from The Man in White and possible rescue.)

LB: Is going back to civilization a good thing or a bad thing?

MT: I don't think we have much of a choice. Castaways will always try to get back. But then, there is a sense in which you're just sort of pretending to get back, you're never really “back,” because you're never really outside your head. There's just this weird thruway to a semblance of reality where we all exist and talk to one another and experience the same sorts of things. And that's what the speaker wants to get back to. So in a way we're sort of living in both places at all times, and part of the point of this poem is to make that physical. Because this book is so influenced by my readings in science, the nature of physical reality comes into play. You can research to a point where the entire world just sort of dissipates. When you get down to the quantum level it calls into question the whole idea of objectivity—maybe there isn't anything out there at all. Also, that our conscious thinking of it, the questions we ask of what we're going to see, affects what we see. This is completely counterintuitive and it really fucks with your head. Even though we don't experience the world that way, the macroscopic world that we see is answering the questions we ask of the world. How do you deal with that? Physicists don't even deal with it, the physical ontological questions, maybe that's our job as poets. Science has gotten us this far and now how do we deal with what we know?

LB: Yes, I wondered if part of what that line, “No matter,” is doing is refusing to deal with those questions.

MT: Yeah. It's a bit of a playful poke at that thorny issue. You can think about these things but they don't prevent you from getting up in the morning and going to work. In that “no matter,” there's also this play on the fact that consciousness isn't completely matter or that mind emerges from the matter.

LB: What dictates form for you when you’re starting a new piece?

MT: If you flip through people's poems you'll often see a lot of the same forms. It’s easy to get stuck on couplets, they're really attractive in this pithy way—there are so many opportunities for enjambment, for mussing the meaning. But sometimes if you have that many stanza breaks you can push the clever breaks too far, so it's fraught with sandtraps. A lot of the times it’s sound that dictates the linebreak: “vanilla,” “delirium,” “them.” Actually, “Marooned in the Uncharted Regions” initially had longer lines and it was tough to squeeze it into this format. This maybe sheds some light on form in a weird way―the Anansi books or Faber & Faber have a template, a style that’s imposed on all their poets. So the ones with long lines suffer the injustice of having the half-tab in from the second line. And I actually coveted that. I thought that was a neat thing because I love the messiness that results, the openings. These kind of weird forms imposed on them that they’re breaking out of. It gives you a happenstance break, an opportunity, like the poem is trying to break out of the book. I thought, Well, I'll write a long-lined poem that forces my publisher to break it for me. But then, me being me I couldn't do it! I ended up editing this and the other poems in The Hayflick Limit into my geometric pigeon hole and in some ways it represents for me the kind of poetry that I want to write but I can't―the poetry that's not so focussed or centred or centrifugal. That Dodds or Solie, that decaying or degradation that I just can't get. The idea of not being able to conform to the tyranny of the page, the rebel without a cause thing.

LB: “Marooned” is actually in my favourite form, what I like to call the “uniblob.”

MT: Uniblob! Yeah, I think you make more demands on your reader when you don't have stanza breaks. When I can get an internal combustion engine out of a poem I feel like it's a greater achievement than writing in couplets or tercets. In physics, too, it takes more energy for a bunch of atoms to hold together than to break apart. No stanza breaks forces you to do something with the language that’s more connective in a way. Enjambment is kind of at the heart of lyric and there's also momentum or energy—certainly with the uniblob poems—that enjambment gives energy to. Full stop full thought line endings I almost never use. The consciousness behind the poem is never fully stopped, it's always bleeding over into the next line, since one thought always leads to another thought. Prose poems are incredibly hard, I think, because you take away the tool of enjambment, and because the eye has no visual guidance of where to rest. But at the same time, maybe that makes the prose poem the ultimate. The language itself is doing all the work.

LB: I guess it's like how many tools are you willing to do away with? Are you going to walk that tightrope without a net and also without even a rope?

MT: Right. Where you're just sort of walking out there.

(A Muldoon fan sends out a long call of support, and his flock echoes the sentiment. Does the island exist? Do we exist? Can we trust the Man in White? No matter. There he is, beckoning us back to a place where you can never really be. It’s lonely out here with only our thoughts for company. He calls for us, and we come.)

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