An Interview with semi-finalist Matthew Nickel

We recently released our list of 2015 Negative Capability Press Book Competition semi-finalists. We will be posting interviews with each of the candidates.

Matthew Nickel

Matthew Nickel

Matthew Nickel, a Mid-Hudson Valley native, earned his PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Misericordia University in Northeast Pennsylvania. He has edited numerous anthologies of poetry, including Kentucky: Poets of Place, and his most recent books include The Leek Soup Songbook (Des Hymnagistes Press 2015) and Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway (New Street Communications 2013).

SW:  Let us suppose we are somewhere chatting  -- so where does this interview take place?  In a coffee shop in some city?  In a hotel lobby in Paris? In your kitchen eating chocolate chip cookies? You set the scene. 

MN: I don’t frequent coffee shops that much, so let’s go to Paris. And instead of a hotel lobby, let’s just sit quietly in the Luxembourg Gardens watching the little children sailing their toy boats while the elders play petanque. Faulkner loved the boys with their boats. I’m not sure what he thought of petanque, but if he’s around, let’s invite him over. Maybe enjoy a salad at the Pavillon de la Fontaine with Muscadet. A band plays the Marseillaise under the trees. Light is blue. Hemingway shy by the fountain spray. Chestnut leaves. OK. Let’s talk.

SW:  What are some of your influences – books, movies, music and / or whatever else – art, travel, etc?

MN: Writers. Many of them. In no particular order: T. S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Charles Baudelaire, Francoise Villon, Dante, Donne, George Herbert, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Arnaut Daniel, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, John Burroughs, G. K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas. Living writers: Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Gaines, James Lee Burke, H. R. Stoneback, Denis Johnson. Musicians: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, BeauSoleil, Fats Domino, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Stoney & Sparrow. Many others. Places in the following order: France, Kentucky, the Hudson Valley and Catskills, Louisiana, certain parts of the Alps, Schruns, the Tyrol, the Pyrenees, Spain, Galicia. Miscellaneous influences: fishing, gardening.

SW:  How long have you written? A little history, here. 

 MN: In 8th grade I thought I wanted to be a writer. I had been given no advice or direction into the literary world. I had the drive but no map. Then as a freshman in college, I took an American Literature class with H. R. Stoneback. That was when everything changed. The first day of class we read Pound. It was hieroglyphics to me—but I loved it. Stoneback played Pound reading on a record player he brought to class. He’s famous for his records and record player. Anyhow, I heard Pound and it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. I thought, That’s a poet! The first poem Pound read was “Cantico Del Sole” with the refrain: “The thought of what America would be like if the classics had a wide circulation troubles my sleep.” Yes I thought. Yes. We listened to other poets in that class, Eliot, Warren, H. D., Cummings, so many. I had been given a passport into a new world. It was the greatest gift, and Stoneback kept giving it. Keeps giving it. That is why The Route to Cacharel is dedicated to him (Stoney)—and to his wife (Sparrow).

SW:  What is your job / occupation and how does it affect your poetry?

MN: I am an Assistant Professor of English at Misericordia University. My published work has included primarily criticism on Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, Lawrence Durrell, and other writers. My poetry is fertilized by the Modernists. I have found no fecundity in the Post-Modernists. Too much like chemical fertilizer---it contains the right combination of elements, but lacks spiritual nourishment.

I always feel that I have the best job in the world. I get to read my favorite writers, teach them, and then write about them. Then travel to places they lived in and/or wrote about, read some more, and repeat. Write my own poems and learn by going where I have to go. Etc.

SW:  How do you describe your poetry—important concerns, themes, pursuits?

MN: I am concerned with saying something in my poems that gets through to others, and in the act of saying, trying to define the in-between, the mystery. To say: this is, though we may not know our referents as well as we can write about them. I have never enjoyed a certain type of poetry that is strictly for its own sake, you know, the kind that loves itself so much that nobody else can fall in love with it. Some of it is wordplay and can be fun. But I want others to read my poems and know what I’m getting at. For the most part. I believe that is why some of my work gravitates toward narrative.

Many of my poems are rooted in place. I know a poem is not ready if there is no place to it. My favorite writers spent the twentieth-century warning us about the dangers of losing our sense of place. What would they say if they could see the current generation of iPhone-faces glowing in the dark. My students rarely know where they are anymore—nor where they have come from. Place has been replaced by the abstract and foul-sounding word global. The overuse of the idea of global always reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s distinction when she explained how in “the absence of faith now, we govern by tenderness,” and that it is “tenderness” cut off from the source that leads to terror. The idea of global cut off from the source of specific places and the particularities that define those places is as dangerous as the tenderness that can lead to terror.

SW:  What can you share about your writing process? 

MN: Writing for me requires silence. When I get stuck, I usually go do something in my garden. Gardens always have something that needs getting done (I’ll go out there and start weeding the minute I finish this interview). This way I’m not thinking about writing. Or I walk. If I’m really stuck, I read from Robert Penn Warren’s Collected Poems.

I never talk about what I’m writing. When it’s done, I let my wife read it. It seems a great sin to talk about something in process. That’s why I’ve never participated in poetry workshops. I’ve never taken a creative writing class in my life. I just found the writers I respected and read them and sometimes I would talk to certain writers and professors. We usually ended up talking more about other things though—sports, fishing, hunting, places.

SW:  Let’s say you are teaching a workshop; give us a sample exercise / lesson.

MN: I always use Brooks’ & Warren’s Understanding Poetry in my workshops. 3rd edition has the better forward, but the 4th edition includes a wider range of poets and poetry. Normally, I’m uncomfortable with the writing workshop, because I’ve always felt writing to be a very personal thing. But some of my students enjoy it. My favorite assignments include mimesis. Then parody. Students come up with some great poems. I’ve also tried the answer song approach—students answer a famous poem: they love answering Prufrock (I also play Hank Locklin singing “Please Help me I’m Falling” and then Skeeter Davis’ “I’m Falling Too”—it’s funny to watch the students’ reactions to these songs). Come to think of it, song often makes its way into my poetry classes. It’s a different medium, and it can bring some great things out emotionally that brings students deeper into the way words work. Like Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”—students like the lyrics themselves, and I always pair it with Imagism. Then they hear him singing and some of them want to cry. It’s the way he sings, which is emotionally buried in the words and which just wrenches your heart. I also use Elvis, Cash, and some gospel in workshops. 

SW:  What are your thoughts on social media?  Do you have a website? A blog?

MN: I’ve never been active putting myself out there on social media. It took me a long time to grow comfortable in social settings in general. Thus, my presence online is mostly limited to e-mails I receive and write. Some of the work I’ve done is listed online at deshymnagistes.blogspot.com. I’m fine with my work being talked about, but I usually don’t go out of my way to publicize myself.

SW:   What are you reading at the moment?

MN: Just finished James Lee Burke’s Creole Belle and Michael Novak’s The Joy of Sports. Currently reading: Brothers Karamazov, Look Homeward, Angel, The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.

SW:  What is the view out your window?

MN: A field of corn across the street. Squash by the walkway. Garlic hanging in braids and leek seed heads around my window on the front porch. Tomato stalks 7 feet tall with green globes hanging in bunches. Locust trees, beech trees, sugar maples, cherry. Nasturtium flowers frame the view.

SW:  Your turn – you ask the question – and you give the answer.

MN: If not poetry, then what?
MN: Trout fishing.

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