I read Matt Mauch's second book, If You're Lucky is a Theory of Mine, while sitting in the waiting area of an auto repair shop (new tire). The wait went more quickly with these intense, funny, high energy poems, and it was one of those the world-inside-the-book-became-the-world-outside the book moments. I noticed wheels, and gears, and pulleys everywhere in the book, and I asked him some questions about this. His response is FASCINATING--read our exchange below.
Note: After the interview below, read “Brilliant machine that I am” and "When you start your car and remember you left something you need in the house, think of engaging the emergency brake not as means, but as end," both of which appear with permission from the author. Order your copy of If You're Lucky is a Theory of Mine here.
Q: While reading your book, I kept noticing machines, gadgets, and mechanical systems (often, these are related to cars). What are your thoughts about machinery? What, if any, is the relationship between poetry and machinery?
A: I grew up in a place where it wasn’t uncommon to boast that you’d rebuilt an engine. While I only ever rebuilt a lawnmower engine, in shop class, under expert supervision, I knew people (quite a few) who rebuilt car and truck engines, pretty much all on their own, sometimes to spec (pickup engines, say), sometimes for higher performance (Mustang, GTO, and Road Runner engines were likely to be rebuilt this way). No matter what you’re rebuilding, no matter the purpose of the final product, the questions that hang over everything you do are, “Will it start?” and “If it does, how well will it run?”
Those questions are analogous to the questions I ask myself when I write poems. The meticulous work one does (fractions of fractions of fractions of an inch make all the difference in the world) when rebuilding an engine is like the meticulous work one does when making a poem.
I knew a guy who had 1968 Mustang fastback, with an engine rebuilt for high performance—so much so that it could barely idle—and he used it to leave tire marks (two of them; it had some sort of limited-slip differential, and you can Google “limited-slip differential” if that sounds like gibberish) from the main doors of the high school (in the small Midwestern town where I grew up) all the way to the street—about 30 or 40 yards total. The rubber melded to the concrete, or so we all believed, given that none of the industrial cleansers the janitors used could remove the marks, which stood for years (for all I know, they could still be there) as a testament to the engine-rebuilder’s perseverance, luck, etc., in the same way that a great poem stands as a testament to the poet’s perseverance, luck, etc.
Rebuilding an engine, though, I suppose, analogy-wise, is more akin to writing a sonnet than it is to writing the kind of organic-form poetry I write. But I had people in my formative years who taught me about that, too—about organic form—the most influential being my grandfathers (especially my maternal grandfather, Greg Kass*) and my dad, who saw every broken thing as an opportunity to test their ingenuity. If something mechanical broke, they studied it, looked around their garages and basement tool shops for wire and whatnot (Vice Grips® were often used as both a tool and a working part of the final solution), and set about to fix the thing. More often than not, they succeeded. A broken window fan, in their hands, might enter its next life with an unorthodox switch on it, but you could still turn it on and off and adjust the speed from low to medium to high and back.
It’s that kind of engagement with gadgets and machines that was more intuitive to me than was engine rebuilding. And that kind of engagement reminds of what I do with poems as I bring them along from first draft to the as-final-as-it-will-ever-be draft. I try to diagnose what’s broken, and see what I can do with what I have in my poetry garage and basement tool shop to fix it. I’m using words and images and associative leaps and metaphors, etc., instead of wire and string and JB Weld®, but the “how can I make this work with what I have on hand” spirit of the two ventures share a lot on both the practical and philosophical level, and noting them as I am right now, right here, with you reading it, gives the arc of our lives (I say as a one attempting to stand in for the many) something akin to meaning.
Just as I am no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, but am forevermore culturally a Roman Catholic, I am neither a practicing engine rebuilder, nor very often a practicing tinkerer, but culturally am both. What I do when I did those things (and the many other things I’ve done that have made me who I am, each of which I could expound upon in a whole book of essays like this) is what I do when I make poems. I am meticulous. I sometimes have expert supervision and sometimes am all on my own. I either use what I have on hand or go and get what I need to make it go. The questions looming over me are always “Will it work?” and “If it works, is it working just for me is or is it also working for others?”
I find it hard not to believe that everybody is culturally some A or B or C that is analogous to their poem-making. And what that means is that the poem-making takes over—it grabs the baton from who you were in your earlier life. Think of bitters and whisky (and the secret ingredients you swear you’ll never reveal) as your early life, and of poetry as the drink in which they get stirred and become something else—something you give a fancy name to—something new that still participates in the things that it was.
I’m thinking now (pause to imagine my hands coming off the keyboard, to my chin, as I do that) of all my poet friends and acquaintances, and of what I know of their backgrounds, and am trying to conceive of how what they are culturally but are no longer in practice informs their poem-making. It’s not the same as having them tell me themselves, but it’s an interesting way to think—a way to look at poems through a fresh set of eyes. If we get a bunch of poets to write essays about it, maybe we can collect them in an anthology and call it Nurture Matters.
If poetry becomes a vital of your daily life, if you dedicate yourself to the process of making poems, and if that process in return helps to make you, which I think it does, then I think it’s inevitable that the various ways you’ve lived your life previously will become intimate parts of the poem-making, which, as I’ve said—although maybe I’m going a bit further here—takes over in large part the job of you-making.
How I used to collect football cards and comic books. How I used to fish for crappies at Lake Okabena. How I used to hunt ducks. All of these things factor into how I make and take in poetry on a daily basis. It’s like I’m a stew of body, mind, and heart mixed in with all those other things I’ve done and been (only a few of which I’ve mentioned here), and each poem I read gets added to the flavor mix, and each poem I write is like a bowl of me I’m ladling out. Which means part of what you're tasting, if you read that poem, is who and what I’ve been, who and what I am at that moment, a bowl of who and what I’ll never taste exactly like again, because that bowl is gone now that I’ve ladled it out of me, and getting rid of it changes what’s in the vat, changes the stock, makes me a different me all over again, with room to add something new.
* My maternal grandparents, whenever they were asked to explain their habits, their quirks, their approach to daily life, told us that they grew up during the Great Depression, a time and kind of necessity they hoped we would never see, but a necessity, they said, that ingrained in them the skills and attitudes that made them who they were. For grandma and grandpa, it was impossible to shake the idea that another Great Depression might come at any time, which is also probably why they enjoyed what they had, once they were living in an era of the middle class having things, to the fullest. They lived a life that is about as carpe diem as is practical, knowing that chances are you’re going to wake up tomorrow. Maybe that seems paradoxical, how their lives were one part the frugality and inventiveness born of want, and one part exuberant indulgence in the moment, but it’s who they were, and who they were rubbed off, at least in the case of me. My grandmother, whenever she made chili, always made a pot of white rice to accompany it**. The rice wasn’t a favorite side dish, but was what you plopped a half-baseball-sized scoop of into your chili bowl before you carefully drizzled the con carne over it, ending up with a mix that was about one-third chili, two-thirds rice, or, if you were indulgent, half rice and half chili. Meat was scarce and expensive during the Great Depression, and so using rice as an extender, grandma said, was a way to make sure everybody in the family got fed for as many days as you could make the chili stretch. I can’t make chili today without making a pot of white rice to accompany ita. When I have guests over to eat, if I’m serving chili, I tell them how my grandmother used to make chili this way, and I recommend a half and half mix if they care to try it. I still tend to go with two-thirds rice in my bowl, one-third chili, and it’s one of the ways I’m aware that I myself am a product of a product of the Great Depression, and that that is my grandparents’ legacy. If you extend the legacy a generation out, i.e., if my nieces or nephews are influenced by who I am and what I do, then what they will become are products of a product of a product of the Great Depression, only they’ll never know it, because I don’t explicitly claim the Great Depression as an influence. If you’re one of those who knows your family lineage, it would be a great parlor game to go back through the generations and centuries and speculate whether habit X, Y, or Z can be traced to the French Revolution, to Egyptian debt-slavery, or to feudal resentment in the Kamakura shogunate.
** For the record, while I’m not, as I will say a little further on down the page (or as I’ve already said if you’re reading this footnote after you finish the main text), much of a gadget fixer or engine rebuilder anymore, I am an avid cook, and in that I had as many role models as I did with machinery. Because it was the cultural norm at the time, those examples were primarily the women who nurtured me—my grandmothers (especially my maternal grandmother, Mary Kass) and my mother.
Two Poems from If You're Lucky Is a Theory of Mine
Brilliant machine that I am
What I thought was a hair in my coffee I would drink and digest,
turned out, at the true-story bottom the mug,
to be a centipede or millipede. I didn’t count the legs.
I gagged a bit.
It’s like getting a car and noticing a lot of other people have the same model,
which you didn’t know existed till you had one
in your parking spot, in your driveway, your garage if you’re a lucky cuss,
and what makes it like that is how the bug
at the bottom of my mug has made every ending since then a surprise,
i.e., I respond to a strange sound by turning toward it,
a slow kind of pirouette executed with both feet clumsily on the ground,
inventing a death dance for those who’ve jumped from the Golden Gate bridge,
like an against-the-odds flower blooming from concrete,
making a hole in it with what you thought was my flimsy stem,
which is hard to do, and I almost fall over the edge.
Lucky is you being here to grab me, me wiggling free
from an olive, from its pit,
polishing your teeth with my tiny tongue.
When you start your car and remember you left something you need in the house, think of engaging the emergency brake not as means, but as end
Take the time to enjoy the cable tension increasing beneath your grip, a nervous system running up your back, through your shoulder, down your arm, to the wheel. Say fuck as shorthand for I left what I need inside. Now you’re walk-running back to where you came from. You used to call this losing three minutes from your life. You used to eat breakfast standing up. The one you thought you left behind for the day helps you find what you need. You feel a smile like a suddenly opened flower on your face. The voice you had before it changed says, I’ve been waiting to be let back in since before the Victorian age. The one who helps you find lost things asks, What’s so funny? You say, I don’t know. I don’t know is shorthand for If I die right now, I don’t die alone.