Dustin Pearson Talks Blood Work With Poet Matthew Siegel
Dustin: I found out on my third read-through of your collection that I was using the blurbs as too literal a frame. I too badly wanted to talk about your book in the terms I was convinced it was meant to be talked about, or perhaps my imagination just got the best of me when picturing “the literature of illness.” This book seems to be more about connection and longing in even the most mundane relationships. If I had to connect the book back to illness, I would say the book is about those two things in spite of illness, or in spite of having a strangely intrinsic, perhaps inhuman, and involuntary connection to Crohn’s disease, or wanting to affirm a relationship that is more powerful than a person’s relationship to their own body or an entity that compromises or at least changes their relationship to their own body, but in general, I felt I was able to see much more of your book ignoring the trope of illness altogether, especially in your collection’s third (and a large part of its fourth) section. How do you feel about your book’s potential placement into “the literature of illness” given its other inspirations? How do you feel about blurbs in general?
Matthew Siegel: I think you’re correct when you say that the book is about connection and longing and the mundane, which for me definitely included illness, but is not exclusively limited to that. I am fine being seen as someone that lives with Crohn’s because I am not ashamed anymore. However, being told to mention it on the back of my book was a really tough pill to get down. There is so much more to that book than this particular aspect of my life and history. And yet, this is how identity politics tends to work out for a lot of people.
I asked a visiting writer at a Q&A once if she considered herself a Jewish writer (a question that elicited at least one or two groans from the audience) and she said something along the lines of “absolutely not, unless somebody else says I’m not, then I absolutely am.” I found that answer to be quite satisfying. And, of course, very Jewish. I would like to accept being a writer of illness or Crohn’s in equal measure with being a writer who is a product of divorced parents or as a writer from a suburb of New York or as a young man who has struggled romantically. Perhaps there are ways books function in the world beyond my knowledge. Maybe it’s necessary for some readers to see that there. I’m glad you were able to look past that frame.
As I was coming up through my early twenties I would fantasize about who I’d want to blurb my book. Some friends would join on this exercise, and I imagine somewhere right now there is a group of young writers having that very conversation. I’m sure it’s not entirely vanity, but there’s certainly some of that there. I still sometimes flip to the back of the book before I read anything inside, a bad habit, but better than looking at the acknowledgements page like I used to do when I started sending out a lot and trying to get poems picked up. I suppose blurbs are for folks who like to be distracted from the work by blurbs, or by those who prefer a bit of framing before they open themselves up to a work. Ultimately, I don’t think they really serve the work as much as they serve the product, the physical book itself.
Dustin: One of my favorite poems in your collection is “At the Farmers’ Market.” I love that every sentence is an exclamation—and not even one of those wistful or otherwise bittersweet Romantic or earlier period exclamations (or a more contemporary ironic or cynical exclamation). It may be the only poem that cites Crohn’s disease directly, and it also exhibits a quirky catalogue of the relationship between the body, consumption, sensation, Homeopathic medicine, a kind of folklore, and a simultaneous marvel and reservation of the body’s natural courses and functions, but even scrapping all that, the poem’s major appeal to me is its tone. Some of my favorite lines from it include: “He tells me of a man with Crohn’s disease / on the toilet & the verge of suicide, saved!” “I lift my tongue and discover where spit comes from!” “I’ve never been so afraid in my life!” “Berries so many berries!” Can you say more about the poem? About its tone, general happenings, and various characters?
Matthew Siegel: This was a terrifically fun poem to write that came at a time of exuberance and experimentation. I was at the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets for a few weeks between undergrad and graduate school and we went on a trip to the farmers’ market in Lewisburg, PA. It was such a dynamic space, overloaded with all kinds of wares and tcotchkes and produce. I remember being so swept up in it until I heard a hawker selling some kind of wacky juice. He was shouting all kinds of things about it but what broke my reverie was when he shouted something about a person with Crohn’s on the toilet and the verge of suicide. It was such a strange moment where everything aligned in a way that was kind of frightening. I didn’t know what else to do with that knit of feelings, that excitement and sadness and fear and amazement all wrapped up into one. I think writing this poem was important for me in breaking through a certain level of seriousness that I was walking around with in regard to my illness. I think writing it helped me feel free enough to say more in later poems.
Dustin: Another of my favorite poems in your collection is “It’s True What You’ve Heard About My Mouth.” There are two moments in particular that I’m in love with: “I am silent and afraid / and find comfort in world news watching / everything blow up except my apartment. / I’m aware this is very American of me.” “I look at people a second too long / and we both get uneasy” When I’m reading your collection I notice a trend of missed opportunities for your speaker to connect with people in a variety of settings. At other times, when your speaker does connect, he expresses how those connections stop short of his desire to connect. For me, these two moments grind against each other to illustrate the tension that amounts from your speaker’s perceived successes and failures with regard to human connection and how that tension resolves or what it inspires in the speaker. If that makes any sense, I also like how your speaker designates the comfort he gets from the world news as an American sentiment. At the very least, can you speak to the two moments I’ve cited from the poem?
Matthew Siegel: The speaker in Blood Work is often looking for comfort. Comfort in family and friends, in romantic partners, in cannabis. What does pain want but comfort or to be completely left alone? There isn’t much else that is worth examining. When you are a person in need of comfort, every missed opportunity seems more illuminated than that which was achieved, because of the inability to adequately make one’s own magic real. Instead of being concerned with the internal or local struggle it is sometimes easier to get caught up in the drama of international geopolitics (which is a fancy way of saying other peoples’ wars).
The American part is the aspect of the Dream that says once you have what you need (including safety), your work is complete. You may now consume freely and without guilt. This includes the consumption of images of suffering that will not typically be responded to directly by the consumer. It’s an attempt to poke a hole in the delusion that war is only happening elsewhere and that we have to be ok with it, accept it as an inevitable aspect of the human condition. And I think it’s also something of an attempt to laugh to keep from crying. It’s kind of pathetic, but maybe if I can bring awareness to myself about the things I feel about the world, if I can reconcile my place in it now, maybe I can come to change it.
Dustin: I think I really admire people who are able to produce poetry through ekphrasis. I think I have a bad attitude toward attempting it in my own writing. I took note of the handful of poems in your collection that emerge from the practice. I believe all of the poems are in response to photographs. Can you talk about that collage of poems? Is it just coincidence that all the ekphrastic poems in your collection are in response to photographs or is there something specific about photography that allows you to produce poems over other art forms?
Matthew Siegel: It was Cartier-Bresson’s death in 2004 that got me excited about photography. There was something complicated and real about his shots. They felt very much like poems, the way he was able to find magic everywhere, how in his images, you really see people. Well, it’s not that you totally see them, but you see their mystery, the thing that makes them who they are in that moment through that lens. It’s impossible not to believe them.
The photos that inspired the ekphrastic poems in the book are mostly from different photographers, except for the three which were after Elinor Carucci, a photographer whose work struck me as achieving a kind of intimacy that I wanted to get close to. All of the photos, now that I think about it, have a kind of vulnerability in them, an intensity and intimacy and mystery that I want to achieve in my work.
There is something specific about photographs for me. I can find photographs that achieve so much what I want to do in a poem. What excites me is any work of art that can truly see people and things. What I love about photography is that you can have that in a still moment that contains movement inside the stillness. I would like to relate similarly to painting or sculpture, but it hasn’t worked out in the same way for some reason. Lately I've been listening to a lot of classical music, which has been stirring new sensations out of me so that's been exciting.
Dustin: What’s your current relationship to Blood Work? What are you currently writing?
Matthew Siegel: To everyone who isn’t me Blood Work is a year, maybe two years old. The oldest poems in that book were written what feels like a long time ago. The whole thing was pulled from about eight years of writing. I look at the book and it feels like it was written by a completely different person, which is perhaps the saving grace that makes having let it out into the world ok.
At the moment I am reimagining for myself what a poem can be. I am allowing in more, permitting more sloppiness and what feels like sheer stupidity, but then negotiating what comes out later, or simply dismantling it in the next line. I’m really trying not to judge what I’m doing because it feels new and different and I finally trust that I’m past the book. What I mean by that is I am no longer writing poems that would fit in that collection. I’m terribly slow. When I say that I don’t mean that I don’t write a lot. It means that I produce very little that I find acceptable. I think I have between five and ten new poems depending on how generous I’m feeling towards them. I have most of a novel draft that’s sitting quietly in a drawer.