Malone and Savoca Week (2): A Conversation with Matthew Savoca

I enjoyed Matthew Savoca’s long poem, Long Love Poem With Descriptive Title, and for Malone and Savoca Week, I interviewed him about it and some novels he’s written. Our talk is almost 3400 words long (edited from ~6,000) and requires no preamble, so let’s get to it. Here is the book cover:

Adam: OK, I want to ask you about Long Love Poem With Descriptive Title. Ready?

Matthew: Yes, let’s do it. I’m drinking a beer.

Adam: Okay, nice. First of all, can I call you the speaker?

Matthew: Yes.

Adam: Oh good. I feel like people make that very complicated.

Matthew: I am definitely the speaker, and I’m not trying to hide it.

Adam: Are you crazy?

Matthew: In what way?

Adam: Well, we should talk first about how much you’ve written.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: How much have you written?

Matthew: If you count the first semi-shitty novel that only Kathryn Regina likes, then three. Three novels.

Adam: I’ve read most of Arthur and all of I Don’t Know, I Said. It is really good. [ed. note: both books are unpublished]

Matthew: Thank you.

Adam: Which is the shitty one only Kathryn likes?

Matthew: Arthur. [laughs]

Adam: [laughs] So what’s the third one?

Matthew: It’s called “String Theory.” I just kind of finished the 10th draft, but it isn’t done.

Adam: How many drafts went into IDK, IS?

Matthew: A year’s worth of editing drafts. First there was a rough draft. That took 3 months and was just pure writing. Then came a year of editing. Maybe 20 drafts.

Adam: So are you a writer?

Matthew: How are we going to define “writer”?

Adam: I just mean, like, is writing your main deal?

Matthew: Oh, yeah. Besides cooking dinner, washing the sheets, you know.

Adam: Do people call you “Matt” or “Matthew”?

Matthew: People always called me Matt up until I moved to Italy, then somehow I became Matthew. My grandfather used to call me Matty, and Matterats. I don’t know what that means.

Adam: That’s nice. It’s affectionate.

Matthew: Seems like it.

Adam: Father’s father or mother’s father?

Matthew: Mother’s father. He and I were tight.

Adam: Oh, is he dead?

Matthew: Yeah, he died when I was in high school. I was a pall bearer.

Adam: Wow. Were you very sad?

Matthew: I didn’t know how to be sad when I was 17. I learned later.

Adam: How to be sad? How do you do it? Do you, like, look at a lamppost for a long time?

Matthew: I maybe look at a lamppost to be calm.

Adam: Do you want to tangle your hair with someone else’s hair?

Matthew: That kind of is what I want, I think. That is the image that would describe what I want.

Adam: Well, in Long Love Poem you say the important thing is that you don’t understand this other person, and that makes you want to twine up your hair with hers.

Matthew: Yeah, I think that came from actually being in front of a mirror with that person.

Adam: And is this the same person from I Don’t Know, I Said and your other writing?

Matthew: Yeah, it’s the same person from all of it. Well, 98 percent.

Adam: Right. So, is she there with you?

Matthew: She is. She is typing on her computer. This is my life, she is 3 feet from me.

Adam: What is she? A writer?

Matthew: She is a ceramic artist, and a photographer, and a musician.

Adam: Okay, that sounds good.

Matthew: And a singer. She is Italian. She grew up there.

Adam: Oh yeah, you travel a lot.

Matthew: I guess I’m sort of like a neo Nomad.

Adam: So did you get her when you were over there?

Matthew: Initially. That was before I “moved” there.

Adam: Yeah, that’s right. I thought you always lived there or something.

Matthew: No, I lived in Philadelphia until 2007.

Adam: Why, that was only three years ago!

Matthew: I know. Then I moved to Italy and I wrote this book Long Love Poem the first summer I spent there.

Adam: So you wrote Long Love Poem in Italy in 2007.

Matthew: It was 2008 by the time I wrote it.

Adam: Then did you write the novels after that? Or was Arthur before that?

Matthew: I wrote Arthur at the same time, sort of.

Adam: Okay.

Matthew: Actually, I wrote Arthur first by a month or so but edited it heavily much after.

Adam: These seem like pretty American books, especially because Arthur hitchhikes around America, the USA.

Matthew: With LLP, I didn’t want to “color” it by mentioning Italy.

Adam: But you mention olive oil.

Matthew: Well, I’m Italian American anyway, so olive oil has always been in my life.

Adam: Right. Parts of LLP give me the sense that your relationship is so fraught. Like:

i don’t know what this really means i sort of know

i think it means that i think we are bored of each other

you’re so ornery in this picture, you said

stop yelling at me, i said

do you like my presence, i said

you never give me any presents, you said

no, i mean the presence of myself, i said

oh, you said

i want to stick my head into this bag of dirt, i said

then i walked back into the bedroom and wrote you an email that said

hello friend

i am using electronic mail to relate to you

i felt stupid pressing send

Matthew: It is. We’ve been churning this way for years.

Adam: I don’t mind saying that your writing is “honest” about it.

Matthew: I don’t mind you saying that either.

Adam: I think that if I was a relationship counselor, I might do a case study on it. On your honesty, I mean.

Matthew: Someone recently told me that they think it takes a lot of courage to be so open with such personal stuff, but the truth of it is that in person, I never am.

Adam: I think the courage is in recognizing how you feel. You’re not giving anything away in too much of a vulnerable way.

Matthew: I’m only open with personal things in writing. It’s probably unhealthy.

Adam: But really I think the most that your writing betrays is that you are confused by other people and you’re not sure what you want.

Matthew: I think you’re probably right.

Adam: Well, sometimes you say funny things about sex or communication problems.

Matthew: Like what?

Adam: Like:

let’s scare ourselves right now

how should we do it?

i know!

let’s have sex without a condom

just kidding,

i meant make love, and also

you’re on birth control

Matthew: Isn’t that so scary?

Adam: I guess. But as a reader I just think: “Matthew Savoca’s penis.”

Matthew: Right, it’s just to remind you that I have one, and I think about it a lot but don’t mention it too often.

Adam: Right, you put it in Italians, but you usually use a condom. I know all of this about you now.

Matthew: Actually, for a long time there was no condom and I was always terrified that the other methods wouldn’t work.

Adam: So you were baby scared not itchy scared?

Matthew: Totally.

Adam: Well, I don’t want to dwell on sex.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: But I’m just saying that you are honest, but it’s not like, freaky honest.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: But still it is Bedrock Honesty, you know, to the core.

Matthew: That’s good. I think I like that I come across that way.

Adam: Yeah, that’s the best. Okay, so that took a long time to say.

Matthew: It was worth it!

Adam: Let’s shift gears. Someone wrote a post on htmlgiant about something, It was a logical argument they were making. I don’t remember what, but I think you commented about how the logic was wrong. Do you remember that?

Matthew: Was it Chris Higgs?

Adam: Yeah, I think so.

Matthew: He was talking about surrealism and realism, and how reading realism was like someone telling him about what was happening in a Lakers game he was watching, and I said that it wasn’t.

Adam: Right. The thing that struck me about it was — I think this was the first time I ever really paid much attention to “Matthew Savoca” — was how logical it was, and how you made a logical argument. Like your response wasn’t about surrealism vs realism, right, it was just about the argument. Is that right?

Matthew: Right, exactly.

Adam: Well then when I read your books, it seemed at odds with that. But in your writing, at times there is smart-guy, rational clarity, and I think, “Oh good, discord,” because usually I read you as a person without much investment.

Matthew: Oh I think I see what youre getting at.

Adam: Really? I haven’t gotten to it yet. This is going to be a tough one.

Matthew: Okay, go.

Adam: Okay. LLP begins with an epigraph or something about a Chinese guy.

Matthew: Japanese.

Adam: Oh, thanks, Japanese guy who says, basically, What’s the point?

Matthew: Totally.

Adam: And that bears itself out throughout the poem.

Matthew: I hope it does.

Adam: Because you are confused. Life is good, you say, right? But at the same time, you are confused by how much it means, so there is resignation.

Matthew: A lot of resignation.

Adam: Yeah, a lot of going back to eating.

Matthew: Cooking dinner saves me.

Adam: Is my characterization fair?

Matthew: To be honest, I don’t know if I would say life is good. Do I say that?

Adam: Maybe not. You say people are good.

Matthew: I do.

Adam: You say, “life has value, and purpose/ life is valid/ it makes logical sense to me that organic organisms exist.”

Matthew: Right. But I think some of that is talking it into myself, convincing myself by purposefully affirming it.

Adam: Right, that’s why you say next, “can I go to bed.”

Matthew: Yes, right.

Adam: Okay, that is good, I can see that.

Matthew: Good.

Adam: So then now I just have it that you are confused by how much life means, and resigned.

Matthew: I think I’m confused by how much life does and doesn’t mean.

Adam: Okay. Right.

Matthew: Okay.

Adam: I have always found this to be pretty clear in your work, even though I can’t express it, apparently.

Matthew: I think if it were easy to express, maybe my poem would be useless. It might be.

Adam: But there is strong continuity between your poem and IDK, IS.

Matthew: I agree.

Adam: In terms of your weltanschuung.

Matthew: [laughs]

Adam: Not sure of that word.

Matthew: Me neither.

Adam: Do your parents find you frustrating?

Matthew: I think so, but they love me unconditionally. They always have. They understand me very little.

Adam: Like, “Matt is a good kid but he is a little aimless.”

Matthew: I think that they worry about me a lot in some ways and not at all in others.

Adam: Condoms? Check. Internship at IBM? Damn!

Matthew: Well, something like that. My older brother works with computers and my younger brother is about to get a job at Ikea.

Adam: You are 28?

Matthew: I am.

Adam: Are you married to the authentic existence thing?

Matthew: I don’t think I am.

Adam: I mean, you seem uncompromising.

Matthew: In what way? In how I live?

Adam: Yeah, and in trying to figure things out.

Matthew: Yeah, I am definitely uncompromising in trying to figure things out. But I do make compromises in living. I do work.

Adam: You use a computer.

Matthew: If I were more uncompromising, I would be like that guy who died in Alaska, who starved.

Adam: He only starved because he ate poison.

Matthew: Yeah, true. Oh, that fits in with my book because I have little drawings of poisonous plants. I never thought about it before. Interesting.

Adam: No, I don’t think that is a connection. But I think it’s interesting that you’re making that connection.

Matthew: Yeah, only when pressed.

Adam: I mean, I wouldn’t have thought about you like that guy.

Matthew: Yeah, no. I mean, I’m only like him at my extreme, which I’m never at.

Adam: But I did wonder if you have a rigorous ethical system.

Matthew: I never thought I did, but it seems like I do, the more people I meet.

Adam: I mean, it’s not just your diet.

Matthew: What else is it?

Adam: I think, from your books, I get the impression that you are dissatisfied with the options available to you.

Matthew: I think its more that I was then. And I still am but maybe not so profoundly?

Adam: Because you are finding better options, or because you are changing?

Matthew: I think I’ve gotten better at resignation.

Adam: Ah, so. Okay, good.

Matthew: Yes

Adam: There are a lot of mundane things in your book, too

Matthew: For 3 months I was just a guy living in an apartment in a city and going to a desk in the corner of his room and writing about the days.

Adam: Do you worry that they are TOO mundane? Like, who cares?

Matthew: I do. But I feel terrible when I force myself to write things, and mundane things come naturally.

Adam: But perhaps they water down the pithy, revelatory parts?

Matthew: They do.

Adam: Is that on purpose?

Matthew: Only in the way that that’s how life feels to me.

Adam: Oh, huh. It’s not, like, to keep it from being heavy handed?

Matthew: Like, I wasn’t trying to keep it from being heavy or whatever, I just wanted it to be like how life felt to me, and life felt like a lot of mundane, with an occasional revelation.

Adam: So there is an intentional current to this poem?

Matthew: Only in the editing of it. When I wrote it, I wrote whatever and I never added anything, only took things away.

Adam: Did you move things?

Matthew: No, not significantly. I literally sat at the computer and typed something, usually not long after it happened, then I left the computer and I would come back later and hit the enter key as many times as I felt like, then start typing something else.

Adam: Okay, I see.

Matthew: And later I changed the spacing a little bit, but I kept it generally the same.

Adam: How much did you cut?

Matthew: I cut maybe 5-8 pages, but not one section or anything. Just lines here and there.

Adam: That is not many. How many pages was the manuscript?

Matthew: I think it was 70-ish.

Adam: I see a bit of lilting in the poem.

Matthew: Lilting?

Adam: Lilting, like a boat. Maybe. I could be wrong.

Matthew: Oh, yes.

Adam: I mean, there are three modes, and it is shifting between these modes. Or no, waves. I like waves.

Matthew: Waves are soothing.

Adam: I think it has a rolling effect. Low, soothing waves.

Matthew: I think that too. It’s like something you could almost ignore, but not quite.

Adam: It goes: nothing nothing EXISTENTIAL MUSING nothing nothing FUNNY JOKE.

Matthew: That’s accurate.

Adam: Yep, there you go. That’s your book.

Matthew: That’s my head. That’s my life.

Adam: Is this a poem? This book, I mean. Is that the best classification for it?

Matthew: Maybe not. Maybe its more like a platypus.

Adam: Sometimes I don’t feel like it’s a poem.

Matthew: Well, I think that’s just a problem of classification.

Adam: Go on.

Matthew: Like how the platypus had to be put in a category all by itself, because scientists split off species by certain characteristics that made them this or that.

Adam: Oh, I didn’t know about that. So the platypus fell in the gaps?

Matthew: Right, they said, “Oh, what about the platypus? It doesn’t fit. What is wrong with it?”

Adam: Is this from the Bible?

Matthew: And then someone said, “There’s nothing wrong with IT. You classified stuff the wrong way.”

Adam: Wait, is this from Douglas Adams?

Matthew: This is from my Bible. Not Douglas Adams. Not that I know of.

Adam: That was a joke.

Matthew: I was being too serious to get a joke. It’s from one of the only 2 books that I carry around with me.

Adam: Origin of the Species?

Matthew: No, Lila by Robert Pirsig.

Adam: What’s the other one?

Matthew: The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I like the one about the old man with the animals. He’s at a bridge or something, I forget what it’s called. There are people bombing, and he had to leave his animals.

Adam: Is it Old Man and the Animals and he gets one but the other animals eat it?

Matthew: [laughs] Maybe I just read Old Man and the Sea wrong.

Adam: What were we talking about? Oh, classifications.

Matthew: Yeah.

Adam: I like this poem, and how it is not like other poems.

Matthew: What do you think LLP is?

Adam: I think it’s a poem. It’s a poem but it doesn’t have a lot of things that are poemy about it.

Matthew: You know, I received quite a bit of discouragement along the way from editors telling me that it was “too raw,” “too unrefined,” “too much of a confessional.” That last one kind of got to me. I thought about it a lot. But raw and unrefined I took as compliments. I took it as though people with MFAs thought I was just a regular dude who didn’t know anything about schools of poetry, and I liked that.

Adam: What’s the matter with confessions?

Matthew: I don’t know. I still haven’t figured out why the confessionals thing bothered me so much.

Adam: You don’t want people to think of you as a sloppy Plath.

Matthew: True. Maybe I just worried that everyone would think I was being self indulgent and narcissistic, while really this poem is altruistic. I think.

Adam: Why do you think so?

Matthew: I think it is because my motivation is to be like a cat that is lying on your chest. That doesn’t mean much. I think I just want people to read it and feel more okay about everything.

Adam: I think the solace, for a reader, comes from that openness I was talking about.

Matthew: And the simplicity.

Adam: The willingness to be explicit about all the things you aren’t getting in life.

Matthew: Simple openness.

Adam: Yes. Are you afraid that your writing will be compared to other people, like Tao Lin?

Matthew: I used to be. But my friend keeps telling me that I’m better than Tao Lin.

Adam: I’ve had a couple other people read your IDK, IS book and they characterized it as like Tao Lin but more more daring, doing more, more invested.

Matthew: That’s interesting.

Adam: That doesn’t frustrate you?

Matthew: It does, a lot, actually. It’s like two things happening independently that are similar. Like if you think of an idea that someone else thought of but you didn’t know, didn’t you still invent it?

Adam: Yeah, sure, I am okay with that. I mean, I don’t think it’s about credit.

Matthew: Right. It’s not that I want credit. Its that I don’t want not-it. Like, someone saying, “Oh, this is from Tao.”

Adam: Well, the similarities in both of your writing are there, but I think it is not a helpful comparison.

Matthew: When I sent IDK, IS to my friend Kendra, she read the first page and said, “This is like Hemingway plus Jean Rhys, I love it so much.” I think that made sense to me because I was very influenced by those two, but I was not at all influenced by Tao. He is influenced by Jean Rhys though.

Adam: Right! When I read it I thought, this is great, someone is not afraid of doing Hemingway.

Matthew: Hemingway was influenced by Dostoevsky, and he’s another one I love.

Adam: I just think making comparisons sets up the reader to limit their view.

Matthew: Sure, I think you’re right. I try to say as little about things as possible.

Adam: Yeah, maybe instead of writing about your book, I’ll just say as little as possible. Like that Japanese guy would do.

Matthew: Totally.

Adam: (It’s a good book.)

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