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 note: both books are unpublished]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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  1. stephen

      i enjoyed reading this. glad you did this, guys.

      re “Adam: Do you worry that they are TOO mundane? Like, who cares?”: things can be thought of as mundane or too mundane only if one has a hierarchical view of events, ideas, emotions. i’d say that’s true in life and in literature.

  2. stephen

      i enjoyed reading this. glad you did this, guys.

      re “Adam: Do you worry that they are TOO mundane? Like, who cares?”: things can be thought of as mundane or too mundane only if one has a hierarchical view of events, ideas, emotions. i’d say that’s true in life and in literature.

  3. kathryn regina

      arthur is a really good book. maybe my favorite book.

  4. Igor

      This was great to read. Good job to all.

  5. Sean

      Thanks and no thanks, Adam. I had so much to do work-wise today but once I started reading this interview it pulled me in. Your questions good then lame but it kept rolling. I kept rolling (reader) too.

      Good waste of time, actually.

      But then I did work.

      A bit

  6. Adam Robinson

      Good then lame. That’s an OPINION sir.

      Glad you got some work done too though.

  7. Catherine Lacey

      Book bought! Eagerly anticipating its arrival. Matthew is awesome.

  8. Ken Baumann

      I enjoyed this.